Red Centre, Red Eyes: The Ghan on a Budget

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‘I wonder far back the seat goes?’ I said, pulling on the lever.

‘Oh!’ said a young Spanish woman into whose lap I had plunged. She was seated directly behind me.

‘Obviously, it goes quite far!’ I said.

She laughed as I levered myself back into a sitting position.

We were on The Ghan, the rail service that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. A little over two days it takes, running through the Red Centre of Australia, stopping at Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine on the way. And we were in seats all the way.

The Ghan?

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The route of The Ghan has been more than a century in the making. The dream may have been to run the line all the way to what would become Darwin, but the beginnings were somewhat more modest. Construction began in 1878 and, over the next thirteen years, it crawled some 800 kilometres between Port Augusta and Oodnadatta. The narrow gauge (1,067 mm) line followed the same route as the overland telegraph, believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart in his final, frenetic effort to reach the north in 1862. But Oodnadatta is still a long way from Alice Springs – more than 600 kilometres – so the last leg required camels. Finally, in 1929 was the line extended to Alice Springs.

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The route chosen had one advantage: it ran near water, crucial for the steam locomotives. But water in the outback also meant regular washouts after downpours. So the train had a flatcar behind the locomotive, stacked with spare sleepers and tools. Upon encountering a washout, crew and passengers would set to work repairing the line. So notorious were the train’s delays that a woman once approached a conductor.

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‘Excuse me, sir’, she said. ‘I am about to give birth’.

‘Madam’, said the conductor. ‘You should not have boarded the train in that condition’.

‘I didn’t’, she said.

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By the late 1950s, a standard gauge line (1,435 mm) began to be constructed, reaching Marree. North of here, people still took the old Ghan, which finally ceased service when the new line reached Alice Spring in 1980. By now diesel had replaced steam, so the route followed a more reliable and drier line to the west of the original route.

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But the original dream remained – to run all the way to Darwin. Against the tendency to favour roads at the beginning of the new millennium, construction on the 1500 kilometre stretch from Alice Springs to Darwin began in 2001 and on 4 February 2004 the first passenger train reached the far northern capital. It had taken 126 years of dreams, plans and waiting. The cost of the final leg was a modest AUD$1.3 billion.

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But how did it come to be called The Ghan? Theories abound, but the most reliable is that it came from a joke in 1923. At this time, the train still ran to Oodnadatta, but the time was drawn out by overnight stops. South Australian Railways decided to try a brand new idea: attach a sleeping car and run the train through the night. On 30 August, 1923, a crowd of local people gathered at Quorn station – en route – to see the new contraption. As the train pulled into the station at dusk, an Afghan passenger leapt from the train, found a quiet corner, kneeled facing Mecca and recited his prayers. A railway worker joked that if he was the only passenger on the sleeper, the train should be called the Afghan Express. The name caught on, not least because of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers who had taken camel trains with crucial supplies for decades before the trains came through. Soon enough, it was shortened to the Ghan Express and then to the Ghan.

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The Journey

A long journey it is, covering some 3,000 kilometres through the heart of Australia. The outback starts early hereabouts, appearing after only a few hours of trundling through the wheat fields of South Australia.

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Even here, the landscape is flat, with occasional mountains worn down by millennia of weathering. On the far-distant horizons they run a line for a while, only to retire from sight. After Port Augusta and the last sight of the sea, we reached semi-arid parts, with low trees, salt-bush, saltpans and the ubiquitous oxidised red soil. No wonder Australia is one of the main global sources of iron ore.

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For some, the red heart is monotonous. Endless reaches of desert stretch out on either side, with no relief in the way of rivers, mountains, or indeed forests. Yet this is to miss the sheer variety of this part of the world. Each kilometre seemed to bring new sights. I would stand at the vestibule windows, eagerly moving from one side to the other so as not to miss what would come next. A freight train might lumber past, since the line is primarily a freight run to and from the northern port of Darwin – which is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney. A line of river gums would announce a river-bed, dry most of the time, flooded when a rare downpour happened. But the trees know that water lies further down, pushing their roots deep down to tap the moist soil. So also do the local Indigenous people, who know where rare water might be found, accessing it without destroying it for another who may pass this way.

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A low hill, an escarpment or a gorge may appear, drawing my gaze as I wonder about its place in the local mythology. And the vegetation is full of surprises. Occasional low trees, well accustomed to the rigours of desert life, provide welcome shade for animals and succour for smaller plants.

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Tight clumps of saltbush, like khaki balls low to the ground, flourish with minimal nutrients and moisture. Yellow desert grasses rise between cracks in the rock or around tree roots.

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A couple of red kangaroos watched us pass at dusk on the first evening, while in the last hours before Darwin water buffalo chased each other around the edge of a water hole. In short, the desert is full of the variety of life, most of it not even glimpsed as the train ambles past.

No Locals

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Inside was full of life as well, for in our two full carriages a temporary community formed. A backpacker asked the conductor at the beginning of the journey whether the train had wifi. The negative answer drew a gasp of disbelief, until those affected absorbed the dreadful news and hit upon the innovative idea of reading books. The skinny and hairy young man across the aisle performed elaborate travel yoga, ate nuts and kale, and laid us low with killer farts.

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He struck up a friendship with a wok-bearing woman who joined him in the yoga postures. The bear-like trio ate only the meat on their plates, leaving aside anything that was remotely fresh. They supplemented the protein with vast bags of chocolates. The giggling Belgian girls were followed for much of the time by a young male sniffer. Two Korean women spent most of the time photographing a teddy bear in all manner of positions and in all types of scenery.

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Together we ate, juggled for space in the dining car, looked out of the windows and tried to pass the time as best we could. And we talked. Hardly was there a moment when some conversation or other did not sound through the carriage. But to understand them all one would have had to possess the gift of interpreting tongues, for it was truly a Pentecost of languages. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Belgian French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish … all corners of the earth seemed to be represented in our carriage.

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Four stops we had on the way: Port Augusta, Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine. Why so few? The first was to drop off four passengers, the second for a sunrise experience in the desert (someone had lit a fire or two for us) and the third and fourth to sell tours while the train paused for a few hours. They ranged from a basic bus ride into town for $20 to helicopter flights for well over $300 per person. In Alice Springs we avoided the tours and sauntered around town, finding our way to the Araluen Cultural Centre. In town, Indigenous people speak their own languages, coming as they do from some of the big tribes and their clans in these parts. I had been in the Alice once before, some 27 years ago. It had changed much.

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In Katherine we gave in and took the cheap option: a bus to Katherine Gorge, where we did some bushwalking and sweated in the heat. Others opted for canoe trips or the aforesaid outrageously priced helicopter rides.

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So why the few stops? The range of languages spoken and the tours indicate an answer: trains like The Ghan are geared for tourists. Even in our relatively cheap ‘Red’ carriages, the vast majority were international tourists. But I must admit I had expected a rather different approach, that is, a train that would regularly drop off and pick up locals in the way north. Very occasionally it happened, as with the people who alighted at Port Augusta or the young woman and her son for the few hours between Katherine and Darwin. But that was it.

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For a train geared to tourists, one need not stop regularly, except where more money is to be made. Of course, the fact that it does not stop so much also means locals cannot catch it so easily. It may be a business model that works for now, with some slick marketing focusing on rail nostalgia and the ‘Red Centre’, but much had changed over the century or more of The Ghan.

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How to Sleep in a Seat for Two Nights

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Let me go back to the seats – the very red ones. What were we doing in seats? Would we not have to sleep in them two nights running? Why not one of the two types of sleeper compartment, as is our wont? The simple reason is that the cost of such a compartment begins at $2,250 each in a shared compartment. This is the so-called ‘Gold’ class. Much higher still is the ‘Platinum’ class. To be sure, meals and drinks and shuttles to and from the train are included in the cost, but that is hardly reason to fork out so much. Once upon a time they had budget ‘Red’ sleepers, which we have used on the ‘sister’ train, the Indian-Pacific. But with the advent of a ‘Platinum’ level, the old ‘Red’ sleepers were retired, except for a sole carriage used by staff to catch up on some rest.

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So seats we had, the only section left on the train that counted as ‘Red’. Our two carriages were tacked onto the end of the train. At stops we would be at the furthest distance from the station building (‘Platinum’ would of course be directly on the station). We had one attendant dealing with all matters – from cleaning the toilets to cooking meals in the dining car. Indeed, this car – the ‘Matilda’ – had seen better days. As had the meals. Breakfast involved a ‘Big Aussie’, with sausages and eggs and grilled tomatoes. Lunch involved pies and pasties and wraps. And dinner meant a small terrine of unidentified meat, surrounded by lettuce leaves to make it seem larger. We opted to buy our food before departure: beans, bread, sardines, gherkins, peanut butter, fruit, celery, carrots, oats and long-life milk. We ate far better than those who dared sample the dining car fare.

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How does one sleep in a seat for two nights and then sit in it for almost three days? The layout helps a little. They are not as tight as a long-distance bus or a budget airline, which are designed to give one varicose veins in short order. In fact, they recline into the laps of those behind, as I had already found. And if your legs are not too long, you can put a bag on the floor and rest your feet upon them. Ample leg room it was, even for someone like me with longer legs.

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That said, it was still a seat. During the days, I made sure that I was up and about on a very regular basis. It may have been for a walk, for photos in the vestibule, for a time in the dining car, or merely for a stroll driven by curiosity. At night, I drew upon my stock of travel pillows, eye-masks and ear-plugs to close off the sound of sleeping companions around me – or, for that matter, the ones who could not sleep so well. Yet, I could not quite lie on my side, for to do so would have left me with a permanent back injury. Needless to say, the sleep is not so deep and sound as one might like. Waking up in your clothes also gives the distinct impression of having been out for a night on the town and having fallen asleep on a park bench.

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How was I to overcome such a feeling, apart from putting it down to the experience of rail travel? The showers at either end of the carriage were a blessing. Towels and soap were provided, so I made the most of one of the almighty pleasures of travel: the train wash. Afterwards, I felt like a new man, even to the point of shaving. And as is my wont, I hung my washed undies and socks out in the main carriage to dry. But the shower was not the only option. For some strange, the second night made a difference. It was not that I was getting used to sleeping in the seat, but that I was weary enough to sleep anywhere.

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