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On Walkabout To: Australia’s Red Center – Part 2

The Ghan departed around 4:30PM from the train station in Adelaide. The train traveled for about an hour from the middle of the large metropolis of Adelaide before reaching the South Australian bush dominated by farms and grazing land. Soon after the sun set on our first day on the train.

South Australian Sunset as seen from the Ghan train.

My wife and I found the leg room in the day/night sleeper chairs plenty sufficient though the chairs themselves were not quite as comfortable as the Shinkansen trains I’m used to traveling on in Japan. The coach section is comprised of two cars and each car has one restroom for the men and another for women while it also had two showers that could be used by anyone. The showers were quite a nice feature to have. People in coach also had access to the lounge car which had many chairs and tables for people to sit down and play board games, read, or even use an electrical outlet to hook up a laptop computer.

The next car after the lounge car was the dining car which actually served fairly decent meals for around $10 bucks a person. I really couldn’t complain about the quality of the food. After our dinner we went back to our chairs and watched the movie the conductors put in for the passengers to watch. The movies they show in the cars are either G or PG. We ended watching some G rated movie about two tigers in India. My wife loved it, while I sat back and read a little about the fascinating history of the Ghan.

The Ghan actually first began construction from Port Augusta just North of Adelaide, to cross the continent way back in 1878 which was only 25 years after the continent was first crossed on foot by John McDouall Stuart in 1863. The goal was to first reach the telegraph station of Alice Springs in the middle of the continent. As the Ghan line was being constructed from the south a similar effort began in 1883 from the Northern city of Palmerston now known as Darwin, to build the line southward and eventually meet up with the workers in the south.

By 1888 the northern line had reached the gold rush city of Pine Creek in the Top End before hitting financial difficulties as well as natural obstacles delaying further construction for decades. The workers in the south were hit by the same problems. All supplies in the outback had to be brought in because their was no water sources or food locally to provide for the workers. Not to mention that mother nature as well was brutal on the construction of the railway. Often track that was built in flood plains was washed away by sudden rains that no one had expected not to mention the toll the unrelenting heat was having on the workers. The construction continued at a great cost and for a long time.

In fact the southern line didn’t reach the telegraph station of Alice Springs until 1929, 51 years after initial construction began, while the northern line reached the city of Katherine in 1926, 43 years after construction began in the north and still 700 miles from the southern track in Alice Springs. With the completion in 1929 of the line from Port Augusta to Alice Springs the first official Afghan Express began service. The name was derived from the Afghan camel drivers that were necessary at the time to cross the vastness of the Australian outback. The train would later be known only as the Ghan. The Ghan was well known for never running on schedule and being stranded due to flash floods in the outback. In fact one time the train was stranded for two weeks and the conductors had to hunt wild goats to feed the passengers before a rescue party reached them.

Here is the lead engine of the Ghan Train.

On the Ghan you can actually bring your own private automobile along with you, but for a price of around $800 though.

The delays were so bad that the South Australian government decided to rebuild the entire line 150km to the east to avoid the floods. By 1957 the line had been reconstructed all in standard gauge track and this time the line even connected to Adelaide further south. This was the first time reliable transportation between Adelaide and Alice Springs had been constructed.  Construction in the north never restarted due to the floods and lack of funds and the train line up there closed completely in 1976. It wasn’t until 2001 that construction of a whole new line of track between Alice Springs and Darwin was started. In 2004 the first Ghan train traveled from Adelaide all the way to Darwin; a full 126 years after the line first began construction.

Anyway after I finished reading about the history of the Ghan I went to sleep and actually slept quite well primarily because I was exhausted from the 9 hour trip across the country to Adelaide not to mention the wild goose chase around the city to find the correct station. The next morning I woke up to an absolutely spectacular sunrise that I have never experienced before. The flatness and remoteness of the Australian outback every morning gives way to some of the most absolutely amazing sunrises.

Sunrise over the South Australian Outback

After the sunrise we proceeded to catch breakfast and prepare for our 0930 arrival into Alice Springs. By this time the sun outside was bright and we could for the first time make out the deep red colors that make up the Red Center of the Australian Outback. Something I was a bit surprised about was that the Outback had much more vegetation than I thought it would have considering the stories about how dry the place is. The gum trees in the Outback have specially adapted to growing in the arid conditions. The Australian gum trees are extremely amazing in their diversity of being able to grow in the driest deserts to the coldest mountain tops in Australia.

The vastness of the Australian Outback.

In fact from the train you could even see wildlife, such kangaroos and most often herds of cows out grazing in the middle of the Outback. Another thing you saw occasionally was the carcasses of old automobiles that broke down and never was worth the trouble of trying to recover from the clutches of the Outback and were thus left to rot and rust for eternity. Another highlight was the crossing of the Finke “River”.

Crossing the Finke “River” south of Alice Springs

All rivers in the Red Center of Australia are dry river beds that only have water when it rains, which is very rare. The Finke River is most famous for being used by the Stuart Expedition for water and as a path northwards to Alice Springs during their overland journey across Australia.

One of numerous lonely hills in the Outback.

Before reaching Alice Springs the Ghan Train passed through the lone opening, Heavitree Gap through the MacDonnell Ranges that acts as a natural barrier to the south of Alice Springs:

Passing through Heavitree Gap.

We pulled into Alice Springs station on time that morning and proceeded to get our bags and then try to hail a taxi to get us to the airport to pick up the rental car I reserved to drive to Ayers Rock with.

Alice Springs Station.

I’m used to timely taxi service due to my time in both Korea and Japan, not to mention even the US. It never occurred to me what an adventure it was going to be trying to get a taxi to the airport. The line for the taxi was long with people squabbling over who got to the taxi first because there was so few taxis. The people at the station kept order and consistently called cab companies to come pick up passengers, but it was a weekend and very few people in Australia work weekends. So you had three cab drivers going back and forth trying to get everybody where they needed to go. Ultimately we waited for one and half hours in the sun before getting a taxi. You would think a major tourist city like Alice Springs would have figured out taxi service by now.

The female cab driver was quite nice and explained a lot about Alice Springs to us including how when she was younger she didn’t see rain for six years because it did not rain in Alice Springs between 1967 through 1972. Folks that is what I call a drought. The drive to airport cost us $30 bucks and I proceeded to get my rental car with no issues. We drove back into town to buy food and supplies for our two day camping expedition to Ayers Rock. After completing our shopping we took a quick stop on top of Anzac Hill which provides the best view of the city and took these pictures:

Memorial of top of ANZAC Hill.

View over Alice Springs looking towards the south and Heavitree Gap.

View towards the eastern portion of Alice Springs.

The city has a population of roughly 15,000 people and has a strong American influence with approximately 2,000 US passport holders living in the city due to the US Pine Gap satellite tracking station nearby. Due to this influence the city celebrates all American holidays. Another interesting piece of demographics in the area is the Aborigines. This is the first time we have had the chance to see Aborigines and basically we were not impressed. They were very dirty, stunk, and sat around and drank beer all day in the parks. You could even see Aborigines passed out along side the road while you drove. It was all a bit surreal.  The Aboriginals don’t like being photographed so I didn’t bother trying, but this picture gives you an idea of what they look like:

Anyway the natural surroundings of Alice Springs are quite spectacular. The MacDonnell Ranges runs from east to west in the south of Alice Springs creating a natural barrier where as I mentioned before, one can only pass through at a spot called Heavitree Gap which you can see in the satellite image below:

Satellite image of Alice Springs.

The MacDonnell Ranges additionally are a striking red color and very steep. This area as mentioned before receives little precipitation and is very hot during the day, but can become quite cold at night. In fact in 1977 in actually snowed on the peak you see below:

Well now we would have to put Alice Springs behind us and begin our journey to Ayers Rock. We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us just to reach the rock and needed to beat the darkness because it is extremely hazardous to drive at night in the outback due to the wildlife. It was now around 2PM and time was a wasting.

Click to go to Northern Territory Holiday Journal Archive

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