Iconic as it is, the Ghan is more than just a train journey through the centre of Australia. It’s an opportunity to get out and see some of the most unique parts of the outback. Here’s what the off-train experiences on the Ghan Expedition are like.
When we told our friends we were going on the Ghan, we were surprised at the range of reactions.
For the most part, it was a positive mix of envy and intrigue. But one friend in particular made us realise that a lot of the people don’t know what this iconic train journey is really about.
“How are you going to make sitting on a train for four days look interesting?” he asked.
For one, you’re not just sitting on the train the whole time. It’s not a commuter line.
If the Ghan were to run nonstop from Darwin to Adelaide at its average speed, the train would pull into Adelaide in about a day and a half. Instead, it takes four days.
Check out our video on the Ghan’s off-train excursions here:
For another, the majority of the time you’re on the train, you’re either sleeping, eating, drinking or chatting with other passengers. There’s almost not enough time to stare out the window and to embrace the romance of the scenery as it rolls alongside your tracks.
What Off-Train Experiences Did We Do?
First of all, it’s important to know there’s a difference between going north to going south. Departing from Darwin, the journey is called the Ghan Expedition. It’s a four-day three-night trip.
Departing from Adelaide, the train is simply The Ghan and takes three days and two nights. This trip therefore has fewer off-train experiences than the Ghan Expedition.
We were on the Ghan Expedition from Darwin to Adelaide, and these* are the things we did on our way down:
*These experiences are all included in the price of the ticket. There are options like scenic flights that will cost extra.
1. Katherine and Nitmiluk Gorge
After only a few hours on the train—just enough to settle into your cabin and grab a drink at the bar—the train pulls into Katherine.
From the platform, we’re taken by coach to the banks of the Nitmiluk (once Katherine) River for a cruise through the enigmatic Nitmiluk Gorge.
The flowing river that sits between the towering red cliffs is full of barramundi, which means lots of crocodiles too. But aside from the wildlife, there’s also a rich history here. The river represents country borders and therefore a meeting place for the Jawoyn, Dagoman and Wardaman people.
Separated by natural weirs, the river is in fact a network of several gorges, so there are times when you have to disembark the launch and cross to the next boat.
Although the guided boat ride is interesting, having your feet on the ground here really brings home the spiritual significance of this place. There’s a magic in these rocks that seeps through the soles of your shoes.
2. Alice Springs and Standley Chasm Crafting And Cultural Walk
Day two sees the Ghan pull into the central city of Alice Springs, where you spend the whole day.
Standley Chasm (or Angkerle Atwatye—meaning ‘Gap of Water’—in the Arrernte language) is a half-hour coach ride west of town. We start with the opportunity to try our hand at telling our story through painting with symbols and techniques that the Arrernte (pronounced ‘a-run-duh’) have used for millennia.
We’re then led on a guided walk through the bush to the impressive Standley Chasm.
At its narrowest, the chasm is just three metres wide, yet its cliffs tower 80m either side.
Of course, this is a deeply spiritual place for the Arrente, but it’s not just the chasm that’s special. Our guide shows us some of the other things that are special here that he learnt when he was growing up.
We put our ears against the trunks of river oak trees to hear the strange popping clicking noises of the tree drinking water and learn about the songlines of the Western Arrernte.
After a light lunch, we head back to the train to change for dinner.
3. Outback dinner at historic Telegraph Station
Not far out of Alice Springs is the historic site of Telegraph Station. This was the first place in Australia to be able to send and receive telecommunications from Britain and was the original site of the settlement that became Alice Springs.
This site, which dates back to 1871, is set out for our al fresco feast with gala-style tables, free-flowing wine and beer, camel rides, a band, a stargazer and even a blacksmith showing traditional smithing techniques.
It’s an atmospheric dinner that not only takes you back to a bygone era but that also highlights the outback spirit of this incredible journey.
4. Coober Pedy
Saving the best till last, the full day in and around Coober Pedy is amazing. Famous for its opal mines, this strange underground town is a must-see.
– Lunch and noodling in the mine
Down a long, sloping tunnel of a mine that’s been set up for visitors, we explore the various excavated rooms, have a go at ‘noodling’, which is the name given to searching through stone chips for opal, and even smashing the wall with a mining pick.
Set in a long, high-ceilinged hall, our lunch table stretches out waiting for our attention. The food is excellent and the novel setting makes it even better.
– Town of Coober Pedy
Soon, we head into the weird barren town of Coober Pedy itself. Many of the homes here are built underground. Temperatures can go higher than 50°C in the summer, but the cool rock keeps these subterranean homes at a comfortable 25°C year round.
We visit a home that’s open to tours and visit an opal shop as well.
Keen to explore the town further, Christina and I escape the group and go exploring. Coober Pedy does not disappoint and is even stranger than we thought it would be.
Our final stop is at the Serbian Orthodox Church, which, like many of the homes, digs into the side of a hill and down. It has an eerie, Indiana Jones quality.
– Breakaways and Dog Fence
After a short stop at the Dog Fence—the longest continuous construction on earth, which runs from the Gold Coast in Qld right down the Australian Bight in SA—we also visit the Breakaways, a set of striking plateaus seemingly sprouting from the desert floor.
They’re the result of the ancient inland sea that once filled this expanse of land and the create such an unearthly landscape.
Part of this national park has been used in a number of films over the years, including Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome.
– Camp fire beside the train
Our coach takes us back to the train through the vast minefields that cover almost 6,000km² and are home to some 1.3 million mine shafts.
We arrive back at the train to discover the crew have been busy setting up a huge bonfire next to the tracks.
Drinks and canapés circulate, and we relax around the warm glow of the fire as the sun goes down and the desert turns chilly.