Great Southern Rail offers 3 train trips in Australia–The Overland, The Indian Pacific, and The Ghan. Several years ago Ruth and I took The Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth. It was a fantastic experience. Despite the discomfort of an old train (showering was memorably difficult and the cabin was small), we had such a great time that we decided to try The Ghan, which travels from Adelaide to Darwin. Instinct and past experience warned us to limit this costly endeavor, so we only took The Ghan overnight from Alice Springs to Darwin. The journey was miserable from beginning to end.
The staff on The Indian Pacific couldn’t do enough to make our trip pleasant, the food was fine, etc. Traveling on The Ghan was the opposite. Our experience began mid-afternoon when Mario took our dinner order. I noted in my travel log that he seemed bored with his job, and he needed immediate answers to all questions. Trying to figure out later on how such misery can spring from a brief trip that somehow seemed endless and is described in Great Southern Rail’s train holidays booklet as “truly a journey beyond”, I decided that often great financial corporate success can result in indifferent, even poor, service. These 3 train trips are very, very popular. Early booking is essential and the trains are crowded despite the cost. Platinum Service, A 4 day, 3 night journey from Adelaide to Darwin, can cost more than $5,000 per person.
The land between Alice Springs and Darwin is not beautiful. What you see from a train window has a numbing sameness after a while. I love this country, but The Outback tests one’s ability to find beauty in emptiness. Only 6.5% of Australia is arable with an additional 61% of the land suitable for grazing. The only real town we drifted through on The Ghan was Katherine, The Northern Territory’s 4th largest community. The Ghan was proposed in 1911 but wasn’t operational for 90 years. Instead of towns and attractions, the route meant 2,000 miles of not much to see unless you’re fascinated by 11 repeater stations on the Overland Telegraph. This train is named for the Afghan cameleers who emigrated from Pakistan to take care of and then abandon the camels that accompanied them to Australia.
The dinner–tired, cold, overcooked fish–was awful. The other passengers, many seeming catatonic, seemed intent on sitting in the bar car and drinking as much as they could to alleviate the lack of fun. Enough. We were very glad to see that anonymous train yard outside Darwin, and I’m glad I took some pictures of the train in Alice Springs when there was still some hope that this journey would be better than it turned out to be.