The Ghan set off on its journey from Adelaide 90 years ago and this great train journey, The Ghan Expedition will take you from Darwin through the heart of Outback Australia to Adelaide in The Ghan Gold Service style.

The Ghan Expedition travels for four days and three nights over 2979km from March to October each year following the route explorer John MacDouall Stuart took more than 150 years ago.  It is a trip that has long been on my bucket list and it definitely exceeded expectations.

Don’t confuse it with the normal trip on The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin which is a shorter three day and two-night journey.

The Ghan was a rare opportunity to travel with my partner, K2, so I have shared his views to give you another perspective on the journey.

Getting to Darwin

The Ghan leaves Darwin at 10 am sharp so if you are flying arrive the day before departure.

Our early morning Brisbane flight took around four hours and passed over inland Australia for many kilometres. The mid-afternoon arrival time allowed plenty of time for Darwin sightseeing, a sunset drink overlooking the beach and a walk around the harbour foreshore. 

You’ll be welcomed at Darwin airport with a virtual crocodile swim which makes a cute selfie. Take a 20-minute cab or Uber ride (costs $30) from the airport to the city centre and you’ll arrive at Rydges Darwin Central which is in the heart of town. 

As there are 280 passengers on the train, they are shared out amongst different hotels around Darwin, so your fellow passengers may be staying elsewhere.

An afternoon in Darwin before boarding Australia’s great train journey

We walked to the mall for a Campos coffee and browsed the information centre for tips on what to do.  The harbour precinct appealed, and a sky bridge had us walking around the water’s edge in about 10 minutes.  You’ll find many restaurants and bars in the area which is also the cruise ship terminal.  If a ship is in town it may be busy.

Walking the streets of Darwin reminded me of times in Indonesia with luxuriant foliage and steamy weather.  My eye was immediately captured by the Paspaley Pearls windows and the glistening creamy pearls in a wide variety of must-have jewellery.  Unfortunately, my bank balance does not concur with my desires here. 

A little further down the mall, I spotted photographic art by Paul Arnold Gallery. Printed onto thick glass like panels, the pictures have a strong impact.

Two swimming areas and plenty of shady trees make it a good spot to cool off too.  The wave pool action looks very inviting and worth the $10 per person entry fee.  The other swimming area is free, but an entrance fee applies to the water sports area.

Darwin is famed for its sunsets.  Here the glowing orb drops into the sea in the west bathing the sky in a beautiful light.  Watch the sunset from Mindel Beach if the markets are operating (dry season only) or head to the Ski Boat Club as we did for a water edge view, and a well-priced drink.

Another place to watch the sunset is the Mindel Beach Casino Resort.

Darwin – He says

The first thing that struck me when we landed in Darwin was how few people are in the city. The CBD streets are so quiet mid-week compared to the other capitals in Australia. There is a relaxed charm about the place partly due to the lack of hustle and also the warm weather (we travelled in April) which can really slow your progress down as you walk the streets.

The local Council has done an excellent job on the Waterfront region with various public swimming areas and a very inviting wave pool that was being enjoyed but many families as a means of beating the heat.

There are opportunities for ocean glimpses from various locations which adds a holiday feel to the Darwin experience. Darwin has the highest proportion of indigenous residents of any Australian city and the cultures mix seamlessly to create a friendly and unique Darwin experience.

Day 1 – Time to board Australia’s Great Train Journey

A quick Rydges hotel buffet breakfast and we were down in the lobby at 8 am for a bus pick up.

After checking out, it was just a few steps to the dedicated Ghan check-in desk in the hotel foyer.  This is where you say goodbye to large bags until the end of the journey because there is no space for them in your cabin.

While we boarded the bus with other Gold Service passengers, The Ghan Platinum Service passengers had their own more luxurious transport to the train and arrived before the rest of us.

The bus ride to The Ghan’s Darwin Station took about 30 minutes as it is on the outskirts of town.  This is your one opportunity to have a photo with the train engine so there was a line-up of keen travellers and a staff member to take your photo.  Crossing the train tracks is not permitted so the photo is just on the side of the train.

This is when I discovered the full length of the train.  They say 900 metres, but until you have walked this in hot Darwin sun, you don’t have the full concept.

Luckily, after reaching our train cabin in carriage Q, the air conditioning cooled us down quickly.  There was the option of a bus to get us to the carriage, but we left that for older passengers. Next time I’d take the bus!

The Ghan cabin in Gold Service

The Ghan cabin in Gold Service is compact but cleverly designed to make the most of the tight space.  You’ll quickly learn the sideways shuffle required to negotiate your partner when accessing the bathroom.

There is one long three-seater bench seat in The Ghan cabin which at night transforms into a bunk bed with a bunk above. It is surprisingly comfortable to sleep on.

Storage is at a premium in The Ghan cabin, so it really pays to be conservative in your packing. The small wardrobe holds just a few hangers with a safe at the bottom and a tiny fold out table can be used to store water bottles and magazines. Lights around the mirror and a shelf make it suitable for personal grooming, plus there is a long mirror on the back of the door. 

There is storage space for excess baggage on a high shelf above the bathroom and there’s some space underneath the bench seat.

If you haven’t guessed by now, let’s make it clear… there is not much space for stuff in The Ghan cabin.  Leave everything other than essentials at home or store it in your big bag which goes in the lockup.

I packed my clothes in packing cells which meant I could easily store and access them in The Ghan cabin along the way.

The bathroom is similar to those I have used on boats but more spacious. It’s a shower/toilet/basin combination with a shower curtain to keep everything dry.  I found it was all scrubbed clean and worked rather well.

The staff are super-efficient at converting your The Ghan cabin from day to night use.  It all happens while you are eating dinner or breakfast. 

Travelling on The Ghan Expedition

Day one saw us sitting in The Ghan cabin for a while relaxing and taking in the view as the landscape changed.  The further we travelled towards the centre, the sparser the landscape but there was a quite a tropical feel around Adelaide River and lush greenness at Katherine.

The Ghan Expedition includes a selection of tour options for each day.  At Katherine, you can spend the afternoon touring Katherine Gorge or Nitmilulk to the first gorge only to see rock paintings (better for those who don’t want to walk).  For those who don’t mind a short walk up and down some stairs, the second Katherine Gorge tour takes you into the second gorge as well.

The scenery here is quite spectacular with stunning red cliffs silhouetted against the bright blue sky.  It has been used as a film set for several films starting with Jedda, one of the first Australian films made using Indigenous actors.

It’s also the spot where Daryl Sommers famously floated down a river in a Northern Territory television advertisement saying, “you’ll never ever know if you never ever go!”

Travelling on The Ghan Expedition He says

The Ghan Expedition transfer from our hotel was seamless with our coach pulling in and loading our luggage and then making the 45-minute trip to the waiting Ghan. Arriving at the rail station was an impressive moment with the two majestic red diesel engines painted in Ghan branding, ahead of 900m of silver carriages.

Our carriage was car Q, which was near the end of the train, which meant and a good 10-minute walk to the car. There were golf buggies available for those who preferred to avoid the heat and walk.

The Ghan Gold Service cabin has two bunk beds and an ensuite. On first glance, it appears to be quite a tight space for two people, but you soon establish a routine and realise that the space is more than adequate. The staff also attend to The Ghan cabin makeup duties while you are in the dining car, so you always arrive back to your cabin with either the seats folded down for daytime travel or beds made up for night-time slumber.

The first excursion was a 45-minutes bus ride to Katherine Gorge where the majesty of red cliff faces and running water take you by surprise. We are ushered to a pier where our tour boats slowly ferry us down the beautiful Katherine Gorge.

Although I have seen images of the gorge on various television shows and advertisements, nothing can really prepare you for the breath-taking beauty of the towering craggy red cliff faces and the large body of fresh water weaving its way through the valleys. There are not too many places in the world where everything is exactly as nature intended. No rubbish, graffiti or man-made eyesore constructions exist in this timeless place.

While it’s tempting to spend most of your time behind the camera capturing as many images as possible, it’s worth taking time to just breath it all in and reflect on the significance and history of such a special place.

Before we knew it, we were coached back to The Ghan, where a delightful dinner was served in the dining car, followed by a good night’s sleep to the gentle rolling of the train travel.

Day 2 The Ghan Expedition – Alice Springs

I’ve visited Alice Springs Dessert Park a few times in its 20-year history but never fail to be delighted by the wildlife here.  I also come away with a renewed appreciation of the intricacy of their life cycles.

The Birds of Prey show reveals the intelligence and prowess of many local native birds. The Australian buzzard that uses a rock to an open emu egg is particularly clever.  Visitors from The Ghan have reserved seating for the show and also stay back afterwards for a special ranger chat.

After the park, there was an off-train lunch and then the chance to explore the main street of Alice Springs.  This is an opportunity to browse the amazingly vibrant Indigenous art on display and for sale.

Dinner at The Old Telegraph Station was an amazing outback night under the stars.  For those adventurous enough or wearing appropriate clothing (short skirts were not a good fit) there were short camel rides.  Camels were used in the construction of the telegraph line.

They fired up the barbecue to serve up thick, tender steaks with roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Alice Springs band, accompanied by a didgeridoo, played a selection of Australian rock classics which even had the crowd up and dancing by the end of the night.  A guided tour of the night sky saw us looking at the Southern Cross, Orion and many others.

Some travellers chose the optional upgrade of a flight over Uluru which would have been a spectacular experience.

Day 2 The Ghan Expedition – Alice Springs – He says

We woke to a bright sunny morning with endless blue skies as the train pulled into Alice Springs.

There was a choice of various off-train excursions in Alice Springs, and we decided on the tour of the Alice Springs Desert Park. A short bus ride had us disembarking at the Desert Park, with the benefit of the bus driver’s local knowledge as commentary along the way.

The Desert Park is not a theme park. As our guide pointed out, there is Dreamworld, Movie World, but at Desert Park, it’s welcome to the REAL world. Animal, bird and plant life all existing in their natural environment.

To the backdrop of the red cliff faces on the Flinders Ranges, we followed our tour guide who provided a wealth of information about the local indigenous culture and ecology.

The bird show was held in a small amphitheatre, where handlers attracted various wild birds for the visitors to observe.  Our group was then taken to observe the indoor display of nocturnal reptiles and marsupials, many of which are threatened species.

The walkthrough bird aviary was next, and finally, a movie in the indoor theatre explaining the geological history of the area. A huge WOW moment at the end of the movie was when the screen dropped to reveal the stunning view of the cliff faces through the glass wall outside the theatre.

Day 3 The Ghan Experience in Coober Pedy

The train drew into a siding near Coober Pedy around 9 am and passengers disembarked for their bus tours into the township.

There was quite a choice of shorter or longer tours on The Ghan Expedition which included lots or a little physical activity.  All featured lunch in an underground mine which was a tasty long table filled with Greek food served family style.

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of underground living and Coober Pedy for a long time but this out of the way destination never managed to make my itinerary.  Now I can tick that box and know what it’s like to dwell underground.

Surprisingly comfortable and normal, is how I would describe it.  Imagine a cosy room on a cool day when the curtains are drawn, and you’ll get the idea. High ceilings create a spacious atmosphere and the rooms are designed with plenty of airflow, so you don’t get that claustrophobic feeling.

The Umoona Opal Mine taught us all about opals and underground living, while the Opal Quest Mine demonstrated the mining process and even let us have a go at finding an opal ourselves.  Sadly, no luck there.

The array of opals found in the mines was amazing but so were the prices.  I only wished my bank balance matched my want list

We headed off along the Oodnadatta Track (another box ticked) towards the dog fence which keeps South Australia’s sheep safe from marauding predators and the moon-like landscape of Breakaway Conservation Park.

Breakaways Conservation Park was the most surprising stop.  The lunar landscape, the dog fence, the mountain tops that used to be sea floor, the coloured bands in the rocks that showed different ice ages, it was a spectacular sight.

The Ghan treated bus passengers here with a beer or champagne pit stop and the chance to enjoy a remarkable view.

Day 3 The Ghan Experience in Coober Pedy – He says

After seeing the desert landscapes around Alice springs, I felt I had a reasonable idea of how Coober Pedy might look. A less populated version of Alice I imagined.

Wrong! I don’t think anything can prepare you for the completely oddball spectacle of the first glimpse of this wild west township.

If you take a portion of Mad Max, motor junkyard, a touch of the NASA Mars images and top it off with a lawless community that prefers to live in holes under the ground, you have a small taste of what to expect.

First sighting of the outer township are the mounds of soil from years of attempts to drill for the elusive opal. We were advised that each borehole costs the prospector $600 and while that seems like a bit of a gamble, we were told there are close to 2 million holes in the area, so there must be a payoff for the lucky few.

So extreme is the landscape, the surreal backdrop was used for movies such as Mad Max, Pitch Black, Kangaroo Jack and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. In fact, one large area a few kilometres out of the township is called Lunar Plane for that very reason.

Living underground is a certainly an odd concept to most of us, but the advantage of underground dug-out homes is that the temperature remains a steady 24 Celsius year-round, while it can be 40 Celsius plus on the surface.

I still struggle to comprehend that this entire area, stretching back up to Alice Springs, was once an enormous inland sea. Marine fossils are regularly found in areas that are now restricted from the public.

As you’d expect there is no shortage of shops in the dusty streets that sell opals and jewellery. The locals are eclectic and friendly, and quite hospitable to visitors as long as you don’t wander too close to their highly protected mining plots.

Day 4 The Ghan Expedition Arriving in Adelaide

Just like that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, this great train journey was over.

I’ve been on rail journeys before and it’s mostly been about the train, but The Ghan Explorer offers so much more.  It’s a journey through the heart of Australia showing off very best experiences on offer.  Places like Coober Pedy and Katherine Gorge are not easily accessible to travellers unless you are doing a big road trip or on a long bus journey.

The train is like a ship in the desert.  While you are sleeping, they are taking you towards the next exciting day trip.  There’s some time relaxing, just looking out the window, but there’s also plenty of chat and camaraderie in the club carriage if you want it.

The range of activities means there is really something for everyone and all ability levels.  As long as you can handle the stairs into the carriage you should be right in most places.

It was surprising the range of travellers on the train.  There was the young woman from San Francisco who wanted to add this train journey to her list, the Dutch family travelling before reuniting with their sister, silver Aussie surfers exploring their own country and families with young children.

Best tips for travelling on The Ghan – Australia’s great train journey

  • Pack light because storage is limited, and nobody really cares what you are wearing.
  • Choose comfortable clothes for the weather conditions.
  • If you are bothered by flies on the first stop, buy a fly veil. You may look stupid, but the comfort factor is huge.
  • If you prefer your own company or want dinner for two rather than a shared table, choose an 8 pm or 8.30 pm dining time.
  • The Gold Service cabins are compact. If you want more space Platinum Service may be the answer. Still want more? Well, there is the Chairman’s Carriage which is considered to be Australia’s most luxurious rail carriage. It is perfect for a small group.
  • Internet coverage is limited so download before you go.
  • Forget about the diet for four days and enjoy the food!

What does it cost?

The Ghan Expedition costs from $2,949 per person (May 2019).  This sounds a lot but when you consider all the inclusions, the tours, food and transfers, it puts things in perspective.  Plus once you check your luggage in, everything is organised for you.  It is a very easy way to travel through some of Australia’s most inaccessible destinations.

The 90th Ghan-iversary Experience

The Ghan is turning 90 this year and is celebrating with epic three-day journey winding through the heartland of Australia.

Setting-off from Adelaide, The Ghan will meander through the Red Centre and its kaleidoscope of desert colours, through to elemental and verdant surrounds of the Top End.

The all-inclusive tour includes off-train excursions in colourful Alice Springs and the rocky escarpments of Katherine.  

For more information on The Ghan visit The Journey Beyond.

If you love train travel try the Eurostar from London to Paris.

Disclaimer:  Ed+bK travelled as a guest of The Ghan.