- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

ON BOARD THE GHAN, Australia

As the sun rises over red sandy hills scattered with spiky spinifex bushes and stunted eucalyptus trees, the harsh beauty of the Australian outback is bathed in a warm amber glow.

It’s a stunning sight to wake up to in a cabin on Australia’s transcontinental train known as the Ghan.

One of the first questions people ask when they hear you’ve made the cross-country trip for two days through largely uninhabited territory is, “Weren’t you bored?”

Not for a moment.

The lonely desert landscape is just one set of scenery that rolls by the train’s window as the ever-changing backdrop for a two-day, 1,851-mile trip from the southern city of Adelaide to the port of Darwin, on Australia’s tropical north coast.

The view slowly evolves after the train leaves Adelaide’s Keswick rail terminal, from the city’s suburban sprawl into parched, harvested wheat fields and then into salt-encrusted plains near Port Augusta, an industrial town that calls itself the gateway to the outback.

Meanwhile, passengers on the train chat, eat meals freshly cooked by on-board chefs and sit or sleep — either in reclining airline-style seats or private cabins with foldaway beds. For those in the most expensive Gold Kangaroo class, a private minibathroom complete with shower, sink and toilet is shoehorned into a cubicle the size of a phone booth.

The new service was inaugurated Feb. 1, and the first train completed its historic journey without a hitch Feb. 3.

It wasn’t always this easy.

The train’s name honors Afghan camel drivers brought to the country in the 19th century to help blaze a trail into the harsh, unexplored vastness of the interior of the continent.

Originally camels were the only beasts of burden capable of surviving the hot, dry conditions as pioneers built a north-south telegraph line. In 1929, though, a railway was built between Adelaide and the central city of Alice Springs.

The link to Darwin was completed just last year. These days, two powerful red diesel locomotives do the hard work, hauling the train’s silver carriages — each emblazoned with an image of a camel and its rider, just in case anybody forgets the line’s humble beginnings.

After Port Augusta, 190 miles north of Adelaide, the outback begins in earnest, with vegetation fading away to spinifex — a spiny bush that was the bane of early explorers — and short eucalyptus trees whose pale trunks stand out against the famed red earth of central Australia.

As the sun sets, darkness descends, tempered only by moonlight.

One of the few things missing from the train is a glass roof to allow passengers to take in the splendor of the star-splashed outback night sky, unpolluted by any artificial light.

In years gone by, before concrete ties and today’s standards of engineering, the track between Adelaide and Alice Springs was washed away regularly by floods, or the wooden ties were eaten away by termites.

There is a story — the truth of which cannot be verified — that one of the early Ghan services got stranded by a flood, and for about two weeks, the driver fed his passengers with wild goats he shot.

These days the cuisine is more refined — from full breakfasts all the way to steak dinners washed down with wine, served by a friendly and efficient staff.

After the evening meal, passengers stretch out, relax and swap stories in one of the lounge cars. Then they turn in to be rocked asleep, and occasionally jolted awake, as the train heads north at an average speed of a sedate 50 mph. This trip is not about speed.

The first landmark of the trip’s second day — if you are traveling south-north — is a sign marking the point where South Australia state gives way to the Northern Territory. A short time later it passes a siding at a tiny settlement called Kulgera, which is used for loading cattle onto the freight trains that make up the bulk of the trains on the north-south track.

Kulgera marks the closest point the railroad comes to Uluru, the giant red monolith also known as Ayers Rock.

Sadly, the train is too far away for passengers to see the imposing rock, but those who want a close look can get off at the next stop — Alice Springs — and drive, fly or take a bus to Uluru, explore the stunning scenery of the so-called Red Center for a few days, then catch a later train.

As the Ghan heads north through the arid outback from Alice Springs, it rolls onto an 882-mile track extension built to link Alice Springs and Darwin.

After a brief stop in the mining town of Tennant Creek and another night’s sleep, the earth flanking the tracks is a deeper red than usual, courtesy of a fresh sprinkling of rain.

As the train heads into the tropical north of Australia, the countryside turns a vibrant green, thanks to grass seeds dormant throughout the long, dry winter bursting into life in “The Wet” — what northern Australians call the monsoonal rainy summer season.

At the next stop, Katherine, passengers can get off — or “detrain,” as the staff insists on saying — for a boat trip through the famous Katherine Gorge. Also known by the Aboriginal name Nitmiluk, it actually comprises 13 separate gorges carved through red rock by the Katherine River.

The last few hundred miles of the trip go through more lush green countryside, studded with giant termite mounds and swollen muddy rivers whose banks are home to giant saltwater crocodiles.

The final destination, Darwin, is a vibrant town of 80,000 people that is closer to Asia than it is to Sydney.

When you go on the Ghan

The Ghan travels between Adelaide in South Australia state and Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. Trains depart Sunday and Friday from Adelaide and on Wednesday from Darwin; the one-way trip is scheduled to take a little less than 48 hours.www.trainways.com.au

Northern Territory tourism: www.ntexplore.com.au

South Australia state tourism: www.tourism.sa.gov.au

General information about Australia: www.australia.com or 888/333-7848

U.S. citizens must obtain a visa to visit Australia. You can obtain a visa from a travel agent, through your airline, or electronically from www.eta.immi.gov.au. For more information about visa requirements, call 888/990-8888.

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