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The Ghan - no ordinary mode of train travel

As the Ghan rolls through Australia’s red centre celebrating its 80th anniversary, it’s a striking contrast to the first Ghan service in 1929 which comprised a single steam locomotive and 12 wooden carriages. Adding to the gold service and the red service (popular with backpackers), the new Platinum service allows passengers to make the 2979km journey between Darwin and Adelaide (or vice versa) in private deluxe cabins fitted with polished Tasmanian myrtle. The Platinum cabins convert from a private lounge during the day to a compact bedroom at night. And with an ensuite with premium fittings and full size shower, this is no ordinary mode of train transport.

The plush Platinum class comes with all the trimmings from 24 hour cabin service, complimentary pyjamas, double the space of Gold Service (the former top class) to morning and afternoon teas and nightly turn-down with hot chocolate or liqueur. Leather ottomans slide under the portable coffee table and a writing desk pops up from below the window. While you’re at dinner, comfortable beds magically spring from the wall and disappear the next morning while you’re at breakfast.

Soon after climbing aboard in Darwin, while tucking into a platter of warmed bread, olive oil and dukkah, along with a glass of sparkling wine, travellers are given an introductory talk by their cabin attendants. The next 54 hours on board, at an average speed of 85km an hour is a chance to see spectacular and diverse landscapes, to enjoy excellent gourmet dining and high spirited camaraderie.

Ghan passengers are from around the world – many are train buffs, others are experiencing the train trip they’ve planned for years. Seasoned travellers Betty Griggs, 89, from Tasmania and Ness Leal, 85, from Queensland are having the time of their lives. “We’ve been friends for more than 45 years and often travel together,” Ness says. “Travelling in Platinum is magnificent and the service is exceptional. We’re taking our stewards, Tim and Damien, home with us. They have been waiting on us hand and foot and nothing’s too much trouble.” During the train’s first whistle stop at Katherine, Ness (a former Royal Australian Air Force member) booked a helicopter tour and flew over the 13 gorges of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge).

Other passengers and keen photographers took a cruise through one of the gorges to see ancient Aboriginal paintings on weathered sandstone walls and to hear about the vast stretches of Jawoyn land and the regions natural and cultural heritage. The following morning, from the Alice Springs platform, passengers disperse for a range of tours offered on the second stop. Some choose to walk into town to immerse in the art and culture of Aboriginal Australia. The Mbantua fine art gallery and cultural museum is arguably the world’s largest privately owned Australian Aboriginal art gallery. Specialising in Utopia art, more than 250 artists from Utopia have painted for Mbantua since it began over 20 years ago. Other popular tours include a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service base, the old Alice Springs jail, Anzac Hill, Desert Park which showcases the natural and cultural environment of arid Australia in desert habitats, the Telegraph Station, a camel ride or quad bike ride on a working cattle station.

Tucked up in your cosy bed with a cup of tea watching the sun rise above the flat, red earth, there’s a dreamlike sense of sheer luxury, good fortune and unlike the old days, assured safety. What was it like for the early explorers struggling to survive without food or water, or for those train passengers who travelled when flash flooding was a constant concern? On one journey the train’s engineer had to shoot wild goats to feed the stranded passengers.

From the cabin’s panoramic window, you gain fresh perspective of Australia’s ancient landscape as the train sweeps through changing country. The two night, three day journey moves through the Top End’s tropical savanna of mangroves, palms and pandanus, to the vast red heartland sprinkled low scrub, red-clay pans, woody savanna, rosewood and red gums on to the Spinifex and salt plains through the MacDonnell Ranges. At breakfast on the last morning, the train glides past the drought affected Adelaide Plains, sprawling yellow wheat fields, rolling hills topped with wind generators and the Clare Valley wine country.

The food over the three days in the silver service Queen Adelaide restaurant, created by on-board chef John Cousins, is seasonal and delicious – gluten free, lactose free or vegetarian dishes are available on request. On this trip, the choices include creamy pumpkin soup infused with ginger, cinnamon and coconut; Northern Territory saltwater barramundi; grilled fillet of kangaroo; smoked chicken; Tasmanian salmon; lemon, lime and ginger cheesecake served with ginger snap and strawberries; layered white and dark chocolate mousse, topped with dark chocolate ganache and shavings, and a selection of Australian cheeses with lavosh and glace fig – all served with fine wines, beer or spirits. Far removed, someone remarks, from the August 4th, 1929 inaugural trip when the mighty engine issued a great burst of steam and 64 first class and 60 second class passengers moved out of the Adelaide station for their 2000 mile journey – a journey that signalled the end of a romantic era when much of the transport in Central Australia had been performed by teams of camels, and the beginning of another.
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