My trip on Great Southern Rail’s The Ghan, started over a Vietnamese bowl of vegetables in Haymarket. A lunch meeting with Anna from PEPR had turned into our regular sparring match of who had a more stimulating month ahead. I was quick to learn of a last-minute opening aboard The Ghan train – an experience I’d wanted to tick off since day one of The Versatile Gent. There was, however, one condition. As I wasn’t the precise target market for the company, I had to get myself to Darwin, and home from Adelaide at the conclusion of the trip.
My golden rule when writing travel pieces is that I don’t pay for them, and rarely do I get asked to. Fortunately, the kind folks at Mercedes-Benz agreed to fly me directly from Melbourne to Darwin, and the $229 flight from Adelaide to Sydney was a small price to pay for a two-night ($2500 odd) adventure aboard Australia’s most luxurious train.
It wasn’t until I boarded the transfer bus from the Hilton to the train station did it dawn on me just how far I was from The Ghan train target market – by a comfortable 20 years. In all fairness, I’d been warned and had aptly prepared myself for three days of chat with an encyclopedic group of retirees.
The drinking kicked off immediately.
I was determined to become a permanent fixture in the bar carriage, so the news that any beverage was complimentary while onboard the train was welcoming. Once I’d met the approval of the enthusiastic bartender who was excited to be serving his first beer at 11 am, I went to inspect my lodgings.
The accommodation is novel, to say the least. It’s part motor yacht, part Winnebago, tucked into an economical space which is a far larger in the flesh than it appears in photos. My room featured two bunks and a small bathroom. The bunks fold away to reveal a couch with room for three or four. There’s a practical use of space throughout the cabin with a hanging closet, small side table and ample luggage room under the bottom bunk. The bathroom can be cordoned off by a shower curtain that wraps the entire way around you to protect the rest of the room getting wet. It’s straightforward and efficient, and the shower pressure and hot water are fantastic!
Strolling from my dwellings, back to the bar, I observed guests reading, playing board games, socialising over drinks and simply watching the world pass by. When guests aren’t divulging in the leisure life, they’re in the restaurant carriage eating. Food is a huge part of Great Southern Rail’s offering, and I was surprised to find it consistently excellent.
Both the lunch and dinner menus feature an extensive range of local produce and selection of cuisines, chosen by the individual and served across three or four courses. Diners eat at specific times after a sharpener or three in the bar and are sitted in groups of four, ensuring you mingle with strangers.
The cocktails and wine keep the conversation flowing and the list itself is of similar quality to the food, with a multitude of varietals to suit even the most discerning wine aficionado.
Outside of the eating and drinking, The Ghan train is an excellent way to see the centre of Australia, with complimentary day trips to the stunning Katherine Gorge, plus a choice of activities upon arrival in Alice Springs. Guests can also elect to pay additional fees to do scenic flights – something I regret not doing. A further regret was opting to spend my allotted activity time in Alice Springs rather than doing an activity, a decision I’m sad to say relied heavily on my need to access some Wifi because the train has none. I set out on foot in my R.M. Williams boots and cowboy hat in search of a traditional outback pub, to share a swampy with some local farmers, only to find a dreary and charmless cluster of buildings stuck in a 90’s timewarp.
After dinner on the final evening, the train stopped in the middle of the desert for a Port, a choccy and a peaceful moment under the stars accompanied by the crackle of a flickering bonfire. Had I been with a female love interest, this would have been the pivotal moment of the trip, our eyes locked on one another, billions of bright stars dappling us in wanderlust. Instead, I used the opportunity to take some photos and consume extra glasses of Port that the staff couldn’t get rid of.
Just as I’d begun my trip, I concluded it in the bar cart finishing the last of The Glenlivet while chatting with a casually racist South African man and a former Victorian Fire Fighter who battled fires on tragic Black Saturday. I retreated to my cart and decided to try the top bunk, which I deemed the superior choice, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of the rattling steel.
We disembarked mid-morning the following day, in Adelaide, having travelled 3000km from the top of our great country to the bottom. The Ghan train is an exciting and unconventional experience I’d highly recommend to couples looking for a relaxed way to see the centre of Australia. It is, however, an experience that draws from the effort that you put it, and socialising with the fellow guests is as big a part of the trip as the train itself.