The Ghan is one of the world’s great train journeys. The route from Darwin to Adelaide splits the heart of this ancient continent, taking the passenger from the tropical green north, through the rusty red heart to the genteel City of Adelaide in the south. But it’s more than the dramatic contrast of scenery and colour that makes a trip on The Ghan a lifelong memory. It’s the people you’ll meet and the stories they tell that sets this train journey apart.
Aboard the special Anzac Tribute service on the Ghan, we have an extra day to settle back and soak up the tales of war, peace and extraordinary endeavour.
The Ghan played a vital role in transporting troops south to north during the Second World War. The pace of rail services quickened after the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. From just three services a week, to 56, the Ghan troop trains took fresh-faced volunteers from home and hearth and delivered them to Alice springs where they transferred to trucks to reach the airfields and harbour in Darwin, many never to return.
During our journey we meet so many who were there or have made it their business to understand and share this vital, often overlooked, military history.
In Darwin we meet Flight Lieutenant Brian Winspear travelling with his wife and life partner, Shirley. Brian was in Darwin on February 19, 1942 when Japanese planes rained bombs on this strategically vital port. He jumped into a trench, placing a cork in his mouth and fingers in his ears to survive the worst of the raid. Brian is so slim and fit he still fits into the uniform he wore in 1942. His smile never fades and he and Shirley quickly become favourite dining companions amongst the travellers.
Our first stop is Adelaide River where we visit the war cemetery – the final resting place for many of the victims of the Darwin bombing, including many seamen and the Postmaster Hurtle Bald, his wife Alice, and daughter Iris. We then journey on to Katherine where we are privileged to take part in a dawn service on Anzac Day. Hundreds gather to remember and pay tribute to acts of bravery and self-sacrifice and to lay wreaths in memory of those who gave their all. Afterwards, at the gunfire breakfast at Katherine RSL, more than 300 breakfasts are served to locals and visitors alike. Here we meet Reverend Mitch Fialkowski who works for the Katherine Patrol of Frontier Services, providing care and support to those isolated in remote parts of the inland. Mitch shares his main concern for young families in remote areas who need support during School of the Air lesson time, when Mum is required to be in up to three places at once. Volunteers, he notes, are always welcome.
An afternoon cruise on Katherine Gorge culminates in a performance by former Redgum members, John Schumann, Hugh McLachlan and musician Alex Black. Songs of pain, loss and humour reverberate within the ancient cliffs; a light misty rain only adds to the haunting atmosphere.
Next stop is Alice Springs and reaching the town centre along the Discovery Walk provides another learning journey. Co-created by Great Southern Rail and the Northern Territory Government, landscaping, storyboards and sculptures tell of survival and adaption, beginning with the original Arrernte people, to the explorers, miners, missionaries, teachers, public servants and publicans who made their mark in the Red Centre.
Here too are tributes to the cameleers – the original Afghan immigrants who came from the other side of the world with their trusted camels to haul goods from Adelaide to Birdsville and beyond. It is these original ‘Ghans’ who have lent their name to the train. Sadly, with the arrival of the railway, there was no longer a need for their services and so, rather than pay taxes to the state government, they shot or set free their camels, forming the basis for the wild herds now roaming inland Australia. The National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame is also located in the Alice – housed somewhat bizarrely in a prison, and full of stories of women who braved the harsh conditions of outback Australia. Interestingly, Alice Todd, after whom the Alice Spring was named, never even visited the town.
Back on board it’s time to settle back and enjoy the rusty red corrugated soil, azure blue skies and the sparse olive green vegetation. Later we gather in the Outback Explorer lounge car for poetry and amusing ditties performed by Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh. Next stop is Port Augusta where we are transferred to the Ghan ‘Troop Train’ (now known as the Pichi Richi Tourist Train) for a trip to Quorn along the original Ghan line. The steam train experience is redolent and the volunteer conductors add much to our understanding of the transportation of thousands of troops to a war in Europe and the Asia Pacific.
As the train commences the final leg towards Adelaide it is time for farewell drinks and a final goodbye to Sonia Laverty and her accomplished team of chefs, waiters and bar staff. We’re also delighted to receive certificates commemorating our journey on the Anzac Tribute.
In an age characterised by short attention spans and a need to work and live at an increasingly fast pace, air travel seems to offer the most direct and cost-effective way of getting from A to B.
But as Robert Louise Stevenson noted, “I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Train travel is slower and far more enjoyable.
By removing you from electronic range and the subsequent bombardment by email or text, it forces travellers to slow down and take stock.
Your mission is simple. To settle back and listen to the tales this ancient land and her inhabitants are longing to share.
Kaye Fallick travelled as a guest of Great Southern Rail
Adelaide to Darwin or Darwin to Adelaide, two nights and three days.
Many special fares