When thinking about iconic train journeys, Japan’s bullet train or the Old World splendor of the Orient Express comes to mind. Still, there’s at least one more that rightfully belongs among such esteemed company: The Ghan train of Australia. Bisecting the country from south to north across rolling green hills, red desert plateaus, and lush tropical forests, the Ghan offers its riders an extraordinary three-day excursion across central Australia. With luxury rail accommodations and dining, there is no better way to experience the varied landscapes, history, and cultures of the Land Down Under. Welcome aboard…
“Ghan” is short for the Afghan Express, named for the “Afghans” or “Ghans” who carted pastoral and other goods across the outback by camel from the 1860s to the 1930s. Originally from British India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Turkey, the Ghans were shipped in and out of Australia on three-year contracts, and played an integral role in building out the country’s interior infrastructure, including rail lines, and connecting the outback to coastal trading cities.
Construction on the transcontinental rail line started in 1878 and loosely followed the south to north route of 19th-century explorer John MacDouall Stuart. Built in stages over the next 126 years, the rail line project encountered significant delays along the way due to budgetary constraints, track washouts, and world wars, among other reasons.
The first completed segment of the Ghan train line was between Adelaide on the south coast to centrally located Alice Springs and was opened to the public in 1929. The final rail leg to Darwin on the northern coast wasn’t started until 2001 with a completion date in early 2004. (The Ghan itself was privatized in 1997 and has since been run by tour operator Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions.) Since the completion of the full south-north route, the Ghan has been shuttling Aussies and travelers alike through 1,851 miles of undeniably wow-worthy landscapes.
Today, the Ghan includes about 30 carriages, including guest and crew quarters, restaurants, lounges, and power vans. Accommodations are compact but exceedingly comfortable. They generally include a private cabin with wood-paneled bunks that convert to a comfy three-seater lounge for day, a tiny but full en suite bathroom, AC, quality white linens, and complimentary Australian-made toiletries. There is also six in-cabin music channels and audio travel commentary to provide a soundtrack to your journey (if you want it).
Lounge carriages (there are three) are Art Deco-themed with rich hues of gold and ruby, not to mention leather button tufted banquettes that snake along both walls. Wide picture windows provide ample gazing opportunities and the bar, always well stocked and manned, invites passengers at the end of the train. What’s not to love about watching the exquisite scenery go by with a cold gin cocktail in your grip?
Meals are taken mostly in the elegant Queen Adelaide Restaurant carriage and center around a thoughtful, regionally inspired menu with locally sourced ingredients and top wine pairings. Menu items are expertly prepared and presented by onboard chefs; these include favorites like saltwater barramundi and grilled kangaroo fillet. Vegetarian options are easily arranged when booking your ticket.
What to see
Whether you chose to go south-to-north or the other way around, your journey will include passage through some of Australia’s most dramatic landscapes: bucolic southern pastures, rocky arid plains, red desert mountain ranges, and rich northern wetlands. Much of the time during the day is spent off-rail on scheduled excursions, where you can explore the countryside close up. The majority of traveling occurs while you slumber at night. And while we can’t include the full itinerary here, we’ve included a few highlights to whet your appetite.
Flinders Ranges (South Australia)
Home to some of the oldest rock formations in the world, the Flinders Range (composed of several disjoined ranges) is one of Australia’s largest mountain range, stretching from Port Pirie outside Adelaide on the southern coast a good 260 miles to Lake Callabonna in the north. Comprised of hard quartzite (quartz and sandstone), the dramatic rocky formations, gorges, and plateaus have been home to Aboriginal Adnyamathanha people for 30,000 years.
Marla and the MacDonall Ranges
Experience the vast and sparse beauty of the southern Australian desert at sunrise. On the northern route, your fist daybreak will be in Marla, the perfect outback outpost to enjoy a freshly brewed coffee while you watch the desert plains awake. Later, as you enjoy brunch back on the Ghan, prepare for breathtaking views of the MacDonnell Ranges. Composed of several rock types, including quartzite, granite, limestone, sandstone, and siltstone, the MacDonnells are known for their russet color and dramatic ridges, gorges, and gaps. Fossil evidence of the inland sea that once covered Australia is also evident within some of the range valleys.
Alice Springs is the primary outpost in the vast Red Centre deserts of central Australia. Known as the “Capital of the Outback,” the town sits 1,000 miles from the nearest major city. Here, a number of off-train experiences are available, including exploring the beautiful Simpson’s Gap in the adjacent Simpsons Range, learning about sacred aboriginal sites, wildlife viewing (we’re talking rock-wallabies), and visiting the historic town center. Once evening falls, enjoy a barbeque steak dinner under the starlit sky at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. Established in 1871, the station is the site of the first European settlement in Alice Springs.
Up north, Katherine is at the crossroads of the outback and more tropical area of the Northern Australian state. Adjacent to the lush banks of her eponymous river, the broader Katherine region offers a glimpse of nature in all her majesty with a savanna-like terrain punctuated with hills, rock, gorges, and lush forests. Off-train adventures here include cruising the stunning Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, which includes glimpses of rock paintings from the indigenous Jawoyn people, or experiencing authentic cattle ranching life at a working cattle station.
Book a trip
The Ghan runs throughout the year, though the high season (with moderate temperatures in the 70s and 80s) runs from May to August. There are two levels of service, Gold and Platinum, which differ in cabin size and appointments, service levels, and dining options. Platinum guests get access to the tony Platinum Club carriage for cocktails and meals, for starters.
You can also limit your journey to half of the country – say, Adelaide to Alice Springs, or Alice Springs to Darwin. Add-on packages are also available, with extensions to bucket-list worthy destinations like Uluru Kata Tjuța National Park in the Red Centre or Kakadu National Park with an array of wetlands and rivers hosting over 2,000 species of wildlife.
Luggage can be checked but not accessed during the trip. Quarters are tight so bring only what you need for the journey itself – we suggest an overnight bag with an additional carryon.
While days can get quite hot and dry, evenings can get chilly quickly once the sun goes down. Dressing in light and natural fabrics is always a good start, with additional layers for evening. A wide-brimmed hat, comfortable walking shoes, sunglasses, and sunscreen are absolute musts.
Fares from Adelaide to Darwin (inclusive of dining, beverages, and off-train excursions) start at $2,629 AUD ($1,726) per person for Gold Service, which includes a twin cabin with bunks.
Lastly, check The Ghan website for updated information on what to bring, fares, routes, and schedules.