If you only do one of the “Great Australian Rail Journeys”, I would recommend The Ghan. First of all, it links several destinations that most visitors will have on their To Do list anyway. Secondly, the distance and the time it takes to get from one end to the other are a bit more manageable, so you can quite easily do the journey in one sitting.
This is also the one that will make Australians everywhere “Oooh” and “Aaah” when they hear you’ve done it. The Ghan is an Australian legend and it seems to be a trip that most Aussies want to do at least once in their lifetime. The first time I boarded the Ghan was in Darwin. Hot, sticky, so-humid-in-the-Dry-I-can’t-even-imagine-what-it’s-like-in-the-Wet Top End. After 5 days in Kakadu National Park, where at least you have natural beauty to make the temperatures bearable, the one night in Darwin was enough to almost push me over the edge. I hate hot and humid and I hate it even more when a hot and humid place has nothing much to recommend it.
So getting on the train already seemed like a treat, made even more special by the fact that we were upgraded to Gold class. While I can’t say often enough that travelling in the Red economy seats is perfectly comfortable and a great experience, Gold class is, indeed, a lot classier. From the twin sleeper carriages with en-suite bathroom, via the Outback Explorer Lounge, to the Queen Adelaide dining car, everything oozes retro glamour and the feeling that everyone is just being spoilt rotten.
For Gold and Platinum guests, the trip is all-inclusive, so not only are you wined, dined, and fussed over by the attentive staff, you also get taken on “whistlestop” tours at each destination. I have written about the Gold and Platinum aboard the Indian Pacific and the Ghan elsewhere, so suffice to say: if you can afford this indulgence, then do it (but if you can’t, console yourself with the fact that all the young, skint people are down the back in Red, having all the fun).
The Ghan is worth the trip for the stopover in Katherine alone. In the few hours we stopped there, we had time to do the beautiful Nitmiluk Gorge Cruise, and when I came through the second time, I went for a walk to one of the gorge lookouts, followed by a swim in the river.
If you want to go to Uluru or King’s Canyon, you will have to leave the train in Alice Springs. Most people are unaware that Uluru is 450 km from Alice Springs. We had to make our Uluru-visit a real whirlwind two-day trip, followed by a flight back to Melbourne. However, I really wanted to complete the journey on the Ghan, so I did the whole thing again, two weeks later. Twice. On the way up, I went to Alice Springs Desert Park, on the way back down I went for a walk around Alice Springs.
I would happily do the entire journey again a fourth time, no kidding. After two nights on the train, one night in Darwin and another two nights on the train, I was almost sad to end the journey in Adelaide.
Here’s a few scenic highlights of what we saw from the train:
Other stories I have written about travelling with Great Southern Rail in Australia:
All Aboard: Australia’s great rail journeys now fully inclusive