On travel wish lists two evocative words routinely appear: The Ghan. The world famous rail journey requires no further explanation, the two words instantly induce yearnings of traversing the remote heart of Australia, gliding through deserts and ancient Outback landscapes from exotic tropical Darwin to elegant, Mediterranean-style Adelaide.
So The Ghan could easily rest on its iconic laurels, satisfied with its bucket list-topping rating. But no, The Ghan Expedition has upped the ante by offering a game-changing, extended three night, four day journey. Now the Ghan Expedition, travelling mostly at night, allows passengers three full days off-train to completely absorb the landscape, characters and adventure of Australia’s deep heart.
This is a truly immersive journey. Forget settling in for hours of window gazing reverie, The Ghan Expedition will have you brushing red dirt from your shoes and cruising the soul-calming waters of the Katherine River gazing at spectacular gorges and gaping at incredible Aboriginal rock art.
You will become enveloped in the Outback, returning to the train with a souvenir waft of campfire smoke on your clothes and deeply etched memories in your heart. And you’ll never forget the goose-bump inducing stop at Manguri, in the middle of nowhere.
But back to the true rock-star of this story. The Ghan Expedition is a gliding, luxury hotel no less, a long silver capsule forging through inhospitable terrain while spoiling her passengers with world-class hospitality.
She will make you feel like royalty, her crew obliging your every desire with friendly, open smiles. She will introduce you to new friends and draw tales from fellow travellers in her Outback Explorer Lounge. Then amidst the romantic opulence of the Queen Adelaide Restaurant she will surprise you with fine dining and new Australian wines while literally giving you a taste Australia as the chefs imbue ingredients of the regions you are travelling through into their daily-changing menu.
She may tempt you with a night cap or beckon you after a long, adventurous day to your cabin to lie in her gently moving embrace while you replay in your mind, the day’s incredible highlights and wonder what delights for the heart, soul and stomach, tomorrow will bring.
Passengers onboard The Ghan Expedition enjoy a full day of off-train exploration in each of Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy, choosing between three tours in each location. These expertly curated excursions and magical experiences are all inclusive, while two optional scenic flights are available for those wishing a higher level of adventure.
At Katherine your spiritual senses awaken at Nitmiluk Gorge cruising between soaring sandstone cliffs on the Katherine River and discovering the Aboriginal culture and ancient rock art, and fascinating geological history of the area.
Alternatively via some sort of magical osmosis, you can be absorbed into life on an Outback cattle station with fascinating stories, cattle dog demonstrations and more. Live music evocatively pierces the Outback, sending your imagination wild and heart soaring.
The optional flight over Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks will stop you wondering from where the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories came forth.
On day two it’s time to get up close and personal with Alice. There is no town like Alice Springs and she freely offers her personality and culture, her landscapes and secrets as you can venture from waterhole to wildlife, natural wonders to nation-building history. Three spectacular tours offer a guided walking exploration of the Desert Park at the base of the MacDonnell Ranges, or the awesomely spiritual Simpsons Gap. Alternatively take a comprehensive tour of Alice including the School of Air, Royal Flying Doctor Base and more. And a brand new the tour option is the leisurely 7km mountain bike ride across the sandy, National Park indigenous Illentye trail.
The ultimate optional flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuka will render the most jaded traveller speechless.
Come evening, all tour groups dine beneath a black velvet sky studded with billions of glistening stars will truly move you. It will have you questioning life itself, but not all the fun, earth-bound astral travel or five-star trimmings of the Outback Pioneer Dinner.
Day three brings you to the moon. Or so it seems. After alighting at that stop in the middle of nowhere, you breathe in the vast remoteness, thrill at the eerie silence before being whisked away to opal-mining capital of the world Coober Pedy, where escaping the heat, half the inhabitants live underground.
On the tour menu: adventures that explore underground caverns and check out two lookouts for an above ground perspective, a walking tour of the majestic Breakaways where the flat-topped mesas thrust through the colourful stony gibber desert, once an inland sea. Perhaps exploring the underground town is more your thing where you’ll have the chance to grab a pick and dig for opals, while above ground you’ll visit the famous Dog Fence and the Breakaways.
Coober Pedy’s landscape is rich in Aboriginal and European history and we marvel at how the native fauna and flora flourish in this, the harshest of environments, as we return to the most luxurious of environments in the outback: The Queen Adelaide Restaurant for dinner followed by a night-cap and travel-tale-telling in the lounge.
And so to bed – with mind racing like the Ghan along its moonlit silver tracks – revelling in unforgettable characters and tales, new friends, decadent dining, warm hospitality, lively conversation and freshly planned holiday itineraries inspired by fellow passengers’ travel exploits.
Then a final sigh, as tomorrow we glide into Adelaide at journey’s end. But this has been much more not just a journey, for the Ghan Expedition truly moves you beyond words.
– Words by Alison Bennett for Holidays of Australia & the World.