Great Australian Train Journeys with Great Southern Rail
Australia is home to some of the world’s most spectacular train trips and the Great Southern Rail journeys on The Indian Pacific, The Ghan and The Overland are three of the country’s most epic adventures by rail.
It was an invitation to experience three great Australian train journeys with Great Southern Rail that motivated our own epic trip around Australia in 66 days, currently underway.
Train travel is highly underrated in Australia, a monumental country where it makes most sense. Most Australians prefer to fly or drive, but by flying you miss seeing so much of the countryside and the diverse landscapes that make Australia so special.
Driving, of course, is the best way to appreciate the ever-changing scenery, but transcontinental road trips – or ‘the big loop’ around the country, which is what Australians love to do – is a major undertaking and involves a serious commitment of time and money.
Buses will do the job, of course, and they’re the preferred means of covering the country by backpackers and budget travellers. But for people who relish the freedom to move around and stretch their legs, and unobstructed vistas, train travel is probably a better option. For those looking for even more comfort, a little style, good food and wine, and tours and activities along the way, then Great Southern Rail is the way to go.
Great Southern Rail operates two of Australia’s most luxurious trains, The Indian Pacific and The Ghan, and a third super-comfortable train called The Overland.
We’re going to bring you a series of stories from each of those train journeys, however, we thought we’d introduce you to the trains and their routes first.
The Great Australian Train Journeys
This colossal country offers some incredible rail adventures but Great Southern Rail runs what many would consider to be our great Australian train journeys.
Two are epic transcontinental journeys – said to be the only true transcontinental train trips in the world. The Indian Pacific train crosses Australia from east to west (and vice versa), traversing a whopping 4,353 kms (or 2,704 miles) while The Ghan trundles from south to north (and vice versa), covering a crazy 2,979 kms (1,851 miles).
The landscapes on both routes are diverse, from sub-tropical savannah and golden wheat plains on The Ghan to the rugged beauty of the Blue Mountains and arid plains of the Nullarbor on the Indian Pacific.
Both journeys are punctuated with fun whistle-stop excursions to places like the gob-smacking gorges near Katherine and the lush Barossa Valley wine region, but they still leave plenty of time to sit back and relax with a glass of Aussie wine in hand and savour the diverse landscapes, from the bucolic rolling hills just outside of Adelaide to the rust-coloured rocky desert north of Alice Springs.
The Indian Pacific – Sydney to Perth
The Indian Pacific travels from the eastern to the western seaboard, from Sydney to Perth via Adelaide, and then is cleaned and restocked for the next trip and turns around and does the same journey in reverse. It takes a leisurely three nights and four days to trundle from coast to coast.
Sydney and Perth are fantastic departure and arrival points. Easily Australia’s most beautiful cities, both are stunningly set on water, Sydney on a gorgeous harbour and Perth on the sleepy Swan River, and both are home to breathtaking beaches.
Sydney also offers unrivalled restaurants, cafés and bars to keep foodies sated and enough outdoorsy activities and cultural experiences to keep you occupied for weeks.
Perth is where you can go to stretch your legs after the long journey and recover from Sydney’s big city indulgences – kick around old Fremantle, picnic in the sprawling parks, or cruise down the Swan River.
The Ghan – Darwin to Adelaide
The Ghan travels between Darwin in the Top End and Adelaide in the south via Katherine and Alice Springs in the Red Centre of central Australia, and, then, like the Indian Pacific turns around and does the route in reverse. The standard trip takes three days and two nights, while The Ghan Expedition takes an additional day and night.
Darwin is a compact city with a multicultural population with a distinctly Asian flavour, and is the launching pad for exploring the tropical north, including Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land.
Adelaide is Australia’s most handsome city with its abundance of grand heritage buildings. It also has a flourishing gastronomic scene with half a dozen brilliant wine regions on its doorstep.
Petite Katherine has a pioneer settlement and is the entry point to Nitmiluk National Park and its spectacular gorges while Alice Springs, surrounded by dramatic landscapes has a vibrant indigenous culture, plenty of Aboriginal art galleries to browse, and fun things to do like camel treks. You can also break your journey here and take a few days to visit Uluru and Kings Canyon.
The Overland – Adelaide to Melbourne
The landscapes may not be as varied as those you can savour on the transcontinental journeys, for obvious reasons, but they’re still diverse, from the forested hills the train slowly snakes through outside of Adelaide to the yellow canola fields close to Melbourne.
On Board the Great Southern Rail Trains
The Ghan and The Indian Pacific are luxurious trains, but they are modern trains so don’t expect the sumptuous carriages of the Orient Express trains or the flamboyant opulence of India’s The Palace on Wheels.
Great Southern Rail’s trains are super-comfortable and have an understated elegance about them that is very Australian.
The Queen Adelaide Restaurant has an old-fashioned feel to it with upholstered booth tables covered with white linen table cloths, while the Outback Explorer lounges, available to Platinum and Gold passengers, have a clubby vibe and a hint of Art Deco style in their rounded sofa seats and curved bar.
There are three classes of travel on The Ghan and Indian Pacific: Red, Gold and Platinum.
The most affordable option is the Red Service, which offers reclining seats in public carriages or snug cabins with seats that convert to twin-berth bunks at night.
Gold Service has significantly more comfortable twin-berth cabins with a sofa seat that converts to bunks and a compact private bathroom.
Platinum Service, the most luxurious level, offers spacious rooms with a choice of double bed or two singles, a very roomy bathroom with a proper shower, toilet and basin, and enormous windows that allow you to open the blinds onto the hallway so you can see out both sides of the train.
In the Red Service you’ll probably be eating salad rolls and meat pies, which you can buy in the casual Matilda Café, while in the Gold and Platinum Service, you’ll be savouring multi-course restaurant-style meals and fine wines, included in the all inclusive fares, are served in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant.
Platinum Service guests are welcomed on board with glasses of bubbly in their room and a nightcap beside the bed when they retire. Every time we returned from whistle-stop tours we’d find cold face towels and icy drinks in our room. Gold Service passengers are served drinks in the lounge.
With smiles permanently plastered on their faces, train staff are incredibly friendly – so much that you might find yourself hugging goodbyes at the end of the trip. They are also very accommodating – if you want breakfast in bed or dinner in your room, it’s not a problem.
While Australians are used to such relaxed service and are happy having a yarn with a waiter after dinner, Europeans and North Americans sometimes find the service a little too familiar. If you find that to be the case, just drop a hint (Aussies don’t usually take offence) or have a quiet word to the manager.
The Overland offers two levels of Red Service, with the Premium Red Service being by far the most comfortable. There is a seat configuration of two and one, incredibly wide aisles, and so much leg space it will make you wish you never had to fly again.
Proper meals are offered throughout the service, including breakfast, lunch, and morning and afternoon tea, and while they do cost extra, they are served to your seats.
Off Train Experiences and Whistle-stop Tours
Whistle-stop tours are included for Gold and Platinum Service on both The Ghan and The Indian Pacific trains. Red Service passengers pay extra.
Choose carefully, as some, such as the town tours, are reportedly a little dull. Others, such as an edge-of-your-seat helicopter flight over Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk), are exhilarating.
Most tours are included in the fares for The Ghan and The Indian Pacific, however, special experiences such as those helicopter flights cost extra. Prices are listed on the website.
Following a recent revamp of The Ghan and The Indian Pacific, some very special experiences, including some surprises, now punctuate the journeys. We’ll tell you more about those soon.
Which Great Australian Train Journey Should You Do?
If money is no object, do all three and don’t think twice about which service to travel – go Platinum and book a room with a double bed. Otherwise, do The Ghan and The Indian Pacific and go Gold.
See the Great Southern Rail website for timetables and fares: www.greatsouthernrail.com.au