The Ghan train journey is one of Australia’s greatest train journeys, a legendary Australian rail adventure from Darwin to Adelaide – and Adelaide to Darwin – that’s punctuated with memorable experiences and whistle-stop tours, from a serene cruise through the spectacular gorges in Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine, to an excursion through Simpsons Gap in Alice Springs.
The Ghan train journey takes lovers of slow travel on a leisurely rail adventure from north to south through the Red Centre of Australia. One of Australia’s greatest train journeys, The Ghan departs from Darwin, the tropical capital of the Northern Territory in the Top End of the country, and your destination is Adelaide, the lovely South Australian capital, famed for its food and wine, arts and culture, glorious parks and gardens, and gorgeous beaches. You can also do the trip in reverse from Adelaide to Darwin.
The Ghan train journey has a special place in my heart and not just because I’m Australian. I’m Sydney-born and not all ‘East Coasters’ feel as deeply connected to Australia’s red heart as I do. While I adore Australian beaches, the Outback with its ochre-red dirt, silvery ghost gums, brilliant blue skies, and cotton-wool clouds is my happy place and I’m happiest in the heart of the country with its Albert Namatjira landscapes.
My family lived in Alice Springs when I was in my early teens, where our weekends would be filled with four-wheel-drive adventures along dirt tracks to palm-shaded valleys and camping trips out to serene swimming holes skirted by sandy beaches between stunning gorges.
My dad worked on The Ghan railway line and I got to go to the official opening of the Tarcoola to Alice Springs section of the line, where I stood next to the towering Gough Whitlam, Australia’s legendary prime minister. Journeying on The Ghan was a very special experience for me. I’m sure it will be for you too. Here’s what to expect on this legendary Australian rail adventure.
The Ghan Train Journey – What To Expect on this Legendary Australian Rail Adventure
How to Plan and Prepare for The Ghan Journey
Do Some Pre-Trip Reading
Do some pre-trip reading and you’ll get so much more out of the experience. You’re not only travelling through Australia’s red heart, you’re journeying through its spiritual heart, so I suggest your pre-trip reading include Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia.
Book Transfers Ahead of Time
Transfers are included in Darwin, but only between the Hilton Darwin hotel and the railway station on the day of your departure for The Ghan train journey, so book your airport transfer to Darwin in advance, as well as your Adelaide transfers to save money and the hassle of waiting for a taxi, as we did once for ages.
Book Activities and Tours in Darwin and Adelaide
If you’re starting in Darwin, depending on when your flight arrives, you may have two free days. Plan them in advance in case you want to book a day-trip to Kakadu National Park (a long day, but worth it) or Litchfield National Park (closer to Darwin, so not as long). We also recommend getting your bearings on our self-guided Darwin city walk, which takes in many of the key sights.
Consider Extending Your Stays If You Can
If you live on Australia’s East Coast, the chances of you having been to Darwin or even Adelaide are slim. Bizarrely, Darwin does not even make it onto Australians’ top ten destinations. Most Australians would rather go overseas. But Darwin is a compelling city with fantastic waterfront parks, weekend markets filled with stalls with multicultural eats, terrific museums, and magic sunset rituals.
Darwin is also the launching pad for road trips to nearby Litchfield National Park, Mary River National Park and Kakadu National Park, all endowed with dramatic landscapes, rich in ancient history and indigenous art and culture, with thundering waterfalls and cooling waterholes, and opportunities galore to gawk at birdlife and wildlife, especially crocodiles. While you could self-drive (see our guide to driving from Darwin to Mary River and Kakadu), once you get there you’ll get more out of the trip on an indigenous tour or cruise with a local Aboriginal guide.
Adelaide has a fabulous food and wine scene, some of Australia’s best museums and art galleries, gorgeous gardens and more sprawling parks, stunning sandy beaches, and loads of outdoor dining opportunities. Adelaide also has some of Australia’s best wine regions in the backyard, and Kangaroo Island, with its abundance of wildlife, wild white-sand beaches, and more wonderful food and wine. Who said it wasn’t about the destinations?
What to Pack for The Ghan
Pack Carefully and Weigh Your Bags
There are baggage restrictions on The Ghan train. Passengers are only allowed to have one carry-on piece in their cabin with a maximum weight of 7kg, although of course you can take a handbag, light day-pack or laptop in addition to this. You are also allowed two pieces of checked-in baggage with a maximum weight of 30kg per piece.
However, you can’t access those bags between Darwin and Adelaide (and vice versa). That means if The Ghan train journey is part of a longer holiday and you’re extending time in Adelaide or Darwin and exploring more of South Australia and/or The Northern Territory, you will need to make sure you don’t lock something you need in the checked-in bags.
What Clothes To Pack
Pack outdoorsy cottons and linens, a sun hat and heavy-duty sunblock for the excursions to Nitmiluk National Park and Alice Springs as it will be hot out. Comfy walking shoes are a must, especially for Nitmiluk. If the water levels are low, which they usually are just before the wet season starts, you’ll have to clamber over rocks between gorges and boats.
Smart-casual is fine for the train – take a cardigan as it can get chilly – and nice PJs for the cabin if you fancy being woken by staff delivering a cup of tea to your bed. Pack something a bit special for cocktails and dinner in the evenings when passengers tend to dress up a little.
I’ve not seen black tie and evening gowns on The Ghan as I have on the Eastern & Oriental Express, however, the blokes swap their long shorts for long trousers and women do what women do and dress up. Flat shoes are best. It’s a train after all and it bumps and sways on some of the Outback tracks.
Other Gadgets To Pack
Pack a camera, batteries and power-banks. There is Wi-Fi in your cabin, but only when you’re in or near civilisation. It will cut out as you leave towns and communities. There are power-points in the cabin to recharge your gear. A pair of small binoculars will get used if you enjoy a bit of birdwatching and there are lots of birds to spot.
Books to Take
Not everyone is as content as I am at staring out a window at constantly changing landscapes for hours on end, so there are a few books you should pack that might inspire you to gaze a bit more and think a little differently about the geography outside your window.
Pack that copy of Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia that I recommended as pre-trip reading (link above), along with Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788, which tells the history of Australia from the standpoint of our original Australians.
Look for the expanded fifth edition which covers the Northern Territory Intervention, remote Australia’s mining boom, the Uluru Statement, and the resurgence of interest among Australians in traditional Aboriginal knowledge and culture.
If you’re interested in Australian food and agriculture, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu reveals how Australia’s pre-colonial Aboriginal peoples sowed, harvested and irrigated land, stored crops, used domesticated plants, and built dams and houses – you’ll look at the landscapes out your window in a very different light.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia and Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia should have that same effect on you, as well as changing how you see history.
Gammage reveals how early European explorers noted how land across Australia looked like parkland with sprawling grassy areas within woodland and walking paths, evoking an English estate. This is because Australia’s Aboriginal peoples systematically managed the land, using fire and native plant life-cycles to ensure plentiful food for people and wildlife and prevent wildfires.
Griffiths’ book is one for lovers or archaeology, weaving history, biography and literature together to tell the story of Aboriginal archaeology in Australia and the archaeologists who uncovered traces of ancient Australia and evidence of 60,000 years of continual habitation.
If you enjoy birdwatching, there’s plenty to see on The Ghan train journey – from kites to wedge-tailed eagles, cockatoos and galahs – so a Field Guide to Australian Birds or The Australian Bird Guide will get used, along with those binoculars. There are books on Australian birdlife and wildlife in the small library in the lounge, but these tend to disappear soon after the train leaves Darwin and you won’t see them again until you’re pulling into Adelaide.
Movies to Watch
If you’re planning on loading up a few films before you leave home for post-dinner movies during The Ghan train journey, don’t plan on finishing any epics. While you’re at dinner your cabin seats will have been converted into double bunks if you’re staying in Gold class or a double bed if you’re in Platinum, and the train movement will quickly lull you to sleep.
But if you do want to attempt something, then start with the Baz Luhrmann-directed Australia, set in Darwin during the World War II bombing by the Japanese, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. The landscapes are breathtaking, the story is uplifting (and we all need a lift up right now) and it’s loads of fun.
The 1955 Australian classic Jedda, directed by Claude Chavel, is set in the Northern Territory. It was Australia’s first colour film and starred Aboriginal actors Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth. When you’re on the cruise boat wending your way through the spectacular sandstone cliffs of Nitmiluk National Park, your local Jawoyn guide will point out Jedda’s Rock, but I won’t spoil the film for you by explaining its name. Other locations include Mary River south east of Darwin and Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge not far from Alice Springs.
The feel-good campy Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, directed by Stephan Elliot and starring Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, and Bill Hunter, is a must before you arrive in Alice Springs, where much of the movie is set. You’ll recognise Simpsons Gap and the MacDonnell Ranges in an instant.
What to Expect on The Ghan Train
Your Cabin is Comfy But Compact
While you’re going to be immeasurably more comfortable in a Gold cabin than you would be sitting up in a seat, the cabins are compact, which is why you can only take a carry-on each. There is storage space, however, including a wardrobe and a shelf, but you’ll need to stay organised to maintain that sense of comfort. The Ghan’s Platinum cabins have a lot more space and after the staff sneak in to transform your seats into beds while you’re dining, you can slide your bags under the double bed. You can also store stuff in your private bathrooms before you shower.
Magic Sunrises from the Comfort of Bed
If you’re an early riser and love a good sunrise and waking to the warmth of that big fiery ball in the sky on the cheeks, you’ll relish the experience from your cabin bed. Open the blind before you doze off. I could have laid in bed for hours watching the colours of the earth cycle from dusky pink, peach and apricot to musk, rust-red and tangerine as the sun rose and illuminated the scorched land. That means accept the offer of a pot of tea in bed.
Cabin Time, But Not as Much as You Might Imagine
While you might envisage most of your time on The Ghan being spent in your comfy cabin, working your way through a few books in between naps, by the time you’ve finished your pot of tea, it will be time for breakfast in the Queen Adelaide dining carriage – over which you’ll definitely want to linger – and then you should have some cabin time before your off-train excursion or before it’s time to eat again. Make the most of the cabin time you have, as the cabins are a delight.
Prepare to Eat and Drink to Your Stomach’s Content
The food and drinks are a real highlight of The Ghan train journey. There are welcome glasses of bubbly in the cabin after you’ve boarded (we clinked a Croser Petaluma from the Adelaide Hills on our last trip) and Western and South Australian wines and beers are offered in the lounge during the introductory briefing and before and after meals. Expect three-course menus for lunch and four courses for dinner with plenty of beautiful Australian produce and well-matched Aussie wines. When we last travelled, highlights included prawn and crab dumplings with a lemon myrtle infused seafood broth, grilled saltwater barramundi with sweet potato mash and spinach, a roasted kangaroo fillet with crocodile boudin blanc, potato puree and quandong jus. There were Australian cheese courses as an alternative to dessert, with the likes of a Barossa Valley brie, Limestone Coast clothed cheddar and Lobethal goat blue cheese. We recommend the later sittings for all meal times so you can linger and not feel rushed. You may want to prepare for all the food with pre- and post-train walks (or runs) in Darwin and Adelaide.
Magic Sunsets from the Outback Explorer Lounge
You could savour the sunsets from your cabin as you will the sunrises, but who doesn’t love watching the sun go down with a glass of white wine in hand? Plus, there’ll be some nibbles to go with those. Everyone else will have the same idea, so you’ll need to get to the lounge early-ish to snag a good spot. An added bonus of sundowners in the lounge is that you can move from side to side, snapping pics of the sun sinking beneath the horizon to the west and the changing colours of the landscape in the east. If you book a table for dinner for the later sitting, you can linger after the first diners depart or head back to your cabin for a quiet one before dinner.
You Might Make As Many Friends As Memories
If you’re travelling as a couple, you can ask to dine alone if you’re on a romantic getaway, honeymoon or celebrating a special anniversary, however, at some point during The Ghan train journey, due to the numbers of passengers and number of seats, you will probably share a table with others and make new friends. If you don’t do it over dinner, it will be over drinks, as there are plenty of opportunities for those – and there’s a camaraderie that naturally develops after a couple of days and nights in close quarters with other Australians on a train. Take plenty of old-fashioned business cards as you won’t always have access to Wi-Fi to ping one from your phone.
Luxury Escapes Deals on The Ghan Train Journey
Of course, travelling on The Ghan train is more about the journey than the destinations, and our friends at Luxury Escapes have discounted limited-time offers that are ending soon for November journeys. The all-inclusive 5-day trip has fewer whistle-stop excursions that when we last travelled The Ghan a few years ago, but it’s more affordable, with savings of almost A$1,000 per person, and includes two nights at the start in Darwin if that’s your departure point, or two nights at the end of the trip if you began The Ghan train journey in Adelaide.
The November trips on The Ghan include two nights in a Gold Service twin share cabin on board The Ghan, all-inclusive daily dining served in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant including breakfast and multi-course lunches and dinners, all-inclusive drinks with Australian wines, beer and spirits, and off-train whistle-stop excursions in Katherine and Alice Springs.
Also included are complimentary transfers between the hotel and Darwin railway station, as well as two nights at the five-star Hilton Darwin hotel, including daily breakfast, complimentary in-room movies and Wi-Fi (which still costs in many Australian hotels), and a Darwin Harbour sunset cruise with a Northern Territory-inspired dinner.
The cost for The Ghan train journeys in November 2020 is A$2,199 per person twin share (valued at up to A$3,069) or you can upgrade to a VIP package for A$2,249 per person twin share (valued at up to A$3,099). That means if you’re travelling as a couple, you need to purchase two packages. Darwin to Adelaide departure dates are 2, 9 or 16 November 2020 and Adelaide to Darwin dates are 1, 8 or 15 November 2020.
Image courtesy of Luxury Escapes.
Have you done The Ghan train journey? We’d love to hear about your experience, especially if you do the upcoming November trips. Please leave a comment below or feel free to email us.