The Ghan train journey is one of Australia’s greatest train journeys, an epic Australian rail adventure from Darwin to Adelaide – or Adelaide to Darwin – that’s punctuated with memorable experiences and excursions, from a serene cruise through the spectacular ancient gorges of Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine, to a scenic flight from Alice Springs to Uluru-Kata Tjuta .
We’ve been lucky to experience The Ghan train journey (a perk of travel writing) so we can guarantee that it’s one of Australia’s greatest train journeys and one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips in Australia that you need to book as soon as new dates are released. Because this legendary train doesn’t run every day and it books out fast after announcements – and there’s just been one!
Luxury Escapes has just launched new 2024 dates for an exclusive 9-day rail adventure from Darwin to Adelaide that they’re calling The Ghan Once-in-a-Lifetime Luxury Escapes Charter. Starting in Darwin 16 October 2024 and ending in Adelaide on 24 October 2024, the package includes an all-inclusive 3-day rail journey plus Litchfield National Park, premium on-board dining and drinks, off-train experiences and a Penfolds Tasting from A$6,199 per person.
The Gold Upgrade includes upgraded stays, a Darwin Harbour Cruise and Penfolds Dining Experience for A$6,999, while a Platinum upgrade to a cabin with double bed includes an upgraded charter experience with VIP hotel stays, Darwin Harbour Cruise and a Penfolds 5-Course Degustation Experience for A$10,499.
The Ghan Once-in-a-Lifetime Luxury Escapes Charter includes three nights of pre-Ghan accommodation at Mindil Beach Casino Resort with a Welcome to Country ceremony, welcome cocktails, a three-course welcome dinner with free flowing drinks, and daily breakfast; two days of excursions and activities, kicking off with a full-day in Litchfield National Park, and a day of sightseeing in Darwin.
On the morning of the third day a transfer will take you to Darwin Station Terminal where The Ghan train journey begins. You’ll get three nights on board the luxury train with your choice of Off Train Experiences in Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy; two nights at the Hilton Adelaide, including two days in Adelaide and the Penfolds experience at Magill Estate; plus the services of expert on-ground representatives; and all entrance fees and sightseeing per itinerary.
You can read more about The Ghan train journey and what to expect below based on our experience on The Ghan.
The Ghan Train Journey – An Epic Australian Rail Adventure in Style
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, laidback South Australian capital, famed for its fine food and wine, arts and culture, sprawling parks and gardens, and endless 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 soil, silvery ghost gums, brilliant blue skies, and cotton-wool clouds is my happy place and I’m happiest in the heart of Australia with its Albert Namatjira landscapes.
My family travelled around Australia and lived in Alice Springs when I was in my early teens. Our weekends there would be filled with camping trips and four-wheel-drive adventures. We’d bump along corrugated dirt tracks to palm-shaded valleys for sweaty hikes through ancient gorges, dips in serene swimming holes skirted by sandy beaches, and moonlit barbecues under the stars.
My dad worked on the new standard gauge railway line for The Ghan railway at the time and we got to go to the official opening of the Tarcoola to Alice Springs section of the line. I remember standing next to the towering Gough Whitlam, Australia’s legendary prime minister, while Princess Alexandra cut the ribbon.
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 – An Epic Australian Rail Adventure in Style
How to Plan and Prepare for The Ghan Journey
Book The Ghan When You See a Deal
The Ghan train expeditions are seasonal and they’re incredibly popular, selling quickly, so you really have to act fast and book tickets for The Ghan as soon as you see dates announced. Itineraries generally include a 3-4 day rail journey on the legendary train in either twin cabin Gold Service or a Platinum service cabin with a double bed with 2-3 days of accommodation and activities in Darwin and Adelaide.
While The Ghan packages differ from season to season, they are typically all-inclusive on the train and usually include all on-board dining and drinks and unmissable Off Train Experiences in Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy; along with pre-trip accommodation with welcome drinks, daily breakfast and transfers, a choice of activities; the services of expert on-ground staff; and all entrance fees and sightseeing per itinerary.
Do Some Pre-Trip Reading and Movie-Watching
Do some pre-trip reading and movie-watching before embarking on The Ghan train journey 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 start with Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia. There’s also time to read books and watch movies on the train, so see my extensive list below for more suggestions.
Book Transfers Ahead of Time
Transfers are usually included in Darwin between the hotel and the railway station on the day of your departure for The Ghan train journey, but you’ll need to 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. It took ages.
Book Activities and Tours in Darwin and Adelaide
If you’re starting in Darwin, depending on when your flight arrives, you may have some free time. We recommend getting your bearings on our self-guided Darwin city walk, which takes in many of the key sights. If you can spare more time, arrive a coupleof days ahead of the start of the itinerary and do a tour to Kakadu (it’s a long day, but worth it) or day trip to Litchfield National Park if it’s not included on the itinerary. It’s closer to Darwin, so easier to get to.
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 Train Journey
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 for The Ghan
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 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 for The Ghan
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 on The Ghan
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 a copy of Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia (link above) which I also recommend as pre-trip reading, along with Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788, which tells the history of Australia from the standpoint of our First Nations Peoples.
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 on The Ghan
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.
And you’ll definitely want to linger over breakfast, so opt for the second breakfast sitting. 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.
The Ghan Train Journey Excursions and Activities
The Ghan itineraries and the excursions and activities vary slightly from trip to trip, so check the link at the start of this post for a detailed itinerary, but the epic 3,000 kilometre journey kicks off in Darwin and ends in Adelaide, or vice versa.
The itinerary typically includes a choice of excursions and experiences at each stop. Of the options available from Katherine, the highlight for us is the spectacular Nitmuluk gorge cruise (which I’ve now done a handful of times) and the helicopter ride of the gorge.
From Alice Springs, a walk through Simpsons Gap or Standley Chasm is special, a camel ride is good fun, before visiting the Alice Springs Desert Park and the Royal Flying Doctors is also fascinating, For an additional fee, you can also do a scenic flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, so lots of choices there.
From Coober Pedy, the itineraries usually offer a choice of a visit to the majestic Breakaways, the chance to explore the underground town, and an opportunity to get to go fossicking for opals.
We’ll be sharing a more detailed guide to the highlights of The Ghan trip covering sights to see and excursions to do on the way and will link to that when it’s published.
Published 22 December 2021; Updated 17 May 2023
Images courtesy of Luxury Escapes.
Disclosure: we are affiliate partners of Luxury Escapes so if you make a booking via the links in this post we earn a commission, which goes to supporting the work we do to create content on this site.
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.