When we talk about luxury train travel, we conjure up images of the Orient Express and the British Pullman, Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, Indian Rajas and world heads of state, royalty and opulence, con men and espionage, and journeys that take us from one grand city to the next or to the outer reaches of some vast continent.
I have been fortunate to experience one rail journey that was not only an exercise in luxury, but a truly unforgettable adventure that still rates high (in my top 3) on my list of most memorable travel expeditions.
This particular journey took place in Australia. My lovely wife, Maree, she of impeccable class and taste, had always dreamt of taking the Orient Express across Europe. That, however, was out of our price range, so we did what we thought was the next best thing and booked a passage on The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin. Now, many travelers may not consider Australia as a destination for luxury train travel, but the vastness of this great country was conquered in the early days by rail before the advent of the flying machine. The Ghan itself has a history going back to 1929, and its name was derived from the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century to help explore the country’s interior.
It was January, and the Australian summer was as its peak. Summer is also the wet season for the northern parts of the continent and we chose this time for 2 reasons: 1- the Australian outback would be green and lush and, 2 - The Ghan was offering a special 2 fares for the price of one deal (that was probably my main reason to say YES, let's do it!).
Boarding at Adelaide
We arrived at the station to board The Ghan at midday and were greeted by a welcoming committee made up of the train's staff and a brass band. The 20 plus gleaming, silver carriages took up the length of the whole platform and were a majestic sight. A white gloved staff member then directed us to our carriage and our "Gold Class" cabin. We sank into the plush, comfortable seats and admired the wood paneling, brass fittings and wide panoramic window. It felt like we had stepped back in time and I was looking around for Hercule Poirot!
My heart was pounding with excitement as the train pulled out slowly. We passed through the coastal towns of Coonamia and Port Augusta before heading north towards the "painted desert". Lunch was served in the 5 star dining car. We enjoyed a gourmet meal with our fellow travelers as we watched the South Australian landscape of wine country, desert and rustic towns go by. After lunch we took time to explore the rest of the train. We got as far as the lounge car and settled there for the afternoon. The time was passed conversing with other passengers, watching more landscape and sipping on complimentary drinks.
The 5 star dining car
Before we knew it we were called for dinner. Another gourmet meal with fine wine and interesting conversation rounded off the evening. We returned to our cabin to find our beds had been turned down and the chocolates were on the pillows. The gentle motion of the train eventually lulled us to sleep.
The Finke River in the wet season
The morning saw us crossing the Northern Territory border. After a sumptuous breakfast of eggs Benedict, fresh fruit and coffee, we settled back once more to watch the landscape. It was changing now, with the multicolored vistas of the desert starting to appear. The train went through the bush town of Kulgera and over the sandy, Finke River, before arriving at our first stop of Alice Springs.
Alice Springs surrounded by the Macdonnell Ranges
There were tours on offer and we chose a shuttle bus excursion of the town. Alice Springs is situated by the Todd River on the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges. We learnt about the outback pioneers, town history and customs of the local Arrernte Aboriginals.
We boarded the train again in the late afternoon
and sat back to watch the sun setting over the desert horizon. Another gourmet dinner was followed by port and coffee in the lounge car.
A magical desert sunrise greeted us as the train passed through the gold-mining town of Tennant Creek. Our next stop was the historic pioneering township of Katherine.
It was mid morning and we alighted here to take a tour of the magnificent Katherine Gorge. As it was the wet season, the tour boat could only take us part of the way through the gorge due to the high waters of the Katherine River. Along the route were ancient limestone formations, Aboriginal rock paintings, tropical savanna woodlands and subterranean caves.
Back on the train we had lunch and settled once more in the lounge car. Maree met some passengers from Brisbane who shared her enthusiasm for playing cards. I initially joined in but my interest waned. I left them to it for the afternoon and opted instead to sit by the window and watch the desert go by. It was ochre red with green vegetation now springing up after the rains. I sat there fixated and mesmerized by the sight. A mob of Kangaroos hopped past in the distance, almost keeping up with the pace of the train. Maree got excited when I pointed them out to her as she had never seen ‘Roos in the outback before.
The desert plains soon changed to tropical foliage as the train edged closer to Darwin. It was late afternoon and our journey was almost at an end. I reflected on the experience. It was all I had imagined luxury train travel to be: comfortable cabins, gourmet dining, white-gloved staff, tub chairs in the lounge, a well stocked bar, interesting conversations with other passengers and the panorama of the scenery outside.
As we alighted at Darwin I scoured the passengers once more but alas, Hercule was nowhere to be seen!