At the end of October this year, I fulfilled a dream to travel on the Ghan train through the outback of Australia. This was an area of the country I hadn’t visited before due to the huge distances and what I thought was a lack of options if you don’t want to drive. When I discovered it was possible to travel by train through this remote area, I knew I wanted to do it, and this year I finally got my chance!
The Ghan operates weekly services from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory and vice versa for most of the year (they close for the wet season from mid-Dec to mid-Jan). The full journey from Darwin to Adelaide (or vice versa) is 2,979km long and takes three days, two nights to complete, with a stop in Katherine and Alice Springs.
If you join the train in Alice Springs like I did, you’ll have a 2-day, 1-night itinerary, whether you go northbound or southbound. For a top-end experience, you can also choose the Ghan Expedition package, which travels from Darwin to Adelaide via Katherine and Alice Springs over four days and three nights, and includes all accommodation, meals, transfers and some expeditions.
The check-in process is straightforward and friendly. At this point, I checked in my luggage as you cannot have it onboard with you (there’s just not the room!), so do ensure you’ve packed everything you need for the journey in a separate overnight bag.
Immediately afterwards you’ll be welcomed with a refreshing cocktail and an information pack to read while they’re preparing for boarding. While waiting, I was able to select and book my off-train excursion (more on this later), and my preferred times for dinner and lunch the following day through my train carriage manager Zack who came to meet me and introduce himself at the platform.
After a drink and some tunes from a local band to see you off, you’ll board the train and be directed to your cabin. I was in a Single Gold Cabin, which was pretty small, but I was very impressed with how well set up it is with storage (including a small wardrobe and hangers), and a small wash basin and vanity kit. The shared bathrooms are on each end of the cabin and are surprisingly spacious though!
During the day the setup in your cabin is as a comfortable armchair with footstool, but at night this is folded away to bring down a cosy single bed with thick duvet and pillows. I found I was able to sleep pretty well onboard, as the motion of the train is slow and gently rocks you off to sleep, but I’d advise bringing earplugs and an eye mask if you’re a light sleeper.
For two people, you’ll want to have a Gold Twin Cabin which has a small ensuite bathroom. Note that the beds here are bunk beds so one of you will need to be able to climb up to the top bunk. If this is a problem or you fancy treating yourselves, opt for the Platinum Twin or Double cabins, which are nearly twice as large with no bunks and a lovely lounge area, windows on either side and a bigger bathroom. There are also other benefits here with included hotel transfers, and a separate and more intimate lounge and dining car.
After settling in, you’ll want to head to the lounge for a pre-dinner drink. The Outback Explorer Lounge is a lovely space with plenty of seats facing inwards, encouraging you to mingle with other guests, and at one end is the bar with a couple of stools and friendly staff to chat with. All drinks are included, so you can relax and enjoy yourself without worrying about the extra cost.
From here you’ll be collected to be taken through for your meals in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, where you’ll sit at a table of four. It’s cleverly organised, and generally, you'll meet different people at each mealtime, which was a nice touch especially for me as a single traveller. There is no stuffy dress code here (nothing too formal – you’re on holiday after all!), but smart casual dress is appropriate.
You will be wowed by the food – I had 3-course meals for lunch and dinner of an exceptional standard, and the breakfast options were fantastic. All the produce is locally sourced, and there is a definite Australian Outback feel to the menu. On my journey, I tried Crocodile sausage, Buffalo Curry and some beautiful Barramundi. If you’re not feeling so adventurous, there is plenty of choice, and an excellent vegetarian option too.
After a hearty breakfast, it was time to disembark the train in Katherine and head off on my pre-booked excursion. There is a choice of five tours, and the most popular is the Nitmiluk Gorge cruise. This trip takes you by boat through two gorges to see incredible sandstone peaks up close, as well as a short hike in the area. This trip is included with your journey for free, but you could also choose from several other excursions.
For my excursion choice, I decided to pay a supplement of $190AUD (around £110GBP) to take a helicopter flight over the gorge so I could see all 13 gorges and some more of the incredible landscape from the air. This was a thrilling experience and worth the supplement – I would encourage anyone else to do the same. The views are phenomenal, and we had an excellent commentary from our pilot about the Gorge, how it was formed and what it was like to live here.
Once we’d returned to the Ghan, we spent the remainder of our day on board travelling to Darwin, where I got to chat with other passengers and enjoy the scenery from the windows. Before arrival, you’re encouraged to pack up your belongings and get ready for a quick departure.
The Ghan arrives at Darwin Railway station, which is around 20km outside the city, but your Ghan ticket includes the coach transfer to your hotel in Darwin, so you don’t have to organise transport yourself.
One thing that really came across to me, as well as other passengers, was how the kilometres just seemed to fly by while onboard. You get the chance to enjoy the scenery, read, chat with guests, eat, drink and sleep while still travelling this vast distance. Everyone agreed it was an iconic experience and that we were looked after exceptionally well by the staff. It’s also wholly refreshing not to be doing a long drive or seeing yet another airport and plane seat, which is a necessity for travelling around Australia. I’m now a firm believer in the joys of train travel and I hope to go back to do the Indian Pacific train in the future!
The Ghan train fits in perfectly into a larger itinerary or Australia road trip. For my holiday, I visited the Red Centre on a safari, then took the Ghan train to Darwin before exploring Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks in the Northern Territory.
One thing to note is that the Ghan books out well in advance, so if you are keen to make this incredible journey, you will need to contact us early so we can design the trip around the train schedule and availability. This will also ensure that we can find you the best deal, as often there is a limited advance purchase fare that can be much cheaper compared to the standard fare.
If you’re interested in visiting Australia and travelling on the Ghan train, I can provide advice and help you arrange every aspect of your trip - direct or multi-stop flights, transfers, accommodation, vehicle hire, tours and excursions – just contact Graham.