“It depends on whether you are going to do a big one or a tiddler,” says Jade, hooting with laughter. We’re in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Australian outback, inspecting the Heath Robinson flushing mechanism of a train toilet. The foldaway stainless steel loo, which also doubles as a sink, is clearly a masterpiece of ingenuity. Jade says it is worth getting to know its quirks, since it is going to be one of my most important travelling companions for the next two days.
Jade from Adelaide is giving me the VIP treatment (“because this is what it means to travel in Gold Kangaroo class”) “If you need me, I’ll be in there, she says, pointing to what looks like a cupboard along the corridor. “Just press the button.” I’m glad my space looks more comfy than hers since there’s a toot on the whistle to begin of the great train marathons of the world, taking me more than 1,600 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the sweltering tropics of Darwin through the blistering red desert of Alice Springs to the Southern Ocean, where the waves roll in from Antarctica.
But the drama had started well before the two mighty General Electric locos backed down onto the The Ghan at the frontier town of Katherine to start our journey south. Yesterday, Cyclone George, swirling in from Singapore and points east, slammed into Australia’s Top End and blew away 24km of the railway south of Darwin, literally stopping the train in its tracks
At the best of times, Darwin railway station is no St Pancras or Grand Central. It is stuck, surrounded by rusting stacks of containers, on a bleak peninsula, miles from town. But today it is not even dignified by a train. “OK folks, we’re going by road,” proclaims Curtis, the chief steward, his conductor’s uniform in surreal contrast to the convoy of school buses lined up on the platform. “Even that’s washed away, and the driver may turn back. In which case, we’re going by plane.”
Not exactly what I had in mind, since I have come 8,500 miles from the UK to travel on the “indestructible” tracks of the world’s most modern long-distance railway, opened in 2004, extending the Adelaide to Alice Springs line north through the desert to Darwin. Despite the cost of 1.2bn Australian dollars, I wonder if we have we advanced any from the pioneering days of The Ghan in the 1920s, when termites ate the wooden sleepers and trains could be halted for two weeks at a time, with the driver having to shoot goats to feed the passengers? In this pioneering spirit, Curtis passes down the bus handing out “sanders” and “stubbies” from a coolbox. “Just my luck,” he says. He was also in charge when the train came off the tracks last year after running into a drunken truck driver on a crossing.”
But intrepid outback driving and Aussie humour win through. “Shame they didn’t put floaties on the loco,” someone quips. And after a jolting and sweaty four hours of slithering across red mud, shattered tarmac and torn-up trees, there before us is the train – a shimmering mirage, its air-conditioning humming like a fridge. But the adventure isn’t over yet. I sneak up to snap the locos and the driver leans out yelling: “Get back”. (Australia, like Britain, currently has a down on “train spotters” because of terror fears.) So I wave my ticket at him. “Look behind you!” And slithering there is a 5ft black snake (I discover afterwards it is a highly poisonous relative of the cobra, though understandably, I don’t stop for an inspection).
Snuggled in the safety of my berth, I am happy for a while to observe the outback less intimately, as we begin to roll south towards Alice Springs. We’re are relatively light load today – a mere 24 coaches – but the “legendary Ghan”, as the Great Southern Railway like to call it, has run in the past with “47 on” – a length of nearly a mile. We head on into the afternoon, slowly always, and sometimes pulling over for the vast freights that are the reason for the line’s existence. “The freight pays, the passenger stays,” is the unofficial slogan.
As the southern sun hots up, swamp and eucalytptus give way to saltbush and spinifex. But no sign of the camels which helped give the train its name. Allegedly, The Ghan was named after the Afghan drovers whose camel trains were made redundant when the first section of the line was opened in 1929. The drovers went home and set their camels to run free. Believe it if you like. But it is a fact that there are presently more camels in Australia than in the entire Arabian peninsula.
The present-day Ghan is something of a curiosity among the great trains of the world – neither a luxurious hotel on wheels like the Orient Express, nor a workaday means of transport for “real” passengers. The vaguely art deco coaches are not particularly historic – unless you are a railway enthusiast who spots 30-year-old vehicles from the US stainless steel era. There is another odd quirk – The Ghan is operated by a subsidiary of the British company Serco, which also supplies electronic tags to the Home Office and operates Britain’s speed cameras. (No wonder The Ghan runs so slowly.) Yet for an undoubtedly very grand train, it has a unique lack of swank, as backpackers heading for the “red centre” mix with plane phobics and the “holiday-of a lifetime” set.
And then there is the scenery. Some say The Ghan is “boring”, unless you like large helpings of desert and the colour red. But tonight, with just a hint of the smell of dinner being cooked in the kitchen car and the sun mellowing from the iron heat of the day into a huge, soft red disc over the outback, there is a profound sense you are somewhere special. On the menu is pumpkin and bush honey yoghurt soup followed by Northern Territory salt water barramundi which, with a couple of glasses of South Australia riesling, is the perfect prelude to the womb-like sleep that is one of the pleasures of night train travel.
Walking back to my berth, there is a hint of the scent of the outback – the purest air in the world – through the gaps in the swaying corridor connections. And the stars throught the window could possibly be the brightest you will ever see outside space. Here you could slumber in the perfect solitude, except you know that in the blackness of the desert outside the windows are the wombas, the roos and the bilbies – the host of animals of the Australian night.
At Alice Springs, where we pull in next morning for a four hour stop, there is a proper chance to get the desert between my toes. It’s 36 in the shade, and has only rained three times in the past two years. Someone tells me: “You’re welcome to drink the water from the springs, but spit the sand out first.” I avoid the the opportunity to lunch locally on eye fillet of camel or buffalo steak with witchetty grub dressing. Instead I take the bus to the Alice Springs Desert Park, where the wildlife survives uncooked, and learn all sorts of useful things about the outback. (Did you know that the sand isn’t really any more red than at Bondi or Blackpool – the redness being caused by a fungus?)
Back on the train, another day and another night. The scene outside the window unfolds like a Planet Earth webcam. We are now morphing into our third climate zone – the soggy greens of Darwin and the hot ochres of Alice are now replaced by the deep yellows and golds of the grain-growing south. The sight of the first tree seems almost surrealistic as the desert once did. Supper is grilled kangaroo loin – and once more the dreamiest sleep. Until a jolt in the small hours means the diesels have uncoupled for refuelling. We are at Tarcoola, named after the famous racehorse, and the junction with Australia’s other great transcontinental route – the Indian Pacific, which still makes its leisurely way from Sydney to Perth.
Arrival at Adelaide is a mere 20 minutes late – not bad after a journey of 48 hours. Curtis has filed his log and is chuckling about the passenger who expected the morning’s newspaper delivered to his berth in the middle of the desert. Luckily Jade didn’t get too many buzzes during the night and is planning to pop home to Mum. I shake hands with Tom, the head chef, who is off to source some more goodies in the cornucopia of Adelaide’s Central market. With two trains in each direction a week, there’s a lot of cooking to do. As for me, I’m heading for one of the lush little wineries in the cool of the Adelaide hills, where I’ll toast the fact that, in this easyjet age, it is still possible to get up close to the remotest and most mysterious places on the planet from the comfort of a seat on a train.