The Ghan's scenic route through the great Australian outback

A boat cruise along the Katherine River lets travellers go up close to the magnificent Katherine Gorge.
A boat cruise along the Katherine River lets travellers go up close to the magnificent Katherine Gorge.PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Mrs Angela Scollary and her husband Geoffrey enjoy breakfast while taking in the views of the Northern Territories rolling by on the final day of the three-day train journey across Australia.
Mrs Angela Scollary and her husband Geoffrey enjoy breakfast while taking in the views of the Northern Territories rolling by on the final day of the three-day train journey across Australia.
Visit the Ayers Rock sandstone formation or Uluru, as it is known today, via legendary express The Ghan, which takes travellers from Adelaide in southern Australia to Darwin in the north over three days. Pick from a variety of accommodation, from a G
Visit the Ayers Rock sandstone formation or Uluru, as it is known today, via legendary express The Ghan, which takes travellers from Adelaide in southern Australia to Darwin in the north over three days. Pick from a variety of accommodation, from a Gold Service twin cabin (above) to a top-range twin cabin in the Platinum class. -- PHOTO: GREAT SOUTHERN RAILPHOTOS: GREAT SOUTHERN RAIL, REUTERS, LIM YAN LIANG
Visit the Ayers Rock sandstone formation (above) or Uluru, as it is known today, via legendary express The Ghan (top), which takes travellers from Adelaide in southern Australia to Darwin in the north over three days. Pick from a variety of accommoda
Visit the Ayers Rock sandstone formation (above) or Uluru, as it is known today, via legendary express The Ghan (top), which takes travellers from Adelaide in southern Australia to Darwin in the north over three days. Pick from a variety of accommodation, from a Gold Service twin cabin (left) to a top-range twin cabin in the Platinum class.
Visit the Ayers Rock sandstone formation or Uluru, as it is known today, via legendary express The Ghan (above), which takes travellers from Adelaide in southern Australia to Darwin in the north over three days. Pick from a variety of accommodation,
Visit the Ayers Rock sandstone formation or Uluru, as it is known today, via legendary express The Ghan (above), which takes travellers from Adelaide in southern Australia to Darwin in the north over three days. Pick from a variety of accommodation, from a Gold Service twin cabin to a top-range twin cabin in the Platinum class. -- PHOTO: GREAT SOUTHERN RAILPHOTOS: GREAT SOUTHERN RAIL, REUTERS, LIM YAN LIANG

Luxury passenger train The Ghan offers travellers an uninterrupted view of the great Australian outback from a carriage window

The first rays of sunlight nudge me awake. I sit up in my cabin and crank open the blinds.

Outside, the rolling pale yellow fields from yesterday have given way to dry, red desert. In place of eucalyptus trees, squat bushes and leafless trunks dot the landscape. The cloudless sky is quickly swelling into an orange hue.

Overnight, we have crossed time zones and state lines. We are out of South Australia and into the red heart of the Northern Territories.

I am on The Ghan, a legendary passenger train operated by the Great Southern Rail company, which chugs between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north, Down Under. And this is Day Two of a 2,979km train journey - one that is taking me from Adelaide to Darwin.

Nicknamed The Afghan Express in the 1920s,  a nod to the Afghan camel handlers who helped open up Australia's untamed centre in the late 19th century, the train is still the best - that is, most romantic - way to see the Ayers Rock sandstone formation or Uluru, as it is known today, south-west of Alice Springs.

You can reach the sweltering city of Darwin in 31/2 hours, instead of three days, if you fly from Adelaide. But that would be missing the point entirely. 

Not only do you avoid feeling like cattle going through airport security when you travel on The Ghan, but the legendary train journey also lets you appreciate the sheer scale of the continent from ground level.

"Epic" is an overused word today, but it is a fitting way to describe The Ghan route.

It covers a distance roughly equivalent to the upcoming Singapore-Kunming railway, which will pass through Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Winding through arid desert and russet earth, it is the fiery equivalent to the frozen lakes and icy mountains of that other famed rail route, The Trans-Siberian. 

The fire-engine red locomotive chugs along at 85kmh, past old opal mines, dry creek beds and mountain ranges. 

The landscape rolls by in slow motion. Australia has miles and miles of space to spare.

Finishing my parfait in the dining carriage, I linger over coffee and conversation as the sun-baked Australian outback passes by languidly.

The ceramic table service, immaculate napkins and curlicued motifs decorating the Queen Adelaide dining car would make any frequent First-class flier jealous. They evoke a luxurious way of travel and a glamorous bygone era.

I disembark at Alice Springs for the first of two whistle-stop tours - day trips as the train is cleaned and supplies replenished.

There, I get a magnificent view of the flat-topped West MacDonnell Ranges in Alice Springs Desert Park (www.alicespringsdesertpark.com.au, tel: +08-8951- 8788).

The desert heat packs a wallop and I am glad to return to the cocoon of the train and to sip a Lemon Lime Bitters in the lounge car. 

A herd of wild horses galloping alongside the train interrupts conversations and a game of bridge. Passengers whip out their cameras.

On a 54-hour train ride, everyone is nosy and garrulous, and nobody cares. As the champagne and wine flow, so do the stories, possibly because the remoteness of the place renders everyone's smartphones useless. 

I meet a professor of oenology who reveals a dozen tidbits about the landscape that only a scholarly grounding in viniculture and soil can provide.

I also meet a widow, retracing in Gold class the exact journey she took with her late husband 25 years ago in seater class.

As the gleaming silver train rolls into Darwin on the last day of my trip, I sense the collective reluctance to leave.

I cannot help but be reminded of a quote by a favourite author, Ursula Le Guin: "It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end."

yanliang@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by Great Southern Rail and Tourism Northern Territories.


Choo-choose your adventure

History

The Ghan, a 2,979km-long train journey that bisects Australia from north to south, takes its name from 19th-century Afghan camel drivers who were the first to find a way into the country's unforgiving interior.

While the first leg between Adelaide and Alice Springs was laid in 1929, the rail link to Darwin was completed only in 2004.

 Frequency

The Ghan operates weekly all year round, departing Adelaide on Sunday and arriving in Darwin on Tuesday. The reverse trip from Darwin leaves on Wednesday and arrives in Adelaide on Friday.

From May to August, there is an additional weekly service departing Adelaide on Wednesday and arriving in Darwin on Friday.

The return trip leaves Darwin on Saturday and arrives in Adelaide on Monday.

Classes of travel

A room on The Ghan starts at A$1,569 (S$1,810) for a single cabin in Gold Service to the spacious, top-range twin cabin in Platinum class at A$3,139, which is about twice as spacious as a twin cabin room in Gold Service.

These advance fares are valid if you book six months prior to travel. Passenger capacity varies depending on demand for each trip: Cars are unhooked and added as required.

Itineraries

At the towns of Alice Springs and Katherine, you can embark on whistle-stop tours ranging from camel rides to boat and helicopter tours, such as a scenic flight over the sandstone canyons at Katherine Gorge.

Besides the full experience from Adelaide to Darwin, passengers can opt to stop mid-way at Alice Springs to experience the world- famous Ayers Rock.

There is also an option to resume the journey from Alice Springs a week later on the next Ghan train.

Starting next year, visitors will also have the option of an expanded experience aboard The Ghan when an extra day is added to the itinerary.

The longer trip will let guests spend more time at Alice Springs, whether that is a dinner under the stars at the MacDonnell Ranges, a fly-in visit of Ayers Rock or exploring Coober Pedy, the opal mining capital of the world.

Go to www.greatsouthernrail.com.au for more information.