The 2979km Ghan track may not have the international cultural prominence of the Orient Express or Trans-Siberian, but the service that runs between Adelaide and Darwin is one of the world’s greatest rail journeys.
Why is it called that?
It’s short for “The Afghan Express”, a tongue-in-cheek name bestowed upon the line because of the Afghani cameleers who opened up Central Australia, moving supplies and people one (or two) humps at a time. Depending on your level of spin, the name was either an affectionate homage to Middle Eastern nation-builders or a derisive snark at the expected clientele for this Outback line. One popular story says that when a sleeping car was added to the service in 1923, the first (maybe only) passenger was Afghani, leading onlookers to dub it “The Afghan Express”.
Why did they bother, if camels were so reliable?
In a word: coal. South Australia needed a way to ship these fuel-rocks from Leigh Creek to Port Augusta, to power up the state. That wasn’t the only reason for The Ghan – which also carried agricultural goods and humans, but coal was the pressing reason for this slice of infrastructure.
Did they make any howlers like seemingly every other rail project across this broad, brown land?
Of course! They went the cheap option and built the thing as a narrow gauge line, which meant loads needed to be lighter and it wasn’t compatible with rolling stock from other states. As is the case with many penny-pinching choices, it ended up costing a lot more when the inevitable refit to a more standard gauge was required. But on the plus side, they got to upgrade the sleepers to termite-proof concrete ones.
So... how long did it take to finish?
Well, it depends what you mean by “finish”. Passengers were riding the rails from 1879, but the line was slowly but surely extended over the years to places like Beltana, Farina, Marree and Oodnadatta (Oodna-bloody-datta, to the locals). The latter was the end of the line from 1891, with the final journey to Alice Springs requiring the use of camel until work began on the next phase three decades later in 1926. When that work was completed in 1929, tools were temporarily downed in preparation for the final push to Darwin, which took a bit longer than initially anticipated, finally being completed in 2004. Along the way, there was a 1980 route change that bumped The Ghan from Oodna-bloody-datta to the less flood-prone Marla on the way to the Alice (that was a happy side effect of the gauge change process).
How were the facilities?
No matter how luxurious the dining carriage, when you’re travelling through a hostile landscape that’s prone to both flooding and sand drifts, there’s always going to be an element of frontier ruggedness. And so The Ghan was always well-stocked with tools and spare sleepers – like you’d carry a spare tyre in the boot – in case part of the line had been damaged by an act of God. Passengers and crew would join forces to repair the track so the train could continue its journey. (The other option was to set up a new life in the outback, because nobody was coming to rescue you.) On top of that, the “dining carriage” might mean shooting game because you were stuck in the middle of nowhere for a week.
But it’s still going, right?
Yes! But not in the same form as those first 19th century passengers – and not just because of the gauge and route changes we keep harping on about. The Ghan was privatised in 1997, and is currently operated by Great Southern Rail. Today’s journey is fancier, with gourmet meals, extensive wine selections, and both DVD players and minibars in the cabins. There are far fewer stops requiring you to dig up sand dunes... but also less beer shared among passengers, attendants and engine drivers along the way.
You can experience the 3-hour journey of The Ghan streaming now at SBS On Demand: