Australia Travel

Trip tips: The Ghan

The Ghan
Going ... going ... Ghan
"After about a hundred years of planning and $1.3 billion in resources, The Ghan now stretches from Darwin to Adelaide and is one of the country's classic Outback travel experiences."

What is it?

The Ghan is one of the world's most amazing rail journeys. Picture Orient Express style in the heart of Australia's Red Centre. The service's nickname comes from the previous title of 'The Afghan Express', coined after the Afghan camel trains that trekked through central Australia before the advent of the railway.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Ghan. The railway line began in 1878 and ran out of Port Augusta, eventually making it to Alice Springs in 1929. The original line followed the same track as Australia's overland telegraph. In 1980 a new standard-gauge track replaced the original. In 2001 work began on connecting Alice Springs to Darwin, and in 2004 the first passenger train made it to the capital of the Top End after about a hundred years of planning and $1.3 billion in resources.

Where does it go?

The Ghan stretches 2,979 kilometres, from Darwin to Adelaide and vice-versa. The journey takes approximately 48-hours. Whistle stops are made in Alice Springs and Katherine, with a few hours at each station. On board The Ghan is an activities desk that sells whistle stop tours; take a chopper over the Simpson Gap outside of Alice, canoe down the Katherine River, take a champagne cruise or even hit up the local lawn bowling club for a quick game — there are plenty of options to suit different tastes. You can also choose to hop on and off at different points in the journey; fares between Adelaide and Alice, Katherine or Darwin are all available.

Getting started

Jetstar, Virgin Blue and Qantas all fly to Darwin. You'll want to arrive in the Top End at least a night before your scheduled departure on The Ghan (the train leaves town in the morning). Consider overnighting at the brand-new Vibe Darwin / Medina Grand Darwin Waterfront — located right on the new Darwin City Waterfront, there's plenty to keep you busy on-site, and the Darwin CBD is just a short walk away. The hotel complex includes both a Vibe and a Medina hotel, so you can choose a room to suit your style and budget; both are welcome additions to the Darwin hotel scene.

On this itinerary you'll wind up in the city of churches on either a Friday or a Monday afternoon — opt for a Friday arrival and see the secular side of South Australia 'til Sunday. If you're starting in Adelaide, The Ghan leaves closer to mid-day, so a morning arrival leaves you plenty of time to get from the airport to the train station. If you plan on adding a road-trip at the end of your journey, you can opt to bring your car along at an additional cost.

Inside tips

If travelling Platinum Class, buddy-up with your cabin stewards — they offer a wealth of information and are genuinely passionate travellers and considerate onboard companions. One advised me of a late-night stop the train was scheduled to make in the middle of nowhere, and ushered me to the conductor's car to meet the man in charge and get a glimpse of The Ghan in pitch black from the outside. Hundreds of miles from civilisation, the complete darkness of night and brilliance of the stars was one of the highlight memories from the trip.

If you're at the backpacker end of the market, break your trip up and overnight in Katherine and Alice Springs. In Katherine, don't miss an overnight canoe experience with Nitmiluk Tours; paddle down the Katherine River, swim, go for bushwalks and spend a night camping under the stars. In Alice, use Alice's Secret as your home-base and visit Uluru — you'd be nuts not to. But if you're short on time and funds, skip The Ghan's whistle stop options in Alice Springs and instead spend a couple hours in Mbantua Fine Art Gallery and Cultural Museum to gain an appreciation for the art and artists inspired by the landscape you've been seeing through the train window. Be forewarned that Alice Springs is confronting for the first-time visitor, and with only a few hours it's hard to see the town's redeeming features. But if you have a few days to scrape beneath the surface, your chances of liking the place are far greater.

How much?

There's a broad range of options for travellers aboard The Ghan. Backpackers can make the journey from top to bottom (or bottom to top) for as little as $363 in a day seat. Might not be the most comfortable 48-hours of your life, but it's a great way to see a lot of Australia, and get from A to B, on a budget. Seats and space are similar to those in Premium Economy in-flight as a frame of reference.

An adult ticket for a sleeper cabin will cost you about $1312, and a Gold Class cabin runs from $1973 for adults ($1357 for concessions). A sleeper cabin is a bit like a fold-down coffin. Gold Class offers slightly more room, but is a far cry from luxury (sink and toilet facilities fold out of the wall, Inspector Gadget style), though access to lounge carriages is a plus.

If you're able to splash out, the difference between Gold Class and the new Platinum Class is like night and day (cabins are literally double the size, feature full-sized toilet and shower facilities and 24-hour steward service). And for $2987 per person, you should expect nothing less than the best. Here's an up-to-date list of train fares on The Ghan and a useful service comparison table.

If you're travelling coach, affordable canteen eats are available for purchase onboard. Those in Gold and Platinum Class have meals included and are served in the restaurant carriage. Expect similar food to that served in Business Class in-flight — a cut above cafeteria, but not on par with a stationary restaurant.

Be sure to check out our photo gallery of a trip aboard The Ghan by clicking here:

Have you travelled on The Ghan? What did you think?

User comments
Travelled Darwin to Adelaide (Gold class)with 3 nights stopover in Alice in 2009 We are still talking about how great it was. Excellent meals, fine wines, good company and very relaxing.
I used to travel the long distance trains to all parts of Aus. Now there is a policy of a nil " smoking" carrage, I choose not to use trains any more. Pity really because it is so simple to have the last carrage air con system, completely seperate from the rest of the train. If long distance trains brought back the old policy...yes, I would be back as a regular customer of trains.
never been on it saw it in alice springs after seeing the tired passengers I would be travelling first class
What if I am a wheelchair user are all the stations accessible and inside the train how do I get around.