Australia is a vast country, not unlike my native Canada.
When I moved here almost 11 years ago I told myself that I wouldn’t get stuck in what I like to call “the locals trap,” the one where you spend all your holidays jetting off overseas and actually explore very little of the country you call home. I didn’t want to be one of those people who found themselves in conversation with travelers who’d seen more in ten weeks than I had in ten years.
Despite my best intentions, here I find myself, more than a decade later, with so many parts of this big beautiful country that are still unknown to me. I’ve had a particular fascination with the Outback and the Northern Territories ever since I can remember so when the opportunity to travel aboard The Ghan, one of Australia’s most iconic rail trips, came about, I jumped at the chance.
In 1878, construction began on a rail line from Port Augusta, South Australia into the Australian Outback but it wasn’t until 1929 that service to Alice Springs was available. Until that time, the last leg of the journey was completed on Afghan camels, and that’s where the name The Ghan comes from. In 2001, work commenced to extend the line from Alice Springs to Darwin. Completed in 2004, this is now known as the “top end route.” The journey takes two nights and three days and spans a magnificent 2,979 km. The Ghan offers travelers the most comfortable way to experience the Red Centre, in style and luxury. I was lucky enough to travel solo aboard The Ghan a few weeks ago.
In truth, one of things that has always held me back is that the area, quite frankly, can be a little intimidating. Travelling into very remote regions in the Australian Outback does require research and planning, particularly if you plan to do it as a solo traveler. It isn’t for the faint of heart.
Gold Class Single Cabins
Solo travelers are well catered for in the newly refurbished Gold Class single cabins. Despite being compact, the cabins are so cleverly designed that you never feel cramped. There is plenty of hidden storage and thoughtful touches like a small tray that slides out just beneath a power point next to the bed, the perfect spot to rest your mobile phone or a bottle of water.
The cabins are set up as a seat and small desk by day and convert to a single bed by evening. The bed is stowed in the wall behind the seat and it takes only seconds to convert the space. I know this because although staff do it for you each evening while you are at dinner, I took great advantage of the ability to have an afternoon snooze while aboard, so both days after lunch I converted it myself. For me, holidays always have and always will equal naps. Lots of naps.
There is also a private vanity which I appreciated as it meant I could ready myself in the morning and evening in the privacy of my cabin. Showers and toilets, on the other hand, are shared with other passengers but I didn’t experience a wait for either at any stage on the journey. The showers are modern and full size and luxury amenities are provided for guests to use.
Now, how well one sleeps on a train really depends on the individual, but personally, I found the gentle rocking motion soothing and almost hypnotic. I slept like a baby.
What to Pack
I’m hopeless at packing, with feet firmly planted in the “over-packer” camp. You can only bring a small piece of carry-on luggage (along with laptop bag/purse, etc.) onboard so over-packing was not an option. I was forced to really assess my needs and for maybe the first time ever, I actually packed appropriately. Here is a list of what I recommend:
- Lightweight long pants. Temperatures can run as high as 40 degrees Celsius so you’ll want something light and breathable. Long pants are to protect your legs on some of the more rugged off-train excursions. These are also good to wear onboard in the dining car where it can be a bit chilly due to the air conditioning.
- Blouse or casual dress for women, dress shirt or polo for men. Officially, the dress code is “smart casual” and it is always nice to get a little spruced up, particularly for dinners.
- Lightweight pyjamas. I found it quite warm in my cabin in the evenings but you’ll definitely want something you can wander down the hall to the loo in if you need the toilet after bedtime.
- A wide-brimmed hat. While you don’t need to be Crocodile Dundee to take this trip, it doesn’t hurt to copy his style a little. The right hat will protect your scalp and face from the harsh outback sun. I bought an Akubra for the journey which is a much loved and iconic Australian brand that has been around since 1874 and is a popular choice for travelers and locals.
- Sunscreen. Get the highest protection level you can find and apply it frequently and liberally when out in the sun.
- Bug spray. I didn’t find the bugs to be bad on my journey but this can vary greatly depending on the time of year you travel and the weather patterns. Best to be prepared.
- Sunglasses. A must-have for off-train excursions.
- Sturdy walking shoes. As above.
- Flip-flops. (Or as the Aussies call them, thongs.) You’ll need these to wear in the shared shower.
- A great book. I read a book from cover to cover. Reading on the train is one of life’s great pleasures. There is also very limited mobile phone coverage and no Wi-Fi aboard.
- Sweater or light jacket. It can get chilly in the early mornings and evenings and depending on which direction you travel in, you will either get to experience an early morning sunrise or a sunset.
Food, Glorious Food
Maybe I should have added elasticized pants to the list above. Trust me, you won’t go hungry on this journey. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served onboard each day with a generous window for each so that you can choose when you’d like to dine. You will be seated with other guests for meals so expect to be making conversation with your fellow travelers while you eat.
The menu is inspired by local produce available in the regions you travel through. Crocodile sausage popped up on the menu while I traveled, though I have to admit I wasn’t game enough to try it. Both vegetarians and meat eaters are catered for and every meal has 3 courses. Yes, that is correct folks, there is dessert at breakfast!
All this lovely fare is complemented by a selection of Australian wines, beer, and spirits. With nothing to do after a leisurely lunch but gaze out the window, having a drink (or 3!) at lunchtime seems perfectly reasonable.
To complete the journey in its entirety, you’ll need to fly to either Adelaide or Darwin. Depending on where you are coming from, you may need to enter via another Australian city and then hop onboard a domestic flight. Adelaide and Darwin are both amazing destinations so consider making some time to explore each on either side of The Ghan journey. Adelaide is well known for its incredible eateries, award-winning wines, and its growing music scene. Steeped in history, Darwin is the capital of Australia's Northern Territory and a former frontier outpost. It's also the gateway to Kakadu National Park and home to a diverse group of cultures. It is often referred to as a melting pot.
Thank you to Great Southern Rail Australia, The Ghan for sponsoring this trip. As always, editorial control is maintained by Solo Traveler, and all opinions are our own.