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I can’t say I’ve really visited Tennant Creek. I only know from hearsay that it’s not the sort of place you take your mother for a Mothers’ Day treat. Nevertheless, our train did stop there for a considerable time in the ‘small hours’, while we slept soundly in our sleeper berths.
The reason was twofold; it ensured that passengers saw as much of the Australian landscape by daylight as possible, and that the train arrived in Alice Springs at a fairly civilised hour.
You see, you don’t take an Australian long-distance train just to get there; it’s much quicker and cheaper to fly. I once described it as a ‘coach trip on rails’ … which is a rather unfair description, because no coach I know has such comfortable accommodation, or such good food.
Arguably, Australia’s most famous train is the Ghan, between Darwin and Adelaide, which has only been in service since 2004. Before this, the line only went to Alice Springs, replacing, and inheriting the name from a rather ramshackle 3’6" gauge train, which ran to ‘The Alice’ from Maree, in South Australia.
We had boarded the train at Darwin. The rail terminal is some distance from the city … maybe they wanted it somewhere near the railway tracks? But, a coach had been laid on to take us not only from our hotel to the terminal, but from the terminal to the very door of our carriage. I don’t think we were supposed to notice that it would have been quicker to walk to the carriage?
You need to organise your luggage into ‘hold baggage’ and ‘carry-on baggage’, as if you were on an airline flight, for space within the compartment is limited, but comfortable. And they do get a lot into a small space … including an ensuite toilet and shower. But, like on an aeroplane, you do have to play a few games of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to decide who gets the window seat … although, if you lose, the view is nearly as good.
Around midday, we were summoned to lunch. There are three classes on the Ghan, and each class has its own dining car. I’ve got to say, I heaved a nostalgic sigh at the sight of the elegant ‘Queen Adelaide Restaurant’. This, I thought, is what train journeys should be about … real service, rather than overpriced sandwiches and mediocre coffee, like we get in Britain … and have to pay extra for.
We rolled into Katherine about 2 p.m., where the train would remain for several hours on a ‘whistle stop’. Several tours are on offer to passengers, and we chose the 2-hour ‘2 Gorge Cruise’ of Katherine Gorge.
Two boats are used on this tour, with a short walk along the stretch of river that the boats can’t negotiate. The river flows between towering red cliffs, and we saw birds of all kinds, and two freshwater crocodiles, basking on the bank. They tell us that freshwater crocodiles aren’t harmful to humans … but I always wonder if anyone ever told the crocodiles that!
Back on the train, we got soon going again and were shortly afterwards called to dinner. Three courses were served most efficiently; pumpkin soup, entrecote of beef and a cheese platter.
And so, as they say, to bed! While we were having dinner, the bunks in our compartment were made up, and, once more, a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to decide who got the top bunk.
We were awakened in the morning by a cup of coffee, brought by the efficient and ever-smiling car attendant, Jessica and a most beautiful sunrise. I was just getting my camera out to photograph it when the train started moving.
Once more, the train was on its way to Alice Springs, which we reached about 9 o’clock. For passengers continuing to Adelaide, the train stops again here, to allow them to take a short tour of Alice Springs. The line to here from Darwin only opened in 2004; before that, this was the terminus for trains travelling north from Adelaide.
It seems an odd place for a railway to end. It would seem, looking at a map, that Alice Springs is in the middle of nowhere. But, even the ‘nowhere’ is worth seeing. We were going to spend a few days in the ‘Red Centre’, so here, we left the train.