Day 156: On the Ghan to Alice (Part 2)

The journey on the 880m long, 37 carriage (for the train spotters seeking the real details about the) train took us through some stunning scenery.

While the map provided in the cabin provided one story about the countryside we were travelling through, Lindsay who sat at the same table for lunch told us different tales.

‘Us’ was Arthur in the neighbouring cabin to me – from Canada but born in St Mary’s Hospital Manchester which, with me considering myself an honorary/adopted Mancunian, gave us a great coincidence to start a conversation over… but Lindsay had the best stories.

His grandfather was an engine driver on the Ghan back in the 1920s and 1930s and Lindsay was taking this journey to travel in his footsteps, or perhaps in his tracks.

The journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs in those days used to take 2.5 days – we would be taking just over 24 hours.

Some of this delay was a result of having to replace the tracks and rails, sunk beneath the sand of the desert, and some was a result of the frequent water stops, necessary for steam engines.

One of the stops would feature the option for passengers to disembark and head to a pub just off the rails.

Everyone would be enjoying a pint when they would suddenly hear the train moving off without an announcement and, knowing the next train wasn’t due for another ten days, they’d clatter out of the pub in a panic, racing off across the sands after it.

Once all of the former drinkers were running and sufficiently stressed, the driver would halt the train and wait for them all to catch up and board.

I’m fairly certain that there were a number of colourful nouns and adjectives used as flustered passengers climbed back on.

As we passed through Snowtown where, we were informed, is a wind farm located on the ranges to the West of the city.

I could tell you about size of the blades so that your undefeated pub quiz winning continues unabated but we’ll go with Lindsay’s snippet about a series of murders in the 1990s.

Several people went missing. Police investigated but could find no traces. Eventually the bodies of twelve people were found in barrels, filled with lime and placed behind the town’s bank.

The perpetrators were brought to trial and for a short time, Snowtown experienced a boost in ghoulish tourism as people came to visit. However, a change of name was proposed though not implemented to rid the town of the association.

From Snowtown, the rails continued North through the Flinders Ranges named for Matthew Flinders, the first man to circumnavigate Australia (not Cook, history geeks) and they stretch around 300 miles.

The land was very green though Lindsay told me that even the goats wouldn’t eat the scrub that was growing.

As the train approached Port Augusta, the announcement came that the town received four inches of rain, late Friday and Saturday morning (31st January and 1st February) flooding the roads around this area.

We were picking up around 20 more guests which would still hardly make this journey feel more crowded, unless they were all joining the carriage I was travelling in.

Port Augusta is the ‘crossroads of Australia’ sitting at the head of the Spencer Gulf which I had been able to see from the window of my cabin.

The major highways from North, South, East and West intersect here.

An hour North of Port Augusta and with no sign of the extra guests in the carriage that I was travelling in, the desert outside showed definite signs of the weekend rainfall with pools of water in the mud.

The scenery was a mix of red sand and green-blue scrubby bush. The land wasn’t flat here – flat topped hills, the Flinders Ranges ran alongside, nearby and in the distance.

At this point we we were 20miles South of Woomera, where Lindsay told us, the rockets for the US space programme were tested and the area is known locally as the Woomera Rocket Ranges.

The area had been soaked in the Friday rainfall and the Ghan’s staff, passing through the lounge with drinks, commented that they had never seen the area wet – this included staff who had worked on the line for the last thirty years.

On the roadside by the rails, cars had stopped and people were taking photographs of the newly formed pools.

Lindsay said that if we were to pass this way in a fortnight, the red desert would be awash with green plants. The bushes we could see were already showing bright green shoots.

Over dinner, just as the sun was going down I spotted a couple of kangaroos bouncing through the bush.

Before sunrise, the train pulled to a halt at Marla. We were now North of the Indian Pacific East to West line and the main freight routes, though still not yet in the Northern Territory.

Marla marks the start of the Oodnadatta Track which heads Southwest, past Lake Eyre to Marree and follows a traditional Aboriginal trading route. This was originally the route of the Ghan.

We were disembarking here to watch the sunrise. Lantern lit the path we were to follow alongside the train to reach a couple of small bonfires where tea, coffee and breakfast snacks were waiting for us.

As the sky lightened, the stars above is gradually faded and the night became rose, lemon and finally a pale blue.

No sign of any kangaroos though.

Once more on board the train, we resumed the journey North.

It seemed very cloudy and cool outside. An announcement confirmed that the temperature in Alice Springs would be a mere 25°C which seemed a low temperature compared to the area’s usual heat at this time of year.

The land around was filled with green bushes and short trees even as the train progressed further North crossing the South Australia/ Northern Territory Border as we were eating brunch.

Occasionally the bush would seem fairly sparse but the greenery would quickly return.

We passed a herd of cattle with a few donkeys walking alongside and pools of water continued to be visible while some of the plants were a fresher, newer shade of green than others, presumably new growth.

A few dusters – spirally dust storms whipped up around the train, even among the bush and we passed the Iron Man.

The Iron Man is a one metre high monument built by workers to mark the one millionth railway sleeper laid on the stretch between Tarcoola and Alice Springs. It was completed in 1980 replacing the old wooden sleepers which had been ravaged by ants and flooding.

This is harsh territory. The train passed the Stuart Highway which by this point was a dust road rather than a tarmac highway as it is several hundred miles South.

Our next major landmark before the train pulled into Alice Springs was the Finke River.

It’s one of the oldest rivers in the world, dating back 300 million years and most of the time it is a dry riverbed. The train manager noted that in the last 26 years, he has seen water flowing only three times.

The river was dry today.

What I hadn’t expected was a time change, heading North.

Clocks went back an hour but that just extended the time I had on the train – no bad thing: Feet up, cup of tea, book and the view of the Outback…

…until we reached the centre of Australia.

Bearing in mind that most of this trip has been about epic train journeys, such as the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian Railways, the Northern Explorer across New Zealand the Reunification Line through Vietnam… I’m rather running out of adjectives to describe this journey.

Crossing through the Outback to reach Alice Springs… just an incredible trip. Arthur described it as his Bucket List Adventure and Lindsay was retracing his Grandad’s experiences – just a few of the reasons people had for taking the Ghan.

Details of the other journeys offered through Journey Beyond are included in this post.

Categories: Australia, Public Transport, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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