Australia’s most iconic rail trip, the Ghan, runs north from Adelaide through the harsh deserts of the center on a transcontinental journey that stretches more than 1,800 miles all the way to the tropical city of Darwin. You can cross the entire continent from south to north in three or fours days, or go only halfway to Alice Springs on a two-day trip. The return journey from Darwin offers extended tours from August to October.
Adelaide to Tarcoola
Every Sunday afternoon, the Ghan is scheduled to pull out of Adelaide’s Parklands Railway Station at 12:15 p.m. It heads north through the rolling wheat fields of South Australia’s mid-north and then into Port Augusta.
At the edge of the outback, Port Augusta was the departure point for the original narrow-gauge Ghan railway that ran to Oodnadatta from 1891 to 1928 before the line was extended to Alice Springs in 1929. The Ghan was named in honor of the Afghan camel drivers whose caravans supplied the railway’s construction; the camel drivers were a lifeline to the lonely desert town of Alice Springs before the railroad was built. The railway made the camels superfluous, and thousands of them were let loose in the desert, where their descendants still run wild today.
The old line was abandoned in 1980 after completion of a new standard-gauge line. The Ghan now runs on the Trans-Australian Railway to remote Tarcoola, where it branches off onto the new line.
Australia’s other great train journey, the Indian Pacific, also runs on the Adelaide-Tarcoola track on its epic east-west trip across the continent. The Indian Pacific runs from Sydney to Adelaide, then on to Tarcoola, where the routes of the two trains part. From Tarcoola, the Indian Pacific heads west across the vast, empty expanse of the Nullarbor Plain to Perth.
Tarcoola to Alice Springs
The Ghan heads north from Tarcoola to Manguri, near the famous opal-mining town of Coober Pedy. On the return southbound journey for the four-day trip—which is in operation from August through October—the train stops for a tour of Coober Pedy. On the northbound trip, it stops at Marla to see the desert sunrise. Heading on into the Red Centre, the train then crosses the state border into the Northern Territory and traverses the massive Finke River Bridge before pulling into Alice Springs around 1:45 p.m.
After a four-hour stop—during which you can take a tour of the city, a camel ride, or partake in other adventures—the Ghan continues overnight on its way north to the tropics.
Alice Springs to Darwin
The original Ghan went no farther north than Alice Springs. Although for decades there was much buoyant talk of one day extending the line all the way to Darwin, nothing much was done about it until 2001, when work began on the final 882-mile stretch of track. After more than a billion dollars were spent on the project, the new line opened in early 2004.
The train makes a morning stop at Katherine—during which you can tour the town’s famous gorge—and pulls into Darwin’s train station around 5:30 that afternoon. The return journey leaves Darwin on Wednesday at 10 a.m., arriving back in Adelaide on Friday. From August to October, the Ghan has extended stops and tours in Alice Springs and Coober Pedy, and arrives back on Saturday.
Bookings: The Ghan Platinum and Gold Services offer first-class sleeping cars. Passengers have access to plush restaurant cars, with all meals, drinks, and tours included. Prices are steep, but advance-purchase discounts are available; these tickets are nonrefundable. Less expensive Red Service seats, with meals and tours available for purchase on board, will be discontinued on July 1, 2016. See Great Southern Rail for details.