A railway trip through land of Oz

Riders of famous Ghan train get close-up look at Outback wonders

Destination Australia

February 04, 2007|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,Los Angeles Times

THE RED CENTER, AUSTRALIA / / Ten days, one wallaby, no kangaroos.

My fantasy -- adorable 'roos galumphing around every bush in the Outback -- was just that.

Camels -- wild ones -- were another matter. About 60,000 of the feral beasts roam the Outback that unfolded outside the picture window of my train compartment.

I had come to Australia to ride the Ghan, the legendary train that bisects the country, traveling from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north. It's sometimes called the "Hundred Year Dream" -- the last track was laid just two years ago, capping nearly a century of struggle to connect one end of this great emptiness to the other.

All told, the trip takes 48 hours, two full days of slicing through a land that is Texas times five. It is rugged and it is real, an antidote to the too-well-trod territories that are beginning to crowd the planet.

My 1,850-mile adventure, from which I detoured in the middle, began at Keswick station in Adelaide, South Australia, on a Sunday in August. Just before our 5:15 p.m. departure, the Ghan crew, decked out in red, white and blue, lined up on the platform and delivered a spirited "All aboard!"

The first surprise was my compartment. This was Gold Kangaroo Service, the top of three classes on the train, but my single redefined "compact." With the bed lowered, the door wouldn't fully open. The cabin had a tiny closet and a sink that folded into the wall. By day, though, I had a comfortable seat from which to gaze out the window.

The Ghan does not offer luxury sleeping accommodations. The cars date from the '60s and '70s and look it. This journey is about adventure, not luxury, although our crew -- 21 attending to 220 passengers -- was top-notch.

As I settled in, first on the agenda was to choose a seating -- sunset (6:30 p.m.) or moonlight (8:30) -- in the Stuart Restaurant, the nicely appointed maroon-and-gold diner. I chose the late seating.

Dinner in the diner was a happy surprise. Tables were laid with cloths and we were served a three-course meal -- choice of beef, duck, fish or vegetarian -- cooked onboard.

When it was time to retire, I wondered whether I would be able to sleep. As the train chugged toward Alice Springs on the standard-gauge track, laid in the 1980s, it swayed a lot. Still, lulled by the motion, I easily nodded off.

At 5 a.m., I sat up, opened my blind and gazed at a sky full of crystal-clear stars. An hour later, the faintest pink glow crept over the desert, and I could make out scrubby trees. Just as our attendant brought coffee, a brilliant sun popped over the horizon.

Later, as we ate breakfast, the Ghan crossed into the Northern Territory. I shared a table with a couple from Victoria; I was the only Yank among Aussies and Kiwis (New Zealanders). My tablemates were barley farmers for whom this holiday was a break from double trouble: drought and an infestation of crop-damaging white snails.

Hours passed quickly. From the audio history of the Ghan and the Great Southern Railway piped into my room, I learned that the first steam train pulled out of Adelaide on Aug. 4, 1929, carrying supplies and 100 passengers to Stuart, now Alice Springs. The trip took two days, about twice as long as it does now, and was frequently the victim of Mother Nature's wrath. Australia has 30 species of termites and they found the wooden track supports exceptionally tasty. (The supports were ultimately replaced by concrete.) And strangely enough, on a continent that is among the driest on Earth, flash floods were such a problem that they frequently delayed the trip. A story, perhaps apocryphal, has it that the crew from one train that was stranded for two weeks had to shoot wild goats to feed the passengers.

A town like Alice

In this stretch of Australia, its nature is nothingness. North of Adelaide, the Ghan leaves behind most of Australia's population. The land is flat, punctuated only with shrubs that have adapted to the mercilessly arid climate, and its vastness is mesmerizing.

Around noon on our second day, the Ghan pulled into the little station at Alice Springs, known here as "The Alice." Residents had parked alongside the tracks to wave a welcome.

I had been reading Nevil Shute's 1950 novel, A Town Like Alice, which isn't really about Alice, but still, I expected a place like the sleepy, isolated Outback town in the book. But Alice has boomed since the '40s, when it became reachable by paved road.

Heading into town, we encountered a Kmart, a Blockbuster and a KFC. There's even a casino.

So much for the isolated Outback.

Indeed, Alice Springs is a modern town of about 30,000 bisected by the Todd River, which is almost always dry. The highlight each year is fall's Henley-on-Todd Regatta, when townspeople in bottomless boats "sail" the parched riverbed. It's been canceled only twice in 44 years because of too much water.

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