Today is probably the furthest I have travelled in 11 weeks – a whole 35 minutes away from home. The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought international and even domestic travel to a halt, and I can only dream of my next overseas trip, or I can reminisce about past journeys, such as the Ghan adventure I was fortunate to be able to do with my mother in 2015.
Five years ago, I was at the top end of Australia, embarking on the Ghan expedition, a four-day, three-night train journey from Darwin to Adelaide, spanning the length of the country from north to south – 2,979 kilometres in total. This was the second memorable train journey I did with mum, after we travelled aboard the iconic Indian Pacific in 2013, which crosses Australia from East to West. Each trip was extravagantly expensive, costing us almost as much as two weeks overseas, but they were worth every cent: the service, the views, the excursions, the food, the drinks, the cosy but comfortable sleeper cabins … everything was first-class.
The Ghan is traditionally a three-day, two-night journey, but in 2015 The Great Southern Railway (now called Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions) started the Ghan expedition, adding the extra day with an overnight stay in Alice Springs, and we were fortunate to be among the first passengers to do the extended adventure which only runs for a limited season each year.
I still remember the delicious, regionally inspired three-course meals at the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, and going back to our cabins after eating to find that our seats had been magically converted into comfortable beds. I remember the rocking and swaying of my bunker bed through the night, and the feeling, so unusual for me, that time didn’t matter, as we had entered the train’s own time zone, where all the schedules were taken care of and we didn’t have to rush anywhere for three glorious days. This feeling was particularly strong in the Indian Pacific, where we spent a less time in off-train excursions and more time relaxing on board, lulled by the sound of the engine, awed by the sights of the changing Australian landscape and mesmerised by the enormity of the Nullarbor desert.
We were planning to do the Ghan trip in 2016, to celebrate mum’s 70th birthday, but I received an unexpected bonus when I left one of my employers. So, when my final pay hit the bank in mid-2014, we decided to book the holiday for the following year, taking advantage of the early bird discount. Most people leave these trips until late in life, and I was one of the youngest of the passengers in both journeys. I am glad we were able to do them when we did, as they were still giving a 25% reduction to pensioners, which mum benefited from. This has since been discontinued as the government removed the funding for concession fares. Still, this doesn’t seem to be deterring customers. Recently they launched a new journey, the Great Southern, which explores the south east coast starting in Queensland. When I looked at the availability, it was booked out months ahead. Of course, it has now stopped running until further notice.
It was a hot, humid 30 degrees in Darwin when we visited, and cold and dry in Adelaide. We could only take limited luggage on board, so we had to plan carefully. We spent three nights in Darwin, and each night we saw the sun set over the ocean in a magnificent red-orange sky. We visited the Mindil Beach markets at dusk; did a day trip to Litchfield National Park where we got up close and personal with crocodiles and swam at the bottom of a cascade – well, I did; mum stayed at the top. We visited the art gallery of the northern territory, the war memorial, and walked the city streets until we became hopelessly lost and mum developed blisters on her feet. Darwin is a cosmopolitan, vibrant city, quite different from what I imagined, though still showing the scars left by cyclone Tracy in 1974.
While at the Ghan, we did a number of off-train excursions and activities which included a visit to the majestic Nitmiluk Gorge in Katherine, a tour of Alice Springs, lunch at the heritage Post Office building, an Aussie Barbeque Dinner under the stars which included a camel ride, and half a day in Coober Pedy, the “Opal Capital of the World”, where most of the buildings are underground due to the scorching heat. On the last day, we watched the sun go down while sipping champagne at the Breakaways, a desert-like landscape with beautiful, red coloured rock formations; and returned to the Ghan on time for dinner around a bonfire, sitting at tables lit by candles which had been a arranged on the ground next to the train.
All the excursions were included in the ticket price except an optional extra to catch a light plane from Alice to Uluru, but this was hideously expensive and didn’t even include getting off the plane to see the sacred site from up close, so we didn’t take it. I was disappointed but I am sure I will be able to visit one day and spend more quality time there than I would have had in a fly-in, fly-out trip.
Adelaide was cold but welcoming and the sun shone on us every day. I had been there once before but it was mum’s first time in the city of churches, so we visited all the landmarks, markets, museums, galleries and gardens that we could cover in the three days we had, making time for a cruise down the Torrens river aboard the iconic Popeye. As usual, I was chasing sunsets, which I captured with my SLR camera, and we caught the tram to Glenelg beach to watch the sun set over the sea. The Cabaret festival was on, so we also attended a show at the Festival Centre, which fortunately was not too risqué for mum. The only mishap was that I lost my credit card shortly after we paid for the accommodation. It simply evaporated, so I had to go through the motions of cancelling it. This was a small inconvenience, and one that didn’t blemish the memories of a wonderful trip, and of a precious time spent with my mother.
For an account of our Indian Pacific adventure, visit my Great train journeys: the Indian Pacific blog.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,