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3 days on board the Ghan train

Travel through the vast outback from the south to the north of Australia (or vice versa) on the world's longest north-south train journey

By Sue Gough Henly

What to expect

  • See the wide open spaces of the Australian outback
  • Have fascinating off-train adventures in Alice Springs and Katherine
  • Enjoy the superb food and wine on board

Fast facts

  • Time: 3 days 2 nights
  • Distance: 2,979 kilometres (1,851 miles)
  • Nearest major city: Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin
  • Transport: train
  • Price: $$$ 

One of the world’s greatest rail journeys, The Ghan, (named after the Afghan cameleers who, from the 1860s to the early 20th century, helped explore and build infrastructure in the outback) traverses Australia's wide open spaces. It goes from the pastoral hues of the South Australian hills and plains to the rusty Red Centre and the tropical greens of the Top End. On the way, you can explore the famous outback towns of Alice Springs and Katherine on whistlestop tours.

There are three levels of service: Platinum and Gold (with sleeping cabins) and Red (with reclinable seats). Platinum and Gold Service passengers enjoy all-inclusive drinks in the Outback Explorer Lounge and dine in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, which serves regionally sourced Australian food and wine. Red Service passengers have access to the licensed Café 828 as well as a catering trolley.

You can take The Ghan in either direction between Adelaide and Darwin. You can also take half the journey, between Alice Springs and Adelaide or Darwin. If you travel from Darwin to Adelaide, the journey takes an extra day because you stop in Manguri for a day trip to the world's opal mining capital, Coober Pedy, where many residents live in underground caves. This option only runs from early August to late October.

Day 1: Adelaide to the outback

The Ghan, the Australian Outback

Board the Ghan in Adelaide at noon and enjoy lunch as you watch Adelaide's gracious outskirts roll into pastoral lands and undulating wine country before flattening into rugged mallee scrub. Pass through coastal Coonamia and Port Augusta. Cross over the Dingo Fence – the world’s longest fence, built to keep dingoes out of south-east Australia – and speed through the outback train station of Cadney Homestead, at the gateway to the Painted Desert. Look out at the small, rustic railway towns and vast tracts of Aboriginal land, where communities have maintained their connection with country for thousands of years. Watch the sun setting over the vast expanse of the outback as you meet new friends over cocktails in the Outback Explorer Lounge. In the classically styled Queen Adelaide Restaurant, dine on a South Australian regional seafood tasting plate or a rack of lamb. A cheese platter of Barossa Valley brie, Limestone Coast clothed cheddar and Lobethal goat blue goes perfectly with a hearty red wine from South Australia's McLaren Vale or Clare Valley regions.

Day 2: The outback

Marla, South Australia

Platinum and Gold class passengers get off the train at Marla, which marks the start of the remote Oodnadatta Track, to watch the sun rise and enjoy a light breakfast in the heart of the outback. Back on the train, cross the Northern Territory border and travel through the small bush town of Kulgera and over the generally dry Finke River before arriving in Alice Springs at about noon. Explore Alice Springs on one of the many whistlestop tours. Visit the Alice Springs Desert Park to learn more about the landscapes that the Ghan traverses, or do a tour of the town, where you can visit the base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which offers airlifted medical support to Australia's outback community. You can take an optional upgrade and enjoy a scenic helicopter flight over the ancient red MacDonnell Ranges or ride a camel in the desert. Reboard the train in the late afternoon and travel north through the desert as you enjoy dinner of, perhaps, roasted kangaroo fillet with crocodile boudin blanc and quandong (Australian native bush peach) jus in the train's Queen Adelaide Restaurant.

Day 3: Katherine to Darwin

Nitmiluk Gorge, Katherine, Northern Territory

The train races through the gold mining town of Tennant Creek as you're eating breakfast. It stops at the historic pioneering township of Katherine, where numerous excursion options await. You could enjoy a leisurely cruise in Nitmiluk National Park’s Katherine Gorge, and admire towering sandstone cliffs and crocodiles basking in the sun. Or spend the day at an Aboriginal cultural centre, learning spear throwing, fire lighting, basket weaving, painting and how to play the didgeridoo. Optional upgrades include a scenic helicopter flight over the 13 gorges of Nitmiluk National Park or a 90-minute fixed-wing scenic flight over both Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks. Back on board, enjoy a late lunch as the monsoonal rainforest of the Northern Territory outback rushes by the window. Pass through the old gold mining town of Pine Creek, and Adelaide River, once a World War II military headquarters. You'll roll into the Northern Territory's tropical capital of Darwin mid afternoon.

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