The Ghan backtracks over the route that brings the Indian Pacific into Adelaide, including the section from Tarcoola that the Indian Pacific traverses in darkness. For someone who watches train-journeys like other people watch movies, this is like watching the last bit of DVD that you missed when you fell asleep – but backwards.
This is the great outback railway, originally opened between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs in 1929, along an alignment that proved prone to flash floods which regularly washed the track away. Apparently the surveyors never saw any rain in all the time they were planning the route; the rain only came when it was too late to divert the line. The idea was always to link Adelaide with Darwin, but in the 1930s this made no financial sense.
In 1980 a new standard-gauge flood-free western route replaced the old narrow-gauge Ghan as far as Alice Springs, and the long-intended link to Darwin, via Katherine, was opened in 2004.
Heading northwards from the suburbs and satellite towns of Adelaide, the line runs through a huge plain of agricultural land – market gardens, crops, the occasional herd of cows, racehorses with coats on to protect them from the sun. At some point in the past, someone cleared all this acreage to make agriculture possible, probably with no more than horse- and man-power at their disposal.
As the afternoon wore on, and the train glided effortlessly across mile after empty mile, I was aware that this vast landscape was initially explored by nineteenth-century pioneers on horseback, working out what there was and where it led from the vantage point of a saddle. Before them, this land was the home of the Aboriginal peoples who, according to a self-serving 1938 writer quoted by Bill Bryson, “can withstand all the reverses of nature, fiendish droughts and sweeping floods, horrors of thirst and enforced starvation – but…cannot withstand civilisation.” The conflict between the two ways of life lies heavy still on the national consciousness.
I’ve now learned, having travelled on both the Indian Pacific and The Ghan, that the “welcome reception” is a compromise between the attraction of a free glass of champagne and the agony of a badly-handled radio mike with feedback. Throughout the journey, whoever was in control of the on-board PA system wasn’t: announcements and music cut in and out without warning and on at least one occasion photographers were told the train would slow down for a landmark in ten minutes’ time and it didn’t – leaving people gazing through windows bemused as whatever it was flashed by.
On this journey, though, the bonus was that I happened to meet a couple, Gabriel and Cornelia, with whom I struck up instant rapport. They were in the midst of moving house between Melbourne and Darwin, using The Ghan as the easiest way of transporting a car full of luggage while the furniture took a slower route by road. We share an interest in Victorian history (in the chronological, more than just the Australian geographical sense) and photography, and Gabriel promised me a list of things to see in Melbourne, a privilege I couldn’t otherwise have hoped for.
There was a brief stop at Port Augusta, where the 1980 Ghan route diverges from the original, ill-advised 1929 alignment. This prompts me to plan to return some day, to ride the Pichi-Richi Railroad [http://www.prr.org.au/cms/index.php], which offers a 1¾-hour ride, often steam-hauled, along the original route in vintage 3ft 6in-gauge rolling-stock.
(Footage of the final journey on the narrow-gauge Ghan can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVIIJSxSCX8 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PztgicynYVw. A more extensive Channel 7 documentary of 1978 is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU2Jb_f5XCE, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBoWBObzkJE, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P94w94BdCUc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaB0D2Q7How.)
The Pichi-Richi people take the view that the name ‘Ghan’ derives from a passenger on the inaugural sleeping-car run in 1929 who, at an evening stop, rushed on to the platform to place his prayer-mat in the direction of Mecca: the Australian crew assumed, it is said, that he was an Afghan. The Great Southern Railway Company prefers to ascribe the name to the Afghan camel-trains which the railway replaced.
Port Augusta is the “gateway to the Outback”: from there on, the landscape is as arid as the Nullarbor Plain, but more varied. There are gentle contours, distant mountain ridges, a vast snowy white salt lake, river beds – one, the Finke River, a three-hundred-yard wide channel of bone-dry sand. The landmarks are minor and far between – a stone marker for the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory, a statue, the Iron Man, commemorating the laying of the millionth sleeper on the 1980 route and, eventually, the MacDonnell Range which marks the location of Alice Springs.