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A train journey through the Australian Outback

By Christina Mackenzie 3 January 2020

There’s something romantic about taking the train; perhaps it is the nostalgia or the steadiness of the passing landscape that lulls the mind into a state of childlike contentment. 

If you want to see the Australian Outback up close and personal but don’t fancy the drive, then the train is the answer (as well as leaving a 75 percent lower carbon footprint). Journey Beyond Rail runs several passenger trains that cross the continent from east to west and north to south and has just opened a new line, Great Southern, from Adelaide to Brisbane via Canberra.

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The oldest line, the Ghan, runs from Adelaide to Darwin. It had just celebrated the 90th anniversary of the first journey it made from Adelaide to Alice Springs on 4 August 1929.

The train is impressively long. At the airport-style check-in counter, whilst sipping free glasses of Croser (Adelaide’s answer to champagne) or juice, and a singer/guitarist provided gentle, steady background music, we were assigned to our cabin. Ours was one of the five per carriage, aligned down one side of a corridor. They are snug but comfortable with a couch, fold-down table, couple of recessed shelves, two mirrors, and a large sealed window. Each has its own toilet, hand basin, and a surprisingly powerful shower. The train also has a carriage just for single travellers, with cubicles dispensed on either side of a serpentine passageway. Here, toilet and shower facilities are shared.

The journey is spent in an internet free bubble. The ultimate relaxation! We’d brought books but barely opened them—too busy looking outside! We were new to Australia and found the views endlessly interesting. For the first few hours, the train trundles through small towns and farmland, past huge wind farms, through Port Augusta and alongside huge salt lakes.

As we watched a spectacular sunset we were faced with difficult choices in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant on board. Was it to be the Spencer Gulf Prawn & Pork Dumpling, Smoked Duck Salad, or Vegetable Tart for entrée? And what to choose between Roast Chicken, South Rock Lamb, or Spinach Gnocchi for the main course? And hesitate between the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Délice, the ice cream selection, or the cheese. The gourmet food is complemented by a good selection of Australian wines.

Meanwhile, we decided to make an excursion that was included in the fare. We opted to be woken at 5.30am to see the sunrise in the desert at a place called Marla. I thought we’d tumble out of the train, watch the sunrise, and then board again. I was completely taken aback when we stepped out of the train to see a couple of big bonfires, wooden tables, and trestles, and the train staff serving tea, coffee, and freshly cooked fried eggs with barbecue sauce in a roll.

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We spent most of the morning looking for wildlife amongst the Mulga acacias—which look like an umbrella blown inside out—that grow on the parched red earth. We spotted brumbies (feral horses), kangaroos, emus, and eagles, but none of the camels freed by the cameleers who played such a vital role in the construction of the railway and who were mistakenly thought to be Afghans, or ‘Ghans. Hence the name of the train!

It was when I exited the train into brutal heat and clouds of flies that I really appreciated how comfortable it is to see the Outback from the train! A bus took us to Simpsons Gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges. There is a permanent waterhole at its foot. It is starkly, breathtakingly, and totally unexpectedly beautiful. We even saw a rock wallaby.

The next morning we woke to completely different countryside. The red earth and Mulgas had gone, replaced by much denser, green vegetation but our distant horizon had also shrunk to within a few metres of the train.

At 9:00 we pulled into Katherine, greeted by a large “Beware of Snakes” sign! Here we took a boat cruise through the Nitmiluk Gorge where you can normally spot salt-water crocodiles. We saw none but we did see some prehistoric rock art.

Four hours later we were back on the train enjoying our last lunch. Kangaroos had given way to buffalo and huge termite mounds. Where water had been inexistent the day before, here it was ever-present. Spectacular storm clouds filled the sky as we trundled slowly over the East Arm bridge, from which we could see Darwin on the horizon to our left, and finally pulled into the train station, 41 hours after our departure. The destination was unimportant. It was the journey that mattered.

Christina Mackenzie


Christina Mackenzie takes us on a trip through the wilderness of the Australian continent. Christina is a freelance journalist based in France. She has worked with publications like the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune (New York Times).