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The Ghan: Into the heart of Australia

22 May 2015

Making its first journey in 1929, The Ghan runs from Adelaide to Darwin across central Australia. Taking fifty-four hours to travel the 1, 851 miles, a journey on The Ghan is one of the greatest rail journeys in the world. All great Australian rail holidays will include travel on The Ghan, it is the route which opened up the heart of Australia.

Origins of the Ghan

In the early 1800s early European settlers in Australia were attempting to penetrate the heart of the country. Camels, known as the 'ships of the desert' were suggested as a reliable means of transport. The camel trains were used to the harsh dry terrain of the Australian desert, unlike bison or horses. The first large shipment of camels arrived in Port Melbourne in 1866. 121 camels and 31 Afghan cameleers were brought to Australia by a Scottish man, Thomas Elder, who knew how important the camels would be to transport in Australia. Camel trains could carry supplies to outback settlements. They carried materials to build the overland telegraph lines, they helped miners during Australia's gold rush and were lifelines during expeditions into the outback. Without the help of the Afghans and their camels, the railway that opens up the heart of Australia would have taken a lot longer to complete. The name 'The Ghan' is an abbreviation of 'Afghan', a small homage to the men and animals who made such a dramatic impact on the country.

Australia is now home to the largest herd of wild camels in the world, from the initial few thousand brought over with the Afghans, there are now over a million.

Route travelled by the train

The first stretch of the original route was opened in 1879 between Adelaide and Quorn, a year later the tracks had reached Hawker, and another year later, in 1881, the tracks reached Beltana. The now mostly forgotten town of Beltana was the base for the construction of the line. The original narrow gauge track used wooden sleepers, which were constantly attacked by termites. This meant the sleepers had to be constantly re-laid. Today the sleepers are modern concrete and the line no longer runs through Beltana, but follows a more direct route, on a modern medium gauge railway.

The original Ghan train set off from Adelaide and took between four and five weeks to reach Alice Springs. It was common for there to be flooding that washed away the tracks, which could delay the train for up to a week. The passengers would have no choice but to stay on the train, with supplies being brought to them. The train's restaurants would be moved off the train and set up in the sand dunes. It was sometimes uncertain whether they would ever get to Alice Springs, but Australia in the 1900s was a pioneering country, with a great sense of adventure.

The modern day route takes passengers from the sprawling metropolis of Sydney to Adelaide, into rich vineyards and farmland, and onwards to the red heart of the country at Alice Springs.

The journey today
The Ghan

The journey today is a lot more luxurious than in days gone by, passengers enjoy food freshly prepared by the on-board chef. The cuisine on the a la carte menu includes Australian delicacies such as Kangaroo filet. Escorted rail holidays on The Ghan are a luxury affair, offering a chance to see parts of the country not visible from any roads.

When the train reaches Adelaide it turns north into the centre of Australia, towards Alice Springs, following the route of the original Ghan locomotive and Afghan camel trains.

The train runs through the Blue Mountains, where the scenery is lush and green. This portion of the track follows in the footsteps of three Australian explorers, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson. This portion of the journey offers views of Australia completely unique to The Ghan.

On the journey, passengers travelling through the remotest parts of Australia receive no mobile or television signal, it's the perfect opportunity to relax away from the constant buzz of modern life. Travellers can sit and enjoy the beautifully vast outback with no interruptions.

Most of the track the Ghan runs on is single track, and the train shares this with freight trains transporting goods throughout Australia. The track contains many passing loops, which allow trains travelling in the opposite direction to safely pass.

The Ghan is truly one of the greatest railway journeys in the world, with a rich history that has helped to shape a country. Experience the beauty of Australia on Ghan railway holidays, with Great Rail Journeys.