A romantic story of the romanticism of The Ghan and the land it travels across. Except from issue 5 of Lodestars Anthology: Australia
WORDS: Liz Schaffer
IMAGES: Marine Pliatsikas
It’s amazing how quickly something can start to feel like a dream. Wineries and farms fading to dust, gorges older than life, an ageless landscape painted gold. My time on The Ghan was so sensational, so out-of-the-ordinary, that weeks later, I wonder how I could have been on the train at all. Did I really spend hours glued to the window as we rolled through the Red Centre? Did I float down croc-filled waters and watch the outback awaken? It’s not that the euphoria I felt on board is fading – far from it. It’s just that those technicolour memories seem to belong to another time, one that’s too spectacular to be entirely real.
An iconic rail journey, The Ghan travels over 2,979 kilometres between food-centric Adelaide and tropical Darwin, taking in terrain dotted with opals and dinosaurs. Its sister train, The Indian Pacific, connects the two oceans it’s named after, runs along the world’s longest continuous straight stretch of track – 478 kilometres between Ooldea and Loongana – and crosses the Nullarbor Plain, a formidable desert twice the size of England.
So, where to begin when describing the land The Ghan moves though? Glass of wine in hand (we’re travelling in luxury after all), you spy blue-tinged mountains rising from the expanse, sentinel to more than we could imagine. You sense the heat, the soil shifting from the softest coral to hues that look hot to touch. And there is green, swathes of it, the desert bursting to life after a period of rain. Pools of water are all that remain of once-mighty canyons, and flocks of birds add splashes of colour - galahs are most dazzling when backdropped by outback red. Wherever you find yourself (be that making merry in the dining car or ensconced in your cabin), you can’t look away. Travelling through this landscape, you connect with the earth in a different way. It is a sensory bombardment. Always there. Always extraordinary.
I spent a lot of time searching for camels. You know they’re out there, presumably taking great delight in hiding behind shrubbery. Perfectly suited to the harshness, more than half a million feral camels still call Australia home. They arrived here with cameleers from Afghanistan and the provinces of what is now Pakistan and India. Referred to as Afghans or Ghans, these guides and pioneers allowed remote communities to thrive by transporting supplies and helping to build stations, mines and the railway that would eventually replace them. The train is named in their honour.
Things kicked up an otherworldly notch in Marla, where The Ghan made a pre-dawn stop. Roused by a gentle knock at the door, we stepped out into the darkness and made for the fire. With bacon- and-egg sliders keeping the desert chill at bay, we watched as light bled across the plains, the sky awash with tangerine and rose, the display reflected in the silver carriages behind us. When a hint of gold finally broke over the horizon, it felt like a moment of calm before the vibrant, intoxicating storm.