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Rail Cruising – coast to coast Australia

Written by: Jovanka Ristich
Date: 18th January 2019

After a long-haul flight the last thing I want to do is to get on another plane or behind a steering wheel to explore my destination of choice. So, wishing to explore Australia in a leisurely, stylish manner, the solution was obvious – I let the train take the strain and got on board The Ghan.

Traversing the Australian continent north to south, Darwin to Adelaide across the vast Red Centre, The Ghan Expedition experience takes three nights and four days (76 hours) to cover just under 3,000km. This route illustrates Australia’s diversity, taking in the tropical Top End and the vastness of the Outback before emerging into the Mediterranean reminiscent, vineyard veiled hills of South Australia.

USING DARWIN AS AN INTERNATIONAL GATEWAY makes perfect sense as it’s only four and a half hours from Singapore, which in turn is 12 hours from London. Singapore Airlines  provides the best connections with the option of a morning flight from London which connects to sister airline, Silk Air in Singapore. This departure offers the quickest and most direct routing between Heathrow and Darwin and gets you to Australia in the afternoon, just in time for a sunset champagne cruise.

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STARTING AT THE TOP
Wishing to bookend my rail journey by exploring what lies beyond both Adelaide and Darwin, I began my adventure in the Northern Territory’s tropical Top End. As the Earth’s oldest and driest inhabited continent, it’s a welcome discovery to find northernmost Australia to be waterfall, rainforest and river rich. Not only that, but it is home to diverse wildlife and is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. This is also the best place to see the feared and fascinating crocodiles in their natural habitat.

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep and warmed by the balmy outside temperature, I travelled 130kms south to Litchfield National Park with Outback Tour Services. Over and above providing a fascinating glimpse into 40,000 year old Aboriginal culture, which can be experienced with Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours, the Park and its surrounds is dotted with photogenic waterfalls like Wangi, Tolmer and Florence; naturally formed freshwater plunge pools like Buley Rockhole and crocodile inhabited rivers such as the Adelaide River, home to the Crocodile Jumping Cruise whose river boat tour is all about conservation and showing respect for this awesome predator.

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This is how a didgeridoo should be played – see the video below.

Educated and impressed in equal measure by my Top End day, I was ready to board The Ghan.

GHAN TRAVELLING

On boarding this train titan, I was immediately enveloped in its hospitality, safe in the knowledge that everything would be ‘just so’. After all you don’t get to 90 years of age without learning a thing or three! (2019 marks The Ghan’s 90thanniversary). After being shown to my Gold Class cabin, where I also selected my off rail experiences for the coming days, I was excited by the thought that my Australian adventure was about to began in earnest. However, I still had one more thing to do – I had to photograph the iconic logo that proudly adorns the train. And, in case you didn’t know, the train was named in tribute to the Afghan cameleers who forged the first Outback trade routes, providing isolated homesteads and cattle stations with communication and vital provisions.

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NITMILUK NATIONAL PARK
The township of Katherine provides The Ghan Expedition with its first off rail experience in Nitmiluk National Park, one of the least known and most beautiful areas of natural beauty in Australia. A series of 13 gorges link rivers and waterfalls surrounded by millennia old red faced sandstone canyons that form towering landscapes.

Whilst one tour option is an Aboriginal guided walk to see the ancient rock art that acts as a history book illustrating man’s existence in this area, I chose to take a leisurely cruise along the Katherine River and was rewarded not only with some welcome shade but some truly spectacular views.

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Back on board, after treating myself to a refreshing en suite shower, which I can happily testify provides a rejuvenatingly strong jet of hot water, I made my way to the Queen Adelaide restaurant car for what would be the first in a series of delicious three-course gourmet meals complemented by matching Australian wines.

ALICE IMMEDIATELY SPRINGS TO MIND when one thinks of Outback outposts. Made famous by Nevil Shute’s eponymous novel, the extended Ghan Expedition service now allows passengers to spend a whole day exploring the town and surrounds. It also offers the chance to spend a full day in Coober Pedy, but more of that later.

My excursion of choice was a series of Outback walks that provided me with an opportunity to feel the red earth beneath my R.M Williams boots. Walking around Simpson’s Gap is a definite highlight with its towering sun burnt gorges fringed with stately gum trees.

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For a change, dinner this evening was al fresco in Alice hosted at the Telegraph Station and featuring camel rides, campfires and live music, not to mention snuggly (free to take home) ponchos should you feel a chill in the cooling desert air.

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OPAL MINES, UNDERGROUND LIVING and MOONSCAPE VISTAS are just three things that set COOBER PEDY apart.

Opals are responsible for Coober Pedy’s existence. In fact, 75% of the world’s opals come from this harsh landscape whose climate is so inhospitable it has forced the majority of the population underground where they live, eat, sleep and pray.

The stunning otherworldly landscape has also been popular with filmmakers with movies including Mel Gibson’s Mad Max, Val Kilmer’s Red Planet and Vin Diesel’s Pitch Black.

But it is perhaps The Breakaways, the backdrop for Priscilla Queen of the Desert, that affords the most stunning technicolour lunaresque landscape. Standing on one of the ridges and looking out, it’s easy to feel insignificant marvelling at nature’s beauty and brutality.

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With this last excursion preceding a good night’s sleep, the next and final stop lay ahead – Adelaide. Slowly and inevitably the Outback’s untamed red earth gave way to the cultivated, rolling hills of South Australia and the calls of viticulture grew louder.

ADELAIDE AND THE HILLS
Disembarking in Adelaide, my head humming with stories of human endeavour, determination triumphing over adversity, it seemed appropriate, now that I was in Australia’s food and wine capital that I should turn my attention to another type of ground breaking pioneer – wine, beer and gin makers. For this self sacrificing task I opted to stay in a beach fronted hotel in Adelaide’s seaside suburb of Glenelg, The Oaks Plaza Pier, the benefits of which included a lovely tram link to the city centre.

I started by exploring the Southern Hemisphere’s largest covered market – Adelaide Central Market – guided by the incomparable Mark Gleeson. What Mark doesn’t know about the Market is not worth knowing. He brings the stalls to life, explaining the variety of produce, most of which is organic and sustainably sourced, as well as the credentials of the producers themselves.

Wishing to meet the makers in situ I left the city for the slightly cooler climes of tree lined Adelaide Hills, visiting four locations – though it could just as easily have been forty had there been the hours in the day!!

First off was Hahndorf Hill Winery to sample their unique ChocoVino experience. Here they imaginatively pair chocolate with matched wines. The word chocoholic must have been created with Hahndorf in mind.

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With my taste buds suitably aroused, I trotted off to Prancing Pony, a micro brewery leading the beer-maker’s return to glory. With wine drinkers on the rise, beer makers needed to ‘Foster’ and new approach which is where micro breweries like Prancing Pony come in. They epitomise a new generation of brewers who have thrown the rule book out the window –  creating and presenting their beers in a refreshingly new way, making beer cool once more.

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In need of lunch to soak up the morning’s tastings, I headed to The Lane an award winning restaurant and winery. But, in order to select the best possible wine to go with my meal, it was important I sample one of their cellar door Wine Flights beforehand. Any excuse!

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I rounded off my afternoon with a trip to a distillery, Ochre Nation, yet another new operation set up by a team of young, passionate creatives. Their mission is to produce amazing spirits and fine wines using only native botanicals. The results are exquisite as is the philosophy behind their creation. Saving the planet never looked this cool and you don’t have to be teetotal to do it!

Reminiscing on my cross continental, coast to coast odyssey, I was thinking how best to describe the experience. In effect The Ghan Expedition is a cruise by rail where leisure and luxury prevail. It’s perfect for any age group; for those travelling solo or perhaps as a multi generational family group. Fascinating off train excursions are complemented by on board comfort, gourmet meals, delectable wines and ensuite cabins, and everything is included in the overall cost.

Travelling to and around Australia can be a daunting proposition – what to see, how to get there, how long to stay….. The Ghan provides the answers to all these questions. The hardest decision you’ll need to make is which off rail excursion to sample and which wine to sample with your main course.

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For further information: The Ghan, The Northern TerritorySouth Australia

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