The Lonely Planet Journey: The Ghan

Follow Australia's camel trail

Darwin to Adelaide is – as they say in the Outback – a bloody long way. Look at a map: the distance between the cities is nearly 3,000km, a countrywide gulf of yellow-red nothing. No wonder no one was very keen to cross it. That is, until the Afghan cameleers arrived. From the 1860s, small numbers of immigrants from Asia disembarked with their "ships of the desert" and set about opening up Australia's hostile Red Centre. They did a fine job, and their legacy (aside from the million-odd feral camels that now plague the Outback) can be felt on one of the greatest train journeys in the world.

The Ghan is a truly epic train ride, connecting the capital cities of South Australia and the Northern Territory, the crash of the Southern Ocean and the tropical Timor Sea, via umber mountain ranges, weird rocks, rainforest and a fair few kangaroos. The railway has existed in its present form for less than a decade – that's how long it takes to tame a wilderness this vast – but the first Afghan Express left Adelaide back on 4 August 1929. Then, a tremulous crowd gawped as this steam-hauled locomotive choo-choo-ed from the city, bound for Alice Springs, 1,500km north. The journey took two days.

Things have changed since then, not least the route. The original tracks proved unsuitable, laid in areas prone to flash flooding and devastation by termite – 10-day delays were not uncommon. In the 1980s, standard-gauge lines were laid and, in 2004, the line was finally extended all the way to Darwin. Enter the full Ghan, in all its glory.

For glorious it is. Not in an Orient Express-opulence way – though luxury Platinum Service options exist for a touch of on-board glamour. But even in coach class, the Ghan is glorious in scale and scope. You really do get to watch an entire country – a really big country – glide by.

THE JOURNEY TODAY

You're glad you didn't book a sleeping compartment: there's no way you're going to get any sleep. Not with the endless, infinity-and-beyondness of the Australian Outback, illuminated by a celestial spotted sky outside the window. There is not a glimmer of light pollution to diminish this astronomical sideshow – add the train's rhythmic sway, and you're feeling wide eyed and hypnotised.

You're not on this train to get from A to B – you're here to plough through the nether regions of a country so big it takes two days to traverse. The plane would have been quicker and cheaper, but where's the fun in that? And few airlines these days offer stop-offs for gorge-canoeing, or feature wallabies bounding by the windows. Besides, the Ghan suits all budgets. There are four classes ranging from budget reclining seats up to plush private cabins. Cabin class includes meals in the dining car, and everyone has access to the lounges.

Spectacular sunsets and lightning storms splinter over the bush, but the best bits are the pauses: the train stops at remote stations for leg stretches, and longer lingers at Katherine (four and a half hours) and Alice Springs (three and a half hours), so those riding the Ghan in one go have time to explore – perhaps a camel trek from White Gums Station, a cruise along Katherine Gorge or a helicopter flight over Simpsons Gap. Those with more time can disembark for a few days, then pick up the next Ghan – trains run twice weekly from April to October, weekly otherwise. A four-day stop in Alice would allow the essential Aussie experience – a glimpse of Uluru and a night in a swag under those stars.

THE DETOUR

The Ghan stops at Manguri, 900km north of Adelaide, in the wee hours. This station is the access point for Coober Pedy, opal-mining capital of the world.

You'll be allowed to get off the Ghan here only if you've prearranged your own transfers to Coober Pedy, 42km away. If you do, this is the place to try your luck digging for gemstones, to explore the mesas and scarps of Breakaways Reserve or check into an underground hotel – many of the town's residents live in subterranean dugouts to escape the blistering sun.

Extract from Great Journeys, published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25 including UK P&P by going toshop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT

The Ghan

Distance: 2,979km

Countries covered: Australia

Ideal time commitment: Eight days

Best time of year: April to October

Essential tip: Take a pack of cards to help get to know fellow passengers

Essential experiences

* Ambling between ethnic food stalls, indigenous art and fire-throwers at Darwin's Mindil Beach night markets.

* Paddling along the Katherine River, and cooling off in the pools at Nitmiluk National Park.

* Riding a stretch of original Afghan Express tracks in a restored loco at the Old Ghan Historical Railway at MacDonnell Siding.

* Detouring to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to learn dot-painting with Aboriginal artists, to hike Kings Canyon and to catch the rainbow hues of sunrise and sunset over Uluru.

* Exploring Adelaide's graceful streets, before leaving the city for fine tipples at the vineyards of the nearby Barossa Valley.

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