Sunday, 20 March 2016
TAKING A TRIP ON THE GHAN
It was the daughter who suggested the train trip, in a slightly echoing voice from her flat in Islington, North London where it must have been very late at night. It would be a lot of fun she thought. Both of us agreed that the last train trip we took together had been anything but boring and that was only twelve hours, Kings Cross to Inverness a couple of years ago. To be honest, three days and two nights across Australia is a completely different proposition. I objected immediately because I knew it would be expensive and I was still paying off the residue of the London visit of September last year. Far too costly I told her and then added that train travel always was. It was then that she announced that for her aged parents it would be very cheap indeed because she intended to pay for the trip. So then I objected even more before acquiescing quite quickly because after all, I really did want to go. Darwin – Katherine - Alice Springs – who wouldn’t want to go? `Fine,’ she said briskly, `You can find your own way to Darwin and we’ll meet there.’ It was there we were to pick up the train to Adelaide and we had to get our skates on because she had already planned time away from work. The husband was immediately sent out in search of air tickets early the very next day. In no time at all we were on our way and I found myself announcing to all and sundry that I had always wanted to go to Darwin whilst the Husband simply commented on how hot it would be and insisted on buying a pair of light weight jeans which is most unlike him I have to say. Generally speaking he is averse to buying new clothes. We spent two days in Darwin before the real purpose of our journey began, time enough to visit the excellent museum and experience the admittedly terrifying `Bombing of Darwin Experience’. Terrifying for me at least, having cut my teeth on the bombing of North Kent all those years ago and never quite recovering from the fear and trepidation that danger comes from above. And overall there was little to differentiate those Japanese pilots from the more familiar German ones. To be perfectly honest I had only recently come to the realization that the Northern Territories of Australia had directly experienced bombardment of any kind - that I had always believed was the prerogative of the unfortunate residents of Kentish towns and villages in the 1940s. You live and learn. Disappointingly most of the old city of Darwin has now disappeared due to Cyclone Tracy in the early 1970s but never mind, it is a splendidly different town to visit with a well developed tropical character. The husband sweltered in his new light weight jeans. The next excitement was that of actually boarding The Ghan for the beginning of our adventure and to walk the extraordinary length of this truly celebrated train is a voyage in itself but you really have to try to do so for to stand at the station simply admiring it from each direction is impossible. At last we boarded, hot and sweaty from our train-side explorations and anxious to get under way. We were travelling Gold Class and found ourselves ensconced in a most luxurious and roomy cabin complete with ensuite facilities plus private bar and tv. The daughter was installed nearby in a cabin for one and as we said our goodbyes to the city of Darwin she demonstrated all the cleverly concealed amenities as she sipped a cocktail called a Moscow Mule. She explained that all our food and drinks came with the tickets and so I ordered one too and thought what a splendid system it was and how deceptively simple. The husband opted for a simple cold beer from our cabin fridge. I suppose I have always had a strange idea about what the Australian outback might look like, imagining flat red desert interspersed with merrily hopping kangaroos. It’s certainly red but there is far more vegetation than I imagined in the form of low growing brown-green scrub and not a kangaroo to be seen. The landscape is unchanging and would certainly be monotonous if it were not for the fact that one is viewing it from the confines of a spendidly luxurious train that almost seems to be from a different age and time. It has all the charm of The Orient Express of my imagination, occasionally brought to life by TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s flagship crime story. The Ghan bar and dining car is precisely where Hercule Poirot might have spent an hour or two whilst reaching his brilliant conclusions. I think the food on The Ghan might even rival that of The Orient Express in its heyday. It could not be faulted and neither could the service. Perhaps I had assumed we would hack our way through enormous Wallaby Steaks and Crocodile Croquettes and was therefore surprised by the more moderate cuisine that leaned towards Paris and Rome rather than anywhere in Australasia. The only difficulty was making a choice from the truly tempting selection on offer. There is something decidedly exotic about going to sleep on a train; something both snug and mysterious. And there is an enormous excitement in waking from slumber after an hour or two and peeping out of the window to witness a vast blue black outback sky peppered with astonishingly brilliant stars. For an insomniac such as myself this in itself was worth making the trip for. But there were even more delights to come with visits to Katherine and also to Alice Springs. In Katherine we did a river trip to view some Aboriginal cave art but I was too hot to leave the boat and left the viewing to Daughter and Husband. I was looking forward to Alice Springs mostly because of romantic ideas about Nevil Shute though I was more familiar with `On The Beach’ than `A Town Like Alice.’ In the event the iconic town did not let me down and I would have liked to linger much longer. Our last stop before Adelaide was a night time one at a place called Manguri which is about 40 kilometres for the opal fields at Coober Pedy. In the past because of the isolation of the place, Ghan travelers wishing to disembark at this outpost traditionally required a pick up with a local resident. As the train passed through at night it was flagged down by a bonfire and truck headlights. And here at Manguri we were invited to leave the train and try a nightcap served with chocolates by the light of an Outback bonfire, as well as get a full appreciation of the truly dazzling night sky. It was a perfect last stop and one it will be enormously difficult to forget. The three days on The Ghan was one of the most exhilarating trips I have made in my lifetime and I am so, so glad we accepted our daughter’s enormous generosity. And now, having been returned to the staid day to day events of Auckland I am secretly nurturing a growing desire to make another rail journey. Perhaps even to try the delights of The Trans Siberian Express!