Riding the rails

Some of the world’s greatest travel writing has been about long train journeys. Grumpy old Paul Theroux rode the iron rooster through China, charming Eric Newby and frosty Laurens Van Der Post spent a week each on the Trans-Siberian – in fiction we can swan through Agatha Christie’s Orient Express or grip the seat in Christopher Isherwood’s night train to Berlin.

So, if you’re an armchair traveller as well as an actual one, you’ll have long ago drawn up your wishlist of ideal journeys: pulling out of the station in St Petersburg in the snow or gazing out a grubby window at the Gobi desert; staring down the valleys in the Rocky Mountains or watching the sun go down over the red deserts of Australia.

Dream no more. The Legendary Ghan storms through the centre of the country, from Alice Springs to Adelaide, one of the world’s great train trips.

Our journey began with a welcome ceremony on the platform in Alice on a very hot afternoon. It is a long train, Kerouac-era silver and very sleek. Sadly, there’s no smoke stack nowadays but the steam train has been retired to the nearby museum and replaced by an enormously powerful engine with a tendency towards hurtling.

I have to admit I had imagined the Ghan to be a bit more Orient Express than Overlander, so it was a slight shock to discover rolling stock familiar to anyone who has taken a sleeper on the good old Southern Aurora in the past few decades. Of course, the shock may have been due to the sudden onrush of memories of evil goings-on during those long overnight trips during a misspent youth. But I recovered my décor composure quickly: the stainless steel bathrooms are stylish all over again, and the sleeper cabins, dining and lounge cars have all been refurbished to create a train version of a posh hotel experience. The double cabins in Gold Kangaroo class are spacious and the beds (after you fight over the top bunk) comfortable. A few of the pastel shades may alarm you, but don’t let that interfere with your experience. Let’s face it: the action is really outside the window.

It has to be the best view in the world. It’s red. Very red. And it goes forever. There are bushfires burning out of control along the horizon, ruins of an old homestead, just half a chimney remaining, and the skeleton of a T-model Ford by the track. An old roo tries to race the train and bounds off (no doubt frightened by the screams of delight from the Florida retirees in the lounge car). You watch the sun go down from the lounge car, and in the morning when you wake up, outside are the wheat fields of South Australia and long, incomprehensibly straight roads.

There is plenty of time to contemplate the scenery through your own private window, and this is, after all, one of the delights of a long train journey. There are hours of sitting and looking, reading, thinking, whatever takes your fancy. I’m told some people even speak to other passengers. Perish the thought.

Mostly there is gazing. “Journeys are the midwives of thought,” wrote Alain de Botton recently. “Large thoughts at times require large views, new thoughts new places.” There’s not much time to get too deep on The Ghan though, because you also have to deal with two other crucial aspects of modern train travel: the meals and the accessories.

In line with the refurbishment, The Ghan also places a tremendous emphasis on food. On reaching the dining car with its little booths, you’ll find linen tablecloths and fresh flowers. The dinner menu ranges from Maggie Beer’s sublime mushroom pate to kangaroo fillet to crème caramel, all freshly cooked in cramped and rattling conditions by a couple of heroic chefs with steady hands.

Like any posh hotel, the train also supplies those cute little products that always have us running for the bathroom on arrival – never mind the marble Jacuzzi, is there a sewing kit? The Ghan does not confine itself to shampoo and conditioner: each traveller is presented with a certificate and lapel pin at the end of the journey. In this and many other ways, it is consciously created as a special journey, and it is not one you will easily forget.

Departing from Adelaide and waking up on the Ghan would be a magical way to arrive in the centre of Australia. As I write, hundreds of hardy souls are out in the desert somewhere laying the sleepers and tracks that will bring the train, after all these decades, to Darwin. That will make it possible for travellers and train enthusiasts from Perth, Melbourne or Sydney to connect the Indian Pacific or the Overlander with The Ghan and literally travel the length and breadth of the country – a trip that will become in time even more legendary. Don’t dream it, book it.

Books to read on trains

Vita Sackville-West, Passenger to Teheran

Eric Newby, The Big Red Train Ride

Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Journey to a War

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

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