Most visitors to Australia start their trip in one of the major cities – maybe Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. But I’ve headed to Darwin, the only city in Australia’s vast and remote Northern Territory. And I have a specific reason for visiting Darwin – it’s where I will board the train for one of the world’s great railway journeys, The Ghan Expedition.
During my journey of four days and three nights, this huge train will snake across Australia. I’ll see the country’s scenery slowly change from the rich green tropics to the Martian-red desert. And all from the comfort of my air-conditioned, ensuite cabin!
You find yourself lingering in any shop or café with aircon when you visit Darwin. That’s not surprising, when you consider that the city is nearer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney. It’s easy to understand why the climate is so steamy.
There are a few colonial era civic buildings but much of the city is pretty functional and the architecture of the 1970s and 1980s dominates. There’s a reason for this. Darwin was flattened by a cyclone on Christmas Day 1974 and had to be rebuilt pretty much from scratch.
It’s worth taking in the city’s skyline and mangrove-fringed shoreline on a three-hour sunset cruise. I headed past Cullen Bay Marina’s vibrant bars and restaurants and along the pontoon to board the stylish catamaran run by Sail Darwin.
Skipper Jevon Reif handed out the complementary cold beers and chilled wine as we prepared to set sail, passing through the formidable lock system to reach the open water. “In six hours you can go from a one metre tide to an eight metre tide,” he told us.
Jevon’s fishing trips are particularly popular with visitors and barramundi is the prize catch. But some people just go to experience the sunsets and enjoy the cooler sea air. And depending on when you visit Darwin, you’ll get a very different view. “During the monsoon time, which is normally January or February, we don’t see so many sunsets. In the dry season there’s a lot of dust around, so it changes from a rainbow effect into an orange effect,” explained Jevon.
Next morning, I took a 60-minute drive through the thick forests, past scrubby bush and alongside lush, green wetlands to reach the wonderfully named hamlet of Humpty Doo. A small metal gangway led down to the wide, brown Adelaide River. I was here to see one of the area’s most famous residents – crocodiles.
Skipper and guide Mike Keighley of the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise promised that I’d spot one of the huge reptiles. “We do four trips a day, every day of the year. There might be one trip each year where you don’t see a crocodile. It’s 99.9% guaranteed that you will see one!” said Mike.
Crocs had been in decline but attitudes toward wildlife have changed in recent years and they are no longer threatened. “Numbers have been increasing by 10% each year, because we’ve stopped shooting them,” Mike cheerfully explained.
Humans need to respect the crocodiles and their space – or face the consequences. “A lot of people fear them but you shouldn’t worry that these animals will walk into your home and take you out of your bed! They belong in the rivers. If we keep out of their backyard, they’ll keep out of ours,” Mike said, before he told me about a local fisherman who carelessly waded into the water, a decision that cost him his life when he was snatched by a croc. I wouldn’t go that near to one of them. They can exceed 500 kilos in weight and 6 metres in length.
As the boat proceeded down the brown river, every few hundred yards, a short break in the dense vegetation revealed marks down the muddy riverbank where crocs had slid into the water. It was hard to believe that this foliage is teeming with wildlife. “Scientists say that the biodiversity here is some of the top in the world – comparing favourably with the Serengeti. There’s lots of little heartbeats around here,” smiled Mike.
I saw what I first thought to be a floating log but on closer inspection its yellow eyes were firmly locked on our boat. Within minutes we’d seen half a dozen crocs. Mike recognised and named individuals, describing their special features. First, there was the ‘mother’ croc with no front legs. Mike had a story, which explained every croc’s distinct appearance.
“It may be a bit crazy but I have worked with crocodiles for thirty years. You do get to know them. They eyeball you. They look at you. If I wear different clothes they will react differently. They are definitely attracted to bright colours, particularly red, like lifejackets,” said Mike, which didn’t reassure me. “They want to make sure that it is their buddy coming down to see them. We’ve seen some grow up over the years. Some of them I can scratch on the neck with a big broom!”
The company’s name refers to ‘jumping’ crocodiles and they do leap up from the muddy river waters to snatch chunks of meat, which the boat crew dangle from a line. As their jaws chomp at the bait, the sound of their powerful bite fills the air. There was only a rail and canvas panel between our legs and the crocs in the river but Mike assured me they don’t actually jump on deck.
I kept having to remind myself that this is not a zoo. We were watching these formidable creatures in their natural environment. And they were watching us too. Each croc appeared to be in charge of its own stretch of the river. I felt that they were making sure that we had left their bit of waterfront real estate. “The small ones live in around 20 metres of river, while for the bigger ones, it might be half a kilometre,” said Mike.
Many locals and visitors drive for an hour further inland so they can immerse themselves in the water, away from crocs, at Litchfield National Park. “You’ve got escarpment country, you’ve got monsoon vine thickets, you have open woodlands, flood plains and it’s a great, diverse national park,” said Chief District Ranger Norman Greenfield.
The park’s waterfalls and plunge pools provide a popular place to chill out in the high humidity, mid-thirties temperatures. “Everybody wants to have a swim. Everybody wants to see the waterfalls. It’s what keeps this place ticking over,” said Norman.
At Tolmer Falls, two cooling white water jets plummet over 100 feet from the cliff top. Can you swim underneath the falls, I asked Norman? “It’s not recommended, but people do,” he responded, somewhat wearily. It’s recommended that you follow the rangers’ advice. One swimming area had been closed because crocs had been seen. They’d managed to swim up river during the heavy rains.
“Reassure me that, when the pool is reopened, there will not be crocodiles in it,” I asked. “We have a thorough survey regime. When we open up something in the park, we’ve done our best to minimise the risk,” said Norman. He told me he would let his family swim in a pool once it had been checked and reopened.
My favourite spot was Wangi Falls. After a short stroll through the monsoon forest, I reached a narrow and fairly steep red sandstone gorge. The pink boulders and rocks create pools of water, which gently cascade 300 metres down the narrow valley towards a deeper pool. You can stand shoulder high in the cooling water of the bottom pool. I sat on one of the large, red, poolside boulders, dangling my feet in the deliciously chilled water under the shade of the eucalyptus trees above.
“Don’t rush through the park at the speed limit. Take your time,” said Norman, adding, “When you go onto the tabletop on your drive back out, you’ll see one of the most intact woodland escarpment sites left in the Northern Territory. It’s the sort of habitat you would have found 150 years ago,” he said.
We didn’t hurry back to Darwin. I wanted to see the magnetic termite mounds. Part of this barren landscape is filled with what resemble equally-spaced red headstones. “It’s eerie in the early morning mist. It looks like a graveyard,” said Norman.
Tour guide Joey took me to one of the incredible structures, built by the tiny termites. “They mix up dirt, poo and spit like their own cement,” explained Joey. “This one is fifty years old,” he said, pointing to a cathedral termite mound.
There are over 1,500 types of termite mound. The size and shape of the structures vary according to the type of termite that lives within them. This one, the cathedral, has a groove along one side and if you touch it, it feels cooler. It’s like a giant car radiator. It keeps the termites cool.
Joey informed me that you can eat the cathedral termites and that they taste like pepper. Aboriginal people use the magnetic termite mounds for underground cooking. The sharp edge of these structures miraculously point to magnetic north – which gets the sun in the Southern Hemisphere. The opposite side is cooler and that’s where the termites live. “Anybody fancy some bush tucker?” shouted Joey, as he picked up an ant, offering me the chance to lick it. “It tastes of lime.” I politely declined.
For tours of Litchfield National Park and the Northern Territory visit Outback Tour Services.
The first, indigenous Australians know every taste and food source you can find in this wilderness. Graham Kenyon is an Aboriginal leader and he’ll explain his community’s customs and practices when you visit Pudakul Cultural Tours.
As we wandered through the bush, Graham paused to explain the medicinal or culinary uses of trees and plants. “We call this a milkwood tree. If you fall over and cut yourself, if you burn the ash and apply it, it’s antiseptic,” Graham explained. We were shown a tree that provides a native, bush plum. That’s used for jam making. Another tree, when in flower, indicates that it is time to go fishing.
Graham explained that young aboriginal men and women learn about plant properties when they are sent into the bush, with no food or camping kit, on ‘walkabout’. They need to learn survival skills to get through this rite of passage, which can last months. We had a go at one of the skills, spear throwing, but I’d be hopeless if I had to rely on my wits in the wilderness.
When the young people return, they must have no further direct contact with family members of the opposite sex – even on the phone. To Westerners, this seems really harsh. It’s clear than life on an aboriginal settlement is tough. What you might have seen in the movies is a romanticised version of reality.
We got the chance to play the didgeridoo and Graham helped us to identify genuine instruments from fakes. “Feel the weight of it. If it is too light it’s probably a fake one, made out of teakwood. If it’s very straight, it’s probably been factory made,” Graham said.
After the high humidity of the Northern Territory’s tropical rainforest I was looking forward to the chilled, air-conditioned train and a journey across Australia’s incredible outback, where people live underground and the doctor is in the air.
The first sight of the The Ghan Expedition was breath-taking, its gleaming, shiny silver carriages snaking away to almost a kilometre in length from the distinctive, double, red engines. This would be my home for the next four days, travelling 1,851 miles from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south.The train service is named after the Afghan camel caravanners who once conveyed goods across the Aussie outback, before the railway tracks were laid.
Train manager Marie told me that the service has a rustic elegance. I liked that description. “We have three-course dining in the restaurants with white tablecloths, champagne and silver cutlery,” explained Marie. “And then you step off into the red centre of Australia and get red sand on your boots. It’s really something unique that you don’t get anywhere else in the world.”
I quickly discovered that travelling across this vast wilderness was going to be a relaxing experience when I overhead a fellow traveller say she was going to ‘take a quick nap before lunch.’ You eat, drink, dine, sleep and shower on board the 900m long train, which snakes across the heart of Oz at a top rate of 115 km/h, twice the speed of the old desert camels.
Steward Phoebe was looking after me and my fellow passengers in this coach for the trip. She came to my well-appointed cabin to discuss off-train excursions and to ensure that I knew how to operate my private ensuite shower and toilet.
After a morning aboard The Ghan, we reached our first stop – the Katherine Gorge. Everyone disembarked to board coaches that took us to a riverside wharf. We travelled up the river by boat as the fast flowing waters wound along a set of interconnected gorges carved deep in the red sandstone valley.
Both science and folklore offer explanations for how this spectacular terrain was formed. “The scientific way is that this gorge was created by a large earthquake, which made a crack in the sandstone that stretches out 500km and is 2km thick,” explained guide Raymond Furrimah of Nitmiluk Tours. “The cultural explanation is that the gorge was created by a giant snake. We do believe he is resting at the second gorge in the deepest pool. It’s 45m deep.”
The scenery is reward enough. But Raymond also pointed out where the sheer cliff face was decorated with aboriginal art dating back at least 20,000 years. “There are about 700 art sites. Some of them are very sacred. You see paintings of our ancestors communicating with the Europeans that came here.”
The crew transformed my cabin from sitting room to bedroom when I was in the gorge and I found my single-berth bed snug and comfortable, although sleeping on a moving train takes some getting used to! Next morning, I woke to an announcement that we were approaching Alice Springs.
I had imagined Alice Springs to be an American style wild-west town in the middle of the outback. In reality, the centre is well watered and floral, which makes up for the rather bland 1970s concrete buildings that give it the appearance of a British new town. Even though Alice is a bustling settlement with department stores, supermarkets and a McDonalds, it’s remote. The nearest city, Adelaide, is 950 miles down the track.
Tour guide Chris Holt said that the town’s setting makes it special. “It’s the mountains. The MacDonald Ranges go through town. They are quite barren and you don’t have trees to get in the way of the view. They stretch about 400km in total.”
So how did Alice Springs gain its unusual name? “It was founded as a repeater station for the overland telegraph line. They found an area that had water, which they thought was a spring and named it after Alice Todd, whose husband was the driving force behind the Telegraph line,” Chris explained.
Chris told me that the river running through Alice Springs is quite famous because of one of its annual events, the Todd River Regatta. “We have boat races every year, provided there is no water. The boats have no bottom so you do a ‘Fred Flintstone’ – pick it up and run.”
When you browse the town centre’s arcades and malls, you’ll soon realise that this is a centre of aboriginal art. Pieces are often created in the red, brown and earthy tones that dominate this landscape.
Alice Springs offers attractions for tourists breaking their long road journeys across Australia. The Reptile Centre draws a crowd and one Aussie inhabitant, the inland taipan, has proven most popular. It is the deadliest snake on earth! “One drop of venom can kill 150 men, easily,” warned the centre’s Chloe Volegrecht.
Luckily for me, they live on the east coast, but there are snakes all over Oz and Chloe’s colleagues are often called out to remove them from homes. “We were called out 93 times in March. We have a big bag, tongs and a hook. We don’t have any physical contact with the snakes,” she said.
If you’re cornered by a snake in Australia, Chloe says that it is best not to move. “They can’t hear but they can feel vibrations. If you’re standing in front of a snake and move around he will see a big blob, which could scare him. They have small brains and a very short-term memory of a minute or so. If you keep still, he will completely forget that you are there and go on his merry way,” she said. I suspect that could be the longest minute of your life!
And if the worst happens, wherever you are in the Outback, you can call the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The airborne ambulance service’s museum is in Alice Springs. When you arrive, you can watch a video, which explains how the service has grown to operate a fleet of 61 medical instrument-laden aircraft. The cinema features a hologram of an actor playing the service founder, explaining how the life-saving link began.
I learned that there is no charge to residents, who are often flown thousands of kilometres for medical care. There are 25 bases around Australia and David Munro is based at the Alice headquarters. “We cover 1¼ million square kilometres and an 800km radius around Alice Springs.” David explained.
So how would I get in touch with the service? “If you’re in the community you’d most likely present yourself to the clinic and talk to the doctor and nurses. If needed, they will call us to come and retrieve you. If you are in an outback situation, hopefully you will have a satellite phone with you,” David said.
Inside the museum there is a diagram of a human, with its body broken down into individual, labelled portions. The doctor, at the other end of the phone or the radio, will ask the patients to describe where their problem is, using the chart. Everybody has a copy of this document at home. “It’s contained in all medical kits,” said David.
For decades, kids in small villages and on isolated farms have been educated using two-way radios. Technology has moved on to embrace the internet and our tour took us to the School of the Air. There you can see a teacher conducting two-way video distance learning classes over the internet.
School manager Merilyn Spencer told me that the web creates a virtual classroom for kids, who spend much of their term time hundreds of kilometres apart. “All of the kids that are on remote stations have to do some form of schooling. They can go away to boarding school, but for a four-year-old, that’s not ideal. The best situation is that they do the School of the Air until at least grade 6 or 7.”
Next morning, our train stopped on the track in a barren, red landscape, 45km from the nearest settlement, Coober Pedy. A coach took us to the National Park – The Breakways. It’s been given this name because the mesas, or steep, flat-topped mountains, appear to have broken away from the surrounding hills. It’s very similar to the terrain of New Mexico in the United States.
This arid, red-earth landscape is much loved by moviemakers. Tour guide Dennis Jones reeled off a list of films featuring this location. “It’s a director’s paradise. Mad Max was filmed here and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. Many space movies have been made here too, including Pitch Black and Red Planet.”
Against nature’s backdrop, there’s another landmark – the dog-proof fence, built to keep out dingos. Apparently, it can be seen from space. “It’s the longest structure in the world – 5,614km long and 1.8m high in some parts. It took about 10 years to build. It does work – the dogs can’t get in or out of it,” said Dennis.
The name of the nearby town of Coober Pedy, possibly the strangest settlement I’ve ever visited, is derived from a well-chosen Aboriginal name. “In the indigenous language it means ‘white man in a hole’,” said Dennis. It’s an apt description. The town was settled on the world’s largest opal producing field. There are thousands of holes dug into the ground, each one accompanied by a mound – a sort of giant red or white molehill – formed from mining spoil and which gives the landscape a strange, other-worldly feel.
There are 1,700 residents here in the middle of nowhere. It’s so hot and inhospitable that 70% of residents live in homes they’ve cut into the rock and tunnelled underground. Whilst on the surface temperatures often soar above 40°C, below the surface it’s 18°C year-round. And there’s no costly air conditioning bill.
“All the hills are now full. Some of the hills have three levels of dugouts already,” I was told by another tour guide Guenter. As you drive around, you’ll see white pipes protruding from the red, rocky outcrops. These tubes provide ventilation to the cave-like and potentially claustrophobic accommodation below.
We visited a Serbian Orthodox church that had also been tunnelled into a hill. On the exposed side, the daylight picked out the colours of a beautiful, stained glass window. Incredibly, it was only built 26 years ago, but with the decline in the Serbian mining community the church is facing an uncertain future and it seems it’s soon going to be used more as a tourist attraction than a place of worship.
The Ghan’s off train excursion includes lunch deep down inside the cavernous space of a mine. You can also explore the tunnels of the Umoona Opal Mining Museum and buy opal there too. Owner Nick Troisi says the gemstone can command high prices. “It’s always priced in carats. Black opal can be worth up to $35,000 per carat,” Nick said.
Even today, speculators can buy a mining permit to see what they can uncover. “It costs around $220,” said Nick, who should know. He’s done it. “I was an unlucky miner a long time ago,” he said. Nick drew a line under his activities after he found that he was putting more money into the project that he was getting out.
It’s tough, dirty and dangerous work but for some the thought of finding a fortune is irresistible. “In the morning you could be dead broke and by the afternoon, you could be a millionaire. It does happen like that,” said Nick. Fascinating as Coober Pedy was, I was glad to get back to the Ghan to try to get all the red dust out of my hair and clothes.
Before we reboarded, guests were treated to music and nibbles around a trackside desert campfire. It was a lovely surprise on a trip filled with the unexpected. For one thing, I had not anticipated such high quality and beautifully presented food on a train.
The menus follow a contemporary Australian twist. I loved the smoked barramundi fish with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce for one particularly memorable onboard breakfast. “We have some wonderful world-class chefs on board and we like to keep the food similar to the areas that you pass through. It’s very much of the place,” explained Train Manager Marie.
Although The Ghan is almost a kilometre long, you can’t walk its length from the inside. The train is broken down into small clusters of carriages. The passengers in that group of cabins share the same dining car and lounge for live music and socialising. You get to know your fellow travellers, which adds to the friendly feel.
As I stepped down onto the platform at my journey’s end in Adelaide, I felt sad that the trip was over. The Ghan Expedition could be described as an intimate cruise ship on rails. It’s definitely earned its reputation as one of the world’s most unique and special train journeys.
To find out more about The Ghan Expedition visit GreatSouthernRail.com.au.
If you want to start your Australian trip from Darwin, Singapore Airlines flies into the city from London and Manchester, with convenient connections in Singapore.
You can hear our full report here: