7 April to 9 April, 2013
This is The Ghan, the train named for the Afghani cameleers who rode caravans of camels across the Australian Outback. The train that bisects the continent through the center, north to south and south to north, some 2,980 kilometers, spanning a country and a continent. The trip takes three days and two nights, and crosses some off the most varied geography I've ever seen - desert, swamp, hills, rain forest, city, and, of course, The Outback.
We left just past noon on Sunday, 7 April, settled into our Red Service Day/Night reclining seater. We've become fairly adept at packing for the trip - check the large rolling luggage, carry on the "overflow" bag with clothes and toiletries for on board, carry on backpacks with computers and kindles and all, and carry on a bag with fruit, bread, cheese, peanut butter, snacks, and empty water bottles to be refilled on the train. (Yes, we look just a little bit like refugees from somewhere.)
We recognized fellow passengers from our two previous treks across the Indian-Pacific route, as well as a few crew members - most notably our buddy John, the train manager with the gravelly voice and off-the-wall sense of humor. (Turns out he used to be a stand-up comic - no wonder he's so funny!)
And we chatted with new passengers - most interesting was the young woman from the Netherlands, sitting right in front of us, and travelling with a toy hedgehog named Bert, who sat on the empty seat next to her. Really, Bert was her travelling companion of the past 17 years or so, and she often takes photos of him in front of the various sites and places she visits. And he sits next to her on the train.
We crossed the Adelaide Plains, green and grey with low plants and the Flinders Ranges and various mesas in the distance. And saw a few kangaroos as the sun created a spectacular farewell to the day.
We woke up in what is known as the Red Center - red rock, red soil, red hills - this is the middle of Australia, the vast red Outback. No, I don't know why everything is so red (including the kangaroos - well, they're red for camouflage) - I would guess there's iron ore in the soil and rock, thus the red color. But I don't know for sure - it just makes for incredibly beautiful scenery in a stark and almost foreboding landscape. This area was definitely more scenic than the Nullarbor, but it had that desert feel to it - stark, dry, dusty.
We had a four hour break in Alice Springs. We chose to skip the pricey helicopter flight out to Uluru (Ayers Rock), or even the group tour bus ride, and we just walked around for a few hours, had lunch, watched the people in the town. And looked at these sculptures along the information walkway from the train station to the mall - these were the only camels we saw on this trip.
One of the interesting aspects to walking around Alice Springs was that there are a lot of Aboriginal people who live in Alice Springs, and in the more northern (and warmer) parts of Australia. We've seen very few Aboriginal people in the southern region of the country - and given what we know about the original peoples of this country, it just seemed odd to mostly see people of either European or Asian descent. So it was just interesting to finally see and meet some of the original people of this country. There seems to still be a great deal of separation between the ethnic groups in this country - although a TV program on immigration I just watched this evening said that Australia has more ethnically-mixed marriages than any other country in the world. At any rate, what we see is somewhat reminiscent of pre-1960 USA, with the separation of African-Americans and Euro-Americans. Sad to see in this day and age, but so it appears to be.
Oh - and we saw a butcher advertising both kangaroo and camel meat. Yes - both are for sale in Alice Springs. I don't think I'd eat either - there's just something about eating intriguing and hard-to-find animals that just seems wrong. I know, both are considered pests here. I still do not plan to eat either.
Leaving Alice Springs, we went through a very hilly area. I don't know if this region has a name, but Alice is just about in the middle of the continent, both horizontally and vertically. There were rocky hills on both sides of the train, so I don't think it was a particular range - just hilly country, rather than the flat plains and desert of much of the central region.
Anyway, we reboarded the train in time for another magnificent sunset - I don't know if it's the dust in the air, or the wide open spaces - but these are incredible sunsets that seem to take an hour or more, colors lingering in the sky, clouds clinging to their yellows and pinks and oranges, the sky itself changing from blue to aqua to lavender, defying the sequence of the rainbow and following a color order known only to itself.
Many of our fellow passengers disembarked in Alice Springs to explore the center of the continent. We continued on with a half-empty carriage - lovely to spread out, and we were able to move to window seats, the coveted seats. Our trips on the Indian Pacific had the wonderful large windows right by our seats - this trip, we started in the seats by the wall, between two windows - still a view, but not as good for animal spotting, nor taking photos. So we only had one night without stars visible right over our heads.
We woke up to a totally new landscape in the morning - green! Lush, wet, verdant, fertile, green! Almost shocking in its conrast to everything else we had seen for the past two days!
Port Augusta is the beginning of The Outback. Alice Springs is the beginning of the Northern Territory. And a night's train ride north of Alice is the beginning of the wetlands encompassing much of the Top End of Australia.
Okay, so we didn't see any crocodiles in the rives and billabongs (water holes) we rode past. But the rivers were muddy, billabongs were numerous, and the dirt service road that runs along the railroad tracks would periodically disappear into huge mud puddles, almost billabongs themselves. I kept looking for crocs, but apparently the crocodiles in this part of the world are saltwater crocs, and they tend to stay closer to the coast. And yes, they are in the ocean. But during rainy season, which is just ending, they tend to wander up river and hang out in billabongs. (And today's newspaper headline was that giant crocs were found by major roads and near school yards. So it wasn't quite as naive of me to look for crocs as it might seem.)
Anyway, we travelled through green flooded forests, trees standing in a half foot or so of water. And bright green plains, and farmland with grazing cattle, and more and more forests - some still flooded, others growing out of long grasses.
The soil was still red, and there were occasional billabongs along the side. A few rivers, a few bridges, and more signs of civilization - cars! Roads! The occasional house! A farm!
And then the town of Katherine - Katherine is actually about 7 or 8 kilometers from the train station, and there were tours as well as a bus to town. Some of the tours went to Katherine Gorge, in the Litchfield Park area - but we plan to do some exploring on our own after our week or so in Darwin, and so we weren't enthusiastic about taking a group tour. (We just aren't good group tour people, we like to move at our own pace, and not move around in a large group of people.) So we stayed around the station, or in the train, and caught up on email, reading, all that.
The rest of the passengers returned, and we had another four hours or so before we arrived in Darwin. The most exciting part was an area of grass and trees with pockets of bush fire and low smoke - a few people were excitedly taking photos, and we agreed that the train crew most likely called in the fire to emergency services. (Since most of us didn't have phones, there wasn't much we could do about this.) The fire was progressing slowly in all that wet and green - but it did seem to be continuing, despite the lack of dry kindling.
Again, there was the slow increase in signs of human activity until we were suddenly at the Darwin train station - also quite a bit outside the town itself.
A bus ride later, and there we were, in downtown Darwin. Fortunately our hotel was only about two blocks from the bus depot, so we rolled our luggage along and settled in.
And Darwin - well, that's another blog. Right now, it's going on 1 AM, and I think it's time to sleep.
But remember, you can click on a photo to enlarge it and see more detail.
I think my favorite is the sunset with the clouds making a giant numeral 2. Any guesses on what that might signify?