Travelling Australia's Red Centre on The Ghan

Considered one of the greatest rail journeys in the world, The Ghan takes three days and four nights to travel through the guts of Australia. Southward bound, it departs from Darwin in the Northern Territory, and snakes its way across the desert to Adelaide, some 2979 kms or 54 hours of train travel away, in South Australia. Along the way passengers stop off at outback towns – Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy, where day excursions are offered – before arriving at the the opposite coast.

A blower truck used to extract dirt and dust during mining at Coober Pedy in South Australia.
A 'blower' used to extract dirt and dust during mining at Coober Pedy in South Australia. This old blower truck still functions despite its dilapidated appearance © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

From the window, the land is flat, sun-scorched and every shade of brown; it's a struggle to find any sign of life. But on descending The Ghan on its various off-train excursions, you soon realise this landscape is more green than you first envisioned. There is an abundance of life in the outback in the form of big saltwater crocodiles (‘salties’) in the far north, to dingoes, eagles, spectacular insects and reptiles, and herds of wild camel roaming the remote desert (not to mention miners out here, looking for their fortune). This immense landscape is like nothing else on our planet, but travelling it by train takes you right into its heart in comfort and style.

Litchfield National Park
A day excursion before you hop on The Ghan takes you to remote waterfalls at Litchfield National Park where you can spot wildlife and even go for a wild swim if you're game © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

On one of these days excursions you can cool off at Wangi Falls, a segmented waterfall in Litchfield National Park south of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. It's even possible to swim in the crystal clear water under the falls at certain times of the year, escaping the hot Northern Territory weather with a wild swim. Bring your your swimsuit if you're a confident swimmer and brave enough to immerse yourself in the refreshingly cold water.

saltwater (or saltie) crocodile swimming in the Adelaide River
A saltwater crocodile swimming in the Adelaide River near the Litchfield National Park © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

Elsewhere huge saltwater crocodiles (or as the Australians call them: crocs) patrol the unassuming Adelaide River in the Litchfield National Park. Look out for eyes above the water’s surface, their mighty jagged bodies are hidden underneath. These are the largest reptile in the world and the Northern Territory is the best place to see these magnificent creatures.

Dingo Fence crossing Australia's interior to protect livestock roaming vast cattle stations
The ambitious Dingo Fence crossing Australia's interior to protect livestock roaming vast cattle stations © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

Another unexpected feature of this vast landscape is the Dingo Fence, also known as the Dog Fence, a 5600km-long fence erected in the 1880s running from Surfers Paradise in Queensland to the coast of South Australia close to the head of the Great Australian Bight. It is a pest-control fence to stop dingoes killing cattle in the north and sheep in the south.

Uluru from the sky
Uluru from the air with a scenic flight excursion from Alice Springs to the Red Centre © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

See Uluru (once referred to as 'Ayers Rock', now only the resort nearby takes that name, as requested by the local custodians) from a scenic flight from Alice Springs to the Red Centre. The flight from Alice Springs to Uluru is around one hour (or 450km by road) in a small five-seater aircraft. It is followed with a walking tour of this 550-million-year-old sandstone monolith – a sacred site for the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people indigenous to the region.

dinner off the Ghan
Diners enjoying the opportunity to eat under the outback sky while socialising with other passengers on The Ghan Expedition © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

On The Ghan Expedition, there are a number of local excursions for passengers including an open-air dinner at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station.

Crossing into South Australia the train sits on a siding south of Coober Pedy in the middle of the Outback, as it is too long to fit in the small town’s station. Passengers are transported from the train into town by coach. South Australia is the driest state in the driest continent in the world and temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer – and that’s in the shade.

The Ghan, Northern Territory
The iconic Australian Ghan has 38 carriages carrying passengers from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia © Lisa Young / Lonely Planet

The dining carriage for the The Ghan is ornately decked out to give passengers a sense of comfort and old world luxury. The food and wine served represents the region you're travelling through. Kangaroo steak and camel tagine is on offer, as well as scrumptious barramundi, a fish famously caught in the Northern Territory (of course vegetarian and other dietary needs are also covered). But the best thing is the all-inclusive wine and beer: no need to worry about shouting the next round of drinks if you befriend some other passengers, when you travel on the Gold Service ticket. Get stuck into a bottle of Australia's finest wines while watching the epic landscapes pass by.

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