It’s hard to understand until you’ve been on the journey, but The Ghan is much more than a train ride. Meaning can be found on the railway tracks.
WORDS AND PHOTOS Phoebe Lee
I was with my aunt when the words tumbled from the doctor’s mouth. It was just the two of us, like when I was a child having a sleepover at her house, learning to sew, and eating chocolate. Now, 30 years later, we were together again, listening as the doctor explained she had only weeks to live.
During those weeks, our talk turned to life, love, and dreams unrealised. Like most people, my aunt had a list of things she’d always wanted to do, but never accomplished. At the top of that list was riding The Ghan.
When she first mentioned The Ghan, I got online and requested a copy of the rail journey brochure. When it arrived, I took it to the hospital and my mum, my aunt and I sat together, flipping through the curated pages. We talked for days, discussing the cabins, what the food might be like, who we would meet and all the experiences we’d book. We agreed as soon as my aunt was strong enough, we would stop putting it off. We would book a trip.
We ran out of time.
FULFILLING A PROMISE
Months later, as the coach pulled up to Darwin’s Berrimah Terminal, I caught my first glimpse of The Ghan’s vibrant red locomotive and a wave of emotion surged through me. I felt guilty, in a sense – I was there, and she was not. But mostly, I felt proud that I could honour my promise to her to go on this journey after learning how to stop merely dreaming and start doing.
The Ghan rattled to life and my journey from Darwin to Adelaide began. In the glamorous Queen Adelaide dining carriage, I tucked into a decadent two-course brunch of grilled haloumi and roasted carrots, followed by white chocolate and lychee pancakes lashed with double cream and passionfruit salsa. The chatter of new friends filled the air as we sipped coffee and champagne, swapping introductions and sharing our collective excitement for the days ahead. Most, it seemed, had dreamed of this moment, just as I had, and some had loved it so much the first time, they were back for seconds.
We soon arrived in Katherine for our first off-train experience: exploring Nitmiluk Gorge. The intense heat washed over us as we climbed aboard boats. Our guide, Pat, shared stories of the Jawoyn people, the traditional custodians of the land, as we marvelled at towering sandstone cliffs streaked in shades of black, red and grey with lush green foliage bursting through. Birds and crocodiles shared the serenity as we cruised across the glassy water. Dramatic and humbling, void of human interference, it offered a reminder we are all part of the land, and we all belong to it.
After a night rocked to sleep by the motion of the train, I woke up in Alice Springs. As I wandered through the red earth of Simpsons Gap, I enjoyed the simple sight of a Ghost Gum and soaked in views of the Northern Territory’s vast, arid landscape. I felt small somehow, yet part of a much bigger whole, an experience both personal and shared.
After the day’s adventures, the full complement of passengers came together for dinner under the stars at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station.
“I felt proud that I could honour my promise to her to go on this journey after learning how to stop merely dreaming and start doing.”
“As I wandered through the red earth of Simpsons Gap, I enjoyed the simple sight of a Ghost Gum and soaked in views of the Northern Territory’s vast, arid landscape.”
I caught up with a couple I’d met the day before and heard about their trip to Uluru, a bucket-list moment they’d been dreaming of for years that had lived up to all their expectations. Live music, dancing and camel rides capped off the day before I settled back into my cabin to be whisked onwards through the night.
As the sun rose the next morning, the wideopen scenery of South Australia came into focus through the window, a display of pastel colours and earthy tones. I settled into the cuddle of pillows and blankets in my bunk, cupping my coffee, listening to the train hum and rattle. These were the moments I cherished most. Nowhere to be, nothing to do and no phone reception to interfere.
When the train’s long shadow came to a stop at Manguri, I boarded the coach with my fellow travellers for our next off-train experience. We drove to the Breakaways, a dramatic moonscape, once covered by sea. Then it was onwards to quirky Coober Pedy and its underground opal mines, where I swapped stories and laughed with other guests while we dined together in a dugout.
Outside, I crouched down next to a cluster of Sturt’s Desert Pea, a variety of wildflower with blood-red petals and a bold black centre, pushing its way through the scorched earth. It was the unique flower my aunt and I had sought out on a road trip through the Nullarbor when I was in my teens. Seeing it on this trip and especially on this day, my birthday, I felt certain this was a sign she was watching over me.
At dinner that evening I found myself seated with Eddie, a sweet young man of around 12 with a passion for rugby league and rail travel. He was on a trip with his grandmother, something they had done for years. “This one will be the last,” she explained. “He’s becoming a young man and he’s outgrown these trips. That’s what he’s supposed to do.” Her grace and love of Eddie’s life journey warmed my heart. I was drawn from my reverie by the lights dimming and the carriage erupted into song, a delightful rendition of Happy Birthday to herald the next year of my life.
While my journey on The Ghan came to an end in Adelaide, 2,979km from where it began, its meaning did not. On a personal level, the trip was an incredible experience in honour of an incredible woman. But beyond that, it will forever be a talisman of hope, a reminder to seize every moment in life and never delay a shot at happiness, to hold those we love close and to always be looking to find your Ghan.
THE GHAN EXPEDITION
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