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Australia: The Ghan

The wake-up knock from the carriage corridor comes at the requested hour. “Good morning,” a voice says. I reach from under the duvet and nudge my cabin door ajar. A hand appears, proffering a cup and saucer. “Your tea, sir. Milk, no sugar.” I mumble a pillowy “thank you”.

Australia: The Ghan

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The blind is then raised, revealing an orange morning in the Outback. I raise myself into seated position and take a couple of sips, feeling like an over-pampered Bertie Wooster figure being eased into the day. It’s a good cup of tea. I watch the glowing gum tree plains roll by. Travel in Australia can be tough.

But a rail trip should be judged on more than its comforts. The Ghan — the train used for the epic 54-hour transcontinental Adelaide-to-Darwin journey, whose final leg (Alice Springs to Darwin) was completed just 10 years ago — is far from just another luxury ride. Yes, it trundles its passengers (or at least the bulk of them) along in a rarefied bubble of sparkling wines and beef medallions, but more remarkable than any of its service frills is the fact it exists at all. When the final piece of track was laid in place in 2004, it marked the culmination of more than 125 years of effort.

The distance by rail from Adelaide to Darwin is around 1,850 miles. That’s equivalent in length to the journey between London and Istanbul. But whereas traversing Europe is defined by the nations encountered en route, crossing Australia has always been more about dealing with vast, untrustable emptiness. Heat levels are often extreme. Permanent running water is non-existent.

The 19th-century explorer John McDouall Stuart knew all about the toughness of the land. His various on-foot expeditions to reach the north coast from the south — exertions that ultimately left him drink-addled and near-blind — have gone down in legend. And his name still graces the epic highway that allows road vehicles to bisect the country. It was the laying of the railway, however, that required the deepest reserves of McDouall Stuart-like perseverance.

Work first started on a line connecting the two coastal cities in 1877, but muddled engineering practices paired with a weak understanding of seasonal rains meant decades of failed attempts. On multiple occasions, track was simply washed away. Termite damage and wildfires were also severe hindrances.

The railway eventually reached Alice Springs, the route’s approximate halfway point, in the 1930s. Even then, travellers riding from Adelaide to Alice were regularly waylaid by breakdowns and poor weather. Allegedly, one service became stranded in the Outback for a full fortnight, forcing the engine driver to take pot shots at wild goats to feed passengers. The Ghan’s name, incidentally, comes from the migrant Afghan cameleers, who’d long ago nailed Outback travel rather more effectively.

Even today, it’s difficult to consider the heart of Australia as somewhere conquered. The eventual 2004 opening of the monumental Alice-to-Darwin stretch of the route marked a triumph of endeavour, but the train’s smart chrome carriages still pass through a largely inhospitable, untamed landscape.

Back on board, as stark plains continue to spool past the windows, there’s a chilled bottle of white being poured in the lounge bar. “To the Ghan,” says a dressed-for-dinner passenger, clinking glasses with her husband. “To the Ghan,” he replies. “A beaut.” And you’d have to agree it’s something worth toasting.