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Making (historic) tracks :: discovering the history of Australia’s Top End

Dorian Mode and Lydia Thorpe discover the recent history of the Top End via one of Australia’s great rail journeys- The Ghan.

Named after the hardy Afghan pioneers who, like the Chinese, were the harbingers of multiculturalism in Australia, The Ghan ( has a fascinating and rich narrative. You may be surprised to discover that, after more than 100 years of squabbling since Federation, the transcontinental rail link was only completed in 2004. An irony when you think that the link was once considered so important to South Australia, that in order to sweeten the deal with the newly formed federal government, it ceded a small tract of land to the north. You may know it as the Northern Territory. 

The Ghan has been traversing the heart of Australia for more than eighty years. Click for more information.
The Ghan has been traversing the heart of Australia for more than eighty years. Click for more information.

At the time of Federation there was an appalling dearth of rail in Australia. This is in stark contrast to the US, which had enough rail to stretch around the earth 15 times. Pre-Federation, Australia had 22 different gauges rimming the continent. The Ghan rattled over three of these gauges: Irish Broad Gauge, Standard Gauge and Narrow Gauge. Narrow Gauge was popular as it was cheap: smaller gauges meant smaller bridges, narrower tunnels, narrower sleepers. Prior to Federation passengers were likely to be ripped from their beds in the middle of the night in order to change trains/gauges and were often required to produce paperwork at the border, while the crew shot roos or rabbits to feed passengers.

Boarding the historic Ghan we feel a frisson of nostalgia as it sits like a giant silver caterpillar. The panel-lined sleepers are cosy, replete with faux Art Deco mirrors, imbuing the carriage with an Agatha Christie ambience. At any moment I expect Hercule Poirot at my door in a white suit, discreetly asking monsieur for his help with a body in the next sleeper. However, we are met instead at the door by Don. His second time on The Ghan, Don is a trainspotter in sandals and is a font of railway facts and figures. What he doesn’t know about trainsis not worth knowing. The train was refurbished in 2008 according to Don. However, it was originally built in the 1970s so it’s not the 1930s treasure we imagined, but it sure feels it. Our elegant twin sleeper comprises two comfy bunk beds and we’re super impressed that it also has a bathroom.

Drinks are all inclusive on The Ghan (including spirits). So by happenstance we discover our sleeper is exactly 52 elbow crawls from the club lounge. Or you can take a bottle of wine (all excellent South Australian drops) back to your cabin. Or like us you can do both.

As the endless monochrome of low grey scrub of South Australia scrolls past to meld into the Mars-red heart of the continent, we listen to the absorbing history of the region. Inside History readers will appreciate the impressive commentary available in your sleeper. It is very professionally produced. Each package is like a little history podcast. The package on Cyclone Tracy is especially memorable. This is heritage travel at its classiest and embodies The Ghan’s underscoring of its own sense of history.

We arrive at Alice Springs — so named by surveyor W W Mills after Lady Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd (The Todd River is named after hubby, too). The area was known by the local Arrernte people as Mparntwe. At the platform we are shepherded into a series of air-conditioned coaches. Those who tick the nature box are driven to the reptile park to ooh and ahh at giant crocs. We tick the history box of course. Our first port of call is the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame. This inspiring initiative was the brainchild of the pugnacious Molly Clark (1922–2012) and in direct response to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. Molly felt outback women needed to be recognised, too. Housed in the old Alice Springs Gaol, we are impressed by the displays of coal-fuelled irons and evocative lone objects such as a bakelite radio or an upright piano. These simple portals of civilisation must have brought such solace to these isolated outback women. However, the display is let down by its location we-thinks. After musing on the titanic challenges women faced in the outback, and reading the excellent information on the displays, we are immediately herded (as part of the same tour) into the sweaty dark cells of the erstwhile male prisoners, who have left magazine cutouts of chopper motorbikes and scantly dressed women on the walls of their cells. We felt there was an incongruity with the uplifting pioneering women’s exhibit.

Later we arrive at the Old Telegraph Station: indeed the very reason for Alice’s existence. This is a brilliant culmination of the day trip. It’s excellently maintained and does the town proud. We find the unrelenting obligato of the telegraph rather moving and wondered what life must have been like for these hardy pioneers in such a remote outpost. Directly behind the station is the eponymous spring, so named after ‘the boss’s missus’. What a thrill to see it! (Like the Todd River — and almost every other river we cross — it’s as dry as a biscuit.)

Old Telegraph Station Alice Springs
Old Telegraph Station Alice Springs

Back on The Ghan we discreetly have 13 gin and tonics and talk/dribble vociferously about our day with our fellow passengers, who are lovely. We all agree that the tour was a blast. After an excellent dinner (worthy of any fine dining restaurant) beneath the faux pressed metal ceiling of the dining car, we repair to our sleeper and soon the gentle motion of the train ensures a good night’s sleep.

The following day we arrive in ‘Kafrin’. The township/river so named after Catherine Chambers, the second daughter of Stuart’s expedition sponsor James Chambers. It’s so humid my glasses slide off my nose and we lose three stone walking from the train to the coach for our trip to ‘the gorge’. As we alight from the coach the overpowering humidity is soon tempered by our charming river cruise through the breathtaking Katherine Gorge. Our excellent guide regales us with his effusive commentary about the gorge and its environs. We all agree the cruise was a trip highlight.

As The Ghan slowly chugs its way into tropical Darwin we step into more insane humidity that makes us turn to each other and laugh out loud. We are staying at the Mantra Hotel on The Esplanade. I befriend a Buddhist monk on the trip who is also staying at — you guessed it — the Mantra (where else would a Buddhist monk stay?). Our cavernous three-bedroom suite is in such stark contrast to the confines of our cosy sleeper we wander around the place with our arms outstretched like goal-scoring soccer players. The apartment is indeed so stunning, each night of our stay we simply buy an Asian takeaway (legion in Darwin) and take a bottle of wine back to the ‘east wing’ of our hotel suite. From the balcony we watch the sunset over Darwin Harbour and discuss— among other things — the bombings. These are of personal interest as my Pop joined up in Darwin. I bring with me on the trip an album of tiny yellowing Box Brownie photos that he snatched while stationed in Darwin and throughout his campaign in Asia.

Darwin Harbour Mural depicting the first day of the Bombing of Darwin 19th February 1942, and pays tribute to all the waterside workers and seafarers who lost their lives at Stokes Hill Wharf, ‘Town Wharf’
Darwin Harbour Mural depicting the first day of the Bombing of Darwin 19th February 1942, and pays tribute to all the waterside workers and seafarers who lost their lives at Stokes Hill Wharf, ‘Town Wharf’

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