Petra has flown in to join me in Adelaide where I've arrived from Tasmania. I have to get myself up to Darwin for my flight to East Timor and the Ghan seemed the obvious way to do it. The centre of Adelaide is very different to my first trip thirty years ago. It’s gone high rise and modern.
Ghan is short for Afghan. The original Adelaide to Darwin train was called the Afghan Express, because of the Asian cameleers who supported the engineering endeavour. They were collectively known as Afghans, even though many came from Pakistan, Persia and India. The first part of the railway, from Port Augusta, near Adelaide, was begun in 1878, but not extended to Alice Springs until 1926. The extension through to Darwin didn't begin until this century, facilitating trade links to Darwin and thus Asia and opening up tourism opportunities.
Today’s train is (I imagine) very different from the original. It runs weekly in each direction and we have extremely well fitted out single cabins, in what looks like an almost new carriage. The storage is cunningly contrived to make good use of every inch of very compact space. It’s certainly infinitely superior to the offerings on Amtrak. So is the food - and there’s unlimited access to soft drinks and alcohol. Which probably explains why the ticket is so expensive.
Our scheduled travelling time, including excursions, is 53 hours 15 minutes. And we are travelling 1,851 miles on what is now described as one of the world's great passenger trains.
The train rolls peacefully along, past wind farms, salt pans and the Flinders Ranges. As with Amtrak, however, there are plenty of halts in railway sidings.
It’s the outback sunrise experience this morning: bonfires, bacon and egg sliders and a view of the sun, a huge fiery ball bursting over the low bush.
From then on it's red dirt and low green terrain. The train manager attempts to make things more exciting. 'The Northern Territory sign is ahead, get your cameras ready'. It’s so unprepossessing I almost miss it. The iron man sculpture that is promoted as the next attraction is even more diminutive. But the outback scenery, the squat acacia and the quavery ghost gums more aesthetically pleasing than the man made art, is a relaxing backdrop. It’s a good chance to recharge batteries (mine this time) and chat to fellow passengers. These are nearly all retired Aussies, (think Norfolk Island) for the most part extremely sociable. Australia is definitely one of the friendliest countries in the world.
I was in Alice Springs thirty years ago too. I’ve retained a soft spot for the name ever since reading Nevil Shute’s novel, when I was eleven. First stop is John Flynn's Grave Historical Reserve. He was a Presbyterian minister who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The site is marked by a boulder stolen from an aboriginal sacred site.
This afternoon, I’m heading out to the McDonnell Ranges for a walk at Simpsons Gap. Long pants and covered shoes are obligatory. They don’t want the punters getting bitten by snakes. The sky is azure, the ridges fiery red, the dusky rock wallabies peer down at us from the heights and the bus driver plays a didgeridoo.
One of the very elderly passengers has gone AWOL this morning. The crew are walking through the winding corridors calling out ’Donald?’ and looking anxious. He can’t have got off. All the doors are locked.
The landscape is now golden rather than red. There are more trees, though they’re spindly and interspersed with minaret-like termite mounds. Today’s excursion takes us to Katherine Gorge, on the edge of Kakadu Park, where we embark on two cruises on a pair of the thirteen gorges, walking between the different boats. The scenery here is splendid, with wonderful reflections on the still waters of the Katherine River, especially the pools between the gorges. The escarpment towers above us and (relatively) friendly freshwater crocodiles bask on rocks. Any of the much less amenable salties that are discovered are transported to reserves. (They put out red plastic decoys and look for teeth marks.)
One of the attendants tells me that Donald was discovered in the platinum class area. The more affluent amongst us have a separate dining car, which we thought was locked off, (we couldn’t get in) but Donald managed to find his way through and was hogging a table and enjoying a superior breakfast.
The Ghan is undoubtedly a comfortable train, but it’s more of an excursion experience than a train ride. We seem to have slept through most of the terrain. Perhaps there isn’t anything else to see? We're decanted at Darwin and I prepare for my early flight to East Timor.
I've flown to Melbourne from Niue via Auckland. And The Great Ocean Road is one of those scenic wonders of the world that’s been on my bucket list for some time. So, I’ve decided to squeeze it into this trip on a one (very long) day bus tour.
The passengers on my ‘small’ (20 passengers) bus option are a polyglot bunch. Qataris, Filipinos, Indians, Latvians, Brazilians, Spanish, Romanian, no Australians and one American. The American, CJ, is a young, good looking black guy on a round the world trip. He has laudable ambitions to make round the world travel more accessible to his fellow countrymen and is setting up a website. He’s an intelligent and thought provoking companion. He also carries my coat and bag and takes photos of me. What more could I ask for?
The scenery, along much of the 243 kilometre drive, is reminiscent of parts of the South African Garden route. Wide golden beaches, wild sprawling cliffs and the sea cascading over glistening rock steps and pavements. It’s clear why one stretch has been named the Shipwreck Coast. It must be glorious in the summer sun (though packed with traffic – there are plenty of tour buses out today in the depths of winter) but today’s clouds add superbly to the brooding atmosphere.
The road was built as a World War One memorial (it’s the longest memorial in the world) and construction took 13 years. There’s an arch commemorating this near the entry point near Torquay (we're back in England again). This area is known for surfing and Bell's Beach is host of the annual Rip Curl Pro.
Past Apollo Bay, the route diverts from the coast into lush English style countryside: rolling hills and lambs gambolling. next, the Great Ocean Road dives into the lush Otway National Park, This is rainforest, where incredible huge tree ferns and giant eucalyptus offer a Jurassic Park experience. Our guide, Jimmy, says that these eucalyptus are known as mountain ash (confusingly, a completely different family to the European variety) and are the third tallest trees in the world. He also says Anglesey (we stop for coffee at a town of that name named after the British original) is in Ireland, so I’ll check that fact out.
Kangaroos are elusive today. I catch one hopping by out of the corner of my eye and a few bedraggled koalas peer down balefully from the treetops. (Not in the mountain ash though - they’re not keen on these as a food source).
But this road is most famous for its rock formations. The first of these surround a stunning blue inlet at Loch Ard Gorge. There's a long story attached to the name. In 1878, a large clipper ship called Loch Ard ran aground on nearby Muttonbird Island. the only two survivors (out of 54) were a young sailor apprentice named Tom Pearce, and a nineteen-year-old Irish girl, Eva Carmichael, who was travelling with her family. Tom rescued Eva, and they both called for help to try and rescue others - though to no avail. Though Tom was recognised as a hero, the story doesn't have a romantic ending. Eva went back to Europe where she married an aristocrat.
The gorge did have an archway as its centre piece, but it collapsed and the two remaining rock pillars of the gorge have been named Tom and Eva. They've featured in several film sets.
Three minutes along the road, the other highpoint of the day is the rock formations of the once Twelve Apostles (now eight and shortly to be even fewer, as erosion progresses). This is one of those sights that gratifyingly, exceeds expectations. The heavens clearly agree, as the sun is sending shafts of light though the clouds, bathing the limestone stacks and glinting on the surf. It’s a scene straight out of a biblical epic.
A whizz round Melbourne this morning. The city is compact and easy to navigate; it has a comfortable buzz about it. I’ve come out on a shopping mission today and Melbourne is a great place to shop. It’s not the most photogenic of cities, but I like the spacious streets and heavy Victorian/1930s colonial architecture, of the centre. Behind, tower modern skyscrapers, purple, green and black mosaics. Sandwiched in the middle, Chinatown,with the usual dragon gates and scarlet lanterns. I purchase a brand new underwater camera, identical to the lovely Olympus Tough I have at home I brought the old broken one by mistake instead), and then set off to the landmark Queen Victoria market, aiming to eat lunch there. But Chinatown spills out into lines of bright and tempting Asian eateries, abutting the main department stores, and I’m seduced into a Japanese restaurant, where the (very fresh) sushi is indeed excellent.
Melbourne is looking like a great foodie city. There are a huge variety of offerings, unusual and otherwise. There’s much less in the usual western fast food line and a great deal of oriental, as well as bakeries displaying a range of delights, most notably roll shaped cakes and pasties slathered with bright coatings (I’m not sure what of) that I’ve never seen before.
The market has even more to offer. But I’m seduced again, this time into purchasing a pair of UGG boots. I’ve been worrying that Tasmania, my next stop, will be uncomfortably cold and I’ve only got trainers with me, wet (and very smelly) from Niue. These UGGs are proper Australian ones, not the Chinese made American ones, which are at least double the price. UGG is simply a generic word for sheepskin boots here, a stall holder spends a good half hour explaining to me. I check up on the internet when I get back. Wikipedia confirms what he said. It also states that the average Australian wears them as slippers and wouldn’t be seen dead on the street with them on, as they’re deemed to be ‘daggy’.
I walk back to my hotel surveying footwear as I go. There’s not an UGG in sight, not so much as a tall boot. The footwear of choice is a trainer or heavy ankle boots (DM style). Nearly everyone has several inches of bare calf below their trousers.
Next stop Tasmania
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