The Ghan is renowned as one of the world’s most incredible train journeys and we were recently lucky enough to go on The Ghan Expedition, where you spend four days and three nights on this gleaming 1km long train as it slips the 2979 km between Adelaide and Darwin.
It was an amazing trip. but, we have to admit, that, when we were trying to find out exactly what the whole thing involved, we had a few questions – and couldn’t always find the answers. So, I decided to make it my mission on the train to answer all of my questions – and a few extras other people might have – and pop them in one handy blog post.
And here it is.
Hopefully, all the questions you might have about a trip on The Ghan Expedition answered in one handy place.
Disclosure: My trip on The Ghan was hosted by Journey Beyond for a print publication. They did not ask or expect me to cover it here as well. I just did!
THE GHAN TIMETABLE
What time does The Ghan leave Darwin?
On our departure, it was 10 am from the station just outside Darwin – with a pick up at a hotel in the city at 8 am – so you did need at least one night in the city beforehand.
We flew in from Sydney that morning and checked into a hotel.
A quick afternoon nap later, we went exploring Darwin’s city centre, finding cool street art, some quirky shopping arcades and the interesting cathedral that merges the old front and with a shiny new modern roof (thanks Cyclone Tracy) – then had a couple of cold beers and dinner on Mitchell Street before an early night.
I personally would have liked a couple of extra days in Darwin as there were a few sights that closed before I could see them like the underground oil tunnels used in WW2.
The thing I really wanted to see, Aquascene, a school of fish that come in to be fed at high tide also weren’t munching the night we were there and we had to leave before their morning feed.
That, plus the fact that Darwin is also surrounded by amazing scenery and national parks that lend themselves to day trips and tours means you might want to factor a few days stop beforehand into your trip.
Where does The Ghan stop?
On The Ghan Expedition, which runs from April to October, you stop at Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy. There’s one stop each day.
If you do the journey in reverse and take The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin, it’s known as The Outback Spirit. It’s a shorter trip, 3 days, 2 nights, that stops at Marla rather than Coober Pedy.
There’s also a one night trip available where you just take The Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs – or vice versa. This runs Nov to Feb when the longer journeys stop as weather makes it tricky to travel the full route.
What happens when you stop?
The Ghan offers a selection of off-train excursions in each of the three stops. Of these at least three in each destination are included as part of your fare; in a couple of places, you also have the option to pay for a more exclusive experience – ie a helicopter ride over Nitmiluk Gorge or a small, plane flight over Uluru. Full details of the Off Train Experiences on the Ghan can be found here.
We chose the Nitmuluk Gorge boat trip in Katherine which was relaxing and beautiful.
In Alice Springs we choose the Outback Explorer day which gave us a real insight into what it’s like to live in outback Australia as you visit the Royal Flying Doctors Service and The School of the Air that keep isolated communities thriving.
The trip to the Reptile Centre was also amazing – if you’ve ever wondered if you can train a crocodile you’ll find out your answer when you meet Rex and Terry.
In Coober Pedy, we picked the Explore Coober Pedy trip which did a little bit of everything. We chose it because it went to The Breakaways which we hadn’t managed to visit on a previous trip to Coober Pedy. They didn’t disappoint – and the chance to toast finally arriving at them with a glass of fizz didn’t hurt either.
It was just one of the little touches The Ghan kept springing on us, that we really liked.
Do I have to book my excursions in advance?
No. It’s not like a cruise where you have to run to the booking desk immediately upon boarding to get your favourite.
The Ghan is super organised and has enough spaces for everyone on the train for most of the included excursions – including the boat rides – and they’ve been doing it long enough to know what the most popular trips are.
The exception might be bike rides, camel rides or, those using planes and helicopters where seats are limited. Of these, you can book the Uluru plane flight in advance but the others are the luck of the draw. If an excursion is really important to you, it might be worth mentioning it when you book just so the staff are aware.
Otherwise, your cabin steward will come and see you shortly after you board the train to help you pick the right excursions and book you on them.
How long do you spend in each stop?
This was the thing I wanted to know most about the trip as I couldn’t find anything on The Ghan schedule anywhere and I wasn’t sure how long we would have to see things and if we got any free time to explore. So, this is how our trip panned out – I can’t promise yours will do exactly the same, but it will give you a good idea.
Day One: Darwin to Katherine.
Leave Darwin at 10 am, lunch at 11.30, arrive at Katherine siding at 2 pm and leave for the excursions almost immediately. Each of these was 3 hours long. We arrived back on the train around 5 pm and left Katherine at 6.15pm.
Day Two: Alice Springs
Expected arrival into Alice Springs was 9 am, but we ran a little late as someone had been taken ill during the night and needed a doctor to come on board the train – but we still saw everything we expected on our excursion.
The organised part of our day lasted until 3 pm when we had the option to be dropped in town and picked up again at 3.30 or 4 pm and brought back to the train to get ready for dinner.
At 5 pm buses started to leave for the (included) BBQ dinner. The first bus back to the train from this left at 8 pm and you had to be back on board by 9.40pm. The train departed for Coober Pedy at 10 pm.
Day Three: Coober Pedy
We arrived in Manguri siding about 30 miles away from Coober Pedy at 9 am and departed for our excursion at 9.40.
We got back at 5 pm to a lovely surprise which I’m not going to spoil and then left for Adelaide at 7 pm.
Day Four: Arrive in Adelaide.
We arrived in Adelaide 20 minutes before schedule at 10.30 am. At this point, buses could be booked to take people to hotels in Adelaide but there was also a fleet of taxis waiting for passengers.
Note you don’t arrive at the main station in Adelaide centre but Parklands terminal which is closer to the airport.
Can you explore on your own at the stops?
The only place this would be feasible from the get-go would be Alice Springs where the station is close enough to town to walk or taxi in. You couldn’t do it at either Katherine or Coober Pedy.
However, the excursions in Alice Springs offered about an hour of free time (you are dropped off near Todd Mall) which we used to go hunt for street art and have a quick beer so we could say we’d been to Alice!
In Coober Pedy, you got 1 hour and 20 minutes to spend doing a short opal tour then wandering around Hutchinson Street which is the main street.
We’d only been to Coober Pedy a few weeks early so we just wandered around but you could shop for opals, whizz to the small Catholic underground church on Hutchinson Street, see the Opal Bug and the spaceship from Pitch Black and the Outdoor cinema or investigate the underground mining display at the Desert Cave Hotel in the time you have.
THE GHAN TRAIN CABINS
What’s in your cabin?
That depends on the type you book.
The Ghan Gold Class Twin: This was our room. It had a small ensuite shower and toilet. A small wardrobe, a small shelf to put things and a 3-seater sofa. At night your cabin steward comes into the cabin and turns the sofa into the bottom bunk and pulls the top bunk out of the wall. You have a ladder to climb up.
You have a window on one side of the cabin, and, you can open your door and look out the window on the other side if you want to.
The cabin is a bit snug when the upper bunk is down, you spend a lot of time bending your head, but during the day they’re pretty comfortable.
Gold Class Twin Superior Cabins. The next step up, these have a 3/4 size double bed and also an upper bunk.
They also have a TV and DVD player, two seats – and a minibar. If you like extra space, this is the cabin for you, but there are only a few on each journey so do book early.
Single cabins: The single cabins are rather like a first-class seat on an aeroplane. By day they have a small chair to sit in, which at night converts into a bed. They’re not spacious, but they are cosy – and most people left their doors open when they were in them which gave a greater sense of space. They do have a nice large window.
Single cabins also have a small sink but they don’t have their own bathroom. There are shared showers and toilets down the hall. We spoke to people staying in the single cabins and they said these were always clean and tidy and they rarely had to wait to use them.
The Ghan Platinum Class. The big posh rooms! These are twice the size of the Gold Class cabins and contain a sofa, table and two ottomans than, at night, convert to a bedroom with either a twin or two single beds.
Because of the way the cabin is laid out, you also have windows on both sides.
They also have a full-size bathroom. Platinum guests also have their own dining car and bar. The meals are the same, but you do have a different choice of wine. You can also get continental breakfast served to your room and a couple of other extra touches.
Accessible cabins: There are also a small number of accessible cabins onboard which have two lower bunks, an accessible bathroom and a wider cabin door. Ask for more details before booking.
Service dogs for the vision or hearing impaired are allowed on the train.
Do they have smoking rooms?
No. There’s no smoking anywhere on the train.
Are there power points in the cabin?
Yes – three. But there is no shaving point in the bathroom.
Is there a television?
Not in most rooms. But there is a big window with a constantly changing view which is far better.
If you want some background noise there is a small radio which pipes music or commentary on the journey into your room.
Is there a hairdryer?
Not in your room, but they have one to use at the bar.
There are no irons on board so bring things that don’t crease.
Is there a kettle or coffee maker in the room?
No. Which I admit worried me as I need at least two cups of tea to wake up each day – but at the end of every corridor is a small kitchen with a boiling water tap, teabags, coffee, hot chocolate and milk so you can make drinks at any time which was a lovely surprise.
You can also book a wake-up call and your cabin steward will arrive with your wake up beverage of choice.
On day one you’re also given a bottle of water which you can fill up from the cold tap in the kitchen.
Tea and coffee are also available from the bar and with breakfast, dinner and lunch! Caffeine addicts need not panic.
EATING AND DRINKING
Are drinks free on the train?
This is apparently one of the questions the crew are asked most and yes they are.
Soft drinks, tea, coffee, water and alcohol are all free and so long as the staff stick to the responsible service of alcohol rules there’s no limit to how many you can have.
There is a bar car for each part of the train and you can sit in there before dinner and have a glass or two as the world floats past the window.
What time is dinner?
You dine two of the three nights on the train and there are three sittings in The Ghan restaurant – 6.30, 7.15 and 8 pm.
Which you choose is up to you and booked the first day of your trip with the restaurant manager who will come to your cabin shortly after you board.
The third night is an inclusive BBQ under the stars in Alice Springs.
What’s the food like?
AMAZING. It’s based upon ingredients sourced from the areas through which you are travelling.
Highlights on our trip included the Buffalo Curry, the Crocodile Sausage starter and, oddly, the baked beans at breakfast. They do shake up the menu regularly though.
I’m a fussy eater, will I like it?
There are three courses to choose from each day including a vegetarian option.
If there’s really nothing you like on The Ghan menu, then ask your server if they can help you – much of the food on board is cooked fresh so they can often adapt dishes by leaving out certain ingredients.
I don’t eat wheat, dairy, gluten, FODMAPs, etc – will The Ghan cater for me?
Yes – so long as though tell them when you book your trip of anything they need to know they will adapt the menu especially for you and get any specific ingredients you need like goats milk or soy onboard for you.
Don’t surprise them – the supplies for the kitchen are brought on at the beginning of the trip to last the days of the journey so they need to know in advance.
THE GHAN PACKING TIPS
Do I need to dress for dinner?
No, it’s not formal. Most people changed clothes for dinner, but forget your ballgown or even a shirt and tie.
Smart casual is just perfect. I wore a dress each night but other women wore tops and skirts, trousers or jeans. For men, a shirt, polo shirt or t-shirt with jeans, trousers or even shorts for men were all okay.
This was my arrival day outfit – and I think I wore it in the evening one night too.
What else should I pack?
Flat shoes – the train does jolt from side to side as it moves so you won’t want to totter about in a heel.
If you want to do the Simpsons Gap walk in Alice Springs you’ll need long trousers and closed-toe shoes to protect you from anything bitey or stingy you might encounter; you might also want to pack shorts or trousers if you want to ride a camel at the nighttime BBQ in Alice Springs. It’s a lot easier to climb on one if your not in a skirt.
A hat is good for the excursions to protect you from the sun – it’s hot out there.
You might also want a jumper for the evening in Alice Springs as it can get chilly there at night.
Otherwise, pack light. You do not want a huge staircase cluttering up your cabin.
But I’m on a 4-week trip…
Do not worry. You can store your main luggage under the train and just pack what you need onboard in a carry on bag.
You can’t access these cases during the journey though so, bring essentials like medication in your carry on. We saw more than one person who didn’t realise this until check-in unpacking at the station.
Do I need to bring towels or toiletries?
No – not really. You’ll get towels in your room and a small supply of shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, soap and hand sanitiser which will be replenished if you run out.
They also give you a small tube of sunscreen to take when you go out for the day.
SLEEPING ON THE GHAN
How noisy is the train at night?
It rumbles a bit like thunder. Every so often there will be a jolt or a clonk, but I found it more soothing than anything. I fact, I was more likely to wake up when it stopped and was silent than be disturbed by the noise.
The video below was filmed in our cabin early one morning and while it’s a bit louder than that in reality, it’s definitely not noisy.
It does rock and a few people in the cabins with bunks said the upper was worse than the lower. Again, I found it relaxing though.
Is it comfy?
The bed is quite firm, but I actually ended up with less aches and pains in the morning than my own bed!
Are the cabins soundproofed?
No. But with no televisions in the rooms, the amount of noise people can make is limited.
We didn’t hear anything from the cabins around us, only when people were talking in the corridor or if we had our door open.
We did have a couple of children next to us for part of the trip and their voices carried a bit more.
Children? I thought everyone on the Ghan was erm, mature.
The average age was on the older side, but yes, children can travel.
Do bear in mind though there’s not a lot for them to do on the train itself and space and opportunity for wearing off excess energy is limited.
For younger kids note that strollers and pushchairs have to be checked for the entire journey.
You can also travel when up to 30 weeks pregnant.
WHAT TO DO ON THE GHAN
You don’t actually get much free time so you’re unlikely to get bored.
I spent most of my time looking out the window trying to spot kangaroos and watching the world float past, particularly in the morning when I’d get up as soon as I woke up to open the blinds and watch the sunrise from bed.
I mean come on, look at this video for a bit and tell me it’s not super relaxing.
There are bar cars in each part of the train which have games, jigsaws, magazines and books you can borrow.
Is there wifi on The Ghan?
Not on the train itself, and for most of the trip, you won’t have it on your phone either.
The area between Darwin to Port Augusta in South Australia is very much an internet black spot no matter how you travel through it and the train is no exception.
However, because you get off the train each day in a town, you will have phone signal – and wifi – there, if you have a working SIM card in your phone. What network you are on didn’t seem to matter too much.
I was on my normal Amaysim phone and my partner bought a Telstra Sim as apparently, they have the best coverage in the outback.
He got signal a little earlier than me each day but not enough to make any major kind of difference.
If you need to buy a local Australian Sim before you get on the train try Klook who will ship one to your home in advance.
Remember though, most cabins don’t have TVs and with limited internet, so, if your night isn’t complete without Netflix, best load up your queue before you arrive.
THE GHAN FOR SOLO TRAVELLERS
We met a lot of solo travellers on the trip and they were all having a great time. Despite the fact that there can be as many as 300 people on the train at any one time, you won’t feel left out or lonely and you’re encouraged to mingle.
The Queen Adelaide Restaurant dining car is fairly small and so you generally share tables with other people at dinner.
You’ll also meet people in the bar car before or after your meal and on the coach during excursions.
It really did seem to be very social and by the end of the trip, we saw lots of people who had arrived solo buddying up.
THE GHAN FOR OLDER OR LESS MOBILE TRAVELLERS
The Ghan does have a reputation for being for older travellers and if you are a little bit more mature or just a bit less mobile things don’t worry.
The train itself is very long – 1km end to end, but they had buggies waiting by the furthest carriages to help those who might find it tricky or uncomfortable to walk to the buses taking you to the excursions.
The excursions are very much tailored to all ages and abilities – if you want to go hiking or bike riding they have something, but if you just want to sit on a coach and see things from the comfort of your seat that works too. Just ask your cabin steward which excursion suits you best at each stop.
The one thing you might need to watch is that the twin Gold Class cabins have bunk beds so one person will need to be sprightly enough to climb up to the top bunk if you book this class of cabin.
Is there a doctor onboard?
No. But all the staff are trained in first aid, and, a doctor can be brought to the train if needed. This happened on our journey when a gentleman had an accident that required stitches. The train stopped in a siding for a few hours, the doctor came, everything was patched up and we went on our way.
THE GHAN in 2020
Obviously, this year has seen a lot of changes when it comes to the way we travel, and travelling on The Ghan is no exception.
We travelled before social distancing, but Journey Beyond who run The Ghan has obviously had to think about how they are going to manage that without ruining what, for many, is a trip of a lifetime..
Here are some of the things that have changed as I write this in October 2020. Things can change as conditions change though so if any of this concerns you get in touch with Journey Beyond who can give you the most up to date advice.
The main change is that you now have a set dining time and allocated times to spend in the bar before or after your meal rather than just being able to head there when you like.
The cabins have hand sanitiser and there is sanitiser in the main areas for you to use as you move around the train and before you get off to go on the excursions.
You’re asked to stay in your areas of the train rather than wander through the other sections.
The biggest change is that single cabins are unavailable as they require a shared bathroom.
The longer Ghan journeys go through two states – Northern Territory and South Australia – and so there are two sets of border requirements to be dealt with – including forms you need to fill in 72 hours before you travel. Make sure you’re aware of these so your journey goes smoothly.
There will be temperature checks when you board the train. If you have any medical conditions that raise your temperature, you should carry a letter from your doctor to explain this.
Excursions are running as normal, but with social distancing and other cleanliness requirements in place.
THE GHAN REVIEW
Is it really one of the world’s best train journeys? Well, we absolutely loved it.
As I said, I was asked to go on the trip for one of the magazines I work for.
It’s not my normal type of holiday – although I do love cruises and trains per se – so I was a bit apprehensive about being ‘organised’ as I’m normally a pretty independent traveller (hence my having so many questions about timings).
I was even more worried as I was also taking Mr Differentville with me who doesn’t always play well with others – he’s a hermit – however, neither issue was a problem.
I actually loved not having to think about anything for once. After I’d decided on my excursions on day one, the only choice I had to make was which meal to pick.
It was lovely not having to try and find a restaurant to eat in each night, or work on what bus to be on to get to whatever we were seeing that day. and then spend half the journey checking I was actually on it – it made the whole thing seriously relaxing.
Mr Differentville, actually quite liked being with people, not least because so many of the people we met were fascinating. We heard tales of the day Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, of near-death experiences that changed people’s lives and a few other tall tales I won’t repeat to protect the guilty.
We’d driven half of The Ghan route between Coober Pedy from Adelaide a few weeks earlier and this was MUCH easier – no worries about running out of gas in the middle of nowhere or hitting a wayward kangaroo – and Mr Differentville got to look out of the window and spot kangaroos, rather than stare straight ahead at the road.
No, it’s not cheap. Tickets on The Ghan Expedition cost around $2800 per person – but, if you’re wondering why The Ghan is so expensive, we worked out that to drive all that way and see everything we did, and not fall asleep at the wheel, would take you at least a week.
So, that’s seven nights accommodation, seven nights car hire and insurance and 3000km of gas. Add to that eating five-course gourmet meals for three nights – with wine and beer. Plus, guided tours every day – and a bonus for me not having to think about anything for four days and it’s starting to look positively cheap!
I think I’m now slightly addicted to train travel.
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