During the 19th century, the vast interior of Australia was slowly but steadily being opened up. Much of it desert, there also existed places where livestock could be grazed, and the potential riches from the minerals there were recognized at an early stage. Travel was an arduous undertaking, and plans were drawn up for a rail link that would make the land available for exploitation.
Opening up Australia’s Outback
In the very early days camels were introduced from South Central Asia to work the trade routes to and from the interior. Along with them came their drivers, mostly natives of Afghanistan who were accustomed to the harsh conditions. When the earliest railway north from Port Augusta was built it became known as the Afghan Express in honour of those hardy individuals. That name was eventually shortened to ‘The Ghan’.
In 1878 amid great fanfare, the first length of rail was laid at Port Augusta on the South Australia coast. While the railway would be built in sections, the long-term plan was a grandiose one – the railway would eventually stretch 2,970 kilometers north to Darwin on the Timor Sea. Construction northwards took thirteen years to reach Oodnadatta, about a third of the way to Darwin.
In the meantime, a line from Darwin southwards was also under construction. It took until 1929 for this line to reach Birdum (500 km), where it stopped as funding ran out in the Great Depression.
The Railway to Alice Springs
The railway connection north to Alice Springs was the next target, but it would take a while. In 1926 work began to extend the line from Oodanadatta. The section was completed in 1929, opening the way for Alice Springs to develop from the small settlement it then was. There was now railway track across two thirds of the continent north/south.
The first train journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs took three days. The line was narrow gauge, and the land it traveled across was often unstable. Journeys could be delayed by floods and washouts, sometimes for days. In places the train’s speed was as low as 20km per hour over long stretches.
In 1942 Darwin was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The city was a focal point in the nation’s defences and good access was critical for the movement of men and equipment. There was debate over a hasty completion of the railway, but instead the road between Alice Springs and the terminal of the Darwin line was sealed with tarmac.
In the 1970’s South Australian officials started to address the line’s limitations. A new track was laid 200km to the west, away from the Lake Eyre Flood Plains. In 1980 the new Ghan started service to Alice Springs. It had much improved accommodation and provided a whole new tourist experience, making the Red Centre more easily accessible. The Adelaide – Alice Springs train journey was cut to 24 hours.
In the Northern Territory, the line to Birdum had been experiencing a steady drop in patronage as road transport took over. It was closed in 1976 and the track removed.
The Ghan Goes to Darwin
With the Ghan service north to Alice Springs increasing in popularity and the tourism industry becoming more important to the economies of both South Australia and the Northern Territory, it wasn’t long before attention turned back to the original plan – a rail link all the way to Darwin. Work began in 2001, and within two years the first freight trains were operating. On 1 February 2004 the first Darwin-bound passenger train set out from Adelaide, and two days later it arrived in Darwin amid great celebration. The Ghan service had finally completed its planned journey.
Taking the Ghan Today
A modern Ghan journey can be taken in luxury, with fully equipped sleeping cabins and excellent dining. The journey provides visual access to an environment that is hostile but fascinating, and organized tours allow for a wonderful series of excursions along the way. The Ghan leaves from both Adelaide and Darwin twice a week, and takes 47 hours to cross the continent.