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From the tropical "Top End" down to the rolling plains of the south coast, visitors to Australia can now explore some of the world's harshest terrain while sipping champagne aperitifs and lounging in linen sheets on the new Ghan passenger train.

Aussies have been waiting almost a century for a 3,000-kilometre rail route linking north and south. The first part of the line from Adelaide to Alice Springs was finished in 1929, but it was only a few months ago that the last stretch of rail was laid between Alice Springs and Darwin. The Ghan -- named after the 19th-century Afghan immigrants whose imported camels helped conquer the Outback -- made its first run across the continent in early February. At a cost of $1.3-billion, the extension is Australia's biggest infrastructure project in half a century.

We board the Ghan in Darwin. The Northern Territory's capital is closer to Jakarta than Canberra, and stands as a monument to 1970s architecture. It's been devastated twice -- by Japanese bombers during the Second World War and by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 -- and twice rebuilt.

Scott, a steward from Adelaide with blond spiky hair, leads me to my cabin and explains the finer points of fold-away toilets. Outside town we pick up speed, swaying along tracks built on rocky earth stained ochre-red by iron oxide. Mangrove swamp surrounds us.

I wander through carriages, flexing my knees as I would do out of habit on the subway. At Hannan's Bar, sepia photos tell the story of the prospector who sparked the 1890s gold rush at Kalgoorlie, now home to the Super Pit mine, half owned by Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. Outside, vast plains pierced with giant termite mounds unfold as I relax into the train's rhythm. At a road crossing, two men jump out of a four-wheel drive and run through the long grass to catch the first passenger-carrying Ghan on video. Later I learn they are train spotters who have taken two weeks off work, sleeping in their truck, to stalk the Ghan across the harshest parts of the country.

Road trains - huge freight trucks with three trailers - try to outrun the Ghan on the Stuart Highway. The Australian media has welcomed the new rail link, saying it will open up the last frontier and transform Darwin into the country's gateway to Asia. There's been little mention that it may also spell the demise of the iconic road trains in parts of the territory.

After a few hours, the flat landscape starts to undulate. Sulphur-crested cockatoos vie for branch space on sparsely-leaved trees. White Brahman cattle, originally imported from India, graze on the green plains. Other travellers see kangaroos, and even a dead camel.

The first of our side-trips is to Nitmiluk National Park (also known as Katherine Gorge), and starts in the town of Katherine. We're shuttled out of our air-conditioned micro-climate into what could pass for a Turkish steam bath. There are only two seasons in the Top End: wet and dry. It's hard to imagine that in a few months, this place will be nothing but cracked clay.

Taffy Baker, one of our guides, left Wales 25 years ago and married into the Jawoyn Aborigine tribe. He nudges a fly from his bulbous nose and tells us to keep an eye out for "jabirus," cranes that hunt for small long-necked turtles by jabbing their beaks into the soft ground around billabongs, or ponds. For me, Baker embodies all that is Australian: He's an immigrant, he fits in seamlessly with the indigenous people, and he never leaves home without his black Akubra hat.

The Jawoyn people, the traditional owners of Nitmiluk, only won their land back from the government in 1989, Baker says. Nitmiluk means "the place of cicadas," and like many areas in Australia is named after creatures that play an important role in the "dreaming," the spiritual creation of the Aborigine world.

In the Katherine Gorge, red Kombolgie sandstone shoots up as high as 70 metres on both sides, waterfalls tumble off ancient rock and trees cling tenuously to the rock.

As we head back to the Ghan, a wedge-tailed eagle, the largest in the world, eases into flight. Dark storm clouds loom. There's no time to ask about the town's annual "Lazy Lizard Pig and Pussy Hunt," as advertised in a local pamphlet.

Over a drink in the Ghan's bar car with fellow travellers that evening, we joke about the hunt. It's not long before the combination of shiraz and romantic train travel start to take effect. I brush off the amorous overtures of a feisty Italian. "But it's in my DNA," he insists.

The next morning I wake up north of Alice Springs, revelling in the luxury of linen sheets and a room with a view. I wind open the Venetian blinds to find that yesterday's lush vegetation seems to have shrivelled overnight. Even the termite mounds are stunted. The only thing that's big out here is the sky and the horizon. The MacDonnell Ranges, which some claim were once higher than Everest, have been reduced to eroded mounds flanking "the Alice." In the Red Centre, it's what you don't see that will kill you. Not just spiders and snakes, but the unbearable dry heat and piercing sun. Locals tell me they've just endured weeks of temperatures in the mid-40s.

Still, even remote Alice Springs, the gateway to Uluru, or Ayers Rock, can't escape the long arm of Coca-Cola culture. Pine Gap, a not-so-secret U.S. military base outside the town, has converted the local appetite for sport.

While admiring dot paintings by pupils at the Papunya School, I notice in their biographies that many list softball as a favourite hobby.

If I had more time, I would abandon the luxury of train travel and go exploring. Though the refurbished veneer carriages carry an Old-World charm that plane travel has lost, this compact comfort also minimizes the inhospitable terrain. While the train is a social way of travelling, the solitude of great distance seems lost. Being a captive of my circumstance, however, I head back to the train to shower in my little metal en suite and enjoy a champagne aperitif. "Gold Kangaroo" class, modelled after Rocky Mountaineer's Goldleaf service in Western Canada, is a lot more comfortable than economy, where people do the whole trip sitting up.

After a dinner of saltwater Barramundi, Riesling and local cheeses with fig and walnut bread, my table companions, a French woman and an older Australian man, argue over whether cricket is an interesting sport. Their friendly banter fades as a full white moon rises in the east. On the other side of the train, clouds are lit fuchsia by the fading sun. I head back to my cabin early, eager to lie on my bed and watch the passing silhouettes of desert saltbush. The sound of the carriage on the tracks reminds me of the rhythmic droning of a didgeridoo. I fall asleep with the blinds up, knowing that our journey ends the next morning on the golden wheat fields of South Australia.

Pack your bags


The passenger-carrying Ghan is taking bookings six months in advance. It departs Adelaide's Keswick Rail Terminal on Sundays and leaves Darwin on Wednesdays. You can also catch the Ghan from Perth or Sydney (on the Indian Pacific line) or from Melbourne (on the Overland line).

A one-way ticket from Adelaide to Darwin (or vice versa) for a Red Kangaroo Daynighter Seat is around $450 for adults; for a Red Kangaroo Sleeper it's $1,400; and a Gold Kangaroo Sleeper is $1,750.

Only Gold service includes meals, a tour of Alice Springs Desert Sands Park and a bus transfer to your hotel in Darwin. The carriages, dating from the 1960s, are refurbished.

For groups of up to 10 people, four carriages can be rented separately and attached to the train. The oldest, the Victorian-style Prince of Wales carriage, was first used by Edward, Prince of Wales during his 1920 visit to Australia.

The train stops at Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin, but passengers can request certain stops ahead of time if they want to stay in some areas.

For more information about the Ghan, visit .


The wet season is roughly from November to May, and the dry from April to November. During "the wet," you may not be able to access Nitmiluk because of floods. MORE INFORMATION

Northern Territory Tourist Commission: .

Katherine Region Tourist Association: .

South Australia Tourist Commission: .

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