But this time we hadn’t even got out of the station before a bloke in a loud shirt said cheerfully: “Wonder who’s going to be murdered tonight?”
My kids seemed disappointed when I told them that the man was joking. Or at least I hoped he was. Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express on one of her better days, has a lot to answer for.
We were travelling 1500 kilometres from Alice Springs to Darwin on the legendary Ghan. It’s one of the world’s great train adventures. Far from being murdered in our beds, we were pampered for just under 24 hours – from the moment we booked in to the moment we hailed a cab in Darwin. I envied the passengers who had travelled all the way from Adelaide.
There is something paradoxical about travelling on a sleeper train: it’s supremely relaxing but exciting at the same time, a soft adventure that thrills the heart and makes life seem deeply satisfying and worthwhile. The Ghan is among railway royalty.
Believe it or not, the only downside of riding through the heart of Australia is that the journey is over far too soon; I felt that on the two-day, 3000 kilometre odyssey across the Outback from Darwin to Adelaide 12 years ago and felt it again when we eased into Darwin from Alice a few weeks back.
I’m not at all surprised that railways are enjoying a worldwide renaissance. Sure, air travel is fast and relatively inexpensive, but being crammed into a plane is charmless and dehumanising in so many ways. But the Ghan? Ah, the very name is rippling with grace and romance.
Passengers remember their journey on the Ghan for the rest of their lives. Who gets misty-eyed about their last flight from Darwin to Adelaide?
Every Territorian should have a Ghan trip on their bucket list. And every Territorian should encourage friends and relatives heading to the Territory to come or leave by train – or both.
Our two-berth cabin was excellent. The cabins, which have been fully refurbished, include a small table, wardrobe, and toilet and shower. I’m told by someone who should know that the Ghan cabins are better than those on the Orient Express, but one third of the price. Apparently, the Orient Express cabins are so small that one passenger has to stand in the corridor while the other gets dressed for dinner. These first world problems!
Of course, none of that is an issue on the Ghan – the cabins are a reasonable size and this is Australia, so there’s no need to get dressed up before going for a bite to eat. There is a good lounge carriage on the Ghan; it’s where passengers gather to make new friends over a drink before dinner.
The quality of the food cannot be overstated. When it comes to tucker, I’ve always been more interested in quantity that quality, but even I was bowled over by the magnificence of the meals.
My duck was fantastic, but maybe the buffalo curry was better. It was a close call. And how were my humble breakfast beans turned into a gourmet dish? I seriously thought about asking for the recipe. The Ghan chefs deserve a medal for serving food fit for Territorians.
Chirpy wait staff were friendly and professional. I particularly liked the bloke who offered me a good port before I retired for the night. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Oh yes, and the wine list was terrific.
The view from the window as the Ghan dives through the darkness is increasingly rare around the world – there is no light pollution in the Outback so the night sky is beautiful beyond description.
Fittingly, I settled down for the night with the marvellous travel book, Riding the Iron Rooster – and felt very smug in my cosy bed as Paul Theroux described the horrors of train travel in China.
As we clambered off the Ghan the next afternoon, I felt that even in the Alice in Wonderland existence that Territorians enjoy so much we had done something special.
There was obviously more to our new best friend Agatha Christie than penning implausible thrillers and scaring railway enthusiasts. After writing Murder on the Orient Express, she said: “Trains are wonderful – to travel by train is to see life.” TQ