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February - March 2005


Travel

Ghan Express - The Last Frontier

by Bhupendra Gandhi


One of the most adventurous, exciting and rugged train journey one can undertake, enjoy and treasure for life is to travel by “The Ghan Express” (shorten from Afghan) I would not say that Ghan is as romantic, comfortable or scenic train ride as the Trans Canadian Express that passes through one of the most beautiful, scenic part of Canada, the Canadian Rockies, full of swift flowing streams, lakes and snow covered mountain peaks with forest and wildlife that is out of this world.

What Ghan lacks in beauty and comfort makes up in frontier spirit, friendliness, comradeship and unique atmosphere that is difficult to describe and can not be found in any train journey any where else in the world. Not even in India, a country famous for some of the most romantic train journeys in the world, like Maharaja Or Rajasthan Express, a five star hotel on wheels, hustling through the historic, romantic desert landscape of the run of Rajasthan.

The Ghan recreates the frontier spirit that was so much part of the culture of the early American settlers who endured untold hardships, from harsh winters, illness to conflict with native Americans. Their storey is so ably personified and embodied in the legendary heros like Bill Cody, a genius scout and popularly known as Buffalo Bill, Erap Wyatt, General Custer, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday, a few among many.

These frontier men are immortalized by great Hollywood actors like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Gregary Peck, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and many more, in films like Shanandoe, How The West Was Won, The Last Frontier, Shane, The Wagon, Butch Casdy and the Sundance Kid and numerous Hollywood hits that kept the legend alive.

The Early Settlers:
The early British settlers battled heroically against the most inhospitable landscape in Australia, the rust-red desert where it rains once in ten years and occupies the vast areas of Central Australia bigger than France and Spain put together, crawling with snakes, scorpions and wild dingos that hunt in packs and would bring down any animal.

Australia is, in many ways a pre-historic land, a lost continent, cut off from the rest of the world, with some of the most unique and pre-historic wildlife in the world. Indeed Australia is a giant Jurasic Park, still unexplored in many ways. The geological isolation of Australia has helped to preserve the prehistoric animals and plant life that is unique to this part of the world.

The early settlers used hardy Afghan camels to open up the hostile interior. A narrow gauge Steam Ghan, a rickety slow railway travelling at just 15mph was built from Adelaide to Alice Springs, although the train did not reach Alice Springs until 1929, then a remote telegraphic station around which settlements were being established, served by the camel caravans that brought in every day use essencial items, such as food, medicine, barbed wire to fence off their land and wooden sleepers for the railway tracks . On return journey, they would take back wool, animal skin and fur.

The Ghan Story:
In the beginning the Ghan journey was unpredictableand hazardous, as the flash floods would wash away the tracks and as a result Ghan would get stranded for up to a week and more. But in those days time had no meaning, the pace of life was slow and leasurly. Travellers would willingly spend six months to a year on a ship, travelling to India, Far East, Australia and New Zealand. The ship captain was so often called upon to perform marriages, christening and read the last rights, read the holy bible for those who were buried at sea. The tracks were relaid to a standard gauge in 1980 and now extended all the way to Port Darwin, a journey of some 2000 miles, a great engineering feat not much publishized in the West.

We boarded Ghan at Adelaide, a popular tourist destination and only 200 km from Melbourne, home of the most popular Australian export, “The Neighbours.” Our train slid out of the clean and busy station in the mid-morning, among scene of euphoria, joy, emotion and tears.
Most of our fellow travellers were elderly, retired Australians who are all eager to make this dream journey, almost desirous to cross the continent by Ghan. One attraction to postpone this journey until retirement is that retired Australians get up to 50% discount on their train fares. So they leave this adventure for their trilight years, although most Aussies are as fit as a fiddle even in their seventies.

The station was crowded with their children and grandchildren who were their to see them off. The commotion was more akin to a fish market than a railway station. This reminded me of our boat journey, from East Africa to India, when practically all family members would come on board the ship to see us off. So often some people were stranded on the ship and in the end only the passengers were allowed to board the ship?

The Ghan Express is not a luxurious train. It is more like a 2* hotel on the wheel. A sleeper in Red Kangaroo is much cheaper than a Gold Kangaroo Cabin with your own private facilities. It would set you back some £800 with basic food which we found most unappetizing. It was a frozen meal reheated in a microwave, a far cry from the luxurious meal served on the Orient Express or a freshly cooked 5 course meal served on most Indian trains that cater the needs of the Western tourists, such as Maharaja or Rajasthan Express.

The Ghan is some 490 feet long with many coaches and three dinning cars and a bar that served cool drinks, especially famous Australian beer that is so popular with us the Brits. It was more like a snug bar in one of our friendly English pub, a taverna where people were friendly and it was easy to make friends.

On Board The Ghan Express:
There were some 200 passengers on board, most of them much older than us. But we felt we were in a Retirement Home, a Sheltered Accommodation on wheel, until we met a young English couple from Liverpool, David and Nancy who were both university graduates and were on an extended working holiday before they settle down and tie the knot. Working holiday is the only way one can see this vast country without spending a fortune.

There were also two young girls in their company, Mary and June, one a nurse and the other a secretary who were on a career break. We really enjoyed their company, as they were our fellow Brits and made us feel young at heart.

Soon after slipping out of the Adelaide station, we crossed the Adelaide river. Some of the stops between Adelaide and Alice Springs are Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Coober Pedy, Codney Park, Marla, Erldunda and many tiny settlements where the train just slow down rather than making a stop.

Our guide book told us that the north of Adelaide, with lush green countryside, is a home of herbivorous Emu and hairy nosed Wombat, a prehistoric animal life unique to this region that has high mountain with white Cyprus pine, oak and maple trees.

The ever changing landscape was a pleasure to watch. The evergreen lusty vegetation with numerous small rivers near Adelaide and the coast soon gave way to a barren parched interior with huge termite towers, low bushes with thich leaves and thorny cacti and kangaroos, pack of vicious dingos and wild camels that number over half a million and in need of culling.

If no action is taken, as some nature loving Australians would prefer, the native fauna and flora will completely disappear and ultimately camels would die of starvation, a calamity for nature that may change the face of this land for ever. These camels are the descendant of the of the Afghan camels set lose when they were no longer useful as a beast of burden. Now some of these camels are also exported to Middle East and North Africa.

Alice Springs: Gateway to Ayers Rock:
We disembarked at Alice Springs with many of our fellow passengers who wanted to fly to Ayers Rock, a 400 miles journey to the largest rock formation in the world and a sacred Aboriginal sight
but now a popular holiday destination that is fast becoming the most visited place in Australia.
But we just wanted to spend few days in Alice Springs, a place I always wanted to visit, an isolated, mystic place with the spiritual apprehension of truths and beliefs beyond the human understanding, that caught my immagination the day I read the novel “A Town Like Alice” when I was still at school and the author of the book Nevil Shute also became my favourite author. His books touched and fascinated me and perhaps encouraged me to write.

In Alice Springs, we wanted to see the dry river bed with hidden water, that is so often used as a race course, visit a remote sheep farm with deep artesian well, where the water rises to the surface by natural pressure through a vertically drilled hole. This source of fresh water has become a life-saver for the sheep farmers in the Australian outback. We also wanted to enjoy, to experience the sheer isolation, the wilderness and emptiness of this fascinating continent, one of the most desolate place on earth.

The full version of this article can be found in the print edition.

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