Travelling on The Ghan takes you deep into the heart of Australia, on a trip that is widely regarded as one of the world’s great train journeys. Here is a guide for what to expect when you travel on The Ghan, from what to wear to which cabin you should book.

The history of The Ghan

The name ‘Ghan’ is an abbreviation of ‘Afghan’ and refers to the camel drivers who were brought from Afghanistan in the 19th century to help with transport through central Australia. The importance of these camel ‘trains’ is remembered in the naming of The Ghan which travels from Darwin to Adelaide (and vice versa).

When to travel on The Ghan

The full journey from Adelaide to Darwin, via Alice Springs, takes three days and runs throughout the year. In April and from November to March you can do the same journey in the reverse direction. From May to October, there is a three night expedition journey which includes a stop at Coober Pedy and time to visit Uluru. If you don’t want to do the full journey (or if money is tight), it is possible to travel on The Ghan for just one night, either from Darwin to Alice Springs or Alice Springs to Adelaide.

The Ghan passenger age

While there is a proportion of older travellers, the average passenger age ranges from late forties to fifties, with an engaging mix of single travellers, couples and groups of friends. The trip is very popular with local travellers but you will also find plenty of overseas visitors onboard.

The Ghan onboard atmosphere

One of the great joys of this trip is socialising with other travellers in the lounge (bar) car. The atmosphere is cosy and convivial rather than boozy, the chairs are comfy and the scenery is superb. Passengers on The Ghan tend to be well-travelled and excellent company, with plenty of interesting tales to tell. Even if you don’t fancy a drink, it’s a lovely spot to read or simply chat with like minded fellow travellers.

While people do tend to put on something a little more dressy for dinner, the mood on the train is casual and relaxed. T-shirts, shorts and cargo pants are common during the day as passengers have often either returned from or are about to go on excursions. In the evening, gents tend to wear a collared shirt and dress shorts or long pants while ladies opt for a pretty sundress or slacks and a blouse. There is no need to pack any fancy clothes.

Accommodation on The Ghan

Accommodation includes the use of a private cabin (the budget Red Class communal carriages have been retired), all-inclusive fine food and wine, lively conversation with newfound friends in the bar and dining cars, and stunning scenery. Excursions at each stop are also included so you can truly experience the dramatic scenery of central Australia. Passengers can choose from three different cabins types, all of which are very comfortable. It’s worth noting that whatever cabin you stay in, the food is virtually identical.

Gold Service Twin Cabin

Most expensive are the Platinum Cabins which have a separate lounge seating area, a table and two ottomans. Platinum Cabins are almost twice the size of the standard Gold Twin Cabins which have upper and lower berths that convert to a three-seater lounge by day. Gold Single Cabins have a bed that converts to a seat by day and shared shower/toilet facilities located at the end of the carriage. The shared facilities have a large, modern tiled shower, excellent water pressure and brand name toiletries.

Cabins on The Ghan are compact and the trip isn’t that long. You will be much more comfortable in your cabin if you check your large bag when you get on the bus at your hotel and bring a small day bag or carry on for the train journey. There is a small wardrobe to put your things in but nowhere to store a suitcase in the cabins. This is especially important for single travellers as the Gold Single Cabins are rather cosy.

Service on The Ghan

Things did not get off to a particularly great start on our journey with a less-than-cheerful luggage collection at our hotel, despite our efforts to be friendly. This was compounded by service in the lounge car that was quite brusque when we first boarded the train. Fortunately, the regular bar and serving staff soon took over from what appeared to be a relief crew and the service was superb for the rest of the journey.

The Ghan comfort factor

Overall, a trip on The Ghan is a very comfortable experience. This train isn’t a high tech speed machine like a TGV. However, this only adds to its charm. There is a sense of history and grandeur that you don’t find on modern trains, with the slower journey making the most of the stunning scenery. If you are worried about sleeping, a pair of earplugs can be useful to pack in your bag. Most travellers find it easier to sleep on the second night of the journey. Unless you and your partner are slim, you will probably be more comfortable in a Gold or Platinum Twin Cabin with bunk beds. The Ghan does have cabins with double beds, however these beds are like a ‘mini-double’ and very small.

The Ghan has a charming, old-school elegance

What to do on The Ghan

Along with eating, drinking and socialising with other passengers, there are also excursions included in the cost of your fare. These range from bus tours to nature walks and a cruise up the iconic Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine. There are also some truly amazing excursions available at an ‘add on’ cost, such as camel riding in Alice Springs and a helicopter trip over the gorge at Katherine. You don’t book any excursions until you get on the train so if you are thinking of upgrading to the helicopter tour, for example, there is time to check the weather forecast before you reach for your wallet.

Camel ride at Alice Springs

Dining on The Ghan

The Queen Adelaide Restaurant is open for breakfast, a two-course lunch and three-course dinner. Menus focus on regional flavours such as barramundi from the Top End, locally-produced beef and lamb, Margaret River cheeses, and Barossa Valley smallgoods. Native produce such as kangaroo, saltbush and wild rosella flower also feature, offering a delicious taste of Australia.

Breakfast is a la carte

Great food, great company

As there isn’t enough room for everyone to eat in the restaurant at the same time, your cabin attendant will tell you what time your lunch and dinner bookings are each day. These can be early or quite late, such as 2.15pm for lunch, so if you have a preference make sure you get in early with your request. Breakfast is free seating so you can come in whenever you are ready to eat, anytime before 10am.

The verdict on The Ghan

In the past this train trip had the reputation as a ‘must do’ for older travellers. However, these days it is simply a ‘must do’. If you want a true ‘Aussie experience’ which celebrates the scenery, cuisine and culture which makes Australia unique, this is the trip for you. Travelling on The Ghan is a journey that stays with you long after you return home.

Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Great Southern Rail.