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George Stephenson probably never imagined that the steam train he built in England in 1825 would flourish in to an industry which has fascinated travellers for more than a hundred years!

The first practical steam locomo­ tive was created in 1812–13 by John Blenkinsop and built by George Stephenson and his son Robert’s company. Called Locomotion No 1, it was the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line. By the early 1900s steam locomotives were gradually superseded by electric and diesel locomotives, with full conver­ sion to electric and diesel power begin­ ning in the late 1930s.

But the interest in trains has never waned and world famous lines such as the Orient Express, the Canadian Rocky Mountaineer, South Africa’s Blue Express and even Australia’s Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth continue to attract customers who enjoy the thrill of riding the rails.

However, this century has seen Australia create another long distance delight with the extension of The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin.

The Afghan Express was the first name of the railway service which originally operated between Adelaide and Alice Springs and which is better known today as simply The Ghan.

It is believed the abbreviated name originated in 1923 when one of its crews decided to honour Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century to help find a way to reach the country’s unexplored interior.

Plans for a railway north from Adelaide had frequently been a discus­ sion point and construction of what was then known as the Port Augusta to Government Gums Railway began in 1878 when the South Australian Premier broke ground at Port Augusta. But it was not until 1926 that the exten­ sion of the line to Alice Springs began, and that section was completed in 1929. Until then, the final leg of the train journey was still made by camel.

the Ghan mapThe Ghan route map. The new section of the route began operation in 1980, and Darwin wasn’t connected until 2004!Starting in August 1929, the Ghan first ran on the Central Australian Railway which only travelled as far north as Alice Springs. In 1957, a standard gauge line was opened to Maree until October 1980 when the standard gauge replaced the old line and this was extended north­ wards from Alice Springs to Darwin, opening in January 2004.

The original Ghan line followed the same track as the overland telegraph, which is believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart during his 1862 crossing of Australia. The road from Alice Springs to Darwin was subse­ quently named the Stuart Highway.

Travellers had to be prepared for any emergency because the service was notorious for washouts and a flatcar behind the locomotive carried spare sleepers and railway tools, so that if a washout was encountered, the passen­ gers and crew could work as a railway gang to repair the line and permit the train to continue.

My first experience on the Ghan was from Adelaide to Alice Springs in 1952, punctuated by stops at different towns such as Coober Pedy to visit homes built underground to escape the heat. Food was plentiful but the biggest surprise was the entertainment carriage which boasted a piano and plenty of singing. Today’s service takes four days and three nights from Adelaide to Darwin with stops at Coober Pedy, Alice Springs and Katherine where excursions are available.

The Ghan normally runs weekly year­round although during December 2012 and January 2013 it ran only once every two weeks. Until 2016, a second service operated between June and September.

Each train consists of between 16 and 26 stainless steel carriages plus a motor rail wagon.

The original Ghan ran for the last time in 1980 and is in the hands of The Ghan Preservation Society, which repairs sections of the old narrow gauge track and some notable sidings. In October 1980 a new standard gauge line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs was opened, and the train took the form it has today.

The new line is located approximately 160 kilometres west of the former line, in an effort to avoid the floodplains where the original line was often damaged by floods. It was also hoped that the construction of the new line would improve the train’s timekeeping.

the Ghan cargoThe pre-passenger ‘Ghan’ steaming into Oodnadatta in 1910. The link from Quorn to Oodnadatta ran from 1891. Photo courtesy of the State Library of South AustraliaConstruction of the Alice Springs–Darwin line was believed to be the second­largest civil engineering project in Australia, and the largest since the creation of the 1949 Snowy Mountains scheme. Construction on the line began in July 2001, with the first passenger train reaching Darwin on 3 February 2004, after 126 years of planning and waiting. The project had a total cost of $1.3 billion.

The Ghan’s arrival in Darwin signified a new era of tourism in the Northern Territory, making travel to the region easier and more convenient as well as providing better access to and for Aboriginal communities in the region. The rail link allowed for more freight to travel through the region, leading to a hope that Darwin will serve as another trade link with Asia.

Today’s traveller will find a vastly different scenario to that of yesteryear, but it is still a fascinating adventure involving a mixture of modern life and stunning natural outback scenery. To a degree, Darwin provides the modern life with its mixed city of new and old in addition to a sunset cruise on Darwin Harbour, the spectacular Northern Territory sunset and tours to Litchfield National Park and the world famous Kakadu area.

If you make Darwin your starting point it will take four days to travel to Adelaide with off­train stops at Katherine, Alice Springs, Uluru and Coober Pedy. At Katherine, enjoy a river cruise along Nitmiluk Gorge or a Bush Barbecue (the flies are free), while Alice Springs can take you on a scenic flight to Uluru, to Stanley Chasm or to the Flying Doctor monument.

Coober Pedy entertains with a full day excursion to find out about Australia’s natural gemstone or explore how the locals cope with the scorching heat through underground towns, tunnels and churches before the Ghan rolls on.

Adelaide, the capital of South Australia is the final stop on this remarkable journey and where further pleasures await the traveller with the city sights, a visit to the Barossa Valley for some of the world’s best wines or take to the hills to see the early town of Hahndorf.

There are many great railway jour­ neys around the world. The Ghan ranks among the best and provides access to areas and sights of Australia that cannot be matched in most other countries as well as an adventure to be remembered and treasured.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, December 2018, pages 24 to 27.

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