WITH its towering, 70m-high rock faces bordering 13 gorges and ancient Aboriginal rock art, it is easy to understand why Katherine Gorge attracts 250,000 visitors a year.
For many, the journey to the gorge starts on one of the world’s most iconic trains – The Ghan. The three-day journey from Adelaide to Darwin covering almost 3000km is not about speed, but about the experience.
The train can travel up to 115km/h but typically travels at 85km/h, allowing guests to savour views of the Australian Outback as they journey through the centre of the continent.
About 60,000 people travel on the train each year, mostly during the peak season from April to November, where the train can measure more than 700m in length.
People travel from across the globe to experience The Ghan, including a large number of retirees enjoying the ease of the ride, but it also caters for younger crowds, especially backpackers, as well as the occasional sports and TV celebrity.
V8 drivers Tim Slade and Lee Holdsworth were among guests travelling on The Ghan to their recent race at Darwin’s Hidden Valley raceway, while in the past year, reality TV shows MasterChef and the US version of The Amazing Race have staged episodes on the train.
Many guests preparing to board the train at the Adelaide Railway Station have their photo taken beside its famous badge, which features a camel and its handler, in recognition of the pioneering Afghan cameleers who once traversed the route.
From the outset, the staff do their best to make guests feel at home.
Within minutes of stepping on board, they greet guests at their cabins and ask if they have any questions; they stop for a quick chat when they move between carriages and share a strong camaraderie despite their varied ages and backgrounds.
Staff on this trip ranged from a 19-year-old casual worker from a farming background to a former Vietnamese soldier imprisoned in the 1970s.
About an hour after leaving the station, we are well into the country, with sheep and cattle grazing across the landscape. Generous-sized windows provide guests with grand views of the ancient Flinders Ranges as the train heads towards Port Augusta and beyond. Green shrubs line much of the track, with the earth becoming redder as the train nears the Northern Territory border.
Past the border, en route to Alice Springs, the train slows to allow guests a closer look at landmarks along the way. A voice over the intercom tells travellers what they should be looking out for and on what side of the train.
About 150km before Alice Springs, the train crosses the Finke River – one of the few rivers in the world to start and end in the desert. It is often dry and sandy as far as the eye can see.
After passing the river, guests can see The Iron Man sculpture built by railway workers to mark the millionth concrete sleeper laid during construction of the track.
A list of Whistle Stop Tours is provided in each cabin, giving travellers a chance to stretch their legs and explore the stops at Alice Springs and Katherine. Prices range from about $15 for a shuttle bus from the stations into the towns to $455 for a 90-minute scenic flight.
At Alice Springs, the Reptile Centre has more snakes and lizards than guests could expect to see out in the bush. Visitors are led through a dark room with glass enclosures full of geckos before walking through to the snake and lizard enclosures. The centre keeps all kinds of reptiles, ranging from small, highly venomous snakes to 3m pythons.
Resident goanna Frank freely walks through the centre to the amusement of guests, who can have their photo taken with him. Saltwater crocodile Terry is another star attraction, with an underground area giving visitors the chance to watch Terry underwater.
Across the road, tourists can visit the Pioneer Women’s Memorial and the recently renovated Royal Flying Doctor Service, which includes a museum of model planes and old medical equipment.
About five minutes down the road off the Stuart Highway, visitors can catch the best views of Alice Springs from the top of Anzac Hill.
A couple of hours later, the train leaves for Katherine. The red ant hills, which poke out among the trees, increase in size the further the train travels. When the train pulls into Katherine, the line-up for the Katherine Gorge tour is by far the longest. The 12km-long gorge, located in Nitmiluk National Park, was formed 23 million years ago.
Active types can hike, rock-climb or hire a canoe and explore the gorge. Others can simply sit back and enjoy the views from the multiple cruises on offer. Tourists who look closely might be lucky enough to spot a freshwater crocodile basking on the sand.
A few hours later guests reboard the train for the final leg of the trip, and the train rolls into Darwin at dusk.
Accommodation on The Ghan ranges from platinum and gold class, where cabins have beds and bathrooms; to Red Service sleeper cabins with wash basins; and for budget travel, rows of single recliner seats with communal bathrooms.
In the Queen Adelaide Dining Room, platinum and gold-class guests have a choice of three entrees, mains and desserts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast includes porridge with spiced fruit, banana bread and the traditional bacon and eggs with tomato and mushrooms.
The lunch menu features vegetable tarts and roasts, and for dinner, guests can choose from a variety of meat, including kangaroo fillet, pork cutlet and beef tenderloin, as well as dishes such as barramundi and stir-fry.
Platinum and gold-class guests also have access to bars to catch up over a drink or a board game.
Matilda’s Cafe services guests who are staying in other levels of accommodation aboard the train, serving them drinks, snacks and hot meals at additional cost.
For guests spending time in Darwin, Berry Springs Nature Park, about 30km from Darwin, is worth a visit for a refreshing dip in its clear waters. Crocosaurus Cove allows tourists the chance to eyeball the territory’s most famous residents – saltwater crocodiles – in the “Cage of Death”.
Darwin also offers a range of weekend markets, dining and entertainment. For art lovers, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is well worth a look for its Aboriginal art and Cyclone Tracy exhibition.