It’s normal in Eastern Europe for border guards to stop a train and inspect your visa, but this was the first time this had happened in Australia. Not that the guards were getting on.
After arriving at Alice Springs station, we Ghan passengers put on masks and stood in line for a team of Northern Territory police officers in the station building, with our visas – in fact our entry forms at the NT border, with their most important arrival numbers. – in the hand.
It seemed to be easy. Show your entry number to the agent, briefly discuss where you have been, then board a bus to join one of the Ghan’s scheduled off-train excursions.
But for me at least there was a note of tension.
It was more than the required 14 days since my last stay in Victoria, which was undergoing its third lockdown, but despite that, I didn’t fancy the risk of quarantine.
So I had a bundle of papers proving itineraries and hotel stays over the past two weeks; they went through them, made mental calculations and let me in.
This process was new to long distance train travel in Australia. But COVID-19 forces us into new experiences all the time, as I had discovered a day earlier while boarding the Ghan at Parklands Terminal in Adelaide.
After a rigorous check-in process involving temperature checks, I walked into my Gold Service cabin to find pandemic-era extras including alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer.
Other measures on this long train journey from north to Darwin, including seating only couples or groups traveling together in the dining car, rather than mixing people together; and an encouragement to take distance as much as possible in the lounge bar.
Otherwise, the Ghan is like before the virus: a three-day train journey from temperate Adelaide and the northern desert to the tropics at Darwin, an impressive logistical exercise undertaken by 36 cars pulled by two sizable locomotives.
Before we had our meeting with border control in Alice Springs, there had been a more uplifting moment off the train: watching the sun rise over a siding near the remote Australian town of Marla. southern.
As we left the train in the dark there wasn’t much to see… an old concrete platform with a shed on top, trestle tables, a burning bonfire on one side .
Then, as the eastern horizon slowly brightened, we strolled through the pre-dawn desert chill, accepting cups of coffee, spinach and cheese rolls, and egg sliders and bacon (something urban 21st century had come with us, it seemed), feeling a tinge of excitement to be in this strange, desolate place at dawn.
At Alice Springs, passengers split into three included off-train excursions: one to historic sites, including the Telegraph Station and the Royal Flying Doctor; another at Alice’s excellent Desert Park; and a third involving a walk at Simpsons Gap. Further up the line on the last day of the trip, the off-train excursion to Katherine centered around a cruise through the Nitmiluk Gorge.
Since the federal government removed its subsidies to long-distance economy-class passengers in 2016, this is the direction the Ghan has gone: relying heavily on the concept of “ cruise by train ”, in which high quality excursions are included. at a high rate.
The same inclusiveness applies to comfortable en-suite accommodation, and all meals and drinks – the latter exemption is slightly noteworthy, given Australia’s preference for a drink.
There is a permanent happy holiday atmosphere in the lounge bar, and the food is impressive in its quality and range. On this trip, for example, the onboard dinner menu after Alice Springs included grilled crocodile tail fillet, Peking Peking duck breast, grilled salt-water barramundi, and chickpea dahl.
Croc and barra dishes were said to have been a topic of discussion among international visitors who made up a percentage of the Ghan’s passenger list.
But they are not on board thanks to the virus, so Australian travelers have the train to themselves.
More than one Australian compatriot aboard the Ghan told me that they were on the rails because they could not travel overseas; that this train had always been on their bucket list but the coronavirus had moved it to the top. It seemed reasonable.
If you can’t spend your money on an overseas cruise, why not spend it on a transcontinental rail equivalent at home? Taking its rail cruise during the pandemic, the Ghan is a safe ship in a storm.
Tim Richards traveled courtesy of Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions. The Ghan runs weekly in each direction between Adelaide and Darwin, see journeybeyondrail.com.au