I THOUGHT the Ghan was going to be Australia's version of the Orient Express: the clickety-clack of the wheels, the shriek of the whistle in the night, romance, intrigue, gorgeous scenery, and elegant meals served on white damask.
The part about the elegant meals was spot-on, as they say here. The rest, well, I'd seen too many movies, I guess. Trains are diesel now, so there are no high-pitched steam-engine whistles. Modernization has made tracks quieter. And romance? The possibilities are endless ... if you're over 65.
That's not to say I was disappointed. But what's significant about the Ghan is not its present sleekness and comfort, but its place in Australian history. The 1,555-km (966-mile) train line links the port of Adelaide with the heart of the red center, Alice Springs. It got its name from the intrepid camel drivers from Afghanistan who provided the first supply "trains" from the 1860s to the 1920s and are credited with opening up Australia's interior. The camels hauled supplies and poles for the crews build ing the Overland Telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin. Later, the Afghans hauled sleepers (railroad ties), and rails for the railroad that eventually drove them out of business. The train was first called the Afghan Express. Australians shortened it to "the Ghan." Legendarily slow
The Ghan ran every two weeks, then weekly, bringing supplies and fresh faces to lonely outposts. The train was legendary for its slowness and unreliability, due to the rugged terrain and the fact that termites devoured the railroad ties. The journey could take three days or three weeks.
The first line was built the fastest, cheapest way possible - through creek beds. In the rainy season, tracks often washed away, leaving the train an island in an inland sea that stretched to the horizon. One time, the train was stranded for two weeks. To feed his passengers, the engineer, in typically resourceful Australian fashion, got out and shot wild goats.
Things have improved since then. Tracks were relaid on higher ground, bridges were built, concrete sleepers replaced timber ones. The new Ghan opened in 1984. Our 22-hour journey started at 2 p.m. in Adelaide, under a buttermilk sky. Friends helped me aboard and stood admiring my cozy compartment. It was a cubicle just big enough for a chair that the conductor would later unfold into a bed. I had an efficient stainless-steel sink and toilet that folded into the wall, which I dubbed the "Aqua-Murphy." Sho wers were down the hall.
While I was exploring my nook, the conductor knocked. He wanted to know how I liked my tea. How civilized this was going to be! Could I talk with him later for an article I was writing? He looked pleased and disappeared. He returned with a more senior "connie" (conductor) who told me there was a bigger compartment - perhaps more suitable for spreading out my work? - in his car. Would I like to move there?
So I ended up in a "twinnette," with three seats that made into a bed and another bunk that could be pulled out from the wall overhead. A silver spigot produced chilled water. I could stick my feet out, spread out my work, and interview in a proper space.
Emerging from the outskirts of Adelaide, we passed through farmland. An old stone farmhouse appeared with a tin roof. A horse galloped away at the sight of the train. Farmland gave way to desert with an occasional gum (eucalyptus) tree. A bright green tractor seemed that much greener against the dry red earth. The Dreamtime Lounge
In the little country town of Crystal Brook, kids ran toward the train, waving. We whisked past sandstone houses with lacy wrought-iron balconies. A mob of guys in singlets and shorts played "footy" (Australian-rules football) on the town oval.
As the light dimmed, I went out to the Dreamtime Lounge. In keeping with its surroundings, it was decorated in what looked like an upscale version of Aboriginal art; ochre-colored sofas, brown-and-rust dot paintings.
Others on the train were well versed in the train's sooty past.
"The Ghan, as far as history goes, has had some fantastic stories," says Barry Wilson, who works for Australian National, the railroad that runs the Ghan. He was riding as a passenger. "Heaps of times we had to get helicopters out to pick the passengers up because of the floods. And one chef would get up in the morning, get off the train and go for a run, and pick the train up 10 kilometers [6 miles] up the track. Then he'd start preparing breakfast."
Anne Elizabeth Skitt, originally from northern England, now of Adelaide, says "It used to take days into weeks to make this journey. I think it's taken all the excitement out of it now, don't you?"
"It's going to parts of Australia that are practically untouched," says her friend Georgina Thompson. "It's really like it was thousands and thousands of years ago."
As we talk, I'm watching one of the Northern Territory's glorious sunsets. Dark takes over quickly. Only seven of the 22 hours of the journey are in daylight. Somehow, that's all right, since most of what's passing outside is the same: flat land, red dirt.
I would have liked to have seen towns with names like Wirrappa, Wirraminna, and Kultanaby, though.
At dinner, I'm seated with Margaret Liptak, who is taking the Ghan to start a new job as a rehabilitation worker in Alice Springs. We have a smoked trout, then lamb. The tables are covered with white cloths, the silverware from the 70-place settings tinkles.
"For me, the center [of the country] is Australia, and I've never known anything about it," muses Ms. Liptak over creme caramel.
After dinner, I explore. The glossy brochure for the train shows well-dressed yuppies sitting at the Oasis Bar. Designed with an Afghan motif, it looks pretty exotic. I had brought clothes appropriate for the outback and wondered if I should even go in to investigate.
Not to worry: This is Australia; everyone is casual. What the brochure picture doesn't show are the ashtrays; the Oasis Bar is where smokers hang out. Your nose will tell you that long before you get there.
The game car looked bright and cheery in the brochure, with families playing board games around tables. The reality was a seedier car with a few people playing cards and a few others playing the "pokies" (video poker machines).
Back in my cabin, my bed was made up. I snuggled in, expecting to be rocked to sleep by the train's motion. I would have been, except the darn thing stopped all the time! Snorting at `romance'
In the morning, after a hearty bacon-and-eggs "brekkie," I talk to senior conductor Kevin Campbell, who's been working on the railroad for 39 years. He snorts when I ask about the romance of the Ghan.
"It's not romance - it's the history of Australia," Mr. Campbell says. "People don't realize what outback Australia is until they get on the Ghan. Twenty-four miles outside of Adelaide is classed as the outback. You wouldn't see another person for 12 months, you had to cook your own damper [bread], catch your own lizards and your own snakes. It was very hard living. That's what the outback was."
It's hard to imagine all that now, sitting in well-appointed, air-conditioned luxury. All too soon, the train is charging through the sandstone gap outside Alice Springs, and grinds to a halt. Then we disembark into the hard glare, off for our own adventures in the outback.
* First-class accommodations on the Ghan, including sleeping compartment and meals, cost A$435 (US$300) each way. International passengers should check with their travel agent about a travel package with a side trip to Ayers Rock.