Cows huddle under lone trees amongst expanses of wheat, soon replaced by red earth.
A small army of shrubs stand at ease in the intense heat.
I press my face to the window of my train cabin and watch the changing landscape of Australia whoosh by.
South Australian farmlands become dusty flats and rocky outcrops, until one morning, I wake up to discover the thirsty land has turned an astonishing vibrant green, a side-effect of the rain-soaked parts of the Northern Territory.
I’m on The Ghan, travelling from Adelaide to the Red Centre and into Darwin.
Years ago, Afghan cameleers plodded through this tough terrain, carving a path through the countryside that The Ghan now snakes through.
The Ghan is named after these pioneers, so it’s fitting that camels accompany me on the my three-day adventure aboard the chugging locomotive.
They’re not outside my window but in my mind as I absorb the novel Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The book tells of Davidson’s journey walking 2700km from Alice Springs to Australia’s western coast with just four camels and a dog. That was in 1977 and she was 27 years old.
More than three decades later and Tracks has found new life as a powerful, moving Aussie film, starring Mia Wasikowska as the intrepid traveller. The book is the perfect companion to take on The Ghan.
In the evening, when the lounge in my Gold Class cabin is converted to a bed, I stretch out and dip into Davidson’s adventure, as the country she traversed zips past my feet.
As I get deeper into the tale, with its heady descriptions of intense heat, winding desert and cheeky camels, I feel disconnected.
When you’re lucky enough to travel Gold or Platinum Class, everything about The Ghan suggests luxury. It’s one of the reasons you’re more likely to see a more world-weary crowd putting their feet up on the train than young backpackers. The ticket price now includes a selection of wines and beverages, as well as delicious seasonal food served in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant three times a day.
It’s indulgent and as Robyn struggles through her journey, through the harsh climate and mental fatigue, I read on in the comfort of air-conditioning.
I pause to reach out and touch the train window.
I want to be out there. I want to feel the heat, the rain, the unforgiving nature that is the outback, even though I’m sure I’d want to retreat from the elements after an hour.
Don’t get me wrong, there are stops on The Ghan, several. When you travel from Adelaide to Darwin, the first town you visit is Alice Springs.
Here you can go on a historical tour that includes a visit to the Royal Flying Doctors’ Base and a photo opportunity atop ANZAC Hill. Or head to the Desert Park for a bird show and to see what the creatures of Central Australia call home. Otherwise, see what Davidson was talking about at Pyndan Camel Tracks, where you can climb aboard one of the gorgeous beasties for a ride.
The following day, The Ghan pulls into Katherine, which offers a hands-on cultural experience led by an Indigenous guide and cruises at the extraordinary Katherine Gorge, formed over a billion years ago in Nitmiluk National Park.
In the midst of one of the most ancient places on Earth, I try to understand what inspired Davidson to embark upon a nine-month solo journey through Australia’s centre.
What connects with me, some 30-plus years later, is a feeling many travellers are familiar with – the need to escape. And so I do, at times, on The Ghan.
On the second day of my journey my mobile phone connection drops out and it’s then that I realise my dependence on modern communication. I find it liberating but feel like I only just start to appreciate being `lost’ when my mobile has an epileptic fit of beeping – we’ve come back into range.
And that’s the thing about any solo trip. At some point, you have to come back to reality.
But maybe along the way you discover something about yourself. Maybe you’re more adventurous than you thought, or can survive without email or calling home every day.
Or maybe you realise you should just find the time to finish a book once in a while, because it can be truly rewarding.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The Ghan departs from either Adelaide or Darwin. Passengers have the option of the full three-day journey or disembarking at Alice Springs. Coach transfers in Darwin are included for Gold and Platinum Services guests. Flights not included.
STAYING THERE: Everyday fares per adult from Adelaide – Darwin or vice versa (one-way):
Platinum Service – $3489 pp
Gold Service (Twin) – $2349 pp
Gold Service (Single) – $2099 pp
Red Service – $889 pp
Cheaper fares are available for children, pensioners, low season travel (November 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015) and when you book six months in advance.
PLAYING THERE: A variety of excursions are included in Gold and Platinum fares and optional upgrades, such as Pyndan Camel Tracks or a helicopter flight, can be purchased. Highlights include the cultural experience in Katherine, learning about the Jawoyn people, how to throw a spear and sampling kangaroo tail.
The film Tracks is out now in Australian cinemas.
*The writer travelled as a guest of The Ghan and Great Southern Rail