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After 70 Years, The Ghan Arrives in Darwin from Alice Springs

By Kent E St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor

It's wild and wonderful, and covers endless time and territory. It is an Australia that will satisfy any nomad's travel desires. The Northern Territory is Australia's cryptogram: wet, dry, old and modern. The slogan, "You haven't been down under till you've been outback" is spot on mate!


In a fit of travel mania I crossed it via train, helicopter, small plane and camel. No matter how you do it, you will be changed forever! Grab a swag bag (sleeping bag) and walk about.

Top Shelf

It was evident that I flew into Darwin on the cusp of its two seasons, wet and dry. The warmth of the air wrapped me in its silkiness. On the van into town we passed the Duck's Nuts Pub; it was lively and rocking. A reminder that many travel up to the tropo.

Darwin is a mix of class and sass, filled with those looking to head to the end of the road; Darwin is closer to Asia than Sydney and its proximity to the northern neighbors makes it Australia 's most culturally diverse city.

Backpacker and businessman mixed well at pubs citywide. Japanese, German, French, and OZ language mixed like a well tossed salad. City Center is about two blocks from the beach; compact and filled with shops, restaurants and pubs.

Darwin Harbor is almost twice the size of Sydney's, and the wharf was a prime hangout zone. The laid back attitude might be traced to the fact that man and nature have both frequently tried to do the city in. Bombings by the Japanese in World War II and Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974 are just two examples. Darwin has since rebuilt as an ideal tropical city and great place to base for trips to the Top Ends top sights.

The top of the tip is Kakadu National Park , with over 7,800 square miles of pure adventure and cultural bliss. It is so varied that I highly recommend booking a two or three day safari. A very reputable company called Kakadu Dreams is a great option, especially for the fit and adventuresome. They will guide you through the billabongs, gorges, croc rivers and anything else Crocodile Dundee would do.

Closer to Darwin is the Litchfield National Park ; it is somewhat of a Kakadu on a smaller scale. Very satisfying, especially if time at the top is limited and you're going south on the Ghan Railway .

'Cause I'm Already Ghan

For seventy years Darwin's residents have been waiting for the legendary Ghan Train to make it the 882 miles up from Alice Springs . It was finally opened February 2004 and immediately was a hit. The excitement of loading my bag aboard was enlarged when I checked into my Gold Kangaroo berth, complete with bathroom.

As I wandered down to the dining room and lounge cars, I knew I was in for a distinct treat. Shortly that familiar feeling of, "riding the steel wheels", kicked in. Train travel is by far the best way, in my opinion, to travel. It is stimulating yet relaxing and full of literary allusions.

As I slowly unpacked my gear the view outside the window passed through emerald green vegetation to dryer zones filled with huge termite pillars and wide-open spaces. Before I knew it we detrained in the Oz outback town of Katherine. The Ghan makes scheduled stops for touring. For me that meant hovering in a Volkswagen sized helicopter far above the mighty Katherine River and Gorge (see right) called Nitmiluk by the local Jawoyn, Dagoman and Wardaman peoples, just part of the 36 Top End Aboriginal cultural groups.

With a garbled whirl I lifted up from Northern Australian's Helicopter base and headed above the back ! Below-13 gorges and exotic waterfalls and lots of air! "Smooth as a gravy sandwich," mate. The kaleidoscope of fast mixing turf underneath was breathtaking. I was soon lost in space with dreams of swagbag, collie, and copter. A jackaroo patrolling cattle station via heli. The thought carried me back to the Ghan, and on to Alice Springs !

Stirred not Shaken

After a quick shower I headed to the Gold K lounge to swap tales of the day's travails. It didn't seem to matter how my fellow Ghaner's explored the Nitmiluk ; boat or foot, all raved about it. Just as we did after the great meal in the dining car. Even in shorts and a button down short sleeve shirt, I couldn't help but feel a little James Bond like. Perfect time to head back to the lounge for a martini and more travel talk. A briefing for my detraining in Alice Springs and 3 more modes of outback travel.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

It was a sad thing to leave the Ghan behind but the dry warm breeze eased the pain. I was now almost dead center of Australia . Alice at once held an engaging feeling as I strolled its town center. Instead of a dusty barren outpost, I marveled at its brilliantly hued ranges and stunning arid zone flora. The pedestrian zone showed promise of a great outdoor café and pub scene. Alice Springs also happens to be a great place to base for Outback explorations.

It has every kind of accommodation from backpacker to bon vivant. Perhaps because I still felt a little Bondish, I checked in to the Lasseter's Hotel on the edge of town. strictly for the casino and its superb surroundings. While lady luck wasn't kind the comfort was.

Before heading out on my excursions I visited the Alice Springs Desert Park . (sidebar) It provided immense information on the flora, fauna and wildlife. Even better was the data on the Aboriginal people--mind blowing! After learning all I could about kangas, bilbys and mala, I headed to the Aboriginal Art and Culture Center. For over 40,000 years the area has been a traditional meeting place for trading and exchanging knowledge, art and culture.

After flunking out of the world's only Didjeridoo University I called it a day. I could only hope I wasn't asked to play the didj at Uluru/Ayers Rock the next day.

It's Only Rock and Roll and I like it.

To us Yanks it's known as Ayers Rock and is the largest monolith in the world. It also is 400 kilometers from Alice. While the Ayers Rock Resort (sidebar) has lodgings and activities for all, time constraints and distance made me forget the Harley rental (sidebar) and choose a small plane. Seated in the co-pilot seat we headed up and over the moonscape Outback. One fascinating hour later the world's largest monolith loomed on approach. The pilot informed me that it extends three and a half miles below the surface.

To this day the Aborigines believe that there is hollow ground beneath and an energy source called Tjukurpa or the "Dream Time." Basically a myth that the world was featureless until giant beings resembling plants and animals rose up, creating the shaping of the world. For a complete interpretation go to

In 1985 the land and rock were returned to the Anangu clan as well as to other aboriginal peoples and leased back by the government. The area around the rock is filled with sacred places and should be treated with respect. Hiking around Uluru is a great way to spend the early morning or late afternoon.

There is, however, a less touristed treasure 48 kilometers west. It stands 200 meters taller and has 36 individual domes. It is hiker's heaven and is called Kata Tjuta . If time is limited take the Valley of the Winds Walk. This is the ultimate Outback walkabout!

Needless to say whatever activity you choose, take a hat, sunscreen, and lots of water. It's dry out there mate. With the sun setting we circled Uluru in the plane. Within two minutes I saw several unearthly shades of color. That is the true beauty of Australia 's heart.

Camel Jockey

One day left and two more new experiences to savor. The choices were obvious; ship of the desert (camels) to dinner and one last float. At 5 PM on my last night in Alice I was picked up by a van and taken to a most unusual farm, the Frontier Camel Farm. There I was introduced to my new Sheila, a long legged beauty. Her sweet disposition made me forget all about the disclaimer and helmet on my head. The sunlight filtering through the clear air as my camel traveled the empty banks of the Todd River was pure pleasure. Camels were brought to Australia to do heavy traveling and settling.

Once their work was done in the 1900's they were released and today there are over 400,000 wild ones still roaming the outback. After an hour ride we headed back to the farm for a Barbie, que that is. With legs spread wider than a bronco rider, the chance to sit under the Southern Cross tucked into grilled tenderloin topped off my trip to the top. The Northern Territory had one more magical trip up its sleeve, a sunrise hot air balloon.

Groggy with grog and good food I awoke at 4 AM for my last adventure. After helping the crew blow hot air it was up and away. As I gently drifted over the pristine desert, I had to make some serious travel choices.

The magnificent sun rising over mountains or the running of red kangaroos. In true GoNOMAD fashion I strived to take in both. It seemed possible as we gently floated in the midst of it all. The long modern jet flight was the one mode of transportation I had left, and I wasn't looking forward to it. It was all too soon to travel back to the real world.

The world I was able to escape while Down Under.

A sugar bird in Nevis Visit our Kent St. John Page with links to all his stories.


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Tags: storySection: Destinations
Location: Australia
author: Kent E. St. John
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