by Christian Edwards
Sydney, Feb. 27 (Xinhua) -- As the iconic Ghan rolls through Australia's magnificent red center, marking more than 80 years of one of the world's great train adventures, it brings into stark relief the mammoth landscape, the torn mountain ranges and a service which in 1929 comprised just a single steam locomotive and 12 wooden carriages.
Named for the Afghan cameleers who once traversed this extraordinary route - across one edge of a vast continent to the other - the Ghan is Australia's contribution to a glamorous, bygone era of travel. An epic journey shared with a colorful assortment of characters and adventurers, from German retirees to young Chinese couples, all transported in style across a nation and into an undiscovered country, forgotten by time.
Traveling 3000 km's over three days by rail between the South Australian capital city of Adelaide, through Australia's burnt heart in Alice Springs and on to the northern most point of Darwin (or vice-versa) is to embark on one of the great train journeys of the world.
Soon after climbing aboard in Darwin, and with a glass of sweet, sparkling wine, travelers are given a warm introduction of what to expect. The next 54 hours on board, at an average speed of 85km an hour is a chance to see spectacular and diverse landscapes, to enjoy excellent gourmet dining and high-spirited camaraderie.
Ghan passengers hail from the world over train buffs, adventurers, lost souls and world travelers - others are experiencing the train trip they've planned for years.
Seasoned travelers Betty Griggs, 89, from the Australian isle of Tasmania and Ness Leal, 85, from Queensland, are literally having the time of their lives.
"We've been friends for more than 45 years and often travel together," Ness says. "Traveling in Platinum is magnificent and the service is exceptional. We're taking our stewards, Tim and Damien, home with us. They have been waiting on us hand and foot and nothing's too much trouble." During the train's first whistle stop at Katherine, Ness (a former Royal Australian Air Force member) booked a helicopter tour and flew over the 13 gorges of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge).
Adding to the gold service and the red service (popular with backpackers), the chic Platinum service allows passengers to make the 2979km journey between Darwin and Adelaide (or vice versa) in private deluxe cabins fitted with polished Tasmanian myrtle.
For the fortunate few, the Platinum cabins convert from a private lounge during the day to a compact bedroom at night. And with an ensuite plush with full size shower, this is no ordinary train.
It's certainly easy to wallow in the 24 hour cabin service, the complimentary pajamas, followed by morning and afternoon teas and nightcaps of hot chocolate and liqueur.
Leather ottomans slide under the portable coffee table and a writing desk pops up from below the window. While you're at dinner, comfortable beds magically spring from the wall and disappear the next morning while you're at breakfast.
With stopovers for keen photographers to take a cruise through one of the ancient gorges to spy Aboriginal paintings on weathered sandstone walls and to hear about the vast stretches of traditional native "awoyn land" and the regions unending natural and cultural heritage.
Day two from the Alice Springs platform, passengers disperse for a range of tours offered on the second stop.
Some choose to walk into town to immerse in the art and culture of Aboriginal Australia. The "Mbantua" fine art gallery and cultural museum is arguably the world's largest privately owned Australian Aboriginal art gallery. Specialising in Utopia art, more than 250 artists from Utopia have painted for Mbantua since it began over 20 years ago.
Moving listlessly through the "dreamtime" of central Australia, cloaked in sheer luxury, good fortune and unlike the old days - assured safety.
The early European explorers certainly struggled to survive without food or water, and many times those train passengers risked life and limb through flash floods and bitter drought.
On one journey the train's engineer had to shoot wild goats to feed hundreds of stranded passengers.
From the cabin's window, a secret Australia vast and in harmony disappears into silence.
The two night, three day journey moves through the Top End's tropical savanna of mangroves and palms to the vast red heartland sprinkled with red gums and Spinifex and the salt plains through the MacDonnell Ranges.
At breakfast on the last morning, the train glides past the Adelaide Plains, sprawling yellow wheat fields, rolling hills topped with wind generators and the Clare Valley wine country.
The food over the three days in the silver service Queen Adelaide restaurant, created by on-board chef John Cousins, is seasonal and delicious.
On this trip, the choices include Northern Territory saltwater barramundi; grilled fillet of kangaroo; Tasmanian salmon; lemon, lime and ginger cheesecake; layered white and dark chocolate mousse, topped with dark chocolate ganache and shavings, and a selection of Australian cheeses with lavish and glace fig all served with fine Aussie wines.
All far removed, someone remarks, from the Aug. 4, 1929 inaugural trip when the mighty engine issued a great burst of steam and 64 first class and 60 second class passengers moved out of the Adelaide station for their 2000 mile journey a journey that signaled the end of a romantic era when much of the transport in Central Australia had been performed by teams of camels, and the beginning of another.