Riding the Ghan to Nitmiluk-Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory June 2016

Day 15 of the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday” Wednesday 1st June 2016

On Board the Ghan 1st June 2016Those who have been following along on our most recent holiday might be starting to wonder why it is called the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday”. Well, so far, we have crossed the country from east to west, three nights and four days on the Indian Pacific. Now we are about to cross it from north to south on the Ghan.  

This weekly service covers 2979 klm (1850 mi), leaving Darwin on Wednesdays and Adelaide on Sundays, taking three days and two nights to complete the journey, including off train excursions at Katherine and Alice Springs.

The Ghan is named in honour of the pioneering cameleers who, from around 1839 onwards, played such an important role in the development of inland Australia. It is derived from the word “Afghan“, even though not all cameleers came from Afghanistan. The inaugural (steam) train from Adelaide to Alice Springs ran in 1929 and converted to diesel in 1954. By 1980 the original track was abandoned in favour of a standard rail gauge and termite proof sleepers. In 2001 construction to extend the track to Darwin was commenced, with the first service running in January 2004.

On the 1st June 2016, we are again making history. The train that has come up from Adelaide is the longest since that 2004 journey, and  is:

  • 1044 metres or about 1200 yards long. Just to remind ourselves, that’s a one kilometre train (which is more than half a mile). It is usually about 774m long.
  • It weighs 2048 tonne instead of its usual 1400 tonnes.
  • Its 44 carriages (usually 30) comprising 22 guest carriages, 6 restaurants, 5 lounges, crew quarters,  power vans, and luggage carriages will accommodate . . .
  • 344 guests and 55 staff,
  • who will be pulled by 2 diesel engines.

With all those people to get on board, I didn’t rate them much chance of getting away on time, but spot on 10am we pulled out of Darwin station. I go off to explore the various carriages. Many of the carriage doors still feature art deco themes in etched glass. I am not long into this busy-bodying before I am lured into joining our other companions in the lounge car for a celebratory pre-lunch drink. I have not recorded what I ate, but rest assured it was innovative and divine. The food on these trains is renowned, and although there are several courses, serving sizes are small enough to ensure you can taste across a range of what is on offer.

On Board the Ghan 1st June 2016

The first few hours fly by, and soon it is 1.40pm. We arrive at our first stop – Katherine. Of the five tour choices on offer (two are additional cost) we have opted for the Nitmiluk Gorge Cruise, or, as the operator spruiks on their website, a “leisurely cruise on the Katherine River as you gaze in wonder at towering sandstone cliffs, the backdrop of Australia’s dreamtime“.

We only have a two hour cruise, and like so many other experiences on our whistle-stop holiday, we can tell there is so much more to explore, but what we see is definitely of outstanding beauty. The colours in the gorge are stunning. High above our heads we can see the remnants of Aboriginal rock art and wonder how they reached there.

Our guide explains that in the dry season the river level drops so far that it creates 13 different canyons, while in the wet season it is one long river which connects directly to the sea. I would say that right now we are somewhere between those two extremes. When the river is up, salt water crocodiles occasionally get in accidentally, then when the river is receding, their soft underbelly discourages them from climbing over the rocks to return to their natural habitat. These are the ones who need to be relocated.

As for the freshwater crocodiles, we see many sandy banks which they use for nesting. The temperature of the nest determines the sex of the babies. Curious – huh?

The sandstone cliffs are sheer, with black stains showing the wet season water marks because sandstone is absorbent like a sponge.

These photos are just a few to give an idea of the varying scenery to be seen in Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge). 

Ancient Aboriginal Rock Painting high up a cliff wall

Aboriginal Rock Painting high up a cliff wall

In the previous day’s post I promised to tell you more about the 1955 film Jedda, by Charles Chauvel. On this cruise we are told that many of the original scenes were filmed in the gorge, particularly the closing scenes where Marbuck (Robert Tudawali) tumbles off a rocky cliff, driven mad by the death song of the elders, and drags Jedda (Rosalie Kunoth-Monks aka Ngarla Kunoth), his “wife” of the wrong skin colour, with him.

The film was the first Australian one to be shot in colour, using a technique called “Gevacolor“, which could only be processed in England. The film stock was fragile and heat-sensitive, so during production was stored in cool caves to protect it from deteriorating.  Disaster struck when the final roll was destroyed in a plane crash. Rising costs and logistics meant that re-shooting in the remote Northern Territory was not possible, so Chauvel compromised by using the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney – a very different topography. Film buffs will be interested in this 1953 newspaper article which contains a contemporary account of the film’s progress. The story of Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa is also fascinating. They were incredible filmmakers and travelled in many remote places to achieve their purpose. As well featuring novice Aboriginal actors in lead roles, they also kick-started careers such as Errol Flynn‘s and Chips Rafferty‘s. Commencing in 1920, they made eight silent films before their first talkie in 1933 – In the Wake of the Bounty (which pre-dates Mutiny on the Bounty). Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and The Rats of Tobruk (1944) are films which might also be known to viewers outside Australia.

It seems to be a feature of my enquiring mind that the smallest link can send my journals off on an exploratory tangent. To date, it (my mind, that is), always seems to ‘come home to roost’ (and it was years before I understood that saying). Let’s hope it stays that way for many years to come.

However, coming back to the point – that is – our tour of Katherine Gorge, after we disembarked from the cruise boat, my attention was attracted by this cacophony in the nearby trees. Can you guess what is making this noise? The last few seconds may provide the best clue.

Total to Date =  8900 klm or 5530 miles

+

Darwin to Adelaide = 2979 klm (1850 mi)

For Reference: We booked our tour through the Australian Holiday Centre.

20 thoughts on “Riding the Ghan to Nitmiluk-Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory June 2016

    • Much as I always hoped to, I have never travelled on the Orient Express, but I would be gob-smacked if the Ghan was as posh as the Orient’s reputation. Nevertheless, it is an iconic train journey and travels through some of the most remote terrain of Australia. The carriages are old, but most have been refurbished, and they do have an upper class called platinum, but it does come with a much higher price tag. The Gold Class did us just fine. The lounges and dining cars had that old-worlde quaintness that you might associate with the romance of train travel – and the staff were amazing!

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      • Well, I thought your cabin etc -Gold Class looked pretty fine and there’s a Platinum too?! I hope your Tourist Board make sure visitors know all about the Ghan. ‘Romance of train travel’ as you say, absolutely agree.

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        • The cabin was fine for our needs. I had a peek at platinum, and it didn’t strike me as worth the extra price. Both the Indian Pacific and Ghan are now privately owned by a fund manager group called Allegro Funds and I can see they have revamped their marketing. As well the Australian government, since July 1st this year, has withdrawn any subsidies that enabled pensioners to get a discount fare. So I would expect Allegro will start to advertise to the world-wide tourist market. Both trains have outgrown their original purpose as long-range transport of goods and people.

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          • Yes, I guessed these special trains were no longer purely their original business/trade/commercial, but tourism is a serious moneymaker for Australia isn’t it? I’m sort of surprised that your government has withdrawn subsidies as I’m sure they could have allocated a restricted number of discounted tickets for pensioners. A full train is better for everybody surely.

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          • The first budget of the incoming Liberal Party (like your Conservative) was to tell everyone they had to tighten their belts. The Treasurer said “We are a nation of lifters, not leaners …” The Libs rode to power by criticising that the Labor government had not returned our budget to surplus following the 2008 financial crash. So they had to look as if they were doing something – even though we are into our third year from that budget and they are still in deficit and going backwards. They slashed any number of projects, although not all made it into legislation. They are proponents of the “user pays” system, and I guess they took the view that since they no longer have any financial interest in the trains, they should no longer subsidise, and that the private owners should be “forced” to make a profit. Perhaps they are right – there had to be a reason for that Ghan to be so long. Maybe I was wrong to put it down to it being the end of the discounts. If you look at the website now, you will see the operators are still offering a pensioner discount. It is the same as the advance purchase fare. It used to be lower, but people looking now would not realise that. And by the way that Treasurer is now Australia’s Ambassador to the US. Funny how they create chaos, then scarper. Much like your Brexit guys.

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          • Mmm, well I like the idea that the ‘user pays’, but just which group of users is everybody concerned about – the last person in the line? the passenger. Personally, I think investors, corporations and politicians are all ‘users’ too and, naturally, as they are writing the rules they tell everybody else who is going to end up paying. Macro economics, as it is today, is a system in which we are all supposed to believe in order for it to work. Eventually the 99% will stop believing and voting for Brexit, Trump, the National Front in France etc, etc will just be the start. I don’t know what it is like in Australia, but Establishment players creating chaos and then ‘hum-de-dumming’ off into the sunset (à la Cameron) is simply adding to the contempt in which they are ALL already held. We need some genuine, blue-sky thinking about how we wish our world to function.

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          • I agree. Politics has become too much about re-election and not about forward planning. I even wrote to a local member recently voicing such an opinion. NO acknowledgement of the letter of course. It’s almost as if we are seeing a return of the class system, and in time, we should not be surprised to see a revolt. When I was in management, I stuck my neck out by recommending to my staff that they join the union (I was barred on account of my position). Some of the younger members scoffed – thinking it was all militant thuggery and that they would get ahead on the power of their individual brilliance, and if others didn’t, it was because they weren’t as brilliant. I had enough experience of hiring and firing to know there was no such thing as an “INDIVIDUAL workplace agreement”. Just as we saw the rise of unionism and worker dissatisfaction in the late 1800s, I expect we will see a similar rise in the next thirty years; people banding together to throw off those “Establishment” forces which they believe are holding them back.

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          • Oh I so agree with you too. Particularly about the idea that it’s all down to the individual. I think that has been a very clever ploy by the ‘haves’ and coupled with celebrity culture appears to have been swallowed whole by the ‘have nots’. I’m hoping the current Millennials will have a different view. So far they seem to be more engaged than the recent over 30s cohort. Over here more young women are happy to call themselves feminists and it is often younger people who have been backing Jeremy Corbyn and supporting the Occupy Movement. We live in changing times, but I’m not holding my breath – true change takes decades if not centuries. And, nobody is able to forecast just how far reaching technological change will change/subvert the present status quo. We can but hope and dream.

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  1. There was an 8 part series “Railways Australia” on TV recently, in fact they’ve run it a few times and I’m wondering if they are going to release it overseas, I’m sure your readers would love to see on board the Indian Pacific and Ghan as they plough through the days and nights on their journey’s back and forth and across the continent, along with many other fascinating trains in Tassie and Queensland. Great series!

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