Day 16 of the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday” Thursday 2nd June 2016
By daybreak after our first night on the Ghan, we are still in the Northern Territory. That may seem odd, until you consider that if we were driving, it would have taken us 14 hours to cover the distance between Katherine and – our next destination – Alice Springs, down the straight line of the Stuart Highway, which I mentioned a couple of posts back. The two places are about 1200 klm (750 mi) apart.
I should travel by train more often. It is one of the few times I rise early enough to appreciate the first light. Within a couple of hours the colour is completely different.
The township of Alice Springs (pop 28,000) is located in a gap in the MacDonnell Ranges, which in turn are referred to as East and West. Bill and I have never been to Alice Springs, but we intend to return another day, so for this morning’s off-train excursion, we have chosen the Simpson Gap Discovery Walk. It is one of the most prominent gaps in the ranges, about a twenty minute drive out of town by sealed road, and site of a significant waterhole. The area is important spiritually to the Arrarnta Aboriginal people, here several dreaming trails and stories cross.
We make two stops along the way, taking shorter walks and exploring the flora of the area which is home to Mulga and Acacia trees. The area seems barren, as you can see from the rocky terrain pictured at left. Look closely though, and there are flowers in abundance. The bottom photo is of a Sturt’s Desert Rose, aka Darling River Rose, Cotton Rosebush or Australian Cotton. It was adopted as the Northern Territory floral emblem in 1974.
This excursion requires moderately good fitness and sturdy shoes. In the below video, recorded on our second walk, you can hear the guide explaining the different flora, using the correct botanical names. It is also gives you an idea of the terrain, and you can hear various birds in the background. One will be a kite, a bird of prey, looking for lizards and such like hiding in the rocks. Our guide told us that the black kite can even eat the poisonous cane toad, by flicking it over and eating the underbelly. They have also been observed to spread fire by carrying smouldering sticks, then eating the fleeing lizards.
We were told the original name of our next stop was Simpson’s Gap Station – a cattle pastoral property which was sold after WWII and eventually came into the ownership of a conservation authority. The person who sold it for conservation, Bob Darken, became the first ranger of the park. All of this area is now national park.
The park itself has many gorges, carved in the pre-historic times when there was a inland sea here. If any readers are familiar with the water-colours of Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira (born 1902) they might be interested to know many are of this area. Our walk begins in a dry river bed, but we can judge from the downed river eucalypts and white-barked ghost gums how powerful the water can become.
As we walk deeper into the gorge, and through the “gap”, the permanent water area becomes visible.
This gorge is also home to little rock wallabies. They are most active at dawn and dusk, but our group notices flickers of movement, and after a lot of patience, we manage to spot a small group. Can you see one in this photo?
I’d be amazed if you managed to spot it! But in this second photo, I have tried to enlarge to give you a chance. They blend into this landscape very well. This little chap is roughly centre of the photo, to the right of the large rock, and getting ready to disappear into a hole in the rock pile, so you can only see his tail and rear end.
We’ve done all this before lunch! Sadly though, it is time to make it back to the train. First, a comfort stop at the gap provides me with another sign to add to the “Lid Up” or “Lid Down” debate. LOL.
Back on the Ghan we enjoy a spectacular lunch, then have some relax time in our cabin as we watch the rusty red outback landscape roll by. Around 4pm we cross the border at Kulgera, which is close to being the geographical centre of Australia. Before too long we are back in the lounge, chatting and drinking with our tour companions before dinner. After dinner we are due to stop at a place called Manguri. It is simply a rail siding located about an hour’s drive from the opal fields of Coober Pedy, in South Australia. It’s not out of the question that you could use the Ghan to get to Coober Pedy, but you need to have pre-arranged a pick-up with a local resident. They are hardly going to drop you off in the middle of outback nowhere at 9pm on a dark night. Our brochure says that “The Ghan is often flagged down by a small fire and glowing truck headlights“. I wonder if that still happens?
As for us lucky passengers, we will be invited to disembark to enjoy a nightcap of Baileys, served with chocolates, our way lit by a bonfire. On clear nights we can appreciate the stunning night sky. There is some doubt about tonight though, as it is cloudy, and the crisp desert night temperatures with a chance of a shower have put a lot of people off.
Not yours truly though – I adhere to the “I may never pass this way again” philosophy. I am rewarded with relatively clear skies, and being able to hog the attention of one of the group of local stargazers who have turned up to explain their constellations. The Milky Way is very easy to trace, and other stars are prominent. You’ll have to take my word for that. But I do have a photo of the campfire, and what it looked like to peer back at the train stretching along the track as far as the eye can see (above).
And for those who have not already worked it out, the weird screeching on yesterday’s video was fruit bats, also known here as flying foxes.
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.