AUSTRALIA RED CENTRE

One of the world’s great railway journeys, the Ghan runs from Darwin in the far north of Australia to Adelaide in the south, a distance of 2979km – further than London to Moscow. Following the route of pioneering nineteenth-century “Afghan” cameleers, Shafik Meghji hopped on board to take in some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes.

There is a distinct pleasure to reading about great tales of exploration while you travel through the same harsh landscape in the comfort of a luxurious railway cabin. Sat on a well-stuffed seat, feet up on an ottoman, and with an icy G&T in hand, I put down my book on the pioneering cameleers who opened-up the Outback and gazed out of the window at a great expanse of ochre-red desert. It felt a bit like taking the Orient Express across Mars.

The Ghan is one of the world’s great railway journeys, but it was only made possible by an intrepid band of camel-wranglers in the nineteenth century. The first cameleers arrived in Australia with their beasts of burden in the 1860s to support the epic Burke and Wills overland expedition from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpenteria in the north. They quickly became known as “Ghans” – short for Afghans – though they actually came from across what is now India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, as well as Afghanistan.

For the next 150 years, camels were the main form of transport in the Outback, with horses and mules ill-suited for the harsh, arid environment. They enabled telegraph and railway lines – including the forerunner of the Ghan – to be laid across the parched “red centre”.

Ironically, trains brought the great age of the “Afghan” cameleer to an end. The redundant camels were set loose in the Outback, where they rapidly multiplied. At one stage there were around a million wild camels in Australia, though numbers have since been reduced by two thirds.

Originally known as the Afghan Express, the train’s maiden journey was on 4 August 1929, when it carried 100 passengers on the two-day journey from Adelaide to the remote town of Stuart (which was later renamed Alice Springs). In those early days it had to contend with searing heat, flash floods, bushfires and ferocious termites who devoured the narrow-gauge track.

A new standard-gauge line – complete with termite-proof concrete sleepers – was constructed in 1980, just to the west of the original route. But it was not until 2004 that the railway finally reached Darwin.