The next morning, back in the desert and not quite halfway through its journey, the Ghan reaches Alice Springs. It stops for several hours here, allowing passengers to tour the area. The statue in the railway station depicts an Afghan camel herder, from whom the train got its name. “Ghan” is, in fact, Aussie shorthand for Afghan. This small city sprung up as a telegraph relay station for the railroad when fresh water was found here, and was originally called Alice’s Spring, after the wife of the telegraph operator.
At first blush Alice Springs seems very familiar. Just over there is the local K-Mart and the anchor store of their air-conditioned indoor mall is a huge Woolworth’s. But an exotic touch comes from the large number of Aborigines moving through the mall, stopping for an ice cream cone or peering into shop windows, and chatting in one of their tribal languages. One, a “stockman,” – that’s what the Aussies call their cowboys – cuts a very impressive figure: long sleeved plaid shirt with a dark blue bandana at his throat, slim jeans cut just so over western boots, and a traditional wide-brimmed hat.
Late in the afternoon the Ghan crosses the Finke River, described as “a major and intermittent river.” It’s impressively wide, all right, but bone dry save for a bit of water here and there in low spots. According to the conductor, however, it was a raging torrent just three weeks ago.
The harsh desert is left behind during the wee hours and by mid-morning we’re back in the more temperate south, rolling along between pastures and farmland. In less than two hours, we’ll be in Adelaide, final stop of the Ghan’s 1851-mile journey.
In the lounge car, I shake hands with some of my fellow passengers in case we miss each other on the platform, and return to my compartment, alone with the touch of melancholy I always get during the last few hours of any long distance train trip.
From Adelaide, Qantas takes me back to Sydney where my final night in Australia is spent at the magnificent Opera House and a brilliant performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, on the way back to my hotel, I find myself reliving memories of the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, the two magic carpets that carried me twice across this astounding country.
This is the final installment if a story I wrote and which appeared in the Dallas Morning News.