(Australian Associated Press)
Ninety years ago it was the lifeblood of the South Australian outback, a vital link between the city and rural communities from Adelaide to Alice Springs.
Now the Ghan, is a destination and a cultural experience in itself, one of Australia’s leading tourist attractions as it winds its way north and south across the continent.
The train will mark nine decades of operations this weekend with a special service that leaves Adelaide for Darwin on Sunday.
The commemorative departure will offer a tribute to the Ghan’s history and celebrate its evolution into one of the world’s great train journeys – a bucket list experience.
But while the Ghan is officially 90 years old, its genesis actually stretches back further into the early years of the South Australian colony.
In the mid-1800s a desire by the early settlers to push out into the state’s outback where there were no roads and no railways prompted the rise of the cameleers, camel drivers largely drawn from India, Persia and Afghanistan.
Their animals, mostly brought to Australia from the subcontinent, could handle the Australian heat and were vital in bringing mail, food, water, tools and equipment to remote towns and pastoral holdings.
They also played an important role in major infrastructure projects including the completion of the overland telegraph in 1872.
So by the time the first rail lines in SA’s north were laid in the late 1800s, it was little surprise the locals referred to the new service as The Afghan Express.
Over the next 30-to-40 years the railway pushed further north, but it was not until 1929 that Adelaide and Alice Springs were finally linked and the first Ghan service was launched, the name a clear nod to its pioneering history.
In the years that followed the Ghan grew in popularity and during World War II was called into military service, moving troops and supplies across the country.
But while the idea of a truly transcontinental railway had long been on the federal government’s agenda, it was not until 2001 that the project to finally link Alice Springs to Darwin began, taking three years to finish at a cost of $1.3 billion.
The completion of the near 3000-kilometre line that stretches from the Adelaide suburbs, through Australia’s vast desert outback and eventually to the country’s tropical north, is a key factor in its changing status over the past 15 years.
One person who has witnessed that change first hand is train manager Dean Duka who has worked on the Ghan for 29 years.
Mr Duka started as a silver boy, a glamorous title but actually the most junior position on the train as the one responsible for cleaning all the knives, forks and spoons.
From there he graduated to apprentice chef and qualified chef before stepping out of the kitchen and into a managerial role in 2008.
Mr Duka said when he started on the Ghan it was still, to some extent, a means of transport, “a way to get from A to B”.
But over the years the trickle of passengers picked up at various country towns has disappeared, along with some of the towns themselves.
“Now we’re a high-end, world-class luxury journey. It’s an amazing holiday,” he said.
“It’s more about the experience.”
And that’s changed the type of people who come aboard.
Its travellers, both local and international, with the time to take the slower ride across the country and tick a great train journey off their list.
Managing director Stephen Kernaghan said a trip on The Ghan was now for the “adventurous at heart”.
He described it as the “cruise ship of the desert” and a unique opportunity for travellers to truly experience the vastness of the Australian outback.
“To see the diversity of the desert environment is something people never forget,” he said.
“When you go by plane you see it from above, like a canvas.
“But when you drive through it you really can appreciate it.
“There’s nothing like immersing people in such a stark and beautiful space.
“The Ghan does that in spades.”
Mr Duka believes rail remains the best way to travel across Australia.
“If you really want to have a good look at this country, do it through the window of a train,” he said.