Over 120 Years to Cross a Continent
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
ON February 3, 2004, a train almost three quarters of a mile [1.1 km] long eased into Darwin Railway Station in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory. Thousands of people were on hand to celebrate its arrival. Dubbed The Ghan, the train had just completed its inaugural 1,850-mile [2,979 km], two-day south-to-north crossing of the continent.—See the box “The Legend Behind the Name,” on page 25.
More than 2,000 camera-laden spectators had gathered along the rail line, so the train had to slow down as it approached the city of Darwin. As a result, it arrived about 30 minutes late. But no one complained. The nation had been waiting for over a century already. Traversing one of the driest, hottest, and loneliest regions on earth, the line from Adelaide to Darwin had taken 126 years to complete.
The Need for a Railway
In the late 1870’s, the tiny colony of Adelaide, at the eastern end of a wide bay called the Great Australian Bight, had dreams of opening up economic development in the region and establishing a better trade route to the far north. The United States had completed its transcontinental railroad in 1869. Thinking on a similar scale, Adelaide’s citizens hoped to build a railway linking their colony to Port Darwin, as Darwin was then called. This steel highway would not only open up the interior but also dramatically cut travel time to Asia and Europe.
The concept appeared simple, but the railway would need to cross a brutal mosaic of rocky hills and mountain ranges, dense scrub, and sandy and stony deserts—parts of which turned into quagmire or raging torrents after rain. Explorer John Stuart had finally crossed this harsh terrain on his third attempt in 1862. But along the way, both he and his party nearly died from lack of food and water.
Blistering Heat, Sandstorms, and Flash Floods
Despite the obstacles, the citizens of Adelaide were undeterred. In 1878 they started work on the line at Port Augusta. Using only hand tools, horses, and camels, 900 railway workers pushed the line north along Aboriginal trails through the Flinders Ranges. This route took advantage of the only water holes in the region, for steam trains need water to operate.
The first 60 miles [100 km] of track took two and a half years to lay. Summer temperatures sometimes climbed to 120 degrees Fahrenheit [50°C]. In this dry heat, fingernails cracked, ink dried on pen nibs before it could be put to paper, and rail lines buckled. Train derailments were common. After sandstorms, workers had to clear sand drifts from miles of track, some drifts being up to six feet [2 m] deep. Often, the workers stood helpless as more storms undid their work.
Then came the rains. Within minutes, bleached riverbeds became raging torrents that twisted rail lines, swept away months of work, and stranded trains with their passengers. One engine driver shot wild goats in order to feed the travelers. Many years later, food was dropped to a stranded train by parachute.
Following the rains, desert plants sprang to life and beckoned waves of locusts. During one plague, the tracks became so greasy with squashed insects that an additional locomotive was needed to push from the rear. Plagues of rats presented yet another problem. The rodents devoured anything they considered edible—camp supplies, canvas, animal harnesses, and even boots. A lonely cemetery lies alongside the track—a reminder of a typhoid outbreak and testimony to the unsanitary conditions of camp life in the early stages of the project.
For entertainment, train crews were not averse to the odd practical joke. Once when the Alice Springs area was experiencing a rabbit plague, crew members smuggled rabbits aboard The Ghan. The next morning when passengers opened their cabin doors to go to breakfast, they stepped into corridors that were “alive with bewildered bunnies,” says the book The Ghan—From Adelaide to Alice. On another trip, someone let a joey, a young kangaroo, loose in the sleeping cars.
Aborigines who lived in remote areas sometimes approached the line as the train passed. From a safe distance, they saw people inside. Understandably, the Aborigines were at first wary, if not afraid. In fact, some thought that “a giant devil-snake” had swallowed the passengers alive!
A Long Pause
After 13 years of backbreaking labor, when the railhead was about 290 miles [470 km] from Alice Springs, funds ran out. “The sheer scale of such an undertaking . . . simply overwhelmed the colony,” says Australian Geographic. In 1911 the federal government took control of the project and extended the railway to Alice Springs. However, plans to complete the line to Darwin, 880 miles [1,420 km] farther to the north, were shelved.
When The Ghan first arrived in Alice Springs in 1929, the whole town—some 200 people at the time—turned out to celebrate. The locals marveled at the dining car, but the feature that stirred the most interest was the elegant bathroom. In those days, to have a bathtub on a train was both a novelty and a luxury. Alice Springs remained the railway’s northern terminus until 1997. In that year the state and federal governments agreed to complete the long-awaited Alice Springs-to-Darwin rail extension. Work commenced in 2001.
Huge automated machines laid the $1.3 billion (about $1 billion, U.S.) track at a rate of a mile [1.6 km] a day, crossing at least 90 new flood-proof bridges along the way. Billed as “the biggest infrastructure project in Australia,” the 880-mile [1,420 km] line was completed under budget and ahead of schedule in October 2003.
Allure of the Outback
Today the modern city of Adelaide remains the afternoon departure point for The Ghan’s continental crossing. Leaving behind suburbia, the twin locomotives and some 40 carriages wind their way through rolling wheat fields to Port Augusta, nearly 190 miles [300 km] to the north. Here the scenery changes dramatically into a hostile landscape of sand, saltbush, and scrub that stretches to the horizon.
Beyond Port Augusta, The Ghan travels on a new, all-weather track that lies up to 150 miles [250 km] or so west of the old flood-prone line. Night settles over the desert, and the passengers sleep as the train glides past salt lakes that are bone dry for much of the year but shimmer in the moonlight after rain. Countless stars fill the clear night sky. Absent, however, is the clickety-clack of yesteryear, for the rails are seamless, welded into one continuous length in order to reduce maintenance.
At dawn, the desert near Alice Springs glows red and gold under the rising sun. “The scene is awe-inspiring,” said one passenger. “Even in the train I could sense the power of the sun. It burst over an endless, rolling desert landscape so broad, so colorful, so dreadful in its emptiness that it was overwhelming. This is a humbling place.”
From Outback to Tropics
Following an afternoon stopover in Alice Springs, The Ghan continues on to the town of Katherine and then to its northern terminus, tropical Darwin. Cocooned inside air-conditioned carriages, “passengers on The Ghan enjoy luxury on wheels,” says Larry Ierace, train manager for The Ghan’s inaugural crossing. Looking out their windows, they can only imagine the perils and hardships experienced by the early pioneers.
Besides fostering trade and providing one of the great railway journeys of the world, The Ghan has brought another serving of the modern world into the heart of the outback. A 19-year-old Aboriginal girl who witnessed the train’s inaugural journey in February 2004 said: “I’ve never seen a train before in my life. It’s beautiful.”
[Box/Picture on page 25]
The Legend Behind the Name
The Ghan is an abbreviation for the nickname The Afghan Express. How the train came to be named after the Afghan camelmen is uncertain. Nevertheless, the designation calls to mind those hardy immigrants who helped open up the Australian outback. Collectively called Afghans, many in fact came from such diverse places as Baluchistan, Egypt, Northern India, Pakistan, Persia, and Turkey.
Their camels became the vehicles of the outback, obediently kneeling or rising to the command “Hooshta!” Camel trains of up to 70 beasts hauled people and freight at a steady pace of about four miles an hour [6 km/h]. When rail and road transport made camel trains obsolete, the Afghans turned their animals loose. Today, the descendants of those camels—numbering into the hundreds of thousands—roam wild in central Australia.—See Awake! of April 8, 2001, pages 16-17.
[Picture Credit Line on page 23]
Northern Territory Archives Service, Joe DAVIS, NTRS 573
[Picture Credit Line on page 25]
Train photos: Great Southern Railway