John Chipperfield lets the train take the strain on an epic trip across the outback from Darwin to Adelaide

It was billed as one of the world’s greatest railway adventures – and so it proved.

My brother Colin, who has lived in Australia for nearly 40 years, needed a companion on ‘The Ghan’, an epic 1,860-mile journey through the heart of the country.

It took me, a lifelong railway enthusiast, just a few seconds to agree to join him.

And so it was, on a hot autumn day, we found ourselves at Darwin, on Australia’s north coast and the starting point for our two-and-a-half day journey south to Adelaide.

The train was the longest I have ever seen – 39 carriages with two diesel locomotives at the front (one to do the work, the other as a spare) and a trailer with passengers’ cars at the rear.

It was more than half-a-mile long – pity the poor motorists who faced a lengthy wait as the train passed the numerous level crossings en route.

We, and our fellow 278 passengers, experienced the full range of the Australian countryside – the green pastures of the Northern Territory (it was the wet season), the desert-like conditions in the central section, and the hills, lakes and vineyards of South Australia.

However, it wasn’t just one long rail journey – the train stopped at various points on the way so that we could get off and enjoy the local attractions.

Even before we left Darwin, the train company, Great Southern Rail, treated us to two days of excursions in and around the town.

One was to the Kakadu National Park, a site of exceptional beauty, teeming with wildlife – a crocodile glided menacingly alongside us on a river cruise – while the second day focused on the town’s history.

We learned of the devastation wreaked on the port by Japanese bombers on February 19, 1942 at the height of the Second World War and a cyclone which killed more than 200 people and flattened many buildings on Christmas Eve 1974.

The train’s first stop was at the outback town of Katherine, where we enjoyed a river cruise along the impressive Nitmiluk sandstone gorge with Aboriginal rock artwork dating back thousands of years.

At Alice Springs, there was a choice of attractions. We opted for a visit to the Desert Park, where we saw an amazing display of tricks by trained wild birds.

At both venues, it was possible to enjoy helicopter flights to admire the scenery from the air – and at Alice Springs, you could even treat yourself to a camel ride. We declined!

The final events were a stop at Manguri for a drinks and bonfire party under the stars, and an on-board wine tasting, with a complimentary bottle of our favourite tipple to take home.

The railway can trace its roots to the 19th century when camels were brought to Australia to accompany explorers.

Unlike horses, camels were better suited to navigating the harsh, dry environment, needed little water and could carry heavy loads.

Their handlers were believed to be Afghans from Afghanistan and when the railway came, the name stuck – ‘The Ghan’ was born.

The Commonwealth agreed in 1911 to build a rail line from Adelaide to Darwin, but it took nearly 20 years to complete the first section from Adelaide to Alice Springs.

An excited crowd gathered at Adelaide railway station to see the first Ghan train, carrying more than 100 passengers, leave on August 4, 1929. It arrived two days later.

Work on the northern section to Darwin was completed in 2004. The first train was so well patronised it needed 43 carriages to fit everyone in.

Comfort is the rail company’s byword. Our cabin was only 2m by 4m, but had everything we needed – seats-cum beds, shower, toilet and drawers, plus we had a spacious restaurant car for eating, drinking and meeting other passengers. And the 52 staff on board, including our three, Nick, Brieana and Bali, could not have done more for us.

The rail line makes a major contribution to the Australian economy, carrying many tons of freight between north and south – in fact, unusually, freight has priority over passengers.

‘The Ghan’, which operates north to south and south to north, is proving increasingly popular, attracting hundreds of tourists as well as Australians every year.

A long rail journey through miles of desolate countryside may seem boring, but don’t you believe it.

With no wi-fi, mobile phones, laptops and the like for much of the time, people actually speak to one another.

What a surprise that is in the modern world!

For more information about ‘The Ghan’ from Darwin to Adelaide and its sister Sydney-Adelaide-Perth route, see