Home » Exploring the Australian Outback: Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan Train

Exploring the Australian Outback: Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan Train

Taking the Ghan Train through the Outback is one of the most incredible adventures to have in Australia. Although the full stretch spans a colossal journey from Darwin to Adelaide, one of the most iconic legs travels through the heart of the country. Travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan train means leaving the tropical Top End and spending 24 hours on board until your arrival in Australia’s Red Centre.

The Ghan Train is one of the most iconic train journeys in the world, and a true bucket list adventure for travellers of all ages.

I’ve always been a keen fan of long-distance train travel, so this rail adventure through the Outback was something I didn’t want to miss out on. Unfortunately, none of my fellow friends and travellers in Melbourne at the time were able to join, so I ended up riding the Ghan train solo. But what an adventure I had!

So let’s jump on in to this guide covering everything you need to know about this epic journey from Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan Train.

Ghan train from Darwin to Alice Springs
In front of the Ghan train, which I took from Darwin to Alice Springs

Australia’s Outback: Essential Information

The Australian Outback is like nowhere I’ve ever visited. Stepping off the train after arriving in Alice Springs, I landed on scorched, brick red earth. The intense heat immediately blowing into my face, as if I’d opened an oven door. The Outback covers the vast interior of Australia, but its most famous destination is the iconic Uluru rock near to Alice Springs.

Many visitors explore the well-travelled route between Alice Springs and Uluru, with most tours taking around 3 days. Make sure to check out this guide here on what to expect on a 3 day Uluru tour.

But many tourists don’t tend to make the journey up to Darwin to explore the magnificent Kakudu National Park and surrounds. The truth is, I think the whole Northern Territory is incredible, and offers one of very best Australian experiences to be had. You can explore Darwin in the ‘Top End’, Alice Springs and the ‘Red Centre plus take the Ghan train between the two, all in around 8-10 days. It’s a true adventure of a lifetime.

The Ghan train outside Alice Springs station in the Australian Outback
The Ghan Train outside Alice Springs station in the Australian Outback

But it does take some planning, so here’s all the essential information to know before heading to the Northern Territory:

When is the best time to go to the Australian Outback?

The best time to go to the Outback is from March to November, which covers primarily the Australian winter, and the two transitional seasons either side.

Make sure to read more on my climate guide to Australia here, which will be especially useful if you’re visiting several destinations in the country.

The train does not run in the months of December and January, as the weather is too bad and can make the tracks impassable.

Where to stay before or after the Ghan train journey

I recommend factoring in one or two nights before and after the train journey, both to explore the area and to leave a little time in case of train delays.

In Darwin, the best luxury hotel is by the far Mindil Beach Casino & Resort (£128 per night).

Another alternative is the Hilton Darwin (£104 per night), or the Vibe hotel (£84 per night), located adjacent to Darwin’s awesome wave pool. Or the best self-catering option is the Darwin Waterfront Luxury Suites (approx £150 per night).

In terms of value stays, I recommend the Darwin FreeSpirit Resort (£31pn) or Youth Shack (£13pn) for a backpacker’s hostel.

If you plan to stay in Darwin a few nights, then exploring the national parks is a must! Check out this great guide and itinerary for Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks here.

History of the Ghan

Did you know The Ghan train used to be called the Afghan Express when it was started in 1929? The name was later changed to The Ghan but both names originate from the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the 19th century. They helped explore Australia’s remote interior and establish tracks through the Red Centre.

Construction of the railway line from Adelaide to Alice Springs began in 1878, but it wasn’t completed until 1929. The full route today stretches from Adelaide to Darwin, but the Alice Springs to Darwin leg was only fully completed in 2004.

The line was particularly used as a trade route, and later assisted with the movement of people and supplies during WW2.

But today The Ghan train is purely for tourism purposes. The 36 carriages stretch nearly a kilometre in length, and is pulled by two diesel-electric engines.

The Ghan train in Australia
The front of The Ghan train in Australia

Riding the Ghan Train

How long does The Ghan train take?

The full route spans 2,979km (1,851 miles) covering the whole of Australia from north to south. It weaves through diverse landscapes, with the Darwin to Alice Springs leg covering the tropical, lush land around Darwin to the dusty, red sands of the desert.

Travelling from Adelaide to Darwin is a three night, four day adventure. However, travelling from the mid-point of Alice Springs to Darwin takes around 24 hours (departing at 10am, and arriving at 10.30am the following day in Alice).

Arriving at Alice Springs Station on The Ghan train
Arriving at Alice Springs Station on The Ghan train

Are there stops on the train from Darwin to Alice Springs?

Departing from Darwin, the first and only stop between here and Alice Springs is at Katherine Gorge, home to a huge sandstone canyon. This tiny town is a couple of hours into the journey and you have around 4 hours here to explore.

Katherine Gorge, is now co-named Nitmiluk, which means ‘cicada place’ in the local language. The aborigine community here is the Jawoyn people, who were given back ownership of the land in 1989.

In Katherine, I chose to self-explore the gorge and river.

If you’re travelling the whole way from Darwin to Alice Springs, you enjoy a full day in the Red Centre. There are several excursions on offer to transport you from the Ghan station to Uluru, including a scenic flight which looks amazing. Onwards from Alice Springs, the only stop between here and Adelaide is the opal-mining town of Cooper Pedy. This town is famous as many of its population live underground to avoid the sweltering heat, in a complex web of below ground homes. There are also subterranean restaurants, churches, bars and even an underground guesthouse! It’s a town like no other.

Is The Ghan train expensive?

Yes, it is expensive. The prices also differs with the season that you travel, and also how far in advance you book the journey.

But you’re really paying for an experience and adventure, one that simply does not compare with flying. Furthermore, it is on an all-inclusive basis, with all dining, alcoholic drinks and excursions included. There are just a handful of premium add-ons, such as a scenic flight over Uluru on the Alice Springs stop.

The Ghan train is operated by a company called Great Southern Rail. You can check the most up-to-date prices and travel information at their site here.

There used to be an excellent economy offering, but sadly this has been discontinued. It was still more than a flight (approx AUD$350) but still an amazing way to join the adventure on a budget. So the prices are somewhat steep for Platinum and Gold Classes, but absolutely worth it.

The premium offering is in the Platinum cabin. This costs AUD$2,849 from Darwin to Alice Springs, or AUD$4,079 from Darwin to Adelaide.

The most popular cabin is the Gold Twin (two-berth cabin) which costs around AUD$1,549 for Darwin to Alice Springs. Or AUD$2,149 for the full route to Adelaide.

Taking in the view from the train travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs
Taking in the view from the train travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs

What are the carriages like?

The carriages on The Ghan have been renovated in the past decade to bring a sense of the golden age of rail travel. It’s a beautiful train, but it does not have the glamour and opulence of the Orient Express.

There are the main sleeping cabins, a large dining carriage and shared showers and toilets. The bathrooms are modern, and well-designed, with full size showers and high-end amenities.

You check-in your luggage on arrival, which is really straightforward and friendly. There’s simply not the room, but this does means you need to make sure that you take everything for the journey in a separate overnight bag.

Sleeping on the Ghan

Platinum Service is the highest level of service on board. The cabins are ultra-luxurious, and double the size of the Gold cabins, with a separate lounge area too.

Gold Service are the next premium cabins onboard The Ghan. There are two options: a two-berth cabin for two people (Gold Twin), or a single-berth if you’re travelling solo (Gold Solo).

In the two-berth cabin, there are two beds. One folds down from the sofa, and the second from the top which then creates a bunk bed. The beds are kitted out with a duvet, pillows and a blanket. Your cabin attendant makes these beds up for you whilst you’re at dinner, so you don’t have to do this yourself. They also put the beds away while you’re at breakfast, too.

The exterior of the Ghan train
The exterior of the Ghan train

Food on The Ghan

Dining on The Ghan is exceptional.

All meals and beverages are included, as well as an excursion at each of the stops. You’re also seated with other guests during mealtimes, so it’s a great opportunity to meet your fellow passengers.

The Ghan serves dishes inspired by Australia, all of which used regionally-sourced ingredients. Delicacies might include grilled barramundi fish, buffalo curry or grilled kangaroo fillet. All meals in these classes are three courses – so you won’t go hungry!

The 48-seat Queen Adelaide restaurant can only sit so many people at once, you’ll be told by your cabin attendant what time your lunch and dinner bookings are. Breakfast is free seating, so you can turn up for breakfast at your leisure, but before 10am.

There is also the Outback Explorer Lounge, which is a spacious carriage with plenty of seats and spectacular views. As mentioned, all beverages are included so you can relax and not worry about the cost.

Is there a dress code onboard?

In Platinum, Gold and Silver, there is a smart casual dress code. This means a casual dress for women, or a shirt or polo shirt for men. It’s certainly not black tie. I would recommend no high heels for women as the train can have some jolting movements at times.

Is there WiFi onboard?

Short answer is no. But if you have an Australian sim, then you may find spots where you have 3G signal. I didn’t have any signal along the route on my Telstra sim.

Riding the Ghan Train as a solo traveller

This is definitely one of most epic travel experiences to be had if you’re travelling alone. Not only can you enjoy your own Gold class single berth cabin, but you can mix and mingle in the lounge and restaurants as and when you please. Generally everyone is so friendly, and it’s likely you’ll encounter other solo travellers too.

Solo traveller on the Ghan train
In from of the train as a solo traveller

Why take the train instead of driving?

First of all, taking the train through the Outback is far quicker and allows you to see the other-wordly landscapes without having to worry about any hazards on route. These include hopping kangaroos, wandering camels and the utterly terrifying Australian ‘road trains’, a type of ultra-long freight lorry, with endless containers. Driving past one of these at even 30mph or so requires a knuckle-whitening grip of your steering wheel and the strongest tunnel vision every known to man.

A road trip through the heart of the Outback can also present countless testing situations, from the risk of running out of fuel to a car break down. You could be hundreds of kilometres from the nearest fuel stop or have a very long wait until help arrives. Waiting by your car on the Stuart Highway in the desert runs the risk of encountering desert dangers, such as snakes or experiencing heatstroke.

You can of course go by bus, which takes a similar time and is cheaper at $300-400. But generally, this is less comfortable and in my opinion, not such a bucket list experience! From Alice Springs and Darwin, you have to travel by road for hours and hours at a time to visit the various attractions near there, so you may as well try another form of transport during this time.

Travelling on the Ghan train through the Australian Outback
Travelling on the Ghan train through the Australian Outback

Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan Train

The Ghan Train through the Australian Outback is widely considered one of the world’s great train journeys. It’s the longest north-south train journey on the planet, and offers the unique opportunity to travel across an entire continent in one journey.

I really hope this is useful for you if you’re planning a trip to the Outback and to ride The Ghan Train.

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Disclaimer: This guide to travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan Train is an independent guide. There was no involvement from any local companies or the tourist board. 

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