It’s normal in Eastern Europe for border guards to stop a train and inspect your visa, but this was the first time I’d had it happen in Australia. Not that the guards were boarding.
Having pulled into Alice Springs railway station, we passengers on The Ghan were donning masks and lining up for a crew of Northern Territory Police agents within the station building, with our visas – actually our NT Border Entry Forms, with their all-important arrival numbers – in hand.
It sounded like it should be easy. Show your entry number to the agent, have a brief conversation about where you’d been, then step onto a bus to join one of The Ghan’s scheduled off-train excursions.
But for me at least, there was a note of tension.
It had been more than the requisite 14 days since I’d last been in Victoria, which was undergoing its third lockdown, but even so I didn’t fancy the risk of quarantine.
So I had a sheaf of papers proving itineraries and hotel stays over the past two weeks; they shuffled through them, did some mental calculations, and let me in.
That process was a novel element in Australian long-distance train travel. But COVID-19 forces new experiences on us all the time, as I’d found a day earlier when boarding The Ghan at Adelaide’s Parklands Terminal.
After a rigorous check-in procedure involving temperature checks, I entered my Gold Service cabin to find pandemic-era extras including alcohol wipes and hand sanitiser.
Other measures on this long train trip north to Darwin, including seating only travelling couples or groups together in the dining car, rather than mixing people; and an encouragement to distance where possible in the lounge bar.
Otherwise, The Ghan is as it was before the virus: a three-day rail trek from temperate Adelaide through the desert north to the tropics at Darwin, an impressive logistical exercise undertaken by 36 carriages pulled by two sizeable locomotives.
Before we’d had our date with border control in Alice Springs there had been a more uplifting off-train moment: watching the sun rise at a siding near the remote South Australian town of Marla.
As we left the train in the dark there wasn’t much to see… an old concrete platform with a shed on top, trestle tables, a bonfire burning brightly to one side.
Then, as the eastern horizon slowly brightened, we milled around in the pre-dawn desert chill, accepting cups of coffee, spinach and cheese scrolls, and egg and bacon sliders (something of the urban 21st century had come with us, it seemed), feeling a tinge of excitement at being in this strange desolate place at dawn.
At Alice Springs passengers split up across three included off-train excursions: one to historic sights including the Telegraph Station and the Royal Flying Doctor facility; another to Alice’s excellent Desert Park; and a third involving a walk at Simpsons Gap. Further up the line on the final day of travel, the off-train excursion at Katherine centred on a cruise through Nitmiluk Gorge.
Since the federal government removed its subsidies for economy-class long-distance train passengers in 2016, this is the direction in which The Ghan has gone: leaning heavily into the concept of the ‘rail cruise’, in which high-quality excursions are included in a hefty fare.
The same inclusivity applies to the comfortable en suite accommodation, and all meals and beverages – the latter dispensation slightly remarkable, given the Aussie partiality to a drink.
There’s a permanent jolly holiday atmosphere in the lounge bar, and the food is impressive in its quality and range. On this trip, for example, the onboard dinner menu after Alice Springs included grilled crocodile tail fillet, glazed Peking duck breast, grilled saltwater barramundi, and chickpea dahl.
The croc and barra dishes would have been a talking point among the international visitors that used to form a percentage of The Ghan’s passenger list.
But they’re not on board thanks to the virus, so Australian travellers have the train to themselves.
More than one fellow Australian aboard The Ghan told me they were on the rails because they couldn’t travel overseas; that this train had always been on their bucket list but coronavirus had moved it to the top. That seemed reasonable.
If you couldn’t splurge your cash on an overseas cruise, why not spend it on a transcontinental rail equivalent at home? Plying its rail cruise during the pandemic, The Ghan is a safe vessel in a storm.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions. The Ghan runs weekly in each direction between Adelaide and Darwin, see journeybeyondrail.com.au