Travel: The Ghan to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock

Sunrise at Ayers Rock

Sunrise at Ayers Rock - Credit: Archant

Award winning Belsize Park author takes a special train to the Red Centre of Australia: in search of nowhere

Sunrise at Ayers Rock

Sunrise at Ayers Rock - Credit: Archant

I wanted an adventure, I wanted to escape the UK, and I wanted to be alone.

Perhaps travelling all the way to Australia’s outback wasn’t the most convenient solution but convenience was merely taking me to my local Belsize Park Tesco.

I wanted to be nowhere for a while, to look out of a window and know that there was miles of nothingness ahead, no cars, no tubes, no angry people. Travel isn’t a geographical expedition but a way of finding the peace or stimulation that ordinary life doesn’t provide.

My voyage into nowhere started as a teenager when I read Nevile Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’. I swore one day I’d visit the Alice Springs to experience the emptiness of a place where your nearest neighbour can be hundreds of miles away and where people speak our language but live such different lives.

Sally Emerson Boards The Ghan

Sally Emerson Boards The Ghan - Credit: Archant

But of course space and nothingness is not what you want as a solitary female in a 4x4 in the middle of the outback’s heat. I took the easy option, the Ghan train, recently immortalised in a documentary taking viewers the nearly 3000 km trip across Australia from Adelaide to Darwin. It was lauded for being both boring and mesmerising, and so it proved. My journey on the beautiful silver train was one night and two days, in a cosy cabin with a bathroom, from Adelaide just as far as Alice Springs, in the very centre of Australia.

The dining car served kangaroo with pomegranate, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it while watching the living ones bouncing around among the acacia bushes as the evening began to darken and the red and violet sunset swirled across the immense sky.

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Not that there was much wildlife apart from them, just a few sheep, arid land sprouting African grass, salt pans, dry creeks, grey-green mulga bushes, and gum trees below the wide horizons and sweeping skies.

At dawn, the train stopped and we were woken for an outback breakfast, with fires to warm us, fried egg and bacon rolls, coffee, orange juice and fruit. As the darkness left the dry land and we could gaze out into the emptiness, guests strayed further from the fires as if we all wanted to get lost in the red desert.

The Ghan

The Ghan - Credit: Archant

The train first ran to Alice Springs in 1929, making this its 90th anniversary year. It was named after the Afghan camel riders who helped to explore the interior. It’s not as luxurious as the Orient Express and the journey not as romantic as the one from Moscow to St Petersburg, but it is spectacular all the same, a journey into another state of mind.

But I still didn’t understand what the outback was. A friend had said ‘It’s everything that is out back of where we live. Most Australians live in the coastal cities, and behind all that is this vast arid uninhabited space.’

But the outback isn’t just the sense of space experienced in the desert. It’s also unsettling, bohemian Alice Springs, where I left the train and stayed overnight, 1,000 miles from anywhere. Alice has a history of finding solutions to its isolation; a Flying Doctor service, a Telegraph Station, its School of the Air offering education to children in remote areas.

I loved it there, with the desert all around. But the heart of the outback is Australia’s Red Centre reigned over by the mighty Ayers Rock. I reached the Ayers Rock Resort from Alice Springs by plane (one hour flight), and stayed in the gorgeous Sails in the Desert hotel. Now known more by its aboriginal name Uluru, it’s a sandstone monolith some two and a quarter miles long and one and a half wide, which is the centre of aboriginal culture and the custodian of their stories.

For a nomadic people these myths are central to their culture, and Uluru is the British Library of aboriginal life, a place where the past is stored, and every formation has a story. Why, those huge marks in the rock are the footprints of the Devil Dingo Dog. Another shape was the head of the Rainbow Serpent, and those boulders were snake’s eggs.

We were shown the Blue-Tongued Lizard Man, an emu, and a spear, and as the guide spoke, the rock became alive with caves and tumbling boulders and rippling or honeycombed surfaces, many folding into one another, all relating the history of a people and their songs and their dreams. It was a journey not just into the outback, but into another way of thinking and feeling. I flew back over a thousand miles of emptiness to Sydney. I’d recommend taking the overnight train from Adelaide to spend a night in Alice, then a few nights in Ayers Rock Resort where the stars in the unpolluted sky are so brilliant and astronomers with telescopes can guide you around the emptiness of space.

You can go to Uluru any time of the year, though temperatures can rise to over 40 degrees in January but in the evenings and mornings it is cooler and there are fine dinners under the stars within sight of the rock or dawn breakfasts as the sun hits the red stone and it smoulders.

Sally Emerson’s novels are published by Quartet Books.

Prices at the Ayers Rock Resort range from $290 (£158) (Outback Pioneer Hotel) to $460 (£252) (Sails in the Desert)

The Ghan train journey between Adelaide and Alice Springs starts from $1049 (£575), with meals and drinks included details on visiting the Northern Territory from