I'm writing this sitting in my Gold cabin on The Ghan (I was upgraded, hurrah!), sipping a cold beer, waiting for lunch to be called and wishing the journey would never end.
The cabin is amazing. There’s a double bed at one end, a fitted wardrobe and a table with two armchairs, one beside each window. At the other end, there’s a small fridge (filled with said beer and a bottle of champagne), hot water for tea or coffee, a TV and DVD player and a compact bathroom, complete with shower.
The decor is retro – oak panelled furniture, ornate engraved mirrors, brass fittings – but that just adds to the charm of it all. This is the kind of rail journey I always dreamed about taking but didn’t really think still existed: leisurely, sophisticated, romantic. All it needs now is someone to share it with and I think briefly of wandering down to the economy seats and inviting the young Italian boy with shiny dark curls and soft calf brown eyes that I chatted with while we were waiting to board to join me.
We left Alice Springs at 6pm last night. The sun was setting with typical outback drama, sky festooned with pink, orange and red. I dress for dinner (well put on some lipstick anyway) and wander down to the bar car. There’s a glass of champagne to welcome us aboard and the atmosphere is giddy and heady. Almost all of the other passengers are over 65 but that doesn’t stop the party jumping.
Then it’s time for dinner and I discover the glory that is the dining car: softly lit tables for four, linen table cloths, old fashioned silver and a delicious menu (king prawns and salmon starter, followed by rare steak and a cheeseboard for me). We’re seated by the stewards and I find myself next to Betty.
She’s nearly 80, travels widely and has been single for 22 years since her husband died. Is she, I ask delicately, perhaps particularly fussy in what she’s looking for in a man? Not at all, she says. ‘All I want is a man who can walk and talk.’ That does indeed seem very reasonable, I say, and surely not so hard to find. She snorts derisively. ‘You’d thinks so but the last bloke I was seeing could hardly walk and we’d go out for a meal and he wouldn’t say a word.’ Over a bottle of red we commiserate on the difficulty of finding a suitable man and the dark countryside outside clacks by mile after clickety mile.
After the champagne and red wine I’m all done in but no one will hear of bed. A nightcap, it seems, is the order of the day. We retire to the bar and I meet Val. She’s wearing a lime green three piece trouser suit and has tight chestnut curls. After a while, apropos of not very much at all, she stands up, declares her love for Shirley Bassey and treats us all to a very fine rendition of Hey Big Spender.
‘I don’t pop my cork for every man in town,’ she sings, moving up and down the carriage and shimmying in front of several startled male passengers who glance nervously at their wives. ‘Hey big spender, spend...a little time...with me.’ Right on the final note she ends up in her husband’s lap, to the cheers of the entire carriage. Her husband rolls his eyes at me. ‘Been doing it for 30 years,’ he says. ‘Party trick. Better with the music.’ And on that note I retire to my cabin, lie in my bed and watch the stars glide past my window as I drift off to sleep.
At 6am the steward, a gentle, welcoming and hospitable man called Anthony who is unfailingly pleasant, knocks on the door and brings me a cup of tea. I lie, sip and savour it as I watch the sun rise, then wander to the dining car for breakfast – fresh fruit followed by poached eggs, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms, toast and jam and lots of coffee.
Outside the scenery has changed. Gone is the seeming emptiness of the red centre, in its place an almost tropical north. Trees, some with vivid orange bark, cluster densely side by side and an army of deep red termite mounds (many as tall as a man) stand sentry in long grass.
At 9am we break in Katherine, wander off to explore the gorge and then return to the train for a 1pm departure. And here I am now. It’s only 5 hours to Darwin but I’m seriously hoping there’s some kind of breakdown that means we need to spend a little bit longer on board.