This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.


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2011 Travels February 16

WEDNESDAY 16 FEBRUARY     ON THE GHAN

Woke to the alarm at 6am.

The wind had dropped overnight. However, the BOM was forecasting that a Category 1 cyclone – Carlos – would develop, with winds to 100kmh. There had been 367mm of rain from 9am yesterday to 9am today. The airport was closed.

The path of Cyclone Carlos

Breakfasted on oranges, weetbix, toast, then threw out the remaining food – not much.

We were downstairs, with our luggage, at 8am, for an 8.10 pickup. Another lady was waiting there too.

The bus was late. Eventually the Reception lady rang to check it was coming. It arrived a bit after 8.30. The lateness was understandable, given the conditions.

We made several other pickups at accommodation places around town, before heading out, to the Ghan Station. driving was a delicate operation. Trees were down, traffic lights were not working, there was much debris on the roads.

There were more passengers at the Station, and a second bus. We stayed on the same bus which was about half full, as was the second bus when we pulled out again. That meant it was reasonably comfortable, at least, with room to spread out a bit.

Left the Station about 10.15am, which would have been about train departure time.

As we were passing Palmerston,  and crawling through water across the road, the driver told us how “they” made the Tiger Brennan Drive extension too low for the big semis, at one point where another road goes over it. The solution was to lower Tiger Brennan Drive by a metre or so, whereupon the water table was intersected. Now, there were ongoing problems with this. Only in Darwin…..

In sections, one side of the dual road Stuart Highway was flooded, and so traffic became two way on the other side. I wondered if the road builders had elevated one side for this reason, or if it was a lucky fluke? We were lucky to get through at all.

Driving down the up side, with flooded highway in distance

At Noonamah, we pulled in by a servo. The other bus was there – broken down, apparently. So its passengers were loaded onto our bus. Every seat was full. It became really stuffy, very quickly – the air-con was ineffectual in these conditions.

Maybe in an effort to distract us from our discomfort, maybe because he liked the sound of his own voice, the driver kept up a running commentary, on local facts, environment, history, events. Some of it was just factually wrong, according to what I knew. It became really annoying.

Then the driver announced that we would not be stopping, as had been planned, at Emerald Springs, for a break, but “for operational reasons” would continue through to Katherine without a break. This was rapidly becoming the bus trip from hell.

Stuart Highway under there.

John had to use the on board bus toilet. He reported that it was very hard for him, with the bus swaying, in the confined space, and not all that clean…. I preferred to go thirsty and not drink much of my bottled water, trying to ensure I didn’t need to use the toilet.

Some of the passengers were from overseas and did not have any idea of the distance involved, from Darwin to Katherine. They didn’t even have any water and none was provided on the bus. They were really cross and disgruntled. I decided we were travelling with some sort of local outfit, organized at the last moment, and not really set up for comfortable travel over several hours.

We passed through the Katherine outskirts and were taken straight out to Nitmiluk, where we got out of our torture chamber. Obviously, I had not been the only person annoyed by the driver’s errors – the woman in front of me as we disembarked, said sweetly to him “Oh, by the way Jawoyn is pronounced……” (not the way he had mangled it). I couldn’t top that one.

It had stopped raining so heavily after about Pine Creek and now was more just showers.

Lunch was served to us at the Nitmiluk Visitor area. It was a buffet style one for Gold and Platinum Class passengers. Red Class ones had to stay on the bus. I guess they got dumped in Katherine to fend for themselves.

After lunch we were given the chance to do the one hour boat trip on the Gorge, for free. Clearly, there was some compensating going on for our altered experience, to date. Some chose not to do the boat trip, but we wanted to. We hung back from the initial rush, and so got a place on the second, smaller boat.

Katherine River near the Visitor Centre
Red rock walls of Katherine Gorge
Not how most tourists see this cave feature….

Aboriginal guides take the boat tours. The commentary by our guide was interesting. He only spoke when there was something worth pointing out or telling us. A marked contrast to our bus driver!

The river was high and flowing quite strongly. Because of this, and the green-ness, it all looked very different from how we’d seen it on previous trips. Back in ’93, we’d canoed along this same stretch.

Swirling currents in the strongly flowing river

In places, there were little waterfalls coming down the cliffs.

Black staining on the rock walls shows waterfalls

After about 40 minutes, we turned about and went back down river to where we started. Because of the currents, it was faster going that way.

Back near the Visitor Centre

The tour was worth doing. I’d have paid for it, certainly. At one hour, it was just enough to give a good taste of the Gorge at this time, without becoming boring. We’d seen the first part of the Katherine Gorge system in a mode that most tourists, visiting in the Dry, had not.

We climbed back on the bus – fewer people now, as the Red Class and the non-boat trippers had already gone. And thus to the train – at last! By now it was 4pm.

I suppose I’d been expecting the standard sort of train station platform, like in Melbourne, so was surprised to find that we accessed the train from ground level, via little mobile stairs.

Our carriage – H – was towards the back of quite a long train. We were checked on board at the doorway to this. Our compartment – 7/8 – was dinky! We had a carriage hostess, who introduced herself.

The lounge seat was also the lower bed, so it was about two metres long – plenty of sitting room. The compartment  was not very wide, but there were two little robe cupboards, and adequate storage space, under the bed and on top of the bath cubicle roof. But I could see why we’d had to limit our onboard luggage, with our main suitcases checked into the luggage carriage – we hoped! Given the earlier bus trip experience I wasn’t totally confident in their ability to transfer our cases from bus to train.

We had a nice big window – no problem seeing the passing country from that. The carriage layout was a corridor down one side that gave access to the compartments, so the latter were almost the full width of the carriage.

Our en-suite bathroom was a bit of a challenge. There was a fold-up toilet, which needed some care in operating! A fold-up hand basin was above that. To shower, one pulled a curtain across in front of the door, toilet and basin, but that didn’t stop the floor from getting wet, of course, and – as we were to discover – it took ages to dry.

Ghan toilet and shower curtain

We got going – hooray!

John and I went along to the lounge car and had a can of beer each, to celebrate finally being on The Ghan. Then we were called to dinner – there was an order in which different carriages were served.

We sat with an older couple. He was 91 and stroke affected, so his speech was hard to follow against the background noise of the train. They’d lived on the Qld gem fields for years – she had some great jewellery. So we talked fossicking, mostly. They’d lived in a van at The Willows fields.

Dinner gave us a choice between soup or some type of quiche entree, main was a choice between a chicken dish and salmon, which I had. There was a choice of desserts too. We had a bottle of wine with dinner.

The food was wonderful. Beautifully presented and serves not too big.

We took another bottle of wine back to our compartment. While we’d been gone, the beds had been set up. The lounge had become a lower bed and a top one had somehow folded down from on high. The beds were made up and turned down. All very seamless.

We had a glass of wine each, sitting on the lower bed. It had grown dark while we were in the dining car, so there wasn’t much to be seen outside by now. We were surprised to realize that it was already 9.30pm.

John said he would take the top bunk. Noble of him. I was tired. It had been a long day. So we went to bed. There was moonlight outside, so once the interior light was off, we could see trees and scrub passing by.

I had no trouble falling asleep. The slight rhythm of the train was very soothing. I woke a couple of times through the night, to find the train stopped, but could only see bush around. The schedule we’d been given did indicate a couple of stops – maybe to allow other trains past? Or to rotate train crews.

It had been overcast all day, though we’d travelled out of the heaviest rain. Found out later that, essentially, we had travelled through Cyclone Carlos when we first left Darwin, and it was now to the north of us. Over the three day period from 15-17 Feb, Darwin was to get nearly 700mm of rain. Had we been a day later trying to get to the Ghan at Katherine, it wouldn’t have happened.

“Let’s see Darwin in the storm season” he said…….