Published On: Thu, Oct 12th, 2017

Catch the Australian Outback from the train

COOBER PEDY, AUSTRALIA—In the peculiar game of golf, the sand traps are particularly peculiar. The rules of golf dictate the ball can skip into these bastions of despair, these “bunkers,” so long as the sand is raked smooth. Splotchy, unkempt sand would be a little too peculiar, even for golf.

In the heart of the Australian Outback, there’s a place that takes arguably the most peculiar part of the most peculiar sport and makes it more peculiar.

Coober Pedy’s star attraction, other than the world’s largest opal mining area, is a golf course.

The rakes, usually reserved for sweeping the “bunkers,” are instead used to form concentric circles on the “greens,” the customarily pristine patch of grass where the flag or pin perches.

I say “greens,” because in Coober Pedy, they’re black.

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The Ghan stopped at Alice Springs on day two of the adventure.
The Ghan stopped at Alice Springs on day two of the adventure.  (Ghan Expedition)  

A nearby sign reads “keep off the grass.” There is none to keep off. A defunct tractor sits on the dusty, red gravel fairways.

“You only need two clubs — a sledgehammer and a hammer,” says bus tour guide Bob Degnan, who lives here six months of the year.

He says for $ 75, members can play here and receive a free deal to play at the “home of golf,” St. Andrews, in my home country of Scotland. There’s a catch. The reciprocal deal apparently only applies in Scottish winter, which, depending on your definition, could be anywhere from six to 11 months.

“We never see anyone from Scotland coming to take up the offer,” Degnan adds.

None of this is particularly unusual for Coober Pedy, the final stop of the Ghan Expedition, a four-day, 2,979-kilometre journey through the Outback from Darwin to Adelaide. It’s a new contender budding to join the ranks of the world’s great train journeys.

A gold cabin on the luxury train from Darwin to Adelaide.
A gold cabin on the luxury train from Darwin to Adelaide.  (Ghan Expedition)  

The Ghan is an abbreviation of Afghan, derived from the nationality of the people who helped build the original railway line in the late 1800s. Australians have never encountered a word they couldn’t shorten. Afternoon becomes arvo, the city of Fremantle is Freyo. Tasmania is Tassie. Australia? Aussie or Oz.

Day one: I begin in Darwin. It’s nearly winter and 34 C.

Very few places are undisputedly best seen by train. The remote and vast Outback, central Australia’s “red zone,” is one. Rainfall makes the land flourish abnormally green. The only red, for now, is the odd rusted, abandoned car.

To the room. Everything compartmentalized and neat. It’s tight, not cramped. The radio plays three channels, all crooner classics. No Wi-Fi. No TV.

But the bar! The bar is free and company is first-rate. Vietnam veterans with fonder memories of the Viet Cong than the Americans and intrepid doctors who brought “Western” medical practices to East Timor.

Bob Degnan, bus tour guide of Coober Pedy for the Ghan Expedition.
Bob Degnan, bus tour guide of Coober Pedy for the Ghan Expedition.  (David Bateman)  

I’d estimate the average age of my fellow travellers at 65, give or take. I am seemingly one of only six, out of hundreds, who is yet to retire. No wonder — it’s perfect for the elderly. It’s all-inclusive, no hassle, the service is good — considering the space, there’s lots of socializing and the schedule is busy without stretching endurance. It’s surprising there are so few foreigners and families with kids. Then again, prices start from around $ 3,000 per person.

We alight to Katherine Gorge, land returned to the native Jawoyn people in 1989. The Aboriginal people’s symbiotic relationship to nature is explained while we peek at three freshwater crocodiles sunbathing.

We go from train to bus to boat to another boat to another boat to bus to train. Herded from one transport to the next, my relative lack of patience is occasionally tested by the slightest dawdle.

By night, sleep interrupted by shoogling, the romanticism of the train wears thin. The cabins are comfortable but no linen or cushions can placate a moving train.

Day two: I’m enlivened by the new terrain, a plane of copper and sunset red dust.

The Ghan Expedition train parked for the evening near Coober Pedy.
The Ghan Expedition train parked for the evening near Coober Pedy.  (David Bateman)  

To Uluru, formerly Ayers Rock, by plane. The formation of Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, draws my eyes. It’s like a series of giant, red upturned thimbles. A more polished version of the red rocks of Sedona, Ariz.

From a distance, Uluru is sleek and smooth. We get closer by car and see it’s streaked like peeling paint or flaky, charred skin. The iron crust is what protects the sandstone from erosion. For once, rust is a saviour.

The land around is unusually green. The national park flooded in December for the first time since 1958.

Night two. A candlelit dinner at an Australian ranch, a cosmology lesson under the clearest of skies and camel rides as a part-tribute to the preferred mode of transport of the Afghan train track builders.

Day three: Driving to Coober Pedy, we pass a solitary home, the only dwelling for miles. Outside, a family of six are waiting to wave to us. They do this every time the Ghan arrives.

The golf course in Coober Pedy where the greens are black and the fairways are dusty red.
The golf course in Coober Pedy where the greens are black and the fairways are dusty red.  (David Bateman)  

Degnan tells us the town was hit by a plague of snakes way back . . . three weeks ago. The pause is mine, not his. He speaks like it’s perfectly normal in 2017 for a town to be overrun by snakes.

Most of the homes are at least half-buried underground to hide from the sun. It’s a mix of a gold rush U.S. mining post, the prehistoric town of Bedrock from TheFlintstones and a sandy, budget version of Hobbiton.

The open-air cinema, Degnan tells us, has run the same ad for decades. It politely asks patrons not to ignite dynamite in the cinema.

He introduces us to an eccentric, 75-year-old Italian miner who rattles off a guide to opal digging at a frightening pace. Degnan tells us later that the frail whirlwind has been a millionaire and back again at least three times.

From start to finish, the Ghan is a real Australian adventure through the country’s core, worthy of top spot on any tourist’s must-do list Down Under alongside the Great Barrier Reef.

David Bateman was hosted by Great Southern Rail, operators of the Ghan Expedition, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go

Get there: Fly from Toronto Pearson to Darwin International Airport and expect several stopovers. Internal Australian flights are cheap, if you’re flying to Darwin from another city in Oz.

Do this trip: The Ghan Expedition runs periodically until late October 2017 and from April until October in 2018. Prices start from around $ 3,100. The flight over Uluru is an optional extra, but most off-train excursions are included in the price. Visit the Ghan Expedition section of the Great Southern Rail website for more information.

Do your research: The Great Southern Rail website (greatsouthernrail.com.au ) lists a host of options for travelling on the Ghan, including the cheaper regular service from Darwin to Adelaide. For more on what to do in Darwin, visit the Australian tourism website (australia.com/en-gb/places/darwin.html ).

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Catch the Australian Outback from the train