Saturday 28 April 2012

South on The Ghan 2: Alice Springs to Adelaide

Last time I wrote about the first leg of my journey on The Ghan transcontinental train, from Darwin to Katherine. The journey continues below...

1. Interior Comforts. Time for some more shots of the train's interior, I think. Here's the Queen Adelaide dining car, followed by the Outback Explorer bar:

2. A Station Like Alice. The morning after we'd left Katherine, we arrived in Alice Springs. I'd last been here for the Alice Desert Festival (read about my experience here), but arrived by plane of course.

In the centre of Australia, this was the original terminus of The Ghan's route, which ran north from Adelaide. It wasn't until 2004 that the line was extended the additional 1500 kilometres to Darwin.

You can see a statue of one of the Afghan camel drivers who gave their name to the train here, at Alice Springs Station:

3. The Old Ghan. Although the railway linking Alice Springs and Adelaide dates from the 1920s, its route has changed over the years. Nowadays the standard gauge line runs a long way west of the original route, which was prone to flooding and other mishaps.

The original line is remembered at the National Road Transport Hall of Fame just outside Alice Springs, which incorporates the Old Ghan Train Railway Museum. Located on a stretch of track from the original rail route, the two museums hold an interesting mix of road and rail transport, including earlier Ghan rolling stock:

4. Empty Spaces. After we left Alice Springs, there were a lot of scenes like this out of my cabin window - flat empty desert with scrubby vegetation and distinctive red earth. At some point here we crossed the border into South Australia, but the scenery looked much the same:

5. Pichi Richi Diversion. About 9am Friday morning, some 66 hours after leaving Darwin, we arrived in Port Augusta. Here we left the train for an excursion on the Pichi Richi Railway, a tourist operation which runs original Ghan carriages over a section of the earlier route to the town of Quorn.

This isn't a usual side-trip for Ghan passengers. This edition of The Ghan was a special train commemorating Anzac Day, Australia and New Zealand's national war remembrance day, and supporting the Returned & Services League.

The Ghan played a huge role in transporting troops north during the dark days of World War II and the Japanese air attacks on Darwin and other northern settlements, hence the military connection. Those troops rode on the tracks which pass through Quorn, and I was told the Country Women's Association outpost near the station served a million meals to soldiers during the course of the conflict.

Here's a pic of the train in motion through the low dry hills leading to Quorn, and a shot of the engine at rest in the town:

6. Terminus. Finally, after nearly 3000 kilometres of rail and 74 hours since we left Darwin, we arrived in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. And all without changing our watches, crossing a national border or producing a passport even once:

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

Thursday 26 April 2012

South on The Ghan 1: Darwin to Katherine

I'm writing this on The Ghan, Australia's second great transcontinental train.

The first, the Indian Pacific, takes an east-west route as it crosses Australia from Sydney to Perth. I've been on the Indian Pacific twice, and you can read about those journeys here (2009) and here (2011).

The Ghan is actually the older of the two, but it wasn't until 2004 that the final section of the railway was completed and the train could cross the continent from south to north between Adelaide and Darwin. Before then it had terminated at Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia.

I actually started this journey from the Top End (writing about Darwin in my previous post). These are some of the highlights of The Ghan as we headed south...

1. Do the Locomotive. Here's one of the two mighty engines hauling our train, which on this occasion consisted of 35 carriages stretching 750 metres, weighing over 1000 tonnes. As the logo suggests, by the way, The Ghan's name comes from the Afghan camel drivers who helped open up the Outback in the 19th century:

2. Carriage of Delight. The Ghan's carriages are actually the same as those on the Indian Pacific, but I was lucky this time to be placed in one of the newly refurbished cars. Here are a couple of snaps of my cabin and its impressive bathroom:

3. Memories of Conflict. After the Japanese air attacks on Darwin in 1942, a major military base was established at Adelaide River; and later, a military cemetery. As this particular edition of The Ghan was commemorating Anzac Day via a special itinerary, we stopped here for a brief visit.

One of the most moving memorials was this one, at the gravesite of the six post office staff who were killed in the first air attack on Darwin on 19 February 1942, when a bomb fell directly into the trench in which they were sheltering:

4. Culture on Arrival. At nightfall we reached Katherine, where drinks were held on the park opposite the station. An atmospheric part of the entertainment was this group of local Aboriginal dancers, performing in front of a bonfire:

5. Gorgeous Gorge. The following day we were transported to Katherine Gorge, a beautiful rocky landscape with a river running through it. Here's a glimpse of the rock walls we saw from our boat through the gorge:

6. ... and a small crocodile lurking by the riverbank (can you see it?)...

7. ... and finally, an Agile Wallaby I was lucky to get really close to, as a small herd of them grazed in a grassy area below the car park:

Next week: Alice, the Old Ghan, and a troop train to Quorn...

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Darwin Unexpected

I've been in Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory for the past few days, on my way to join the Ghan, the train which runs the length of the continent from north to south.

I didn't have many expectations of the northern city, beyond the usual southern preconceptions of a tropical town full of blustery, hard-drinking folk.

What I found was a modern, multicultural city with a surprisingly diverse drinking and dining scene.

On top of that, I kept stumbling across fascinating items of historical interest. Despite the city being bombed by Japanese forces in 1942-43 and knocked over by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, many intriguing fragments of the past remain.

Here are a few I discovered...

1. Darwin Rebellion. This charming cottage is where the Administrator (the Territory's equivalent of a state Governor) lives. In December 1918, however, it was the scene of revolt as hundreds of people marched on Government House demanding political and workplace rights from the Federal Government in Melbourne, which had taken over the NT from South Australia's administration seven years before.

The protesters surrounded the building for weeks, forcing the Administrator Dr John Gilruth to sneak aboard a navy ship to be escorted back south. It's a fascinating story woven about such a dainty residence, and one I was amazed to have never heard of before.

2. Old Town Hall Ruins. This striking set of ruins on Smith Street reminded me in passing of Roman ruins I've seen across Europe and the Middle East.

It's much younger, of course. This 1883 structure was Darwin's first Town Hall, later used as a military building. It survived the wartime bombings, but was reduced to its current state by Cyclone Tracy. It was left this way as a reminder of that cataclysmic event, and it's very moving in its patch of lawn in the middle of town.

3. Darwin's Bust. While waiting for a bus I wandered through the nearby Civic Square and was delighted to stumble upon this bust of the young Charles Darwin, as he would have looked at the time of his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. Around the central figure are several bell-shaped pieces with different species of native birds on top, a tribute to the scientist's observational work.

Darwin himself never came here, but the Beagle called into the harbour a few years later and named it Port Darwin after their former shipmate. Eventually the port gave its name to the city as well, usurping its original name of Palmerston.

4. Stone Remnants. In the same part of town are various stone buildings which managed to survive warfare, cyclones and even the reckless demolition efforts of past Territory governments.

Here's a good example, an 1885 structure which had various incarnations as a shop, bank, and even a torpedo workshop. Nowadays its the Browns Mart Theatre, borrowing from its original commercial name.

5. Explosive Camouflage. Finally, I visited this 1940s ammunition dump hidden within the bush inside what is now Charles Darwin National Park. Built in response to the Japanese air attacks, this dump would have been very hard to spot from the air. Ironically it wasn't completed until 1944, by which point the aerial bombing had ceased and the war was nearly over.

Cleverly, there's signage here which links with the interactive animated displays at the new Defence of Darwin Experience at East Point, a well-publicised Darwin historic attraction which I thoroughly recommend.

Next week: Heading south on the Ghan!

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism NT and Great Southern Rail.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Journey into Vampire Fiction: Eger, Hungary

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life and the Melbourne Literary app for the iPhone and iPad.

For a lot of people, books lead to travel. But sometimes the reverse is true - travel leads to books.

My 2010 trip to Hungary led to me writing a short story inspired by Hungarian history, the country’s legendary association with vampires, and a little town called Eger.

Hungary has a history of association with vampires. Until after World War I, Transylvania (home of Vlad Dracul) was part of Hungary; the infamous Countess Bathory who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth was Hungarian; and 20th century horror film actor Bela Lugosi was a famous son of Hungary.

Hungary has also suffered under more immediate and real monsters than those contained within the legions of the undead. Its 20th century history is a litany of tyranny and oppression, as Hungary was allied to Nazi Germany in the Second World War and Hungarian Jews were murdered in their hundreds of thousands as a result.

The Soviet Union then liberated Hungary, exchanging one tyrant for another. The Terror House in Budapest contains a wall depicting victims of the secret police of the postwar communist regime. Another, perhaps darker, room depicts those who worked for the secret police.

The museum is a dark and disturbing memorial, the brightest part of which is its very existence: Hungary is now a place where those evil secrets are no longer buried. Hungary has emerged from that past and is shining a light on it, perhaps in the hope that it will never happen again.

As a writer, I wanted to create something that played with all of these elements of Hungary's story – both its recent history and its fantastical relationship with vampire lore.

Then I visited Eger. Eger is a beautiful town in eastern Hungary, famous for its Bull's Blood wine and its impressive castle. Eger fell to the Turkish invaders of the Ottoman Empire in 1596, nearly 50 years after the majority of Hungarian territory was conquered. Eger eventually defeated its Turkish overlords in 1687, around a decade ahead of the rest of the nation.

This defiant town's castle has been restored and tidied up above ground; but to me, one of its most interesting attractions was a dark, damp hole beneath it.

A tour led below the castle to tunnels hewn into rock, dripping water and inhabited by permeating cold. It was claustrophobic to squeeze through its narrow tunnels with two dozen strangers to stare at a cave behind bars: one of the castle's actual dungeons. A pile of mouldy hay and a few rats, as depicted in countless films, were the only touches missing.

Then, in the strange alchemy that happens in the minds of writers, a story was born.

A story about a vampire created in the Ottoman era, who doesn’t fit in the modern world; a family enslaved to his will for generations; a castle with a dank and terrible dungeon beneath rooms and stairs now made safe for tourists; and how the most surprising things can happen when you underestimate the courage of people who are fed up to the gills with evil bastards.

I don't know if the resulting story, Thrall, is one of those tales that will inspire someone to visit Hungary; I hope so. Either way, Hungary definitely inspired me, with its colour, tragedy, defiance and hope.

Narrelle M Harris's short story Thrall appears in her latest book Showtime, a short story collection published by Twelfth Planet Press - you can buy it online here.  Find out more about Narrelle's writing at

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Geelong to Ballarat: All Aboard!

It's exactly 150 years today since the railway reached the Victorian gold mining town of Ballarat, on 10 April 1862.

Those were heady days for Ballarat: only 11 years since gold was discovered, creating a bustling settlement from nothing; and only eight years since the Eureka Stockade armed rebellion against the colonial authorities.

Nowadays there's a line directly linking Ballarat to Melbourne, but in 1862 the Ballarat route ran through Geelong, itself a busy port made busier by the gold rush.

It's many years since passenger services ran along the Geelong-Ballarat line, which still carries freight. But today, to mark the historic occasion, a special heritage train carried assorted local dignitaries, toffs and bigwigs (along with your humble correspondent) between the two regional cities to mark the occasion.

Here's a glimpse of what I saw on the way:

1. Here's our special train waiting at Geelong station, diesel-hauled but with early 20th century carriages:

2. Here's the interior of one of the second-class compartments. As attractive as it is, it struck me that there must have been a hell of a lot of maintenance required in those days for all the timber, both inside and outside the carriages:

3. There were a number of stations along the line in its passenger days, all solid constructions made of bluestone. Here's a glimpse of the station at Bannockburn, which I caught as the train sped past:

4. At a couple of stations along the way, the local government dignitaries disembarked in order to cut a ceremonial ribbon. Here they are using the Good Scissors at Lethbridge Station:

5. At our next stop, Lal Lal Station, I spotted this gent trying to influence the 19th century planning process. The inhabitants of Buninyong agitated for a station on the line, but to no avail:

6. Also at Lal Lal was this rather convincing 19th century couple. Station ghosts, perhaps?

7. Finally, about two hours after our departure from Geelong, we pulled into the impressive Ballarat Station. The grand tower dates from 1891:

8. Alighting, we were greeted by much pomp and ceremony, including catering, speeches, the unveiling of a commemorative plaque and the repertoire of this brass band. I caught a spot of Rule Britannia in there at one point...

If you're interested in taking this journey yourself, the Australian Railway Historical Society is operating a similar train from Melbourne via Geelong to Ballarat on Saturday 14 April 2012. More information is available at this link.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of V/Line.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Light Packing Revisited

Way back in May 2008 I wrote a blog post on light packing, listing the items I take with me on Lonely Planet assignments to Poland.

It's still one of the more popular posts on my blog, receiving many visits and comments.

Four years on, I'm planning to travel to Poland again and things have changed. Technology, in particular, has moved on and has allowed me to reduce my packing even more.

I still travel with cabin luggage only, stored in my trusty High Sierra backpack purchased in 2005 (pictured above, packed and ready to fly via Ryanair from PoznaƄ last year).

So it's time for an update. Here's what I'll be taking with me this year to Poland (with sidetrips to London, Stockholm and the eastern Czech Republic):

  • 3 shirts (2 t-shirts + 1 with a collar)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of trousers (1 jeans, 1 black)
  • 1 bathers
  • 1 fleecy top
  • 1 scarf
  • 1 woolly hat
  • 1 jacket
  • 1 pair of boots
  • iPad
  • Apple wireless keyboard
  • iPhone
  • Mophie Juice Pack battery case for the iPhone 
  • small tripod & Glif tripod stand for the iPhone
  • chargers for the above, plus an AU > Euro power adapter
  • headphones
  • folder with printouts of Lonely Planet text by city
  • clipboard
  • pens & 2 notepads
  • foldable bowl and fork/spoon
  • Crumpler satchel
  • toiletries
Of course, a fair few of these items will be travelling on my person rather than in the backpack.

So what's changed since 2008?

Threads and tech

The clothing is much the same, based on my "rule of three" - I've found it's the perfect mix for a late Polish spring, adaptable to hot humid days and cool chilly ones. My one indulgence is the pair of bathers, because I do just occasionally stay at a hotel with a swimming pool.

The tech is quite different. Out goes the Sony Vaio laptop, Olympus digital camera, Palm PDA and Nokia mobile phone; in comes the iPad, wireless keyboard, iPhone and Mophie battery case. Clearly that's a big reduction in weight, especially when you factor in the fewer leads and chargers required.

Paper goes digital

Physical books have completely disappeared too, present instead in digital form on the iPad and iPhone. Though I have been known to pick up the odd undemanding novel from the local bookshop chain EMPiK as I potter around Poland.

Unfortunately I still need printouts of the previous edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook I'm researching. I'd love to have all this on a waterproof tablet with a long battery charge, on which I could make quick marginal notes with a stylus. One day perhaps, as the tech matures.

Image reduction

Where's the camera, you might wonder? For years I've taken photos on a simple compact digital camera, and had plenty of them published. Now, with the camera of the iPhone 4S approaching the quality of that of my digital camera, I've decided to use that for my photography instead.

It's a bit of a leap and I'm aware it has limitations, but I trialled it recently on a week in Thailand and it was quite successful. The bonus of being able to automatically back up images via hotel wifi to iCloud each evening is an added incentive. It'll be interesting to see how it goes.

Bowl food = soul food

The other item that might raise eyebrows is the foldable bowl. It's a clever item you can buy from camping stores, a flat circular piece of plastic which magically folds into a usable bowl. It's for evenings when I'm completely exhausted and just want to eat something simple in my hotel room - I pick up some muesli and milk and use the bowl for them. Bliss.

What do you think, would this work for you or is it too restrictive? Do you have light packing tips you'd like to share?