The new Ghan link to Darwin has seen tourism rebound after depressed visitor numbers due to a string of disasters including the war on terrorism, SARS, the Ansett collapse and Singapore and Malaysian Airlines pulling out.
Regarded as something of a romantic folly, a project belonging to a different era, the 3000 km rail track across the continent was completed in September 2003 with the final 1420-kilometre section being built enthusiastically in just two years at a cost of $1.3 billion. This was met on a close to 50-50 basis by funding from federal, state and territory governments with a private tenderer.
The rail link was first mooted in 1858 by a Melbourne businessman, even before the interior had been properly explored but it was August 1929 before the first train steamed into Alice Springs (then Stuart). Until then all goods came by camel trains driven by Afghan tribesmen – whence the name! Passing through some of the harshest country on earth, where floods could strand the train in the desert for weeks on end,the train was so slow you could often walk faster and legend has it that the driver would then have to shoot wild animals to keep the passengers fed. When the old rail ceased operation in 1980 the track was offered for tender and was bought by a local businessman, Leon Samsonenko, who sliced much of the track up and sold it as polished souvenirs.
‘Ghan fever’ and 300,000 passengers in the first 6 months caught everyone off guard and Darwin has struggled to cope with 450-500 , mainly ‘golden oldies’, disembarking from a 40 carriage train 15 kms from the CBD, at Palmerston, Darwin Harbour’s East Arm Rail Terminal. Not really knowing what to expect, tourism authorities thought an initial surge of interest would soon taper off but it hasn’t dipped at all and although Darwin has 9500 rooms ranging from luxury hotels to caravan parks it has become ‘never on Tuesday’ for visitors arriving without a reservation!
The Ghan has captured the imagination of travellers and prolonged the season which used to end before the ‘wet’ after the Darwin Cup but now programs for tourists are being provided well into the wet season and tour operators and accommodation houses are saying 2004-05 look like being the best for two decades. A new kind of accommodation is needed to capitalize on the train – waterfront bungalows in particular – as the new visitors are not in a hurry and are a totally different type of customer. Their needs are quite different from backpackers.
Some lateral thinking on alternative forms of accommodation:
1. A Swedish artist built an igloo to house his exhibition in Lapland in 1989. Tourists asked if they could sleep in it as all other accommodation was booked and the Ice Hotel was born – there are now several, some capable of sleeping 100 guests.
2. Inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is Fernie Castle Treehouse, a honeymoon suite built high in 6 tall sycamore trees in Fife, Scotland.
3. SA opal mining town Coober Pedy has the world’s only underground 4 star hotel.
4. In Matmata, in the Tunisian Sahara, the location for Luke Skywalker’s house in Star Wars, Berbers have been living in underground houses since the 4th century. 50 of these village houses are in use today and have been converted into hotels.
5. In Nice, California, defunct rail cabooses – former living quarters of conductors – have been opened to guests by a lake in the Mendecino Forest. They have feather beds, whirlpool baths and mirrored ceilings.
6. In Key Largo, Florida, famous for the John Pennekamo Coral Reef state park, there is a hotel 10 metres below the water, accessible only by diving.
NB Great Southern Railways operates the iconic Ghan weekly to Darwin and twice-weekly to Alice Springs. The 2,979km journey takes 47 hours with an optional tour of Alice Springs Desert Park and a boat cruise through Katherine Gorge while the train waits. The Indian Pacific and The Overland trains provide connections with The Ghan in Adelaide for guests travelling from Sydney and Melbourne. There are ‘daynighter’ seats and first class sleepers, which include all meals served in a stylish restaurant car. Fares range from $2190 sleeper – $292 daynighter (pensioner) from Sydney and $1850 sleeper- $221 daynighter (pensioner) from Melbourne.