BLACK Sorrows frontman Joe Camilleri and Christine Anu will be special guests at a 90th birthday party with a difference this weekend, when the Ghan celebrates nine decades on the tracks.
Australia's transcontinental railway, the Ghan, will mark 90 years of operation with a commemorative service that pulls out of Adelaide this weekend.
With 235 passengers on board, the special service will leave on Sunday morning to make the 3000-kilometre, three-day journey to Darwin.
This trip includes a special stop at Pimba where guests will enjoy an open-air concert to mark the rail line's anniversary.
Joining Joe Camilleri and Christine Anu will be Shane Howard from Australian rock band Goanna and Adam Thompson from Chocolate Starfish.
One carriage on the train will also be converted into an art-deco inspired hat shop where guests can be personally fitted for an Akubra while enjoying a glass of champagne.
History of The Ghan
The Ghan's first service left Adelaide on August 4, 1929, when the rail line from Adelaide only extended as far as Alice Springs.
But while the Ghan is officially 90 years old, its genesis actually stretches back further into the early years of the South Australian colony.
In the mid-1800s a desire by the early settlers to push out into the state's outback where there were no roads and no railways prompted the rise of the cameleers, camel drivers largely drawn from India, Persia and Afghanistan.
Their animals, mostly brought to Australia from the subcontinent, could handle the Australian heat and were vital in bringing mail, food, water, tools and equipment to remote towns and pastoral holdings.
They also played an important role in major infrastructure projects including the completion of the overland telegraph in 1872.
So by the time the first rail lines in SA's north were laid in the late 1800s, it was little surprise the locals referred to the new service as The Afghan Express.
Over the next 30-to-40 years the railway pushed further north, but it was not until 1929 that Adelaide and Alice Springs were finally linked and the first Ghan service was launched, the name a clear nod to its pioneering history.
In the years that followed the Ghan grew in popularity and during World War II was called into military service, moving troops and supplies across the country.
But while the idea of a truly transcontinental railway had long been on the federal government's agenda, it was not until 2001 that the project to finally link Alice Springs to Darwin began, taking three years to finish at a cost of $1.3 billion.
The completion of the near 3000-kilometre line that stretches from the Adelaide suburbs, through Australia's vast desert outback and eventually to the country's tropical north, is a key factor in its changing status over the past 15 years.
'A way to get from A to B'
One person who has witnessed that change first hand is train manager Dean Duka who has worked on the Ghan for 29 years.
Mr Duka started as a silver boy, a glamorous title but actually the most junior position on the train as the one responsible for cleaning all the knives, forks and spoons.
From there he graduated to apprentice chef and qualified chef before stepping out of the kitchen and into a managerial role in 2008.
Mr Duka said when he started on the Ghan it was still, to some extent, a means of transport, "a way to get from A to B".
But over the years the trickle of passengers picked up at various country towns has disappeared, along with some of the towns themselves.
"Now we're a high-end, world-class luxury journey. It's an amazing holiday," he said.
"It's more about the experience."
And that's changed the type of people who come aboard.
Its travellers, both local and international, with the time to take the slower ride across the country and tick a great train journey off their list.
Managing director Stephen Kernaghan said a trip on The Ghan was now for the "adventurous at heart".
He described it as the "cruise ship of the desert" and a unique opportunity for travellers to truly experience the vastness of the Australian outback.
"To see the diversity of the desert environment is something people never forget," he said.
"When you go by plane you see it from above, like a canvas.
"But when you drive through it you really can appreciate it.
"There's nothing like immersing people in such a stark and beautiful space.
"The Ghan does that in spades."
Mr Duka believes rail remains the best way to travel across Australia.
"If you really want to have a good look at this country, do it through the window of a train," he said.
The Ghan facts
- The Ghan had its beginnings in the late 1800s when rail lines first pushed into South Australia's north. These lines were dubbed The Afghan Express in reference to the camel trains that first opened up the SA outback.
- The railway to Alice Springs was finally completed in 1929 with the inaugural Ghan service pulling out of Adelaide on August 4.
- The Ghan experienced one of its busiest periods during World War II when it was used to carry troops and supplies across the country. It was during this period when the population of Alice Springs jumped as people were evacuated from Darwin following the bombing by the Japanese.
- After being stalled for many years, the project to complete the transcontinental railway from Adelaide to Darwin finally got underway in 2001 with the line opened in 2004. The project cost $1.3 billion.
- The Ghan's services are now all-inclusive with passengers not required to open their wallets from when they get on board until they leave. Also included are various extra activities such as side trips to Katherine Gorge.
Australian Associated Press