"If a kangaroo accidentally gets hit by the train, you don't really feel it," conductor Scott Fels informs me as the scrublands and giant termite mounds of the Australian Outback whisk by. "But if the train drivers see a camel on the tracks, believe me, they get away from the windows."
Camels in the Outback? Yes indeed. There are estimated to be over a million of these ungulates roaming at will through the desert, descendants of the original camel caravans led by Afghan drivers in the 1860s and 1870s. It was these migrant cameleers who helped opened up the continent's arid interior to travelers. The country's most famous train, the Ghan, www.gsr.com.au, is named in their honor.
Those unfamiliar with the challenges of building infrastructure in harsh environmental conditions might have assumed that an advanced nation like Australia would have had a north-south transcontinental railway for some time. But the funny fact is that while the Ghan's tracks were first laid in the 1880s, the entire line wasn't fully completed (on an upgraded track) until 2004, and at a cost of nearly $1 billion. Now, luxury trains up to one kilometer long, sometimes numbering 52 carriages, crawl through the forbidding primordial stretches of Outback twice a week, like giant high-speed caterpillars. It's a seemingly endless landscape of Martian redness, and to be able to enjoy it all from a private Platinum cabin while taking high tea served to you by a personal butler is a curious lesson in the persistence and ingenuity of humankind.
Making the three-day, 1,900-mile (3,000 km) journey from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south in this kind of comfort comes at a cost, of course $2,100 a head in the case of the new deluxe Platinum cabins. There are Gold cabins for about $1,600, and Red Service twin share bunks the cheapest option for $500. The majority of the Ghan's passengers are Australians undertaking an almost ritualistic pilgrimage through their colossal backyard, and the local accent predominates in the elegant dining car, where kangaroo steaks and fine Australian wines are served. But it's not all sitting, drinking and gazing through a window: the Ghan stops twice for half-day tours like exploring sacred Aboriginal sites around Alice Springs or floating down the deep, rocky Katherine Gorge. Keep an eye out for any passing camel herds.