The Ghan: Meals on Wheels.
The Ghan…….……..named after the hardy Afghans whose camel trains provided the only means of transport from Adelaide into Alice Springs and the Red Centre during the late 1800s – is now one of the best train trips in the world spanning Australia’s length from top (Darwin) to bottom (Adelaide).
From the lush tropical warmth of Darwin………..….and with the smell of ozone in the air signalling the impending start of the Northern Territory’s Big Wet, a group of geriatrics staggered from the sweltering forecourt of Darwin’s Holiday Inn to the air-conditioned relief of an awaiting coach.
As part of this pensioner’s outing, with its dearth of hearing aids, zimmer frames, walking sticks, crutches, an artificial leg and a lot of elasticated pants, we, as a couple of retirees, joined this motley crew for a ‘bucket list’ day – or three as it turns out.
Leaving Darwin, the coach takes us to Berrimah station and drives us alongside the gleaming flanks of the Ghan’s 33 awaiting carriages were we are deposited at the steps of our cabin. Having spent years struggling with backpacks on train platforms around the world, this sure was a unique experience.
No such hardships nowadays for these Australian outback explorers!
Time instead to enjoy a sense of space and place from the myriad of colours, forms and textures that streamed continuously past our cabin windows during the day. Time to enjoy a fabulous sunset……….……….followed by a good night’s sleep with the train’s continuous motion in the enveloping velvet blackness of a star-studded night. Then, a lazy awakening to a slowly emerging orb of intensity as the sun rises.This mesmerizing display reflected aspects of the wide open places that is the Australian outback, but just as intriguing, I found, was what was occurring in the well oiled confined spaces within the train itself – such as the kitchen galley.
Relaxing is hungry business, and for one obsessed about cooking in interesting conditions, I was keen to assess the meals. Starting with breakfast. Morning number one – poached quandong, peach and passionfruit compote, layered with vanilla bean yoghurt and toasted almond and hazlenut crumble!! And if that wasn’t enough, Brunyfire followed this up with the freshly baked cream bread topped with blueberry salsa, lavender honey and double cream………..………served with copious cups of coffee by our Afghan Angels – Libby and Kurtys.On morning number two – I decided to be a bit less excessive and just went for the Tasmanian (!!!!!) salmon with sweet corn fritters.Thank goodness we had some pit stops that enabled us to get off our backsides, stretch our legs and catch a glimpse of Katherine’s Gorges……….With its host of indigenous edible flora and fauna being pointed out by our Jawoyn man tour guide Robbie – including the elusive fresh water croc – the only evidence of which were the tracks in the sand.Then another pit stop at the famous town of Alice…….…….where we took to the air to check out the MacDonnell Ranges. Our chopper pilot (Stephanie!) told us of the traditional owners, the Arrernte people’s dreamtime story of the Yipirinya, which means ‘caterpillar’ in Arrernte. All this activity then increased the appetite, and so it was back to the Ghan and to the dining car.
The iconic Australian menu continued from behind the scenes, and to get an idea of how it was all done in the confined cooking conditions of the Ghan’s kitchen galley, I met chef of the day, John Watson. John did his apprenticeship in Edinburgh in 1958 and migrated to Australia in 1963 as a ‘ten pound pom’. Prior to his 14 year stint with the Ghan, John had worked in a number of restaurants, including time as catering manager with the prison service in Alice.
Dishing up a real taste of Australia, the lunch menu comprised of hot native damper roles, pepperberry butter and Davidson plum chilli preserve……..……….followed by ‘Nullabor Plains’ kangaroo wrapped in pancetta with a spiced quandong sauce. For desert – Brunyfire opted for the fresh cream, lavender scented panna cotta with almond biscuit and rose pashmak! After all that, it was all we could do to stagger back to the lounge where John continued to dream up more designs for our own paradise back on Bruny.And as for feeling so superior about the rest of our travel companions, each meal time we’d sit with different passengers, who, when we got talking, all turned out to be really interesting folk. From an award winning newspaper photographer to a retired couple who had spent 8 adventurous years sailing around the world in their owner built yacht.
Just shows that one shouldn’t judge people by their elasticated waistbands.