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1960s Australia . Travelling on the Old Ghan between Marree and Alice Springs

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

It was 1967, my second year living and studying in Adelaide. I decided that I needed to visit Alice Springs, to study the Cassia bushes that grew around there. My boss had visited there the year before, had seen some interesting plants, and brought back samples for me to look at. They fascinated me. But now I wanted to collect fresh material, preserve it in alcohol, and bring it back to Adelaide to study under the microscope.

My boss and his male colleague had driven to Alice Springs, using a University-owned vehicle. They had camped at the roadside most of the time. Most of their expenses had been covered by research grants from various bodies. But as a student, I had very few funds to cover my expenses. And as I was a young single woman, travelling alone and camping on the roadside, was out of the question. I would have to be very creative to accomplish this trip.

I decided to travel by train from Adelaide to Alice Springs. This in itself would be an adventure, as I would have to change trains twice on the outward journey, and on the return trip. And the bulk of the trip would be on the historic and iconic train, the Ghan, which ran to and from Marree to Alice Springs. So instead of camping on the roadside, I would be travelling in relative comfort and safety, taking my meals in the train’s dining car.

Accommodation in Alice Springs was very limited in those days, at least for a single woman. But I found a boarding house where I could stay for a few days. It was well situated, as I could walk from it, across the dry bed of the Todd River, to the town centre. I booked my room there.

As I needed to visit areas at some distance from Alice Springs, I would have to hire a car. And once again, it was not desirable for me to travel alone, in a lonely sparsely-populated area. How could I find someone to travel with me, and help with the collection of plants and their preservation in alcohol? I decided to write to the Headmaster of the local High School, to ask if he would look among his senior students for someone who would, for the very meagre financial support I could offer, be prepared to work with me for a couple of days. I was very excited to hear by return mail, that he had found a young man willing to help. Not only that, but the student’s father had a 4x4 wheel drive vehicle we could use during our time together.

The final arrangement, was to contact the local resident botanist, to tell him of my plans. He was very ready to cooperate in any way I needed.

So it was that, on one exciting day, I took a taxi to the Railway Station on North Terrace in Adelaide, loaded down with my botanical equipment as well as my personal belongings. The first part of the trip, from Adelaide to Pt Pirie, took me through rich cultivated farming land, and small towns with tall grain silos beside their rail stations. But past Pt Pirie, the country began to change. We were now coming into the Flinders Ranges.

The Flinders Ranges take their name from the Australian explorer, Matthew Flinders, who in 1802 circumnavigated the continent for the first time, and proved it was an island. On his way back to Sydney, when he sailed east of the Great Australian Bight, he discovered an opening in the coast, and followed it northwards. This is now called Spencers Gulf. Flinders brought his ship northwards almost up to the position now occupied by Pt Augusta, while his botanist companion Brown walked ashore to reach a high point of land. From both their positions, they could see a range of rugged spectacular mountains, and Brown named it after his Captain, while Flinders named the high point as Mt Brown..

My train soon reached Pt Augusta, and was preparing to turn westwards to travel to Perth. I wanted to travel north, so I had to change to another one. Originally, a narrow-gauge train had run from Pt Augusta to Marree, to service the pastoral stations, and also the mining towns that sprang up in the ranges. But in 1954, a new electricity power station had been built in Pt Augusta, which burnt brown coal mined in Leigh Creek. The narrow gauge could not carry all the coal trains, so a new standard-gauge line had been built to carry them.

My new passenger train was also standard-gauge, like the train I had caught in Adelaide. We followed almost the same path as the original narrow-gauge railway, but did not stop until we reached Marree. We watched the western faces of the ranges from our windows as we sped north, for as long as the daylight lasted, marveling at the rugged cliffs glowing in the light of the setting sun.

It was late at night when we reached Marree, and we stumbled out onto a dim platform. On the opposite of the platform, the Old Ghan waited. With bleary eyes, we dragged our luggage across to the red-painted carriages, found our compartments with the bunks waiting, and tumbled into bed. I don’t remember the diesel engine starting up to take us further north and west.

I woke next morning to examine my surroundings. My compartment was narrow, wider where my head rested on the pillow, much narrower at my feet. I discovered later that the following compartment had a narrow footboard through the wall from mine, while the previous compartment had a wide headboard through the wall from my own. On the opposite side of the passage, the compartments were reversed, with their narrow footboards opposite our wide headboards. This made the passage through the narrow-gauge carriage zig-zag from one end to the other. The Old Ghan was odd, but effective.

Soon, the porter knocked on my door to remind me that breakfast would be served in the dining car, so I dressed quickly, then walked through several carriages to meet my fellow passengers. My appearance caused quite a lot of interest … why was a young woman travelling alone on a train filled with holidaying retirees? It wasn’t long before everyone knew about this strange young woman, who wanted to study outback plants. After that, I was never at a loss for company, as I was adopted by my elders. It seems that the staff also learned about my interests, as it was not long before I received a posy of native flowers, collected from the edge of the line by the engine fireman, with the wish that I would find them interesting. What a delightful thought.

When I went back to my compartment some time later, I found that the porter had folded down the bunk, and turned it into a comfortable armchair. In the evening, he turned it back into a bed for me. The communal showers and toilets were at the end of the zig-zag passage.

The fireman had plenty of opportunities to collect the flowers, as the Ghan travelled very slowly, often at walking pace. Recent rain had damaged the track in many places, and we travelled over them cautiously. That gave me time to watch the surroundings as we travelled. Often there was little to see, but the occasional presence of green plants and bright flowers did give evidence of the recent wet weather.

There were only a couple of surviving stations on our route, like Oodnadatta and William Creek, but we passed several now-abandoned stations. When steam engines had pulled the trains, they required regular supplies of water to keep their tanks full. Sometimes in the area there are fresh-water springs, and the train’s route was diverted to take advantage of them. In other places, the only water came from deep underground, and was full of minerals. This water had to be treated before it could be used, as otherwise it would corrode the pipework in the engines. Tall water towers and treatment works were still standing beside the abandoned stations.

As we travelled on towards the Finke River. I noticed something strange. ‘Look’ I pointed, ‘a sign post, way out here, in the middle of nowhere.’ And there it was, a board with a thin vertical line. One side had the initials ‘NT’, the other side ‘SA’. When we passed it, we were officially in the Northern Territory. The passengers all cheered. I made a mental note to look for that signpost on my return journey.

Soon after crossing the border, we arrived at Finke, which is situated beside a broad sandy river, which rarely floods. It is crossed by a long tall bridge, hoping that floods do not delay the trains too much. As it was, the track damage had already made us several hours late. Soon after that we entered a region of tall red sandhills, reminding us that off to the east was the Victoria Desert.

When we finally arrived in Alice Springs, we were all glad to leave the train. The resident botanist was kind enough to meet me, and drive me to the boarding house. We arranged to get an early start the next morning, so I could explain my interests to him, and we could travel together to look at some of the shrubs I found so interesting.

With the help of John, the botanist, and his assistant, I spent the next day driving around areas just outside Alice Springs, and was taken to areas where they knew my ‘special’ shrubs were growing. As I hoped, I was able to collect seeds from the plants, and also preserve flower-buds and leaves to study later. My new friends entertained me for dinner that evening.

On Saturday, my helpful student arrived in his father’s vehicle, and we set out to drive towards the Aboriginal settlement of Yuendumu, because I particularly wanted to visit an area where my boss had found interesting plants the previous year. We drove northwest of the mountains, through open grassland and areas of dense mulga. I have to confess I had underestimated the distance involved, and decided to turn back before we reached the settlement, to be sure that we were able to return to Alice Springs the same evening.

But the day was well spent, as we located an even more interesting population of shrubs before we turned back, were able to map the area, and collect lots of specimens before we turned back. That one collection formed an important part of my future publications.

The next day, I had free to be a tourist and made the most of it. I climbed the top of Billy Goat Hill, and photographed the town as it was then. I visited the real Alice Springs waterhole, which was the original site of the settlement, and where the first telephone building still stood. Further from town was the site of John Flynn’s grove, covered with an immense serene boulder.

In the town itself, I visited the Church that is a monument to the work of John Flynn, who first brought medical care to the outback. It had a wall mosaic in the shape of the pedals of the pedal-powered wirelesses which provided contact between the lonely stations. I also bought a print of a painting by Albert Namatijira, something I still cherish.

The next day, I travelled south west of the town, and visited Stanley Chasm at mid-day, when for a brief time, the sun shone down directly between its vertical walls. The rest of the day, its floor is in deep shadow. Then back to town, to enjoy the fun and excitement of Henley on Tod regatta.

The Tod river flows through the entre of Alice Springs, but is usually just a sandy bed. Floods are rare, and quickly subside in this area of sparce rainfall. But the locals had copied an English idea of a regatta on a river, only here the boats were built of paper and cardboard, and were propelled by the legs of the crew, not oars. The crowds were noisy, encouraging the crews, while there was often attempted sabotage between the boats. It was great fun to watch. Some of the crews were drawn from the American staff of an intelligence-gathering installation just outside town.

At the end of my visit, I again joined the Ghan train to return to Adelaide. Somehow this trip was not as memorable as the outward trip. But I had made a note of the scenery just after we passed the ‘border post’ on the journey up, so was waiting when we passed it again. I was very proud of the photo I took then. My only other memory was that there was a dust-storm obscuring the Flinders Rangers when we passed in in the afternoon.


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