Riding the old Ghan

Reflections and memories from Tony Latz

One of the Old Ghan steam locomotives

What has the old Ghan line got to do with mound springs? The overland telegraph line basically followed the early European explorer’s route north and this route took advantage of mound springs along the way. The old Ghan line more or less followed the telegraph line north through the springs country and then on up into the NT to the Alice.

When I first rode on the Ghan it was still the real thing – a steam train! Exciting times for a young lad from the bush, going down to the big smoke (Adelaide) on the Ghan. Dad was head stockman on Hermannsburg station and once every three years he had three months “furlough” which meant heading down south. When furlough finally came around there was much anticipation and excitement in the build up to departure day. First up it was onto the ex-army Maple Leaf Chev truck and off to the Alice. And then finally all aboard the train and ready for departure.

The best part was the food. Awe inspiring stuff for a young bushie, being ushered into the dining car and confronted with crispy white table cloths with flash Commonwealth Railways crockery and big heavy silver cutlery all engraved CR. And being waited on by blokes in black pants, cummerbunds and bow ties. I can still visualise them swaying down the aisle in time with the rocking of the train balancing four bowls of soup.

We travelled second class of course but that was still pretty flash. The cabins were all timber panelling with a chromed wash basin that folded out. There were two top bunks and the two leather seats below folded down into bunks. I remember being impressed by the thick red velvet covered rope strung across and threaded though leather thongs that stopped (most) people from falling out of the top bunks.

So we clickedy clacked our way down south stopping regularly at sundry sidings and railway towns to drop off and pick up people and odds and sods and to refill the steam engine’s water tanks and coal tenders. Places like Oodnadatta and

Marree were busy little railway towns in those days and they like all the other stops came to life with the arrival of the Ghan.

Down into the gibber country past Oodnadatta and a buzz went through the train when the conductor announced that the crossing of the Algebuckina Bridge was imminent. Heads poked out of windows and everybody oohed and aahed as this awesome construction over the Neales River swished past. Onward then to William Creek, one of the more memorable stops. The William Creek Hotel of today is still fairly basic but back then it consisted of not much more than a small tin shed.

It was a dry train and the weather was hot and three days was a long time for many of the thirsty passengers on board. So no sooner had the conductor announced “next stop William Creek” and the train screeched to a halt than a stream of thirsty punters poured out of the carriages and disappeared into the pub. Eventually there was a warning blast of the train whistle and a line of refreshed and slightly tipsy souls begin to trickle out of the pub and scramble aboard the train. When the train huffed and puffed itself into motion the trickle turned into a stream of unsteady punters dashing after the moving train and scrambling onto any of the departing carriages they managed to run down.

And so down the line to Marree with the usual throng milling around and on through the Pichi Richi pass to Pt Augusta. Here we climbed aboard the broad gauge train with a big powerful steam engine up front and took off at great speed for Adelaide.