Soon after we pulled out of Darwin on a steamy morning, the scenery of the tropical north unfolded: broad savannahs, streams and billabongs, mango trees, eucalypts and termite mounds taller than a man. We spotted a black-beaked jabiru (a big stork) in a muddy swamp. Then, our personal Girl Friday, Jess Valentijn, arrived with cool towels and a mission to make us feel loved. Jess offered us a choice of pillows and urged us: "Just call me if there's anything at all that you need."
Luxury used to be the one thing missing from Australia's Ghan train, which slices through the Australian continent, serving up spectacular outback scenery on its way from Adelaide to Darwin and back. Until now, the best money could buy was a small, spartan cabin in Gold Kangaroo Class, comprising bunk beds and a minscule ensuite with hospital-style fold-down metal washbasin and toilet. Gold did include three excellent meals a day, but for some passengers undertaking the 2,979km trip - one of the world's great train rides, after all - the living and sleeping arrangements were a let-down.
Thanks to the Ghan's new platinum class, however, the train service now offers hitherto only dreamt of luxury. In the newly refurbished carriages, the cabins are nearly twice as big, with double (or twin) beds and modern bathrooms with shower cubicles. On the platinum cars, there are friendly stewards on call day and night, bringing you drinks and nibbles when you board, morning coffee when you wake up, and iced tea and scones in the afternoon. No need to stir even at meal times; just stretch out in your compartment, which is also a private lounge, and take advantage of the 24-hour room service.
All this comes at a price, of course: US$2,987 (Dh8,099) per person for the one-way journey, which takes two nights and just over two days, including stops. Gold is one-third cheaper, but having experienced both classes, I would recommend splashing out, if you possibly can, to travel in comfort and style. Fittingly, the new carriages have been launched as the Ghan celebrates its 80th birthday. For they hark back to rail's golden age, when steam trains puffed along narrow-gauge tracks, luggage meant leather trunks, and ladies wore fur coats, whatever the weather.
The Ghan has been operating, in various incarnations, for well over a century, but only in 1929 did it reach Alice Springs; before then, it terminated at the dusty settlement of Oodnadatta, where passengers and goods transferred to camels for the six-day trek to Alice. The train is named after the camels' mainly Afghan handlers, who helped to open up the continent's vast, inhospitable interior. Another 75 years elapsed before the tracks were extended to Darwin, in the Northern Territory. Since then, the Ghan has acquired international cachet. I must confess that, although I had long wanted to take a trip, it took the introduction of platinum class to get me aboard. On a north-south journey in April, I decided that platinum lives up to the hard sell. The cabins, lined with polished Tasmanian myrtle, are fantastic, with upholstery echoing the ochres and greens of the Australian landscape. They have a day couch, coffee table, writing desk, leather stools and even a slim wardrobe. They also have - an ingenious touch - large windows that provide views on both sides of the train.
As the scenery sped past, the train's PA system summoned us to lunch; platinum and gold class passengers eat together in the Queen Adelaide dining car, and the food - which showcases Australian ingredients - was superb on this trip. By early afternoon, the Ghan had reached Katherine, 320km south of Darwin, where it pauses for about four hours. In Katherine, there are optional tours, which cost extra; the most popular is a boat cruise in Nitmiluk National Park, where the Katherine River flows through 13 sandstone gorges. Having visited the gorge before, I decided to investigate some thermal springs close to town, where I spent a heavenly hour or so floating on my back, gazing up at the brilliant blue sky framed by paperbark trees and pandanus palms. We later learnt that the warm pools are frequented, during the wet season, by the large saltwater crocodiles found all over Australia's "Top End" and our visit coincided with the final weeks of this season. The locals are remarkably sanguine about these man-eating creatures; when I asked a tourism officer in Katherine whether it was safe to swim in the river, she replied: "Yes, dear ... Just be a bit careful."
Katherine itself is a fly-ridden, suffocatingly hot town, with a sizeable Aboriginal population afflicted by the social problems all too common in the Northern Territory. Those problems are painfully evident: with no jobs and few services, the locals stand around the streets in listless groups, or drink and fight. A stroll through the centre provides a sobering dose of reality; however, most Ghan passengers, whisked between station and gorge on air-conditioned buses, see only a sanitised version of this life outside.
Back on the train, there was a welcome reception in the lounge, hosted by Dutch-born Jos Engelaar, our affable hospitality manager whose blonde handlebar moustache would have put Hercule Poirot's tiddler to shame. Jos told us that the train had 31 carriages and was 740m long; once, he said, he had put on a pedometer and chalked up 62km from walking up and down the cars in five days. Most of our fellow passengers were Australian retirees, on this end of the train, anyway; Red Kangaroo class, which has reclining seats and very modest sleepers, is full of families and foreign backpackers. Neville and Peta Moses were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. "He promised me a Mediterranean cruise, but then the Australian dollar went down," Peta joked. "But the Ghan is a fantastic alternative. When you live in Brisbane, you can't imagine that Australia has this scenery, these colours."
The sky turned orange before we ate dinner (grilled fillet of kangaroo or saltwater barramundi). When we woke the next morning, the lush sub-tropical scenery had given way to the rust-red desert of Central Australia, peppered with mulga trees, desert oaks, saltbush, spinifex grass and the odd rocky outcrop. Soon we were in Alice Springs, the geographical heart of Australia, where some people choose to break their journey, visiting Uluru (Ayers Rock) 450km away, then picking up the next train a few days later. Indeed, many passengers had begun their sightseeing in Darwin; two national parks, Kakadu and Litchfield, are within relatively easy reach, and the city itself has an outstanding museum and art gallery, a wildlife park (Crocodylus Park) and the colourful Mindl Beach Sunset Markets.
For those pausing in Alice for only a few hours, there are more whistlestop tours; the Alice Springs Desert Park, displaying the region's diverse eco-systems and wildlife, is highly recommended. If you have time, the marvellous Araluen Arts Centre houses some of Australia's best Aboriginal artworks. Walking around Alice, I was struck once again by the paradox of the Ghan: a capsule of climate-controlled luxury rolling through the harshest of landscapes, where indigenous people endure some of the worst living conditions in the developed world.
Alice is the last stop, which is a shame, as you don't reach Adelaide for another 24 hours. So you just have to kick back and enjoy the service, which is, actually, the highlight of platinum. Our crew was a tightly knit, harmonious band; they included 21-year-old Jess, who wants to drive trains, and 59-year-old Susan Milliner, who says of her colleagues: "This is my train family. We live, work and eat together for seven months of the year."
Rail connoisseurs say platinum class compares favourably with, say, the Eastern Oriental Express between Bangkok and Singapore. I preferred the Ghan to the Indian Pacific, which runs between Sydney and Perth, with less varied scenery but more stops. And more food; I remember retreating to my cabin to lie down after a hearty breakfast, only to be woken by an announcement that lunch was served. The Ghan certainly leaves you with a sense of the continent's immense distances and varied scenery. As you cross into South Australia, you see bright salt lakes and clay pans; close to Adelaide, the view changes again, to soft green hills and fields of wheat stubble.
Then there's still Adelaide itself to explore, with its colonial architecture and wonderful Central Market, the envy of other Australian cities. Wandering the streets, it's hard to believe you've just travelled through such forbidding landscapes.