We left the station at 10am and headed south alongside the Stuart Highway, following the same route I’d taken down to Kakadu a few days before. In Adelaide Springs, people were lined up along the track to wave and watch us pass. The journey from Darwin to Alice Springs is broken up with a stop at Katherine, where you can join one of a number of available tours and are encouraged to do so because, in the words of our train attendant, “the station is a tin shack in the middle of the desert and you will be bored out of your mind for 4 hours otherwise”.
I elected to do the second-cheapest tour, which was, conveniently, the first most appealing to me. A shuttle took a small group of us to where we could walk up to a lookout over the Katherine Gorge. From the lookout, we could see people paddling bright yellow kayaks down the river. Most people climbed up the lookout, then returned to the visitor center to recover from the heat and the flies. I went and did the whole loop since my love for heat is such that I will put up with infinite swarming flies if it means an extra hour in the sunshine. I hadn't realised that we would get a long stop in Katherine, so the bushwalk was a surprise bonus to the trip.
Back on the train, there was some extra space, so people spread out and I ended up having a pair of seats to myself. I kicked off my shoes, arranged my books, camera, and snacks within easy reach, and set about doing what I had most been looking forward to – watching the Outback roll by as I caught up on my murder mysteries and my intake of chocolate and cheese Twisties. For the first time since, I don't know, ever, there was absolutely nothing else I needed to be doing. I could have happily spent a week sitting on that train. At dinnertime I went to check out the options in the café car. The menu was more extensive than the cafés in Kakadu that offer only chips and pie, so, naturally, I decided to have pie. (It was the good kind with the crunchy crust, though.)
Spending night in a seat on the Ghan turns out to be a fairly similar experience to spending the night in a seat on an airplane: it’s cold and longer than night has any right to be. People snore. You feel bad about turning on your reading light because you know it will disturb people, so you turn on your MP3 player instead, and just as you've drifted off, the soundtrack to Wicked randomly comes on at full volume and jolts you awake. At least my inability to sleep guaranteed that I’d be awake to watch the brilliant sunrise.
A few more hours and that was it. We arrived in Alice and I headed to the airport to catch my flight to Ayers Rock. Twenty-four hours doesn't turn out to be very long at all, in the end. Six-year old boys have it right: trains are the coolest. I see more in my future.