Honouring the Anzac sprit across the Outback

Ashley Donnelly & Cristal Bettany
GALLERY: Click the image above to see more incredible pictures of the Ghan's Anzac Day tribute tour. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

If you missed the ballot for next year’s Anzac Day centenary commemorations in Gallipoli, why not take a trip on the Ghan’s tribute train?

Already steeped in history, the four-day journey from Darwin to Adelaide is one of several true blue ‘bucket list’ adventures on offer from Great Southern Rail (GSR).

The travel company also donates $100 from every Anzac tribute fare to help support the Returned Services League (RSL).

Named after the first Afghan cameleers who arrived in South Australia in 1839, the Ghan helped transport troops to the Top End during World War Two.

An aerial view as we arrive in Darwin. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

Along the journey, we meet two extraordinary special guests, former WWII bomber pilots Angas Hughes, 90, and David Mattingley, 92.

Hughes became a prisoner of war in Poland after his plane was shot down over Nazi territory in 1944.

He was forced by his German captors to march more than 200 kilometres during the middle of Winter through snow with next to no food.

VIPs: (left) Angas Hughes (right) David Mattingley. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Whilst David Mattingley, who served with the No.625 Squadron, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, after he flew his damaged Lancaster back to base, despite being severely wounded.

We had the honour of sharing Anzac Day, and many of our meals, with these two inspirational veterans, and heard first-hand their tales of humble heroism.

The heavy weight of gratitude we owe our servicemen like Angas and David is undeniable on this trip.

It's a sentiment deeply felt by one couple, touted by Great Southern Rail as the company's 'greatest spokespeople'.

(top) Photographs of Hamilton's ancestors who served in Australia's armed forces. (bottom right) Maureen and Kevin Hamilton in the dining cart with new friends aboard the Ghan. Photos: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

South Australians, Maureen and Kevin Hamilton, will likely clock up their 100th trip with GSR next year, as they also commemorate the Anzac Day centenary.

They say it is the friends they make that keeps them coming back, but concede this trip has been their most emotional yet.

"I marched in Alice Springs [and] the emotion just poured out of me," Maureen tells Total Travel.

"After going on the Anzac train my respect for our returned servicemen and women has even grown stronger. They gave us the democracy we live in now."

The Djilpin Arts Aboriginal group at Katherine Gorge. Photos: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

Our first stop on this Outback odyssey after Darwin, is Katherine, and an excursion to the Nitmiluk National Park.

We are welcomed to country and a traditional dance is performed by Indigenous actor Tom E. Lewis and the Djilpin Arts group.

Lewis tells Total Travel how the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation was given a big boost from the support of a generous grant from Olympian Ian Thorpe.

HEAR more of the interview with Tom E. Lewis during our tour of Katherine:

From one sacred point to another, the Ghan heads further south through the night to Alice Springs.

We prepare for an unforgettable outback barbecue just before dusk, in a setting fit for royalty.

A spectacular outback barbecue under the stars in Alice Springs. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

Camel rides are on offer, as a live damper-making demonstration is performed on stage as the sun starts to set.

It quickly slides behind the horizon as we tuck into an unbelievable buffet feast, and an assortment of beverages.

A local musician takes the stage for a goosebump-worthy rendition of Redgum's classic "I was only 19", most fitting for this Anzac Day-eve.

Bushfire ballads: An open fire and live music during the Outback barbecue on the Ghan Anzac tribute train. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

We sample the freshly-made damper, dripping in molasses, before the lights go out for a spectacular star show.

We look up to the skies, as our tour guide explains the significance of the Southern Cross, in dulcet tones reminiscent of James Earl Jones.

It is a fairytale ending to a magical night - before it's off to bed ahead of the Anzac Day dawn service.

Camel rides in Alice Springs as part of the Ghan's Anzac Tribute Train. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

At 4am, we are greeted by a gentle knock on the cabin door, and a much needed cup of coffee and pastries in bed.

Then we shuffle out of the carriage doors and take the bus into town.

We head to Anzac Hill, a scared place for veterans and Indigenous Australians.

Dawn breaks on Anzac Day over Anzac Hill in Alice Springs. Photos: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

A burnt orange dawn cracks over the horizon as the bugler plays the Last Post.

A 360 degree view of Alice Springs emerges as we wipe tears from our eyes, following one of the most moving Anzac Day commemorations.

Personnel from Pine Gap military base rub shoulders with locals ahead of the Anzac Day march through the centre of Alice Springs. Photos: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel


Find out for yourself why the Ghan earns its much-deserved reputation as one of the world's greatest train journeys:

Australia's Got Talent finalists The Benchmarks perform on board the Ghan. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel

*The writer and photographer travelled as guests of Great Southern Rail*

(top) The sun sets over the Ghan. (bottom) A postcard view of rural South Australia on the Pichi Richi Railway. Photo: Cristal Bettany for Total Travel