Stories of the outback: The Ghan

Over the next few days, I will be sharing stories of the Australian outback, as observed during my trip through Central and South Australia.

The Ghan train is almost a kilometre long, travels 2,979 km and connects the North (Darwin), Centre (Alice Springs) and South (Adelaide) of Australia.

Though it did not live up to its earlier promises of financial success, it did cross some of the most desolate, flood-prone and unforgiving areas of the continent, providing much needed support to isolated European and Indigenous communities .

Now a tourist attraction, the train’s brochures glowingly refer to the ‘Afghan cameleers’ (after which the train takes its name) and their crucial role in opening up Central Australia, through their transport of goods and their work on building the tracks for the Ghan train, all atop their camels.

Yet the smell of Napisan is strong. What they don’t talk about is that we know the number and in some instances even names of the camels who journeyed to Australia, but we can’t say the same for the cameleers who came with them.

They are described as ‘Afghans’ in pictures and in books, but the truth is they came from various places, including Egypt and modern-day Pakistan.

They planted fig and date trees (some of which remain and I saw in Alice Springs) in the desert.

They adapted to life in the outback and prayed in mosques no more than sheds.

In white Australia, they were subjected to the racist attitudes of the time.

They were not allowed to bring wives, and some had to work for the very people they fought against in the British invasion of Afghanistan.

As their role declined in the 1920s with the advent of other means of transport, most left, while few married into local Aboriginal and other communities. Whispers of their footsteps can still be heard in the Afghan-sounding names of some rural families in areas they worked in.

The significance of not being allowed to learn about this bit of Australian history while at school is not lost on me, nor is the fact that the ‘pioneers’ of Australia who were covered in our classes were white.

So to all my Middle Eastern, Muslim and Sikh friends: when people tell you to go back to where you came from, know that your ancestors’ footprints have been to this country, have kneeled down to pray in this country, from the times of Malaccan trade with Aborgines pre-European sightings of Australia to the very red heart of this vast nation.


Liked this? Check out the rest of this series:

Stories of the outback: Hermannsburg

Photo credit: Henry To


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