The Afghans

Between 1870 and 1920 approximately 20,000 camels and between 2000 and 4000 cameleers landed at ports around Australia and a vast network of camel routes spread out across inland Australia.  Camels arrived in their hundreds on ships from Karachi and Bombay and excited crowds flocked to the wharves to see the animals unloaded after their long sea trip. 

The camel was ideally suited to Australia's desert environment; horses and buffaloes died through lack of water.  But if camels were to be used, experienced handlers were indispensable and so men, from what was then an undivided India and Kingdom of Afghanistan (today Pakistan, India and Afghanistan) were 'imported' by British entrepreneurs along with the camels - collectively the men were known as "Afghans" or "Ghans".

Cameleers undertook what was needed to be done when a country is being opened up: accompanying exploratory expeditions, carting wool to ports or railheads and barrels of water to drought-ridden areas, and transporting mail, construction materials and stores at a time when railway construction was in its infancy. 

Many rest stations opened up across the country where camel teams converged as they moved from one state to another, and centres such as Marree became established which opened up lines of supply to isolated communities further inland or further north.

The Afghan cameleers led hard lives in this country, and their wives and children were prevented from entering Australia, a restriction not lifted until the late 1920's.  Some married and raised families with Anglo Australian or Indigenous women.  Today their descendants take pride in the pioneering role played by their ancestors and kinsmen in Australian history. 

An Afghan camel driver with a camel train loaded with chaff, ca. 1911.
Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA: B 14808


The "Ghan"

During the cool months of 1923 the South Australian Railways decided to shorten the time taken by trains for passengers and perishable freight between Adelaide and Oodnadatta.  Before this time, trains had stopped overnight at stations en-route, including Quorn. After 1923, a sleeping car was provided and the train rescheduled to continue without stabling overnight. Through passengers could leave Adelaide a day later, on Thursday mornings, and return a day earlier than under the previous timetable.

On 30 August 1923 the inaugural through passenger train, which included the Alberga sleeping car, ran from Terowie to Oodnadatta. It was on this trip that the name Ghan has its origin. A large crowd of local people had gathered at Quorn station to witness the arrival of the new train with its sleeping car.

When the train pulled into Quorn yard it was almost dusk. An Afghan passenger wasted no time in getting off the train and sprinting to a quiet corner of the yard where he could kneel to face Mecca and recite his ritual evening prayers. A railwayman made the joking remark that if he was the only passenger on the train it should be called the Afghan Express.

Apparently the name proved popular and was adopted immediately, later being shortened to the Afghan Express, and then to the Ghan by which it was known to local railwaymen for a couple of years prior to the takeover by the Commonwealth Railways in 1926.

There are, of course, many other versions of how the Ghan received its name, but there is nevertheless a concensus of opinion confirming that the name was acquired in 1923 when the first sleeping car train worked on the Great Northern Railway.  The “official” versions of the story have been more generic – that the name derived from an observation that the service, when extended to Alice Springs, had superseded the Afghans and their strings of camels.  However this, and a commemorative plaque unveiled at the Alice Springs railway station in October 1980 ignores what should be by now a well known fact - the now famous Ghan train derived its name from the sleeping car service introduced between Quorn and Oodnadatta six years before a train steamed into Alice Springs.

Nevertheless it is fitting that the Ghan should serve to perpetuate the memory of that hardy band of tough but gentle men who provisioned the outback with their camel teams in early years.

The Ghan approaching Oodnadatta, c. 1910. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA: B 53762

Article text adapted from: Dean, H: "Boundless Plains - The Australian Muslim Connection" and Babbage, J & Barrington, R: "The History of Pichi Richi Railway".