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Train Travel

Rediscover the Romance of Rail and the Slow Boat to Anywhere

No longer are travellers satisfied with a cruise from A to B or a coach tour of the same.  Today’s travelling public want an adventure, and want to experience the culture, the food and the people in whatever beautiful country they are visiting.  Increasingly folk want to travel in a responsible manner: by contributing to the conservation and protection of the land; by providing employment opportunities for the local communities; by experiencing the possibility of cultural exchange through volunteer work; or by ensuring that ‘only footprints’ are left after their visit to help minimise the negative impact of tourism on the environment.  Lesser known and ‘must-see’ destinations have become the flavour for most people wanting to see the world today.

Train travel and water travel are two areas that are fast becoming popular for these reasons.  I have had the occasion in the last few weeks to think about the different and exciting train and boat travel opportunities because of a series of radio talks that I have given on Highland Radio FM 107.1 with host Kerry Levitt.  [For those who are interested I do this fortnightly on a Friday morning at 9.00 am].  I have been amazed at the eclectic journeys that one can do if one approaches this mode of travel with an open mind.  There are opportunities on all of the continents, with some outstanding and exciting adventures for the intrepid traveller.

My husband and I, along with two friends, will soon embark on the Trans-Mongolian train trip from St Petersburg to Beijing.  Not the grand private trip on the Golden Eagle but the people’s train that wends its way across the Siberian steppe for thousands of kilometres, passing Russia’s sprawling industrial cities, to Irkutz and Lake Baikal.  Lake Baikal will be of special interest to us as it is several hundreds of metres deep and holds one-fifth of the world’s supply of (clear and drinkable) fresh water.  From Baikal our journey will take us on to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, where we intend to travel out into the countryside for a stay in a ‘Gur’ camp, traditional nomadic Mongolian tented accommodation.  After Mongolia we will continue on into China, breaching the Great Wall before our arrival in Beijing.

A direct Moscow-Beijing journey takes seven days but there are plenty of opportunities to get off and explore.  In addition, there are several different train trips one can do across Siberia.  One ends in Vladivostok.  Another also arrives in Beijing but takes a different route (the Silk Route), avoiding Mongolia.  These can all be done in different levels of travel from luxury, with bedsitters, through to Third Class seats.

Elsewhere in the world there are some equally adventurous train journeys.  Not many people have heard of South Africa’s Shongololo Express, a rail experience with a variety of incredible itineraries.  There are four different cabin types and the trip includes breakfast and dinner on the train, as well as sight-seeing from the fleet of a/c Mercedes Benz touring vehicles that are off-loaded each day from the train in order to experience the wonderful diversity of the area being visited.  The train travels short distances at night with new adventures, including safaris to many of the great National Parks, to be experienced each new day.  Journeys are usually 16 days and each year there is a “Tracks of David Livingstone” trip that departs Johannesburg for Dar es Salaam (in Tanzania).

One of the truly luxurious 5-Star train trips of the world is South Africa’s Rovos Rail.  This world class travel experience includes a series of trips lasting from 24 hours to 14 days; and it takes 72 privileged passengers on a journey that includes accommodation, all meals and beverages and off-train excursions.  From Cape Town one could go westwards into Namibia and Windhoek; eastwards through the Garden Route to Durban; or northwards to Pretoria, and even further north to the Victoria Falls and through Zambia to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.  My up-coming radio guest, author Tony Park, will be hosting a Rovos Rail trip in the near future (***see later detail).

Probably the best known of the trains in South Africa is the Blue Train.  This is a journey into a world of timeless grace and elegance.  It is an exclusive 27 hours of unsurpassed luxury travel combining 5-star accommodation, fine cuisine, personalised butler service and breath-taking views of the countryside between Johannesburg and Cape Town.  Certainly the Blue Train is a more interesting journey for a visitor wanting to see as much of South Africa as possible, rather than a flight straight through to Cape Town.

If Africa is not for you, consider a train trip in India.  Recapture the pomp and pageantry of the Maharajas of Rajasthan and Northern India with a journey on the Palace on Wheels, a luxury train that will take you to the sights of Jaipur, Jaiselmer, Udaipur and Agra (the Taj Mahal) in a lavish and luxurious style.  The train has two restaurants and a well-stocked bar.  Alternatively two other opulent Indian trains that you could take are the Darjeeling Mail tour from Kolkata to Mumbai or the Deccan Odyssey from Mumbai to Goa and Ajanto.

In Vietnam, the Reunification Express is an eventful Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) experience.  It is an ideal way to see Vietnam with the chance to take mini breaks at places of interest.   Other Asian destinations can be seen from the Eastern and Oriental Express which is a top class train travelling between Bangkok and Singapore, with all meals and visits along the way.

There are many famous train trips.  The Rocky Mountaineer, Whistler Mountaineer, Royal Canadian Pacific and the Alaskan Railroad allow the North American traveller to experience rail travel, as do the Grandluxe rail journeys of the USA.  In South America, one could look at the Andean Explorer in Peru and the Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu.  In Europe the Venice-Simplon Orient Express remains as famous as ever as it runs from London to Venice and on to Istanbul.  And finally in the United Kingdom there is the famous Flying Scotsman and the Northern Belle.

In my next article I will concentrate more on water travel, which includes river boat cruises, canal boats and houseboats as well as freighter cruises.  As you can see all it needs is a little imagination and there are a variety of opportunities for some fascinating travel experiences.  The great advantage of train travel is that it occurs in a more relaxed style allowing you to meet and share experiences with your fellow travellers.

Viv’s Travel Bug ph 02 4455 5047 for more information of Tony Park. Contact Viv

(02) 4455 5047