Friday, May 17, 2019

Chile: Land of Fire and Ice



Few countries on the planet are as varied as Chile. We travel from one end to the other for two completely different experiences.

At its widest point, Chile measures just 350km across, yet stretches 4300km lengthways. It’s wedged between mountains and oceans, and bookended by deserts and fjords. Much of it sits beneath – and amongst – volcanoes and glaciers that have shaped and sculpted an astoundingly varied landscape over countless years. It’s the land of fire and ice.

My itinerary goes from one extreme to another, from the dusty, big-sky country of the Atacama – reputed to be the driest desert on the planet – in the north to the treeless plains and windswept mountains of Patagonia in the south. And my journey begins in Santiago.

Several days spent exploring the capital’s historical and cultural sights and surrounding wine regions instils a desire to try something more vigorous. I fly north to San Pedro, a popular tourist base for seeing the Atacama, where first impressions are of a one-horse town populated by backpackers. Innumerable pensiones and hostales cater specifically to the budget crowd but my digs are more salubrious, tucked away in a valley that’s far from the tourist hordes.

The access road to the Alto Atacama can best be described as uninspiring. But that doesn’t prepare me for the sanctuary inside. Spacious rooms, fine food and wine, a tranquil spa facility and no less than six swimming pools to laze beside tempt me to hole up inside the hotel for the entirety of my stay. It’s not the facilities I love most though; it’s the guest activities, all of which are included in the tariff.

I’m barely five minutes into a chat with the hotel’s activities manager when I begin hatching plans to return, for this is my kind of place. There are immersive cultural excursions and photogenic sightseeing tours, as well as plenty of heart-straining hikes and rides for exercise junkies. I slot firmly into the latter category and spend the next three days mountain biking through narrow gorges and hiking over mountain passes separating high altitude salt lakes. While I’m at it I spot flamingoes and vicuñas beneath smouldering volcanoes and fill my evenings gazing upon a million stars in some of the clearest skies on Earth.

The highlight, though, surprises me, as it is considerably less active. On my last afternoon I join a sunset tour – by minibus – through the otherworldly landscape of the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley. From a ridge-top pedestal I marvel at the twisted rock formations and rippled sand dunes inside the Central Canyon then motor across to the rim of a ravine known as Death Valley. From there, we watch the sun sink behind a cardboard cut-out horizon of perfectly symmetrical 5000- and 6000-metre-high volcanoes while hoeing down drinks and canapés. I can’t think of a better way to end my stay.

Extreme opposites

From one end of the country, in Chile’s far north, I travel to the other, and it’s snowing. From the windswept pampas outside Punta Arenas I arrive in Puerto Bories, where the night sky is pitch black. When I catch my first glimpse of my hotel, it’s of a fleet of vehicles parked inside an elongated shed that reminds me of those I once saw filled with farm animals at the Royal Agricultural Show. These sheds housed livestock too. And, like those at the showgrounds, they’ve also been repurposed.

The redbrick buildings of The Singular Patagonia were once used as a slaughterhouse for sheep before their carcasses were shipped around the continent. The owners bravely decided to incorporate its heritage into its current incarnation as a luxury hotel, leaving much of the original machinery intact and thereby adding a twist to the average holiday stay. Power generators and steam engines that are over 100 years old remain behind glass walls and inside cavernous chambers, and an entire floor has been spared as a gallery space displaying photographs from its industrial past.

The hotel rests on the banks of the Sound of Last Hope, a fjord requiring 200km of navigation before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Across that fjord are snow-capped Patagonian mountains – and all are visible through the window of my hotel room when I draw my curtains in the morning.

Like the Alto Atacama, excursions and tours are included in the nightly tariff and I join a cruise first up, travelling up the fjord to the foot of two glaciers – Serrano and Balmaceda. Later that afternoon I fossick through caves housing the skeletal remains of ancient megafauna and human troglodytes. I ride a horse for the first time in years, trotting along behind a Patagonian gaucho while condors soar overhead. And then I hike to the base of the three granite spires inside Torres del Paine National Park, taking all day to reach them.

Tierra del Fuego lies further south of here. I’ll be joining a cruise next, sailing through this ‘Land of Fire’ at the tip of the continent. Explorers once branded this archipelago of glacier-capped islands and fjords the ‘End of the World’. For me though, it will be a whole new beginning – and a chance for Chile to reveal more of itself.

Originally published in Get Up & Go Magazine - Summer 2017

On a clear day in Switzerland



You can see mountain tops, sweeping valleys and sparkling, ancient lakes. From Brienz to the top of Rothorn Kulm is a choof, a chug and a cogwheel climb onwards and upwards.

And it had been another beautiful day in Switzerland, my Grand Journey travelling mostly on a diverse selection of trains. Today after a lingering lunch in Lucerne I caught the 16.05 Luzern-Interlaken Express to Brienz, arriving at the station at 17.33 (precise to the minute). Don’t even try to catch a Swiss train out on a timetable – the only time it’s late is if an avalanche has hit the tracks!

An hour and a half in the train had prepared me for what was to come in the extraordinary Berne region of mountains and lakes. We passed steep, lush lawns, neat farm houses and cottages that were still festooned with flowers from the Indian summer the region was enjoying. The looming mountains were demanding attention with their snow-covered peaks.

The train hugged the lakeside as we cruised into the little village of Brienz, on Lake Brienz.

The lake is a startling turquoise and it floats between impressive mountainsides.

Off the train and a jump to the left and a hop to the right and I was on the classic steamer. There has been a boat service on Lake Brienz since 1839. There are five boats in the local fleet today and they take trips around the lake in the season and provide transport to drop off passengers from point to point around the lake.

My short journey was less than 15 minutes across the lake to Geissbach Falls. Stepping off the boat, from the landing stage straight to the funicular was like stepping into a bygone, gracious time. I could hear the thundering waterfall.

The next transport was the famous, and ever-so darling Geissbach funicular – Europe’s oldest mountain cable railway, built in 1879. Into the Geissbachbahn and a couple of minutes later I had been hauled up and deposited outside a fairytale castle, the Grandhotel Geissbach. The turreted and confectionery building pokes out through the forest overlooking, far below, the glory of Lake Brienz.

A warm welcome here and I’m in my room, standing on the balcony with the waterfall roaring down in front of me. Being a Sherlock Holmes fan I recognised this waterfall as the one that was sketched on the front of early book covers – the same location that Moriarty and Sherlock fell to their… did they or did they not?

There are 14 waterfalls surrounding the hotel but my personal one was here, and lit up at night, it was truly magnificent. With the doors closed I slept to the muted hum of water falling from a great height!

This area has always – well, since the late 1770s – been a popular nature spot for the agile Swiss (see old images of the walkers and climbers, all lithe and fit, even in cumbersome clothes). When the hotel opened there were probably more visitors like me – guests who preferred to sit on a terrace with a coffee and watch the hikers stride through the forest or to clamber and climb beside the waterfalls.

The following day I had to leave, which was a great pity as Geissbach and I were getting pretty cosy.

The same drill back to Brienz where I crossed the road from the boat mooring to a gingerbread railway station to hop on another classic train that joins the dots on a Swiss Grand Journey.

Time to experience the Brienz Rothorn Railway and to chug to a mighty height of 2400m travelling on Switzerland’s only surviving steam-driven cogwheel railway – and what a beauty it is.

Into the carriage with open-air ‘windows’, and so begins one of the great panoramic mountain train trips.

Since 1892 this train has treated other passengers to as much wonder as I took in. It takes an hour to choof up the 1678m in height and the 7.6km in length between Brienz station and the summit station Rothorn Kulm. It passes through thick, forested slopes, and almost urban pastures, then we see scattered cottages and alpine huts. There’s a stop at Planalp Station for water (at 1346m) and there’s a man yodelling to us and the sky!

We climb again and the land spreads vast and wide and only a few tree stumps and miniature ferns scattered across the flat grass are to be seen. Heavy cut granite pieces make a face in the landscape with shiny moss dotted on the rock surface. Scree slopes glisten and walkers’ paths have been methodically cut into the gentle pastures.

There were still a few cows up here catching the last few rays before they had to head down to their winter digs.

Then through the Fluhtunnel where the view of the lake below is heart-stopping. After smoking and steaming our way to the top of Brienzer Rothorn Mountain, as the train did 125 years ago, we stepped out to a sunny day and walked those few extra metres to the restaurant – for delicious, traditional rosti and bratwurst – naturally.

On a day such as this, on an outdoor terrace on top of the world, one can only bless the blokes who built that railway!

The Camino Way: Walk like a Pilgrim



It is only a matter of time before Italy’s pilgrimage walk, the Via Francigena, becomes as popular as the Camino Way. General Manager of UTracks, Kate Baker, says they are experiencing a surge in interest for Italy’s answer to the Camino de Santiago.

Ms Baker says more and more travellers are embarking on this long distance hike from high up in the Alps to St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

As one of the three most important pilgrimage routes in Europe alongside the Camino de Santiago and the peace trail of the Jerusalem Way (which is currently not possible as the route goes via Syria), the Via Francigena has been gaining some serious attention recently.

UTracks’ records show that bookings for their Via Francigena walking tours are up 26% this year from 2015. Ms Baker says part of the appeal of the Via Francigena is that it welcomes about 1,200 walkers a year as opposed to the 200,000 plus on the Camino.

“And unlike the Camino, which resulted in many towns springing up along the French route, the Via Francigena was structured to run from abbey to abbey, meandering through Italy’s spectacular countryside and classic historical towns and cities such as Parma, Siena, Florence, Luca, Orvieto and Rome,” she says.

“Routes that offer authentic gourmet experiences are also increasingly becoming a significant deciding factor for them when picking tours,” she adds. “All of these considerations have no doubt contributed to the growing interest in the Via Francigena.”

Ms Baker advises that it is only a matter of time before the Via Francigena becomes as popular as the Camino, noting that the Camino started off with about 1,800 visitors per year in the 1980s. With bestselling books and a Hollywood movie espousing the trail’s beauty and spiritual benefits, the numbers soon soared.

Pilgrims walking the Via Francigena will receive a ‘credential’, which is stamped en-route to the holy city. Upon arrival and provided they have walked 100km consecutively to reach Rome, they will receive their ‘Testimonium’. This is the counterpart of the ‘Compostela’, which is obtained on completion of the Camino de Santiago. Historically, this document was important for the pilgrim on his return home to prove that the pilgrimage was fulfilled, and his vows discharged.

Her advice to travellers who appreciate unspoilt scenery, the luxury of space and the ability to fully experience the true essence of the Via Francigena is to consider doing the walk sooner rather than later, that is before the masses set in.

UTracks offers nine Via Francigena walking tours, out of which eight cover sections from the St Bernard Pass on the Swiss border to St Peters in Rome.

While the portfolio’s seven-day tours are proving most popular at this stage, the 14-day Food Lover’s itinerary is rapidly becoming a favourite as it includes a variety of food and wine tastings, cooking classes and the opportunity to indulge in some of the best products and dishes Italy has to offer.

Visit the website or call 1300 303 368 for more information. https://www.utracks.com/

Abu Dhabi – out of the shadows



Build it and they will come. And so they do – in rapidlyescalating numbers. Glenn A. Baker discovered the dazzleof Abu Dhabi.

What has been built is a hotel on the scale of the Palace of Versailles, a Formula 1 race circuit, an international tennis complex, skyscrapers, museums and galleries (with an actual Guggenheim and Louvre to come), African and domestic game parks, golf courses, shopping malls, a Ferrari amusement park, a ‘fun city’, scattered outdoor artworks, a heritage village, gardens, a camel market and a zoo. And watching the horizon there, it seems that something new, something imaginative and innovative is springing up between blinks.

For many years Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, provided the wealth and steadying hand for the Dubai miracle, content to watch from a distance as Dubai dazzled the world. But then it emerged from the shadows determined to shift some of the global focus to itself. The establishment and incredible rise of Etihad Airlines ensured that visitors did come – agog tourists and those whose transfer hub was no longer automatically the traditional Asian ports.

Abu Dhabi had a big sell to accomplish. The perception of this part of the world has long been desert dunes, empty quarters, desolation, unremitting heat and sparseness. Bahrain and Dubai have gone a long way to erasing that particular mosaic leaving Abu Dhabi to surge as a thoroughly 21st century destination – modern, sleek and enticing – one that exercises the imagination.

Well, it certainly exercises its visitors. For those who do come tend to not sit still for long. Abu Dhabi is not a destination for wallflowers. Here you strap yourself in and soar, swoop, glide and bump to behold.

If you’re not gazing upon arresting artworks or catching film festival screenings then it’s a fair bet that you’re out of your plush hotel and dune bashing in four-wheel drives, hot air ballooning, sand boarding and skiing, desert camping, biking, catching camel and horse races, slicing about on catamarans, snorkelling and kayaking, subjecting your limbs to henna art, going on helicopter excursions, riding a Big Bus and becoming acquainted with the ancient and noble tradition of falconing.

Opulence is the motif

Tradition and history can be a rewarding pursuit in this Persian Gulf nation. The temptation, when you are in Abu Dhabi, is to shoot up to bustling Dubai because of its proximity – just a 90-minute drive on a wide highway. Fewer visitors think of taking a journey out to one of the 200 islands that are an essential part of the emirate; a group of them have been linked together as the ‘multi-experimental’ Desert Islands, some 240km off the mainland, a half hour small jet flight away.

At the heart is the largest, Sir Bani Yas. The title has nothing at all to do with some old English gentleman but refers to the Bani Yas tribe who took up residence on the ancient island thousands of years ago – an island that has been featuring in European literature for centuries.

The island is home to the only discovered (20 years ago) Christian monastery in the UAE, which dates back almost 1500 years which is open to the public. So too is the Arabian Wildlife Park and bird sanctuary, a touch of Africa in the Middle East established in 1971 by the UAE founder Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan as part of his ‘Greening of the Desert’ program. Now by his son, the current ruler, it boasts more than 10,000 free-roaming animals and occupies a good half of the island. The most dramatic shapes in the landscape are seven giraffe but there are also ostrich, hyenas, oryx, gazelles, antelopes, urial and barbary sheep and a couple of cheetah. In the seas, a protected marine park, dolphin and sea turtles can be spotted.

Now opulence is almost an Abu Dhabi motif, as anyone who has moved across the lobby of the extraordinary Emirates Palace Hotel holding their jaw shut can attest. So it seems almost proper to arrive at the Desert Islands Resort & Spa after you have been collected from the small airport.

The Anantara hotel group, which also operates the impressive Eastern Mangroves Hotel in Abu Dhabi proper, has moved into the emirate in a big way. Their vehicles make it possible for you to range across the Arabian Wildlife Park with a quality guide, as well as hike into the world’s oldest salt-dome mountains, investigate the island’s wellstocked stables and then participate in riding, archery and snorkelling across the reef. The restaurants and creature comforts have you wondering if you have actually left ever-evolving Abu Dhabi city.

It doesn’t take long to understand just what drives that evolution and the spectacular growth you see all around you from the moment your flight touches down. Forbes and CNN have both declared Abu Dhabi (which means Father of Deer) to be the richest city in the world and when money is no obstacle, then possibilities, if not exactly unlimited, are within far easier grasp.


Originally published in
Get Up & Go, Winter 2014





Tales of the Golden Tsar: Trans-Siberian Express



As this train snakes across Russia, it retraces the history of a tumultuous country. Patrick Horton rides the Trans-Siberian rails.

The day looks unpromising from my restaurant car window as our train snakes around Lake Baikal in Siberia. True, the mist and drizzle add atmosphere, but shortly I'm to ride on the engine, then enjoy a boat trip and in the evening, a lakeshore barbecue.

Mist turns into rain for the boat ride but gradually the clouds recede and by evening we are blessed with blue sky, mountain views across the lake and a warm golden glow from an evening sun.
I have challenged a fellow traveller to a swim, the prize a bottle of red. I win, a worthy prize for submerging in eight-degree waters and am warmed up by the following lakeside barbecue plus vodka.

We are travelling on the Golden Tsar, a luxury version of the Trans Siberian trains run by Lernidee, a German tour operator. A Chinese train runs to the Mongolian border, where Lernidee's own train takes over for the 5000km - plus trip to Moscow with stops in Ulaan Baatar, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinberg and Kazan.

Home for the nine-day journey is a comfortable and cosy two-berth compartment. Each carriage has a toilet and a shower room. Two carriages down is our ornately decorated restaurant car where splendid meals are served with a flourish.

Larissa, our Russian guide, has superb English, is well informed and importantly, is appreciative of Aussie humour. Something is planned for every day, either on the train or on city excursions. With samples, Larissa teaches us about the companionship between vodka and caviar; we get an appreciation of Russian history while I learn some basic Russian and order my drinks from a waiter tolerant of my mispronunciation.

Our Golden Tsar journey started on the edge of the khaki landscape of the Gobi Desert, but overnight it gave way to the rolling, unfenced green hills surrounding Ulaan Bataar. For a mostly nomadic nation, the capital's skyline has expanded upwards and outwards since my last visit 12 years ago. The colourful Gandantegchenling Monastery, however, remains timeless.

The chants of the Buddhist monks wash around their prayer room, also occupied by a four-storey-high Buddha glistening in gold. It is the day before the Nadaam festival of wrestling, archery and horse-racing and in the main square, a jolly crowd has collected in national costume.

Overnight we glide into Russia; our passports, left on our bedside tables, have been quietly retrieved, stamped and returned.

Ulan Ude provides a much-needed walkabout among colourful timber houses from Tsarist times. A massive head of Lenin, balancing on a tall plinth in the main square, holds the record, we're told, for the largest in the country.

Overnight had brought us to Lake Baikal and after the evening's party, the train takes us next morning to Irkutsk. In the early 1800s, many members of the Russian intelligentsia were exiled to Siberia for rebellion against the Tsar. Irkutsk became a centre of intellectual and social activity, influencing the city's cultural and architectural heritage. We visit an exile's mansion for a musical recital, once commonplace in such homes.

After Irkutsk we reach the Siberian steppes. In July it's abundantly green stretches of pine, larch and silver birch are patchworked with swathes of purple, white and yellow flowers. In winter this would be harsh countryside blanketed in snow, with trees bereft of leaves. Villages of wooden houses with large vegetable gardens growing potatoes and cabbages break up the landscape, but little changes in the outside view all day.

In Yekaterinberg, at the Church on the Blood, there's a film-set scene with men in pre-revolutionary Cossack dress. The following day is the 96th anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the Bolsheviks. The church has been built on the site of their murder.

We enjoy our last dinner in Asia as we cross the Ural Mountains into Europe and Kazan, capital of the Tartar Republic. Crowning the city's skyline overlooking the Volga River is the city's Kremlin or fortified citadel. Here is the palace of the republic's president, the oldest church in Kazan in companionship with the Kul Sharif mosque and the mausoleum of the Khans, the old rulers of Tatarstan. By next morning we reach Moscow and leave our small but comfortable home for something larger in a central hotel. The sightseeing is not finished: Larissa explores Red Square with us and in the evening, there's a trip on Moscow's underground for its artwork stations. •


FACT FILE

Private trains operate Beijing to Moscow and Moscow to Beijing between May and October. There are six categories of compartments with prices ranging from Euro 6000 to 13,000. Visas are required for China, Mongolia and Russia. Booking is handled by Russian specialists Passport Travel in Melbourne. Visit: www.travelcentre.com.au

Originally published in Get Up & Go Magazine

Monday, February 11, 2019

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

High in India - A steaming Darjeeling



For more than 130 years, a tiny train has laboured up from the plains of West Bengal to the lofty Himalayan tea plantations. Follow the tracks of the famous ‘toy train’.

words and pictures by Roderick Eime


“One steps into a railway carriage which might easily be mistaken for a toy, and the whimsical idea seizes hold of one that one has accidentally stumbled into Lilliput.” - Lawrence John Lumley Dundas, Earl of Ronaldshay (1876-1961)


A scalding jet of steam erupts like a geyser, sending a violent plume of vapour towards the sky. The hot burst is quickly followed by a shrill, musical whistle as the ageing mechanism is urged into motion.

Here at the historic station of Ghum, a remote hillside town hanging precariously from the sheer cliffs of the Darjeeling Himalayan range at 2200 metres, the tiny steam locomotive begins the final leg of the 88.5-kilometre journey into Darjeeling.

The little train will drop 200m as it travels the final seven kilometres, past the poignant war memorial, skirting steep tea plantations and rolling within arm’s reach of windows and doors along the way before arriving into its terminus.


First published in Get Up & Go Summer 2015

The so-called ‘toy train’ is officially known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) and was completed in 1881 by Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co. Ltd. after a gruelling two-year construction that was necessary to serve the burgeoning tea industry and reduce the growing cost of road maintenance along the original route down to Siliguri in West Bengal.

For the task, eight darling little steam engines haul the miniature carriages up the line. The carriages consist of first and second class and can only be described as basic. Sorry, there is no refreshment trolley and only a first class toilet on the Kurseong service.

Over ensuing years, the line was continually improved. At its peak in the 1930s and ‘40s, annual passenger numbers exceeded 300,000 but motor transport had begun to erode the railway’s revenue and monopoly.

Yet, despite the fast-approaching obsolescence of the coal burning transport, the train seized the hearts of all those who have travelled on it and in 1999 the DHR was inscribed by UNESCO onto their list of World Heritage citing ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.

In the 1969 Bollywood film, Aradhana, featuring the soon-to-be megastar, Rajesh Khanna, and co-star Sharmila Tagore, the main musical number, "Mere sapno ki rani", was beautifully shot along a section of the railway, perfectly showcasing the magnificent scenery of the Himalayan region.



While the DHR is largely preserved in its original splendour with 13 vintage stations and platforms along the route, the passage of time has dealt the railway some blows. Earthquakes, landslides and political instability have disrupted the line from time to time. A landslide at Pagla Jhora in mid-June of 2010 cut the track, effectively isolating the upper portion of the line.

Modern diesel locomotives were introduced in 1999 and these operate the 24 kilometres between Kurseong and Ghum, while the antique steam locomotives (so-called ‘joy trains’) complete the last seven kilometres to Darjeeling. Repairs are ongoing and it is hoped the line can be fully restored this year.

Visiting the delightful towns that dot the old Hill Cart Road is as much a part of the experience as the tottery train ride itself.

Historic Kurseong, thought to mean ‘place of the white orchids’, is a perfect place to break your journey with an overnight stay at one of the classic residences like Cochrane Place. This preserved heritage ‘resort’ features its own specialty restaurant, Chai Country. Teetotallers rejoice, because tea is in abundance with 30-something blends to complement the superb authentic cuisine and comfort food menu.

Cochrane Place is also the ideal base from which to explore the local tea plantations like Ambootia and Makaibari, both of which welcome visitors. At Makaibari, where organic teas are a specialty, you’ll find the world’s most expensive tea, the Silver Tips Imperial. A steal at $400 per kilo.

Darjeeling, the line’s original objective is a bustling town of some 130,000 people located at an elevation of 2050 metres. Even though the tea trade is still a major part of the region’s economy, tourism now rivals the agricultural harvest, drawing thousands of international visitors annually.

Accommodation in Darjeeling is of a higher standard than neighbouring towns, with the luxurious Mayfair Resort opposite the Governor’s House catering to both international and discerning Indian guests.

Despite the onward rush of technology in our rapidly globalised world, some things remain steeped in the past and exist purely to delight and entertain us with their old-fashioned charm. Long may this little train toot and teeter along the narrow tracks of the glorious Himalayas.


==============

FACT BOX (source: dhrs.org)

At time of writing, upper section trains were running between Kurseong and Darjeeling only due to track repairs.

Later in 2014, a special weekend-only ‘Red Panda’ first class steam service is planned between Kurseong and Darjeeling.

Mountain Railways of India (UNESCO) http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/944

For tours in Darjeeling and West Bengal, including the DHR, contact:

Active Travel 1300 783 188 or see www.activetravel.com.au


- the writer was a guest of Active Travel (www.activetravel.com.au)

Roderick Eime just loves all kinds of strange and fascinating transport. Follow him on Twitter @rodeime