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.


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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

Monday, August 6, 2018

What’s all the fuss about Antarctica?





The great frozen continent divides travellers and even the greatest explorers. Repeat offender, Roderick Eime, buys into the debate.

We all remember the two most famous of Antarctic names: Scott and Amundsen. Scott, whose body still resides there, famously wrote "Great God! This is an awful place." While his nemesis, Roald Amundsen, glibly noted “The land looks like a fairytale.” Either way, both men were changed forever and it has the same effect on modern travellers.

I too had my own trivial childhood fantasy. Stuck inside on a rainy day, I would pore over my father’s massive atlas, seeking out the world’s most remote and improbable places, dreaming of achieving these destinations “when I grew up”. Our collection of cold-war era National Geographic magazines reinforced my idle fascination, wondering how men and women could live and work in such inhospitable environments.

Of course, I never grew up, but I did go some way to crossing off these locations when I made my first trip to the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands in 1998. And such is my fascination with the world’s driest, windiest and coldest land that I returned to the Peninsula in 2011.

While the land itself had changed very little, if at all, my cruise experience moved from a repurposed Soviet-era ice vessel to champagne and caviar. I’d repeat both experiences in a heartbeat, but the second ‘expedition’ demonstrated to me how much the Antarctic cruise offering had moved on, becoming much more of a mainstream travel product. Now you can argue the pros and cons of that, but the fact remains more people are taking an Antarctic cruise and more ships of varying specification are going there.

Captain Scott's party none too thrilled about the South Pole

Why the Peninsula? That’s an easy question. The world’s most southerly international airport is at the port town of Ushuaia, and the Peninsula can be reached in as little as 24 hours by the faster ships in calm conditions, while the little ones can take up to 48 hours in rough seas – which happens quite often in the Drake Passage. Now there’s even a fly-in option offered where you can cross the Drake by small jet and get aboard a ship at a real Antarctic station.

Once at the Peninsula, the waters are calm and your tummy can relax. The scenery is spectacular. Snow-capped mountains seem to jut straight out of the sea. Well, actually they do, often creating mystical reflections in the mirror-still waters of the Lemaire Channel. These are the images everyone craves, so much so that the place is often called ‘Kodak Channel’.

Going ashore is by inflatable Zodiac runabout, but don’t be concerned. These are tough little rubber boats used by everyone from marine biologists to navy commandos. On a calm day, you might get 10-12 bottoms arranged around the pontoon of the boat, while in rougher conditions it could be just eight. Getting in and out of the Zodiacs is probably the toughest part of journey, but there are always ready hands to help anyone and mishaps are rare. If you want to visit the animals and see the historic sites, you’ll need to do this. Some folks stay on the ship, but I don’t see the sense in this. You’ve come this far.

Whales watching humans in Antarctica (Aurora Expeditions)

Once ashore, you’re either tip-toeing among squawking penguins of half a dozen different varieties or trying not to wake dozing sea lions. I recall one hilarious moment when a precocious little baby seal chased a dozen of us all over the place like a frisky puppy. When he was bored with us, he chased the King Penguins – who were not amused. He was having a ball and so were we just watching.

Birders, or twitchers, are in their element, counting guillemots, spotting petrels and making lists of endangered pelagic albatross. History buffs, of whom I count myself one, are similarly enraptured at Shackleton’s grave (on South Georgia) or at the quaint restored Antarctic base at Port Lockroy, getting their passport stamped or buying a genuine Antarctic snow globe.

Whatever your passion, there’s bound to be something for you way down south. Sometimes you don’t know what is until you’re there, but no matter what, it’s bound to follow you home and stay with you for life!

Originally published in Get Up & Go Spring 2013