In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets and monitors, sits a small button. 24 hours a day, an officer monitors the equipment, awaiting a single phone call. On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads hits multiple targets in the United States. In the ensuing carnage, each warhead vaporizes an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it. Millions die instantly, millions more slowly from the release of deadly radiation. Life as we know it ceases to exist, as thousands of similar missiles criss-cross the skies seeing their targets. All it takes is one push of the button, located in a control room 33-metres below the Ukrainian countryside. My finger draws near. My hand starts to shake.
Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the countryside, missile units were surrounded by armed guards, 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases. Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled. Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister. Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world. As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo. Immediately, the atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy. Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.
Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade. If the orders had come down, as they nearly did on several occasions, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities. Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a stick pointer. He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing. The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions.
I remove my Ray Ban sunglasses as we leave the bright sunshine behind and enter the guts of the facility. The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only. Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, while above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo. The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks. In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”.
We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12. A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck. I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank. Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door. Bleak as a tomb, this was the living quarters for the two officers on duty. An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room. All signs of life are removed. Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities only exist here in the imagination. I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing.
Even though the button is useless and the missiles long since destroyed, it feels like I’m playing with an unloaded gun. I’m thinking about the horrifying photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above. Is the barrel empty? My hand shakes. I just cannot bring myself to do it. Some buttons are just not meant to be pushed.
My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot sun to warm them. I put my sunglasses on, my eyes struggling with the afternoon light. Various missiles are on display outside, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built. NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”, an apt name for pure technological evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.
The most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist around the world, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call. Even as Russia and the USA work to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.
Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this tool of “mutually assured destruction” into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is located 3.5 hours drive from Kiev. It is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Tour operators in Kiev can arrange transport and entrance.
It took three, long hours to get to the temple. An hour of that was figuring out which bus to take, negotiating the ticket, and finding directions to the correct platform. Five people were crammed into a seat built for three, and although there were no live animals, there was a freshly slaughtered chicken. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, it was intense, and it was vivid. This is travel, and this is all worth it. I hike up the hill, and there it is, a beautiful stone temple, glowing in the sun. I take a deep breath, pull out my camera, and then I see them. Over a hundred tourists, wearing name tags, following a red umbrella. Ladies and gentlemen: begin the debate!
Travellers carry towels, never iron their clothes, and freak out when there’s a schedule. Tourists stay in nice hotels, look forward to going home, and typically pay the set price. Travellers discard guidebooks, tourists clutch them closely to their chests. Travellers need a holiday when they return home, tourists leave home for a holiday. Or vice-versa.
The Traveller vs Tourist is a timeless, heated debate. Many backpackers make proud, public announcements so nobody might confuse them with being a tourist. Many tourists seem compelled to sheepishly justify their package vacation, while others would never dream of leaving the comfort bubble of a tour bus. Never mind that both groups are united in the same purpose – to leave their homes and discover something new. And never mind that tourists don’t seem too bothered by the whole debate in general – it’s usually travellers, sitting in a dive bar, scratching the dirt from under their fingernails, scoffing at the thought of seeing anywhere from the comfort of, dare I say it, a brightly coloured tour bus.
At the root of this inane rivalry is the assumption that one experience is better, more authentic, and more valuable than the other. I love it when I meet “real travellers” and the conversation goes like this:
Them: “Have you been to Bolivia.”
Me: “Yes, I’ve spent three weeks in the country.”
Them: Did you go to [insert obscure destination here].
Me: No, I would have loved to, but focused on [insert second obscure destination].
Them: Oh, then you haven’t seen the REAL Bolivia!
Me (under my breath): So many stupid people, so few asteroids.
Every single one of us is different, and every single one of us will have a different experience, even if we’re in the same place. Further, by definition, anyone who travels can be called a traveller. Some travellers like comfort, peace of mind with their security, being told where to go, and even what to wear. Some travellers like crowded buses, smelly toilets, sleeping in dorms and bargaining for everything. Seriously, they love this stuff! Judging someone by the experience they choose (with little thought to decision-making factors like budget, time, health, or personal preference) is like judging someone because of the colour of their skin, religion, or personal belief.
There, I’ve said it. The old debate is nothing more than thinly veiled racism, which, like all racism, is steeped in ignorance, fear, envy, and several ounces of basic stupidity. Still, I don’t see the argument ending anytime soon. As I watched the busload of Japanese name-taggers descend on my (my!) hard-fought temple, having being comfortably dropped off by their luxury air-conditioned bus, I couldn’t help but feel they had missed out on the best part of the journey. And when I told them what I could expect on the long road home, they wondered why anyone in their right mind would put themselves through such an ordeal. It felt rejuvenating to be independent, but I was jealous as hell of their comfort.
There’s no right way to apply ketchup to your fries, scratch an itch, or smile at a stranger. While we can always and should learn from the advice of others, there’s also no right way to see the world.
There is only your way.
Luminous orange overalls flap in the strong wind, an egg-yolk sun cracks against the horizon. It’s been a physically tough hike, stumbling over loose rocks, my face caked in black volcanic dust. Atop the cone of Cerro Negro, one of the youngest active volcanoes in Central America, the countdown has begun. All that’s left to do is sit down on my wooden board, lean back, grit my teeth, and hurl down the cone, 0 to 40 km/hr in eight, wild seconds.
You can tell the “next big travel thing” by watching the trends of budget travellers, and they’re heading in droves to Nicaragua. The beaches, colonial towns, accommodating locals, and prices are a backpackers dream, along with Bucket List activities like volcano boarding. From the roof of Leon’s cathedral, the largest in Central America, you can see eleven of thirteen surrounding volcanoes surrounding the city. They sit like a chain of pearls on a necklace, and when they erupt, as Cerro Negro did as recently as 1999, it can cover Leon in a layer of fine, ashen dust. Not that it bothers the backpackers at Bigfoot Hostel. When I inquire about the conspicuous absence of waivers for volcano boarding, its affable owner explains some of the legal differences between Nicaragua and the United States. If tourists want to pay twenty bucks for the opportunity to throw themselves off an active volcano, that’s their problem! Even though the volcano is at the tail end of its regular eruption cycle, and could explode any day, Bigfoot is doing a roaring trade, with about a dozen clients of all ages heading out daily, a wooden sleigh in hand, anticipating a Bucket List ride of a lifetime.
It took some time to figure out the right apparatus to accomplish such a feat, with everything from fridge doors to second-hand mattresses tested to strike the right balance of speed and relative safety. One thing is certain: while Cerro Negro appears to have soft, sandy steep sides from afar, the granite dust is as sharp as broken glass. Protective overalls, eye-goggles, and remaining seated (as opposed to traditional upright sandboarding) is essential. Wiping out would tear you to shreds.
It’s a forty-minute drive to Cerro Negro National Park, and it’s no accident the adventure takes place during late afternoon. The sunsets in this part of the world are atomic, November through June, night after night. We pay a small fee to enter the park, grab our boards, and start the climb up the rear of the ominous looking black pyramid. Once we begin our steep ascent, the wind picks up considerably. Blackened lava from the last eruption sits like an Exxon mess, the thick oil spilled over the countryside. At the back of my mind, I’m well aware that nobody can sandboard faster than an erupting volcano.
The loose rocks are sharp but we scramble over them, shifting the awkward weight of our boards from arm to arm. Half an hour later we arrive at the outer edge of the crater to find steaming hot sulphuric ash. You can burn your hand on the ground here, so we keep walking around the lip, a silent prayer that the monster below us remains asleep. With the sun perfectly poised, our guide Gemma explains how to use our feet to break and steer.
“Keep the mouth shut unless you want to chew rocks for dinner. Back straight, lean back, and smile for the radar gun at the bottom!”
A thin metal sheet is fixed to the bottom of the wood, along with a piece of plastic that increases speed. As I begin the five hundred-metre slide, the grating sound of granite against metal sounds like an engine, revving fast. Rocks and sand attack my goggles, stabbing my lips, sieging my shoes. I’d scream, but it’s wiser to keep lips pursed and board straight (cone-burn awaits those who flip).
Active volcanoes have intrigued many a Bucket Lister, but only in Nicaragua will you find one so creatively accessible. Safely on the bottom, the group cracks celebratory cold beers and compares experiences. “Now that’s something to do before you die!” says one backpacker. I certainly agree.
Our 4 months living in Southeast Asia can be broken down into 5 parts:
Thailand was a great start. We jumped into the deep end of digital nomadism, swimming in an exotic culture, and enjoying a slower pace after the frenetic pace of Australia. Bangkok was a sort of purgatory as we waited to visit Bali. Bali was like an overharvested cornfield, a deep disappointment sprinkled with tasty moments. How desperately we needed Hoi An to be different, to be the anti-Bali, to deliver on the promise of why we chose to visit Asia in the first place. And how relieved I am, five weeks later as write these words on the plane back to Melbourne, to reflect that Hoi An delivered. Everything clicked. The warmth of the locals was sincere and inspiring. The food was fantastic. The facilities we found were top-notch. The friends we made were lovely. The house we lived in was the best of any we’d stayed in, the water buffalo abundant, the excursions fun. And most of all, the timing was perfect. Wet season along the central coast of Vietnam officially starts September 1st, the day of our arrival. But the rains only came October 1st, four days before our departure. What September did was dampen the interest of high-season hordes. Hoi An’s lantern-lit night markets, ancient storefronts and coastal attractions were busy, but never overcrowded and unmanageable. It also meant that the locals were even friendlier, flashing their gentle smiles and gifting the kids lollipops. Da Nang, the city that services Hoi An (located 45 minutes drive away along a quiet four lane highway) is exploding. It’s got a lovely long white sandy coastline with resorts and apartments starting to encroach. “This is probably what Rio looked like in the 1960’s,” says Ana. Given its turbulent history, communist Vietnam has embraced modern tourism with a fever, attracting bus loads of Chinese and Korean tourists with mega-resorts sprouting all along the coast, edging closer and closer to Hoi An’s old city. The Four Seasons, the Intercontinental, the Sheraton – it’s all coming in thick and fast, and it’s going to change everything, indeed, it’s already changing everything. The Canadian owner of Dingo Deli – one of our favourite hangouts with its great food and play area for the kids – tells us he was one of the first European families in Hoi An, when the inbound artery of Cua Dao was still a dirt road. This was less than a decade ago. Today, coffee shops and restaurants and tour operators and ubiquitous tailor shops and ATM’s and opulent-looking boutique hotels and mini marts line the paved roads to the Ancient City. In a decade, Hoi An could well become another Bali. And while it felt like we missed the boat with Bali – which must have been incredible a couple decades ago, at least we discovered Hoi An when the going was good. When we could walk beneath the colourful lanterns, scooter through rice paddies, lie in hammocks under coconut trees, shop in busy local markets, and drink strong coffee on the patios. The kids might remember key moments from the photographs that captured our stay, but we’ll remember the general feeling of cultural bliss, contentment, and adventure. Without doubt Hoi An proved to be the highlight of our Big Year, and one we’ll always remember with great fondness. With the pace of modern tourism and the explosive growth of the mass Asian market, going back would probably be heart breaking.
I’d never been to Vietnam, and now I deeply regret not putting it into my Modern Gonzo itinerary 13 years ago. It was a different country back then, just emerging from decades of Communist isolation. I’d heard a mixed bag of backpacker’s opinions: some complained they were ripped off every two minutes and hated it. Others said the people were lovely and it was their highlight of SE Asia. And now, so many years later, I heard the same stories, which illuminated the discrepancy. It appears the the big overcrowded cities are intense, and travellers feel preyed upon. Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) and Hanoi sound like places far removed from the reggae music, siestas and watermelon shakes we found in Hoi An. It is a small town that repeatedly came up in conversations with friends about places they loved most, and wished they could have stayed longer. Chiang Mai was the other one, and so no surprise we ended up in both. My knowledge of Vietnam, like so many 80s kids growing up in the age of ‘Nam movies, is pretty tainted by the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the American War. All that’s in the past. Heck, it seems that Communism is in the past, the Vietnamese taking their cue from China – the powerful neighbour that has played a huge influence on Vietnamese culture for millennia – embracing capitalism within the confines of a one-party state. Tourism is embraced and protected. After somehow talking my way out of corrupt police roadblocks in Bali and Thailand, I do not recall any police presence at all during five weeks in Hoi An. Gem’s Rider, where I rented our 130cc Yamaha Nuevo scooter, wanted to keep my drivers license as collateral. “But what about police and roadblocks?” I ask. “Oh, they’d never bother any tourists,” was the reply. Everything here appeared peaceful, the roads were clean, people got about their business (working 7 days a week, I should add). More than once I walked into a store during the hot mid-day siesta to find it abandoned, the products unattended and inviting theft from anyone off the street. It’s why we stopped locking the front gate. If locals are unbothered by petty crime, why should we be?
The only relics from the war were the stories we heard from an Israeli we met who was disarming bombs in the countryside for an NGO – “more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in the entire World War II” – and an underwater mortar shell that Ana saw in the bay when she was doing her diving certification. It continued to amaze me that these peaceful, gentle people inflicted a military defeat on the United States superpower, and then swiftly invaded Cambodia to unseat the horrific Khmer Rouge, and then held off an attack from China. The Vietnamese are strong yet peaceful, gentle but unbelievably proud.
We Air Bnb’d a house located over the bridge from the Ba Le Market off Cua Dai, in a neighbourhood served by narrow alleyways that can barely squeeze a car. Next door to us was a small holding with banana and coconut trees, and across the road was a modest yellow temple on the shores of a large river. The house was called Mali One, consisting of 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, two upstairs and two downstairs, typically rented individually. We took the whole place, giving Amy her own space and a different area for Raquel’s home-schooling. With temperatures ranging between 28C – 35C, air-conditioners in each bedroom were essential for sleep, and fans aerated the muggy air in the living areas. The shower pressure was great, , we could flush toilet paper, and brush our teeth with tap water. There were roosters next door and across the street, but their crows didn’t destroy us like they did in Chiang Mai. Dozens of geckos patrolled the walls, and fortunately we’d missed the brunt of mosquito season. A giant spider hung out downstairs by the front door, but we pretended not to notice it. On our first morning, discovering the Dingo Deli by chance, we met a Canadian family temporary living in Hoi An with their two daughters, the same age as Raquel and Galileo. We got to know Meredith and Jonathan, Charlotte and Aria well over the next 5 weeks, and shared the joys and challenges that come with schlepping your family around the world. They introduced us to Kahunas – a friendly backpacker’s beach club that welcomed families to swim in their pool and use their beach chairs. No $50 entry fee, no Bali exclusiveness. Having broken in our scooter skills, we could pile onto the long backseat of the Yamaha and cruise the relatively calm streets of Hoi An and its surrounds. Vietnamese scooter driving is as insane, probably more so, than in Bali. Bikes come from every direction, at any time. People bike on the wrong side of the road or on the pavements, using lights when they feel like it, carrying washing machines or mirrors or other bikes on their bikes, honking repeatedly and unnervingly. We saw a couple accidents, and drunk people who could barely stand much less pilot a bike. One hapless duo as so hammered on their bike they literally fell over in the middle of the street. The difference with Bali’s madness is that there was a lot less traffic. Outside of the hectic 4pm to 5pm school hour, the roads were generally calm and the highways basically empty. Ana and I took the bike on a roadtrip to the Hai Van Pass, cruising over mountains and through some of the busier traffic areas in Da Nang. As crazy as the riding and traffic was, it never felt nearly as dangerous and as desperate as in Bali. As a bonus, concrete paths created shortcuts through the green rice paddies that surrounded Hoi An, showcasing water buffalo and farmers in pointy hats accompanied by wonderful feelings of exoticness and travel buzz. I never wore a helmet, and have confirmed that riding a scooter with the warm tropical wind in my hair is as close to nirvana as I can be, more-so when I feel Raquel hugging me at the back, and have Gali holding onto the antennae-like mirror stands in the front. Speeding along the the “water buffalo road” to Kahunas, and zipping about the rice paddies on the bike, comprise my singular best moments of the entire year abroad.
Just about every morning I would pop on the bike and ride around the corner – slowly across the road that became more and more flooded – to the Ba Le market. Fresh bananas, mangoes, dragon fruit, watermelon…I’d have to haggle but at 17,000 dong to one Canadian dollar, it was always a bargain. Some ladies ripped me off more than others, my favourite was Miss Huey, who always added a handful of fresh mint, spring onions, basil and other herbs the Vietnamese add to the soups, noodles and sandwiches. Across the road was the white house bakery, where I could buy fresh baguettes and breads, and a little further down, the Hoi An version of Bali’s Everything Shop, although it wasn’t very big and certainly didn't have everything. There were no supermarkets in Hoi An, no 7-11s, no Cocomarts or Pepito Express – and the two stores that sold groceries left no doubt that it was cheaper and a lot easier to just eat out. Meals would cost between 30K – 130K, depending on the type of restaurant, and unlike Thailand or Bali, there were plenty of affordable Western options. Raquel liked her freshly squeezed lime juice, Gali his watermelon juice, and every day the kids would have their Yakult and Milo drinks, along with homemade ice lollies from juice. We made our own smoothies, and although I cooked schnitzel a couple times, we got a lot of take-aways from one-person kitchen restaurants nearby. Visitors to Hoi An typically come for about 2-3 days, rent a bike to cycle in the rice paddies, visit the lantern-lit Ancient Town, check out a few temples perhaps, and pop into a tailor to get a suit, dress or shirt made. Every Friday we’d go to the Chabad – always the only non-Israelis – and those we spoke to were amazed we were actually living in Hoi An.
“But what is there to do here?” they’d ask, and we’d say, “not much, which is why we love it.” After having done so much this year, the opportunity to spend days by a luke-warm pool drinking Larue, Saigon or Tiger beer sold cheaper than bottled water while the kids play with new friends to the tunes of vintage reggae is as close to paradise as we can hope for. Of course we got the suits and dress made, it’s the thing to do here, and you’ll struggle to find bespoke tailoring cheaper. On the advice of someone from the Hoi An Expats Facebook group, we ended up at Cloth Shop Sue, where I got a suit, a blazer, 4 shirts and 3 waistcoats, and Ana got a suit, dress, and pants. Shipping wasn’t too expensive, so we sent 26kg of clothes, souvenirs, books, and other stuff we’re trired of schlepping around home to Canada via sea. Hopefully it arrives! In our home was a 2002 copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, and the country it describes is very different from the Vietnam 16 years later. Hoi An is described as a small but popular town famous for its temples - we only visited one of them, by accident. Our two sojourns were me taking Raquel on the bike to the Marble Mountains, a series of limestone outcrops overlooking flat Da Nang. We took the elevator up to the top and visited a couple cave temples, sweating bullets in the process. After riding 90 km;/hr with Raquel, I’m more confident than ever to get a motorbike! Our second adventure was to the Ba Na Hills, a bizarre kitschy French medieval-style theme park built high in the mountains, and serviced by cable cars. It was expensive and took a while to get to, but the admission price included all the rides, and they’d recently unveiled a stunning “hand” bridge that made world news when it was unveiled a few months before we got there. We went to see a water puppet show, which was quite fascinating, visited Cham Island, which was less so. Amy took the kids on a small traditional boat that looks like a saucer, after which they made stuff with coconut fronds. We visited the Ancient Town a couple times, took the boat on the Ancient Town to let the kids make a wish as they released a floating candle-lantern. We hit pub night where we didn’t fare particularly well but did win a pitcher of beer, and followed that up by a visit to the Dive Bar, which wasn’t a dive bar at all, and watched Jonathan support the local nitrous oxide balloon dealer. With booze this cheap, tourists were more than happy to buy rounds for everyone. For Ana’s birthday, Amy looked after the kids while Ana and I spent the night in a fancy hotel, having dinner and dancing to a samba band (yes, a samba band!) at a place called Soul Kitchen in An Bang. From the layabout couches to the kid-friendly restaurants on the beach, there was just so much to love here. Raquel even took ballet classes on Saturday mornings, with an English teacher who knew what she was doing (in stark contrast to Bali). The expat community heard about us and it’s a small circle – the folks with young kids living in a small town in a strange country. Otherwise, no lost boys in caves or tragic earthquakes, although the ceremonial president of Vietnam did die, not that we (or the rest of the world) heard much about it.
A typical day looked like this:
6am - 8am: Wake up, make breakfast, hear about Amy’s evening exploits with the South Africans living in Hoi An teaching English to Chinese students online.
10am – 2pm: Kahunas or playdate
2pm – 4pm: Gali naps, Raquel does school with Miss Amy downstairs, Robin works in Australian Bucket List website/Ana explores/get PADI certified/rides around looking for baguettes.
4pm – 6pm: Kahunas or playdate with Charlotte or bike ride to the water buffalo or or some such thing.
6pm – 8pm: Dinner, shower and bed time.
9pm – 11pm: Monopoly Deal or Netflix or Pub Quiz or Girls Night Out or Book Reading or Sleep.
Other memories: The Koi Café, the karaoke clubs, the weddings, the trips to the one ATM machine where you could withdraw 5m dong. The inflatable pool on our upstairs patio, emptying the water over the sides into the banana trees. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Chabad eggplant, hunting for diapers, hunting for new shoes for Gali. The challenging Wednesday night Pub Quiz (the most populous mammal on Earth is not humans!), the Birthday night away in a real hotel and dancing to Samba at Soul Kitchen, the horrendous sound of river frogs, the power failures, the horrendous sound of Vietnamese karaoke, the insanely strong coffee, the kids doing this, the kids doing that…
It’s all a blur, and time does fly when you’re having fun. Unlike Bali, where the highlights were crisp because they were fewer and far between, days in Hoi An blended into each other the way we blended the market fruit into smoothies. At the the end of it, when Amy looked after all four kids and we hit the town with Jonathan and Meredith - four parents of four young kids bewildered to have some fun time to ourselves - we realized we’d be sad to say goodbye, and yet if you don’t, months will blend in the same sort of motion blur. It’s just hard to get much done when the going is this good, and it’s the closest we’ve had to a family holiday since we took the kids to Maui in April 2017. For despite what people think, just because you’re travelling, it doesn’t mean you’re on vacation. At least, until you find yourself in a place like Hoi An, the kind of place travellers visit for a few days and end up staying for a few weeks, the kind of place that vindicates your wild, crazy, irresponsible and risky decision to go travelling for a year in the first place.
After so many miles, misadventures and meat pies, I'm delighted to be launching my 9th book, The Great Australian Bucket List , available October 9th online and in bookshops throughout Australia and New Zealand. It's been a very long and very wild ride, packing in years of travel into six crazy months, and years of writing into the same. As for bringing along my family, two kids under five can only make the intense travel and writing easier right? Right.
As with my previous books, I believe that essay-style stories inspire, and are best read on a printed page illustrated with beautiful photography. But I believe that practical information is important too, best accessed online where it can be easily and frequently updated. The Great Australian Bucket List follows this successful formula: a stunning, inspiring book supported by an extensive companion website - www.aussiebucketlist.com
With any luck, both will have the same impact in Australia as the The Great Canadian Bucket List had in Canada: inspiring millions of locals and visitors to explore unique, one-of-a-kind destinations and activities around the nation (and becoming a smash bestseller as a result). From jungle surfing in the world's oldest rainforest to swimming with giant tuna, chasing ghosts in haunted prison cells to hiking the remote outback, Australia has buckets of amazing stuff to explore.
Here's a quick peek at what I got up to:
The book is published by Affirm Press, the fastest growing publisher in Australia, driven by passionate readers who believe in stories as much as I do. I have to give a shout out to my amazing sponsors and partners: Presenting Partner Ford Motors Australia, Oaks Hotels and Resorts, Jetstar Airways, World Expeditions, Journey Beyond, Discovery Holiday Parks, Move Yourself, Sunshades Eyewear, Tourism Tasmania and Queensland Tourism and Events. Thank you!
The family travel project was an entirely different trip altogether. You can check it out at the online trip journal we custom-designed to record the adventure: www.esrockingkids.com. Along with our partners above, special thanks to Valco Baby, Keen, Footwear, Britax and Victorinox.
I met so many wonderful people on my journey, and as always, the people I met (and the family I travelled with) shaped my experience. I learned so much about Australia, and myself. This is what travel does: new places stoke new emotions, new people stoke new ideas, new landscapes inspire new life stories.
There's no word as yet if/when The Great Australian Bucket List will be available on shelves outside of Australia and New Zealand. I'd love nothing more than my Canadian, Global and Australian books to find their way to stores worldwide, but that's up to the gods, agents, and the publishing industry. In the meantime, you can buy it online anywhere through Book Depository (with free shipping worldwide) and in Australia online through Booktopia, Dymocks, Collins, Big W, KMart, Newslink, QBD or fine indie bookstores. As always, it's the perfect gift for everyone from kids to grandparents, and will appeal to all ages and interests.
Thanks as ever for the support, and may your travels continue to be rich and fruitful.
Three hours drive from the Chilean capital of Santiago is a ski resort without any shops, malls, or promenades. There are no restaurants, bars or hotels either. There’s not even a ski lift. Yet it still attracts clients from around the world, and for good reason. Ski Arpa is the dream of a lifelong ski instructor who scrapped and saved over three decades to open a mountain for anyone in love with stunning views, and untracked snow. Here, two Pisten Bully Snowcats shepherd up to 22 skiers to the top of the mountain, where they have mind-boggling access to 4000 acres of skiable terrain.
Toni Sponar, a veteran ski-instructor of Aspen, Banff, and number of South American ski resorts, bought 5000 acres of land back in 1983. At just $5000, it was a bargain even for a ski instructor. The location was ideal. From atop the peak of Alto del Arpa you can see the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Mount Aconagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, to the east. The south facing slopes receive plenty of sun, protected from harsh winds, with chutes forming in natural abundance. Surrounding you is the Andes mountain range in all its glory - so different from the view in the Rockies, or the Alps.
A year after his dream purchase, Toni installed a ski lift and set to work creating an 8km switchback road to the base lodge. Then disaster struck. A massive storm dumped metres of snow, causing an avalanche that wiped out the lift, the lodge, and all of Toni’s savings in the process. He would still visit his mountain with friends over the years, but it would take another 20 years before he could resurrect his dream of a skier’s ski resort. He purchased two Snowcats, aligned with booking and marketing agents, and finally created the most rewarding catskiing operation on the continent. Clients visit from around the world for the powder, the sweeping vista, and the unlimited fresh tracks.
As we slowly make our way up the switchbacks, the van abruptly stops and one of my fellow passengers throws up. It’s a rough road, which Toni maintains himself, zig-zagging 600m up the valley. I’m feeling a little queasy from the altitude, but the excitement seems to settle my stomach. I only discovered the joy of snow when I moved to Canada in my twenties. When I was 6 years old, a once-a-century freak snowstorm hit Johannesburg. My schoolteacher, having never seen snow, made the class hide under our desks. She thought it was nuclear fall out.
I was retelling the story in the van as the switchbacks became ever steeper. Finally, our Swiss driver announces we have arrived. Next to the parking clearing is a humble, rustic building, built deliberately into the hill to avoid being wiped out by an avalanche like its predecessor. I am blessed with perfect conditions – the sky is clear and blue, and a 20cm of snow fell overnight. I sign a waiver, and get handed an avalanche transmitter by Anton, Toni’s son and partner in the operation. There are a dozen clients today, made up of Americans from Colorado, some French, some German. This is not Whistler or St Moritz or Aspen. We have all packed our own lunch, and accept the simplicity of the amenities. We have come for the snow, not the glitz.
It takes 45 minutes for the powerful snowcat to make its way up the mountain. I am standing at the back of the outdoor passenger area, watching Toni and another skier being towed behind us. The snowcat eats the steepest of inclines, charging like a tank up towards the peak. The air gets thinner and colder, and suddenly, the full might of the Andes appear on the horizon, a true alpine wonderland. After a final push from the powerful cat, my back against its protective rails at a near 45-degree angle, we arrive on the peak and dismount. The groups split up respectively, choosing a wild multitude of lines. Mount Aconagua, nearly 7000m high and dividing the Argentinean and Chilean border, beckons me forward. I let out a Wilhelm Scream, for if you can’t scream at the top of the world, where can you? Within seconds, I begin carving this mountain like a Thanksgiving turkey.
A full day with Ski Arpa includes four runs with a guide. By my third run, I am feeling braver, dropping into a gully to attempt an unsuccessful launch through a chute. It takes a while to dig myself out. Toni joins me on the next run, rocketing down his mountain, enjoying the start of another stellar season in Chile. He whips down so gracefully I find it hard to believe he’s old enough to be my grandfather. Meanwhile his clients are bonding over fat smiles and white powder. Warming up in the sun outside the base hut, we all agree: Who needs malls and promenades when you have a 1000m vertical descent on some of the best powder in the world? Especially when you have it all to yourself.
Ski Arpa is located near the village of Los Andes, 108km from Chile’s capital city Santiago.
Santiago Adventures (http://www.santiagoadventures.com/) provide hotel pick-up and guide service. If you drive, a 4 X 4 vehicle is essential. Reasonably priced gear rental is available through Santiago’s KL Adventures (http://www.kladventure.com) en-route. Ski Arpa’s season typically runs mid-June to mid-October.
It is said there are three simple steps to happiness: find something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. I might add: find yourself a bike. One day, on my way to the office, an unlicensed driver ignored a stop sign, drove through an intersection, and crashed into my bike. I hobbled away with a broken knee-cap, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and the powerful reminder that life is precious, time is limited, and I’ll really miss my knees when they’re gone. I quite my job and went travelling around the world on a Quixotic quest to tick off my bucket list. All of which brings me to the dusty Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. For an outpost on the edge of the world’s driest non-polar desert, the town offers fine hotels, gourmet restaurants, and excursions into a truly remarkable slice of South America. One such activity is to rent a bike and peddle thirteen kilometres west into the Valley of the Moon, a protected nature sanctuary famous for its stark, lunar landscape. I arrive at the park gates with my front tire wobbling with all the stability of a Central African government. Parched for oil, my chain clatters in desperation. I make a note that from now on I will check the condition of any bike before I rent it. Sound advice, and I could have used some more, for example: under no circumstances must you leave your bike on the side of the road to hike around looking for better views of the volcanoes. Soon enough, I am lost in the desert without any form of communication, directions, food, or warmth. It is late afternoon in March, and the baking day will soon transform into a chilly night. My last update to my family was last week in Bolivia. Not a single person on the planet knows where I am.
Before I set out on my journey, a friend asked what I hoped to achieve. My mates were settling down, building careers and starting families, so why would I choose to be that one older guy you typically meet in backpacker hostels? You know, the one who looks a little out of joint, has great stories, and often smells like Marmite. My reply: at some point during my adventure I will stumble into a transcendent moment of pure isolation, a challenge that can only be surmounted with deep soul-searching, and personal inner strength. My friend looked at me askew, so I followed up with: there will also be copious amounts of beer and beautiful women.
Just a few months after that conversation, there is neither beer nor babe for miles as I desperately scan the sprawling Atacama Desert for my rickety rental bike. Panic begins to tickle my throat. It appears that my Moment of Zen has arrived. I sit down on a slab of rock and breathe it in. The dusky sun casts a pink glow over perfect pyramid-shaped volcanoes. Early evening stars begin to glitter. A cool breeze sprouts goosebumps on the back of my neck, along with my long-awaited epiphany. I am here for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. The bike accident, the decision to travel, the dodgy rental bike, the walk into the desert. Wherever I am, is where I am supposed to be. Slowly, I relax into the fear and excitement, slipping into the moment the way one cautiously eases into a too-hot bubble bath. Then I hear a voice. A Japanese backpacker had seen my bike on the side of the road and figured there must be something to see. Soon enough, he got lost too, but somehow he found me just as I was busy finding myself. As the night sky vanquished the peach-fuzz sunset, we see headlights in the distance. Relieved, we find our way to the road, recover our bikes, and pedal in darkness back to San Pedro. That night we get blindingly drunk to celebrate our good fortune, and I have my second epiphany: it is the people we meet who create the paradise we find.
Ten years and one hundred countries later, there have several other moments of life-affirming clarity. As for those three simple steps, they sorted themselves out beyond my wildest dreams. Whenever I find myself lost, at home or on the road, I simply remind myself: wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be.
Originally published in Get Lost Magazine.
If you've been following me on social media, you've probably realized I'm travelling across Australia doing everything worth doing, research for two upcoming books, The Great Australian Bucket List and Esrocking Travel with the Kids. The journey has kept my family than hyperactive bees, and we kicked it all off in Melbourne. Here's some of the highlights:
Take a Street Art Tour
The laneways and arcades that snake through Melbourne’s CBD’s conceal a hidden city, one that is home to one of the world’s most renowned underground art and culture scenes. You might see glimpses of it walking around, but an organized tour will lead you directly to the most striking art and locations, and reveal the fascinating stories behind them. Once you learn about paste-ups, graffiti, yarn-bombing and blanking out, you’ll never look at any city the same way again.
Old Melbourne Gaol Ghost Tour
It’s a creepy enough building during the day, and that’s when it’s just a historical museum. At night, echo-chamber passageways and thick cells of the Old Gaol reveal a far more disturbing atmosphere, aided by the death mask of Ned Kelly and other convicts hanged on-site. A convincing storyteller tells true-life ghost stories as you tour the cellblocks, walking carefully in the dark or else you might trip over your imagination.
Old world travel has always been romantic. When this narrow-gauge track was decommissioned in the 1950’s, it was reinvented as a volunteer-run leisure railway, with steam locomotives taking visitors through Dandenong Ranges for picnics along the way. On-board, it’s a festive and family-friendly atmosphere, with guests encouraged to sit on the open-air windows with their legs in the breeze. Puffing Billy has become an icon, and a great way to explore nature outside the city.
Eureka Skydeck's The Edge
It’s the highest public viewing deck in the southern hemisphere, and the top 10 floors have 24-carat gold plated windows. The Eureka Skydeck gives visitors stellar 360-views of the sprawling city, and the latest attraction puts the streets (and the Oaks Southbank below) literally beneath your feet. The first of its kind, The Edge is a glass cube that extends out the 88th floor viewing deck, 285 metres above the ground. Sound effects of glass breaking add to the thrill.
Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n’ Snore Overnight Camp
10,000 people a day can pack into the world renowned Melbourne Zoo. Imagine having the place to yourself at night when many of the animals are actually awake. The Roar n’ Snore experience not only allows this to happen, it includes guided behind the scenes tours, dinner and breakfast, early morning sessions with the zookeepers, and your chance to sleep in a canvas tent surrounded by the sounds of exotic animals.
Having broken in my hostel chops around the world, I've identified factors that, combined with creativity, would result in the Perfect Hostel. It is a given, naturally, that any hostel today has no curfew, no lockout, a reception, security and lockers. These are still touted as if they are features when in effect, who wants to stay at some dodgy dump that won't let you in after 10pm. Those days are gone, and fortunately, most hostels now conform to international standards, and in many cases, international or regional associations. Below are my essentials, in no particular order, and they would be appreciated by just about anyone traipsing around the world with a backpack and a budget. Hosteliers and hoteliers, take note!
Staff & People
It's all about the people. A friendly patron can quickly make you forget about the other 33 points listed below, with advice, patience and all round enthusiasm for hospitality. Of course, you could have the Perfect Hostel with an asshole at reception. Assholes are usually broke foreigners who act as if they are doing you a favour when they buzz you in. Staff are the condiments, but the meat of the matter are the people you share your dorm with if they're loud, discourteous, obnoxious, snorers, smokers and stealers, even the Perfect Hostel will suck.
Given the cost of the Internet, and the fact that many hostels offer it as a free service, it irks me when hostels charge for a basic traveling service, nay necessity! More so, they tend to charge double what the Internet cafe charges on the corner. It's taking advantage and it's unnecessary. You will get more traffic, more recommendations and more happy clients if you have two machines available, with a 15-minute max usage if someone is waiting. A USB port so that people can download their photos wouldn't hurt either.
Hooks in the bathroom
Amazing how many places think that your towel, clothes and toilet bag belong on a wet floor full of someone else's pubic hair. Put up some hooks! And while you at it, plugs in the sink for shaving, and a mirror won't hurt either.
Everyone who travels has to put their alarm clock somewhere, as well as some keys, or a book, some water, or even a wallet. One hostel had a neat little lockable wooden cabinet by each bed for your essentials. Otherwise, it's dump everything on the floor and let people trip all over it, and if the guy on the top bunk needs water during the night, as he probably will, be prepared to be woken up with him falling all over you.
Lockers (under bed)
Lockers are so essential that if you have no place where people can secure their daybags (with cameras, iPods, moneybelts etc), stop calling yourself a hostel immediately. Lockers come in all shapes and sizes, but they should be roomy enough for a daypack, and close to the bunks. The best I've seen were on wheels under the bunks, and could fit entire backpacks so that the room was free of clutter and even your clothes were safely locked away.
Most, if not all travelers are using the Internet to find and research hostels. Hostels.com, hostelworld.com and others have valuable rating systems and booking facilities, and keep hostels on their toes. I usually find something interesting and then Google their website to find out more. A good site almost always means a good hostel. If it's ugly, slow and scary, it says something about the hostel. There have been exceptions, but even if your site is simple, make sure the information is current and includes everything a prospective patron needs to know, ie: location, cost, directions, facilities, services.
This one is surprisingly simple and rarely down well. You've just come off a long flight/night bus/delayed train. You're in a strange, new country, with a strange new currency and language. The directions to the hostel on the website say "Go to the east side of the station, catch the 41 bus south, walk up Flecheschmefer Road and you'll find us". Make the directions as easy and simple to follow as possible. Use signs and landmarks. What is the colour of the building? Which direction do I take bus 41? And who the hell is traveling with a compass to know where south or east is? Sometimes it is fun to find places, but not when you're tired, confused, and walking around town with all your valuables.
The key to a good night's sleep. When they wear down, get new ones. They are not too expensive, and in the price of board is it not too much to expect a pillow that's thicker than a folded towel?
Clean linen, including sheets for the blankets or duvet. If we have sleeping bags, which a lot of us don't, it's great to use them as little as possible. Also, linen helps with bed bugs!
Every once in a while, mattresses should be checked for bed bugs, dips and humps, smell and wear and tear. You know, just in case someone wanted to actually sleep. I've seen bed bud scars, and backs with bunkboard splinters through the mattress. Use foam if you're cheap.
"How was Vienna?"
"Oh, the shower was amazing!"
That's how much an impact showers have on dirty budget travelers. A good shower means getting clean and feeling good. If I want to stand under a broken cold water tap, I will stand under a cold water tap. Just don't call it a shower.
In the bathroom, in the dorms. We go out, we want to see what we look like.
Cheap IKEA lamps so that the person in bunk 12 can read if the person in bunk 7 is sleeping. One hostel had lamps built into the headboards. If you get back late and everyone's sleeping, you also need to see where your stuff is, how to open your locker, find that bottle of water. Lamps at least allow everyone in a dorm to operate independently; this "I must sleep we all must sleep" nonsense is unnecessary.
We're traveling with digital cameras, iPods, cellphones, laptops, video cameras. And there is, maybe, one plug in the room. Each room should have a charging station, or better yet, each bed should have its own plug to charge while you sleep (the other plug can be used for a reading lamp or pluglight). It is not an option having a charged battery or being afraid to leave it downstairs next to the toaster where you just know someone is going to steal.
This is a given. Just because we're budget travelers doesn't mean we want to sleep, eat and clean ourselves in your shitty house, where the garbage is overflowing, ashtrays are in the sinks and the toilets have last year's skid marks.
Pool, Foozball, Games
A hostel is largely a social hub. The main difference between hostel and hotel is the "s", which stands for "social." Social games make people meet and talk and that's where the fun is. In a hotel, the only people you meet are other losers like yourselves in the bar. Here, you can play ping pong with a professor or find yourself playing Uno with two gay couples and a pair of monks. And if you do have a pool or ping pong table, try keep it in shape. We don't mind putting a deposit down to ensure that nobody wrecks the equipment.
Non-essential, but fun in a hostel. Again, it's a social place to meet interesting people and make new friends from around the world. Do it over liquor. It doesn't have to be cheap, but it should be cheaper than bars in the town. You can make a lot of money at the same time too.
2-Ply Toilet Paper
Such a small difference, but oh so preferable to wiping with recycled half-ply tissue paper. We don't have our own bathrooms, but at least give us the luxury of pretending we do. Also, have back-up rolls always available in the loos, and keep a tab on how low they get. A toilet without paper is a sad toilet.
Nobody likes going anywhere with a wet towel in their backpack. And the hostel, hopefully, are doing linen laundry anyway. Even a tea towel is better than using my beach towel
Crucial to anyone who travels is having something to read. A few long flights, bus or train journeys can see you knock back a book every couple of days. Book exchanges are not uncommon, they just don't have much thought. Typically it is two books for one, or one for one plus a couple dollars. Some guys in Bolivia had the right idea. As readers, they could make judgment calls on the quality of books. The first shelf were airline reads. The second better. The third best. One for one to me is fair, providing the books are of equal quality, according to the hostel. People reading good books can swap for good books, or maybe two craps for one goodie. Be creative, build a library, save our boredom!
Nightclub shuttle / promotions
Why this doesn't happen more is beyond me. You have a hostel with dozens of interesting, dare I say attractive travelers looking to rip it. Any bar or club in the city would give you special deals, VIP access, maybe 2-1 drinks, for bringing in a bunch of foreigners. It adds spice to the club, plus we travel with dollars and euros! Who wants to go out in a city to line-up for four hours and be treated like shit. Cut some deals with your favourite clubs and bars, and make a win-win for everyone. Shuttles also encourage just about everyone to go out. Make it easy and people will party!
A hostel with everything mentioned here is great, but not if it's located amongst the crack houses of downtown's worst area, or a bus, tram and taxi away. The best hostels are within (safe) walking distance of the city's attractions , be it central squares, shopping, strips, bars and restaurants, the beach. Packers are prepared to walk, but it's got to be reasonable. As in all real estate: Location, location, location!
Many hostels offer a kitchen, which is great because you can cook up with a few people and save considerable bucks. Some of them, however, don't offer anything to cook with, or have one rusty small pot, a banged up pan and a spoon to scrape away any non-stick that might be left. The best have everything you need (especially pasta strainers, pots, pans, washing up liquid and sponges, sharp knives, cutting boards) and the very best have basic ingredients that don't cost much in bulk, but no traveler wants to buy a big tube of salt and pepper for one meal.
I always feel ripped off having to pay additional fees to leave my backpack at a hostel, especially those in major cities where day or two-day trips are common. Usually we come back to stay another night, and in any case, it costs nothing to throw a few backpacks in a locked room.
The best way to spend a slow afternoon with a good book. At the very least, some deck chairs or garden furniture or someplace when we can lounge in the sun and chill out.
Private Rooms & Dorms
Nice to have both options available at a budget price, but not essential. Sometimes, privacy becomes an issue, especially with intense short-term intimate friendships (aka one night stands) being quite common in this environment and lifestyle. I came up with an idea that each hostel should have a "Love Room", a closet that can be rented out by the hour for late night trysts. Take out the junk, put in a foam mattress with a red light bulb and start counting the extra dollars!
Laundry is offered free in many Eastern European hostels, while in others it costs a fortune. If sheets and towels are washed in-house, backpackers would salivate at the opportunity to wash their smelly clothes. Obviously, free and folded laundry is a service in my Perfect Hostel.
Perhaps the greatest scam in the entire hospitality industry is the so-called free breakfast. Usually this means a bun, some butter, and some jam, which somehow justifies hotels and hostels tacking on a few dollars for this service. Unless the breakfast has eggs or fruit, I decline this breakfast and see if I can get a few bucks knocked off the price, which I can then use to buy a real breakfast should I actually be awake to need one (which is hardly ever). Packers go out late and sleep late, so the free breakfast that ends at 9am gets very few takers and is part of the scam. Good breakfasts should end at least at 11am, which shows a good understanding of the needs of backpacking clientele.
Library of Guidebooks
A nice little extra to have up-to-date guidebooks available for Packers to read and refer to in the common room. They could be signed out to avoid theft.
Fans and Heat
A dark room with 12 people and bad ventilation does not make a peaceful nights sleep. Ceiling or standing fans are essential in summer, as are heaters in winter. This is especially needed in places with harsh climates.
Tips and Noticeboard
Get your staff to compile their favorite hangouts, bars, pastimes etc on a slow day. Create your own guide, because chances are it will be far better than the Lonely Planet. Your hostel will probably determine whether someone enjoys your city or not, so give us some help. Tips can include: places to eat, bad restaurants and scams to look out for, good nights at various clubs, current movies and exhibitions, transport and easy directions, must-sees, weather, even current events (a printout of the daily headlines will interest just about everyone). Give us a space to give our own advice to others, such as good places to stay in other countries or regions, things for sale, lifts etc etc.
Construction Sites & Traffic Noise
OK, I know this is often beyond anyone's control, but I went 2 weeks staying five hostels and everyone of them was in earth-shattering distance to a jack hammer.
Which always, as a rule, crank up at 6am. Perhaps this is an unwritten rule for all hostels. Lots of hostels also find themselves on busy streets where traffic is outrageous. If so, have cheap foam ear-plugs for sale. The same if you're above an industrial techno club. The best hostel is on a quiet street where the only noise I hear are the birds, chirping like angels in the trees.
Drop the Youth
Hostels are no longer only for youth. They are for budget travelers, of whatever age, and those that enjoy a social aspect to their travels. The sooner we dispel the "youth" aspect, the sooner hostels will get busier with a whole range of fascinating people looking to meet each other, and drink lots of beer.
Music and DVD's
A hi-fi playing some tunes, even better if travelers can jack in their iPods and play DJ. Without music, where is the vibe? I know some guys think a TV kills a social atmosphere, but a DVD Player and TV is also a great way to relax, spend a night in and save money. Ideally in a seperate room so those who want to party can do so, and those who want to watch a few movies can do so too. Have a couple of classic DVD's (they can be signed out), which doesn't cost much in any blackmarket.
Modern travellers have developed an insatiable thirst for jet fuel, much to the detriment of previous modes of travel: ships and trains. While ships have evolved into cruising palaces, trains have far more limitations when it comes to the size of their carriages. Yet as a means to discover a new destination in a comfortable, relaxing pace, I'm a sucker for an epic train journey. Sit back and watch the world pass you by as we track down the world’s best train journeys.
The Blue Train
It’s amazing how much comfort you can cram into a carriage rolling along a gauge just 3ft and 6 inches wide. South Africa’s Blue Train is rightly regarded as perhaps the world’s most luxurious rail journey. Butler service, en-suite soundproofed compartments (with gold tinted windows), double beds with down duvets, marble-tiled bathrooms (many with full bath tubs), panoramic observation lounges, gourmet meals – no wonder its known as a moving five star hotel. There are two trains in operation - one catering to 74 guests in 37 suites, the other for 58 guests in 29 suites – operating on the main scheduled route from the administrative capital of Pretoria to Cape Town. Travelling at 90 km/hr, enjoy 27 pampered hours and spectacular scenery until you reach your final station. The Blue Train also operates two other routes: to Durban, and to the malaria-free Pilansberg National Park.
Not to be outdone, India’s Maharajas Express treats its 88 passengers like royalty, literally in the case of the presidential suite, which spans a whole carriage. Recalling an era where India’s grand Maharajas built their own lines to shepherd them in lavish carriages, the Express combines old world luxury with modern conveniences like a business centre, spa and gym. It offers five itineraries, ranging from the seven night Heritage of India, Indian Splendor and Indian Panorama to the three night Treasures and Gems of India. All visit destinations like Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My own rail journeys in India (in packed, sticky 2nd Class Sleepers) were memorable, but not for the right reasons. If you’re willing to pay, oh, several thousand times more for a ticket, why not treat yourself like a king?
We live in a large country, but when I took the 4-night, 3-day VIA Rail Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, I could finally see just how large we’re talking about. Travelling 4466km through the Rockies and Prairies, expect to roll through four time zones, not seeing any signs of civilization for hours. The train’s weekly configuration changes depending on demand, but always has panoramic and double-story panoramic dome cars, excellent meals, clean bathrooms, fun activities and friendly staff. Recalling the 1950’s glory years, the stainless steel carriages have the pastels and feel of another era, especially the rear Park Car, with its distinctive dome and view of the tracks you leave behind. Currently undergoing refurbishments as part of VIA Rail’s almost $1 billion investment, The Canadian is rightly a national treasure, popular with both locals and international visitors.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express / Eastern and Oriental Express
Although these are two separate train journeys exploring two different continents, I’ve put them together because the same company owns them, and once you hear the word “Orient”, it’s easy to get confused. More so since there was an actual train known as the Orient Express, running between Strasbourg and Vienna, but that ceased operation in 2009. The Venice-Simplon is a luxury train operating from London to Venice, in vintage carriages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Restored to their former glory, cabin suites are heavy on the polished wood, with washbasins, banquette sofas and ever-attentive stewards. Swap out Europe for lush jungles and exotic temples, and hop aboard the more modern The Eastern and Oriental Express, which journeys between Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Laos. With its in-suite bathrooms and airy teak observation cars, itineraries range from 2 to 6 nights, offering various opportunities for temple visits and other excursions.
With its vast distances and sparse population, Australia is tailor made for an epic train journey. The Ghan, named after the late 19th century Afghan cameleers that created the route, traverses almost 3000 kilometres north to south and vice-versa from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. The 3 day/2 night crossing caters to a range of budgets, from the twin Red Service Sleeper Cabins with their compact lounge chairs (folding into sleeping berths), to the 25 en-suite Platinum Cabins, with in-cabin dining, attentive stewards and twin or double beds. Beginning with the ridges and plains of South Australia, the landscape transforms into the red earth and sweeping skies of the Central Australian outback. Day or multi-day excursions are on offer from Alice Springs, before continuing into the more tropical regions of Northern Australia. The train runs twice a week in each direction June to August, and once a week during the remainder of the year.
China boasts the world’s fastest passenger train, the CRH380A running from Shanghai to Nanjing and Hangzhou at an astonishing 480 km/hr. Think more rollercoaster and less leisurely train journey. For less of a blur but all the thrills, consider the Qinghai-Tibet, an engineering marvel that connects the city of Xining to Lhasa, Tibet. It’s the first railway to navigate the mountains and treacherous terrain that encompasses Tibet. Once you cross the Tanggula Pass at 5072 metres above sea level, you’re officially on the world’s highest railway, rolling through the world’s highest tunnel, and stopping at the world’s highest railway station. With stunning views across the mountains and permafrost, the journey is literally breathtaking. At this altitude, breathing can become an issue, but the cold-resistant carriages were built for such challenging environments, and carry oxygen supplies on board for each passenger, along with an onboard doctor.
The Rocky Mountaineer
Repeatedly named as one of the world’s great train journeys by everyone from National Geographic to Conde Nast Traveler, The Rocky Mountaineer belongs to North America’s largest private rail service, running 1000 km through some of the world’s best scenery. Unlike VIA’s Canadian, which continues onto Toronto, the Rocky Mountaineer is designed to showcase the glorious Rockies in all their glory, with guests seated in two-level glass-domed panoramic dome cars, while interpreters point out wildlife and sites of interest. Guests spend the night in the company’s hotel in Kamloops before continuing their journey from Banff/Jasper to Vancouver, or vice versa. Along with the outstanding meals, let the cocktails flow!
The Trans-Siberia / Trans Mongolian Railway
When creating this list, I erred on this side of luxury, only because I’ve spent many days travelling on some of the world’s more challenging train rides, and while the memories are precious, I wouldn’t necessarily wish them on my readers. Trains are great, but not when they’re scary, like the time I peed at gunpoint on the Russian-Mongolian border. It took me three weeks to journey from Beijing to St Petersburg on two of the world’s most legendary rail networks. Along the way I raced horses in Mongolia, swam in the world’s deepest lake, and was almost tasered by some corrupt cops. Rudimentary carriages were OK, even if the attendants were smuggling starched clothing in our pillows. Meals consisted of instant noodles, instant mash, and anything else we could whip up with graciously provided hot water. I grew to appreciate the sneer of the attendants, and the taste of vodka, which was cheap and plentiful. An incredible adventure, definitely. But not for everyone.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, more affectionately known as El ChePe, carries locals and tourists over 400 miles through the Sierra Madre mountains and the magnificent Copper Canyon. Departing Los Mochis in the morning and arriving in Chihuahua late in the evening, the train crosses 36 bridges (one at over 1000 feet) and 87 tunnels. It stops at 13 stations along the way, allowing travellers to hop on and off to explore the region. There are two classes to choose from, with the Primero Express offering a dining car as opposed to the Economico’s snack bar, but it’s the scenery that provides the tastiest fodder. Mexico’s most scenic train chugs alongside stunning jungle, mountains, canyons waterfalls, and even high desert.
The Royal Scotsman
The Scottish Highlands are yours for the taking. By yours, I refer to the 36 guests pampered in absolute luxury aboard the Royal Scotsman. The train offers 2 to 7 night itineraries that take in the majestic Highlands, along with themed trips like the 4-night Classic Whisky Journey in conjunction with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Enjoy gourmet bliss in the mahogany-panelled dining car, and make sure to pack a kilt for alternating formal nights (if you forget, you can still hire one). Twin, Double and Single cabins are equipped with in-suite bathrooms, with the plush sofas in the observation car perfect to watch quaint villages and medieval castles pass you by.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.