In a while, crocodile. Cango Wildlife Park, South Africa
have entered a cage four times to stare into the eyeballs of four famously dangerous creatures that one is strongly advised – and I cannot emphasize this enough - not to stare into the eyeballs of. Psychologists could unpack a fascinating study behind the motivations behind the people who choose, willingly and with good money, to get close to animals like sharks, crocodiles and lions. Not that such a study has ever been commissioned, since scientists of all ilk are currently laundering lab coats for more pressing concerns. Since we live in an age of misinformation, I may as well just invent one. According to global peer reviewed research study (*that was neither peer-reviewed, researched nor studied), thousands of people choose to cage-dive with dangerous animals because:
Curiously, 63% of these non-existent participants said they harboured a deep and unexplainable fear of the above-mentioned animals, and 12% said they only signed up having felt guilty for entering the booking office with the sole intention of using the toilet. Whatever floats your boat, and that's where we'll begin, bobbing off the east coast of South Africa on the lookout for man-eating Great White Sharks. Since they are widely known for bearing progressive and egalitarian natures, the Great Whites eat women too.
Nice fishy: Mossel Bay, South Africa
When I entered the cage, I was still between the teeth of the shark phobia that had plagued me since watching Jaws on a hotel movie channel as a 6-year-old on his first beach holiday. Fast forward a few decades, and I’d seen far better movies which highlighted the vital role sharks play in the eco-system, the horrific carnage behind their hunting for shark-fin soup, and their overall misunderstanding within popular culture. Fact is (and this is a real fact): Sharks are amazing. If they wanted to eat people, hundreds of us would be attacked every day, all around the world. In reality, you have more chance of struck by lightning or drowning in a bathtub (this is also true). I jumped into the cage, and had a life-changing experience with a rather large great white who could have attacked me from beneath (where the thick cage inexplicably and unnervingly morphed into a wire-hangar-thin mesh). From that moment, I resolved to learn how to scuba dive, and have since shared an underwater, cage-free space with sharks from Hawaii to the Papua New Guinea. That first cage dive truly changed my life for the better. If you insist and persist on eating shark-fin soup, please look at yourself in the mirror, then jump out a high window. Millions of sharks needlessly massacred each year will thank you.
Swimming with Salties: Crocosaurus Cove, Australia.
Crocodiles are an entirely different beast. For starters, they simply want to eat you. No curiosity here, no meeting of creatures or confusion because you look like a seal. To a crocodile, we look like lunch, which is why they quickly surrounded me in the pool. At Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa, I entered a steel cage and was lowered into a pool. At Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, northern Australia, I was inside a cylindrical Perspex tube with a few too many croc teeth scrapes for comfort. The Nile and Saltwater dinosaurs that decided I looked too delicious to pass up bumped me around a bit, their large orange reptilian eyes gazing deep into my soul. 17% of our fictional survey participants mentioned they enjoyed the sensation of feeling like prey. I, for one, did not. While my shark cage encounter made me want to dive with (admittedly less fierce) sharks in the wild, the croc cages left me twitchy about the Crocodile Warning signs I later encountered at popular swimming holes outside of Darwin and in tropical north Queensland. The mere thought of saltwater crocs patrolling the coast keeps locals off the beaches, and one taxi driver told me about a pet dog that ran to the beach, jumped into the water, and was promptly gobbled up by a lurking croc. According to a BBC Report, the best tip for surviving a crocodile attack is to avoid getting attacked. That's one helpful report, I don't know what we'd do without it.
Somewhere in Bohol, Philippines.
The Burmese python acting as a living sofa above was a roadside in attraction I passed somewhere in the Philippines. Entering its cage seemed like something to do. Once I was seated, I started questioning what on earth they could be feeding this thing. The answer, I hoped, was not dumb tourists who enter snake cages at roadside attractions
Lions 360 at Monarto Zoo, South Australia
Finally, I should mention that I once got into a cage surrounded by hungry lions. Inspired by shark cage dives, the Monarto Zoo in South Australia offers a Lions 360 experience, with feeding time for the zoo’s female pride coinciding with lucky tourists paying a little extra to be in a caged enclosure. The lions, which roam in a very large space that resembles the African bush, get to walk on the cage feet above your head, and close enough for you to smell their aroma, breath, and, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, their urine. My daughter was five years old at the time, and the lions paid special attention to her, recognizing our group’s weakest link. As well fed as they were, I had little doubt they would have gladly added a curly-haired dessert to their carefully monitored intake of horse (or perhaps kangaroo) meat. For further insight, here's a little video of Lions360 that I made about that experience.
Lions, crocs, snakes, sharks…getting close to dangerous wild animals is always memorable, especially when you’re in an environment designed to ensure you’ll live long enough for the memories. I’ve had close encounters in the wild with hippos (which kill far more people than crocs in Africa), grizzly bears, polar bears, piranha, elephants, orca, cheetahs, baboons, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and far too many mosquitoes (which kill many, many more people each year than any of the above). Every experience left me in awe of nature and the creatures we share this planet with. Except the mosquitoes. Those bastards just left me itchy.
This month sees the publication of my 9th and probably most personal book, 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go). You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, writing and researching this one. But family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast. We discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful, funny, inspiring and honest new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them. It works for Australia, but it works for everywhere else too.
With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper). Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.
We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?” Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.
The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips. Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get. Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.
Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.
Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do. Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.
I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences. You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia. Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT), being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis). But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.
Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.
Every July 1st, Canada Day rolls around a little quicker than the year before. The long days we’ve waited for all year have an ironic effect of making the season shorter, because winter is great and all, but summer is when the Canadian Bucket List BBQ really starts cooking. The national and provincial parks, the festivals, the lakes, the hiking, biking, canoeing, and other ings you can think of. I missed Canada Day last year as I was on a one-year adventure with my family. We travelled the far and wide of Australia for six months, doing as much as we could for my book, The Great Australian Bucket List. Then we lived for a while in Thailand, Bali and Vietnam (you can read all about that if you wish), popping into Singapore and New Zealand for good measure. I can assure you, you miss Canada when it’s gone.
That's not a bear. THIS is a bear.
For all the comments that Australia is Canada with better weather, I discovered this is not at all the case. Are there historical similarities? Most certainly. Both have colonial hangovers, the Australians even more so with the Union Jack still part of their national flag (it’s 2019, don’t you think it’s time to move on, mate?) Both treated their indigenous populations like fodder, and both have done too little and never enough to make that right. Both are surrounded by ocean (especially if you consider the United States an Ocean of Political Disappointment). Both have relatively small populations with relatively gigantic tracts of land. The Canadian Arctic is a pretty hostile environment, as is the Australian Red Centre. One country is famously hot, the other famously cold. One has a marsupials, the other has bears (the koala is certainly not a bear). Both love sport, and both sport endless natural beauty. We have many of the same chocolate bars and burger chains (Hungry Jacks is Burger King, in case you were wondering), the same dominating commercial multinationals, the same insecurity about larger, wealthier and more ambitious geopolitical neighbours (spare a thought for poor New Zealand). I could go on, and one day I probably will.
Road trips to mountains in Tasmania. Road trips to Canadian Rockies.
For now, let me paint why Canada is not Australia, using a broad brush of generalizations. Please don’t look at my strokes too carefully, as you’ll see paint is all over the place…it’s really more of an abstract piece. Because of course Vancouverites are not Newfoundlanders, and those who live in Perth are a different kettle of kangaroo from those who live in Alice Springs. Still, Canadians, by and large, are milder, cool as their weather. Australians are rarely accused of being over-polite, and an Australian will sooner bear hug you than apologize. Canadians are more reserved, and barring the extremes, tend to be a little more reasonable. I was once pulled over by a traffic officer in New Brunswick racing way over the speed limit to chip factory. Did you know one-third of all the commercial French fries used worldwide come from Canadian potatoes? Did you know that up to 90% of all the global mustard seed - the stuff used to create your favourite French Dijon - are Canadian? I pleaded with the cop, and he let me off. The people of New Brunswick are friendly to a fault. Driving north up the remote coast of Western Australia, I was doing the speed limit when a cop appeared out of nowhere and pulled me over. He told me I was ten kilometres over the speed limit because I was pulling a trailer. I told him I’m Canadian and had no idea that was a law, because nobody told me. There wasn’t another car in hours on the bullet straight Bruce Highway, and with kids in the back, I assured him I’d just set the cruise control to ten kilometres slower. He still gave me a hefty ticket. I just know, in my maple leaf bones, no Canadian traffic office would ever have done that. Australians are obsessed with rule of law. Cameras everywhere, enforcers ready to pounce. Both are secure societies with some of the least corruption anywhere in the world. But you feel the law in Australia, and they know it.
Hiking the West Coast Trail vs Hiking the Larapinta Trail
I am a South African who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Canada, and a Canadian who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Australia. I feel I have a grasp on both these cousin nations, at least as much as my experience allows. I think my parents back in Vancouver were worried that my wife and I would fall in love with Australia, and decide to settle there. Admittedly, we loved Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (Melbourne and Sydney were way too busy and far too expensive to even consider). But we’re a faithful lot and have already given our hearts to the country that famously opens it doors to those, like us before them, who seek a better life. Canada is a country that isn’t walling itself off, instead choosing to embrace the global, multicultural spirit of our age. Canada is a country with problems (every country has problems) and a country that can and must do better (every country can and must do better). Canada recognizes the unequivocal right of same-sex couples to marry, that the war on drugs will never be won if you don’t take a different approach, and that no future can be attained without addressing the needs of the past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Australia isn’t quite there yet, but that’s OK. Each sovereign nation is on its own unique journey. This July 1, I’m just really glad that my own journey is in a country that flies a red maple leaf. Also, and I needn’t remind you, the Raptors.
Red rocks in the Magdalen Islands. Red rocks in the Outback.
My cabin is as comfortable as any you’ll find on a train, the bed adorned with soft sheets and pillows, and still I cannot fall asleep. Too much on my mind, too much to process from a day exploring remote underground homes in the world’s opal mining capital, too much fun at the open bar aboard The Ghan. I typically read before bedtime as a way to put my mind to rest, but tonight my eyes are too tired to stay open, and my brain too wired to close. It would be great if someone could read me to sleep, with a safe and soothing voice. As for the story, it should be deliberately and delicately crafted to avoid anything too exciting, and take me on a peaceful journey to Sleepland. Just so happens that Phoebe Smith, soon to be the official sleep storyteller-in-residence for the Calm mindfulness app, is in the cabin right next to mine. I’m sure she’s sleeping like a baby.
With over 40 million downloads, 200,000 5-star reviews, and Best App of the Year Awards from both Apple and Google, the Calm app has hit a cultural bulls eye with sharpened z-shaped arrows. It’s loaded with meditations, ambient music and soundscapes, and dozens of sleep stories narrated by folks like Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and The Wire’s Clarke Peters, who has richer Morgan Freeman voice than Morgan Freeman himself. Millions of satisfied subscribers swear that Calm does exactly as its very name suggests: it calms you down, whether you set-up an easy 15-minute Focus or Anxiety meditation, a fiction or non-fiction story to lull you to sleep, or soothing sounds to massage your ear canal.
“Two million people a month listen to my stories, it’s mind-blowing,” Phoebe tells me. “I admit I was sceptical, until I listened to one of my own stories and quickly fell asleep.” A year has passed since our Ghan adventure across Australia, and she’s in Vancouver on her way up north to explore the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Since we ran about Alice Springs trying unsuccessfully to get an epic author photo for my next book, she’s been called the JK Rowling of Sleep Stories, has been profiled in major media, and fine-tuned her craft. We’re in the lobby bar at the Hotel Vancouver, and having just flown in from Brisbane that morning, Phoebe looks like she could use a little sleep herself. Isn’t a 14-hour flight and 17-hour time the enemy of the well rested? “Honestly, travelling with my own pillow has been a game-changer. Your brain associates the scent of your pillow with sleep, and it really works!”
It pays to listen to someone who makes a living devoted to sleep.
Phoebe finds a nice, warm, comfy place to sleep for the night.
Back in the UK where she lives, Phoebe is known for her books and stories about sleeping in unusual, extreme and wild places. I quite like the fact that Calm didn’t hire a scientist or psychologist to methodically bore you to sleep, but rather a storyteller. “Storytelling is such an old tradition, it’s how knowledge and wisdom has been passed down throughout history,” says Phoebe. But hang on, aren’t you essentially writing stories so boring it puts people to sleep? “As a kid, you didn’t want a boring story, but there’s definitely a technique involved. There can’t be too much action or excitement, and it should take you on a journey, which is why trains, boats, rivers and forests work so well. Feedback suggests that most people fall asleep within five to ten minutes, but I get lots of emails from people around the world wanting to know more about the places I write about.” Places like the lavender fields of Provence, the jungles of Madagascar, the Mississippi River and the forgotten forests of Morocco. There are travel stories about oceans and deserts, safaris and night skies.
There are train journeys aboard the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberia, and yes, our adventure aboard The Ghan. We both agree that stories are a far healthier alternative to medication and sleep aids.
“These days, we often treat sleep as an inconvenience,” Phoebe explains. “There’s so much going on and instantly available that we can’t switch off, which only adds to the anxiety.” It’s why she turns off her devices at least an hour before bed, keeps her bedroom free of distractions, and is passionate about sleeping in the wild. “When it gets dark, you sleep, and when the sun rises, you wake up. It’s the natural rhythm of our bodies, and it makes you feel calm and rested.” Unlike Phoebe, the very thought of sleeping outdoors, exposed and alone on say, a mountain top, freaks my poor brain out. So I’ll ignore her advice and keep my iPhone handy, ready to load up a Calm sleep story, and let her words inspire a blissful lullaby.
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.
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.
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.
I awake at 5am, a blessed night of sleep after a 20-hour+ transit, eager to make my way downtown to participate in the Melbourne Marathon. Well, not the 42km marathon, but the 10km run part of it, my first. I book an Uber for the first time, which is a game-changer (as everyone knows), at least as far as the guy can drive me before the roads are cordoned off approaching Flinders St. My toes still feel the phantom nibbles of the grey rabbit that shared last night’s abode, a friend of a friend’s place, in a neighbourhood in northern Melbourne called Travencore. The rabbit’s name is Tanpopo. There is also a girl who stays up all night listening-watching Celine Dion on Youtube. She was awake listening-watching to Celine Dion when I crashed early at 8:30pm. She was awake listening-watching to Celine Dion on Youtube when I awoke at 5am. She says she is nocturnal.
Marathon start at 7am, shortly before battery dies
Flossing teeth during my first visit to Melbourne, 2005
Finishing line inside the MCG
This is Tanpopo
To find the best beaches, you usually have to get as far out of urban centres as possible. But some cities are blessed with amazing beaches of their own. These are cities with large populations, business, traffic – and long golden sandy stretches that make you feel like you’ve entered a holiday resort. Here’s my favourites:
Ipanema, Rio de Janiero
White sand and blue water frames Rio’s most famous neighbourhoods, Copacabana and Ipanema. While Copacabana enjoyed much of the world’s attention in the past, it has been surpassed by the energy of Ipanema. Ipanema Beach is signposted by the famous “postos” lifeguard stations, which helps find your way on a beach that is generally packed all year round. Stroll up, rent a chair and umbrella, and have your own beach waiter serve you cold beer, fresh fruit, and snacks throughout the day. Striking mountains rise further down the beach, and there’s usually a friendly game of volleyball on the go (or foot volleyball, which is terrific fun to watch). There’s also a parading flea market as polite vendors roll through selling bikinis, hats, and towels. With so much skin and beauty on display, it’s no wonder Ipanema is one of Rio’s most expensive neighbourhoods. An interesting note: topless bathing is prohibited.
Clifton, Cape Town
Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton. Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand. There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds. All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city. As a teenager I used to walk between beaches to see where the action was. Today, the most popular beach is Fourth Beach, which has the calmest waves. First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers. Third Beach is a popular gay hangout. Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love. Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.
Bondi Beach, Sydney
During my first visit to Bondi Beach, the temperature in Sydney cracked 50C. Bondi Beach, a beach that has spawned a hit TV series (Bondi Rescue) was absolutely chockers (full). The odd part was there was nigh an umbrella in sight, here in a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Sydney is surrounded by fantastic beaches, but Bondi is its flagship. A perfect 1km crescent, reliable waves for surfing and body boarding, pubs, shops and cheap eats right across the road. It attracts the city’s most beautiful people, showing off their most beautiful bodies. With Sydney’s weather, there’s always people on the beach, with crowds picking up in the afternoon post work, and young couples pushing babies on the promenade. When people fall in love with Sydney, it’s usually Bondi on their mind.
In the late 1990’s, my brother and I decided to immigrate to Vancouver. He went first, putting in his papers, without visiting the city first. I was working in England at the time, and the mountains, forests and beaches of British Columbia were very far away. I had a good job, and was second guessing Canada, until one day, my brother sent me an email with a picture from Kitsalano. He had found a two-bedroom apartment two blocks from the beach, and summer was in full swing. The subject was: Wish You Were Here. The sand wasn’t fine and white, but it was fine enough. People were stacked up against scattered logs. In this distance was a towering mountain, the tree tops of Stanley Park, and some of the apartment blocks of English Bay. Having grown up in a big, landlocked city, I couldn’t believe people could live in a city like this. I wished I was there too. Six months later, I arrived as an immigrant and beelined straight for Kitsalano.
Photo: jenschapter 3
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu
The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head - all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels. A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers. The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
What I love most about Venice Beach is its sheer character. Only Los Angeles could churn out the bizarre folks who seem to hang around the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk. There’s weird guy with the guitar, punky guy with the Mohawk, body building guy on rollerblades – each seemingly the star of their own mental TV show. You might catch the stars on the promenade too: Nicholas Cage, Christian Bale, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson are all residents of Venice. Regardless, there’s plenty of eye candy to look at. The streetball on Venice Beach is reported to be the best in the country, the starting block for future NBA stars. Hard bodies pump iron at the outdoor gymnasium on Muscle Beach, and there’s great surfing off the piers. If the whole thing looks like a TV show, it’s because Baywatch was set and sometimes filmed here. Who knew a show featuring actors in red bathing suits running in slow motion would become the most watched TV show in history?
South Beach, Miami
The beaches of Miami vibrate with action, and South Beach (or SoBe) is its heart. With hundreds of clubs, bars and restaurants, South Beach is the city’s entertainment district, popular with locals and tourists alike. There’s a real multicultural element to the neighbourhood. Brazilians, Cubans, Israelis, people from the Caribbean, and a large contingent of Canadians too, escaping the northern winter. Famous Art Deco hotels look over the white sandy beach, one of the reasons why SoBe is also known as the American Riviera. Picture flashy cars cruising past flashy shops, while toned bodies run along the water. The atmosphere is festive year round.
Metzitzim Beach, Tel Aviv
Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city. Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns. There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach. It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas). Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs
Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona
Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre. Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world. Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists. While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement. But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it. Close to the port, it's also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.
Scarborough Beach, Perth
Perth may be amongst the most isolated major cities in the world, but it consistently ranks in the Top 10 for lifestyle and quality of life polls. That might have something do with its beautiful beaches located a short drive from the city centre, like Scarborough, 15 minutes away. The sand is white, the Indian Ocean is a clear blue, and the weather sizzling. Restaurants, hotels, ice cream shops bars and clubs attract locals and tourists, giving Scarborough a famously laid back coastal holiday town atmosphere. Families picnic in adjacent grass areas, enjoying the clear views all the way to an island 20km away. Perth has other well-known city beaches nearby, like Trigg and Cottesloe, but “Scarbie” remains a local favourite
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.