Steam in Snowdonia
My happiest surprise of 2013 concerned a railway train. I was showing an American friend of mine the famous view of Snowdon – Y Wyddfa to the Welsh – from the seashore near Porthmadog, and we had chosen a perfect day for it. It was sunny but slightly damp, in the best Welsh style, with the massif of Snowdon blue-grey in the background and the reclaimed flatland in front speckled all over with the white shapes of grazing sheep. Seabirds swooped here and there, and a few cattle were up to their hocks in a tide-pool, giving the whole scene an antique aura, as if it were a Turner painting.
Yes, my friend agreed, pure Turner, all it needs is a steam train; and lo! Almost at that very moment a plume of white steam appeared, at the top left-hand corner of the scene, chuffing purposefully out of the wooded foothills towards the sea.
I knew just what it was. It was a steam train of the narrow-gauge Welsh Highland Railway, Rheilffordd Eryri, dormant since 1937 but now once again running the 25-odd miles through the mountains, round the flank of Snowdon, between Porthmadog and Caernarfon. I knew the line was being resurrected (the last section reopened two years ago), but seeing the train that day in full steam again, in that Turneresque frame, was a particularly happy surprise.
I prolonged the pleasure too, by boarding the train at Porthmadog, and for the first time in my life I travelled by rail all the way to Caernarfon: coast to coast, from the coast of Cardigan Bay to the coast of the Irish Sea. The first ancillary surprise, as it were, was the engine which waited at Porthmadog station to haul us on our journey: it was not Thomas the Tank Engine, as I rather expected, but a hefty brass-bound articulated locomotive, No 143, built originally for South African Railways, gleaming and powerfully hissing, raring to go.
The 10 coaches it was going to haul were unexpected, too. They looked rather a job lot, not altogether matching one another, but my plush armchair seat in the Pullman, next to the engine, turned out to remind me of the Orient Express; and sure enough, presently a courteous stewardess arrived to offer me refreshments from the buffet car. I asked for hot chocolate and fruit cake, and as we slid out of the station I settled down most complacently for the journey, with a map in my hand.
I needed it too – that was another surprise. I live within sight of Snowdon but I had never before traversed all Eryri – all Snowdonia – by train, because for most of my lifetime no train had ever made this journey. It was like travelling through another country altogether. Everything looked different. Negotiating the main street of Porthmadog in a train was fun, for a start, and then the stiff climb into the mountains, while the engine snorted and the steam clouded our windows, offered me one astonishment after another. I never knew the grass was quite so green up there! I never knew the mountain walls were so forbidding, or the high ridges so enticing, or the waterfalls so precipitous, or the isolated farms quite so lonely! I never realised there were railway halts all alone in these valleys! When the train navigated one of the line’s spectacular horseshoe bends, so that the front of it was running parallel with the back, it suggested to me a passage through the Andes, down Machu Picchu way …
Rhythmically pounded grand old 143, belching steam and smoke, and quite suddenly, as we emerged from the wooded foothills, I found the most symbolic of the journey’s revelations awaiting me: there, at the very end of the line, looming above our terminal, bang before my eyes was Caernarfon Castle, one of the most formidably overbearing fortresses in all Europe, built by Edward I in the 14th century to keep the conquered Welsh in order.
Surprise? It looked almost amiable, with the red dragon flying.
A single from Porthmadog to Caernarfon costs £22.70 – for details visit festrail.co.uk
A holy lake in the Himalayas
I’ve always had a thing about holy mountains. This year both my most interesting journeys were to holy sites in the hills, one in India, the other to Mes Aynak, a recently rediscovered Buddhist holy site in Afghanistan.
The Indian journey was to the high-altitude lake of Manimahesh in the Himalayas, above Chamba at the headwater of the River Ravi. Manimahesh is one the sakti pithas – the sites sacred to the Devi, the Great Goddess, and above it rises Mount Kailash, home of Lord Shiva and the south Himalayan rival to the other now more famous Kailash in Tibet.
The story goes that Lord Shiva was not invited to his own wedding feast by his father-in-law, and his wife Sati, shamed by the deliberate rudeness to her spouse, jumped into the wedding fire and incinerated herself. Her distraught husband danced in grief across the heavens clinging on to her charred body until the body disintegrated, and piece by piece fell to earth. One part of her yoni – or vagina – landed in Manimahesh. Shiva later took up residence on the peak above the lake with Sati’s reincarnation, the Goddess Parvati. There the two made love for long eternities.
The mountain is said to remain unclimbed – legend has it that anyone who attempts to do so is turned to stone – but the lake at its foot is a major place of pilgrimage and, every autumn, wild-looking shepherds from the Gaddi caste gather from all over the Himalayas to make their way to this remote and beautiful spot to pray and take an icy dip in the lake’s sacred waters.
Towards the end of September, the Gaddis begin to gather at the ancient temple town of Bramhaur, recovering from their journey over the high passes to the Chamba Valley, and preparing their strength for the arduous trek up to the lake. The festival is held at the end of the summer pasturing season, just before the winter snows begin to fall, as the shepherds are preparing to take their flocks down to the plains for winter. Over two days they then head up the mountain, camping for the night in the pilgrim’s rest houses that dot the route.
I tried to do the whole journey in one day, and that was a mistake: I arrived at the top at 11 at night, frozen and dropping with exhaustion; but it is still one the most extraordinary journeys I have ever made, to a high-altitude wasteland, populated only by Gaddis and holy men, who camp there to perform lakeside exorcisms and build ice lingams in devotion to Lord Shiva.
For details on visiting the region, see the state tourist board website himachaltourism.gov.in
Lucia van der Post
Afloat off Mozambique
It was January. Back home the temperatures were plunging, the trade deficit was growing and the cost-of-living index didn’t bear contemplation but there we were island-hopping on an old-fashioned dhow through the great big marine paradise that is the Quirimbas archipelago, just off the northern coast of Mozambique. Debt ceilings? Austerity? Energy prices? They seemed a trillion miles away.
What counted was watching the sea change from grey to dark blue to turquoise as the clouds came and went, wondering where the mangrove kingfisher had its nest and whether it would be the big fat prawns or the freshly caught fish for supper.
The Quirimbas is one of Africa’s great glories. It has pristine, unspoilt coral reefs, curving sandy beaches and some 32 small coral islands round which we sailed, just my husband and me, two fellow Brits and our Mozambiquan crew. We had set off in the Ibo Island Lodge’s wooden dhow, going where the fancy took us, coming upon nobody except the people whose land it is – the Swahili-speaking fisherman who roam the seas and those who live on the islands. By night we’d camp on one of the islands in our little two-man tents, eating out under the stars and going to sleep to the sounds of the water lapping on the sands. Sometimes we’d breakfast on a sandy bank – bacon and eggs and all the works – and then we’d snorkel over the coral reefs.
At other times we’d go looking for Darwin’s famed giant coconut crab (and yes, we found one). Ibo Island Lodge offers a package that includes four days at sea followed by three at the lodge, which was once one of the grandest mansions on the island but these days offers its romantic airy rooms and lovely local food to you and me. With the lodge as our base, we’d go swimming off sandy banks and then we’d explore the grand and crumbling remnants of the island and the once- flourishing Portuguese and Muslim- influenced port. Come January I can’t think of a better place to be.
Africa Travel (africatravel.co.uk) offers four nights island-hopping by dhow and three at Ibo Island Lodge, from £2,945, inclusive of flights from the UK
On the piste in Poland
“Be considerate to the bears,” says a notice. Such posters will be rare on most skiing trips but not in the Tatra mountains, the wild, eastern alternative to the Alps. Things still growl up here. Poland’s main skiing resort, Zakopane, may not be right for powderheads (if that’s the jargon) but it’s picturesque, quirky, delightfully inexpensive and just a touch medieval.
You get a flavour of what’s to come on the drive from Krakow, 85km to the north. Pretty soon, a snowy, Brueghelesque tableau unfolds; sleighs, monasteries, cupolas and huge wooden manor houses like Tudor warships. Then a great wall of rock appears, 2,500m high: the Tatras. An hour on, you’re deep within its wooded foothills, in Zakopane, a town that’s been dispensing cheese and fairy tales for centuries.
We were all instantly charmed, particularly our eight-year-old Lucy. Although Zakopane has adapted well to the incursion of skiers, with swanky bars and ski shops, it’s still – at heart – an old mountain town. Most of it is made of tree trunks (parts dating from the early 1800s), and the locals – called “Highlanders” here – use any excuse (eg church) to dress up in their black hats, seashells and narrow felt trousers. You can take a horse-sleigh anywhere, and even the scrap-dealer still has a sledge.
Naturally, the skiing itself was slightly eccentric. Most runs didn’t open until 9.30am, and at the bottom, we’d get what we needed for the day (daily ski-pass £12; skis and boots £5 a day; lessons £15 per hour). Only one run (Kasprowy Wierch) offers a true, four-kilometre, diehard adrenalin fix. However, the others – like Harenda, Nosal and Szymoszkowa – were perfect for family like ours with a beginner (Lucy), a trainee snowboarder (my wife) and the doggedly incompetent (me).
Like Zakopane itself, the skiing was oddly charming. I once saw a horse and cart, collecting firewood beside a green run, and was surprised by how many Poles were skiing with tiny dogs, tucked into their jackets. At lunch, we’d all end up in a log cabin, with a huge log fire. I loved these places, slightly trollish with their antlers round the walls, and a good slap-up lunch for under a fiver. “Any chance of being eaten by a bear?” I once asked.
“No. Bears sleeping,” I was told, “Come back in spring.”
A market in Morocco
We’d passed scarcely a soul in the hour we’d been walking through a fertile landscape of green hills and startlingly red earth when the path merged with the rutted mud road to the ancient Berber village of Tnine Ourika. Gradually, our route began to fill with sheep, goats and men perched on heavily burdened donkeys, panniers overflowing with vegetables.
Each Monday morning several hundred traders from across the Ourika Valley, an hour’s drive south of Marrakech in the foothills of the High Atlas, congregate for the biggest Berber market in the region. For those who know the city’s increasingly touristy souk, it’s a revelation. Admittedly, there’s not much in the way of crafts for foreigners to take home but there’s a lot to marvel at, from the tall tent-like structures of curved bamboo (that turned out to be frames on which to build home hammams) to the vast range of merchandise (buckets, basins, shoes) recycled from tyres and colourful flour sacks refashioned into shopping bags. A quick spin round the butchery quarter – not for the squeamish – reinforces the sense that nothing goes to waste.
Elsewhere there are dentists, barbers, blacksmiths shoeing camels, men (women are conspicuous by their absence) grilling shashlik, bakers presiding over wood-fired ovens and doughnut-vendors standing over vats of sizzling oil. More intriguing yet are the makeshift outdoor kitchens where cooks turn the meat and vegetables you’ve bought into a tagine.
We’d walked there at the suggestion of Kasbah Bab Ourika, which looks as if it’s stood on its commanding hilltop site for a thousand years but is, in fact, a 21st-century hotel built of pise, or rammed earth. Its 20 rooms are decorated traditionally too, finished in tadelakt (polished plaster) and zellij tiles, with local Beni Ourain rugs.
It’s an eccentric place: simple, inexpensive, unpretentious, not quite slick, with heavenly gardens, mountain views and a decent pool. But it’s the conversations we had with its half-Berber, half-Arab resident guide, Mohammed, as we trekked through other parts of the little-visited surrounding Salt National Park (famous for its extraordinary pillar-like formations of red mud) that have stuck in my mind. Fluent in four languages, he comes from a local village, walked miles across the hills each day to secondary school before moving to Marrakech to study philosophy. Unlike his sisters, who left for life in the city, he’d returned to his village where he works to improve its infrastructure and access to education. Life is hard hereabouts, especially for girls. Their indulged western counterparts might find a holiday here a real eye-opener.
Kasbah Bab Ourika (kasbahbabourika.com) has doubles from €150
Smoked piglet in Tbilisi
If ever there was a lesson in not being swayed by first appearances, Tbilisi is it. And that also goes for preconceptions – ignore them too where the capital of Georgia is concerned.
Tbilisi doesn’t have the most prepossessing of CVs. Whenever history was in a hurry, Tbilisi was usually in the way – of the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Byzantines and Seljuk Turks. And since the disintegration of the USSR, its politics have been about as stable as its seismicity. After feuds with Russia, a vicious spat over South Ossetia, a state of emergency, a peaceful revolution and an earthquake, things have finally quietened down.
From a distance it looks like a grey battlement of Soviet apartment blocks flecked with satellite dishes. Up close, though, it morphs into a city of considerable style. In the old town, at least, there is barely a hint of Soviet severity, apart from a bar called KGB, with the ironic slogan “Still watching you”. It’s in a cheery little street of parasols and pavement cafés.
Many old buildings have been fastidiously restored, like the core of colourful, elegantly balconied 19th-century merchants’ houses. Some flank the River Mtkvari that cuts through the city beneath a sheer escarpment. Houses appear to grow from the cliff top. Now, in an architectural version of body piercing, Tbilisi is adorning itself with some arresting new buildings. A shiny theatre and exhibition hall look like two steel flasks; locals liken the nearby Peace Bridge to a gigantic sanitary towel.
Tbilisi is full of surprises. In the biggest of the new buildings, the massive Holy Trinity Cathedral, completed in 2004 to commemorate 1,500 years of Christianity, a bravura choir sing at Sunday mass. With no seating, the congregation mill about as if on a station concourse. In the Conservatoire on Rustaveli Avenue, there are concerts in the pillared hall where Horowitz, Rubinstein and Rostropovich played.
The Museum of Soviet Occupation shows chilling archive film of executions, along with a touching telegram sent from a mountain village to the US government: “The people of Khevsureti are very bothered by Bolsheviks.” A blackened icon in the Museum of Art bears one of the earliest images of Christ: he appears open-mouthed and slightly bucktoothed. At Taglaura, one of several good restaurants, “smoked piglet” was on the menu. “Reddish” or “yellowish” wine sold for £4 a litre. Serendipity.
Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk) offers a week’s trip to Georgia, staying in Tbilisi and Kazbegi from £1,995
Gorilla spotting in Rwanda
My most memorable journey of 2013 was prompted by a story in an American magazine by Philip Gourevitch, in which he cited a survey declaring Rwanda Africa’s second-least corrupt country. I simply couldn’t square this fact with the account Gourevitch made of the 1994 genocide in his horrifying, brilliantly written book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Yet now it was all change: Rwandans might not trust each other, said Gourevitch, but after the trauma of the genocide, a survival strategy had emerged with Rwandans investing exceptionally high confidence in government and police.
So I got on a plane to see Rwanda for myself. While my tourist experience barely scratched the surface, I found a country bubbling with an optimism that changes the tone of a journey whatever preconceptions come along for the ride. I felt completely safe. The infrastructure was immaculate, with clean towns and perfectly asphalted roads.
The journey peaked at Virunga Lodge, created in 2002 by Praveen Moman, who dumped a career in British politics to pursue what he considered a moral obligation: to help put post-genocide Rwanda back on her feet, using gorilla tourism as the lure.
This “eco” lodge (hot showers demand a few minutes’ wait, bulbs aren’t as strong as they could be) sits on a hilltop close to the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The terrace faces a sweep of forested volcanoes – the Virungas, home to the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Four of the eight guest cottages look the other way, upon a glassy lake dotted with cupcake-shaped island peaks. Everything in between is an electric, cultivated jade. A more jaw-droppingly beautiful place is hard to conceive.
Staying there was an intense experience. In a single day I came face-to-face with the world’s largest mountain gorilla, and saw the volcanoes darken under a solar eclipse. Among the hotel staff I also met a woman whose entire family bar one was murdered in 1994. To understand how survivors of a genocide can live alongside its perpetrators, I now need to turn to Gourevitch’s next book, You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know, to be published by Penguin in the spring. For now, there’s only one thing I am sure about: Rwanda is a country I want to return to next year.
A sanctuary in Windhoek
Namibia is rightly known for its vast stretches of red-dirt emptiness, sand dunes as high as skyscrapers and haunting shipwrecks along its Skeleton Coast. The main draw at many of its safari lodges are elephants and hyenas and rhino padding past the wide-open doors of your room, so close that staff will tell you not to walk alone to the dining room after nightfall.
I was duly ravished by these wild spaces on my first trip there, this autumn. At the Desert Rhino Camp, in Damaraland, returning after even the shortest drive into the bush, I was greeted at the entrance by the entire staff, all of them joining in a cheerful new song, accompanied by a shimmying dance. At the AfriCat Foundation in central Namibia (once enjoyed by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt), I was given a huge villa to myself and sat 20ft away from a baby cheetah nursing at its mother’s breast.
But nowhere did I feel so at home as at the seven-room Olive Exclusive hotel in Windhoek. Namibia’s capital is a slightly scrappy place of low-slung buildings dominated by a single huge casino and a high-rise, glass-fronted Hilton.
Yet drive farther along Robert Mugabe Avenue, past Fidel Castro Street, and you come to the Olive Exclusive in the suburbs, five minutes from downtown and as calm and tasteful a sanctuary for a one-night stay before or after a safari as can be imagined.
Breakfast is served outside, and includes a three-tier tray that makes you feel like you’re having tea at Brown’s in Mayfair. At dinner you can dine on gnocchi and exotic sorbets (even if you’re not a guest), while watching lights around the hills. Rooms come with laptops and spacey lighting choices and Nespresso machines and huge rainforest showers. You could easily be in Los Angeles or Sydney.
Except that when I – nervously – checked the price, I found that even the four suites with their own private plunge pools cost little more than the mediocre B&B I endured in London this summer. And the three suites without pools of their own give you sunlit terraces steps away from a magically lit pool in the garden. In a place best known for wilderness and the laws of the jungle, the Olive Exclusive offers a welcome blast of urbanity and a chance to encounter no predator more ravenous than yourself.
The Olive Exclusive (theolive-namibia.com) has junior suites from N$3,960 (£231), premier suites from N$4,950 (£289)
A couchette across Canada
It is, or was, one of travel’s defining pleasures: being rocked to sleep in your couchette as a gigantic nightscape spools by, knowing your journey has barely begun. Decimated by cheap air travel, most transcontinental sleeper services survive only in diminished, almost parodic form, ultra-luxury short-hop samplers of the full-fat, full-board coast-to-coast experience. So how rewarding it was to step aboard the Canadian, a quarter-mile parade of streamlined stainless steel still doing exactly what it’s done since 1955: connecting Vancouver and Toronto in five days, and in gloriously unreconstructed style.
The Canadian is a homage to the age of the train – its familiar, cosily tarnished golden age, meaning my scallops came accompanied by wine in a plastic beaker, served with a public-service half-smile in place of some sycophantic corporate beam. This was a proper, working train but, at the same time, no ordinary rail service. The distances between stops are prodigious, and because of that the Canadian will halt almost anywhere on request. In the lakelands east of Winnipeg, it’s quite usual to see a lone adventurer hop down from the luggage van and drag a kayak off into the wilderness.
My sleeper compartment was a bijou celebration of black-and-white travel, a wood-and-Formica capsule full of hidden drawers and lockers. Every time I yanked one open I expected the young Sean Connery to roll out. Pushing 60, the chrome and Perspex rolling stock might have been made out of ancient Cadillacs, and the magnificent observation car seemed older still, like the canopy of a Lancaster bomber. In the absence of WiFi and personal entertainment systems, there was nothing to do up there but remaster the old ways of long-distance train travel. Put down the book, take another sip from the beaker and savour the Zen of reeling in those endless prairies.
VIA Rail’s Canadian (viarail.ca) runs three times a week in summer, twice a week in winter, and it takes four nights. Reclining seats from C$489 (£280) one-way; berths from C$970
This article has been amended since publication