Blown away

We haven’t even left the ground at Punta Arenas in southern Chile before we’re given a taste of the element that dominates at the end of the world. “Hang on to your sunglasses,” the airport staff had warned before we’d left the terminal to walk across the tarmac. “What, the wind is going to blow them off my face?” I’d scoffed disbelievingly. “It might,” he nodded.

Welcome to Patagonia. We’re headed for Isla Navarino, an hours-flight south that will take us below 50 degrees of latitude (cue the Furious 50s) and drop us off a mere three-days by cruise ship away from Antarctica, the windiest place on the planet. Once there we will hike. For five days. Sleeping in a tent.

The Dientes de Navarino could fairly be claimed as the world’s southern-most trek. While the famous Torres del Paine national park, 600km north, attracts around 250,000 visitors every year, Navarino welcomes a tiny fraction of that figure and only around 600 of them will hike the trail. There are no refugios here with cosy beds and hot showers at day’s end. The 53km Dientes route offers the landscape raw, as nature intended.

The plane whips with a tailwind across the snow-dusted peaks of the Darwin Range and the Beagle Channel to land at Puerto Williams behind which a jagged row of rocky snow-capped ‘teeth’ (‘dientes’ in Español) stand proud of forested green mountains. They’re not especially high – Picacho Diente is the tallest at 1118 metres – but the treeline at this latitude falls at around 600 metres which means hikers here face all the challenges of exposure and the weather that comes with it.

Our team comprises five hikers plus two guides, a cook and two porters from Chile Nativo. Within hours we’re on the trail and there is no gentle introduction. A 900-metre climb begins in muddy beech forest strung with moss and leafy lichens. Above the tree line, we hike open scree to traverse around the edge of a mountain, the terrain angled at 45 degrees with only a boots-width cutting through dumps of snow.

The stunning views are a powerful distraction from the business of walking but when I pause to rummage in my pack for some gloves to protect against the icy wind, porter Christobal advises, with a measure of seriousness, against lingering. We need to descend to camp.

Aside from the rugged terrain and 2.7 vertical kilometres to be climbed, it’s the elements that make this hike so challenging – the cold, snow and omnipresent wind. “You have to zip up your pockets otherwise everything flies away,” Gonzalo explains. “Anything you put on the ground you must pin down with a rock. Sometimes you talk and nobody hears you so you have to yell. It’s challenging but you get used to it.”

The relative shelter of Laguna Salto, cupped by the towering Dientes, is camp for the first night. The ground is boggy from snowmelt. Sporadic beech trees stand twisted and stunted like bonsai and waterfalls cascade into a lake fringed in ice floes. It’s stunning.

Our guides get busy preparing dinner – vegetable soup with king crab, a specialty of the region. Though we are each carrying most of our gear (food excluded) porter Pascal has been tasked with heroically carrying our quality but weighty tents. With all waste needing to be carried out of the wilderness area, Christobal has drawn the short straw, packing a toilet tent and its soon-to-accumulate contents. Our crap will be sealed in plastic bags before storage in a barrel labeled “Pirotecnicos” – presumably so no poor sucker will attempt to open it.

If the Dientes are teeth, on day two we floss them, our route cutting a high path between the towers. Traversing a high snow-covered valley, the striations in the rock faces looming over us appearing like the crimped folds of a merino’s fleece. A short side trip overlooks two frozen lakes, cracked and fringed in pale blue.

Gonzalo has issued us with spikes for our boots but, with the sun out, the snow is soft enough not to need them. Still, the trail runs perilous at times as it crests three passes and sidles across snow-covered slopes that fall away to jumbled rock and wind-whipped lakes.

Clouds move quickly, casting shadows that speed across the land. The wind is a bully that shoves suddenly and randomly, and on Paso Australia it’s so strong that I’m blown onto my butt. But guide Matias embraces the wind, seeing it as a challenge from God. “Try me! That’s all you’ve got?” he laughs, shaking a clenched fist at the sky.

It means that nothing lasts long here. Weather shifts from bright sunshine to frigid hail and back again within minutes. But even with the sun out, it’s rarely warm. Daytime temperatures in the summer hiking season waver between three and eleven degrees but the wind chill makes it feel much colder.

Though conditions are challenging, the rewards are high. An afternoon walk up Mt Bettinelli, a shale covered plateau, offers immense views of the Dientes and beyond to Cape Horn, the famed headland where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide in an often angry flexing of power.

It’s a remarkable landscape and every day gives our cameras a serious workout. We crest passes and descend into valleys, travelling from lake to lake, our jaws dropping in open-mouthed wonder. Green cushion plants provide splashes of green, and crystal clear lakes are tinged in blue. The land feels vitally alive, its story inextricably linked with the elements and how they shaped the land. This part of Tierra del Fuego is an extension of the Andes, layers of sedimentary rock that have been uplifted and then carved by glaciers. Only the hardy can survive in these conditions and the lichens that cling to rocks are as tough as pot scourers.

Despite being an experienced hiker I am glad to have guidance.  Random trail markers painted onto boulders give occasional reassurance but mostly the route is a jumble of boulders, rock, scree and snow. “Some people come with no guide, no map, no GPS,” says Matias. “They say, ‘Oh I know about mountains so I will go with nothing,’ then they have problems.” Only a week earlier he was involved in a rescue when a couple’s tent blew away. “It’s dangerous but if you take care it’s okay.”

“This trail is much more wild than Torres del Paine. It’s harder for the guides too. Everything has to be carried in and out.” Guiltily, I consider my daily contribution to Christobal’s load.

Thick snow falls the night before a 1000-metre climb to the plateau of Paso Virginia, the highest point of our route at 859 metres and considered the most dangerous. “In very bad weather you can see nothing,” Matias says. “If you’ve got hail in your face, 100kph winds and a backpack, you can’t walk for sure.”

As it is, we cluster on a precarious lip, legs spread in a rock-god power-stance against the gale force gusts, to peer down at the most beautiful lake I’ve ever laid eyes on. Laguna Los Guanacos fills a long bowl cupped by snow-capped mountains. I’m mesmerised by its sapphire colour and emerald fringes, the way it drops off like an infinity pool at its far end, and how the wind whips across the water.

The descent to its shore is treacherous, a steep chute of rock and pebbles as slippery as ball bearings before softening into black ‘sand’. It takes ages, a marathon of steady foot placements braced by walking poles. “I had to hold a girl’s hand all the way down here once,” Matias says. There were tears.

By evening I’m feeling a bit snivelly myself. Days of walking in snow and mud has soaked my boots right through, and, with the temperature barely above freezing, my feet feel as though they’re soaking in an ice bucket.

But eighteen hours later we descend through the forest to the luxury of Lakutaia Lodge and all struggles of the wild and woolly mountains we’ve traipsed through are forgotten, leaving only memories of its otherworldly beauty. On Isla Navarino the wind blew away all traces of the modern world, leaving only raw natural attraction and a reminder of what wilderness really is.

Five of the world’s CRAZIEST train trips

Train travel is all the rage as a travel mode in the post-pandemic world, and rightly so; Not only is it sustainable, but get lost has always been of the opinion that the rails are an excellent way to peel back the layers of a country and find what’s underneath.

We’ve compiled five of the craziest train journeys from around the world – fast, slow, wild and remote – you don’t want to be late to the station for these.

West Africa Coal Train

NOTE: Not for the feint hearted.

The Sahara Freight crosses 700kms of desert and coast, sending iron ore from the middle of the World’s largest desert and dropping it (via Mauritiana’s capital Nouakchott) in the coastal town of Nouadhibou.

Climbing aboard the carriages filled with iron and taking it to your stop is considered an acceptable method of transport by the locals here. This definitely isn’t going to be the most comfortable of journeys, but it is as raw and unique, and otherworldly as you’re ever going to get. It’s the kind of journey that would appeal to extreme intrepid types, and if you find yourself in Mauritania in the first place, that’s probably you.

Check out Vlogger Fearless and Far’s journey below:

Techno Train Nürnberg

Germans love trains, responsible for many of the modern train technologies that are currently being implemented right around the world, and with several of the best subway systems anywhere in Europe.

They love techno music as well – you only need to pop into Berlin for a night or two for evidence of this.

It was only a matter of time then, that they married the two; in 2019 the ‘Techno Train’ was born.

After gaining popularity rapidly, COVID halted the train’s course, but a return to the tracks is set for October this year.

The train is essentially a hectic German nightclub within the confines of a seven-hour journey through Bavaria. There’s 11 carriages; two dedicated to smoking one for chilling out, and eight for DJs and dancing. What a great ratio. 

The Balkan Express

The word ‘Express’ in the title of this line is maybe a little misleading here.

This train isn’t winning any land speed awards any time soon. The 476-kilometre journey takes over ten hours.

But while it might lack in pace, and grandeur, it makes up for entirely when you look out the window. The train passes over no less than 254 bridges, and when you’re not passing through several 7-kilometre-long tunnels, you’ll get the relatively unexplored Balkan landscape: stunning mountainous terrain, crystal clear lakes and the Adriatic coastline.

Starting in the heaving Serbian capital, Belgrade, you’ve got the choice of finishing in either Bar or Budva, spectacular coastal towns in Montenegro that offer partying and relaxation in equal measures, depending on what you’re after.

World’s Fastest Train

From one of the world’s slowest trains, to the world’s fastest: the Shanghai Maglev.

At a mind boggling 460 kilometres per hour, the Maglev is a good 110kph faster than it’s nearest rival for fastest public train on the planet. It crushes the 30 kilometre journey from the Shanghai’s Pudong airport to the city centre in just seven minutes.

If that doesn’t wig you out, then get this: the train uses magnetic levitation technology, meaning you’re not actually ever touching the steel railway, more floating above it.

Are you then on a train at all? Or should this be considered flying? One things for sure:  this doesn’t count as ‘slow travel’.

The G Train

Toot Toot! All aboard the G-Train!

O.K, you can’t actually board this train yet. But you can buy it.

Thierry Gaugain’s extraordinary concept, which is being called the ‘Palace on Wheels’ – a kind of modern take on the world famous Orient Express.

Gaugain is a super-yacht designer, and he is now bringing that level of luxury to tracks. The train will feature sleeping space for 18 guests, a party carriage, and several carriages with all-glass exteriors (we hope they don’t go through any rough neighbourhoods).

The thing that is amazing about the G-Train is that it is being sold as a private train – imagine owning your own train!

Gaugain is looking for buyers – so if you’re in the market for a train, and you’ve got a cool AU $486 million to spare, get in touch.

 

15 Extraordinary Indigenous Experiences

... and no better way to do that, than to see it through the eyes of those that have always lived there. The OGs, if you will.

We’ve compiled 15 of the very best indigenous owned and operated experiences from around the world, from sledding with reindeer, to bow and arrows in the African desert. This is how to do it.

1 Sled with Sámi reindeer herders in Norway

The indigenous people of Norway have lived in harmony with reindeer and nature for thousands of years.

You can do the same for a day yourself, flying across the snow on a wooden sled as the Sami people herd reindeer, before learning about the meaning of those dancing lights in the Northern sky.

SLEIGH IT

2 Walk among the dead at Tana Toraja

In a remote slice of land among rice fields and mountains in Central Indonesia, foreigners are invited to the extravagant funerals of the Tana Toraja people, often lasting several days.

You can also visit the extraordinary cliff-side burial site, which is guarded by tiny ‘Tau-Tau’ statues, and then there is the once a year Ma’ Nene ceremony: where the Torajans dig up their relatives (yes, we’re serious) in order to stay connected.

CAN YOU DIG IT?

3 Up close and personal with big Grizzlies in British Columbia

There’s nothing quite like being up close and personal with a big ol’ Grizzly bear.

Run by the local Kwakwaka’wakw people, Seawolf Adventures supports local Indigenous communities as well as a more sustainable approach to wildlife viewing, and takes you as close as you’ll want to get with one of the big, brown beasts.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

4 Live with nomads and ride horses in Mongolia

Saddle up and load all your gear onto a caravan of carts, because this is a horse riding adventure like no other.

The Steppe Nomads in Mongolia are the largest remaining pastoralist people on the planet. Sleep under a clear sky and watch the stars as you completely disconnect from the world in Central Asia.

STIRRUP SOME FUN

5 Rumble in the Jungle in Peru

On a Bonanza Tour you’ll trek, climb, paddle, wade and crawl through the Peruvian section of the Amazon rainforest, where anything from monkeys and spiders, to giant otters and even jaguars roam one of the densest slices of wildlife in the world.

Bonanza was kickstarted Ryse Huamani Choquepuma and is now co-owned by him and his four brothers and sisters, all of whom grew up in the jungle they lead groups through. A large portion of the proceeds from their tours go toward buying essential provisions for people in communities like the one the family grew up in.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

6 The Canadian Arctic is out of this world in Canada

Kylik Kisoun Taylor has been proudly sharing authentic Canadian Arctic experiences for more than a decade.

His business Tundra North Tours is an Inuit company based in Inuvik, Northwest Territories and runs boat tours, flights to Tuktoyaktuk, Reindeer Experiences and adrenaline packed Ice Road adventures.

I’VE GOT YOU, TUNDRA MY SKIN

7 Didgeridoo Dreaming in Australia

The desert, the ocean and the brightest stars you’ve ever seen all converge at Gutharraguda (Shark Bay), near Monkey Mia on the north-western corner of Australia.

It’s here you can learn to play the Didgeridoo from Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell, a descendant of the Nhanda and Malgana people and owner/operator of the business, while a small fire crackling nearby cooks seafood and bush tucker for dinner. You’ll never want to leave the outback after this magical experience.

DREAM ON

8 Visit the Lord of The Forest in New Zealand

Tāne Mahuta, otherwise known as ‘Lord of the Forest’ is the biggest kauri tree alive, in the Waipoua Forest of Northland Region, New Zealand.

Travel to this mesmerising corner of the Land of the Long White Cloud with a Maori guide to ensure you follow all the correct protocols for your visit. Every step through this ancient landscape will be a lesson of the affinity that early Maori had with the forest and these giant trees.

EM-BARK ON AN ADVENTURE

9 Stay in a luxury lodge in the Atacama

Terrantai Lodge is a native owned, bespoke and architecturally designed hotel which honours the traditional customers of the Atacama desert, while at the same time offering guests a luxurious stay in one of the harshest landscapes in the world.

Terranti (which means ‘people of the earth’) is in the heart of San Pedro de Atacama and is crafted with stone walls, a modest wading pool to symbolise the importance of water conservation and interconnected stone passageways.

SMITTEN IN STONE

10 Storytelling with the ‡Kohmani San in the Kalahari Desert

Kalahari Desert bush-woman, Vinkie Van der Westhuzien’s takes the more intrepid travellers among us to the remote, sandy outpost that is the Northern Cape, giving them an unforgettable experience with the ‡Kohmani San, who have been based in the desert for 20,000 years.

Learn how to hunt with a bow and arrow, before an exhilarating four-wheel drive trip over the desert’s red dunes.

DUNE IN

11 Camp with the Bedouin in Jordan

There aren’t many prettier night sky views than in the Wadi Rum Desert.

On this unforgettable indigenous experience, you can camp with the nomadic Bedouin people, who have had front row seats to the Wadi Rum sky for thousands of years, and learn about their culture over tea and khobz.

BEDOUIN AND BREAKFAST

12 The greatest collection of tribal dancing in Papua New Guinea

The world’s largest collection of indigenous cultures sits just in Australia’s periphery. Papua New Guinea and its distinctive tribes from the highlands to the coastal regions are a literal time capsule of people and their connection to their environment.

The annual Hagen show is a homogeneous kaleidoscope of colour, dance and sound with tribes from right around this small nation all converging in the same place for a dance festival like no other.

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE

13 This cellar door is connecting with Country in Australia

Fruits, flowers and herbs sprout throughout the botanical haven of Firescreek Winery on the Central Coast of New South Wales in Australia.

Shining the spotlight on native ingredients, Firescreek does wine tasting with a difference. Hints of feijoa, elderberry, mountain pepper and Davidson plum rippled through the 25 wines produced on the property. But what’s truly special about the Firescreek experience is the chance to wander through the lush grounds with Aboriginal Darkinjung Elder Gaving ‘Gavi’ Duncan on the Firescreek Aboriginal Storytelling and Wine Tasting Experience.

BEST CELLARS LIST

14 Haida Tourism is an eco-adventurers paradise in Canada

Haida Gwaii (an island just off the northern coast of British Columbia, Canada) is an ideal destination to experience the rugged and remote wilderness of Canada, but also a place where you can develop an even greater understanding of the Haida people and their connection to this sacred place (and the waters around it).

Haida Tourism is 100 per cent indigenous owned and offers immersive eco-adventures, food tours, wildlife experiences and recommendations for indigenous owned accommodation offerings.

ALTER ECO

15 Discover the streets in South Africa

Soweto is the largest and most famous of South Africa’s townships with 1.5 million people crammed into just 200 square kilometres worth of tiny laneways and ramshackle homes.

Lebo’s Backpackers is a hostel in name only. It is a four-star accommodation and bar that also organises tours by bicycle and tuk-tuk that allows you to explore the beating heart of Soweto. You’ll even drink a beer in a Shebeen – the township’s version of the pub.

Lebo’s was founded and operated by Soweto trailblazer Lebo Malepa, who provided opportunities for underprivileged in his local neighbourhood to work through the tourism generated by his business.

TUK A LOOK

A Mountainous Feast

“Welcome to the other side of the mountains,” smiles a local woman I’ve just met by the name of Sarah, clinking my pint glass of dry ‘Scrumpy’ cider.

Click play to watch

A warm fire billows just behind us in the elbow of a discarded earth-mover shovel. Sarah goes on with the local pride I’ve grown familiar with over the last few days, “the best views have always been from this side,” she says.

She’s not wrong. There’s a low mist hanging over Bilpin in the Blue Mountains today. It’s damp and dewy, but that only adds to the atmosphere as I reach down to pat Smudge, the local dog who’s now saddled up between me and the fire.

Smudge is a bit of a mascot here at the Hillbilly Cider Shed and he nuzzles his wet nose into my palm as if to signal that I’m welcome here.

It hasn’t always been like this. Often overlooked for the more traditional driving route into the lower mountains via the Great Western Highway, this wedge of idyllic and pristine mountain range – only 1.5 hours north west of Australia’s largest city – has emerged as a preferred tourist route of the curtain of sandstone and eucalypts that flank Sydney’s outskirts.

And sadly in 2019, it was also a catastrophic flashpoint for some of the worst fires in Australia’s recorded history.

The Gospers Mountain fire, nicknamed ‘the monster’, eventually made its way south to where we’re sitting and drinking. Those that witnessed it tell me that walls of flames ripped past Hillbilly Cider, almost upending the then under-construction dream of Shane and Tessa McLaughlin.

Like the green shoots that now sprout from the blackened trunks along the roadside of the famous Darling Causeway, Paul reflects with a near reverence on the phoenix-like revival of tourism in the region.

Fast forward more than two years and chuck in a global pandemic for good measure, I’m now winding through the Bells Line of Road on a tastemaker experience with Paul McLaughlin from Western Wine Tours. He’s guiding me to some of the best new breweries, wineries and distilleries that the Blue Mountains have on offer. And I’ve packed my drinking boots because there’s quite a few of them.

Like the green shoots that now sprout from the blackened trunks along the roadside of the famous Darling Causeway, Paul reflects with a near reverence on the phoenix-like revival of tourism in the region. He’s lived in Katoomba his entire life and never before has he seen such growth.

At the very regal-looking Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, there’s a familiar sense of history repeating itself in the place where it all started. As owner and General Manager Mark Jarvis explains, “the Carrington Hotel was built in 1886 and the rest of the mountains, and tourism, was built around it.”

Jarvis says this exciting era we’re witnessing post-pandemic is “a foodie renaissance,” which is reminiscent of the early settler days, when young entrepreneurs from the city sought out opportunity in these lush and fervent green hills. My great-grandfather was actually one of those, taking on the publican licence of the Family Hotel in Katoomba back in the early 1920s.

In 2022, Sydneysiders are again not only rediscovering the Blue Mountains as a potential tourist destination, but as a business opportunity.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the depths of the old electricity substation that sits beneath the Carrignton. This is not just where the pub has its famous cellars, but also where it brews Katoomba Lager under a cobweb of fairy lights. But Jarvis tells me he and his team have grand designs on soon transforming this historic space into a public brewhouse that returns it to its Victorian-era grandeur, bringing in a new metaphorical bolt of electricity to the city and attracting new customers from around the world.

There’s a precedent to give Jarvis confidence this will be a good business move. Just over the road at Mountain Culture Brewing, DJ and Harriet McCready also embarked in 2017 on transforming what was a dilapidated, historic building (formally a Civic Video) into the first brewpub in the Blue Mountains. They’ve since been recognised as the best brew pub in all of Australia.

Travel a short distance into the Megalong Valley and Sydneysiders Emma and Simon MacMahon also bought Dryridge Estate seven years ago on a whim. They’ve since transformed it into a premiere events space, accommodation and a tasting room with a to-die-for shiraz, plus a view of a sandstone escarpment so magnificent it could be a watercolour painting.

This sort of investment in tourism infrastructure in the region is evident just about everywhere I go. It also permeates every conversation with locals eager to show off their home.

“Have you tried the new …” they say to me. “You’ve got to taste the …” another person brags.

Beneath the flickering Edison globes and Bric A Brac of Bootlegger Bar in Katoomba, the timber panelled ceiling here hangs in a low arch and feels like a warm hug on this cold, wet night. I’m snug and content after several cocktails but also struggling to breathe after eating my body weight in brisket.

Thankfully, after a full day of gorging myself it’s time to retire to the new Kyah Hotel in Blackheath. This boutique and recently renovated 1970s motel would not look out of place in Palm Springs. The delicately arranged cacti and gold plated signage at the front door shouldn’t work at this altitude, but they do.

And as I ascend the staircase to my room, out of the corner of my eye I catch a young, smartly attired bartender muddling a pink cocktail beneath two pastel painted arches in the hotel’s restaurant bar and restaurant, BLAQ. If you put a frame around what I see, you could probably sell it as a Slim Aarons photograph. Ok, just one more drink.

Morning arrives and Paul Davies from Beyond The Blacktop 4WD tours pick me up for a morning of exploring in ‘Wombat’ which is their converted Australian Army passenger Landcruiser. If ever there was a car built for this terrain, this is it. Davis’ cuts through the morning fog that’s rolling off the Grose Valley like a hot knife through butter. Making a beeline for Anvil Rock, we leave his truck and scurry up hidden bush trails, past wind eroded rock formations and watch kangaroos fetch their breakfast in the dawn light. Once at Anvil Rock Lookout, this side of the mountains reveals itself as a place without tourists or handrails.

Click play to watch

While it might now taste a bit different up here with the slew of new restaurants and bars, there’s a lot of things that have also stayed much the same for millenia. Despite the wet weather scuttling later plans for astrophotography, I still manage to squeeze in a private stargazing session with Cultural Astronomer Dimitri Douchin but this time we’re inside an inflatable ‘planetarium’ which is basically like an upside down jumping castle for adults, with a projector. It’s super nerdy, but I’m into it.

Up in the mountains, where the light pollution is low and the air is clear, Dimitti says the stars reveal themselves in a way that just isn’t possible when you’re in the city. And when you see the stars more clearly, you start to understand why they’ve been revered by civilisations dating back to the byzantines.

If booze or stars are not your regular jam, there’s always nature. And there’s one such tree endemic to this region that predates even the byzantines. The Wollemi Pine has seen its fair share of shooting stars and celestial events, so much so that it lays claim to being the world’s oldest and rarest tree, dating back to prehistoric times.

Along my way home, still following the Bells Line of Road, I stop in at Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens in Mount Tomah to catch a glimpse of several of these pines in their Gondwana Garden and to meet Acting Curating Manager Ian Allen who takes me on a journey through one of the most ecologically diverse botanical gardens in the world.

“I want people to feel like when they’re walking through our [Gondwana] garden that at any point a dinosaur might jump out at them,” he says excitedly.