January 21, 2013

London Underground Steam Revival


David Ellis

ONE hundred and fifty years ago this month when a small steam engine hauled a handful of VIP-packed rail carriages 5.6km under the streets of London from Paddington to Kings Cross and Farrington Street, it made history as the world's first-ever underground railway.

And so fascinated were Londoners – and others who flocked from across the country to marvel at this wondrous innovation – that next day 40,000 formed queues kilometres long in streets surrounding the line's seven stations, to ride the train and go down in history as rail transport pioneers.

Because so many turned up, the London Metropolitan Railway had to bring in extra engines and carriages from other companies, and ran 120 subterranean trips at 2-pence, 3-pence and 6-pence per passenger in three classes in each direction… earning itself 850-pounds for the day.

Yet those first day passenger-numbers pale into insignificance when compared with patronage of today's London Underground: in 2012 the network carried almost four-million passengers daily, for around 1.17-billion passenger-journeys for the year.

And in 150 years its tracks have extended far beyond under Central London, to stretch out now like vast steel tentacles under much of Greater London, as well as under the River Thames, and into the suburbs and countryside of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey, Kent and Middlesex – some 402km of tracks in all.

And while it's all generally referred to as "the Tube" after the deeper tube-like tunnels and smaller, "snugger" carriages that came with electrification of the system in the late 1890s, only around 45% of its tracks are underground, and it's added 263 stations to those original seven of 1863.

Equally interesting is how the first "underground" tracks were created. Rather than tunnelling under London, more than 2000 workers demolished blocks of houses, slums and other buildings, and hand-dug shallow trenches where these buildings had previously stood.

Rail tracks were laid in these trenches, which were then roofed over and new streets, parks and modern buildings created above them, while stations were fashioned in larger domed areas that had shafts down which natural light could enter the stations – and up which smoke and steam could hopefully escape.

But when these shafts proved forlornly unsuccessful in easing the discomfort of so much smoke and steam for rail-users, some sections of the Underground were uncovered, allowing vaster amounts of polluted air to escape directly into the atmosphere.

As the underground network expanded, horrified Londoners complained of the unsightliness, noxious fumes, and noise of these caverns located amid rows of prestigious terrace apartments in some of the finer parts of the city. Authorities then dreamed-up the bizarre idea of hiding these exhaust-holes behind fake facades of elegant-looking buildings, several of which are still fully-maintained and can be seen today along such streets as Leinster Gardens in Bayswater, where fake windows are painted black and doors that lead to nowhere securely sealed, as well as on Queensway and in Craven Hill Gardens.

The advent of the first electric locomotive in 1890 brought with it a much-welcome smoke- and steam-free environment and quieter running on narrower-gauge lines in tunnels that could be built much deeper below London – as one newspaper columnist quipped at the time, "below grave level," and today as much as 58m below street level (at Hampstead.)

In celebration of the first trains that ran with dignitaries-only aboard on January 9 1863 – the line opened to the public next day – celebrations planned throughout 2013 include restored-train trips, special Commemoration Coins to be issued by the Royal Mint, stamps by Royal Mail, talks and historic-rail presentations, and theatrical performances.

Restored-train excursions have already included the original London Metropolitan Railway's No 1 locomotive that was rescued by enthusiasts after modern-day bureaucrats extraordinarily sold it for scrap in 1963, together with the oldest surviving carriage made of teak in 1892 and which was restored by craftsmen and apprentices at Wales' Festiniog Railway Workshops after spending 34 years as a work building on a dairy farm, complete with makeshift loo tacked on the end.

Four other historic carriages dating back to the 19th century and one of the world's oldest still-working electric locomotives from the earliest days of the Tube – named Sarah Siddons after the 18th century Shakespearean actress – completed the train.

Celebration details: London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/tube150



[] STEAMY times: restored Engine No 1 shows what Londoners had to put up with in days of yore.
[] ONE of the earliest Underground carriages found on a farm and restored.
[] TRIAL run in 1860 on London's Underground.
[] MODERN day Tube train's tight fit.
[] BIZARRE fake buildings facades: Note black door on right has no handle, no mailbox, and the ground floor "windows" are painted on.
[] WHAT the fake façade conceals.

(Photos in order: Transport for London; Festiniog Railway; National Portrait Gallery; Wikimedia; Jamie Barrass FlickR; Ian Mansfield/IanVisits)

January 14, 2013

Katoomba Scenic Railway: Taking the plunge keeps business on track

David Ellis


BY the time you read this, workmen will have begun ripping up the track and putting aside for the museum and as a plaything for the kids, carriages from one of Australia's great tourism icons – the near-70 year old Scenic Railway at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.


Not that it's the end of the line for this internationally-renowned attraction, which descends at a jaw-dropping 52 degrees for some 415 metres into the picturesque Jamison Valley, and is officially recognised as the world's steepest railway.


For come the end of March a new $30m Swiss-designed Scenic Railway will follow the same plunging route, complete with new stations at top and bottom of the line.


And it will continue a legacy that's seen the Railway since it opened in 1945 carry over 25 million passengers into the ancient rainforest of the once coal mining valleys below Katoomba.


Although tourists have, in fact, been carried down into the Jamison Valley and back up again from well before 1945 – as early as 1928 they kneeled on folded chaff bags in the open wagons of a narrow-gauge coal tramway that was the actual forerunner of the Scenic Railway.

It was in 1945 that Harry Hammond and his sister Isobel Fahey opened the Scenic Railway as we know it today, having bought the lease of one of a cobweb of "tram lines" built in the late 1800s to haul coal and kerosene shale out from the Jamison and Megalong Valleys.


Harry and Isobel's line was the steep 52-degree track from the valley floor to a junction of the Western Railway at Katoomba, and which had gone into liquidation during World War II. But knowing its history for carrying adventurous tourists in a purpose-built carriage named The Mountain Devil during the 1930s after the demise of the coal mines, the siblings bought the 52-degree line's lease to reinvigorate the tourism boom the Mountains had enjoyed before the interruption of World War II.


They registered their venture Scenic World, and as well as the Scenic Railway the company later opened Australia's first cable-car called the Scenic Skyway that traverses the Katoomba Falls gorge, and built our first revolving restaurant (at Katoomba,) a 2.4km Scenic Walkway through the canopy of the Jamison Valley's rainforest, and the Scenic Cableway into the Jamison.


But it's the Scenic Railway that's the gem as both an historic and ageless attraction… and rather than just finding themselves on the Jamison Valley floor, tourists have a choice of varying length bush tracks and boardwalks to discover the captivating world of the Valley before ascending back up to Katoomba. 


Explorers as early as 1824 had noticed coal seams in fractured cliff walls in the valleys below Katoomba, but it was not until the 1860s that the first coal and kerosene shale mines opened.


Early pioneers gave landmarks and tracks interesting descriptors: Ruined Castle, the Golden Stairs, Dixon's Ladder, Narrow Neck, solitary Orphan Rock, and of course Echo Point and The Three Sisters. And when a little community sprang up in the Valley it was named Nellie's Glen after the daughter of pioneer miner, John Britty North.


Nellie's Glen soon boasted a sizeable hotel, general store, bakery, butchery, post office, public hall and a school, but when mines began to fizzle out in the late 1890s, most of the settlement was pulled down and rebuilt in Katoomba, including the hotel that was re-born as the Maldwin Guest House. The remainder was engulfed by the rainforest.


And in 1928 when the supervisor of one of the few remaining mines was asked by a group of aching bushwalkers if they could get a lift from the Jamison Valley back up to cliff- top in an empty tramway coal wagon, he readily agreed – not realising what he had started.


For soon more and more bushwalkers were making similar requests, and with declining demand for coal coupled with the recession, the coal company realised the tourism potential and built The Mountain Devil carriage with seats rather than chaff bags to kneel on, charging sixpence (5 cents) a ride until going belly-up as a result of the Second War.


In 1945 its track lease was taken-over by Harry Hammond and Isobel Fahey and, well, you know the rest…






[] GOING DOWN – these Scenic Railway carriages will soon be replaced with a new $30m Swiss-designed set.

[] PLUNGING: an idea of just how steep is this "world's steepest railway."

[] PIONEER Mountain Devil was innovative 1930s forerunner of today's Scenic Railway.

[] ONE of the first rides in the 1940s.

[] ORIGINAL 1878 Katoomba mine whose "trams" carried coal from the Jamison Valley up the 52 degree incline, and later passengers as well.

[] HISTORIC photo of Nellie's Glen that became Katoomba's short-lived first mining settlement.


(Photos courtesy Scenic Railway, Information Blue Mountains, Powerhouse Museum, Sebastian Bergmann on FlickR.)






Struth! Pooch in Boots

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that while we've been stripping down for summer heatwaves, this pooch he came across in the little Italian village of Porto Venere late last year was happily ready for his country's more wintry months.

Visiting aboard the boutique SeaDream II, David had gone in search of the bay in which English poet Lord Byron holidayed and swam outside Porto Venere in the early 1800s (the bay is now officially called Byron's Cove,) when he found this cute pup and owner stretching their legs just inside the picturesque town gates.

Pooch and owner were both happy to show-off this latest in Italian canine winter footwear for our readers. And with sports-shoe style soles and fur-lined uppers for the ankles, the tiny boots were obviously perfect in this Italian Riviera holiday mecca that's a gateway to the Cinque Terre ("Five Lands,") and was also once popular with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and novelist, playwright, poet and painter D H Lawrence during their heydays.

January 06, 2013

Cape York Peninsula: Stopover on an Ancient Journey

The rock walls on islands along the east coast of Cape York Peninsula tell many tales. Most we’ll never know.

Words and pics by Roderick Eime

No one knows what happened that night. The longboat with twenty crew just disappeared after the Frederick broke up on the jagged rocks of Cape Flinders on the northern tip of Stanley Island.

In 1818, the last nooks and crannies of the Australian coast were still being charted and it wasn’t until twelve months later that Captain Phillip Parker King found the wreck and presumed the men and one 16-year-old girl were lost or killed by the Aborigines. Such were the fears of the time, yet in truth the Aba Yalgayi, the local clan group of the Yiithuwarra, would most likely have helped rescue the stricken sailors, probably the first Europeans they’d ever seen. And perhaps they did, because for many years after, rumours of a white woman among the natives persisted.

Today, hidden away in the rocky alcoves beneath craggy overhangs and weathered sandstone monoliths are a series of sacred paintings depicting the life of the Yiithuwarra people who lived on the islands of the Flinders Group near Cape Melville, north of Cooktown.

The Yiithuwarra are now vanished from their ancestral home, removed during WWII along with dozens of other neighbouring tribes and clans to the 'safety' of Christian missions like Lockhart River, Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal. The authorities feared the welcoming Aborigines, by now accustomed to visiting seafarers, might lead an invading Japanese force to water and food sources. Societal structures and families were further disintegrated as men went off to work on stations and ships and the women into domestic service.

Danny Gordon
Our group is visiting one of these sacred sites on Stanley Island (Yindayin) in the Flinders Group National Park with Danny Gordon, a guide and interpreter for the Yiithuwarra people. We’re travelling with the Cairns-based Oceanic Discoverer as she makes her journey to Thursday Island en route to Darwin via Arnhem Land.

"When you look at the paintings," says Danny, his bright eyes wide, "you only see a tiny part of a very big picture. We don't have books and movies to show our history, this is our history, our story, ‘ere on these walls." And the walls are covered in paintings of ships and sailing boats of all sizes, their origins a mystery.

I find myself imagining the scenes that would have inspired these paintings and I realise this is one of the very few times I have ever had a traditional owner show me their land and its significance. Sadly, expert and sensitive guides like Danny are rare. Anglo-Australian guides, although expert and learned, cannot impart the deep the cultural importance that only comes with thousands of years of connection with a place.

Danny has been a guide for over twenty years, working with Captain Cook Cruises and Clipper Odyssey in the past and just Coral Princess Cruises and Orion Expeditions currently. His brother, Willie from Cooktown, is one of the best known Aboriginal tour operators in the country and both Danny and Willie are currently training younger family members to eventually take their place.

Australians travel around the world to experience exotic cultures and civilisations yet one of the planet's oldest and most mysterious is right here on our doorstep. Sadly, generations of marginalisation by the now dominant European culture has muted our appreciation for these hardy and ancient people.

Ian Morris OAM, a guest lecturer aboard Oceanic Discoverer, has lived most of his life with the indigenous people of northern Australia, speaks several of the languages and is an environmental consultant to academia and government.

"There's a growing demand for indigenous guides," says Ian, "but the support mechanisms are missing. We eagerly use their skills when and where available, but do very little to create more guides with training. Fortunately companies like Coral Princess Cruises are providing a means to do this."

Ian believes that Australians, especially the younger generations, are travelling more to seek a connection with the indigenous Australian culture and fill gaps in their knowledge and correct much of the accumulated misunderstanding.

To meet and spend time with guides like Danny, especially in their ancestral homeland is to gain an insight that makes a mockery of my early schoolbook teachings. There’s no undoing the past, Danny knows that, the journey from here is only forward, a path none of us can resist.

Fact File:

Coral Princess Cruises 'Across the Top' itinerary is rich in indigenous culture and spends eleven nights visiting islands, reefs and cultural sites between Cairns and Darwin.

Contact Coral Princess Cruises on 1800 079 545 or visit the website at www.coralprincess.com.au

Monkey Business in Borneo


Who are you calling ‘Big Nose’?

Keeping a harem of eager females pleased is a tough job for the top monkey. Roderick Eime takes notes.

“Oh, Janet, don’t look!” comes the cry from within our pack of transfixed voyeurs. Alas, some warnings just seem to have the opposite effect and instead of averting our gaze our eyes fall immediately upon this visual offence.

Sabah_0871The big male we called Alistair, in an obvious state of preparedness, quickly responds to the lascivious signals from the female and the rest requires no further description. We titter and feign prudery as the act continues while the rest of the troupe, including the jealous and similarly eager bachelors, looks on. That famous cult rock hit from ‘Nine Inch Nails’ somehow comes to mind.

Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) are a highly social, intelligent, arboreal (tree-dwelling) mammal endemic to Borneo. The name comes about, not from their ‘ever ready’ alertness, but from the distinctive nasal appendage. Locals once called them the Dutchman Monkey for their similarity to the bulbous red European nose.

The troupe, as we are quickly learning, is governed by a single dominant male whose job description is pretty straightforward – and the girls keep him up to the task as there is always another vigilant bloke ready to cut his grass.

Here at the Labuk Bay Sanctuary, it is hard to imagine a better place to observe these otherwise secretive and reclusive primates. The sanctuary came about almost by accident when local palm oil baron, Michael Lee, was engaged in the clear-felling of mangroves along the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah in 1994. Short of food from their quickly vanishing forest, the naughty proboscises started raiding workers’ huts with the predictable result. Hearing of this disruption on his plantation, Lee came over to see for himself. Instead of calling for the animals’ eradication, he set aside about 160 hectares of riparian (riverside) forest for the protection of this endangered species.

Such has been the success of the Labuk Bay Sanctuary that it is now a fixture on any serious nature lover’s itinerary and provides a much more dynamic spectacle (if you’ll excuse the understatement) than the nearby Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre where you watch a couple of dozy apes gorge themselves on bananas. Don’t get me wrong, Orang Utans are drop-dead gorgeous and the little ones impossibly cute, but the interaction is strictly managed and the international volunteer park wardens eagerly enforce the separation. Labuk Bay, by contrast, is a riotous frenzy as Alistair and his excited entourage swarm noisily across the viewing platform oblivious to the human obstruction.

Sabah_0899But before you think there is lots of tummy tickles and back-scratching, human contact with any primate, especially wild ones, is not a good idea.

“Orang Utans share 97 per cent of human DNA and while proboscis monkeys share somewhat less, the transmission of mutually infectious disease is a distinct possibility,” says Orion expedition leader Mick Fogg putting on his stern face, “so as much as you are tempted, PLEASE don’t touch the monkeys.”

Mick has spent most of the last year of his life putting together Orion Expedition Cruises’ (OEC) inaugural Borneo itineraries and by the look of things, he’s done a pretty fair job for the many repeat passengers and his demanding governors. While there’s a heavy bias to natural attractions, there’s plenty of culture and history too.

Sarina Bratton, Australia’s doyenne of adventure cruising, added Orion II to the company’s portfolio in June of this year and after a technical refit and upgrading of cabins and public spaces, the 20-year-old vessel set off on an ambitious journey around the Pacific Rim, encountering earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons en route.

“Orion II allows us to expand our adventures with a range of exciting luxury expeditions stretching from the Russian Far East to Antarctica,” said Ms Bratton at the launch event. Meanwhile the search for a future Orion III continues.

In her past lives, the 88m, 4000 ton Orion II was most recently known as Clelia II and was built as one of a fleet of eight small luxury ships for the now defunct Renaissance Cruises in 1991. With generously sized cabins and spacious public areas, her 100 guests enjoy a high crew-to-guest ratio and attentive service from the predominantly Filipino staff. While the finicky might find dated remnants of her previous incarnations, she doesn’t feel like an old ship.

Captain Frank Allica, an ex-RAN skipper and life long sailor, is pleased with his new command.

“I’m enjoying the maneuverability of a twin screw vessel again,” he tells me, “and I’m delighted with the way she handles at sea.”

On the itinerary immediately prior, Allica spent some sleepless nights plotting an alternative course to avoid the angry Typoon Muifa that threatened to disrupt the voyage north of the Philippines. But under his guidance and with quick rejigging of itineraries, the journey continued with a bonus port visit in Taiwan.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for poor Alistair. As we turn to say our farewells to the boisterous gathering, he’s engaged in a standoff with another would-be suitor keen to enjoy some of his lifestyle. Maybe we’re not that far removed from our simian cousins after all?

Fact File:

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is 38km from Sandakan airport and available through local tour operator SI Tours www.sitoursborneo.com. More: www.proboscis.cc

Orion Expedition Cruises operates 10-night adventure cruises to Borneo with four distinct itineraries in January, February, August September, October and December. ‘Secrets of Sabah’ visits Labuk Bay. Fares begin at A$8150 per person/twin share. For bookings and further details call 1300 361 012 or visit www.orionexpeditions.com

To book a holiday to Malaysia, call Flight Centre on 1300 939 414 to book or see

Malaysia airlines flies 47 times a week from Australia to Kuala Lumpur and has regular connections to Kota Kinabalu www.malaysiaairlines.com

For more information on the attractions of Sabah: www.sabahtourism.com

* Malaysia Dept of Statistics

January 02, 2013

New Year Resolutions for Travel in 2013

TURN over a new leaf and expand your horizons in 2013 by combining travel into your New Year's resolutions.

Escape Travel has jotted down a list of top ideas to help travellers reflect on the past and get their bags packed for the year ahead.

Spend more time with my kids

TREAT the little ones to a cruise holiday where they can meet their favourite DreamWorks characters, from movies like Shrek or Madagascar, and zoom down some of the world’s fastest waterslides at sea. Family-friendly cruise ships include Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas or Oasis of the Seas and Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic.

Step outside of my comfort zone

TAKE the plunge on a bungee jump in Queenstown or climb Mount Everest in Nepal for the ultimate challenge.

Those looking to do something unique can travel to Santa’s workshop in Finland next year to ride a dog-sled through the snowy mountains or swap a hotel stay to sleep in a capsule in Tokyo.

Be more active

SIGN up for a marathon in another country and get your legs sprinting across the finish line. Some popular options include the New York, Paris marathon, and.

Or, suit up in safari gear and jump in a jeep to explore the African plains. There are guided sightseeing trips that take you into the heart of Kenya, Botswana and Namibia to spot lions, giraffes, tigers and more.

Reconnect my mind, body and spirit

YOGIS around the world have hailed yoga as one of the most beneficial ways to find inner peace and build core strength, so why not enrol in a yoga and meditation retreat in Bali, Thailand or India.

Some luxury resorts in South East Asia offer complimentary daily yoga classes as part of the activities program, so it is worth asking when you book.

Closer to home, Byron Bay and the Gold Coast hinterland offers plenty of holistic escapes, from The Byron at Bryon and Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat to the famous Golden Door Health Retreat.


FEED giant pandas in China, teach English at a children’s orphanage in Kenya or work with the turtles on Costa Rica.

Giving back to a local community when you travel is rewarding, so a lot of travellers are combining holidays where they can volunteer and explore – this idea is known as Voluntourism.

Some of the best volunteer projects are led by experts on one-week, two-week, three-week or four-week placements, so you really can make a difference.

Learn something new

COOKING classes are available in most parts of Europe, whether you are travelling through Italy, island hopping along the coast of San Sebastian in Spain.

See how Limoncello is made from real lemons on the Amalfi Coast or learn to make pasta in Tuscany.

History buffs can discover the stories of Australia’s war heroes on ANZAC Day on a guided tour that maps out the Battlefields in France and Turkey.

Stress less

BOOK your holiday in advance and be prepared for your trip early by doing your research. Enjoy the experience of planning a holiday, without the last-minute rush. When you are decided on where to go, speak to travel experts about different flights and get advice from your friends and family. It’s also helpful to attend travel expos, sign up to deals newsletters, and look at booking an all-inclusive resort with extra bonuses, such as the myTime group of properties through Escape Travel.

Celebrate another culture

KICK off the year with the Chinese New Year celebrations in February, then have fun on St Patrick’s Day in Dublin and guzzle beers with pretzels at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich. Other great options include the Running of the Bulls in Spain, Queens Day in Amsterdam and Hogmanay for New Years Eve in Edinburgh.

For more ideas, check out the latest New Year’s Resolution deals at any Escape Travel store.


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