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Five unforgettable rail journeys

Mountain sunsets (Credit: AFP/Getty)

From a luxury odyssey through the Australian outback to traversing the peaks of the Ecuadorian Andes, here are some of the best ways to get on board.

There are few more memorable ways to travel than by train. From rail odysseys through the outback to day trips in Britain, here are five ways to get on board.

The luxury one: The Ghan, Australia
The Australian outback is a place that’s hard to grasp: a vast, ill-defined area mapped by Aboriginal people not on paper but in song. It was a mystery to European settlers until they started crossing it on camel, and its loose demarcations – the Red Centre, the Never Never, the Top End – still sound mysterious and remote. That it’s now crossable by train is something of a marvel; that the train navigates this extreme, other-worldly land in a degree of luxury is the icing on the cake.

The train is the Ghan, a long-established service that runs up (and down) the centre of Australia from one coast to another on a three-day trip of almost 2,000 miles. Though named after 19th-century outback camel drivers who hailed from Afghanistan, it’s a far cry from their tough desert treks. Dinners in the smart onboard restaurant have an unmistakably outback flavour, with kangaroo fillet on the menu, while Platinum Service passengers can order 24-hour room service and breakfast in bed. They could, in theory, never leave their cabins, which are decked out with en suites and oversized windows framing the passing landscapes.

The scenery is worthy of large windows indeed. On the northbound route from Adelaide, plains and russet mountains cede to the arid Red Centre, the outback’s heartland of cobalt skies, rust-red earth and haphazard fistfuls of scrub. For its first 75 years, the Ghan ended in the desert city of Alice Springs. It now continues on to Darwin on the north coast. The journey’s periodic stops are a chance to get off the train and into these landscapes, from guided walks to helicopter rides. There’s even the chance to go right back to basics on the original Afghan Express (as the Ghan was once called) – a camel trek through the desert.

The traditional one: The Orient-Express, Europe
‘Railway termini… are our gates to the glorious and the unknown,’ wrote novelist E M Forster in 1910, capturing a sense of the romance of train travel that the average peak-time commuter may struggle to relate to. But once upon a time train travel was a luxurious prospect that came with a frisson of glamour and adventure, not to mention fine dining, grand surroundings and impeccable service.

It’s this Golden Age of rail travel that the Orient-Expresscompany seeks to evoke on its train services, most famously in its namesake Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) service that runs from Paris to Venice, and once a year as far as the traditional terminus of Istanbul. The same group also runs day trips in the UK on the sister trains of the VSOE – the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, which recreate the same Agatha Christie-era atmosphere without the need for a pair of £2,000 tickets.

Some of the Pullman’s ’20s carriages were used by the royal family, including the present Queen in the 1950s, and its steam-hauled signature journey is suitably stately. Within Art Deco interiors kitted out in wood panelling, mirrors and mosaics, guests are served a five-course dinner with wine and champagne; beyond the window, the rolling downs of the Surrey countryside speed past. On the steamless alternative, the train winds instead through the countryside of Kent to Whitstable and the sea before returning home.

The 1930s-style Northern Belle, which tours the north on a varying schedule of routes, offers a similar experience, with the addition of strolling musicians who serenade passengers as they dine. As well as food-based signature journeys, both trains run day trips to specific destinations, from a visit to Loch Lomond to a day exploring Bath. And there’s one trip that goes even further in conjuring the spirit of the Orient-Express – a murder mystery lunch on the British Pullman.

The pioneering one: California Zephyr, USA
There was a time, less than two centuries ago, when the only trains heading west from Chicago were composed of wagons carrying groups of traders, prospectors and missionaries seeking their fortunes or their freedom in frontier outposts. The terrain they faced was formidable: canyons frothing with white water, vast, scrub-dotted deserts and the steep, snow-streaked ranges of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada.

Then, on 10 May 1869, came the opening of the first transcontinental railroad across the US, which finally helped to forge fast routes through to the west, drawing settlers and, later on, sightseers. The California Zephyr was launched in 1949 to lure the latter, taking them on a 2,500-mile journey between the Windy City and the Californian coast in three days. The landscapes that the train crosses along the way remain as dramatic as they always were, ensuring that the longest rail journey in the US is perhaps also its most beautiful.

The Zephyr passes through seven states and some of America’s most famous scenery on its historic route, departing daily in both directions. Travelling westbound, the first eye-widening moments come over what must be one of the most scenic breakfasts in existence, as the train moves from wide-open plains and into the Rockies. The train’s Sightseer Lounge has near-panoramic windows and revolving seats from which to watch as the train ascends, rising over Denver past mountain lakes, pine forest and slopes mottled with snow. The impressive views continue as it speeds alongside the cliffs and canyons of the upper Colorado River, before descending into the deserts of Utah and Nevada. The mountain passes of the vertiginous Sierra Nevada are one final highlight before San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean – a worthy end for cross-country adventurers.

The new one: Tren Crucero, Ecuador
The Ecuadorian Andes are a fiendish proposition for any transport planner: a three-mile high spine of mountains that runs down the centre of the country, unfolding into high plateaus, fissuring into canyons and sheltering mist-shrouded old towns. When a railway was built here a century ago, it was hailed as a technological wonder. One of the world’s steepest, it snaked past snow-capped peaks and inched down precipitous slopes on its way to the Pacific coast – until it fell out of use in the late 20th century. Following a massive restoration project, as of this summer the Tren Crucero(Cruise Train) will ply the route.

It’s a fitting name – pulled for much of the journey by the original steam engines, the train proceeds at a leisurely pace on its four-day, 280-mile journey from the mountain capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil. Elegantly decorated carriages are lined with armchairs, and the last has panoramic windows and an open-air terrace for unmediated views. From the gold and green grasslands of Cotopaxi National Park to the desolate, glacier-capped Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest peak, there are plenty of dramatic moments. But the undoubted highlight, vertigo notwithstanding, is the Devil’s Nose, a half-mile descent of zigzags down a rocky slope, bridging the uplands and the coast.

The journey also incorporates time off the train to encounter the cultures, food and people of Ecuador a little closer at hand. In the uplands, there’s a trip to the colourful Thursday market at Guamote, a maze of brightly painted adobe houses, while the cloud forest near Guayaquil hosts a meeting with a community of Amazonian Shuar people. As evening descends, passengers disembark the train for traditional haciendas and a local dinner before heading to bed.

The trans-continental one: Trans-Siberian Railway, Siberia
Some railways win fame puttering their way through cutesy landscapes. Others earn affection merrily chuffing up and down snowy peaks. But few would dispute that the Trans-Siberian is the supreme king of all things straddling two rails – a leviathan of a railway journey, traversing distances big enough to bring on a headache just thinking about them. By the time passengers step off at the last stop, chances are that their train will have clanked and jolted its way round a fifth of the circumference of planet Earth.

It’s less well known that there’s not just one Trans-Siberian route, but rather a number of sub-species. The original Trans-Siberian route takes passengers from Moscow to the seaport of Vladivostok, but one of the most colourful alternatives is the Trans-Mongolian route – a trip connecting three capital cities and a world of changing landscapes. Beginning in the Russian capital, trains trundle their way through birch forests across the Ural Mountains to the town of Yekaterinburg. Within a few days, services swing round the brilliant blue waters of Lake Baikal, before plunging southward into the gently sloping grasslands of the Mongolian steppe, dotted with yurts and grazing horses. The last leg from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar to Beijing is a fitting finale, quickly skipping between the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert, industrial sprawl and green mountains – squint and you may even glimpse the Great Wall itself.

For much of the journey however, the appeal lies inside the carriage rather than outside the window. Expect to idle away days making new friends in the dining car and staging bitterly fought card games in your cabin – experiences all swept along on a tide of freely flowing vodka.

The church of 40,000 corpses

Travellers with a taste for the macabre will have a field day at this gruesome chapel, which is ornately decorated with skeleton chandeliers, hipbone chalices and skull bunting.

‘The ice had a heartbeat’

A British cyclist, who has been biking the length of six continents for the past five years, tackles a daring – and freezing – route in northern Mongolia.

The most disturbing part of walking over Lake Khövsgöl in northern Mongolia wasn’t the sound of cracking ice. It was the thuds.

The thuds meant that water was on the move, bubbling up through fresh rifts in the metre-thick ice that lay under my boots, three pairs of socks and numb feet.

My hope was to cross the frozen lake by bicycle and camp out on its surface – although the soundtrack was highlighting some icy holes in my plan. This was the latest in a series of two-wheeled adventures, having spent the last five years cycling across six of the Earth’s continents.

Walking on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Walking on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

At first glance, Lake Khövsgöl – the sprawling home to 70% of Mongolia’s freshwater (and a full 1% of the planet’s stash) – was mesmorising. Measuring 136km long and up to 35km wide, the blue-green lake lies at the base of the permanently snow-capped Sayan mountains, an extension of the bolder Altai range that trails into Central Asia.

Mountains in northern Mongolia (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Mountains in northern Mongolia (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

What drew my eyes most was the intricacy of the ice itself. I lay down on my belly to get a better look, peering into a web of silvered fissures, like reams of tinfoil suspended in glass. Inside the ice were solar systems of snow and vertical trails of one-time escaping air bubbles impounded by the winter chill. It was impossible not to wonder what might twitch and jink beneath the ice, but the water was eerily still.

I strolled a couple of kilometres back to the small town of Khatgal where I was staying in one of the tourist gers on the lake’s southern shore. A local guide, Ganbat, and I sat hunched over a rumpled map from Mongolia’s Soviet years, when Russian oil would be taken across the lake by ship in the summer and by truck when the ice was thick enough. Siberia lies just 20km from the lake’s northern shore.

Summer is the time most travellers come to Khövsgöl, to ramble, splash, paddle or gallop about. But I was here in March, meaning it was dry, sunny and cold enough to marvel at the ice that seals the lake from December to June. During this time of year, the nightly temperature dips to the un-Spring-like depths of -20C (still toasty compared to the -40C bite of mid-winter), and the ice can bear the weight of cars and trucks – as well as bikes. If you smashed a hole in it – like the ice fisherman do every day on the fringes, or like Russian tourists do before launching their vodka-fuelled bodies into the water – the ice would begin to re-accumulate at 5cm a day.

Ice cracking beneath the surface (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Ice cracking beneath the surface (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

An estimated 40 trucks have fallen through the ice over the years, and in the early 1990s – at around the same time that Khövsgöl was incorporated into a national park – authorities banned heavy vehicles and the transportation of oil over the lake to prevent further pollution. Some sunken trucks were extricated by the military; divers have since found others, their gallons of oil resting on the lakebed. Ganbat pointed absently to the spot where, two years ago, he’d lifted a bunch of Russians from the roof of their car as it slipped underwater on sinking fragments of ice. “City types”, he said with a wry smile, “they don’t know the weak points.”

Forewarned about weak points (they form around spits of land and river mouths), and with studded tyres in situ, I returned to the lake with my bike, passing the harbour containing two aging ice-packed ships. Since various local industries were shut down, the area has become a celebrated wilderness, with tourism growing appropriately year on year. As if in declaration of this shift, a Jeep carrying a few Mongolian tourists careened over the ice in front of the derelict ships, and I pedalled off from the southern shore.

Parked on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Parked on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

My plan was to ride north over the ice, staying close to the eastern shoreline until the lake became wider, and then to cross from the east to the west, where I would camp out on the ice.  There were some bumps in the ice, but my tyres held firm and soon I was skittering along, tailwind assisted, grinning madly and indulging in the matchless joy of riding without a road to follow. In the distance, the remaining ice sculptures – eagles and mermaids from the annual March Ice Festival – glittered under Mongolia’s stubbornly blue sky.

Remaining sculptures from the annual Ice Festival (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Remaining sculptures from the annual Ice Festival (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

The bite of my studded tyres kept me vertical early in the day when the temperature remained below zero, but in hindsight, only a Fat Bike (the monster-truck of the bike world) with much chunkier tyres would have coped in the warmer afternoon, as a film of invisible water layered the ice and I was soon sent sliding about, tumbling twice.

Luckily, beyond the western shore of the lake, a good trail runs through larch forest. So I changed my plan, retreated from the ice and pedalled over a bed of fallen needles, hoping to catch a glimpse of wolves, moose or wild sheep. Khövsgöl is within the realm of the taiga – the vast boreal forest that encircles the Earth in these northern latitudes.

A view frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

A view frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

By the evening, I’d covered 60km of ice, trail and more ice, cycling a quarter of Lake Khövsgöl’s length, as well as crossing from the eastern side to the west. The ice had warmed now, grown cantankerous. The most soul-chilling snaps came from towards the lake’s centre, and were chased by thuds as though the ice had a heartbeat to rival my own.

Setting up camp (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Setting up camp (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Dusk upset the colour scheme: the ice soured to almost black, the snow turned a glacial blue. I set up my tent on the most fetching, limpid ice, shuffled over its quivering reflection, and climbed inside.

A Mongolian boy, festooned in a fox fur hat and woolly wine-toned deel (traditional robe), had spotted my tent from his nearby ger and abandoned his horses and yaks to investigate. My less-than-pidgin Mongolian quickly turned to mime: “riding bicycle”, “sleeping here”, “beautiful”.

A curious local (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

A curious local (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

“It is,” he nodded. Lake Khövsgöl, with its ever-evolving cracks and freeze-thaw and shifting hues through day, month and season, could be a metaphor for the mutability of life in Mongolia, a country strewn with one of largest nomadic populations on Earth.

I slept well, ensconced in three sleeping bags, lulled by the thuds, gurgles and cracks. I woke to a gold band seaming the taiga to a royal blue sky and thought about those oil trucks languishing in the deep, about the all too common marriage of fragility and beauty in the wild.

Before I packed up camp and cycled back to Khatgal, I snapped a few photos of the sunrise, pitching some creative curses to the wind. To use my camera I had to remove my gloves; the temperature was still -20C and my hands were approaching the colour of Mongolian ice.

A Maldives you can actually afford

Thanks to recent changes in the local tourism laws, travellers can now experience the legendary beauty and gracious culture of the Indian Ocean islands for less.

I was on the beach, wiggling my toes in fluffy white sand, when a smiling woman brought me a kurrun’baa to drink. I hadn’t requested the coconut, but much like the spinner dolphins that were swimming through the shimmering aqua water just past the reef, the sweet refreshment was perfectly timed.

A pod of dolphins swims by (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

A pod of dolphins swims by (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Every month, some 100,000 luxury-seeking visitors head to the Maldives’ 26 atolls, where thousands of islands promise secluded romance along with adrenalin-filled dives. Once they arrive, almost all of them hop on a plane or boat and speed off to one of the 112 private-island resorts that are scattered like pearls down the country’s 960km length.

But we weren’t at a resort. My family and I were visiting a village, something that less than 2% of the small Indian Ocean republic’s visitors ever do.

Walking along a village beach (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Walking along a village beach (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Thanks to recent changes in local tourism laws, we were on the remote, reef-wrapped island-village of Kanditheemu in Haa Dhaalu atoll, about 260km north of the capital, Malé. We were discussing the ongoing political upheavals of the nascent democracy with a friendly group of villagers, while also learning about tuna-smoking techniques from Ali, the village’s council president. The smiling lady from the beach, dressed in a long black dress and hijab, was sharing the kind of gracious Maldivian hospitality that would be legendary – if only more people knew about it.

Tourism in the Maldives began when a few Robinson Crusoe-type resorts opened in the 1970s, complete with thatched walls and cold running water. Adventurous divers and surfers soon followed, flocking to the country’s adjacent reefs and surf breaks. As tourism grew – and decadent overwater bungalows gleamed on the horizon – the government began to worry about protecting the integrity of the country’s ancient Islamic culture. After all, the country was fast getting a reputation for being the exclusive playground of royalty and celebrities.

The Maldives attracts sailors from all over the world (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

The Maldives attracts sailors from all over the world (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

In 1984, it became illegal to stay anywhere other than a resort. “Local” or inhabited islands were strictly off limits.

The laws changed in late 2009, when the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, moved to bring some of the profits from tourism to the local communities. His new regulations allowed outsiders to stay on inhabited islands, paving the way for guesthouses, restaurants and Maldivian-owned diving and excursion companies.

One thing that didn’t change was basic Islamic law: on inhabited islands, women are asked to remain covered from shoulder to knee (except for in guesthouses and on council-approved beaches); no alcohol is available outside of the resorts; and you won’t find any pork on your plate – or dogs in the street, for that matter. These things are haraan (forbidden).

Women bathing at a local beach (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Women bathing at a local beach (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Enterprising Maldivians who’d spent much of their working lives as anonymous cleaners at luxury resorts suddenly had a chance to bring all they’d learned – beautiful rooms and sandbar barbeques, whale-watching excursions and mocktail mixology – to the conservative communities they’d grown up in. Between 2010 and 2015, more than 260 guesthouses opened in the Maldives, ranging from basic rooms to elegant boutique inns.

Many are near Malé, on well-known islands such as Hulhumale and Maafushi. But new guesthouses have opened up in the archipelago’s remotest atolls, offering intrepid visitors access to everything from deep-sea fishing with expert local guides to private sunset swims with huge manta rays to empty world-class surf breaks.

A spotted eagle ray glides through the sea (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

A spotted eagle ray glides through the sea (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

As my family and I made our way from the north to the south of the country, I was surprised by how few guests there were at the guesthouses we visited. Manager Jamsheed Hassan said it had taken years after the 2009 law change to save enough money to build the Koimala Inn, the first guesthouse on the South Ari island of Maamigili. He was thrilled when three guests arrived in December 2014, the first month he was open, despite the fact the private-island resorts around him were operating at 90% capacity. Guesthouse locations are gorgeous and many can be sophisticated, but the Maldives lacks a central marketing association for these local accommodations. Getting the word out is up to each owner, with varying degrees of expertise and success.

A room at the Koimala Inn (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

A room at the Koimala Inn (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Koimala Inn is located equidistant from the beach, where foreigners are allowed to swim in bikinis, and from the local mosque, where the call to prayer rings out six times a day. But it was the resident whale shark population that made Hassan decide to open a guesthouse on Maamigili. “People shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars at a resort to see the sharks,” he said.

Like most visitors to Maamigili, we had come to see whale sharks and to explore South Ari atoll’s marine protected areas. With extensive reefs – home to some of the country’s 21 species of whales and dolphins – as well as a vast array of colourful tropical fish, we’d been spending most of our visit on, in or under the water.

Fish swim around an anemone (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Fish swim around an anemone (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

On one dive, we reached a thila (seamount) at the same time that a resort boat was picking up their guests. In a show of solidarity that’s uncommon among divers, the crew showed us where to start for the best chance of seeing groupers and graceful eagle rays. Dropping into the clear 30C water, we were immediately rewarded when a curious reef shark came over for a closer look. Further into the dive, I peeked into a cave and found myself eye-to-startled-eye with a man-sized grouper and his equally hefty buddy.

Powder blue surgeonfish can be found throughout the Maldives (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Powder blue surgeonfish can be found throughout the Maldives (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

When it comes to marine life and beaches, guesthouse visitors and resort guests have the same access. But that’s largely where the similarities end. A week in Koimala, including meals and activities, for example, costs less than a single night in many resorts; and rather than hanging out in a Western-style resort with nightclubs and restaurants, village visitors can immerse themselves in a traditional Islamic community, where entertainment includes Quran reciting competitions and Friday after-prayer dinners.

Life in a Maldivian village (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Life in a Maldivian village (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

“I’m responsible for the happiness of my guests, but also for the comfort of the village,” said Hassan as he showed us around Maamigili. Passing shops shaded by breadfruit trees and brightly painted houses half-hidden behind high coral walls, we walked down the hot streets until we reached the rock and sand beach that was set aside for guests.

Boat building sheds along the beach (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Boat building sheds along the beach (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

We continued through a boatyard, where master boat builders construct dhonis (traditional wooden boats)without plans or nails, and past one of the small town’s many mosques. From there, Hassan took us to a colourful, unnamed harbourfront restaurant for a lunch of bajiya (tuna-filled samosas) and mas riha (tuna curry). To finish the meal, Hassan encouraged chewing a little post-meal adafi (a wad of betel leaf and areca nut with a little breath-freshening mint and clove).

With the adafi stuffed awkwardly in my cheek, our talk turned to how guesthouses are received in the villages. Hassan told us more conservative Muslims worry that the outside influence of foreigners will dilute community and religious values. But as a guesthouse proprietor, he’s discovered the opposite is true. While his guests come for the whale sharks and diving, he said, most want to learn about the local culture.

“It’s easy to meet people here and it’s common for villagers to invite you into their homes for snacks or meals,” Hassan said. “Most people who visit end up making friends.”

Strolling along the beach at sunset (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Strolling along the beach at sunset (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

It’s that opportunity – to meet the people who have long been sharing their home but not their culture – that makes the Maldives special. And that opportunity is reflected in hundreds of smaller moments, like when I was handed a kurrun’baato ward off the heat.

With smiles and giggles I was taught that coconuts actually have 12 different names in Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives, depending on their condition. Turns out, kurrun’baa is a young one, full of cool liquid and promise.

Footage of a death-defying ride

adventure, Danny Macaskill, Scotland, Cuillin Range, extreme sports, mountain biking

Danny Macaskill takes on Scotland’s Cuillin Range – with a twist. He tackles the 13km-long range on two wheels.

Don’t look down.

These were probably the words running through extreme cyclist Danny Macaskill’s head when he biked the Isle of Skye’s notorious Cuillin Range. The above video – streamed more than 12 million times since its debut on 2 October – showcases the professional athlete’s death-defying ride along the jagged mountain ridge.

It’s a feat that – for obvious reasons – not many people attempt. Scotland’s Cuillin Range is a dramatic and challenging ascent for most mountain climbers, let alone an adventurer navigating on two wheels. The 13km-long range is home to some 20 peaks, with the highest point reaching an intimidating 992m. The few winding trails that pepper the range are slippery and narrow. And as winter nears, some trails require the use of ice-axes and crampons – not to mention a hefty dose of courage.

But these challenging conditions did nothing to deter Macaskill, who hails from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most famous stunt rider on the internet, Macaskill is good at what he does. His 12 years of practise are evident at the two-minute mark as he navigates the Cuillin’s steep, rocky ridges in a deceptively casual fashion. Then at 4:51, he vaults off the edge of a cliff and nails the landing. Watching as Macaskill hurdles, jumps and finishes the film with a trick flip, you just might feel as though the rider and the bike are one.

We don’t recommend that you follow exactly in Macaskill’s bike tracks, but well-qualified mountaineers can hike the Cuillin Range. Because of the mental and physical exertion required, climbing the ridge alone is suggested as a two-day trip, with one day used as a training day.

The freest beach in the US

Over the years, Oregonians have fought hard to preserve the natural beauty and monuments of their coast. Today, the 363-mile shoreline remains as wild as ever.

Gabriel Cruz swept down the dune, hit the jump and somersaulted. The moment stretched – Matrix-style – as the two-time sandboarding world champion rotated, feet over samurai topknot. He then spanked his board on the slope and glided to a stop.

Shredding the dunes at the world's first sandboarding park (Credit: Credit: Amanda Castleman)

Shredding the dunes at the world’s first sandboarding park (Credit: Amanda Castleman)

Sand Master, the world’s first sandboarding park, is one of several places along Oregon’s shoreline that suits the free-wheeling, nature-loving vibe of what locals call the “People’s Coast”. Across 40 acres of privately owned, sculpted sand, riders can tackle dunes – some up to 500ft high – any way they want. It’s an adventurous way to play along the coast, just 30 miles north of the preserved Oregon Dunes Recreation Area– the country’s largest expanse of coastal sand hills. “With snow, you need an expensive lift ticket and then you have to follow runs,” explained the US junior champion, 13-year-old Diego Chaves. “Here you just go out in nature and create your own paths and jumps.”

This idea – of heading into nature and enjoying the wild spirit of Oregon’s shoreline – continues to ring true along the “People’s Coast”: a 363-mile stretch of sand that’s been designated public land since the early 20th Century, when governor Oswald West established the shoreline as a public highway. In the 1960s, when the land again came under threat, governor Tom McCall passed the Beach Bill, which declared that all land within 16ft of the low tide line belonged to the people.

Strolling along Oregon's 'People's Coast' (Credit: Credit: Amanda Castleman)

Strolling along Oregon’s ‘People’s Coast’ (Credit: Amanda Castleman)

To this day, Oregonians fiercely support this proud tradition of keeping their beaches public. And even more than that, they continue to find ways to preserve the natural beauty and monuments of their shore – ensuring that the coast stays as wild as they found it. A few months ago, I drove north along Highway 101, from the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area in the south to Oswald West State Park in the north, to experience the fruits of Oregon’s efforts first-hand.

Two of the most photogenic stops on Oregon’s wild coast sit 49 miles north of the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area. Thor’s Wellis a blowhole where high tides spout water 20ft in the air andCape Perpetua is the coast’s highest viewpoint accessible by car. The 800ft headland, fletched with Sitka spruce, plunges down to tide pools blazing bright with lime anemones, violet sea urchins and ochre sea stars.

Thor's Well spouts water 20ft in the air (Credit: Credit: John Fowler/ Thor’s Well/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Thor’s Well spouts water 20ft in the air (Credit: John Fowler/ Thor’s Well/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

“It’s cool to walk around [Thor’s Well], but you have to be very thoughtful,” said Greg Vaughn, author of Photographing Oregon. “It can be treacherous place for people unfamiliar withsneaker waves.” These fast and furious swells rake the beach, carrying large amounts of sand that bog down clothing. Visitors should also watch out for logs in the surf – even a tiny one could be waterlogged enough to weigh tons.

Nearby is a less dramatic monument to Oregon’s determination to keep the coast wild. Just three miles north, residents of the charming hippie town of Yachats fought to preserve the historic oceanfront Trail 804, a low-impact trek that passes tide pools, pebbled coves and expansive ocean views. “Not only are Oregon’s beaches open, but people are very avid about maintaining access sites,” said Bonnie Henderson, the author of Day Hiking: Oregon Coast. “They have to be. There’s no going backward once we lose the right of way.”

Dusk settled as I travelled north towards Cape Foulweather, a popular whale-watching spot that overlooks the white-water cauldron of Devil’s Punchbowl. Here, stormy seas slam into a hollow rock created from the collapse of two sea caves. The wind howled and buoys moaned.

The white-water cauldron Devil's Punchbowl (Credit: Credit: wplynn/Devil’s Punchbowl/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

The white-water cauldron Devil’s Punchbowl (Credit: wplynn/Devil’s Punchbowl/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Creeped out, I scuttled through Depoe Bay, the world’s smallest navigable harbour, and didn’t pull over until I saw the turn off for the Cape Kiwanda Natural Area, which offered a perfect view of the 235ft-tall Haystack Rock: a solitary fang that’s commonly mistaken for the more famous Cannon-Beach show-stopper. Each day, fishermen battle through the surf here in flat-bottomed dories, which they draw safely onshore at night. During the day, strollers and swimmers take over the broad sweep of beach.

Peering at Haystack Rock through Cape Kiwanda (Credit: Credit: Thomas Shahan/Cape Kiwanda/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Peering at Haystack Rock through Cape Kiwanda (Credit: Thomas Shahan/Cape Kiwanda/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The clouds lowered, draining the landscape to pale watercolour brushstrokes. As the first raindrops fell, I turned north towardCape Meares, where a massive Sitka spruce has been nicknamed the Octopus Tree. Legend has it that the Tillamook tribe trained the tree’s branches to cup outward from its now 50ft base, creating a U-shape that would have been ideal for holding cedar canoes and other ritual objects.

The terrain flattened as I swung inland to pick up Highway 101 again. But soon I was climbing steadily, amid the ferns and moss of a cool, coastal rainforest. Stark, sheer cliffs began to the flank the sinuous road… and then the sky’s lid dropped down, fog and clouds together reducing the world to black and white. I had reached Oswald West, the state park honouring the man who saved Oregon’s beaches. I pulled over to watch the waves crashing below and marvelled at how this beauty would remain forever wild, thanks to the foresight and determination of Oregon’s people.

Overlooking Cape Foulweather on Highway 101 (Credit: Credit: Edmund Garman/Cape Foulweather View/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Overlooking Cape Foulweather on Highway 101 (Credit: Edmund Garman/Cape Foulweather View/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

India’s temples of sex

This extremely conservative country was once home to the world’s first sex treatise and the erotic art on display is perhaps more shocking now than when it was created.

In December 2013, India’s LGBT community suffered a severe setback as the country’s Supreme Court ruled homosexuality to be a criminal offence. More recently, in August 2015, the Indian government imposed a ban, lifted conditionally a few days later, on more than 800 websites deemed pornographic, in an ostensible bid to curb child pornography and sexual violence.

But India was not always like this. Sexual norms were far more liberal before the 13th Century.

India has been a particularly conservative country for the last few hundred years, influenced by the puritanism of several groups, including Islamic dynasties, British overlords and the country’s own Brahmin priestly caste. But India was not always like this. Sexual norms were far more liberal before the 13th Century, giving equal importance to the secular and the spiritual. Sex was taught as a subject in formal education, and Kamasutra, the world’s first sex treatise, was written in ancient India between the 4th Century BCE and the 2nd Century.

Sculptures of a sexual nature (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Sculptures of a sexual nature (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

In fact, if you look closely, reminders of these more liberal times can be seen across the country. They’re literally carved in stone in the form of erotic motifs on the lower walls of the 13th Century Sun Temple at Konark in the east Indian state of Orissa. Nudity is prominent in the paintings and sculptures of heavenly maidens at Maharashtra’s Buddhist rock-cut monastic caves, Ajanta (2nd Century BCE) and Ellora (5th to 10th Centuries).

Of the original 85 temples, just more than 20 remain (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Of the original 85 temples, just more than 20 remain (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

India’s most graphic example of erotic temple art
However, the best-preserved and most graphic example of erotic temple art can be found in the small town of Khajurahoin the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Its elegantly carved Hindu temples were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986. Built by the Chandela dynasty between 950 and 1050, only 22 of the 85 original temples remain.

When I entered the 6sqkm site late one winter afternoon, the sandstone glowed a burnished gold. Local women carried fresh flowers and incense sticks for their prayers, while visitors perambulated the outer corridors, gawking at the profuse and intricate sculptures that covered every inch of the walls. There were images of gods and goddesses, warriors and musicians, animals and birds. It could have been a scene from any temple in India.

Many of these carvings were of an intensely erotic nature, featuring men, women and animals.

But on closer inspection, many of these carvings were of an intensely erotic nature, featuring men, women and animals. There were depictions of threesomes, orgies and bestiality. Although I knew what to expect, I was still taken aback by shapely maidens and virile men contorting their bodies in impossible sexual positions, right next to sculptures of divine beings smiling blissfully at the devout. Although a few stones were chipped and several limbs broken, the carvings were incredibly pristine, considering that the temples are more than 1,000 years old.

A woman offers prayers at the temple (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

A woman offers prayers at the temple (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)


There are various theories about the existence of such graphic erotic motifs. One of the more exotic ones propounds that since Chandela kings were followers of Tantric principles, which dictate the balance between the male and female forces, they promoted their faith in the temples they created.

Some believe the depiction of sexual activities was considered a good omen.

Other theories have to do with the role of temples themselves in those times: they were considered places of learning as well as worship – especially of the finer arts, including the art of lovemaking. In addition, some believe that the depiction of sexual activities in temples was considered a good omen because it represented new beginnings and new life.

Carvings cover every inch of the outer walls (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Carvings cover every inch of the outer walls (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

That apart, Hinduism has traditionally considered sex an essential part of life, which could be why the carvings are casually interspersed between others that portray activities as varied as prayer and war. The fact that they are set in plain view and not tucked away in an obscure corner seems to suggest that their creators meant for them to be seen by all.

Isolation helped these graphic motifs survive 
Bizarrely, there’s no reason why these ornate temples were built at Khajuraho, since there’s no clear record of whether there was even a kingdom in this location. The survival of these graphic motifs can likely be attributed to their isolation for hundreds of years in the region’s once-thick forest, only rediscovered by Englishman Captain TS Burt in 1838. In fact, Burt himself had to be persuaded by his Indian attendants to make the journey; he didn’t believe anything of interest would be found at the remote spot. These charmed temples have also managed to evade the wrath of India’s moral police, who in recent years banned or destroyed a range of cultural artefacts, ranging from Salman Rushdie’s books to MF Hussain’s paintings.

A visitor stops to admire the carvings (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

A visitor stops to admire the carvings (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

But what I found even more interesting than the explicit carvings and the history behind them was the fact that entire families were quietly engrossed in the guide’s speech as he analysed the spicier carvings high on the walls of the magnificent Kandariya Mahadeva temple. No eyebrows were raised, no embarrassed looks were exchanged, no giggles escaped young lips. Perhaps the art is unobjectionable when crouched within a religious context – but I came away believing that Khajuraho holds within its walls a larger lesson on tolerance for India.

A 77km hike that could inspire miracles

With Spain’s Camino de Santiago becoming a victim of its own success, Matthew Hirtes chose to walk this less-crowded, less-known version of the pilgrimage, 1,750km to the south.

Everyone’s heard of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the 100km-plus Way of St James route that leads pilgrims to Galicia’s cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the saint’s remains are believed to be buried. But it will probably come as some surprise to learn there’s another Camino 1,750km to the south, on the mid-Atlantic island of Gran Canaria.


Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

This pilgrimage is so unknown that even people on the island couldn’t seem to give me any information. The details provided by the island’s official tourist board proved sketchy; a pair of French walkers hadn’t heard of the trail and a toothless local suggested I walk along the main road instead. Undeterred, I did my best to keep on track, determined to finish what I’d started.

The world-famous Camino de Santiago had been on my bucket list for many years. I’d heard that its length requires an endurance that separates the hikers from the schleppers, and I was eager to prove my strength after a lifetime of trekking. But then I discovered that only 1% of it takes place on a dirt track; the rest is made up of roads and motorways. I also didn’t want to become just another roadie, one of the around 300,000 hikers who complete the epic trek every year. I was looking for a less-crowded, more spiritual pilgrimage – which was how I found out about this second Camino de Santiago, where 99% of the route is on a dirt track and only a handful of people walk it each year.

Gran Canaria’s Camino de Santiago historically ran between the island’s two major churches dedicated to St James: one in the south-central village of Tunte and the other in the town of Gáldar in the northwest. In 2011, the trail was extended southwards to create a coast-to-coast walk through the lush interior of Gran Canaria.

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The island was colonised by the Spanish in the 15th Century as the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile sought to expand the newly unified country. The conquerors built a church dedicated to St James (their country’s patron saint) in Gáldar – the first Jacobean place of worship constructed away from the Spanish mainland.

Legend has it that Galician sailors ran aground off the coast of Arguineguín in the island’s southwest in the 16th Century. With them, they carried an image of St James on their shoulders as a way of giving thanks for arriving safe and sound on land. They placed this polychrome sculpture in a hermitage they constructed in the Valle de La Plata, before it was moved to the village church of Tunte in 1850. A pilgrimage from one church to the other soon developed, following the seasonal goat herds’ route from north to south and back again. This pilgrimage was originally walked by islanders who were looking for a miracle, or by those who had pledged to do so after their prayers were answered.

Today’s extended Camino de Santiago’s route (a 76.9km, three-day, three-stage hike) starts at the Maspalomas Tourist Information Office, which confusingly is not in the holiday spot of Maspalomas but in the neighbouring resort of Playa del Inglés. There, on a gaudy parade of piercing studios and tattoo parlours, I spotted the first Camino-related sign. (Keep an eye out for Ruta Jacobea signs as well, as the Camino de Santiago’s also known as the Jacobean Route.)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

More by chance than by design, given a general scarcity of signage, I ended up on the second route option of the hike’s first stage, heading through the Degollada de Garito, a sheer incline between ravines. I passed the eerie Arteara Necropolis, the burial ground of the Amazigh-descendingcanarii (Gran Canaria’s aboriginal people who occupied the island prior to the 15th-century Spanish conquest). My progress was largely a solitary one, save for a Jeep safari that created a whirlwind of dust. Dwarfed by the volcanic slopes that descended to the left and right of me, I felt humbled by the sheer force of nature.

Gran Canaria is celebrated for its light, but the sun goes down quickly. So, at 7 pm, I set up camp in an orchard close to the village of Fataga. The wind spookily whistled through the surrounding fruit trees, but I was comforted by the fact that I could see the odd car travelling along the nearby main road.

The next day, suitably refreshed, I was able to make up lost ground, reaching Tunte, where Gran Canaria’s original Camino de Santiago began, by mid-morning. Here, I paid my respects by stepping through the door of the church, which was constructed towards the end of the 17th Century over the former hermitage of San Bartolomé. Fittingly, an effigy of the saint, a missionary who brought Christianity to Armenia, still occupies the central part of the altarpiece. But I was more moved by the original statue of St James. Despite my not being particularly religious, I was awed by its presence.

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The next section of the route was the 18.8km ascent to the heart of the island. My wife had packed my rucksack for me, and even trying it on in our living room, I’d stumbled under the weight. The burden became heavier as the path became steeper, and it was frustrating to see the odd cyclist whizz past. But my shoulders lifted with my spirits as I came to a clearing at the edge of a pine forest.

Ahead, I could see the distinctive shape of the rock formation Roque Bentayga; the mountain Teide loomed above it on the neighbouring island of Tenerife. To the left, I could make out  El Fraile, a rock so called because its shape is reminiscent of a monk, and La Rana, which looks like a frog. Tired by a day’s hiking, the heart-stopping vista felt like a godsend. It was almost as if the monk was sharing a miracle with me.

The mountain air might have been sweet, but it was colder than the lower-altitude valley of Fataga. Given the island’s variety of climates and landscapes, I was beginning to understand why it’s known as the Miniature Continent. And so I spent a chilly night sleeping rough in the hamlet of Cruz de Tejeda, named after its totem-pole-esque stone cross that marks the island’s exact centre.

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The third stage from Cruz to Tejeda to Gáldar is the easiest, descending 1,548m through forest and farmland. But the hard part was the lack of signs to Gáldar. And so I found myself having to retrace my steps from Artenara, the island’s highest village where many locals still live in cave houses, to the Pinos de Gáldar, a viewpoint lauded for its waterfall of clouds. The wind makes the vapours look like they’re cascading from the pine trees down to the pastoral landscape below. Save for the odd car that stopped to admire the view, I peered down alone from this mirador (viewpoint) before returning to my monk-like solitude on the downward path.

Approaching Gáldar, the landscape changed from pines to agricultural land. I passed banana plantations before arriving in front of my destination, the Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros, situated in one of Gran Canaria’s prettiest squares.

Entering into the peace and quiet ­of the church, I spotted the font in which the Spanish baptized the early Canarian converts to Christianity, along with another figurine of Saint James astride his horse. My walk finally over, I sat down to rest and reflect on my pilgrimage.

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

If I’d walked the original Camino de Santiago in Spain, I’d have reached my goal. There are only remains of the one body, after all. But my feet were already beginning to itch, and I wanted to be exploring more of the island’s great outdoors. My new bucket-list entry: to walk Gran Canaria’s Camino again – this time from north to south.

Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness

Citizens of one of the happiest countries on Earth are surprisingly comfortable contemplating a topic many prefer to avoid. Is that the key to joy?

On a visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I found myself sitting across from a man named Karma Ura, spilling my guts. Maybe it was the fact that he was named Karma, or the thin air, or the way travel melts my defences, but I decided to confess something very personal. Not that long before, seemingly out of the blue, I had experienced some disturbing symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in my hands and feet. At first, I feared I was having a heart attack, or going crazy. Maybe both. So I went to the doctor, who ran a series of tests and found…

“Nothing,” said Ura. Even before I could complete my sentence, he knew that my fears were unfounded. I was not dying, at least not as quickly as I feared. I was having a panic attack.

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan (Credit: Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan. (Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

What I wanted to know was: why now – my life was going uncharacteristically well – and what could I do about it?

“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”

“How?” I said, dumbfounded.

“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”

“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

Places, like people, have a way of surprising us, provided we are open to the possibility of surprise and not weighed down with preconceived notions. The Himalayan kingdom is best known for its innovative policy of Gross National Happiness; it’s a land where contentment supposedly reigns and sorrow is denied entry. Bhutan is indeed a special place (and Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a special person) but that specialness is more nuanced and, frankly, less sunny than the dreamy Shangri-La image we project onto it.

Memorial Chorten Monastery in Thimphu (Credit: Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Memorial Chorten Monastery in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Actually, by suggesting I think about death once a day, Ura was going easy on me. In Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan. Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair?

Not necessarily. Some recent research suggests that, by thinking about death so often, the Bhutanese may be on to something. In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as “jo_”. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as “joy”. This led the researchers to conclude that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”.

None of this, I’m sure, would surprise Ura, or any other Bhutanese. They know that death is a part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a heavy psychological cost.

Linda Leaming, author of the wonderful book A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸ knows this too.“I realised thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see,” she wrote. “My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”

A devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu (Credit: Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty)

A devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Unlike many of us in the West, the Bhutanese don’t sequester death. Death – and images of death – are everywhere, especially in Buddhist iconography where you’ll find colourful, gruesome illustrations. No one, not even children, is sheltered from these images, or from ritual dances re-enacting death.

Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals. “It is better than any antidepressant,” Tshewang Dendup, a Bhutanese actor, told me. The Bhutanese might appear detached during this time. They are not. They are grieving through ritual.

Why such a different attitude toward death? One reason the Bhutanese think about death so often is that it is all around them. For a small nation, it offers many ways to die. You can meet your demise on the winding, treacherous roads. You can be mauled by a bear; eat poisonous mushrooms; or die of exposure.

Another explanation is the country’s deeply felt Buddhist beliefs, especially that of reincarnation. If you know you’ll get another shot at life, you’re less likely to fear the end of this particular one. As Buddhists say, you shouldn’t fear dying any more than you fear discarding old clothes.

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses (Credit: Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses. (Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the Bhutanese don’t experience fear, or sadness. Of course they do. But, as Leaming told me, they don’t flee from these emotions. “We in the West want to fix it if we’re sad,” she said. “We fear sadness. It’s something to get over, medicate. In Bhutan there’s an acceptance. It’s a part of life.”

Ura’s lesson, meanwhile, stuck with me. I make it a point to think about death once a day. Unless I find myself especially stressed, or engulfed in an unexplained funk. Then I think about it twice a day.