Sydney train

 

Travelling by steam train is like stepping back in time. Passengers scurry along the platform, checking numbers written in chalk on the side of carriages. A red carpet is laid out, and an attendant takes an older lady’s hand to assist her over the gap, while tickets are clipped by attendants in shiny black caps.

At the front of the train, a man in soot-covered denims shovels coal into the fire box while the driver, wearing a slouch hat, monitors a pressure gauge the size of a dinner plate. There is a massive sigh from the engine and steam engulfs the station. In the swirling fog, the pitch-black barrel of the engine is the only thing distinguishable. The conductor checks his silver fob watch, blows sharply on his whistle and cries, “All aboard!”

It could be a dream, but it’s real: We're travelling on the 3642, a green 160-ton steam locomotive restored painstakingly to its 1930s glory by a dedicated team of volunteers from the NSW Rail Transport Museum, based at Thirlmere, in the south of Sydney. It’s the biggest rail and transport museum in Australia, and well worth a visit on a weekend in Sydney, where train rides are offered on its diesel and steam fleets.

Amazingly, all the crew on the 3642 are volunteers. Most are train buffs, many are family and just as many have been involved from the beginning, when the train was a shell covered in graffiti. On just a handful of dates each year, the crew take the train out for special events- a trip to the Blue Mountains, a jog along the coast to Wollongong, a trip inland to the Southern Highlands. Often the destination isn’t the main drawcard for passengers, but simply the delight of the journey.

The grand days of rail travel are long gone, but little nostalgia and the romantic appeal of train travel go a long way: our train is packed, and as we gather steam and pass through Redfern, there is the faintest smell of fireworks in the carriage.

We stop just before the platform 45 minutes later at Penrith station.A workman with a wrench the size of my arm heads to a pump, while another positions a big metal pulley over the black tank in front of our carriage, to fill her up with more water.

We cross the Nepean River and the huffing of the locomotive becomes more pronounced as she pulls us up towards the Blue Mountains. While the 3642 does the hard work, I explore back through the train.

I’m a little affronted by the people dressed like mad scientists in clear plastic goggles and white lab coats but when I stick my head out the window I understand – I'm immediately covered in cinders and soot. Hanging out the side of the train as it chugs along is an unsafe but irresistible pleasure. My grin is so wide, I later find a bit of charcoal lodged between my front teeth. I watch the steam puff out of the engine like a perfect children's drawing and when I glance back, every window is occupied with grinning idiots, their hair flying madly.

Traffic banks up as trainspotters chase us up the mountain. There's one guy with a video camera set up on a tripod on the roof of his car, while another wearing headphones holds out a microphone to capture the sound of the steam whistle. People perch on top of chain-link fences and squeeze through locked railway maintenance gates to take photos. Parents stand on overpasses with their kids, engulfed in steam.

The appeal is understandable. It is a glimpse of the past, before terrorism and carbon offsetting and security checks– a nicer,more simple and innocent time for travel.

On arrival, the Blue Mountains are as stunning and cold as ever and the Winter Magic Festival as crowded and wacky as expected. But we're just anxious to get back on our train. It's easy to talk to the passengers beside us as we're warmed with wine and cheese, raffles and laughter on the return journey down the mountain.

It's dark when we reach Penrith but families bustle up to the platform for a closer look. A woman with a toddler approaches Michael.

“Is it Thomas?” the toddler asks.

“More like Henry,” he replies kindly.

It's a completely different language but one they both understand. The toddler smiles and walks up to the engine for a closer look.

  

Spirits of the West: A Whisky Tour of Perth

 

 

I get the feeling the World of Whisky tour is popular with blokes. There are twelve of us on the tour tonight, standing in the broad plaza outside Perth’s former General Post Office. Presumably women enjoy whisky too, but they’re somewhere else on this Wednesday evening.

No matter, we’re men with a mission – to learn more about the many and varied varieties of whisky. This doubles up as a bar tour, courtesy of the thriving small bar scene in the Western Australian capital. Over the next three hours we’ll be visiting three bars on foot, each with its own speciality spirits.

The first bar our red-shirted guide Rusty leads us to is Varnish, within one of the attractive old buildings on King Street. It’s sporting a classic interior with wood panelling and dim lighting.

This is no pub crawl, we realise, as we’re handed over to barman Yan for an educational session on the history of alcoholic beverages. Leading us from the first fermented mead to the development of distillation, Yan reaches the era of moonshine and bourbon. As he says, it’s a simple calculation: “Moonshine + barrel + time = whisky.”

And American-style whisky is what we’re here for, as we sample three in turn: a bourbon, a Tennessee whisky and a rye. As we sip, Yan shares the intricacies of each type – including the curious fact that rye whiskies always include a green stripe on their labels.

The good thing about the structure of this visit is that we’re not knocking back the spirits, but taking the time to understand and enjoy them. There’s something appealing about tapping into the expertise of professionals as we go, adding a dash of science to our beverage preferences.

Leaving Varnish, we walk through Perth’s Central Business District (CBD for short), ending up on St George’s Terrace. This high-rise office zone used to be dead after dark, but in recent years new bars and restaurants have been added, lending it a livelier vibe.

Rusty shows off some of the new nightlife as we go, taking us through the Brookfield Place development with its numerous places to eat and drink. Then we head down an alleyway off Howard Street, to reach our second stop: Helvetica.

 



Upstairs in a candlelit lounge, we settle into sofas and learn that the bar is indeed named after the ubiquitous typeface. Helvetica specialises in single malts, and has 300 whiskies in stock from around the world.

As we sip four samples, a barman with a fine Irish accent explains the single malt distillation process. Here we’re tasting Australian whiskies produced in Western Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania, each of which have distinctive flavours.

Our final stop of the evening is Canton, an upstairs bar which used to be a Chinese restaurant of the same name. It’s kept the décor of those days, with red lanterns and Chinese-themed artwork.

Given the Asian vibe, it seems apt that we’re going to taste Japanese whisky. As a preliminary, barman Steve takes us through the history of Japanese beverages, including sake. He then explains how the secrets of whisky-making were carried east a century ago by a Japanese man who learned the craft in Scotland.

Then we sample three interesting Japanese whiskies, between bites of prawn crackers and other snacks on the tables.

We’re in a cheerful mood, and tasting these relatively exotic spirits adds a mellow note to the end of the tour. It’s been a good night out… and an education.

 

 

The World of Whisky Tour is offered monthly by tour company Two Feet and a Heartbeat. Fee A$100. For bookings, visit twofeet.com.au

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

You can get Perth included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world or on our Discoverer round the world

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nimbin

 

 

David Whitley heads out to the alternative lifestyle hotspots in northern New South Wales in search of the elusive hippy.

“I-I like to call it Amazonian Fizz Guava,” comes the toned-down New York accent from behind. It looks so placid and juicy, but as soon as it hits the tongue, its sourness makes you recoil. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it attacks with surprising bitterness. “I-I told you, didn’t I!” says Paul, with almost childlike glee, as he turns around and meanders back through his threadbare wooden shack.

Paul Recher is a hippy. In fact, he’s almost a dictionary definition of the word. He initially came out to the forested Northern Rivers region of New South Wales to dodge the draft for the Vietnam war, and ended up staying to grow his own jungle. Whilst he does make the occasional valid, lucid point – why should the Government protect us from our own bad eating and drinking habits by putting a poison (fluoride) in the water? – he is quite clearly out of his mind.

Carefully constructed arguments are interjected with rambles about Communists and terrorists, and it’s almost unequivocally a result of taking far, far too many drugs. It’s difficult to know what to call the place he lives in, a short drive from Lismore in the far north of the state. It’s most certainly not a farm, nor is it a ranch, a station or a plantation. We may have to settle on ‘patch of land’.

Pulling up along the dirt driveway, the entrance is marked by what can loosely be described as an artwork. It’s a hotch-potch collection of rusting road signs, bathtubs, gas canisters and household implements, and it illustrates Paul’s mindset quite nicely. On a guided tour of his luxury resort, he explains that he has three residences “so they can’t find me.” They all have different purposes, apparently, although the only discernable difference is that one is by a big pond which he can jump into every morning in lieu of a shower.

Around the palace grounds are all manner of leech-infested trees. They’re tangled up in each other and interspersed with random little plastic toys – the sort you’d get in a McDonalds Happy Meal. It’s decided that it’s best not to ask. “Wow!” he exclaims as he turns round, bringing everyone to a crashing halt. “My own jungle. Incredible, huh?” The reason we’re here is because Jim wanted us to see a real hippy. Jim has run tours from Byron Bay to Nimbin for the last twelve years, and finds that most people just don’t get it.

“People go to Nimbin, thinking they’re going to find hippies,” he says in relaxed-yet-measured tones. “But the hippies aren’t there – they’re all up in the hills. It’s like trying to find a town full of lighthouse keepers.” They may not be genuine hippies, but the townsfolk of Nimbin are undoubtedly different. The town itself is a byword for counterculture in Australia, although that comes more from the reputation as being the easiest place in the country to buy marijuana, rather than any particular achievements. Still, it is surrounded by both luscious countryside and the wannabe writers, artists, environmentalists and organic farmers who choose to live there.

Nimbin itself cannot be described as beautiful, though. It’s somewhere between quaintly ramshackle and pure and simple run down. The inhabitants seem on another planet, shambling down the street like extras in a zombie movie. Fashion sense is clearly not a priority here, with terry-towelling tracksuits appearing to be all the rage, whilst you’d be hard-pressed to find this much facial hair anywhere outside of a ZZ Top concert.

As you’d expect in a place notorious for it, more than a few people are trying to sell special tobacco to the tourists, but a few are a little more enterprising. Take the little old woman who has clearly learned how to fleece the visitors for every penny they can get. She’s selling small cookies out of a bag for $10 a pop, marketing them as genuine souvenirs of the whole Nimbin experience. Now call me frugal, call me tight, but that borders on extortion – you could get a cookie that size in Coles for less than two dollars. Still, it seems as though my fellow travellers aren’t quite so savvy, and snap them up, picking away at their meagre feed all day long. Each to their own, but I shall be spending my $10 more wisely on a big schnitzel in the local pub. Unsurprisingly, they all have to stop off at a service station later on to buy huge bags of crisps, and oversized chocolate bars, the fools.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what the actual tourist attractions are in Nimbin. It’s more a place you go to for the experience rather than for any particular activity, but if there is one, it’s probably the museum. It is a triumph of half-hearted curation, with the old VW Kombi out the front being possibly the most structured thing about the whole place. Inside is like a teenage boy’s bedroom; an unmitigated mess, with what can only be identified as ‘stuff’, thrown everywhere and the floor used as storage space. The walls are splashed with old newspaper articles and rampant sloganeering. Peace symbols, cannabis leaf ensigns and rainbows are emblazoned everywhere, and you fear entering the next room just in case you trip on a corpse that someone’s forgotten to clear up.

The rest of the street is similar. Rainbows adorn every shack-like building, and all sell everyday necessities such as aromatherapy oils, plant seeds and, er, nice things made out of wood. But the tour isn’t really about Nimbin itself, it’s about the whole vibe. Jim himself is all part of the fun. He’s possibly the most laid back person on earth, and throughout the trip, winding through the Nightcap National Park, he’s telling stories. We hear of one paranoid type on his bus who became convinced that his cake was evil. So evil in fact, that he couldn’t give it away or put it in the bin – the tour had to stop until he’d buried it in the woods.

He’s also big on his music, and it seems as though the whole journey is carefully choreographed. As soon as one Creedence Clearwater Revival tune finishes, it’s straight on with something off the Easy Rider or Big Lebowski soundtrack. Over the top, we get more stories, each interlinked whatever music playing as the bus heads up and down the slopes.

And you can begin to see why this area does attract those who aren’t after the suburban rat race. It’s incredibly green, and the tree-covered hills seem remarkably unAustralian. That everyone round here seems to speak like Jim is an indication that many have found their place to be, to relax, create and grow Amazonian Fizz Guavas if they so wish. It may not be the life for all of us, but you can at least get an inkling of why it works for some.

  

Annoying Oz

 




If you’re going to Australia, it pays to be pre-warned about the country’s idiosyncrasies – so here’s what to brace yourself for.Australia is a great country, but that doesn’t mean to say everything about it is perfect. Though Australian culture may be similar to British or Irish culture in many ways, there are still a few differences that you only really start noticing once you’re over there. Some will charm – such as the willingness of people to give directions or the wonders of drive-through booze shops – but others will irritate. And, in no particular order, here are ten of the things that are almost certain to get on your wick.
 
A constant diet of rugby league/ AFL
Australia is a nation split by sporting codes. To a certain extent, cricket and rugby union cross the divide, but most states will identify themselves as either AFL or rugby league territory. Of the two, AFL (Australian Rules Football) is the most fascinating. It bears some resemblance to Gaelic football, and attracts gigantic crowds – sometimes up to 80 or 90,000 – yet the rest of the world couldn’t care less about it. It’s a fast moving game, worth at least one visit to see. Victoria is the game’s unquestioned hub.

Queensland and – in particular – New South Wales, are rugby league territory. For the uninitiated, imagine a load of Neanderthals constantly running into each other while the fans pretend they’re watching a sport of genuine international significance. You’re about there.What will get you riled up is that Australia’s newspapers can often feature little else but stories about AFL (in Melbourne) and rugby league (in Sydney).

Parochialism
If you want a pathetically one-eyed, regional focus on the world’s events, watch the Australian news. Coverage always tends towards the “One Australian and 473 other people have been killed in a bomb attack” approach. The country also shows itself up by fawning in the most feeble way imaginable every time someone relatively famous from overseas is kind enough to set foot in the country. Paris Hilton can drop by to plug something or other and it’ll be treated as if it was a Papal visit.
 
Television
Combining the American approach to having five minute long ad breaks every ten minutes with the programming budget of a small, relatively unpopulated nation, Australian TV is almost unremittingly awful. At best, you’ll constantly cringe, at worst you’ll want to throw bricks at it. There are a few decent homegrown programmes, but they’re very rare. Otherwise it’s a diet of painfully unfunny talk show hosts, ads and every derivation of CSI you can possibly dream up.

Overattentive shop assistants
If you’re the sort of person that likes to browse without being disturbed, the Australian shopping experience is not for you. You’ll be leapt on with a “how can I help you today?” as soon as you walk through the door. Of course, the person doing this is unlikely to know anything useful about the stock – they’ve just been told to be attentive.

Obsession with house prices
Auction (incorrectly pronounced as ‘ock-tion’) prices are what passes for news in these parts. A house in a relatively uninteresting suburb sold for 5% more than a similar house did two months ago – hold the front page. Alas, this attitude leads estate agents to think they’re genuine celebrities, and doing you a favour by behaving like egregious arseholes on a constant basis.

Bacon, sausages and chocolate
On the whole, most Australian produce is of a higher standard than its British counterpart. But there are some notable exceptions. Those who like a meaty breakfast will probably be facing disappointment – Australian bacon and sausages tend to lack any taste whatsoever, as any expat living over there will tell you between the tears. Chocolate is another bugbear – it just doesn’t taste right. The usual argument for this is that they have to put special preservatives in to stop it melting in the shops, but nobody’s quite sure whether this is an urban myth or not.

Beetroot with everything
A far greater culinary crime is Australia’s obsession with ruining perfectly good food by putting a slice of beetroot on it. This is particularly the case for burgers, for which beetroot is no more suited to than custard or iron spikes. You’ll get your burger, sink your teeth in, recoil in revulsion and then realise that a beetroot slice has infected it. Remove said beetroot, and everything else will have been stained by it. It’s best to loudly bellow “NO BEETROOT ON MINE PLEASE” as soon as you enter the shop/ restaurant.

Pokies
There are plenty of great pubs in Australia, but too many fall into a sadly identikit mould. You’ll find a basic range of fairly nasty beers, a food menu that’s chicken parmagiana or steak and little attempt to disguise that the real money is made from gambling rather than drinks. A large section will be devoted to the TAB (sports betting and horse racing on multiple screens) whilst the real goldmine is the poker machines. The area with the pokies (as they’re universally known) is invariably a tragic scene, with people thoughtlessly pouring their money into a game without skill, hoping against odds and logic for a payout.

Flies
Forget the sharks, crocs and snakes – it’s the flies that will drive you to the brink of insanity.

Casual racism
Australia has a perhaps unfair reputation for being a massively racist place. Like everywhere, racism certainly exists, but it is arguably overplayed. What you will probably discover, however, is a higher degree of casual racism. It’ll not be naked aggression, just a series of ignorant throwaway comments about all Asians being bad drivers or Aboriginal people being workshy. In many ways, Australia is like your slightly embarrassing granddad; it hasn’t learned that some lazy opinions are best not voiced and it would sooner stick to them than assess the evidence. It by no means affects the whole population; it’s just slightly more prevalent.

 

 

Sydney’s Martian Embassy

 

It’s startling to step from Redfern Street into the Martian Embassy.

Outside, the architecture is 19th and 20th century shopfronts, the standard look of a shopping strip in inner-city Sydney. Inside, however, it’s… different.

As the name suggests, it feels as if you’ve stepped into a different world, of sinuous alien curves rather than old-fashioned right angles. It’s as though the interior of the shop has been grown from the ground up, decorated with a series of curved wooden panels painted a livid green.

In a cosy seating area at the front, visitors sit around a huge globe of Mars, while browsing such handy books as The Intergalactic Traveller’s Guide to Saturn. Nearby stands a large silver telescope which claims to provide views of street life on the red Planet – if you use your imagination.

On the shelves farther in, past a statue of a Martian emperor,  is a mish-mash of quirky exhibits along with products created specifically for the shop.

Novelties for sale to the discerning space traveller include cans claiming to contain “bite-size” oxygen; melted ice from the Martian polar caps; a reflective Martian cape; gravity created in a factory on Pluto; and emergency space food. There are also T-shirts bearing such timeless messages as “Take me to your leader”.

There is method to this madness, as it turns out. The Martian Embassy is actually a front for the Sydney Story Factory, a non-profit writing centre.

“Our focus is on marginalised young people, with about 25% Aboriginal kids coming in,” says Craig New, one of the organisation’s managers. “Everything we do is focused on creative writing. The kids not only create short stories, poetry and scripts, but also short films and podcasts.

“The products we sell are fun, quirky stuff the kids enjoy as well. We’ve got Martian capes, ‘puny humans’ that Martians might want to eat, spaceship repair kits. My favourite thing in the shop is the tin of gravity. We have long arguments with the kids as to whether there is actually gravity inside it.

“We also use the stuff in the shop as prompts, especially if they’re struggling for what to write about in a workshop: ‘What would happen if my character had a black hole in a tin?’”

 

 

 

 

For the traveller, the Martian Embassy is not only a novel place to shop, but a way to help out – all profits from sales go straight to funding the reading programs. On sale alongside the novelties are books by the kids themselves, with titles like I Met a Martian.

When you’ve finished your extra-terrestrial shopping, Redfern is worth exploring. There’s good coffee and food to be had along the street at Barn Doors (108 Redfern St) and Baffi & Mo (94 Redfern St).

And though Redfern is off the standard tourist trail, its streets are lined by interesting emporia.

“The antiques shop across the road is a bizarre place, it often has a cockatoo sitting in a big wheel out the front,” says Craig. “There’s a place further up selling flowers and antiques, which is full of taxidermied animals. There’s a tradition of weird shops in Redfern already, so we slot into that nicely.”

 

The Martian Embassy is located at 176 Redfern St, Redfern, an easy walk from Redfern train station. Open 10am-5pm Monday to Thursday, 11am-3pm Saturday & Sunday.

 

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Destination NSW and TFE Hotels.

 

 

You can get Sydney included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world or on our Discoverer round the world