One of the easiest mistakes to make when travelling is to try to see and do too much at once. It's far better to slow right down, take it all in, and not worry so much about where you're going and how fast you get there. Here's a few of our favourite journeys that go at their own pace.
Slow travel – how to truly take your time
Drifting up the Niger, Mali
The “big” boats have been ferrying people up and down the River Niger since 1964, playing a vital role in Malian society by providing the only form of access to some villages and transporting traders to sell their wares. In their heyday, the boats were packed with a thousand passengers; floating villages with people marooned in their cabins or sleeping amongst the cargo. These days you are likely to see more goats than people on board.
It takes six days to drift from Koulikoro, near the capital Bamako, to Gao, a Sahelian city 1300km to the north, stopping along the way to explore the bustling market towns of Mopti and Niafunké, home of the late, great Malian musician, Ali Farka Touré. The richness of the experience of travelling on the “big” boat is spending time with the locals, sharing stories and exchanging views. And there’s no better way to get close to Malian life, as you slip through the scenery, past villages clinging to the cliff side and sand dunes reaching down to the water’s edge. Fishermen on pirogues, camels on the bank, hippopotamuses in the shallows: it all passes slowly by.
In season (Aug–Dec) boats leave Koulikoro every Tuesday at 10pm, though delays are frequent.
Taking a slow boat down the Mekong, Laos
Cargo-hold hell used to be the order of the day for travellers taking the slow boat through Laos, squashed between chickens and sacks of rice. But the ride’s become so popular that there are now specially designed backpackers’ boats running the 300km route from the Thai border east to Louang Phabang. They even have proper seats and a toilet – both pretty handy when you’re spending two long days on the river. It’s still a cramped, bottom-numbing experience, though, with over a hundred passengers on board, and an average speed that’s very slow indeed.
In truth you wouldn’t expect a trip on Southeast Asia’s longest and most important river to be plain sailing. Here in northern Laos, approximately halfway down the river’s 4000km journey from its source on the Tibetan plateau to its delta in southern Vietnam, the Mekong is dogged by sandbanks and seasonal shallows. It can be tough to navigate, as passengers in the hurtling, accident-prone speedboats often discover. Better to take it slowly: bring a cushion and enjoy the ride.
Slow boats leave when full and run from Houayxai on the Thai–Lao border to Louang Phabang, and vice versa.
Exploring the Thar Desert by Camel, India
In defiance of its old Rajasthani name, Marusthali (Land of Death), the Thar is the most densely populated of the world’s great deserts. From the cities on its fringes all the way to the India–Pakistan border, the vast sand flats spreading across the northwest of the Subcontinent are dotted with myriad tiny mud and thatch villages. A train line and national highway wind in tandem to Jaisalmer, the Thar’s most remote and beautiful citadel town, but from there on, the only way to reach the desert’s more isolated settlements is by camel.
Riding out into the scrub, two metres off the ground, with the honey-coloured ramparts and temple towers of Jaisalmer fort receding into the distance, you enter another kind of India – one of wide, shimmering vistas, endless blue skies and, when the rolling gait of your camel ceases, profound stillness.
Packs of jubilant children scamper out of every village as soon as a line of camels hoves into view. At sunset, saddle sore and a little sunburnt, you can sit back and reflect on the day’s encounters as the desert glows red in the dying light. Sprawled on a rug beside a flickering campfire, with a pan of smoky dal and rice bubbling away under the starriest of skies, the Thar can feel a lot less like a “Land of Death” than a wholesome, blissful retreat.
Camel treks can be arranged through any Jaisalmer hotel or tourist office, but try to avoid those which use touts; Adventure Travel (www.adventurecamels.com) and Sahara Travels (http://saharatravelsjaisalmer.com/) are both dependable.
Finding the real Dubai on a dhow, United Arab Emirates
Glamorous, fast and flash, Dubai excites admiration and contempt in equal measure. But if you’re looking for culture and traditions under the high-rises and Vegas-style attractions, charter a dhow for a cruise along the city’s historic Creek.
A cruise here takes you right through the city’s history. Stone, Bronze and Iron Age settlements sprang up on both its sides, living off rich fishing waters. Later came the barasti, the famous mud and palm-frond huts of the early pearl divers, who risked their lives until 1929, when the Wall Street Crash and the introduction of the Japanese cultured pearl devastated the industry.
On both sides of the Creek rise neat grids, the buildings of the oil-boom rising like giant chess pieces: offices, hotels and private residences, each more lavish than the last. Around them, in low-rise sprawls, are the quarters of the Asian immigrants who built them, with their temples, shrines, fabric shops, flower markets and teahouses. Drifting past the sights, smells and sounds of this city, you might just rediscover the one thing Dubai’s accused of losing but can never buy: its soul.
Various Dubai travel companies offer dhow cruises, including Al-Boom Tourist Village (www.alboom.ae), which offers various trips at different prices including lunch and dinner cruises.
Taking a trip on a dhow, Mozambique
Dhow sailing is hard work. It takes a huge effort just to hoist the sail, and as soon as it’s up the ropes have to be quickly fastened so that it keeps its place in the wind. A plank of wood nailed across the hull is where you sit, while the captain tills the wooden rudder. Yet despite their simplicity, when the breeze fills the sail they cross the ocean as gracefully as any yacht.
The dhows are still used by fishermen along the coast of Mozambique from Ponto D’Ouro to Pemba, and while there are few organized trips, by asking around you should be able to arrange a ride. It’s a good idea to be guided by the fishermen – they will probably know of uninhabited islands, secluded bays and mangrove-lined inlets where they can take you. You’ll get the freedom of being on the open water, knowing that your fee is helping the fishing communities, which are struggling to compete against industrialized fishing and motorized launches. You may not be strong enough to raise the dhow’s sail on your own, but as tourism develops in Mozambique, you can at least help steer it in the right direction.
You can probably persuade a fisherman to take you on a dhow anywhere along Mozambique’s coast, especially around Pemba, Maputo or Vilanculos, where they are more used to tourists
Going further, slower on a Keralan housebout
If you spend just a couple of minutes surveying the waters from the grassy banks of a Keralan river, all sorts of boats will pass you by: small wooden canoes ferrying people from one bank to another, long cargo vessels laden with sand and stone, and sporadically, the vessel for which Keralan tourism has become best known – kettuvallam houseboats.
In 1991 Tour India launched the first tourist houseboat – converted from an old kettuvallam barge (vallam means “boat” in Malayalam, kettu refers to the way the boats were made using no nails). Today it has six boats, each with up to three cabins with attached bathrooms, their windows peering out like rows of heavily lidded eyes from the distinctive woven-palm roof. Unlike many other companies which stick to the busy, tourist-packed waters around Allepey, Tour India offers longer charters – effectively, as long as you want – which allows you to take its boats to more remote areas: little-visited waterways and genuine, workaday villages.
Alternatively, you could take it still slower with Coco Houseboats. On a boat propelled slowly through the water by two men with long wooden poles, you don’t cover as much ground, but your journey is more peaceful, and you’ll have even more time to enjoy the passing scenery. Days rotate slowly around meals, the rest of your time spent idly watching the world go by from your chair on the deck. But with so much happening on the river and its bank, there’s few places where sitting back and doing nothing can be quite so engrossing.
For more information see www.tourindiakerala.com and www.cocohouseboatskerala.com.
Taking the sleeper train from London to the Scottish Highlands
Board the Caledonian sleeper train one evening at Euston station and the following morning you’ll wake up in the heart of the Scottish Highlands – a slow, subconscious teleport out of the urban grit and grind into the mountainous fresh and wild.
After leaving Euston at 9.15pm the train reaches Crewe just before midnight; it’s then a long trundle overnight up to Scotland. The train has one- and two-bed cabins plus a lounge car with comfy chairs and a bar. If you wake up early, take a peek through the curtains and you’ll see the vast, desolate heath bogs of the Central Highlands before the train passes over Spean Bridge and arrives at Fort William around 10am at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak.
From here you can join the second leg of the West Highlands Railway, one of the most brilliantly engineered and scenic train journeys in Britain.
See www.firstgroup.com/scotrail for more.
On the slow boat to Béziers, France
This is a unique chance to snuggle up on board a hotel-boat and cruise Languedoc via the Canal du Midi – the canal system built in the seventeenth century (now a World Heritage Site) that links the Atlantic with the Mediterranean in southwest France. Your home for a week is a renovated barge with two-berth cabins for up to fourteen people. The long hours of sunshine in this part of France power the boat’s hot water and electric motor, though there’s never much need to get out of the low gears. This truly is slow travel.
The trip starts with a night in a hotel in the medieval town of Carcassonne before you embark on the seven-day voyage to the town of Béziers, 75km away. En route you can choose to visit a wind farm, tour the vineyards of Minnervois and Ventenac or visit the Cathar castle at Lastours. The only slight cause for concern will be negotiating a “ladder” of seven lock gates before the final stretch to Pont Neuf in Béziers. But that’s about as energetic as it gets. The rest of the trip is one long drift along this historic canal – gradual enough for you to appreciate the canal-side foliage or just nod off to sleep on deck.
For programmes, prices and reservations see www.creme-de-languedoc.com/Languedoc/sightseeing/canal-du-midi.
Rafting on the Klarälven, Sweden
Tired of tailored tours? For the ultimate DIY travel experience, build your own timber raft with operator Vildmark I Värmland and float down the Klarälven, Sweden’s longest river. The idea is to construct a floating raft big enough to carry five or six people using just a dozen ropes and logs. Your teamwork (and sense of humour) will be put to the test but if you’re worried your clove hitches are more like granny knots, helpful instructors are on hand to give advice.
You can build a raft in a morning and take it out on the river for the afternoon, but to get the most out of your craft – and the river – it’s best to go on a five- or eight-day trip to enjoy the tranquillity of Värmland (Sweden’s most southerly wilderness) and have time inland to explore the villages along the Klarälven. You can choose to stay overnight under canvas on your moored craft or in a tent by the river. There are no guides on board to show you the way, but you’ll be well briefed beforehand on how to navigate the river and you’ll soon pick up how to handle your raft with pole and paddles while keeping an eye out for sandbanks and eddies.
There are periods of intense activity (crossing rapids and whirlpools) but much of the trip is a slow meander so you can keep an eye out for beaver and moose and even go fishing (permit required). But the best thing about the trip is the sense of achievement at having built your own raft and navigated yourself downstream.
For directions, accommodation details and booking see www.vildmark.se.
Camel trekking in southern Sinai, Egypt
As a region to lure trekking enthusiasts, Egypt’s southern Sinai has all the right ingredients. An endlessly photogenic vista of mountain passes and shimmering desert, it also has some of the oldest human settlements in the world. Among these expanses of rock and sand lie fertile valleys where Bedouin nomads and traders have gathered for as long as anyone can remember.
Excluded by the development of urban life, the Bedouin are one of the poorest groups in Arab society. But if, like them, you’d rather escape the chaos of Cairo, their unparalleled knowledge of the desert makes them the perfect guides. Sheikh Sina, a Bedouin-run operator that works with eight Bedouin communities, offers treks to remote areas of the South Sinai Mountains. The eight treks on offer vary between three levels of difficulty and can include visits to tribes, snorkelling, exploring canyons and much more; camels carry your equipment and food so you need only be burdened by your daypack.
Some nights you’ll pitch camp along the way, in sand dunes or lush oases; at other times you’ll stay with Bedouin groups in their tents. Sheikh Sina was founded to equip Bedouin guides with hospitality and language skills, and to secure their livelihoods, install amenities such as wells and compost toilets, and promote small businesses. Its success shines through in the welcome the Bedouin provide. Diyafa (the code of hospitality) is for the Bedouin the highest of virtues, and there is no more important practice than to honour your guests.
For further info on treks, itineraries, ecolodges and the southern Sinai region see www.sheikhsina.com.
Riding to the top of Lesotho
For those who like their holidays laden with superlatives, a four-day horse-riding trip into Lesotho with Drakensberg Adventures will give you three. Your first starts the moment you leave the company’s lodge, situated beneath the Sani Pass in eastern Kwazulu Natal. The rubble-strewn track, a former mule path for traders now only accessible by 4WD, is the highest pass in southern Africa.
Passing the border crossing at its top (three men in a hut), it’s time to stop at superlative number two – The Sani Top Chalet, where a sign lets you know that at 3482m you are now sitting in the highest bar in Africa. It’s more mountain refuge than country pub, but looking out at the pass winding sinuously down below, it’s hard to think of a beer garden with a better view.
With the first two under your belt in no time at all, the real journey begins, towards your third. Your guide helps you saddle up on Basotho ponies, whose stocky frames make them ideal for what lies ahead – two days’ riding, sleeping in a community-run lodge one night and a shepherd’s hut the next, in order to reach Thabana Ntlenyana. Here, at the highest point south of Kilimanjaro, you stop for a well-earned lunch and a fabulous view. Along the way you’ll be picking up supplies in remote farming villages, bringing much-needed income to families who would otherwise see almost none.
For more details, as well as info on getting to the lodge, rates and other activities, see www.sanilodge.co.za.
Taking a mekoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana
The best way to experience the maze of islands and rivers that makes up the Okavango Delta is in a mekoro, the traditional dugout canoe used on these waterways for centuries. While your poler stands at the back and guides it through the lilies and reeds, he’s also watching out for crocodiles and hippos. His vigilance means you can keep your binoculars trained on the bathing elephants and herds of antelope, which have fled the barren Kalahari that surrounds the delta to mass on these shores.
While many operators offer these trips, the community-run Okavango Polers’ Trust also gives you the chance to connect with some of the folk who live among this vast network of channels. Based at Mbiroba bushcamp at the northern end of the delta, the trust employs around 75 people from the nearby village of Seronga as guides, cooks and administrators. Trips last up to three days, using locally made fibreglass canoes – since the hardwoods traditionally used are being logged indiscriminately – and camping on different islands each night, making sure you leave no mark of your visit behind. But though your presence may leave little trace, it’s likely that the sound of a distant hippo’s roar while you glide through the water at sunset will be with you for ever.
Further info on getting to the camp, as well as prices for accommodation, meals and tours is at www.okavangodelta.com.
Joining a boat up the Mekong, Laos
The boat journey between Luang Prabang and the Thai border at Huai Suay passes through some of the most unspoilt passages of the Mekong River. Amid the endless tracts of primary jungle that line the steep, cloud-topped hills, signs of human habitation are scarce – chances are you’ll see little more evidence of civilization than rice paddies, small teak plantations or isolated wooden fishing villages, their stilted houses clinging to the hillsides.
There are many ways to take this journey – by far the most scenic route from Laos to Thailand – such as hanging on for dear life and missing the view in a six-man speedboat, or idling along in a rickety public river bus. Probably the best choice, therefore, is to travel on the Luangsuay, a 34m river barge with its own bar and lunch served onboard. It’s a more peaceful, leisurely way to appreciate life on and around the river than the other two choices, plus the two-day journey is broken at the Luang Suay ecolodge. Perched on the steep sides of the bank just outside the small town of Pak Beng, this locally staffed lodge is the perfect place to sit and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
For itineraries and booking information see www.asian-oasis.com/luang-say-cruise..
Taking the train across Australia
For many, crossing the vast Australian bush is all about Flying Doctors and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. A bustling network of European-style high-speed rail lines it is not. Yet it is possible to cross the length and breadth of the country by train in relative comfort, thanks to the clean, air-conditioned interstate services that provide comfortable sleeping carriages, private washrooms and a dining car. Flying is the quickest and cheapest way to get between the major cities, but take the train and you’ll see the wheat fields of Victoria, the dusty outback towns and kilometres of endless white-sand beaches.
The Indian Pacific, from Sydney to Perth via Adelaide, is one of the world’s longest train journeys. It’s a three-day, 4352km trip (that’s just one-way), though the train stops long enough for you to spend an evening in the gold-rush town of Kalgoorlie and to visit the remote outpost community of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain. The Ghan travels from Adelaide overnight to Alice Springs, where you have four hours to see the sights before heading up to Katherine for another stop and the final stretch up to Darwin; while the XPT travels from Sydney up the east coast overnight and arrives in Brisbane the following morning, where you can change to the sleeper Tilt Train, which arrives in Cairns the following evening.
None of these trips will get you from A to B quickly, but these journeys aren’t meant to be purely a means of transport: they’re a sightseeing trip, a hotel and a sociable holiday all in one.
For times, fares and reservations for all Australian trains see www.railaustralia.com.au.
Let us know your own favourite experiences of slow travel below.
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