Epic journeys

Tim Chester

written by
Tim Chester

updated 23.05.2024

Travel by camel through the Sahara, hike the Appalachian trail, and grab forty winks on an overnight train from Nairobi as we take a look at the world's most epic journeys.

Crossing the desolate sands, Niger


© StanislavBeloglazov/Shutterstock

A camel journey across the Sahara is an authentic and intimate experience that gets to the core of the world's largest, and arguably most desolate desert. The journey begins a day’s drive from Agadez in northern Niger. Camels grumble as loads are lashed to their backs, but saddles are mostly unoccupied. Forget the romantic image of the dromedary’s lolling gait transporting you effortlessly over the sands. A camel is more mule than horse so you’ll be on foot most of the time.

Your Tuareg guide will show you how to put on the traditional turban or tagelmoust worn by all desert men, and soon you’ll adapt to their pace, rising at dawn, strolling towards a shady noontime rest, and camping again around mid-afternoon when the camels are unloaded to forage for food. You cover 15km a day, stopping for mint tea at scruffy encampments where half-naked kids chase the goats and girls giggle shyly from behind their indigo shawls.

Tour agencies in Agadez can organize camel treks.

A night on the equator with Kenya railways, Kenya

Constructed in the 1890s, Kenya’s “Lunatic Line” (so named by the British press for the folly of building a line into the unexplored interior of Africa) has come to be one of Africa’s best-loved train journeys. Three times a week, a diesel train pulls out of the capital, heading down to the coast. The following night it makes the return journey. Arrival is scheduled for the next morning, about 13 hours later, but passengers take care not to arrange any tight connections as delays and breakdowns are frequent.

You pull out of Nairobi’s scruffy but civilized railway station at 7pm sharp, and just after departure a steward in a shiny-buttoned, frayed white tunic strides through the carriages ringing a bell – time for dinner. Outside, with Nairobi’s shanties left behind, the big, dark spaces begin. You peer into the nocturnal emptiness of the plains, where Maasai and Kamba herders traipse by day, and you make a mental note to keep your eyes peeled over breakfast on the return journey. Back at your compartment, beds have been made up and sleep, with the incessant rocking of the carriage, comes quickly.

In the mild, grey light of pre-dawn, you awake to an awareness that the climate has changed: you’re now out of the 1500m highlands and are dropping to the Indian Ocean coast. As you twist on your bunk to stare out of the window, tropical odours and humidity percolate through the carriages, together with a fresh brew of coffee. The equatorial sun rises as fast as it set as the train jolts at walking speed through the suburbs of Mombasa. With prayer calls in the air and Indian sweet shops on the streets, you disembark, already seduced by the coast’s beguiling combination of Asia, Africa and Arabia.

Most Kenyan travel agents will make train reservations for you, or your can book in person at the station.

You can start planning your epic Kenya trip today with our Kenya itineraries.

Thinking about a family trip to Kenya? Our tips for visiting Kenya with kids will help you manage the hassle and have a more relaxed trip.

Leaving it all behind on the Appalachian Trail, Georgia-Maine


© Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Hiking the Appalachian Trail, the epic trek that stretches 2186 miles from the peak of Springer Mountain in Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine, changes your perspective on life, whether you want it to or not. When your house weighs a pound, your job involves walking from sunrise to sunset and your nights are filled with strangers’ stories round roaring campfires, the mundane routines of the modern world are replaced with the realities of survival: water, gear, aching joints and the insatiable rumbling in your stomach.

As you plan your route across the snowcapped peaks of the Smokies at the end of winter, then the indigo waves of the Blue Ridge Mountains in early spring, the grassy green mounds of the Shenandoahs in the heat of mosquito season and finally the striking profiles of the Presidentials in early fall, you find there’s a sublime satisfaction in mapping out your future, one mountain at a time.

But the trail is really about those countless days when you walk twenty-five miles through three thunderstorms and over six mountains, and arrive at your campsite feeling exhausted yet triumphantly alive.

Visit www.appalachiantrail.org for more info.

Driving the length of Highway 1, California

Highway 1 starts in little Leggett, but most people pick it up in San Francisco, just after it has raced US-101 across the Golden Gate Bridge and wiggled its way through the city. Roll down the rooftop on your convertible – this is California, after all – and chase the horizon south, through Santa Cruz and misty Monterey and then on to Big Sur, one of the most dramatic stretches of coastline in the world, where the forest-clad foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains ripple down to a ninety-mile zigzag of deeply rugged shore.

You could easily spend a week in one of the mountain lodges here, hiking in the region’s two superb state parks or watching grey whales gliding through the surf, but SoCal’s sands are calling. Gun the gas down through San Luis Obispo and swanky Santa Barbara until you hit Malibu, from where – as the Pacific Coast Highway – the road tiptoes around Los Angeles, dipping in and out of the beachside suburbs of Santa Monica, Venice and Long Beach.

Leaving Malibu’s multi-million-dollar condos behind and easing gently into the downtown LA traffic, it’ll suddenly dawn on you that the hardest part of the journey is still to come – at some point soon, you’re going to have to say goodbye to the convertible.

To experience life on the road in true Golden State-style, rent a convertible; you can slip behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette with San Francisco-based Specialty Rentals (www.specialtyrentals.com).

Cruising the Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, a narrow channel surrounded by virgin jungles teeming with toucans and white-faced capuchin monkeys, takes only a day to traverse. But during that day you’ll experience an amazing feat of engineering and cross the Continental Divide. Your trip begins in the Caribbean near the rough-and-tumble town of Colón, which prospered during the canal’s construction but has since declined, its ramshackle colonial buildings and hand-painted signs frozen in time. Once on board, ships enter the narrow Gatún locks.

On the far side, the enormous, sparkling Gatún Lake was formed by a flooded jungle valley and serves as an intersection for shipping freighters, cruise ships, local pleasure boaters and environmentalists, drawn by the lake’s isolated islands. They and the surrounding rainforest are home to thousands of species of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, lizards and a variety of tropical birds, all of which you’ll see from the boat.

With the lake behind you, you enter the narrowest part of the canal – the Gaillard Cut. After nearly 14km of slow, careful progress, you emerge at the Miraflores Locks, beyond which lies the Pacific. As you exit the final chamber and pass under the Bridge of the Americas at Balboa, the bright lights and skyscrapers of Panama City appear on your left. From the timeworn streets of Colón to the bustling metropolis ahead, you have truly travelled from one side of the world to the other.

Panama Canal Tours (www.pmatours.net) and Canal and Bay Tours (www.canalandbaytours.com) offer full and partial transits of the Panama Canal.

Going coast to coast with the TranzAlpine, New Zealand

New Zealand’s South Island is vertically split by the Southern Alps, a snow-capped spine of 3000m mountains. Only three road passes breach this barrier, and just one rail line – the TranzAlpine. Slicing 225km across the South Island from Christchurch to the small west coast town of Greymouth, this unassuming train offers one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world.

As the train eases out of Christchurch, urban back gardens give way to the open vistas of the Canterbury Plains, acre upon acre of bucolic sheep country. The west of the South Island gets huge amounts of rain, the east very little. Here you’re in a transition zone, and with every kilometre you’ll notice the character of the vegetation change.

At the little alpine community of Arthur’s Pass you enter the 8km Otira Tunnel, burrowing under the high peaks and emerging at the former rail town of Otira. After losing height quickly along the cascading Taramakau River the train cuts to the tranquil shores of Lake Brunner before the final run down to Greymouth – just four and a half hours but a world away from Christchurch.

The TranzAlpine (www.tranzscenic.co.nz) operates daily from Christchurch to Greymouth and back, taking around 4hr 30min in each direction.

Riding the Shinkansen, Japan

A sleek, space-age train glides into the station precisely on time. When it pulls to a stop the doors align exactly in front of each orderly queue of passengers. The guard, wearing immaculate white gloves and a very natty peaked cap, bows as you climb aboard. Where but Japan could a train journey start in such style? Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen, popularly known as the “bullet train”, is the envy of the world, and while it’s not cheap, it’s something you just have to experience once. The Tokaido–Sanyo line runs from Tokyo west to Kyoto and Hiroshima – 900km – and the fastest Nozomi trains cover this in just four hours. In places, they reach 300km per hour, yet the ride is as smooth as silk.

It’s only by looking out of the window that you get a sense of speed; neat rows of houses flicker by, gradually giving way to rice fields, woods and the occasional temple, as you leave Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis behind. Before you know it, you’re pulling in to Kyoto’s monumental new station – eyesore or emblem, depending on whom you ask. No time for the city’s myriad temples now, though. The doors swoosh shut and you’re off again. Osaka brings yet more urban sprawl, but after Kobe the tracks run along the coast, offering tantalizing glimpses of the island-speckled Inland Sea as you near Hiroshima, journey’s end.

The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) must be purchased before arriving in Japan as it’s only available to foreign visitors.

Taking a snowmobile through Siberia, Russia


Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Anadyr city © Andrei Stepanov/Shutterstock

Still and white at the far northeastern tip of Siberia, Chukotka is nine time zones and nine hours by plane from Moscow. It’s so remote that locals call the rest of Russia “the mainland”. The territory is almost the size of Britain and France combined, but has only around 50,000 inhabitants. No highways connect their few communities. To travel out from Anadyr, Chukotka’s capital, you must charter a boat, helicopter or plane – or in winter, you can wrap up in boots and parka, and travel across the tundra by snowmobile.

The only sounds you’ll hear as you cross this bitter yet beautiful land are the thrum of the snowmobile’s engine and the occasional flapping of pure-white ptarmigan, alighting in small flocks from tundra shrubs. While humans are few here, wildlife is plentiful. The thermometer reads -20°C. For hour after hour, you fly over frozen hummocks and hurtle across solid turquoise lakes. The journey is been long and hard – yet you feel a wrench as you leave the tranquillity of the tundra, one of the few true wildernesses left on earth.

For organized tours, try Go Russia (www.justgorussia.co.uk). Note that you need a special permit to visit Chukotka on top of a Russian visa.

Riding the Rocket across the Ganges Delta, Bangladesh

The arterial Ganges and Jamuna, merging 60km west-southwest of Dhaka, feed hundreds of subsidiary rivers that radiate across the vast Ganges Delta, dissecting the land into a series of contiguous islands. This is the final stage in the odyssey of divine water, infused with an essence of the Subcontinental millions who have used and venerated it along its courses.

A Conrad-esque journey aboard one of the Rocket service’s paddle-wheeled boats lets you join the flow of life on this awesome network of waterways. Your odyssey begins in the evening at Sadarghat, Dhaka’s teeming main hub for river traffic, approached through the labyrinthine Old Quarter. From the ghat you can take in the panorama of bustling activity playing itself out on land and water against the backdrop of the striking cityscape on the far bank.

Night descends fast, and your first proper sight of rural Bangladesh is likely to come on the following morning. The verdant fields unfurl along the river bank, brightly-dressed women, children cavorting in the shallows, fishermen, dolphins and a thousand other ingredients forming a truly mesmerizing canvas. Rocket boats are not pleasure cruisers that cocoon their passengers, but working parts of the transport infrastructure bringing you up close to the surrounding world.

Operated by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation, the Rocket service, covering the 354km route between Dhaka and Khulna, runs all year.

Toy trains and tight curves: the Darjeeling unlimited, India

The most romantic – and affordable – way to explore India is by train, venturing into a bygone world of steam locomotives and dilapidated rail cars, and chugging past rural villages that have hardly changed for hundreds of years.

One of the least known – and most adventurous – routes is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a tiny, steam-fuelled locomotive that more than deserves its nickname “The Toy Train”. The string of narrow-gauge railway cars ply the hilly Himalayas of West Bengal, from New Jalpaiguri north of Calcutta up to Darjeeling, an early nineteenth-century station near the Nepali border, established for workers and servants of the East India Company.

Built in 1881 and ascending some 1800m of gauge track, the 82km route takes around seven hours, rarely exceeding 16km/h. Past Siliguri Junction, the train climbs slowly (and noisily) at a steady gradient. The rail cars switchback, zigzag, and, on several occasions, cross the very track they have just veered off after making 180-degree hairpin turns. Through the carriage windows stretch tea plantations, rainforests and endless plateaus of green and umber fields: Sukna, where the landscape morphs from flat plains to wooded lower slopes; Rangtong, where a deciduous forest sprawls off into the distance; Kurseong, with its colourful, bustling bazaar stalls; and Ghum (2258m), the summit of the line and the highest railway station in the Indian Subcontinent.

A ticket for The Toy Train (www.dhrs.org) costs Rs247 (about £3) each way in first class.

Motorbiking the northwest loop, Vietnam

Vietnam’s most spectacular mountain scenery is in the extreme north, shadowing the border with China. It’s an astonishing landscape of evergreen mountains, plunging river valleys, high passes and hill-tribe villages. The bad news is that public transport is woefully inadequate and car hire costly, so two wheels are your best option. Main roads are virtually all paved, though there are rough sections.

The classic route begins in the featureless lowland town of Lao Cai, which is connected to Hanoi by highway and train. From here it’s a three-hour run to Bac Ha, a lonely mountain village that hosts one of the best hill-tribe markets in Vietnam each Sunday. The next leg of the trip entails a return journey to Lao Cai followed by a steep climb up to Sapa via some towering rice-paddy terraces. Sapa is a graceful old French hill station, replete with colonial architecture and good restaurants. Moving west from Sapa involves a precipitous climb up to the Tram Ton Pass (1900m), the highpoint on this journey.

The next stretch to Dien Bien Phu is magnificent, as the road clings to the banks of a river valley. Dien Bien Phu, where the Viet Minh inflicted an epochal defeat on the French in 1954, has some fascinating museums and battle monuments and is a great place to recharge and get your bike checked over, before heading back to Hanoi.

Rent a bike in Hanoi: Off Road Vietnam (www.offroadvietnam.com) are highly recommended and have good Hondas. Use a freight-train carriage (around US$15) to get your bike to Lai Cai.

Riding the Ghan to Darwin, Australia


© ingehogenbijl/Shutterstock

In 2004 the Adelaide–Darwin Ghan train finally reached its destination about a hundred years behind schedule. Constructing a reliable rail link between these two towns took up most of the last century but around the start of the new millennium the government decided to plug the final 1500km gap from Alice to Darwin, completing a legendary transcontinental rail journey.

For most of the three-day, two-night northbound ride the train passes through uninhabited Outback that most people will only see out of a plane window. Just a couple of hours out of Adelaide and you’re already lost on the vast Nullarbor Plain. Night falls and bleached saltpans glow eerily in the moonlight as you tuck yourself in to your comfy four-berth cabin. Next morning the view from the dining car reveals classic Outback colours: clear blue skies, grey-green scrub and rich orange sand. Soon the driver’s whistle heralds your arrival at the likeable desert town of Alice Springs where you’re allowed a couple of hours’ break.

Past Alice, the Ghan works its way through the ranges before spilling out onto the featureless 1000km Tanami Desert. The sun sets as you near Wycliffe Well roadhouse, famous for its UFO sightings. Dawn delivers you to the tropical Top End. Trees have reappeared for the first time since Adelaide, here interspersed with countless 2m-high termite mounds. The town of Katherine marks another first on this epic journey – the only flowing river for over 2000km – and then it’s just an hour or two to journey’s end in Darwin.

The Ghan (www.gsr.com.au) leaves Adelaide for Darwin every Friday and Sunday at 5.15pm and takes 48 hours.

Top image © Prin Adulyatham/Shutterstock

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