TV presenter and traveller Chris Tarrant on his ‘favourite’ journeys on extreme railways around the world, including Patagonia, Congo and Azerbaijan
Chris Tarrant in Patagonia (Extreme Railway Journeys / Channel 5)
I’d never seen Patagonia before, and it’s just amazing. It’s a huge part of the world, an enormous area with valleys and mountains, and the trains were beautiful. They didn’t all work but when they did work they were really well made. They were nearly all British trains dating back to 1880.
For some reason, I thought Buenos Aires was going to be quite a dangerous city. But Buenos Aires is beautiful. It’s like Paris, with wonderful big wide avenues lined and trees everywhere, massive steaks, huge Malbec wine… It’s one of my favourite places on Earth now
We travelled for more than 1000 miles and went right the way south, and did the Old Patagonian Express. I was talking to a guy on the Old Patagonian Express. It’s a famous train, so I said, “Tell me some of the famous people who’ve been on this train,” and he said, “Oh yes, we have had many American and South American politicians, some film stars some famous South American footballers and, of course, Adolf Hitler.” I said, “Adolf Hitler’s been on this train?”, and he told me, “Adolph Hitler came here in 1945.”
When I said, “But he died in the bunker,” he said, “No, he did not die in the bunker. He came here in the middle of the night by submarine. He shaved off his trademark moustache and his hair. He was spirited away from this station by a well-known Nazi landowner, and he was here for another 20 years. He moved to Paraguay and died in Paraguay.”
He was so matter of fact about the whole thing, so detailed, that I came away thinking I still don’t know whether it’s right or wrong, but it was just extraordinary. You don’t expect to be sitting on a train in South America talking about Adolph Hitler.
Victoria Falls (Dreamstime)
In Southern Africa, we travelled 1500 miles from Cape Town across Botswana to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The idea was to follow the famous Red Line through Africa built by the colonialist Cecil Rhodes. We started in Cape Town on the Blue Train, which is one of the great trains of the world. It’s just stunning, very luxurious and VIP. A man with white gloves comes and shows you onto the train, shows you your seat, and its champagne all the way and very good food.
We were on that sadly for just a few hours, then had to get off at 2am. We went to Kimberley in the Northern Cape, which was a bit of a dump, but it was where they’d first discovered diamonds. I stayed in this weird lodge, which was Rhodes’ favourite meeting place, and I slept in his bed, had a swim in his huge bath.
And then we went on to Mafeking, which is an absolute dump, and on to Botswana, which was beautiful. It’s a real breath of fresh air, a young thriving African nation. The engineering is fantastic and the trains are fantastic. I interviewed a young lady engine driver on a big overnight freight train. She was so articulate about the future of Botswana, saying things like, “We must not have corruption in our government.”
We travelled into Zimbabwe, which couldn’t have been more different. The customs was a shambles. It took hours, and they wanted to look at my passport again and again, going through all the cameras and recording gear. There were big pictures of Mugabe on the walls everywhere . The train there didn’t work, so we had to drive 100 miles in a 4X4. They have roadblocks that are quite scary, with large set policemen that come up to you with serious looking weapons, proper AK-47’s. They go around the car poking everything and say “your brakes don’t work,” “your lights don’t work,” and all that. But you really don’t want to argue with them.
Eventually, we got to Bulawayo, which is the second largest city in Zimbabwe. It was obviously once a beautiful colonial place when it was Rhodesia, with lovely buildings of big white stone but it’s just trashed. There’s no glass in most of the windows. All the shops have got massive steel bars on the front of their windows and doors, so they must have a massive crime problem.
At the end, we got to Victoria Falls and stayed in one of the greatest hotels in the world. That was one of the most amazing journeys, because it had the lot. It started good, it ended good, but the middle bit was really crap.
Tbilisi, Georgia's capital (Dreamstime)
Another journey we did was along the length of the Trans-Caucasus Railway, from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, on the shores of the Caspian, to the port of Batumi on the Black Sea. I had no idea what to expect from Azerbaijan. I thought it was going to be full of camels. But it’s one of the richest places on earth. Baku, which is like the capital, was like Dubai. There were Lamborghinis and Bentleys everywhere. They have this incredible oil wealth. Just like Dubai, they have the most extraordinary shopping centres, full of Iranians and Iraqis that are there on their holidays by the Caspian sea.
We went on through Georgia. The Georgian people were just wonderful, so kind and welcoming, with mountains of food, huge meals with giant kebabs, and very good local wine.
We went into a tunnel that was built in 1880 that had no cement. It’s all rock, really well built, and all they could use was scooped egg white to hold it together. This egg white was holding up this bridge and massive tunnel. Can you imagine how many chickens were involved? They’ve now got brand new deluxe double decker Swiss trains going through them. That was really cool: something built 140 years ago with egg white holding it together is still in place and can deal with high speed modern trains.
We came out eventually to the Black Sea where all the oil goes. Mainly, we were made very welcome, but one bloke took objection to us and threw a bucket at my head. He was the only person we met who was aggressive. It was just an amazing trip, so different to what I expected.
Chris Tarrant filming in Congo (Extreme Railway Journeys / Channel 5)
One of the toughest journeys has got to be the very first one we ever did, which was Congo. The train was six days late and it was like, “Oh god, is it going to be all like this?”
We started in Pointe-Noire and we were on our way, eventually, to Brazzaville, which is the capital, and the train broke down at two o'clock in the morning, in the pitch black, because all the lights went off in the train. It was terrifying.
Wandering about in the middle of the night in the Congo is pretty stupid, but we only had a small crew and we were getting a bit frightened, because there were strange noises on the train, so we got off and walked. We started to walk out of the tunnel, not really knowing why we were walking or where we were going. We just thought we’d try to walk to the nearest village, but it was scary.
We walked for about a mile, not knowing what the hell we were doing, dragging along our camera gear, and eventually we saw some lights coming down the line, which was a relief train coming out to collect our train. We eventually got to a hotel in a little place nearby at 4am. We were exhausted but the people at the hotel had stayed up, all the lights were on, and there was a huge amount of food and booze waiting for us. It was fantastic.
This journey was the first time really that I’d seen the complete absence of any mention of Health and Safety. There were people with babies on their heads, sitting on the couplings between the carriages. There were people up on the roof of the train. The lavatories absolutely stank. The windows were caked with mud, so you couldn’t see much. We had to sort of grab film where we could, so it was a complete shambles, yet somehow it was invigorating and I thought, “This is an amazing train, this is an extreme railway.” It kind of set the benchmark for the whole thing.
Miyajima in Hiroshima (Dreamstime)
I wasn’t prepared for Japan. My Dad’s brother fought the Japanese in the war, in Burma, and he absolutely hated them, so I was bought up, not being particularly keen on the Japanese and I have to admit I did go there with a certain amount of prejudice. When I got there, they could not have been more helpful, more kind, more polite or just more organised, and their trains are incontestably the best in the world. They’re just fantastic.
At one point we put an app on on our train and we were travelling at 208mph in this bullet train, and we could talk just like you and I are now. I had coffee that wasn’t even shaking. The train was spotless, incredibly clean. It even smelt nice. When do you ever get on a train in England and go “Oh, this one smells nice”? But in Japan, they have this lavender coming through the air con. And every single train was exactly on time, not to the minute, but to the 30 seconds. We went to the most remote parts and every train was bang on time. I was so impressed.
We started in Hiroshima, and obviously we talked a lot about the atomic bomb. I interviewed two survivors of the atomic bomb. I never thought I’d meet anyone who’d survived Hiroshima. A woman talked about how her and her mother had been on a bus, and the whole bus was completely vaporised, and she looked out to people with their hair on fire in the road and flattened buildings. She thinks that there we so many dead bodies on top of her that it kind of muffled the explosion. She had no idea why she was still alive. She was a completely extraordinary lady.
Shinkansen bullet train in Japan (Dreamstime)
We went right across from one end of Japan to the other, which is about 1200 miles. We went through Tokyo and to Tokyo tube station, which is organised chaos, like nothing you’ve ever seen. 3.5 million travellers a day go through Tokyo tube station and its just madness, signs everywhere, so many trains going in and out, but they all get there. Trains run on time and they all get to their destination on time. It was a real lesson in efficiency. I came back so impressed.
Chris Tarrant’s new travel series of Extreme Railway Journeys starts on Channel 5 at 9pm on October 31, kicking off with Ice Train to Nowhere.
A book, Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys, is out Nov 3 (John Blake £20).