MARK: Ah yes! Diesel fumes from old diesel trains. One of the nicest smells in the World. A bit like aviation fuel – a whiff always means you are travelling somewhere. It doesn’t matter where.
Darlington Bank Top Station, the Mecca of rail that is York and of course Kings Cross, the end of the East Coast Mainline. These and other stations still create passionate emotions for me 30 + years down the line.
The magnificent Deltic Diesels (Class 55s) that plied the 393 mile route from London to Edinburgh in the 1970’s and 80’s were my favourite locomotives, racing thoroughbreds no less. Indeed some were even named after racehorses. Meld, Alycidon and Ballymoss, each travelled at speeds in excess of 100mph.
They flew like the wind, their throaty roar from their throbbing Napier 1450 horse power engines created an amazing noise as they pulled their rake of twelve carriages away from the platform. It was like the finest symphony orchestra to me as an 11 year old who collected train numbers – I had seen and ridden on 22 of the 22 that were built.
So now you know my secret. I was/am a train spotter. Please don’t laugh. It’s no different from collecting dolls or playing with Action Men – is it…?
Today took me right back to those halcyon days. I wasn’t at Peterborough, Stevenage or Doncaster but in a small Ecuadorian town called Alausi – 9,000ft up in the Andes and my head was craned out of the small wooden framed 1950’s carriage as the big red diesel loco (that sounded like a Class 33 for those that know what I mean), pulled the five carriages down the middle of the high street!
A plume of fumes that got up my nostrils took me right back. Except this was no standard rail journey! Nope, this was the Devil’s Nose Railway, one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World as we raced along at speeds of 20mph down the side of the mountainside, plunging nearly 3,000ft in just eight miles. Two thousand five hundred mainly Caribbean workers perished in the nearly three years it took to build this section from Alausi to Sibambe – one of the steepest sections of standard gauge rail lines anywhere in the World.
Sadly, grey cloud enveloped much of the view going down to the bottom of the valley, but once there we had a great time meeting new friends and wandering around what once had been a major rail hub.
The horn of the engine sounded after about an hour and we clambered back aboard our Casey Jones style carriage. The return weather was clear and you couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing engineering including the switchback track change, which enabled the train to shunt zig-zag style back up the hillside. Impressive.
The journey back was a time to reflect as the train and all its sounds and smells took me back like some sort of instant, regressive time machine. I gazed through the window out on to dramatic scenery, or rather looked, but did not see. My mind was reflecting on the previous two adrenalin filled days and the fact we only had 55 days left before who knows what in the UK.
Thoughts came thick and fast. About our group, people at home, the craziness of this once in a life time trip. For one of the few times in the last seven months, I allowed myself to look backwards and also forwards, NOT really taking in the here and now. My mindfulness button was switched off and you know what, I was damned if I cared, because I knew sooner or later a slight reality check was bound to kick in.
However, the previous two days I’d definitely been in the here and now. Indeed I have always known that when you put your neck on the line, you have to be clearly focussed on the present to ensure you survive. All other thoughts are quickly banished.
As I was pushed off the side of the mountain, suspended by two ropes on a 700 metre long zip-line, arms facing forward, all I was thinking about was how the hell does Superman” fly like that every day? “Uno, duo tres” we were off.
My group travelling colleague “Curly B” on my right hand side was shrieking with a mixture of terror and excitement. Strangely though I had no nerves as we travelled in excess of 50mph. I started to look down at the 900ft drop beneath me. I spotted a couple of giant brown eagles and could hear children play in the rocks far below. All too soon the “ride” ended as the green landing area came in to view. A massive jolt slowed us both down to 0mph in less than twenty yards. We had made it.
High fives all round, we waited for the other mad people to land and off we went, climbing up the side of another steep mountain to Zipline 2. Now this was a different ball game. The initial jump off point had been a bit dodgy like an old Municipal swimming pool’s diving board from the 1960’s. But over on the other side of the valley all we had now was a few wooden planks, with the steel zip wire precariously balanced on the top of four rocks and a large piece of black rubber. In England, you would have freaked. Here you just accepted the risk and got on with it. This, a baby single 300m leap of faith across a forest and deep ravine. Doddle. Landed safely with yet another jolt as the line screamed in agony as the brake tightened.
One to go. The big one. ONE THOUSAND METRES a kilometre, a bloody long way. I could not see Sarah at the other side close to where we started. We’d climbed up still further to get the elevation for the crossing. And yes, you guessed it, my turn to go first. A shove of my backside and I was underway, going like the clappers as the zip wire nearly started smoking due to the friction half way across, the rocks 1,000ft below looking bigger than my first zip. I started flapping my wings like a giant bird coming in to land hoping Sarah would capture the moment as I came in to view. Damn, she didn’t, thinking I was somebody else instead. So the one of the shots below are of Chris and Curly B, but hopefully you get the idea……….
Next day in Banos – which really is like Queenstown, New Zealand in terms of outdoor activities, I was up for more excitement. This time canyoning was the source of the adrenalin fix – abseiling and lugeing down waterfalls… as you do.
Picked up by mini-bus we first found ourselves in a falling down shed, trying to fit into wet suits, harnesses and helmets that still smelt of the previous user. Plimsole style shoes allocated, they didn’t really fit. Ah well, what do you expect for US $35 all in? But thanks to Chris, a really nice guy in our group from Little Rock, Arkansaw, who was a climber and confirmed the Austrian kit was “good”, so that was that, we headed off on a 20 minute drive to the waterfalls.
After a twenty minute walk we arrived at our first waterfall – nothing too difficult.
The second and third falls were more challenging – 75ft with overhang and a guaranteed soaking on the way down. Nailed it.
The final descent and I nearly lost my nerve. “Curly B” my German co-zipline buddy had made her way down to the edge of the waterfall, with safety line on she reached the instructor. The Instructor, took off her safety line, but Curly B took her hands off the descent rope as well before being reattached to the second safety line and the main abseil rope down the waterfall. She was literally on the edge, not realising she had no support. I could see it and shouted to hold the rope, which she did, closely followed by the security afforded by the second safety line that was soon attached. Phew.
I could see why she had had difficulty. The crawl across slippery rocks to the descent point was challenging to say the least. And when it came to my turn, all I could think of was what might have happened a few moments earlier, my head fuddled and not thinking clearly. After what seemed an age, I managed to scrabble to a wooden ladder and start my descent. Once over the edge, no problem, getting to that point though had been a completely different matter.
Allowing myself a moment of personal congratulation, I honestly thought that was it for the day. Wrong! We discovered there was one final bit of fun.
Yours truly was told to go first as I had been at the back of the group of 6 for most of the time. I thought it would be another abseil. Er no! My harness was attached to the instructor who told me to sit on the top of a large slippery rock in the middle of the flowing water. This was no abseil but a “luge” down the sheer rock face straight into a pool. Woosh, part one complete. Out of the pool I sat on the next ledge ready to go the bottom when “funny boy” instructor, yanked the line and I was submerged backwards in to the pool I had just climbed out of. Out again and this time at the bottom. Yes, did it.
With a jolt the train brought my reflective journey to a halt back in the town of Alausi, our original start point as perfume in the form of diesel fumes wafted through the open window. No more time to reflect. We needed to pack, grab some food and rush to catch the local bus for a four hour journey down to sea level and Ecuador’s second city Guayaquil. 33C and 98% humidity beckoned.