Alison R Reed (also writing as Marianna Bell and Michael N Allison)

 

'The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World' as the Rocky Mountaineer Railway is billed, begins with a ride through the deserted streets of Calgary at 5 o'clock in the morning.  The meeting place is at the base of the Calgary Tower and within a few moments we are offered refreshments and a seat on wooden benches.  The Rocky Mountaineer staff are polite, helpful and friendly without being over the top and once our cases are stowed and we have our red maple leaf badges, the train is waiting at the platform.  Our on-board attendant is Joan, a cheerful Canadian who keeps us well stocked with food, drinks and fascinating snippets about the journey.  Her delighted response to any decision regarding the choice of food or drink is "Perfect!"

The journey from Calgary to Kamloops and on to Vancouver passes through places with such evocative names as Kicking Horse Pass and Stoney Creek and the First Nation (don't call them Red Indians!) settlements such as Sicamous and Yoho.  The first impression of the mountains after leaving the flat plain on which Calgary is situated, is their height.  The silver grey cliffs rear up out of the ground, sheer and perilous, with tantalising glimpses of the white glaciers on their summits; their lower slopes are smothered in a lush, green swathe of towering Lodgepole pine and Douglas fir.  The streams that will later feed into the Thompson and Fraser Rivers criss-cross our route, their glacial water varying from tranquil sage green to a tumbling, excited pale mint and all the shades of coffee from placid mocha to bubbling, cappuccino rapids.  This is the land of the black bear and the bald eagle and it is with eager anticipation that we gaze out of the windows hoping to be the first to spot some interesting wildlife.

Joan tells us that the pioneers came up with some truly amazing solutions to cross the Rockies, one of which is the spiral tunnel which turns round through some 288 degrees whilst dropping 55 feet (16.76m) in 0.6 mile (just under 1 km).  It's staggering to think that the engine driver can watch the rear trucks of his mile long train disappearing into the stygian gloom even whilst he is emerging into the bright sunlight! 

In winter, the mountains are enveloped in snow deeper than a two-storey house and simple pine roofs called 'snowsheds' protect the track in the most vulnerable areas.  On one cliff, an ancient man-like figure built of stones has been constructed.  This ancient 'Inuksuk' has been adopted as part of the logo for the Olympic Winter Games which are to be held in the popular ski resort of Whistler in 2010.  We also spot the strange Hoodoos - geological formations made from a hard layer of stone under which a softer local rock has weathered into huge bobbin reels. 

The town of Kamloops, our over-night stop, is laid out on a typical North American grid and is situated on the meeting place of the north and south branches of the Thompson River.  After an ample evening meal in our hotel, we go for a walk in the peaceful Riverside Park and watch the sun set over the water. 

Checking out of the friendly hotel next morning, Joan greets us all with a cheerful "Good morning!" and seems genuinely pleased to see us again.  The next part of the journey is through the aptly named Painted Bluff Provincial Park and then over arid, desert like country where straggly sage bush and yellow daisies cling tenaciously to the buff gravel.

Exiting the desert lands, the track runs beside a deep ravine and we soon see the green and brown currents swirling and eddying as the Thompson River is absorbed into the mighty Fraser.

Again the scenery changes; there are signs now of human habitation - a fence, a flash of grey tarmac and a glint of sunlight reflected off a window.  We are nearing the built up west coast of Canada and the end of the line.  The engine's horn sounds repeatedly and it's a gentle downhill slope for the rest of the trip.  Western red cedar, pines, aspen and arbutus trees line the route and for 15 minutes we are in a blizzard of downy white seeds from the Black Cottonwood trees.

The last run into Vancouver is via the urban eastern outskirts and we are welcomed in by smiling, waving Rocky Mountaineer hosts.

It's certainly a marvellous trip to make.  The scenery is breathtaking; the food good, imaginative and plentiful and our coach attendant is interesting, amusing and informative.  The overall verdict?  Practically Perfect!