Travelling the world is something high on the lists of people all over the world, drunk with wanderlust and keen for adventure. Ask them what they’d spend the money on if they won the lottery, and you can guarantee a large number would be quick to say a cruise. Embodying this notion, widely loved British television presenter Chris Tarrant, of ‘Tiswas’ for the older generation, and ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ for a more recent spell in the limelight, explores areas all over the world via the means of the railway in his latest venture, ‘Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys.‘ Editorial Coordinator at The Foxley Docket, Daniel James Parry, had the opportunity to sit down with the seasoned television veteran to discuss Chris’ adventures, his thoughts on the British railway system and what he truly misses about the United Kingdom when he’s away from home.
THE FOXLEY DOCKET: Where did your passion for trains and railways begin? What is it about the rail industry that appeals to you?
CHRIS TARRANT: I’ve never really been a train spotter, but I love railways. As a little boy, I had a book all about the building of the great railways of the world, and I loved the stories of how they were built – mainly by the British incidentally – back in the 19th century. Hundreds of people died as the engineers managed to create new railways over impassable mountain ranges, across raging rivers, baking hot deserts etc. I also loved the way, that the railways in many parts of the world link up communities where they have no roads or any other form of access. In some cases I am sure we were the first white European that some of the villages in places like Bolivia had ever seen.
TFD: A train ride probably isn’t on most people’s lists of ‘extreme’ settings – sell it to us.
CHRIS TARRANT: The very first show we ever made was 6 days late in the Congo, and then broke down in a tunnel in the middle of the night. Trust me, you really don’t want to be breaking down in a tunnel in the Congo in the small hours of the morning, it was really scary. We also had serious problems with altitude sickness in the high Andes in Bolivia – the cameraman had to be rushed home. I was rushed into intensive care coming home from a flight to Myanmar, and we got caught up in a blizzard in a helicopter full of dynamite, high over the rocky mountains…. so that’s pretty extreme.
TFD: What were your expectations heading into Extreme Railway Journeys?
CHRIS TARRANT: I was looking forward to seeing a lot of the countries involved in the original plans for the series, but Bolivia was a bit of a disaster because the film was actually stolen by some little toerags in an airport in Sao Paulo. That’s never happened to me before in over 40 years of filming! In Zimbabwe we were constantly being stopped by armed police at road blocks because most of the trains weren’t running. When they did run, the doors kept flying open out onto the main line. That’s something I’d never seen on any train anywhere in the world.
I suppose if I’m truthful, I didn’t think it would be as fraught with problems as it was.
TFD: How was the experience, on a whole?
CHRIS TARRANT: I don’t want to sound like I’m moaning – I thoroughly enjoyed it – but it was a gruelling schedule with an incredible number of starts before 04.00 a.m. and then getting to the station finding that the train never arrived. In all, we travelled 168,212 miles around the world – nearly 6 times around the earth – so it was pretty knackering.
TFD: What have been the most memorable moments for you while filming Extreme Railway Journeys? You’ve mentioned that Azerbaijan and Patagonia particularly surprised you?
CHRIS TARRANT: Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, really surprised all of us! I don’t know what I expected – probably just camels and palm trees – but in fact it is the most amazing city, dripping with wealth. There are Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys everywhere in the streets and designer shops fill the city centre, it is very much like Dubai. They have enormous oil revenue, and as they are now independent, they keep it to themselves. For many years, it all had to go to Moscow, and then was never seen again.
Patagonia is beautiful, an enormous area, far larger than I realised with spectacular views over mountains, forests, rivers and lakes. It was there that two men told me, in all seriousness, that Adolf Hitler had escaped from the bunker in 1945, and came down there, shaved off his hair and moustache and lived to a ripe old age. They told me this with such conviction, and details of the house where he lived, and he was protected by a very wealthy German landowner. They claimed to have interviewed a 90-year-old gentleman who used to drive him around, and the daughter of the chambermaid who looked after his room. They were extraordinarily convincing.
TFD: What have you taken away from the places you’ve visited and the things you’ve seen along the way?
CHRIS TARRANT: I have seen so many different kinds of railways – good, bad and absolutely hopeless all around the world – it has been fascinating. The other thing you realise is that far more than on an aeroplane or in a car, railways look right into the souls of the country that you visit. From a train carriage, you literally look into the windows of the little houses that you pass, you see how they live, what they are eating for tea, what they’re watching on the television. You really do get into the soul of the country.
TFD: Is there anything that you feel the railway service in Britain could learn from trains you’ve ridden on or services you’ve encountered?
CHRIS TARRANT: I came back from Japan, where every single train all over the country was exactly on time, literally to the minute. It is easily the finest railway system anywhere in the world, and I got on a train on the Sunday evening the day after I got back to go to Manchester, it was just over an hour and half late. I don’t want to be Japanese – I am very English – but our railway system is absolutely hopeless – the idea of leaves on the line being a problem in most other countries would just be a laughing stock.
TFD: Over the course of the filming, you travelled 1,680,201 miles in total – which is six times around the earth – can you describe the feeling of touching home soil after it all? Is there anything you’ve come to appreciate more that maybe you took for granted before the series?
CHRIS TARRANT: It was an amazing journey overall. In a very short time, we did experience just about every sort of railway, and every sort of locomotive. Coming back to the UK though, after each journey and landing at Heathrow was still the best fun of all. I do enjoy the filming, and I do enjoy the journey’s in all forms of transport in the countries that we visited, but I have to say I’ve got to hate long haul. I’m no longer a good flyer in an aeroplane and I hate airports, so getting home was great. I really did appreciate hometime, in my lovely country hideaway in Berkshire. I made a real point of taking time out with Jane and the kids, some of them I hadn’t seen for a month or two, and I found I missed them like hell.
TFD: What’s the most British thing(s) you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world while filming Extreme Railway Journeys?
CHRIS TARRANT: Probably curries. Bizarrely, when I was away from England which was a lot, maybe half a year in some cases, I didn’t find myself yearning for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or egg and chips, or baked beans or marmite. I couldn’t wait to get home and go down to my local Indian restaurant for a curry! Bizarrely, I even found myself thinking that as I flew back from India!
TFD: Travel is often on people’s bucket list – if you could recommend one place that people should visit, where would that be and why?
CHRIS TARRANT: I would recommend Cape Town and the Blue Train to anyone. Cape Town is a beautiful city, I was there last year for New Years Eve, and it is one of the nicest places on earth.
The Blue train is absolutely magnificent, you are taken by chauffeured limousine to the VIP lounge, and its champagne all the way before you even get on the train, the food is excellent and the staff are magnificent. Bare in mind that some of these guys were working on the train in the bad old days of apartheid, where they were only allowed to work as cleaners, not ever serve at tables, it has been an amazing turnaround. I just love South Africa. I would also recommend Buenos Aires to anyone, it has wonderful wide avenues, lined with trees, and the biggest steaks, and the best red wines, anywhere on earth. Don’t wait for your bucket list. Go now!
‘Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys‘ is available on Amazon, £20.
The TV series runs on Channel 5 on Monday nights.