Travelling by train from New Zealand to Spain takes a while. Presumably author Gregory Hill knew about the air services that could have shuttled he and his wife there a lot quicker.

But I’m missing the point. Although I’m not really because I’m actually in favour of slow travel by train.

I’ve done quite a bit of it including , earlier this year, the four-day journey between Brisbane and Adelaide on The Great Southern.

Yes, I know, I could have got there in two hours by plane but for lovers of train travel it’s all about the journey. And what a journey Gregory Hill and his wife Anne Loeser took – 89 days of travel, on 33 trains through 19 countries.

The journey is chronicled rather beautifully in Gregory’s book The Antipodean Express which is subtitled A Journey by Train from New Zealand to Spain.

To my mind this trip is right up there with some of the great rail journeys I have followed involving Michael Portillo, Paul Theroux, Joanna Lumley, and, among others, Michael Palin.

Speaking of Michael Palin, it also ranks alongside Palin’s epic journey Across The Andres By Frog, a hilarious spoof that featured in an episode of his Ripping Yarns. Travelling by frog is not ideal and tragic that in the end they had to eat the frogs. Rail is much more reliable.

Travelling by train is, to my mind, the most literary form as far as I am concerned – I’m thinking of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and the Swiss-French poet Blaise Cendrars epic poem about his journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. There are many other literary examples.

Rail travel has never been more popular for any number of reasons. Which is why I think Hill’s book will inspire as well as delight.

I guess one has to ask why you would want to travel by train from New Zealand to Spain though. The explanation is simple and charming. As an impressionable young French horn player Hill was inspired by an older musician who was retiring and planning to travel on the Trans-Siberian.

Hill was just starting out on his career as a musician at the time (his wife Anne Loeser, is also a musician and plays violin) and was quite taken by the idea of this epic journey.

It stayed with him, percolating for decades, until, finally, he had the time, inclination and the zany  idea to connect with the antipodes of where he and Anne live in New Zealand.

“There was an old m[primary-school atlas anchored in my memory, haunting me,” he writes in his introduction. “I remember it had a page with New Zealand superimposed on its upside-down antipodes, Spain. The antipodes are the place at the exact opposite point on the globe to where you are standing now. Wellington corresponded fairly closely with Salamanca. This always intrigued me.”

Getting there by train, including a stint on the Trans-Siberian, would take some planning and plenty of determination but its seems Hill and his wife were up for it.

And so, before the world went pear-shaped (the pandemic, war in Ukraine etc.) the couple took off, beginning their journey in New Zealand’s north island, travelling to the red centre of Australia via Adelaide on The Indian Pacific and weaving past the volcanoes of Java, through Asia and on to Europe.

From hilarious miscommunications in China to cultural immersion at the Bolshoi Ballet, there are plenty of funny stories and a very detailed travelogue en route to their own antipodes in Spain.

As Hill makes clear at the end of the book … “Events in the four years since … have shown that the whole journey was remarkably well timed,” he writes. “A month after we visited Hong Kong, the place erupted into street violence in protest against a proposed bill allowing extradition to China. By the end of 2019 terror and violence affected places I had visited.”

Moscow became a place westerners would want to shun, Catalonia unraveled and all sorts of other dramas have ensued. So, given the state of the world now Hill is lucky, he and his wife took their epic journey when they did.

“I cannot imagine when, or if, such a journey will ever be possible again.”

I didn’t think that is overstating the case at all.

Hill may be a musician but he has a journalist’s eye for detail and his book is illustrated with maps and photos that make it a vividly visual travel narrative filled with global insights and fascinating railway anecdotes. And even if it might be impossible now to replicate the entire journey there are segments that all of us can aspire to.

The Antipodean Express by Gregory Hill, Exisle Publishing $44.99  

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