Australian seasons are the antithesis of those in Europe and North America. It’s hot in December and many Australians spend Christmas at the beach, while in July and August it’s midwinter. Summer starts in December, autumn in March, winter in June and spring in September.
The climatic extremes aren’t too severe in most parts of Australia. Even in Melbourne, the southernmost capital city on the mainland, it’s rare occasion when the mercury hits freezing point, although it’s a different story in Canberra, the national capital. The poor Tasmanians, farther to the south, have a good idea of what cold is.
As you head north the seasonal variations become fewer until, in the far north around Darwin, you are in the monsoon belt where there are just two seasons – hot and wet, and hot and dry. In the Snowy Mountains of southern New South Wales and the Alps of north-east Victoria there’s a snow season with good skiing. The centre of the continent is arid – hot and dry during the day, but often bitterly cold at night.
Thanks to their extended summer vacations, students are in the enviable position of being able to travel round Europe by rail and see the sights on the cheap. This article points out some of the pros and cons of travelling by train.
The sense of freedom offered by rail travel is unrivelled by any other, except perhaps the less safe option of hitch-hiking. Trains are also a great way to meet local people and, compared with other long-distance modes of transport, the Greenest you can get. Rail travel allows you to explore the hidden corners of the continent, especially areas where rural lines are still open and trains are still the most common form of public transport. It’s also a relaxing way to travel, whether you’re using it as a cheap bed for a night, or as a ring-side seat for a series of stunning views.
The first step before you go to choose one of the Eurorail schemes available. After that, there are a few tips to bear in mind before you leave. Budgeting always causes headaches and it’s worth finding out which are the “expensive” and “cheap” countries. It’s sensible to take some cash, but you should take most of your money in traveller’s cheques. Choose a well-known brand and buy small denominations.
Your most important piece of equipment is your backpack, and it’s worth choosing one that’s comfortable and light, sits just above your hips, and is “high” rather than “wide” when full. A day-pack is usefull for sightseeing, and a pair of comfortable walking shoes is vital, along with dark, hard-wearing clothes. As a general rule, put out everything you want to take - then halve it. Some things, however, should not be left behind. An alarm clock(so you don’t miss those early trains); a scarf to cover your shoulders or legs for visits to churches or mosques; photocopies of all your important documents – best packed separately or given to a travelling companion; toilet paper, soap and a universal plug; a Swiss army penknife; numerous plasitic bags; a water bottle and a small first aid kit.
The fun really starts once you’re out there, of course – hunting for a hostel at 10 p.m., being ripped off by a taxi driver who claims there are no buses to your campsite or being turned away from a famous tourist attraction for wearing shorts. There are compensations for these frustrations (which make the best stories afterwards, anyway!), but many problems can be avoided if you’re aware of the potential pitfalls before you leave.
The golden rule is not to try to cram too much into the time available. Trying to see the whole of Europe in a month, by spending every night on a train and an afternoon in each capital city will result in an unsatisfactory blur of shallow impressions. It is also a recipe for disaster, as you will be tired, grumpy and unreceptive for most of your trip. Instead, try to vary your rout, mixing visits to cities with relaxing spells on the beach or in the countryside.
Each year a few unlucky travellers have their valuables stolen. The best way to prevent this is to carry them with you at all times, preferably in a money belt or a neck pouch. This is especially important on night trains, where most thefts occur. Another sensible precaution is not to sleep rough – you’re just asking for trouble. Watch out for conmen at stations: they’ll try to persuade you to accept a room, tempting you wit glamourous pictures of a hotel which turns out to be awful and whose price will have doubled by the time you reach it. And, if you’re on a tight budget, it’s always worth asking if they’ve got anything cheaper.
These ideas are really just common sense, but it’s amazing how often they’ve overlooked. But the most important tip of all is – have fun!