Aboard Canada's Rocky Mountaineer: A train journey from rainforest to gold rush

The news spread like a tsunami, generating momentum as it tore down the Pacific coast before smashing into San Francisco. There was gold. Lots of it. Fortunes to be made if only a man could find this place known as Fraser's River. 

Men came in their droves, first from San Francisco and the Californian coast, then from as far afield as the coasts of Scotland and the slums of London. Known as overlanders, they were often grossly underprepared, men who had never pitched a tent, cooked their own supper, or even saddled a horse embarked on brutal journeys through wilderness spanning epic distances. 

And that was just the beginning. For those who did make it to gold rush country, a whole new nightmare lay in store.

The terrain here remains largely as wild and uncompromising as it would have back in the gold rush era of the mid 1800s. Though we pass through tiny towns – forgotten sawmill and lumber settlements – they are few and far between. 

For me, sitting in the lap of luxury, it's almost impossible to contemplate navigating this land by foot, often for months on end in bitterly cold conditions. 

I'm on board the Rocky Mountaineer, sat inside what is essentially a cylindrical glass dome, custom built for passengers to maximise viewing opportunities of this obscenely beautiful part of the world. 

Having recently re-joined the train in Jasper, we are heading initially west before veering south to Vancouver via Whistler on a route known as the Rainforest to Gold Rush. Mornings are always an event on board the train. Our hosts – selected more on personality than hospitality experience – keep the atmosphere buoyant, welcoming us with a toast of fresh orange juice and hot towels and peppering the microphone with wisecracks and historical titbits.

It's an important part of the job as long hours are part of the Rocky Mountaineer experience. Travelling an average speed of just 50km/h, the train must play second fiddle to the freight companies that share the track, meaning early starts are a necessity to safeguard against potential delays.

Somehow though, the time never seems to drag. 

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Sometimes I wander the aisles, simply chatting to other passengers and hearing their stories. A New Zealander confesses she is relishing her first trip travelling solo after her husband behaved like "a chained dog" on a cruise ship. A Scottish mother and daughter are embarking on an adventure together after one of them beat cancer.

Often we convene in the outdoor vestibule at the back of the train, jostling for the best shot, scouring the landscape for grizzlies or just breathing in the smell of fresh pine wafting in on a warm breeze.

But it's meal times that are the main event. Served in two shifts, with those that go second assuaged with tea and scones in the morning, and wine and cheese at lunch, we sit in plush booths furnished with heavy white linen table cloths, pristine glassware and an a la carte menu that changes each day.

There are now two levels of service on board; Silverleaf and Goldleaf. 

While the latter offers bi-level carriages with upper viewing domes and a higher level of culinary service, those in silver still enjoy a single-level glass-domed coach as well as meals and drinks served at their seat.

Led under the stewardship of executive chefs Jean Pierre Guerin and Frederic Couton, the food has a heavy emphasis on fresh local produce with staples such as prime Alberta beef and Pacific salmon paired with award-winning Okanagan wines.

"Knowing the meals are prepared with local ingredients makes it a truly west coast experience," Guerin says. "The executive chefs have worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and between them have years of training and numerous awards, making them among the best chefs to work on board a high-end train."

Having wound our way through the Continental Divide, past Mt Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies at 3954 metres, we head deeper into gold rush country alongside the mighty Fraser River, its colour morphing from turquoise blue to chocolate milk thanks mainly to the millions of tons of sand and silt flowing in from surrounding lakes. 

It's here that the hosts come into their own, playing songs from the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, reading poem excerpts such as the blackly humorous Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service or spinning colourful yarns gleaned from local history books (many of which are available to read from the front of the train).

It doesn't take long to realise life for the miners was outrageously hard. 

In his book, Discover Barkerville: A Gold Rush Adventure, Richard Thomas Wright states: "Debt chained men to the creeks, for without money, they could not leave and there was always the chance that the next shovelful would bring gold, or that the next claim they worked for wages would pay better." 

And while some found untold riches, "A far greater number came to the Cariboo poor and desperate and left destitute and despairing. More often, a man went home wiser rather than wealthy."

Unsurprisingly a criminal element developed; men with itchy trigger fingers, enterprising brothels, gambling dens and ruthless thieves. 

Battling the so called riff raff was Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, often referred to as 'the hanging judge'. A brilliant student in mathematics and law, he was a tall, imposing character who took great pride in upholding justice in a land where the men could be as wild as the bush that surrounded them. 

Just 80 kilometres from our first overnight stop at Quesnel, the town of Barkerville – once the epicentre of the Cariboo gold rush – has been maintained as a living museum, with replica buildings and museums true to the era.

Following a brief overnight reprieve in Quesnel – marked at its entrance by a giant gold pan reminiscent of one of Australia's 'big things' – we continue south towards the 2010 Olympic village of Whistler. 

Pulling out of a mammoth lumber yard we rumble on through the lush green ranches of the North Cariboo farm land past Soda Creek, the former hub of the steamboat industry which pre-dated the rail line until 1913. 

The scenery on this leg changes faster and more dramatically than at any other stage of my trip. One minute we are racing through a forested trench amid a thunder storm, lightning flickering through the carriage, the next we're skirting the lip of the Fraser Canyon beneath brilliant blue skies, a sudden drop plunging into hundreds of kilometres of arid desert.

It's one reason that, in spite of the free-flowing cocktails and book selection, staying put can be a challenge. Frequently I find myself darting back and forth to the vestibule to marvel at the next geographical wonder.

At Deep Creek Trestle, an unnervingly narrow wooden, bridge, the distinct absence of a guard rail reveals a stomach flipping drop into raging waters hundreds of metres below. 

Around Lac La Hache, eagles and loons glide alongside the shore line, and as we descend from the Cariboo plateau past Lillooet, the train skirts Seton Lake, a vast powder blue marvel almost cartoonish in its perfection.

From Whistler, for my final leg back to Vancouver I switch to a more modest train without a glass viewing dome, though it does have a larger outdoor communal viewing carriage. 

In truth, it's something of a comedown after the luxury of Goldleaf service but this year Rocky Mountaineer is changing the route to amalgamate this final leg, turning the Rainforest to gold rush from a two-day to a three-day trip. This means for the first time, guests can enjoy Gold and Silverleaf service with domed carriages all the way from Vancouver to Jasper and vice versa. 

For me, the switch is scarcely a great hardship though. Standing in the outdoor carriage I take in Brandywine Falls, taller than Niagara Falls and said to be named after a wager between two surveyors who were debating its height. 

Passing Howe Sound, we watch hundreds of kite surfers darting about on the surface of a glacial lake, before winding on towards Porteau Cove, a popular camping spot with log cabins surrounding the water. 

Soon though, the urban sprawl of North Vancouver marks the first sign of city life I've seen in weeks. To our left, people wave emphatically from their balconies, the train's frequent arrivals now firmly entrenched in their weekly routine. 

As the crowds disperse on the platform, I take in my final glimpse of the Rocky Mountaineer pulling out of a busy urban shipyard, the skyline of Vancouver providing the backdrop.

Having traversed some of the wildest, most remote territory in the country, from jagged alpine peaks to sprawling deserts plains, it's strange that only now do I feel any real sense of isolation. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See canada.travel

GETTING THERE

Qantas offers three direct flights a week between Sydney and Vancouver during the US summer and winter periods. See qantas.com.

TOURING THERE

For 2016, Rocky Mountaineer offers more than 65 vacation packages and four unique rail routes across two levels of service.  The newly expanded three-day Rainforest to Gold Rush route starts at $2624 while the The First Passage from the West starts at $1898 a person. See rockymountaineer.com/en_AU

The writer was a guest of the Rocky Mountaineer.

FIVE CLASSIC ROCKY MOUNTAINEER ROUTES

1 FIRST PASSAGE TO THE WEST (Vancouver-Kamloops-Lake Louise to Banff)

Famous for uniting Canada's east and west this route traverses the stunning Canadian Rockies, taking in landmarks from the earliest days of railway.

2 JOURNEY THROUGH THE CLOUDS (Vancouver-Kamloops-Jasper)

Take in the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies and some of the finest views of Canada's west. 

3 CIRCLE JOURNEYS (Vancouver-Canadian Rockies-Vancouver) 

Package two or three routes into one incredible adventure. 

4 RAINFOREST TO GOLD RUSH (Vancouver-Whistler-Quesnel-Jasper)

From the highest peaks of the Canadian Rockies to the world's largest temperate rainforest, see it all on this leg.

5 COASTAL PASSAGE (Seattle-Vancouver-Canadian Rockies)

The best of western Canada with a touch of Americana thrown in. 

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