Friday, 9 December 2016

2016: My Year in Travel

In many, many ways, 2016 has been a horrendous year for the world. But you already know that. So let me change tack and talk about something positive: travel.

There's no guarantee that travel will make a narrow-minded person less narrow-minded. However, travel does give me hope.

When I travel, I learn a lot; not just about history and architecture, but about the different ways that humans have found to organise their societies. History casts a light on this in any case, but the lived experience of people in the here and now fascinates me too.

Hopefully many who travel come back with a new perspective on their own societies, and their own lives, and are the richer - and more accepting - for that. We can but hope.

Having said that, here are my personal travel highlights from the year just gone.

1. Taking the Spirit of the Outback train to Longreach, Queensland, and visiting the Qantas Founders Museum.

There's plenty do and see in Longreach and, farther out, Winton.

I was particularly interested in the Qantas Founders Museum, whose exhibits led to an interesting revelation (for me at least)...

Which is: the reason commercial air travel had such an early start in remote Queensland was because roads through the grasslands would often bog down impassably after heavy rainfalls. Aircraft allowed people to leapfrog that obstacle, and thus became instantly popular in the region, even in aviation's relatively dangerous early days.

2. Bathing at the Kaifu-Bad in Hamburg, Germany.

Image courtesy of Kaifu-Bad. © Bernadette Grimmenstein + Bäderland_0624

I love the German tradition of all-nude mixed-gender bathhouses. There's something incredibly primal and freeing about them, stripping away (literally) all the pretence and titles of the outside world. They're also very relaxing.

On my last three trips to Germany I've visited a historic bathhouse at each of Cologne, Munich and Hamburg. Those visits culminated in this story for Fairfax Media.

3. Walking the alternative streets of Christiania, Denmark.

This was literally an insight into people experimenting in alternative ways to live. Christiania is a counter-culture enclave of Copenhagen, set up in the 1970s by squatters. In many ways it hasn't worked out the way they envisaged, but that itself is an interesting part of the story.

I wrote about my tour of Christiania here.

4. Visiting two tiny mosques in Poland.

The quiet green reaches of eastern Poland are probably the last place you'd expect to find a Muslim community, but it's there. Before the 18th century Poland was the hub of a vast European state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose borders stretched toward the Black Sea.

During this period, Muslims from the Commonwealth's periphery were granted land by Polish kings in Poland's east. Centuries later there's still a community worshipping at the beautiful mosques at Bohiniki and Krusziniany, a reminder of the country's past ethnic and religious diversity.

5. Sleeping over in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

My most extraordinary experience this year was a two-day tour of Chernobyl soon after the 30th anniversary of its infamous nuclear disaster.

It was the first time I'd delved deeply into the day-to-day details of the crisis, and I was overwhelmed by the bravery of those who fought the unfolding catastrophe in the crucial first few days, with many sacrificing their lives. Without their efforts, the outcome could have been vastly worse.

The monument to emergency workers you can see above stands on the outskirts of the city. I wrote about the tour for Lonely Planet here.

6. Attending Comic-Con in San Diego, USA.

It was overwhelming, but I really enjoyed this huge pop culture event. Beyond the content of panels and workshops, the thing that really struck me was the diversity of the attendees.

There were people of every possible ethnic background dressing up as every fictional character under the sun - and dressing across gender as well. My favourite was the guy in the Wonder Woman outfit above, who became the star of my article for Fairfax Traveller.

It was inspirational to see such a diverse crowd surging around, enjoying their favourite fiction and sharing it with others. It was a great mood, and a partial antidote to the intolerance which seems to have edged back onto centre stage around the world this year. It gave me hope.

7. Dining in the Western Australian Outback via the Indian Pacific.

I caught the Indian Pacific train from Sydney to Perth in October, the first time I'd been aboard in five years. I was very impressed with the quality of the experience nowadays, especially the off-train excursions.

Simple as it was, my favourite activity was dinner on the third evening. We ate at tables set between the train and the derelict buildings of remote Rawlinna, Western Australia, as the sun set and an amazing star field emerged above. Magical.

So... how was your year in travel?

I was hosted on the trips mentioned above by the relevant tourism authorities and companies. This is my final post for 2016 (and the 450th overall on this blog!), so I'll wish you a Happy New Year now. See you in January 2017. Things can only get better... let's hope.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Poland: Bison & Legend

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. On previous visits for Lonely Planet, I paid all my own expenses.

In May this year, I had the privilege of walking through the Strictly Protected Area of Białowieża National Park in eastern Poland.

You can read the resulting story at Lonely Planet's website here.

This surviving fragment of the great forests which once covered northern Europe is special for many reasons - not least of which is being the home of the last wild European bison.

Here's a photo of one I snapped close up in winter 2006, in the European Bison Show Reserve near the park:

Impressive, isn't it? They can weigh as much as 900kg.

It's hard to see them within the forest itself, as they tend to avoid humans. But the beautiful greenery is fair compensation.

And, as timeless as this forest seems, it holds stories. My guide on this year's tour, Łukasz Ławrysz, called this massive trunk lying on the forest floor ‘The Tree of Legends’.

According to local folklore, in 1409 King Władysław II Jagiełło rested beneath this oak before heading off to fight the Teutonic Knights.

Ławrysz said the evident age of the trunk means the story was unlikely to be true; but that hasn’t stopped the legend enduring.

Sadly, near the end of the walk we came across a memorial to local people killed by the German military occupiers here between 1941 and 1944:

That's Poland – both myth and history are never far away. Even in the oldest, deepest forest.

You can learn more about Białowieża National Park at its website:

Friday, 25 November 2016

Buried Village: Te Wairoa, New Zealand

I visited Te Wairoa in 2011 courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.

Just outside Rotorua in attractive green hilly countryside is the former village of Te Wairoa.

I say 'former' because it was buried in mud by the massive eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, just 3 years after Krakatoa famously blew its top off Java.

The village then lay hidden for decades, before being excavated. Now the partly reconstructed buildings sit within beautiful green grounds, accessed with the aid of onsite guides. There's also an excellent museum within the 1930s tea rooms, where visitors can have lunch.

It's a surprisingly interesting and engaging slice of a terror-filled moment in Rotorua's 19th century life.

It's also a glimpse into the early days of mass tourism. In its heyday, ladies and gentleman were rowed across a lake from the village to bathe in terraced thermal pools.

These were sadly destroyed in the eruption - after the alleged sighting of a ghostly Maori war canoe as an omen of doom.

I visited Te Wairoa in 2011. Here are some photos I took of its fascinating remains...

For more details about Te Wairoa, including opening hours and entry fees, visit its website.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Go East! Perth to Adelaide Aboard the Indian Pacific

I was hosted aboard the Indian Pacific by Great Southern Rail.

On Sunday 13 November I boarded the Indian Pacific train in Perth.

It wasn't the first time I'd ridden this intercontinental train which connects Perth with Sydney; in fact I'd arrived in Western Australia aboard it just two weeks before.

However, this was the first time I'd ever taken this epic rail journey in the eastward direction. On all three previous occasions I'd started in Sydney.

I was interested to see what it would be like this time, starting in the sunny west and travelling eastward as far as Adelaide, where I'd disembark for a few days' stay.

The journey started at East Perth Terminal. This was way less atmospheric an embarkation point than Sydney Central, a busy and beautiful old terminus serving all types of trains and travellers.

The platforms at Perth Station in the CBD are too short, unfortunately, for the mammoth Indian Pacific (28 carriages on this occasion). So East Perth Terminal it was, and the train looked impressive as I crossed the footbridge over the rails:

As passengers registered there was a buzz in the air, a sense of embarking on a long and distinctive journey. The Indian Pacific is no afternoon jaunt; it covers almost 4400 kilometres in the three days it takes to travel between Perth and Sydney.

My compartment was a model of neat efficiency and thoughtful design, with sufficient storage space and an en suite bathroom with shower:

As we had a 10am departure, lunch was served fairly soon after we had pulled out and were passing through the Avon Valley to the east of the city. I had a quick cocktail in the bar, then stepped through to the restaurant car:

I spent the afternoon mostly in my compartment, wrestling with a complex book about the JFK assassination and taking relief by looking at the wheatbelt views passing outside the window.

We arrived in the Outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie after dinner at 9pm, then joined a bus tour which took us through the quiet Sunday night streets to an observation post above the huge Super Pit gold mine, which operates 24 hours a day:

This was followed by port in enamel mugs as we sat and watched a short theatre piece about Paddy Hannan, the Irishman who found gold here in 1893 and started a gold rush:

At 6am on Monday we arrived at Rawlinna, now a ghost town adjacent to the vast Rawlinna Station, Australia's largest sheep farm covering a million hectares. We disembarked to have breakfast at trestle tables between the empty old post office building and the train.

It was a very atmospheric experience to eat outdoors in the middle of nowhere; the train staff did a great job in catering for the masses from the onboard galleys.

Later that day we entered the Nullarbor Plain, the world's largest stretch of exposed limestone bedrock and a flat empty space void of trees.

I intended to go back to my compartment and read, but the desert was so mesmerising I stayed in the bar, chatting to fellow passengers and looking out the window.

After lunch we paused at Cook, another ghost town other than two inhabitants who help maintain the services used by trains and railway workers there.

While the Indian Pacific was having its water supplies refilled, passengers could wander round on a self-guided tour with the help of explanatory signage. Most evocative of all was the deserted school:

The rest of the day was more of the same, lots of desert until we finally re-entered the world of trees. Then it was time for bed, for the Indian Pacific was due into Adelaide just after 7am the next morning.

Then I was out onto the streets of Adelaide, returned to a world in which I had to make decisions and feed myself. Have to admit, I missed the self-contained linear paradise of the train.

The Indian Pacific runs weekly in each direction between Perth and Sydney. For timetables, fares and bookings, see Great Southern Rail's website.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Exploring History (Local and Personal) in Bunbury, Western Australia

This week I've been in the southwest corner of Western Australia, visiting family and researching travel stories.

One day I caught the local bus from my Dad's place in the Bunbury suburbs to the city centre, to see what had changed since I visited it as a a kid.

In my primary school years I lived in a little locality called Argyle, halfway between the country towns of Donnybrook and Boyanup. From our orchard it was about 30km to Bunbury, the big regional centre and in those days a city of about 25,000 people.

My impression in the 1970s was that Bunbury was very dull. An industrial port city, it seemed little interested in its history; certainly compared with the similarly-sized south coast town of Albany, which placed great emphasis on its heritage (having been founded before Perth).

By my childhood years, all Bunbury's cinemas had closed down, a victim (I assume) of the rise of television. There were, however, two drive-in cinemas which we sometimes visited for night-time entertainment.

Bunbury is still not a major tourist destination. Its one big attraction is the Dolphin Discovery Centre on Koombana Bay, where dolphins regularly interact with humans. Other than that, there are some good beaches in and around the city. 

Food and drink has improved a lot, however, since I was a kid. Back then, our dining-out choices were pub food, basic Chinese, basic Italian or (excitement!) the newly opened KFC. Now there's a broad array of cuisines on offer.

Bunbury has also finally embraced its history. A few weeks before I visited, the Bunbury Museum & Heritage Centre opened within the central Paisley Centre, a former school built in 1886.

I stepped in to have a look. The museum's interior is pleasant and spacious, its exhibits spread through a number of rooms with polished timber floors. There's even a sense of humour in the "museum rules" sign at the entrance:

In the first room I was fascinated to discover that Bunbury's location had been visited by the 1800-1803 expedition of Nicolas Baudin, a French explorer who'd been commissioned by Napoleon to visit Australia. This was several decades before the city was founded in 1836.

I knew about Baudin via a 2012 exhibition at Melbourne's NGV which had focused on Baudin's claim to parts of Victoria and South Australia, named by him as Terre Napoléon. 

Before he reached the east, however, he spent time in the west, and several places still bear the names he gave them; for example, the great bay that sweeps southwest past Busselton is called Geographe Bay after one of his ships, and Point Naturaliste is named after another. The Leschenault Estuary north of Bunbury was named for one of Baudin's botanists.

In tribute, the Bunbury museum has an excellent detailed model of the Geographe:

In addition to exhibits about the local Aboriginal culture and history of the area, which the Noongar people have lived in for some 45,000 years, there are displays focused on specific elements from more recent history.

It's somewhat disconcerting when you encounter items from your own lifetime in a history museum, but this was so as I saw photos of the old Australind train which ran between Bunbury and Perth during my childhood (this was the buffet car)...

... and an exhibit on the Mayfair Drive-in, where we used to see movies under the stars:

They even have the old Mayfair projector in place, a huge piece of equipment from the pre-digital age:

I know we favoured the Mayfair over the rival Forrest Drive-in, for reasons that elude me now. It may have been because they served sloppy joes at its cafe. Hey, those were simpler times.

After this heady dose of local history mixed with personal remembrance, I pursued a further piece of intensely personal history. The museum is located close to the original location of the now-relocated St John of God Hospital, where I was born. After a quick enquiry at a nearby real estate agency, I found the vacant lot:

And then I had a coffee at Cafe 140, a funky cafe nearby:

I think I needed a dose of modernity, after all that stirring up of old ghosts.

The Bunbury Museum & Heritage Centre is located at 1 Arthur St, Bunbury, Australia. Free entry, open 10am-4pm Tuesday to Sunday. For more details visit its website.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Review: A Night Behind Bars at Fremantle Prison YHA Hostel

I was hosted at Fremantle Prison YHA by YHA Ltd.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to spend a night inside the walls of a women's prison (and I'm sure we've all done that), then the hostel within the old convict-built prison in Fremantle, Western Australia is your dream come true. Or nightmare?

It's certainly a grim place to arrive, as you can see from the gate above. But also a highly atmospheric one. And it's not a relic of the distant past, either - the facility was used as a women's prison until 1970, and remained part of the larger prison until its closure in 1991.

YHA makes a virtue of necessity by highlighting the premises' history. Along the walls in the hostel's public areas is signage with detailed accounts of the prison's past, including profiles of particular prisoners and occasional escapees.

I like the honesty of embracing the hostel's shady back story; if this was a five-star hotel you could imagine it being discreetly hidden. In the main entrance corridor, however, institutional green still rules:

And there are twin-bed rooms within the former cells:

The other public areas are less reminiscent of a place of incarceration. There's a spacious lounge beneath timber beams, and two outdoor areas set with tables and hammocks:

This plentiful outdoor space makes the hostel feel very open and airy, rather than possessing the closed-in vibe you might expect from a former jail. I imagine it's because the prisoners required outdoor space for exercise, which is now available for the hostel's use.

There are dorm beds on offer, but I stayed in a private room. These are in a separate block newly built between the women's prison building and the rear limestone wall. My room was simple but comfortable, with a double bed, two bunk beds and an en suite bathroom.

The final public area is a spacious kitchen, itself with a small lounge area attached:

If you look closely, you'll notice a prison-themed element to the decor: a height chart, as used in mug shots. Just right for a novelty photo to share online:

Who is this dangerous-looking desperado?

The YHA Fremantle Prison is located at 6a The Terrace, Fremantle, Australia. Dorm beds start at $23, twin-bed cells at $68, and larger en suite rooms at $112 per night. Find more information and make bookings at its website.