October 28, 2009
IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, DAVID ELLIS says you can lay in bed in one of the world's most unusual hotels and imagine the crowd as it roars "Olé, Olé!", and in your mind's eye picture dark-haired beauties tossing blood-red roses to their matador heroes in what was once one of Mexico's most famous bull-fighting arenas…
Because the Hotel Quinta Real Zacatecas has been built into the grandstands of the old San Pedro bull ring, a spectacular 19th century Spanish-style structure that saw its last encounter between man and beast in 1975.
Guest rooms have balconies overlooking the original ring that's now paved with cobblestones sprinkled with vast pots of flowering plants, and there's a restaurant and bar at ground level on the very edge of the ring itself.
If you are interested in a stay, have a look at www.quintareal.com
JOHN Robb knew how to turn a quid, and when the Queensland government couldn't get anyone to finish a railway line from the mosquito-ridden port of Cairns to the wealthy, but remote, farmlands and mining areas "up the range" behind town, he decided in his largesse to come to their aid.
It was the 1880s and Mr Robb dictated a telegram to his secretary proposing to Queensland that he complete the rail line. When it came to a price, Mr Robb sucked on his pencil for a moment, and decided on 290,155 pounds ($580,300.)
It was a stab in the dark, but a healthy one, and Mr Robb was not the least concerned that he had no idea of the area through which the rail line would run, how many bridges, culverts and tunnels may be required, nor that anyone in his Melbourne civil engineering company had ever been to Cairns.
But he knew that the Queensland government was desperate to complete the line at any cost, and a couple of weeks later he was invited to build Stage Two of the Cairns-Kuranda rail line. Four years later when the job was completed, he revealed to colleagues that he'd turned a profit of $250,000 – an absolute fortune in 1891.
But Mr Robb soon learnt why two previous contractors had gone bankrupt building Stage One of the line, leaving the government to complete that stage itself at enormous cost.
Queensland desperately needed the 75km-long Kuranda line. The country around the developing little tablelands settlement abounded with rich pastoral land, tin and some gold, and huge timber reserves that were there for the taking.
But it was virtually cut off from the outside world, and when the pastoralists, miners and timber-getters were deemed to be on the verge of famine, the government finally decided to act. Roads were out of the question, and rail the only apparent solution.
John Robb recruited 1500 labourers, and although he'd included the cost of buying their tools in his contract, told them that if they wanted a job they would have to provide their own picks and shovels. He was making a profit before work even began.
And with just these hand tools, wheel carts, buckets, dynamite and muscle power, Mr Robb and his men removed an astonishing 2,300,000 cubic metres of rainforest mountainside, dug 15 tunnels through rock and earth (one has three opposite curves snaking around the contour of the mountain,) constructed 40 bridges and culverts, and laid 34km of track.
And staved-off aggressive Aborigines who objected to the railway running through their tribal lands.
When one tunnel slid down the mountainside in a tropical downpour, Mr Robb simply told his surveyor to amend the plans. "Put bridge, not tunnel," he grunted. In other downpours – up to 1800mm (nearly 6ft) in 72-hours – workers watched great sections of track slide hundreds of metres into valleys below, then dug deeper into the 75-degree mountainside to lay new track.
Labourers were paid the equivalent of 80c a day. After they went on strike, Mr Robb agreed to pay them 85c a day.
A spectacular curved steel trestle named Stoney Creek Bridge is said today to be the most photographed bridge in Australia outside of Sydney, and it was on this that Queensland Governor Sir Henry Wiley Norman, who revelled in public acclaim, decided he would officially declare the completed line open.
A grand banquet was prepared on the bridge for scores of local dignitaries, and Mr Robb and his senior staff.
But alas Sir Henry's well-researched speech was never heard: The waterfall behind the bridge was in flood and the sound so deafening that no one could hear a word from the official dais. When asked why he'd not advised of the flood John Robb, who had little time for bureaucracy, said: "No one asked me."
History says that it was a very well fed and very drunk official party that returned to Cairns that night. All, that is, except a despondent Sir Henry.
|Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is 7.5 km long|
Ask travel agents to book you on the 1.5hr trip up the rainforest mountain on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, and back down to Cairns on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway when making Cairns holiday reservations – it'll prove a day you'll long remember.
 PICTURE-perfect, the most-photographed railway bridge in Australia is the Stoney Creek trestle on the Kuranda Rail line.
 JOHN Robb and some of his 1500-strong team who built the daunting Kuranda Rail line by hand.
 PICTURESQUE Kuranda Railway Station; take the train the 75km up the Range, and the Skyrail cableway back to Cairns.
October 27, 2009
Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor adventurer or novice camper, a campervan holiday is one of the most affordable, fun and easy ways to explore the diverse beauty and landscapes of Australia and New Zealand. In the first three months of 2009, Australian tourists spent $284.8 million on caravan park accommodation reflecting the high demand for this cheaper form of travel and accommodation. To assist avid campers across the summer season, the team at Jucy Rentals is sharing their top camping tips.
“The best thing about camping in a campervan is that you don’t have to worry about pitching a tent. All you do is drive to your favourite destination – you can stay as long or as little as you like and you have the freedom to explore,” says Tim Alpe, co-founder of Jucy Rentals.
2. Mosquito season – The warmer weather often brings with it a variety of creepy crawlies that will feast on summer campers if they aren’t prepared. The Jucy team strongly recommends bringing insect repellant and a few citronella candles for long nights by the campfire.
3. Navigation – “A good old fashioned road map is a great way to mark out your journey. However if you’d rather not get into an argument over directions, you may want to spend a little extra and hire a GPS navigator instead,” says Tim. Jucy rents out GPS navigators to their customers for an average of $8 per day.
4. Bush tucker – Jucy campervans come equipped with all the kitchen essentials so that campers can whip up some culinary delights. “If you’re travelling across Australia you may also want to try some of the local cuisine – Kangaroo, Crocodile or Emu can be tasty!” says Tim.
5. Survival tips – “Use your commonsense. Lock your campervan, store valuables in your Jucy safe. There’s nothing worse than being stranded without your mobile phone or wallet”, says Tim. In the unexpected event of a breakdown, Jucy will send out a mobile mechanic to fix and/or replace your vehicle.
6. Think green – “Respect the environment and leave only your footprints,” says Tim. Jucy customers also have the option of hiring a ‘dirty car’ – a car that has not been washed on the outside, but still clean on the inside, at the same time saving campers up to $10 off the overall amount of their Jucy hire.
7. Bargain hunting - Jucy occasionally holds $1 relocation specials – if Jucy has too many vehicles in one drop off they sometimes need drivers to get them back to other depots. For information visit “steal a deal” on the Jucy website.
8. Entertain yourselves – “When travelling in a campervan there can be some long drives so some fun ways to keep you entertained include keeping count of the number of Jucy vans on the road and having a drink for each of them when you arrive at your destination!” says Tim. “You could also try looking for the towns with the longest or most unusual names. If you plan to drive to South Australia you can visit Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill – the town with the longest name in Australia, or in New Zealand Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu,” says Tim.
9. Don’t forget your toothbrush – bring the essentials. Pack plenty of underwear, swimwear, toiletries, food, dishwashing liquid and a guidebook also comes in handy. “When it comes to looking chic on the road, ladies can plug their hair straighteners and dryers into most of the Jucy campers, but I would suggest leaving your creature comforts at home, it’s camping after all,” says Tim.
10. Best drives and destinations – Australia
o Great Ocean Road – Drive along the scenic Victorian road for spectacular views including the iconic Twelve Apostles.
o Byron Bay – About 12 hours north of Sydney, Byron Bay is the perfect destination for surfing, whale-watching and relaxing by the beach.
o Brisbane to Cairns – Drive north up the Sunshine State and visit small towns and the beach-side paradises along the way including Mackay, Rockhampton, the Whitsundays and Townsville.
Best drives and destinations – New Zealand
o Northland – At the top of the North Island, Northland is a perfect destination for summer camping with activities such as fishing, surfing the sand dunes and amazing forest walks - and with the broad range of holiday parks throughout Northland it’s a fantastic spot for campers.
o The National Parks of the South Island – The South Island of New Zealand is home to eight national parks including the Kahurangi and Mt Aspiring National Parks. Each park offers a unique variety of spectacular views, natural wonders and campsites.
o Queenstown – On the South Island of New Zealand, Queenstown is surrounded by magnificent mountains and is right on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Over summer Queenstown is also home to the Summerdaze festival (Dec 31 – Feb 1) which includes a range of recreational, sporting, arts and cultural events.
For more information or to book your next camping holiday visit www.jucy.com.au or www.jucy.co.nz.
Having launched in January 2002 in New Zealand, Jucy Rentals is one of Australasia’s fastest growing independent rental companies. Founded by brothers Tim & Dan Alpe, Jucy has grown from 35 cars to a fleet of over 2000 ok vehicles. Jucy currently employs 85 energetic and youthful staff members in offices throughout New Zealand and Australia. Jucy entered the Australian market in 2008, bringing the vibrant Jucy Crib campervan to streets all over Australia. In 2009 Jucy launched its new fleet of four-seater ‘Choppa’ campervans. Jucy Australia is located in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Jucy New Zealand is located in Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Greymouth.
October 13, 2009
Mainly I've been attending to the latest volume of Diaries - Halfway to Hollywood, 1980-88. A lot to do at the last minute - checking we've spelt names right, making sure we won't be sued - then preparing for publication with interviews, radio and TV, recordings of the audio book and so on.
All pretty good but Paul O'Grady show was the best fun. It helped that Paul is a great traveller and loves diaries. Now I'm on the road defacing people's books. I notice someone has very helpfully put the signings schedule on the site. Thanks for that and see you there.
At the same time I've been taking time to fulfil my duties as President of The Royal Geographical Society, which began on June 1st for a three-year period. We're now into the Monday lecture season and have already had amazing talks on the ancient rock carvings of the Sahara, Frank Gardner's unstoppable enthusiasm for all dangerous sports despite being paralysedafter the attack on him and his film crew in Saudi Arabia, and coming up is a talk from the great mountain climber Andy Cave. All proving geography is NOT boring!
As if this weren't enough there's been a lot of interest in how old the Pythons are. In fact our first programme ever went out on the BBC forty years ago this October. A new documentary "Monty Python - Almost The Truth, The Lawyers Cut" has been made to celebrate our fortieth birthday. Six hours of new interviews, recently discovered material and some of the old classics put together for television and condensed into a 105-minute film for theatres. I'm off to New York this week to re-unite with all those Pythons still alive for a premiere of the movie and a BAFTA award. Then back home to appear at the Royal Albert Hall on 23rd October playing a few minor roles in Eric Idle and John du Prez's oratorio "Not The Messiah" - a musical evening based on the Life of Brian and featuring a huge orchestra and a huge choir in the huge Royal Albert Hall.
In between all this I'm trying to press on with a new novel - my first since "Hemingway's Chair" in 1994. I'm keen to let my imagination loose . It's been cooped up too long.
I'll continue to be tempted by a return to the road, but it doesn't look as if I've much time for new places - at least for a while. I'm still looking at the atlas, though.
Thanks to all those who've come along to the talks or signings I've been doing for Halfway To Hollywood. It's always good to meet you and your loyalty is greatly appreciated by me, my wife, my bank manager and both our cats, Elsie and Edith.
Sometimes I'm quite glad to be able to stay at home for a while. I've seen so much these past 21 years that I need to take it all in. Try and make sense of what I've seen. Otherwise it becomes a blur. Fortunately I have time, through the Royal Geographical Society, to stay in touch with travel and travellers, and I like to hear of your own experiences - especially of places I've never been to. My list of must-see before I die places would include Brazil, Iran, Oman, Sri Lanka and Bridlington. Oh well, I can dream.
Enjoy yourselves and stay restless,
October 11th 2009
October 12, 2009
AN American guest at the Prince of Wales Hotel in the Canadian Rockies confided to his mates how he'd almost – just almost – sworn off the grog, after a session on the hootch that had left him confronting more in the way of spirits than he'd bargained on.
After a successful day's fishing on Waterton Lake at the foot of the hotel, the man had shared a whiskey or ten with his fellow anglers, and retired a little later than normal with another early morning on the lake weighing on his mind.
Collapsing into bed, he was just dozing off when he was startled by the feeling that someone was tucking the covers in around him.
Befuddled, he stumbled out of bed and switched-on the light. The room was empty.
Putting it down to possibly one or three too many, he was soon heading back into the Land of Nod – when he was awakened again: but this time with the feeling that the covers were being pulled up around his neck.
When he again stumbled from his bed, and realised that the room once more was empty and that he was in a lather of sweat, he swore that when he got home he'd book-in with either his shrink or AAs.
He stayed awake for the rest of the night with the light on, and next morning red-eyed and sheepish, mentioned his experience to his companions over breakfast.
A passing waiter overheard the conversation and interrupted. "Sarah!" he said with delight. "Our Sarah!"
The American was flabbergasted. "You mean, some woman was actually in my room… tucking me in? Fella, you can tell this Sarah that if she comes into my room again, I'll report her to management, and have her fired!"
"That would be difficult, sir," the waiter replied. "Sarah jumped off the roof over 20 years ago…. she's just heart-broken and keeps wanting to come back to us.
"Quite a few staff have actually seen her over the years, while guests have said they feel her presence."
Sarah, the waiter continued, was a teenage housemaid with a crush on another employee who showed little interest in reciprocating her feelings. So one night she climbed the hotel's bell tower and jumped 7-storeys to her death.
Ever since there have been odd incidents of guests reporting that just as they've started to doze off, they've been startled by the sensation that someone was tucking the covers around them.
One man even told fellow guests how he'd mumbled a sleepy "thank you" to his wife – only to turn over and realise she was in the shower.
But the thoughtful Sarah isn't the only sad spirit roaming the rooms of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
A married couple who worked there – he was a quick-tempered cook, she was a friendly and outgoing concierge – had a blazing row in the staff wing one Friday night after the wife had come to bed late after playing board games with other staffers.
Angry that she'd given her time to fellow staff and not him, the husband beat her senseless and fled the hotel.
When neither appeared for work the following Monday, management broke in and found the body of the wife; to this day, the husband has never been found.
But his wife's ghost is said to be felt around the old staff quarters that are now guest rooms. "People say they simply 'feel' there is someone in a room with them, a sort of a warmth as if someone's body heat is close to them," one duty-manager said.
"It's eerie, but not worrying. The poor woman, just like Sarah, loved the hotel and is just looking for companionship amongst old friends."
You'll find the Prince of Wales Hotel a delightful retreat on a North America summer holiday, particularly if you are into long walks, canoeing, sailing, fishing and other myriad outdoor adventures – and good dining.
And you won't have to worry too much about its ghosts: encounters with Sarah and the outgoing concierge are few and generally far between.
For information about holidaying at the Prince of Wales Hotel see travel agents, phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or email email@example.com
 SPIRITED retreat that almost put a man off the drink.
 SPECTACULAR Waterton Lake from the hotel
October 11, 2009
YOU can't go far in England without coming across some link with slavery: much of the country's early wealth came from the trade.
Even Queen Elizabeth I and King Charles II both played major roles, Barclays Bank was founded by families whose fortunes came from slavery, and The National Gallery in London was started with a collection of paintings donated by John Julius Angerstein, whose money also came from the slave trade.
And one of the governors of the Bank of England owned slave ships, while entrepreneurs Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake both made a quid out of trading in slaves – and ended up with knighthoods.
One of the earliest in the business was Sir John Hawkins, who ultimately became Treasurer of the Royal Navy. In 1562 he captured 300 slaves in Portuguese Guinea, took them to the Caribbean, and with the profits sailed off with three ships laden with goodies to flog in England.
When she heard about the slaves Queen Elizabeth berated him, saying "It is detestable and it will call down vengeance from heaven upon you." But when he told her that in exchange for the slaves, he had a cargo of sugar, ginger, hides and pearls, she had a quick change of heart.
And became his business partner.
By Hawkins' third trip to Africa in 1567, the Queen had loaned him two government ships with which he captured almost 500 slaves.
And King Charles II was a major shareholder in the Royal African Company, which shipped 70,000 African slaves to the West Indies between 1680 and 1688. Only 46,000 made it alive to the islands, but profits were still huge.
Next time you're visiting England, head north from London and in Olney in Buckinghamshire you'll find an original link with the slave trade – and hear at least one good story to come out of the whole horrid business.
Olney is a pleasant little town of about 6000, and its weekly markets are a major tourist drawcard.
But its best known for an 18th century resident, the Rev John Newton. He was a former slave trader and born-again Christian who in his "new life" wrote one of the world's best-loved hymns – Amazing Grace.
He says he was inspired by his conversion and realisation of his despicable career.
John Newton was born in London in 1725, went to sea at age 11, and ended up as master of a ship taking slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.
But in 1748 he almost perished during a massive storm. So convinced was he that his ship was going to sink that he turned to God, mumbling prayers he'd learned as a child: miraculously the storm subsided and his ship made it safely back to England.
However he remained a slave trader for some years, but at least treated his human cargoes with more compassion than did others.
And when he finally turned his back on seafaring and his conversion was completed he was given the post of curate at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney. There he composed hymns for his weekly sermon, often helped by his neighbour, the melancholic poet William Cowper.
A book of 282 hymns by Newton and 66 by Cowper is still considered one of the greatest hymn books of all time.
One of Newton's hymns, Faith's Review and Expectation was written to accompany his New Year's Eve sermon in 1773; it became better known as Amazing Grace, because of its opening words:
'Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.'
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.'
The music is said to have been copied from the melody of a song sung by slaves on Newton's ships – but this is probably urban myth – and Newton is said to have inspired his friend and MP, William Wilberforce to successfully lobby for the abolition of slavery.
Newtown's home town is today the home of the world's best known pancake race that draws contestants from around the world every Shrove Tuesday.
But most tourists to visit Olney to see the room in the Old Vicarage where he wrote Amazing Grace, and the next-door former home of his poet friend, and which is now the Cowper and Newton Museum.
 THE Old Vicarage, Olney where the Reverend John Newtown wrote Amazing Grace
 THE Reverend John Newton: 'born again' Christian who turned his back on a career in slavery
 COWPER and Newton Museum in Olney, Buckinghamshire
Paul Strachan (Owner of Pandaw Cruises) writes frankly on his return from the maiden voyage
In October 2009 we were the first passenger ship to sail between Calcutta and Varanasi on the Ganges since the 1930s. This was a historic occasion, but not without many challenges and difficulties. This is the most beautiful and culturally varied river I have explored - but it is also the most daunting for crew and passengers alike.
The RV Bengal Pandaw was launched in Burma as Pandaw IV in 2004 and has twenty-eight promenade deck staterooms. The eight hundred mile expedition is of fifteen days duration and only ten sailings are planned for the coming season. The expedition takes in a number of the most important historical sites in India including the colonial splendours of Calcutta, the sacred places of Buddhism around Bodh Gaya and Benares, now called Varanasi, the great cultural centre of Hinduism. In addition, the Pandaw stops daily in smaller towns and villages to see handicrafts, rural life and a variety of local cultures as we pass from region to region.
Given the practical difficulties of crossing India by land, a river cruise makes the best sense covering a vast landscape in comfort and safety and exploring the real India well off the beaten track. The scenery is amazing and the excursions ashore are varied and exciting. Each day is quite different with a wealth of things to do and see. The standard of guides in India, with their good English and intellectuality, is far better than in the other countries we operate in and the lectures and briefings proved highly stimulating.We also have a medical doctor on the team who doubles as resident naturalist.
Each of the subsequent river expeditions will be highly adventurous and should not be booked by the faint hearted. Itineraries are skeletal and indicational only. Each day the schedule will be subject to constant revisions. Some excursions may be cancelled, whilst you may find yourself on excursions never offered in the first place! All depends on water levels and flow rates, the weather, local bureaucracy and a hundred other factors that make and shape a cruise. Do not expect this to be a slick well-oiled operation like our cruises on the Mekong! These cruises really are expeditions in the full sense of the word.
Note also that the service, food and beverage standards that you would expect on a Pandaw will not be up to standard. The food is mainly Indian and this is generally good, but over 10 days can become repetitive for many. Despite initial licencing scares we have been able to offer complimentary beers and local drinks. Please understand that this is a new destination for us working with a new crew in a country with quite different standards to what you would find in South-East Asia. Please bear this in mind if you are considering booking this cruise.
We had planned 14 nights on board but given the disparity in service standards between India and our other operations I have decided to reduce the number of days spent cruising to 10 with 2 nights in deluxe hotels either side of the cruise: in Varanas at the brand new Radisson and in Calcutta at the splendid Oberoi Grand. I feel that given the fact that it will take some time for us to get standards up to scratch, working in a very tough environment, we should offer our passsengers a little more comfort before and after the cruise. Pandaw will absorb this cost and the original rates offered remain. These revised itineraries are now online.
I would say, though, that this is the 'Mother of Rivers' - no other river can match the Ganges in terms of scenery, cultural variety, quantity of historic sites not to mention profuse bird and wild life. This definitely is the way to do India. If you are not too sure if you are ready for it, or rather we are ready, give us a couple of years to get up to speed. In this first year of operations nearly all the people joining the cruise are old Pandaw passengers, who, thankfully, understand what our team are up against and do their best to support them. We are very grateful for that.