December 07, 2010

Struth! First is was Watergate ...

STRUTH !    

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, on a recent overseas travel writing trip David Ellis snapped this eye-catching sign at the entrance to the passenger shipping terminal at Valletta in Malta.

We leave it to readers' imagination as to what they can make of it, but locals assured David it was "just a name" for the vehicular entrance to the wharf "like you might have Red Gate or Blue Gate on your wharves in Australia."

But we think the Maltese name is far more intriguing than that!

December 06, 2010


David Ellis

WHEN Walter Cunningham is invited to tell people his views on our Planet, he does not bore them with his thoughts on politics, religion, climate change or other debatable subjects.

Rather he has them in awe of his accounts – with accompanying extraordinary photographs – of the world as he's actually seen it.

Because, in 1968 Walter Cunningham was pilot of the Apollo 7 space craft, America's first manned space flight of the Apollo Program, and forerunner of America landing a man on the moon just eight months later.

It gave him a perfect view of the world as a rare few others had seen it – from 300km in space. With two companions, he circled the globe at an extraordinary 28,000km per hour.

Within the confines of a tiny 5.9 cubic metres cone for eleven days, the trio lived on forgettable freeze-dried meals, worked constantly on carefully-controlled tests of every spacecraft system, and occasionally snatched views of the world below. At the speed they were travelling, "daylight" lasted just 45-minutes, and "nights" were equally short.

But despite the constraints of their spacecraft, Walter still believes he and his two companions had the world's most envied jobs. "As President Kennedy said: 'We are doing this (going to the Moon) not because it is easy, but because it is hard,'" Walter recalls, adding: "My generation lived in an era in which we could look beyond the moon, and reach for the stars."

Today he's still straddling the world, but now it's by jet plane and luxury cruise ships to talk to audiences as diverse as professional, academic and social groups, and laid-back holidaymakers on some of the world's most exclusive cruise ships.

And yes he admits to enjoying the spaciousness of the pointy-end of the plane when he travels now, the comforts of 5-star hotels and cruise ships, and the companionship of plenty of people to talk to, compared with his confines aboard Apollo 7.

"Although it really wasn't that cramped," he says. "After we slipped off our space suits, and because of the weightlessness in space, we could just float around inside the spacecraft. Try that as a break from the routine of a pokey office in Downtown New York!"

And during his lectures, Walter Cunningham covers NASA's "Golden Age" of space exploration, America and Russia's space relations – and touches on the question most of us would like the answer to: "Could there be intelligent life out there?"

And how he got into space travel. "I logged 4,500 hours as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, and was pursuing a doctorate in physics before joining the NASA space program. Shortly after I was chosen for the back-up crew for Apollo 1," he told us aboard boutique motor-cruiser SeaDream I on a recent voyage from Spain across the Atlantic to the Caribbean last month.
The Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire on its launch paid in 1967 and all three crewmembers died in about 20 seconds. The following year, on October 11 1968, with Mission Commander Walter M. Schirra and fellow Pilot Donn F. Eisele, Walter Cunningham blasted into space aboard Apollo 7 from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.

In his lectures he shares his thoughts as the massive Saturn1B rocket hurtled beyond earth, the "separation" of the tiny cone-shaped Command Module, and life aboard that little cone for its three occupants over the next eleven days.

Their's and many other photographs taken from space captivate his audiences: the world's most active volcanoes, largest glaciers, biggest ice-bergs, greatest sea straits, the Great Barrier Reef and American hurricanes, the Pyramids, New York City – and by contrast, tiny Kitty Hawk sandy beach where the Wright Brothers made their first flight – as never seen before.

"Especially warming to us was Australia's Perth, whose residents turned all their lights on as we passed over," Walter recalls.

Texas-based, he holds the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, is a Member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, travels the world lecturing and speaking, has written a book The All-American Boys about his space exploits, hosts a radio talk show – and was awarded an Emmy for his role in the first live TV broadcast from space.

If you're interested in talking to him about being a guest presenter, see



[]  THE Apollo 7 crew: Walter Cunningham is on the left, with fellow Pilot Donn Eisele and Mission Commander Walter Schirra.

[] THE Strait of Gibraltar as seen from space – it's the world's busiest shipping lane linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

[]  RED silt wash through the Betsiboka River Delta in Madagascar,  the result of massive deforestation that's left little of the natural forests standing.

[]  THE Bosphorous separating Europe and Asia as seen from space.

[]  A SPACE view of Egypt's Great Pyramids.

Photos: Courtesy of NASA and  Walter Cunningham


December 04, 2010

Villages of Victoria: a guide to Walhalla

Villages of Victoria: a guide to Walhalla

One of Victoria’s top five "Must Do" destinations, the Walhalla Historic Township is one of Victoria’s most intriguing places. Located in Gippsland alpine wilderness, just over two hours drive from Melbourne, it has less than 20 permanent residents, making it one of the smallest villages in Victoria, yet 100,000 visitors make the trip here every year. Why? Perhaps because visiting Walhalla is like stepping back in time.

Once one of Australia's richest towns and home to over 4000 gold seekers, the township is a perfectly preserved example of a 1800s gold rush village. Each of the stores and hotels in Walhalla’s main street – and even some of the houses – have been restored or built as a replica of the gold-era style of the 1800s. The band rotunda was rebuilt, as were the Walhalla Chronicle offices, the old corner store, the Mechanics Institute, the post office and many other buildings.

Considered one of the most spectacular rail journeys in Australia, the restored narrow-gauge Walhalla Goldfields Railway, which runs most Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, is another key attraction.

Walhalla’s Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine, once Victoria’s fifth largest mine, offers regular tours. Visitors go to the underground machine chamber, a vast space in the rock where steam engines operated the machinery that crushed granite, yielding gold. The mineshaft dives to 931 metres and photographs in the museum show workers descending in tiny metal boxes and pit ponies being lowered into the depths. During the life of the mine it yielded 72 tonnes of gold which would be worth a staggering $5.8 billion today.

The Star Hotel, replica of the original by the same name, is one of a number of accommodation options in Walhalla and also has a restaurant open for dinner. Windsor House a bed and breakfast, was built in the 1890s from 90,000 handmade bricks. The town is easy to explore by foot. A self-guided walk following the interpretive signs takes about two hours. Another walking option is the steep hillside to the Walhalla Cemetery, where there are more than 1100 graves of the miners and settlers, as well as stunning views.
*online poll conducted by the RACV in partnership with Tourism Victoria

December 02, 2010

Struth! Naples talks garbage


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says holidaymakers and business travellers heading to the Italian city of Naples are being warned of a health hazard: thousands of tonnes of rubbish are piling up in the city streets because of a dispute over a new landfill site.

Protesters are allegedly blocking garbage trucks from doing their rounds, and residents and business houses whose bins and skips have filled are now simply dumping their refuse on the streets.

The new landfill site will reportedly be "the biggest in Europe," with objectors saying their children will be forced to grow up in a "world of rubbish and health hazards."

Local mayors have called for the scheme to be abandoned, but the Italian government says it will go ahead, and that any concerns about odours and health hazards are baseless.

The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi says police are about to escort garbage trucks into Naples so that "all the rubbish in the streets will be removed within the next two weeks."

And he's been warned by the European Environment Commission that if its not, Italy will face huge fines for allowing the street pollution.


David Ellis

WHEN they made the movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin in picturesque little Sami on the Greek island of Cephalonia in 2001, it proved a windfall of unimaginable proportions for the village's waterfront restaurateurs

They earned more during the filming than they'd done in years, but not from gawking sightseers hoping to catch a glimpse of Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Gage strutting their stuff for the cameras.

Rather they made it by turning customers away, leaving virtually every one of their waterfront tables empty.

When producers decided on Sami they needed not a row of waterfront restaurants overflowing with tourists for their background, but near-empty eateries reflecting the austere 1940s of wartime Greece.

So they pulled out their cheque books and paid the owners of the restaurants to shut down during their busiest period of the year, giving them three times the profits they'd normally make during their annual tourist season.

And as well, they offered them work as extras in crowd scenes, and scores of other locals were contracted to build a replica military garrison, and again to act as extras.  Cephalonia's northern region had never had it so good.

Today little Sami remains a prime mid-year tourist area, although it and other towns and villages on the island are still hurting from the global economic crisis, with business down as much as thirty per cent.

Cephalonia is a must-see on a Mediterranean holiday: we visited in early October as part of a 12-night sailing aboard the boutique mega-motor-cruiser SeaDream I from Athens to Spain, and even though end-of-season the island was still spectacularly beautiful.

The largest of the Ionian Islands, it is a mountainous dot amid the confetti of islands that sprinkle this part of the Mediterranean. But you don't want to have a fear of heights to tour here: the roads appear zippered onto hills that rise to 1300-metres or more, with tour coaches and local cars and trucks constantly needing to back-and-fill on hairpin 320-degree turns that are not for the white-knuckled.

These roads were originally devised by the British during their "protection era" from 1809 to 1864 and lead to remote communities and ancient forts built to repel Turkish and other pirates; sure-footed mountain goats tended by leathered goatherds somehow graze the rocky 50-degree slopes, olive trees sprout in all directions, and the sharp-eyed can spot hares, hedgehogs and foxes, eagles, vultures and hawks.

And gems of little villages pop up on mountainsides and along coastal fringes, colourful little communities of neat pastel-painted homes, cafés and tavernas, and studios and apartments for holidaymakers during "the season."

And all abound with rainbow coloured Bougainvilleas, oleanders, hibiscus, geraniums, roses, giant impatiens and palms and pines. One of the prettiest is waterside Assos whose outdoor eateries and tavernas offer such local delicacies as squid, barbecued sardines and kid goat cutlets, local olives, honey, nuts, grapes and tropical fruits, and in some a unique Cephalonian fish pie.

Like everywhere else on the island except the main town of Fiskardho and its scattering of surrounding villages in the north, Assos is a relatively "new" village.  Cephalonia sits directly over a geological fault-line and is regularly subjected to earth tremors and shakes: in 1953 four massive quakes in one day struck at over 7 on the Richter Scale.

Ninety per cent of homes and other buildings in Cephalonia's centre and south were demolished or so badly damaged that over 100,000 of the island's 125,000 residents fled, most never returning.

Five hundred people died during that day of horror earthquakes, 3000 were injured, and the island rose 60cm and never settled back again... watermarks along rocky shorelines record this massive upheaval.

Those who stayed or did return built new homes and businesses, often as in the case of Assos, cheek-by-jowl with their shattered neighbours that are to this day still abandoned, yet complete with furnishings and household items left by owners who simply fled.

After a burst of tourist activity from May to September, most of Cephalonia retreats into a kind of hibernation, with places like Assos dwindling to around 100 residents outside "the season."

For more information about visiting see travel agents, and for itineraries of when SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I and SeaDream II will visit Cephalonia in 2011 see 




[] PICTURESQUE settings like this lured Hollywood to Cephalonia to make Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

[] MILLIONAIRE's yachts share the cluttered waterfront at Fiskardo with sardine fishers just metres from sunny waterfront eateries.

[] A SPECTACULAR beach on Cephalonia… but getting there is not for the white-knuckled.

[] ABANDONED buildings like this still remain in pretty little Assos after residents fled after the deadly 1953 earthquakes. You'd need to be more than a handyman to get this one liveable again.

Photos: david ellis


David Ellis

HAD it not been for the Central Hotel in Boscobel in Wisconsin being over-booked one night in the American Autumn of 1898, the world would never have enjoyed the legacy of John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill.

Nor probably have even heard of them.

But it was Messrs Nicholson and Hill who were the founding fathers of a movement that became known as the Gideons, an extraordinarily forward-thinking yet publicity-shy group of Christians who in 112 years have freely placed over 1.6-billion Bibles and New Testaments in places as diverse as 5-star hotels and condemned men's prison cells world-wide.

But the Gideons have not been without their set-backs… when the one-billionth Bible was accepted at the White House by President George W. Bush, elaborate celebrations were marred within hours by events of the following day – September 11 2001.

John Nicholson and Samuel Hill were commercial travellers who found themselves forced to share a room in Boscobel's Central Hotel because it was over-booked on that night in 1898.

The two quickly discovered they shared strong Christian beliefs and values, and decided to maintain contact.  Gradually they brought together a fraternity of other Christians in their profession – men who spent long and lonely hours away from their families, moving from hotel room to hotel room as they flogged their wares along the highways and by-ways of America.

By July 1899 they'd formed a small group that called themselves the Gideons, and at a meeting in 1904 decided that to provide comfort for travellers in spiritual need, and to spread the word of the Bible, each man would contribute towards the cost of a Bible being placed at the Reception Desk of hotels in which they stayed.

Four years later at a convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the Gideons voted to go further than a Bible at every Reception Desk: they'd place one in every room of every hotel in America. The first went into twenty-five rooms in a hotel in the boisterous little mining town of Superior in Montana, and were paid for by one devout Gideon supporter, Archie Bailey.

Since then 1,630,523 Bibles and New Testaments have been placed free of cost in hotels and lodging houses, at Antarctic bases and in desert military camps, aboard cruise ships, in prisons, hospitals and in nursing homes in 192 countries world-wide…

The latest countries to be included in their distribution were Kiribati in September of this year, and Madagascar in October.

Initially members of the Gideons met the costs of the Bibles and their distribution, but later Christian churches began contributing to the cause.

And in some 40-plus years that's taken us within and without Australia more times than we care to remember, we've found only three hotels in Christian countries that did not have a Gideon's Bible in their rooms.

At Cunnamulla in Queensland, a local hotelier said that while there may not be a Bible in every bedside cabinet, they did have one for every room.

"But they're kept in the office," she told us. "Some cattle station blokes who'd  stay here on Saturday nights were tearing the pages out of our Bibles because they reckoned they made great roll-your-own smokes," she said. "There's now a note in rooms saying they can borrow a Bible from the office if they want."

Our second encounter was on Vancouver Island in Canada, where our hotel GM said he'd told the Gideons they could put a Bible in every room – if they also gave the hotel a holy book for all other major religions.

"They didn't of course. But we relented," he said. "And while not in each room, we now we have Gideon Bibles available at Reception."

And the third was in New York where guests at a hotel are offered a complimentary pet goldfish during their stay, but not a Gideon's Bible. Their explanation was that "society evolves."

The Gideons neither seek publicity nor publicly solicit funds. In Australia they distribute over 350,000 new Bibles and Testaments a year – part of a staggering 1.5-million printed in 90 languages around the world every week.

And all originating from that night 112 years ago when commercial travellers, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill were forced to share a room in an over-booked hotel.


[] THE first 25 of the world's 1.6-billion Gideon Bibles to go into hotel rooms were placed here in the Superior Hotel in Montana in 1908.

[]  A typical Gideon's Bible found today in 192-countries world-wide.

[]  THE Cunnamulla Hotel in Queensland: Gideon Bibles are kept in the office after some guests discovered the rice-paper pages were idea for roll-your-own cigarettes.


When I retire, I’m going cruising

Some weeks ago we unearthed a trend among cruise lines for offering sanctuary to retired politicians willing to spill the beans on their many years in office. We uncovered the likes of Bob and Blanche Hawke, who cruised with Orion, Robert “Piggy” Muldoon, who cruised with Royal Viking and the late Don Chipp (an ardent cruise fan) who sailed aboard The World. The recently retired, Nobel Laureate and near-octogenarian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu announced he would join a cruise with Semester at Sea aboard their lavish 180m vessel, MV Explorer. “The Arch” (as he is fondly known at home) gained a taste for cruising as part of Cunard’s Insight program earlier this year.

John Cleese aboard QM2
Despite their unarguable cachet, politicians are not the only drawcard aboard cruise ships big and small. Many well-credentialed academics join the expedition fleet to add enrichment to Arctic, Antarctic and other remote voyages, but so too do all manner of other sundry celebrities. John Cleese is a semi-regular with Cunard, having travelled aboard QM2 as recently as August. On one of my few big ship voyages, I sat enthralled as a former Concorde captain, complete in sparkling uniform and pretty young attendant, captivated us with the nuances of flying the world’s only (and probably last ) supersonic airliner.

Such is the demand for high profile speakers that a specialist agency, Cruise Ship Speakers, was formed a few years back to cater to the cruising industry. Their menu of dubbed, capped and cloaked orators reads like a New Year’s Honours list. From celebrated military men like General Sir Hugh Michael Rose KCB, CBE, DSO, QGM, acclaimed political reporter, Brian Hanrahan to the more mundane royal astronomer, Sir Arnold Wolfendale, the thirst for stimulating speakers can only increase as the number of regular cruisers continues upwards.

History, antiques, gardening, wine appreciation, science and entertainment are all subjects in demand from passengers not only wanting to learn but also hob-nob with their favourite celebrity. Silver Seas, for one, presents a laudable depth of speakers aboard their world cruises. This year Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, Dan Rather, topped their bill which included world-famous Egyptologist, Zahi Hawass, and our own Professor Geoffrey Blainey.

While English cruisers prefer the more urbane subjects of history and antiques, Americans can predictably be attracted to the likes of Don "Ducky" Williams, a famous Disney cartoon artist, Robert Tieman, a Disney historian and archivist while renowned film critic, Leonard Maltin, will sail aboard Princess Cruises’ ‘Coral Princess’ on their December 15 departure. Australians, curiously, seem less inclined to value guest speakers on local departures. P&O do occasionally feature cruise historian Rob Henderson, while our local celebs (eg Dr Harry, Kylie Gillies) tend to travel as passengers, not as speakers.

What do you think about celebrity speakers aboard cruise liners? Who would you like to see speaking aboard local vessels?

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