April 30, 2011

Struth! First Mo-Tel is no-tel

STRUTH !    

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says its been closed for twenty-years, and today only the original mission-style belltower still stands to mark where the world's first motel was built in California in 1925.

Los Angeles architect, Arthur Heineman built the "Milestone Mo-Tel" at San Luis Obispo, halfway between his home-town and San Francisco, in a time when the 600km journey took a minimum 2-days by car and travellers either overnighted in hotels or camping grounds.

The Milestone Mo-Tel cost US$80,000 to build, and for US$1.25 a night (the average annual income then was $1236) guests got a 2-room bungalow with kitchen and adjoining garage that looked onto a central courtyard with a pool and picnic tables for socialising with other overnighters.

Mr Heineman also had grand plans for a chain of similar mo-tels across America that would comprise blocks of attached apartments rather than bungalows, and with parking right at the front door, together with restaurants and mini-markets. But they never came to fruition and the world's first over-sized "motel" closed in 1991 as motorists opted for newer, smaller and cheaper versions of motels as we know them today.

The Milestone Mo-Tel is owned by the Apple Farm Inn that's right next door in San Luis Obispo. Book yourself a night there, and you can have a sticky-beak at the belltower and few other remains of its famous and historic neighbour.

April 29, 2011


David Ellis

WHEN he went in search of a cab in the days before radio taxis, David Coyne went to the rank near his local pub at Mackay in Queensland, and to his delight found not only a cab – but one that was being driven by a seldom-seen old mate.

The two men had a drink in the pub to celebrate the encounter, then headed back to the Coyne home to pick up the family and their luggage and take them to a steamer they were to join that afternoon for a voyage up the coast to Townsville.

And if David Coyne had thought his brush with the pub had brought down the wrath of Mrs Coyne, it was nothing compared with what awaited him upon their arrival at the wharf – their ship, the SS Yongala was fast disappearing into the distance.

But while that drink may have cost them their trip aboard the luxury steamer, it had saved the family their lives: the Yongala that was now sailing over the horizon was unknowingly heading into a cyclone that would send her to the bottom of the sea within hours, with the loss of all 122 passengers and crew.

Less fortunate than David Coyne and his family was John Campbell, a Brisbane businessman who several days before had arrived just as Yongala was about to leave Brisbane for Mackay. After at first being denied boarding with his newly-bought thoroughbred racehorse named Moonshine, Mr Campbell used his business influence to not only get aboard, but to be allocated a First Class Saloon Cabin. It would be his last exertion of business power.

And for years a Miss Annie Murray would tell how she'd been visiting Brisbane from her home in Townsville, and at the last minute had cancelled her return voyage home on Yongala because she was having such a great time in the Big City... a great time that saved her her life.

Yongala was considered the epitome of then-luxury on the Australian coastal service from 1907 to that last fateful trip in March 1911, sailing between Melbourne and Cairns and Melbourne and Fremantle at different times of the year.

Ironically that last trip was her 99th  in Australia, and her Master, Captain William Knight and owners, the Adelaide Steamship Company, were planning suitable Champagne celebrations for their passengers when she sailed her 100th voyage from Cairns back to Melbourne the following week.

As the Coyne family returned home in no-doubt silence, Yongala was heading north past Mackay's Flat Top signal station. The station had just received a wireless message about a cyclone to the north, but was unable to pass the message on to Captain Knight: few ships then had new-fangled radios, and one ordered for Yongala was still somewhere on the high seas between England and Australia.

And when three other ships arrived late into Townsville a few days later after taking shelter from the cyclone they'd been warned about before leaving Mackay (and after Yongala had sailed,) the luxury steamer and all aboard were officially listed as missing.

Seven ships together with police and co-opted public servants searched sea and shore for Yongala, and when wreckage and the body of Mr Campbell's racehorse Moonshine were found washed ashore, the ship was declared to have foundered somewhere unknown on the night of March 23.

A Marine Board of Queensland absolved Captain Knight of any responsibility and the disappearance remained a mystery… and even though Australia's greatest coastal shipping disaster, it could have been much worse: while she foundered with the loss of 49 passengers and 73 crew, at full capacity Yongala had berths for as many as five times that number of passengers.

Thirty-six years later in 1947, an Australian Navy hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Lachlan investigated "an obstruction" reported by a Navy minesweeper on the seabed between Mackay and Townsville. The Lachlan used anti-submarine equipment and echo sounders, noted that the obstruction "was presumed to be the SS Yongala," then proceeded on its way with the Navy –  inexplicably – doing nothing to confirm the finding was Yongala and so solve the mystery of the missing steamer and her 122 lost souls.

NEXT WEEK: Finding Yongala – now one of the world's great wreck dive sites.

Photo Captions:

[] LUXURY Australian coastal passenger/cargo ship Yongala in her heyday before that ill-fated night on March 23 1911.

[] MACKAY's Flat Top Signal Station: received warning of the cyclone – but Yongala had no radio, and could not be warned of the massive storm.

[] POSTCARDS such as these were popular amongst travellers on Australia's early coastal passenger services.

(PHOTOS COURTESY OF YONGALA DIVE www.yongaladive.com.au)

April 25, 2011


David Ellis

THE delightful little town of Bowral, population around 10,000 in the NSW Southern Highlands, has taken a jump on New York City, population 8.2-million, to erect a life-size statue to a design by one of England's finest sculptors of the world's most popular super-nanny, Mary Poppins.

And coincidentally it's a Bowral teenager who is behind it all – just as it was another Bowral teen who gave the world that no-nonsense nanny way back in 1910.

As well, next month Bowral's Melissa McShane, with the help of her dad Paul and the Southern Highlands Youth Arts Council of which he is Vice-President, is organising what she hopes will be the world's Largest Umbrella Mosaic – in the shape of the nanny who famously floats down from the sky under an open umbrella, trusty carpetbag at hand.

The mosaic attempt, to draw attention to Bowral's links with Mary Poppins and to raise funds for the statue of her, has been registered with the Guinness Book of Records, and will be held on Bowral's Bradman oval – just a block from where Mary Poppins' creator, Lyndon Goff lived as a teen.

And if the more-than 1000 umbrella-toting Mary Poppins fans turn up that Melissa McShane is hoping for, the mosaic will be large enough to be seen from space, and will break the existing record of 1,026 set by a town in Serbia in 2009.

Which, if she was around today, would no doubt have Mary Poppins reflecting on it as being "practically perfect."

But just how Mary Poppins came about is not as happy a story as in the books Lyndon Goff later wrote under the name P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers.

In fact rather than blow in on a favourable east wind as Miss Poppins did into the Banks' family home at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the original Mary Poppins came about after Lyndon Goff's mother moved the family to Bowral from Queensland following the premature death of their bank clerk father, Travers Goff.

Unable to make ends meet, Lyndon's mother attempted to drown herself one torrential night in a flooded local creek, and failing in this ran bedraggled back into the family cottage – to the horror of Lyndon and her younger sisters.

To get their minds off what they'd seen, the 12-year old Lyndon gathered her siblings around the fire and started making-up a fanciful story of a magical white horse that could float down from the heavens and perform amazing deeds, talking into the night until eventually her younger sisters fell asleep.

Lyndon already knew that a kind Aunt Ellie in Sydney was paying the family's rent in Bowral, and once commented on how this benevolent aunt "always seems to be on hand to fix things." By the time she had reached her teen years, Lyndon had turned her "magical horse" into an equally "magical nanny who could fix the insurmountable" in the stories that she was now creating nightly for her siblings.

Later, unable in adult life to fulfil a wish to become an actor, Lyndon Goff used the name Pamela Lyndon Travers to write a book about the nanny she'd spun so many stories about those many years before for her sisters.

Walt Disney in 1964 turned this and parts of seven others into a Hollywood musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, a classic that's proven a near-50-year success.

Artist Mary Shepard drew the pictures of Mary Poppins for Lyndon's books, and Lyndon herself posed for the image of the unflappable nanny floating down with umbrella up and carpetbag at hand for renowned British sculptor Sean Crampton for his proposed statue for New York City.

But New York was unable to raise the funds for the work, and when the idea lapsed Paul McShane got permission from Crampton's family to use his sketches for the life-size bronze of Mary Poppins that Bowral now hopes to unveil in Spring or Autumn 2012.

(If you're interested in taking part in the human mosaic at 1pm on Saturday May 7, and so possibly becoming part of history, take your brightest umbrella to Bradman Oval, Bowral; see www.shyac.org.au or phone 02 4801 0622. A free open-air screening of Mary Poppins will follow on the oval that night, together with a fireworks show.)




[] BOWRAL teen Melissa McShane as Mary Poppins. (Photo courtesy Corinne Dany Photography & Design www.corinnedany.com)

[] HOW the human mosaic of Mary Poppins will look on May 7 in Bowral.

[] AUTHOR P.L. Travers (Lyndon Goff) reviews the script for Disney's 1964 movie based on her Mary Poppins books.

[] LYNDON Goff watches her younger sisters in the creek behind their Bowral home in which their mother later attempted suicide, leading to the creation of Mary Poppins.

Struth! Kung Fu Cabin Crew


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says you'll need to think twice in the future about behaving badly if you're flying with Hong Kong Airlines.

Because their entire cabin crew are being taught kung fu (or as say call it wing chun,) a la Bruce Lee.

The airline says cabin crew generally have to confront around three disruptive passengers a week, and in the first week of their kung fu training, crew on a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong put their newly acquired skills to work on a large, drunken passenger.

"Normally a female cabin crew can't handle a fat guy, especially if he's drunk, but because of the training, a crew member in this case handled him quite easily," an airline spokesman said.

Hong Kong newspapers say the airline came up with the idea of training their crew in martial arts after members of management watched a demonstration by staff at a company function.

"Some of the actions such as blows thrown in quick succession, and known as 'chain punching,' bring quick results," the airline spokesman said.

"And some kicks that are traditionally kept below the waist can be, well, quite devastating."

April 23, 2011


David Ellis

FOR Mustapha the ship's parrot, the lure of a life before the mast proved to be a fatal attraction.
As the elegant barquentine Star Flyer ploughed majestically through the Andaman Sea, Mustapha, hampered by clipped wings, laboriously climbed high into the rigging, sadly surveyed the indulgent scene 60 metres below on deck.....then dived, beak-first into the sea.
Captain Gerhard Lickfett, a dour German master mariner unused to recalcitrant crew members – especially a mutinous parrot – immediately hurled two lifebelts overboard to mark the spot and, in a remarkable 12-minute display of seamanship, turned the big clipper ship 180 degrees, plucked the bedraggled Mustapha from the water and threw him in the brig to dry off.
A few days later, Mustapha did it again, to discover that parrots on Captain Lickfett's ships only live twice….
It seems that, unlike anyone else on board, Mustapha was suffering an inability to find a partner with whom to share the fantasies of sailing aboard a tall ship that had the wind in her sails and romance in the air.

The tale of Mustapha's demise was recounted to us by fellow travel scribe, Glyn May who'd heard of it whilst indulging a luxurious 7-day island-hop on Star Flyer out of Thailand's southern island of Phuket.

"Mustapha had got it all horribly wrong," Glyn says. "Particularly as we heard of his demise on a night in which stars dripped out of a black sky, jazz music filled the air and endless cocktails appeared like magic.

"How the crews of spartan 19th century clipper ships must have longed for such things as they experienced the terror of Cape Horn, sails in tatters and bodies bruised and bloody," Glyn mused. "These greyhounds of the sea once raced their cargoes across the oceans of the world at up to 20 knots, their white clouds of billowing canvas straining for every nuance of the wind."

Today they're the epitome of laid-back holidaying luxury.
Both Star Flyer and her sister ship Star Clipper are 110 metres long with 69 metre masts. With all 16 sails set, the sight of 3,500 square metres of creamy dacron filled with a fair wind, is enough to stir the soul of the most dedicated of landlubbers as they ply off-beat ports in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Costa Rica and soon, the Baltic and Scandinavia.

Flagship of the Star Clippers' fleet, Royal Clipper is larger at 134 metres.

Replicas they may well be, but the gleaming white, steel-hulled Star Flyer and Star Clipper come complete with all the comforts of a millionaire's yacht: air-conditioned spacious cabins for 170 passengers with TV, en-suite marbled bathrooms, hair-dryer, in-house movies, satellite telephone and a unique ballast stabilising system that ensures a brimful glass of Champagne stays on an even keel, even if the partying passengers sometimes do not.
The Edwardian-styled library, an oasis of solitude on a sometimes busy little ship, reeks of mellow warmth, rosewood, brass and tapestry. You can play board games or bury yourself in anything from Colleen McCullough to Jilly Cooper. There's a piano bar and lounge with porthole-style windows that look into an illuminated swimming pool; and the plush, free-seating dining room (casual dress only) offers five courses a la carte most evenings, with an excellent selection of French and California wines, and buffet at other times.
On deck, two small salt-water pools, a tropical bar and deckchair hideaways make up the picture of (very) soft adventure – made even easier with the attentions of the 70 crew representing 21 different nationalities.
Private groups can charter the clippers – as did the U.S. publication 'Naked Magazine' for its Nude Cruise around the Eastern Mediterranean that had literally proven to be Mustapha's downfall. "Climb aboard, get naked and get ready for an unparalleled sailing adventure with 170 other naked guys," went the promotional blurb.

"Join your naked shipmates on deck for a leisurely sail through the ancient world. Pack only T-shirts and shorts for shore excursions".'
For Mustapha, the lonely parrot, what he had suddenly found himself amongst on that Nude Cruise, was what possibly sent him tumbling from his perch.
 For information about (clothed) cruises, see agents, phone Star Clippers 1300  362 599, email starclippers@creativecruising.com.au or visit www.starclippers.com .


Photo captions:

[] STAR FLYER bears down under full sail…

[] LUXURY cabins tall-ship sailors of yore could never possibly imagine.

[] DINING is another luxury aboard these tall-ships

[] TAKING the sun and spray in bowsprit nets.

[] MAJESTIC sight with all sails aloft.


April 18, 2011

Struth! Talk About Tower Envy

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says plans by the Saudi Arabian royal family to build an office, hotel and shopping tower that will soar 1.6km high (one mile) into the sky are being greeted by anything but enthusiasm.

Newspaper columnists, talk-back radio callers and environmentalists world-wide are describing it as anything from "a thrusting phallic symbol," to "hair-brained," "a scary disaster waiting to happen," and "delusions of grandeur."

The tower will be the centrepiece of a new city outside the Red Sea port of Jeddah, will be almost twice as high as the current highest tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, will take 12-minutes to reach the top by lift, and will cost in the vicinity of $40 billion.

Critics are saying that with plenty of room to expand cities horizontally – as opposed to places like Hong Kong – Saudi Arabia has no need for such a tower, which they also say will attract "lunatic terrorist elements" who'll attempt to blow it up, fly a plane into it, set fire to it, or cripple power supplies and trap thousands inside.

Others ask how much it will cost to pump water to the top floors for toilets and restaurants, how would people be expected to walk down 5000 steps in the event of a major power failure, and how would emergency services get to the top 330th floor in under 15-minutes to fight a fire… if at all if there is a major power failure?

Or how do you air-condition the top floors that will heat up like an oven in the middle of the day, and cool down to near-freezing at night?

Others simply consider the idea of standing at a window and looking out from 1.6km in the air "all just too scary," while there are those thinking more positively about joining the Mile High Club in the hotel that's planned for the top floor.

And the influential Architects Journal summed up: "The race to build the highest skyscraper is quite futile… these buildings are a symbol of an old-fashioned way of thinking."


David Ellis

WHEN a group of expatriate Aussies in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila decided  that life without a racetrack just wasn't the same as back home, they decided if they couldn't get to a racetrack, they'd get a racetrack to them.

So they went in search of a bit of land on which a handful of work horses from their coconut and cocoa plantations could race around a temporary track one Saturday afternoon, while they and their mates enjoyed a flutter.

And so became Port Vila Kiwanis Club Charity Cup Day, a now-annual race meeting that, 25 years later, is like no other, attracting 10,000 world-wide spectators.

The pioneers of this event laid-out their first racetrack on a local cattle property.  The day before they shoo-ed the cows away, used bamboo to make everything from the rails to the temporary toilets, and borrowed a pile of discarded builder's scaffolding to construct the appropriately named Berocca Stand.

That first meeting in 1986 was a huge success, and next day, while assessing wins, losses and hang-overs, all the bamboo structures were burnt to the ground, the Berocca Stand dismantled and the cows brought home to graze.

The track site has changed a few times since then, and is now permanently located near the Vila abattoirs – which may be an incentive for horses and riders.

The first few years of the Port Vila Cup race meeting could best be described as chaotic: in 1988 the cruise ship Fairstar arrived in town and disgorged 1200 passengers, most of whom headed for the racetrack for some heavy betting and heavier drinking, totally overwhelming officials, bookies and bars.

So the organisers asked the Australian Jockey Club in Sydney if it could lend some stewards to get some semblance of order into the 1989 event. Chief Steward, John Schreck himself flew up with a couple of off-siders, Terry Bailey and Brett Wright.

It was the start of something big for Bailey, who these days is top steward in Victoria and responsible for everything going right for the Melbourne Cup.

The names of the horses that turn out for Vila's big race day show that much thought goes into readying them from their plantation work to once-a-year racetrack gallopers: Westpac Folly, Boots, Buck, Donkey, Equus, Just A Gigolo, Lick Lick, Neddy and Roots are just some of them.
Schreck and company found that one horse that would race in Port Vila in 1989 was named Fine Cotton. But it wasn't the Fine Cotton of infamous Brisbane 1984 ring-in fame. This Fine Cotton finished last in a field of six in its first 1989 race, and last behind six others later in the afternoon.

And it ran twice because there aren't enough horses and jockeys to create fresh fields for all the day's scheduled races: the same nags and hoops take part in several races, simply changing their names from race to race.

And the formal race day history shows that even officials haven't been immune from self-induced disasters, including on one occasion "the judges, thinking that their job would be easier than the previous year, got so drunk the visiting Australian stewards had to assist their decisions..."

And after a horse named Spook won a couple of races another year, some of the superstitious local Ni-Vanuatu spectators were so convinced the hopeless hack really had been spooked to run fast enough to win, they said they were fearful to return to the track again.
To ease those fears a local medicine man has been brought in every year since to "sweep" the track of evil spirits.
But even he got too much into the spirit one year, drinking so much kava he could have been charged with seriously over-acting... it was the only year Spook didn't win.   

And then there's presentation dais decorum. Some years back, thirty Australian country football club members attended the Vila Cup, and their somewhat over-exuberant president hijacked the presentation ceremony to present a club jumper to Vanuatu's President, who was doing the day's honours.  

"You are the Big Chief of 140,000 Vanuatuans," the Aussie slurred. "I'm the Big Chief of 30 drunks."
Not surprisingly he's never been invited back.

(Footnote: This year's Port Vila Charity Cup will be held on Saturday, July 16.)





[] THEY'RE racing – Vanuatu's annual Port Vila race day is like no other.

[] BECAUSE there aren't always enough horses for all the afternoon's races,

   horses and jockeys sometimes race several times under different names.

[] ALL dressed up for the day.

[] AUSTRALIAN Jockey Club stewards "on loan" for the earliest races enjoy a

   break in the "Stewards Room" – the back of a station sedan: (l to r) Terry 

   Bailey now Melbourne Cup Chief Steward, Brett Wright and Col Hodges

   Who still calls races on Sky Racing.

[] THE original aptly-named Berocca Stand.


April 12, 2011

Review - Danube River Cruise on Scenic Pearl

Not to be outdone by Cruise Weekly's newest convert to luxury European river cruising, editor Louise Goldsbury, this writer and TD TV's Barry Matheson went off to explore another contender to the title of Queen of the Danube, Scenic Pearl.

I certainly concur with Louise's observations that river cruising is a fantastic way to explore Europe. The most sought after destinations are right there on the river bank, just tie up and wander ashore. A fleet of brand new Scenic Tours buses follow the ship along the entire route, providing instant shore transport as required for day trips and excursions.

My previous river cruising experience on the Mekong, Amazon, Murray, Yangtze and Columbia were quite different affairs but each demonstrated the harmonious and effortless method of sightseeing and touring without the grinding ordeal of airports, buses, train stations or check-ins and check-outs.

“Scenic Tours is a private, Australian-owned company,” says founder and MD, Glen Moroney, “and with the commissioning of 'Scenic Crystal' in 2012, we'll have six of the finest vessels operating on Europe's waterways.”

Scenic Tours' so-called 'Space Ships' are each 135m in length and offer some 22 per cent more room than comparable vessels. This extra length is translated into larger suites and public spaces. The Crystal Dining Restaurant will seat all 169 passengers in a single sitting, plus there is the fine dining in the Portobello Restaurant and in-room for suite passengers – served by their private butler.

Of the 85 cabins, 82 per cent have balconies with picture windows, ideal for watching the gorgeous riverside scenery roll past in a continuous canvas. And, of course, there is the huge rooftop sun deck and expansive Panorama Lounge & Bar.

Scenic make a point of spruiking their 'All Inclusive' pricing, which certainly helps relieve post-holiday blues of coming home to huge credit bills for extras. This pricing includes all dining, beer and wine with meals, onboard activities, sightseeing tours, gratuities and, depending on your chosen category, laundry and Wi-Fi internet.

The trump card of the Scenic itineraries are their exclusive 'ScenicEnrich' inclusions. Instead of a simple tour if the ornate Palace Lichtenstein in Vienna, a chamber orchestra is summoned to entertain you. In the incredible Benedictine Abbey at Melk, the regular tour is enhanced by a swirling organ recital inside the the cavernous, gold-encrusted chapel.

Scenic Tours have a wide range of pre- and post-tour itineraries to chose from including Turkey, France, Mediterranean, Ireland, Scandinavia and Spain.

Pricing, for example, starts from AU$5950 for the 15-day “Jewels of Europe” Amsterdam to Budapest river cruise (March 07, 2012. Cat E, twin share). This writer's tip would be to travel on the fringe of the high season eg April, May or September, October to avoid the high season crush and hotter weather. Earlybird pricing applies. Visit www.scenictours.com for full details, pricing and options.

Watch out for Barry's video on Travel Daily

April 11, 2011

Struth! Liberace Museum a Fading Star

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is hoping to re-open on a new site in Las Vegas, after closing its doors late last year after 31 years honouring the flamboyant star.

"In some ways, the museum was the last vestige of an entertainment icon," said a spokesman for The Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, that ran the museum and its priceless displays of the entertainer's out-of-this-world costumes, gold-plated cars, rhinestone-encrusted pianos, candelabra, and jewelry.

"He was Mr Las Vegas for almost 40 years," said Darden Asbury Pyron, author of 'Liberace: An American Boy.'

"It was a sell-out house every time he went on the stage. He was one of the first entertainers to understand the potential of television: he was Mr Showmanship who would say  'I don't give a concert – I put on a show.'"

"The museum's been a very popular attraction," added Alicia Malone, a public relations manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "It was a very unique part of Las Vegas cultural history for 31 years, a one-of-a-kind experience you couldn't find in other cities."

Las Vegas was hard hit by the global recession, with visitor numbers to the Liberace Museum dropping from a high of 450,000 a year 15 years ago, to just 50,000 last year.

The Liberace Foundation, however, recently finalized a deal for a national USA tour of its Liberace collection, and says it hopes to one day reopen the museum in a more central location in Las Vegas – it was previously eight kilometres off the main "Strip," and so missed much impulse passer-by trade.

Liberace, full name Wladziu Valentino Liberace, was born in 1919 in Wisconsin to working-class Polish-Italian immigrant parents. He was a child prodigy, had performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by the time he was 20, but cut his classical concert pianist career short for a life in show business.

From the 1950s to the 1970s he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world performing on stage, TV and in several movies.

And when British newspaper columnist Cassandra inferred he was homosexual, Liberace successfully sued the newspaper and sent the columnist a personal telegram denying the inference (and continually denying he was homosexual until his death in 1987) finishing with the telegram with the now-famous line: "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank."

April 05, 2011

Michael Palin: On The Road Again

In these days of Twitter and Facebook and instant messaging, a gap of nine months between website messages seems positively Neanderthal, so I apologise. It's not that I take a long time to type, it's just that I haven't been zooming around the world with my normal regularity. Until last month that is, when, in the space of three weeks I visited Dubai, Brazil and Tiverton.

Dubai was about books, for I had been asked to give the opening talk at the Emirates Literary Festival. I did a quick round up of my working life which I called "Forty Years Without A Proper Job" (though it's actually forty-six years now since I collected my first pay check) and there was much laughter.

The next day I went up the tallest building in the world - the Burj (meaning 'tower) Khalifa. The top's not yet been kitted out, so we only got to the 124th floor. I don't know what it is, but the higher you go the less impressive the view is. Of course you can see a long way, but your relationship with the surface of the planet is so remote that the city below looks like a model, or a diagram. But I've lived in a two-storey house for forty three years so what do I know. The lift WAS impressive. 124 floors in less than a minute. That's a Formula One lift, that is.

Books have taken up most of the last nine months of my life as I've had my head down trying to complete my second novel (the only published one so far was "Hemingway's Chair" (1995) "Brilliant - M Palin" It's almost completed now and has the working title of "The Truth". Writing novels, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, is just not something that sounds exciting on the website.

Much more exciting is that after Dubai I spent eleven days in Brazil. I'd spent one night there in 1996, on the way from South Africa to Chile to fly to the South Pole, and had seen nothing except the salesmen on Copacabana Beach. This trip took me from Rio, down the coast to the good-looking old town of Paraty, then up to Salvador and back to Rio via the Minas Geraes town of Tiradentes, heart of the gold rush that made Brazil such a magnet in the 17th century.

It was a reconnaissance trip for a new four-part BBC 1 series, and accompanying book - which should be ready in the autumn of 2012 - when all eyes will be on Brazil as host for both the World Cup of 2014 and the Olympics of 2016. It was a thrilling journey, full of great sensations, and provided I can stay on my feet, I think this Brazil series has the potential to be very special. Watch this space !

But now to the question you all want answered. Why Tiverton ? Well that was in my capacity as President of The Royal Geographical Society, which has over the last year kept me in touch with the world without ever going further than our headquarters in Kensington Gore - where anyone interested in Geography should go - we'd love to see you. There's a terrific library of books, photos and maps and we're always on the look out for new members - especially young members. Plug over. Tiverton was not as wild as Brazil, but the green Devonshire hills made me wish I'd brought my walking boots. So it looks as if next year will be spent less with my nose in a book than with my nose in a caipirinha (particularly good with passion fruit). And I should, once again, have some travellers tales to tell.

Meanwhile I just have to live off other peoples. So, keep travelling and keep telling us your stories. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the website. Yours always,

April 04, 2011


STRUTH! Derailed Flyer up for grabs

STRUTH !    
IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that if you've always wanted your own steam train, there's one for sale in New Zealand complete with steam engine, two passenger carriages, a kitchen van, 14km of track, two stations, and associated nostalgic bits and pieces.
The historic Kingston Flyer began services from Kingston near Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island in the 1890s, operating regular passenger services between Kingston and Gore, Invercargill and Dunedin until 1937, with peak-season-only holiday services continuing until 1957 when these also ceased.
It lay idle until 1971 when the peak season services recommenced and survived until 1979; they were again suspended in that year, re-commencing yet again in 1982 for tourists on the now-shortened line from Kingston to Fairlight 14km away.
It was finally closed for good in August 2009 with its owners, Kingston Acquistions going into receivership with debts of NZ$4.7m.
And even though it's not chugged a centimetre since then, New Zealand's once most-famous steam train still attracts hundreds of train buffs, with at least three road coaches a day of tourists pulling up to see the old train and its historic buildings at Kingston.
If you're interested in your very own steam train to take mates on holidays in New Zealand, offers close on April 26; check it out on www.kingstonacquistions.co.nz

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