August 22, 2011

Struth! Found on aircraft - one witches' broom

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says air travellers can be a forgetful lot: Britain's Virgin Atlantic Airways has revealed that every year it collects more than 12,000 books, 10,500 pairs of reading glasses, around 5,000 mobile phones, almost the same number of cameras and iPod/MP3 players, and thousands of items of clothing that have been left on its flights.

And more unusual, cleaners have also recovered an artificial limb, an urn of ashes, a movie script, a wheelchair belonging to a member of the cast of the American TV show Glee... and from one flight, a witch's broomstick. 

Flight Services Manager at Virgin Atlantic, Laura Hutcheson says many passengers go into holiday mode the moment they get on board their plane, and simply forget to check seat-back pockets and overhead bins before leaving for anything they may have put there.

And while she did not say what happened to these items, most airlines hold left items for a set number of days, and if not claimed donate them to charity (Lions Clubs getting most of the reading glasses for use in third-world countries,) or dispose of them in job-lots to private companies that sell them through second-hand outlets like


David Ellis

WHEN the great Vanuatu chief, Roi Mata died some 400 years ago, his devout followers so wanted to ensure that he enjoyed life in the hereafter just as he had on earth, that they had some fifty of his wives, family and closest retainers buried with him… alive.

As well scores, possibly hundreds, more of his followers, confidantes and advisors were also buried alive in pits around him. Most volunteered and self-sedated on super-strong kava, while others chosen because of their positions, but reluctant to jump into the pits alive, were clubbed and pushed in.

The exact number is not known, but it is believed it could be as many as three hundred.

Paramount Chief Roi Mata arrived in the village of Mangaas on Efate Island in the late 1500s or early 1600s, although it is not clear from where he came.

Oral history still passed down through generations today speaks of his extraordinary powers – coupled with his enormous size – in bringing together in peace, rival clans for whom bitter warring was until then considered little more than a blood-sport.

One of the means he used was the so-called natamwate or "peace feast," at which weapons were laid down and factional enemies sat together to eat grandly, drink kava and listen to Chief Roi extolling the benefits for all of living together in harmony rather than in conflict.

It was at one of these feasts on the island of Lelepa off the Chief's mainland village in the early 1600s that he became violently ill, poisoned it is claimed by his own brother who sought his power.

Chief Roi Mata was made comfortable in what is now known as Fel's Cave. But his people so feared the power of his spirit in the after-life, that rather than bury him at his Mangaas village on the mainland, they chose another cave a safe distance away on Artok Island.

And after his funeral Artok was declared fenua tapu, or forbidden land; it is unoccupied to this day, while the name Roi Mata still cannot be given to any living being.

It was only in the middle of the last century that researchers began taking serious interest in the life of the great paramount chief, and in 1972 French archaeologist José Garanger located his grave and found the skeletons of Chief Roi and at least fifty of those who'd been buried with him.

Today you can take a Chief Roi Mata Tour to his village, an hour's drive north-west of Vanuatu's capital Port Vila, and hear the story of his life, take a boat to the cave on which he died on Lelepa Island, and sail by Artok Island (more commonly known as ''Hat Island" because of its unusual shape.)

And all of this within picturesque Havannah Harbour that was an important allied Catalina aircraft reconnaissance base during the Pacific War, where the Americans massed their fleet for the Battle of the Coral Sea – and  chosen for its rugged beauty for the American TV reality show 'Survivor Vanuatu' in 2004.

Today it is also home to one of Vanuatu's premier resorts, The Havannah that opened in 2009 with just sixteen rooms in a range of absolute-luxury bungalows set in tranquil grounds facing west over the harbour to capture Vanuatu's famed tropical sunsets.

The Havannah is also a diner's delight with gourmet offerings that can be enjoyed before spectacular views from its Point Restaurant with its 270-degree views, on the beach, on your own private verandah… or even on the resort's jetty.

It is also child-free, with accommodations ranging from spacious Beachfront and Sunset View Villas with king beds, to Deluxe Waterfronts with private infinity plunge pools and private cliff-top day beds… and there's a totally decadent Day Spa with a full range of absolute-luxury facial and body treatments for women and men.

Activities available include guided village tours, remote-beach picnics, the Roi Mata Tour, tennis, snorkelling, diving, game fishing the famed Marlin Highway aboard the resort's 28-foot Gamefisher, and mountain-biking.

Air Vanuatu has ten flights a week from Australia with flying time just over 2.5hrs from Brisbane and a little longer from Sydney; The Havannah is 25-minutes from Port Vila by the resort's own mini-bus. See travel agents or go to



[] VANUATU's Havannah Resort – an idyllic place in the sun.

[] PERFECT South Pacific sunsets set the mood for dining and romance.

[] ROOM with a view: this room leads straight out to its own infinity plunge pool.

[] CHIEF Roi Mata's death cave.

[] THE skeletal remains of a couple who died alongside him.

[] CHIEF Roi Mata as discovered by French archaeologists in 1972.

August 15, 2011

Struth! Railroaded to Luxury

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says America's oldest and most luxurious resort is adding another level of indulgence for its well-heeled guests – from July next year they'll have their own 240-passenger express train to deliver them in extraordinary luxury from Washington DC's Union Station right into the 2600ha (6500 acre) Greenbrier Resort in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Forty tradesmen are using exotic timbers and finest fabrics to refurbish fifteen rail carriages that once belonged to the Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, and which were originally built in the 1950s but lain idle for years. 

They're being furnished and decorated in the same classic Dorothy Draper & Company décor as the Greenbrier Resort itself, whose original buildings were opened in 1778 for those seeking to "take the waters" at the sulphur springs.

And during their six-hour journey, guests will dine on the finest cuisine and drink the best labels in the lounge, observation and dining cars.

"We want them to experience everything from the décor to the dining as if they are already at Greenbrier," said owner Jim Justice, who is also an owner of the company that's building and will operate the Greenbrier Express.

And once at the resort, guests will have a choice of 710 rooms, thirteen restaurants, cafés and lounges, a 12,500 square metre (40,000 sq feet) spa, 32,000 sq metre gaming and entertainment venue (103,000 sq feet,) a championship golf course, fifty other sporting and recreational activities, and arcades of boutiques, before getting their own train back to Washington…


David Ellis

DAVID Gatward-Ferguson delights in telling people, particularly his fellow Brits, that he's a drop-out.

"Wife's one, too," he cheerfully adds. "I dropped-out of marketing computer systems, and Amanda dropped-out from being an accountant.

"And now we spend our days in the most beautiful terrain in the world. Fellow Poms turn greener than the hills around here when we tell them that people actually pay us to take them into the these mountains, to get them into the old gold-mining sites down by the rivers, and by four-wheel to places just so incredibly rich in history and folklore."

'Here' for David and Amanda is the spectacular alpine country around Queenstown on New Zealand's south island. "We'd become sick and tired of boardroom back-stabbing and bitchiness in London," David says. "So one day in 1993 we walked-out, bought two air tickets to New Zealand, and we've been here since."

On arriving in Auckland, David and Amanda decided that a "nice long drive" would be a good way to see the country, so they bought a campervan, and weeks later ended up in Queenstown.

There they came upon an opportunity to take over a company called Nomad Safaris that specialised in 4WD tours into the stunningly beautiful mountain terrain behind Queenstown – taking adventurous tourists along roads that were once little more than foot-tracks for early sheep farmers.

Later these same tracks became pathways to the stars for thousands of  hopefuls who flocked to the area when cries of "Gold!" rang out from creek beds at the bottom of 75-degree ravines topped by razor-back peaks.

"Some visitors find the roads heart-stoppers," says David as he inches his Landrover across a muddy washaway on a section of mountain pass that's 100m directly above the Shotover River.

The 32km road took 200 men ten years to build, including two years for a mere 300 metres around the almost-vertical  Pincher's Bluff: to build this white-knuckle section in 1888, men were lowered on ropes to plug dynamite into holes they drilled into the schist, and would then yell to their mates at the top to haul up like crazy as the cliff face blew away below them.

David and Amanda's tours take people through the incredibly beautiful Skipper's Canyon, so-named because when gold was found in the early 1860s, not only did crews jump-ship from vessels calling at Dunedin – so too did the skipper of one, who simply telegraphed his boss in England that as his entire crew had gone to make their fortunes, he might as well too!

At one stage the mountains and rivers were yielding as much gold as the fabled Yukon.

The first miners into the region, Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern had originally walked 350km into the mountains from Dunedin to work as shearers. But when Thomas Arthur found a huge nugget in the Shotover River they pinched the frying pan from their boss's kitchen to go panning for more gold, and never returned.

"Mr Arthur and Mr Redfern told of picking up gold by the pound," a Dunedin newspaper reported at the time. "They were laden with gold that they said lay everywhere in the canyon…"

It sparked the gold rush and twelve thousand hopefuls flocked to the area, but their new-found wealth proved fatal for Arthur and Redfern: both died of alcoholism a few years later.

Nomad Safaris shows visitors the remains of such historic old ruins as the Welcome Home Hotel that catered first to the miners during the 'rush,' and later horse and carriage tourists who were as enchanted then by the rugged beauty of the mountains as visitors are today.  The hotel finally closed in 1940.

There's also the little mountain cottage of John Balderstone and his wife Fanny, an Irish dancer who came out to entertain the miners. They retired after the 'rush' to the quiet of the mountains, but Fanny yearned for the bright lights of Queenstown. So John struck a compromise: he built a new cottage for them half-way between their old home in the mountains, and those bright lights….

There's also a museum at the old Skipper's Town that once boasted over 1000 residents.

Half-day 4WD safaris start from NZ$165 per adult. For details phone +64 03 442 6699 or visit





[] NOMAD Safaris rise from deep river valleys…


[] TO dizzying razor-back peaks…


[] AND heart-stopping cliff-hangers…


[] GUESTS also panning for gold in the hope of striking rich like those of the 1860s gold rush.


August 08, 2011


david ellis

STUDENTS of America's Wild West are as mystified today as ever they were about the real relationship between two of the most-opposite characters to walk the boardwalks together of legendary Deadwood – the suave former lawman Wild Bill Hickok and part-time hooker and some-time drinking mate, Martha Jane Burke, better known to us all as Calamity Jane.

For while he cut an almost debonair figure, she was anything but the beauty as portrayed by Doris Day in Hollywood's version of the life of these two: a sex-for-booze roughie whose youthful good looks had long forsaken her, she most-often dressed like a man, cussed as enthusiastically – and got her kicks from shooting-out bar-room chandeliers while smashed on whiskey.

Yet historians know that this seemingly odd couple did share time together, and as Calamity approached her Maker nearly thirty years after Wild Bill was shot dead at a Deadwood card table, she begged to be buried alongside the man she described as "my great love."

But despite over 130 years of research, historians say it's unlikely they'll ever know the real relationship between the two, beyond their fondness for a drink or three in the local saloons.

Deadwood had hit the headlines in the mid-1870-s when gold was found in the surrounding Black Hills of Dakota. Within days thousands of hopefuls were "scooping-up nuggets, some as big as candy bars" and blasting their way into the gold-bearing hillsides.

Thirty-thousand miners invaded Deadwood in the 1870s and '80s, and headstones at the town's Mt Moriah Cemetery tell of the unhappy demise of many by rope, bullet or booze.

But unlike in the movies, James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok – who had once served as a US Marshall and was not averse to moonlighting as a bounty hunter – did not go to Deadwood to put on a lawman's badge: he left a newly-wed bride at home in Wyoming in the hope of relieving gullible miners of some of their Black Hills gold at the poker table.

And when he arrived on the Deadwood Stage in 1876, he was accompanied not only by his mate, the colourful former Pony Express rider, 'Colorado' Charlie Utter, but strangely by Calamity Jane whom he'd met when they were both Army scouts.

The former Marshall is said to have considered Calamity little more than a drinking mate, and she quickly proved to be anything but Hollywood's Calamity who would host "Marshall" Wild Bill to candle-lit dinners in a rose-gardened Deadwood cottage.

But their relationship ended on August 2 1876 when Wild Bill – who drank with his left hand to keep his gun-hand free – dropped into the Saloon Number 10 for a game of poker. As the only seat at the table had its back to the door, he opted-out for fear of being ambushed from behind.

But he was talked into staying, and had played just a few hands when a drunken hoodlum, Jack McCall stumbled through the bat-wing doors and shot him through the head. Wild Bill's two black aces and two black eights spilled to the floor, and are known to this day as "Deadman's Hand."

His pair of guns were sold to pay for his funeral.

McCall was tried, but acquitted after claiming the killing was revenge for Hickok killing his brother. But when it was discovered that McCall's brother was an outlaw who had died years earlier, he was tried again, and this time hanged.

Calamity Jane meanwhile was doing what Hollywood didn't tell us: working as a barmaid and part-time prostitute in local saloons, often taking her pay in whiskey.

And as she was dying at age 53 she asked that she be buried next to Wild Bill. She died on August 2 1903, bizarrely twenty-seven years to the very day after the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok – and got her death wish.

Deadwood today is a fascinating trek back into the Wild West, with its restored boardwalk casinos, saloons (including one on the site of the original Saloon Number 10,) dining halls, an1860s gold mine to explore, museums recalling the days of the Wild West, and Wild Bill and Calamity's side-by-side graves.

Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays can add a short-break to Deadwood to a USA, Canada or Alaska vacation; phone 1300 79 49 59.



[] A BRONZE bust marks Wild Bill Hickok's grave in Deadwood; that of Calamity Jane is next to his, to the right.

[] CALAMITY Jane dressed and cussed like a man – and certainly no Doris Day.

[] DEADWOOD Number 10 Saloon today (Pic: Alan McWhirter)

[] DEADWOOD in its 1870s heyday.

Struth! Cruising to Mars - out of this world shopping at Harrods

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that not content with an-already 1.2 million items for sale in its 330 departments, London's Harrod's department store now has something totally new for its most-discerning inner-CBD customers – multi-million pound super-yachts.

The store's built a special showroom with models of the yachts, plasma screen video footage to show what one- or three-million pounds will get you, and put in a team of yachting salesmen from top English brokers, Watkins Superyachts to help shoppers with their decisions.

Duck-in for a chat and you could walk away having put a deposit down on a GBP7M (AU$10.5M) ketch you could be sailing next weekend with family and a friends.

Or if you've the money, and the patience, order a 90-metre, 6-deck Mars super-luxury motor-cruiser that will cost you around GBP100m (AU$153m) – and take three years to build from scratch.

Then go and reward yourself with lunch and a drink in any of Harrod's eight restaurants and cafés, and ponder how much its going to cost you to pay the recommended 29-crew from captain through to chefs, waiters, room stewards and deckhands to look after yourself and a up to fourteen sleep-aboard mates on that motor-cruiser… that you won't be sailing until around summer 2014.

August 02, 2011


David Ellis

WHEN the New Zealand government decided in 1883 to build a railway line between Christchurch on the South Island's east coast and Greymouth on the west, many of its ministers mused openly about an appropriately slap-up celebration to which to invite themselves for the line's completion.

But even though it was just 224km in length, they were a bit premature: by the time the last dog-spike was driven, most of those ministers were has-beens, politically or mortally – it had taken 36 years to get the line across the island.

Of course no one ever imaged it would take that long, but then no one had ever built a railway over – or through – the formidable Southern Alps before.

Laying the line across the Canterbury Plains from Christchurch was a breeze, but once into the Alps that breeze deteriorated into a gale: conditions could be so atrocious that to prevent being blow away by the howling winds, workers  roped themselves to bridges, or to railway lines while working in precarious ravines and gorges.

In winter equipment was ice-locked in frozen rivers and lakes – inspiring workers to dub their primitive construction camps Mt Misery, Starvation, Klondyke, Siberia Curve…

And when it was found there was simply no mountain pass the line could follow where the rugged Southern Alps plunged downwards to the west coast, the courageous Kiwis embarked on one of the world's most ambitious tunnelling projects: an 8.5km shaft driven at an amazing 1-in-33 slope down through the granite heart of the mountains.

By then the line ran from Christchurch on the east coast to Arthur's Pass 737m high in the Alps, and from Greymouth on the west coast to Otira near the base of the Alps. It meant that the tunnel could be started from both ends, and when the last of 250,000 cubic metres of rock and earth had been removed and the two halves met in the middle of the mountains, they were just millimetres out of alignment.

The first train crossed from east to west in 1923, putting an end to Cobb & Co. whose coaches had crossed the Alps since 1866, taking three bone-jarring days for the trip.

Cobb & Co.'s staging inns once sprinkled the Southern Alps; today the few remaining are pointed out to holidaymakers on the TranzAlpine Express that does the hugely-popular daily return trip from Christchurch to Greymouth in just 4.5-hours in each direction, with an hour in Greymouth.

Highlights pointed out along the way include the Mount White sheep and cattle station whose front- and back-gates are 75km apart; the little village of Bealey where the believed-extinct moa (like Big Bird in Sesame Street) was allegedly sighted in a nearby forest in 1993, attracting hopeful but disappointed moa-watchers from around the world; the circa-1868 Jackson's Hotel near Greymouth – now a restaurant/tavern –  famous for its Possum Pies; and Brunner where in 1896 an horrendous coal mine explosion killed 65 men and boys.

And the little township of Avoca where a cantankerous police constable once amused himself spying on the colour of the smoke from rail workers' chimneys: if blue/grey they were burning Avoca coal, but if black it suggested stolen steam-train coal, and arrests followed.

He was transferred after his house exploded one night in smoke of another  hue – that of gelignite.
And Springfield where train crews slipped an onboard pie to Rosie the Station Master's Collie dog every trip – 5000 of the heart-stoppers in her 15-year lifetime.

As well as wide picture windows, the TranzAlpine has an open-air viewing carriage for grabbing stunning snaps of the Alps, farmlands, national parklands, deer and other wildlife, historic inns, viaducts, settlements and abandoned railway stations. And for train buffs, the train stops at remote Arthur's Pass, and Otira on the West Coast where two extra diesel locos are coupled-on for the haul up the 8.5km tunnel to Arthur's Pass on the return journey.

One of the world's great scenic rail journeys, the TranzAlpine full-day return trip costs NZ$209pp; there's a buffet car and bar and informative commentary.

Book through travel agents or see about doing either the day trip, or staying a day or so in Greymouth to visit the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, Queenstown and other attractions.

[] THE TranzAlpine Express rattles over a viaduct with snow-capped peaks behind. The middle carriage is open-air for snapping the views.
[]  PICTURE windows offer great views if you don't want to venture outside.
[]  YOU'LL not get views like these from the road – because there aren't any in these remote areas.
[]  ARTHUR'S Pass – 737m high in the rugged Alps, and about as far away as you can get from the coast.
[]  JACKSONS's near Greymouth: now a tavern, in its hotel heyday most famous cuisine was Possum Pie.

(Photos: Tranzscenic Tours

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