February 26, 2013

Strong and Dark : A Turkish Coffee Morning

By Michael Travers

In a culture that eschews alcohol, caffeine is the Islamic stimulant of choice. Turks, like most Middle Eastern cultures, love to while away the days with conversation, tobacco, backgammon and lots of hot sweet coffee so, while in Istanbul, Michael Travers gets a taste for this very agreeable form of time management.

Having misspent a lot of my youth drinking coffee with friends and cigarettes and strengthening my caffeine resistance to the point where six cups by lunchtime was a normal state of affairs, I thought I knew much about strong coffee. That was until I went to Turkey. Two hours after arriving in Istanbul I was sitting in a rooftop café overlooking the Bosphorus and the city’s minarets talking to the owner Mehmet, the owner and Istanbul native, who offered to not only get me a cup of coffee, but take me to the kitchen to show me how it was done.

The Turks don’t go in for big and shiny espresso machines or Italian-style mocha pots. They prefer to use a teaspoon, sugar, a naked flame and a narrow-topped, copper or tin pot called a cezve, into which Mehmet added extremely fine coffee powder and two teaspoons of sugar. “ I make it for you very sweet and strong,” he said as he stirred it slowly over the cooker. “This gets all the sugar dissolving and the good flavours to come out.”

Getting the thickest possible layer of foam is considered the peak of the coffee maker’s art so when it got close to the boil and froth started to form on top, he took out the spoon. “Now we stop stirring,” he said. “If we don’t there will be no foam and it will be no good.” He let it bubble for the shortest of times before taking it off the boil and poured it into two small cups, while lifting the pot higher and higher to maximize the creamy layer on top.

Mehmet prepared a plate of sweet sticky baklava, some mineral water and two glasses of bitter cherry juice, another Turkish delicacy, and brought them out to the table along with the coffee, a deep, rich, sweet and earthy brew that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The spoon did the same. This was one hell of a cup of coffee. “We play backgammon,” he said as he reached over to grab a spare board while barking something in Turkish to one of his waiters. Ten minutes later there were two fresh cups of coffee and a fresh bottle of water on the table. Twenty minutes later, two more. “The water is important,” he told me. “Otherwise it’s too strong and you will not be able to think straight.”

By the way my game was going it was already too late. We sat there for the better part of a morning throwing dice, drinking coffee and getting more and more wired with each passing cup. “I win again”, Mehmet cried at throwing a double four and moving his last pieces off. I reset the board and ordered another cup as I handed Mehmet the dice. My game was suffering, but I was beyond caring.

February 22, 2013

Vietnam: Charms of Hoi An


David Ellis

THERE are just two Westerners among 40 or so locals on the ferry, in truth just an open barge, crossing the river from Hoi An's bustling Old Quarter to Cam Kim, a rural commune where village life still dominates here on Vietnam's South Central Coast.

Those Westerners are my travel-writing colleague, John Rozentals and his partner Sandra, who are heading with their tour guide to the home of the guide's father-in-law.

John takes up the story: Most of the locals are returning home from work, with just about all having a motorbike or a cycle they somehow jam onto the ferry with them.

The chat to us seems pretty ordinary, but an elderly woman remonstrates vociferously with a public-service type about the evils of government corruption. Her candidness is potentially dangerous, our guide tells us, for despite new-found economic freedom, Vietnam is still a totalitarian country, and even small commuter ferries can have ears.

We cycle among market gardens, past recently harvested paddy fields with water buffalo grazing on the stubble, until we reach the father-in-law's home. His face was badly disfigured when he stumbled on a landmine while harvesting the family's sweet potatoes during what the Vietnamese call "the American War."

Yet he's quite happy to sit with us on his veranda, sharing a pot of tea and memories. Perhaps it's a Buddhist thing, but the Vietnamese seem much more forgiving than we towards past enemies.

It's a moving and intimate chat, a bonus reward for booking an independent tour with a personal guide and driver, and which we'd done in Australia through Footsteps in Style, a recent upscale off-shoot of budget travel operator Footsteps in Asia. They provide airport pick-up and drop-off, organise accommodation and guided activities, and probably best of all, pre-tailored itineraries can generally be changed on the spot if something more appealing crops up.

We go just up the road to Kim Bong, a village whose craftsmen helped fashion many of the magnificent historic buildings in the nearby ancient capital of Hue, and which is re-emerging as a significant woodworking centre.

Huynh Ri, a 15th-generation master craftsman, has used his studio to train hundreds of artisans, whose projects have included the restoration and maintenance of Hoi An's Old Quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage site that reflects the port's status as a major trading centre from the 16th to 18th centuries.

The Old Quarter is compact and best covered on foot. You could easily spend several days here exploring the narrow streets and alleys and discovering fine old structures — the Japanese Covered Bridge, which dates from 1593 and incorporates a Vietnamese temple; the Cantonese Assembly Hall, with its many fine Chinese artworks; the Museum of Trading Ceramics; the extravagant Phuc Kien Assembly Hall with its elaborate facade and temple to Thien Hau, goddess of the sea and protector of sailors.

There are also several family homes and chapels open for inspection. My favourite was the House of Quan Thang, a single-storey shop-house built by a Chinese trader in the 1700s and still occupied by fourth generation ancestors.

The current great-grandmother must be well into her 90s yet wanders around as spritely as ever, sharing jokes with other family members, many of them sitting at the large kitchen table making banh bao vac, a local specialty shrimp dumpling also known as white rose.

The 30-kilometre stretch of road to here from Da Nang Airport includes China Beach — named by American soldiers on R&R — and offers plenty of resort-style tourist accommodation.

But our interest in culture rather than beach culture drew us to the Hoi An Historic Hotel which in a previous life served as headquarters for French, American and Vietnamese administrators.

This charming, rambling property is literally a couple of minutes from the Old Quarter, has a reasonable restaurant and offers most of the creature comforts, though as in many older Vietnamese hotels, the plumbing can be a bit temperamental.

Hoi An's waterfront contains a plethora of dining opportunities at ridiculously cheap prices by Australian standards. Spend up, and you'll quickly appreciate the rewards of parting with those extra few dollars.

DETAILS: Footsteps in Style: www.footstepsinstyle.com ; Hoi An Hotel

www.hoianhotel.com.vn ; John Rozentals is a travel writer and publisher of OzBabyBoomers, a lifestyle e-zine for the over-50s: www.ozbabyboomers.com.au



[] SHARING the ferry home with everyone's motorbikes.

[] HISTORIC Japanese Covered Bridge is a relic of Hoi An's days as a prosperous trading port.

[] THE dragon is a symbol of power in Vietnam ... this one takes pride of place in Phuc Kien Assembly Hall.

[] CRAFTING furniture at Huynh Ri's workshop in the woodworking village of Kim Bong.

[] THE Hoi An Historic Hotel, literally a couple of minutes from the Old Quarter.

[] WHITE rose: a local specialty being made in the House of Quan Thang.

(Photos: Sandra Burn White)



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February 21, 2013

Nothing Rusty About this Outback Legend

Photo Credit: Erica Harrison / Australian Geographic
by Roderick Eime

“Put the billy on Jimmy we’re just bringin’ ‘em in Quick quick. Lock ‘em up. Whoa, steady, steady!” With the jangle of cowbell a motley flock of sheep ambles in, then a horse, a pack mule, a sprightly sheep dog and even a brace of ducks. This is Rusty Frame’s grand entrance and Act One of his much-loved R.M. Williams Outback Stockman's Show at Longreach’s famous Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame here in Central Queensland.

To some, Rusty’s well-choreographed entourage may seem a trifle jingoistic and cliché, but Rusty is the real deal and his short, playful rendition of life on the land is a derived from his own lifetime of experience – from drover and cattleman to rodeo clown. You don’t get animals to behave that way by accident.

Despite years under the harsh Australian sun and in the saddle, Rusty’s in great shape, sharp as a tack and authentic to the bone. He’s proud of the show because he knows exactly what’s distilled into it.

“There's a lot of old drovers in there, a lot of old pioneers,” says Rusty, gesturing toward the museum, his lips barely moving beneath his wide-brimmed Akubra hat, “Your Sid Kidmans and your R.M. Williams, and...lots of 'em. My grandfather, he was a drover all his life, and as a kid I’d be out there whenever I could ridin’ and drovin’.”

Look past the words and you’ll see it in his eyes, especially when he recounts his time with one of the most famous Australian outback legends ever.

“If I couldn’t get down to grandpa’s, I’d head to over to a friend’s property down near Chinchilla where I come from, a place called Rockybar,” says Rusty, a note of emotion clear in his tone, “his name was Reg, R.M. Williams. I was part of the workin’ team back then and he was a great man and taught me many things I remember to this day.”

Reginald Murray (R.M.) Williams OA CMG, passed away in 2003 at the ripe old age of 95, a lifetime’s hard work, struggle and tenacity behind him. Despite growing up amid the hardship of the early 20th century droughts and the Great Depression, his skills in horsemanship and craftwork, fuelled by a ‘never quit’ attitude, set him on a course for commercial success. The R.M. Williams brand is world-renown and synonymous for durability and dependability.

R.M. Williams touched people at all levels and walks of life. He was unscrupulously honest, forthright and commanding, yet remarkably humble and left those he met with an indelible, if simple lesson in life: never look behind, keep your eyes ahead.

Then Prime Minister, John Howard, never shy to embrace an Australian ideal, nevertheless summed RM up to a tee. “He was a shining example of the great Australian adventurer, an uncanny bush craftsman and generous sponsor of outback ethic and culture.”

Rusty remembers one of RM’s bush lessons. “Even today I still suck a gumleaf while I’m musterin’. What that does is stop me lips gettin’ sunburned. There, that’s somethin’ I learned.”

Opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1988 to coincide with bicentenary celebrations, the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre is located right in the middle of the great outback - in the town of Longreach. The centre's five painstakingly constructed and authentically themed galleries display the history behind some of Australia's greatest and bravest explorers, stock workers, pastoralists and Aborigines. It has been the recipient of numerous awards and continues to draw visitors by the thousands.

Some would say this is the spiritual heart of the outback. The birthplace of Qantas is celebrated with a museum right across the road and just down the way a bit is Winton which, if you believe the legend, was the inspiration for the famous Banjo Patterson ballad, “Waltzing Matilda”. The neighbouring towns of Charleville, Blackall, Barcaldine, and Cloncurry each have their own unique historic attractions and complete the outback heritage pilgrimage.

As for Rusty, no matter where he finds himself in the world, his heart is always in the outback.

“The outback is fantastic place - I wouldn’t wanna be anywhere else. Wide open spaces, friendly, friendly people – it’s God’s country,” he says with a wink, “we might be rough, but we’re loving people. There’s always a bed and a feed if you’re ‘ungry and no-one’s gonna ask for money.”

But while Rusty remembers the past fondly, he knows the world is changing.

“While there’s cattle and stock,” he says defiantly, “there’ll always be stockmen and I just want to be part of it until me toes curl up.”


You don’t have to travel to the middle of the outback to sample some of our ‘dinkum’ bush fun and games. Right in the heart of Queensland’s Gold Coast you’ll find R.M. Williams Australian Outback Spectacular. A little bit of Hollywood excitement mixed with a lot of true-blue Aussie fun and laughs, the show is a choreographed stage performance drawing on the myths and legends of the outback, accompanied by a great meal and show.

Australian Outback Spectacular, Gold Coast

Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, Longreach

Queensland Heritage Trails

February 18, 2013

Mining History: A stay at Phuket’s Indigo Pearl Resort


 – Michael Travers

From the High Street to the entrepots of the tropics, the boutique hotel phenomenon that is sweeping the world has seen some stellar additions to the world of hostelry, and apart from keeping the likes of Philippe Starke in cigarette money in perpetuity; they are increasingly changing the culture of staying the night. Phuket is the prime breeding ground for this fashion and the Indigo Pearl, with its mix of heavy industry design and feather pillows, is one of the island’s unique leading lights.

Long before there was a tourist industry in Thailand, Phuket was a rich and prosperous island thanks mainly to the vast reserves of tin that were mined by the thousands of Malay, Burmese, Indian and Chinese immigrants who set an indelible seal on the island’s culture. The late twentieth century eventually put paid to the metal’s desirability, the industry ground to a halt, and the tools of the trade were left to rust.

But, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and with so much of the rich mining legacy simply hanging around, when it came time for the owners of Indigo Pearl to renovate their Phuket beach resort they simply went on a scavenger hunt and brought history back to life. Having had a multi-generational history in the tin-mining industry it was a no-brainer for the hotel’s owners to capitalize on their connections and so, after recruiting interior designer, Bill Bensley and artist John Underwood, the hotel was transformed from a normal day-to-day Thai beach resort into a dynamic, post-industrial hotel experience that runs 240 volts through the imagination with every turn of a reinforced concrete corner.

Subtle it is not, and futurist homage is paid to the workingman in a style akin to early Stalinist propaganda; a celebration of sweat and toil, the rivet, the screw, and most importantly the very foundations of industry - concrete and steel. Walls are (un)finished in rough textured cement, columns are wrapped in thick plates of metal with exposed fastenings, and a veritable treasure chest of found objects and materials - twisted and imagined into all manner of functioning and thought provoking lamps, tables, shapes, sculptures and furnishings - fill the public spaces.

Interestingly, mixed in with the heavy use of metal and the vast industrial sculptures that fill the hallways, the traditional high-pitched Thai-designed lobby is littered with oversized cushioned sofas in deep blue hues that invite guests out into the public spaces to recline and become a living part of the hotel. In an extra post-modern touch, purple and blue neon lights emanate from the floor beneath the soft furnishings to move even further into the world of futurist cool.

Of course, bedrooms are where guests will spend most of their time and comfort has been given equal billing inside the machine. Guests can choose from an array of room options and prices, through suites and villas right up to the showpiece Bensley Suite. Everyone is treated royally, however, and all the rooms are large and inviting and flow beautifully between sleeping, bathing and dressing areas with loads of textures, colours and visual sensations to be felt throughout. Nothing has been left to simplicity.

Culture and wow factor aside, the resort’s obligation is still to provide guests with fun and pleasure in the sun and they do that in spades with three swimming pools, a cooking and language school, their newly opened ‘tree house’ spa, a kids club and a wide array of tours and expeditions around the island. There are two fine-dining restaurants, and several bars, which also follow the industrial design theme.

Such is their uniqueness that they attract many outside visitors creating their own up-market buzz in-house making the long trek into Patong an option rather than a necessity. Or simply walk the gardens and enjoy the art. Indigo Pearl is indeed unique and will leave guests with more from their Phuket experience than go-go bars and a suntan. Everyone wants to be different and this resort gives travellers the perfect name to drop into dinner party conversation; their low cost-gem, their private slice of individuality, and a testament to their own pioneering spirit and passion for living la differance. FRV


February 17, 2013

Vanuatu Scuba Diving: Get Wrecked in Port Vila

Vanuatu wreck diving: Semle Federsen
Artificial wreck, Semele Federsen, is a popular dive wreck in Port Vila. Vanuatu (R Eime)

While Vanuatu may not have the range of wartime wrecks like some other Pacific island countries, the idyllic island destination can offer plenty of deliberately sunken vessels to explore and enjoy.

Scuba Diving in North Efate

Vanuatu scuba diving

There are many diving delights to be found in the Vanuatu island group. So, how do you extend your experience when you've ticked off the well known operators in Port Vila and Santo?

Sailaway Cruises and Tranquillity Dive have been established in the North Efate area for over 30 years and have located many interesting sites. Other dive operators from Port Vila can also access some of these.

Based at a mini-marina in Havannah Harbour is “Sailaway Cruises” with their smart sailing trimaran Golden Wing. They offer a full day cruise with lunch, catering to both divers and keen snorkellers. The usual run is in sheltered waters to Hat Island, Survivor Beach and Paul's Rock seamount.

Hat Island lies within a UNESCO World Heritage Area, based on the anthropology of the Roimata legend. This ancient volcano, has a number of top dive sites offering 50m underwater visibility in the tradewind season.

Roimata's Grave site features healthy coral reefs, gardens of gorgonia fans and prolific fish populations. There are occasional sightings of turtles, big maori wrasse, whitetip reefies and resident eagle rays.

The Taj Mahal site is a cavernous swim-through with shafts of light streaming in like spotlights through holes in the roof. This dive is usually part of a longer dive including walls featuring gorgonian fans, seawhips and grottoes of clams.

Paul's Rock, rising from 500m to 2m, has spawned an impressive array of marine life. There is a custom tabu on fishing there to avoid Devil-spirits, so fish of all shapes and sizes have no fear of snorkellers or divers, making for friendly interactions. Paul's Rock features swim-throughs lined with gorgonia fans and multi-coloured soft corals. Big pelagics, turtles and a giant moray eel are often seen.

Other dive sites include the Tukutuku Labyrinth of swimthrough caverns; Turtle Reef pinnacles; Lelepa Island Return to the Womb; deeper sites at Hat Island; and the WW2 Corsair fighter plane near Pele Island. The boat can be chartered by families or dive groups for liveaboard trips with diving.

Located about 30 minutes by road from Vila, is “Tranquillity Dive”, one of Vanuatu’s hidden gems. ‘Eco’ is taken seriously here as it is a predominantly solar-powered site with a generator used only as supplementary power and to pump Scuba tanks. The castaway location, a spot used by three series’ of Survivor, is just a short boat ride across Havannah Harbour and is a great spot for non-divers too.

Tranquillity Dive has sixteen coral-rich sites including Tranquillity Bommies, straight off the shore on the crest of a 114 meter drop-off and home to several large hawksbill and green turtles and the occasional manta rays and dugongs. Also Owen’s Reef which has more diversity of coral and marine life in such a small area than other dive sites on the island, and not forgetting Bottle Fish Cave where the tug boats were stationed to haul the anti-submarine nets in Purumea pass during WW2. There are also two wrecks to explore, Belama, in 20 meters and Roimata in 40 meters. Don’t miss Grouper Gutter, one of the few areas where seriously big groupers can still be found on occasions.

Tranquillity Dive offers island style accommodation and you can undertake beginners through to dive master courses there. During a visit make sure you see the Hawksbill Turtle nursery at the resort and learn a thing or two about these endangered animals. Also a Classic 23m Ketch can be joined for its popular Coongoola Cruise to a beach with offshore snorkelling and BBQ lunch - a great idea for your no-fly day activity.

February 15, 2013

One Horizon: Giving something back

Kwangware Children’s Centre is located in the Kwangware slum in Nairobi

broadening your horizon,
brightening theirs
In 2000, the Sydney Olympics proved one significant thing. That given the chance people would seize the opportunity to ‘give back’ to the community. Since that time, volunteers have been a cornerstone of every Olympic event since 2000. And it was in 2000 that One Horizon was established. A humanitarian organisation headquartered in Sydney which aligns people’s desire to give ‘something back’ with experiences in Kenya. It provides experiences which are described regularly by its volunteers as ‘life changing’. It lives by its motto – to broaden your horizon and to brighten theirs.

One Horizon appeals to a broad demographic. It has no religious or political affiliations. You don’t have to put your life on hold for people attend on average, for between 1-5 days and you won’t be asked for donations. And there’s no requirement to have a trade skill and you won’t be asked to ‘build’ things. It’s common to see entire family groups sharing a One HORIZON experience together. And because One Horizon’s centres are in the largest slums in East Africa (it owns, manages or supports centres such as crèches, primary schools and women’s refuges). You get first hand experiences of these communities.

Volunteers can find themselves helping to cook and feed babies and toddlers, to outfit children in new sets of clothes and shoes and to help run sessions on health and hygiene. Or people can find themselves talking to women whose lives have been who have been devastated by HIV and who are being re-trained by One Horizon as seamstresses so that they can earn a living. And in a few days you can experience a variety of centres all under the supervision of One Horizon staff. Each day you receive a briefings about you can involve yourself as much as you want. And upon returning to your hotel you can also take part in One Horizon’s team dinners – experiencing the night life of Nairobi.

One Horizon was established by two Australians because they knew they could make a difference. And it’s sobering to remember that in Kenya, 50 per cent of people live below the poverty line, 40 per cent of people are unemployed (60 per cent of youth are unemployed) and the average annual wage is $750. When you add the fact that infant mortality is appalling high at 57 deaths/1000 then you can understand why ‘feeding programs’ are at the heart of what One Horizon does.

Like those that flocked to become volunteers at the Sydney Olympics, One Horizon is an organisation that appeals to a broad demographic.

February 14, 2013

Tales of Love on a Plane for Valentine's Day

love is in the air

Wego the leading travel metasearch site in the Asia Pacific and Middle East today revealed that cupid's arrow strikes in any location, even at 35,000 feet. According to a recent Wego survey passengers reported seeing a number of marriage proposals, break ups and reconciliations, signs from the sky, even cabin crew revelations of love.

In-flight proposals were frequent and methods of popping the question quite diverse, creative and sometimes comical. One man in the front row of an aircraft stood up when turbulence hit and he fell onto the chest of a female passenger. Glancing at his girlfriend he saved the day by proposing to her.

An Australian woman was taken on a helicopter flight by her boyfriend as a gift and when they flew over her house she saw a message painted on the roof asking her to marry him. Sitting in a window seat, another saw her name alongside a proposal at the couple's favourite fishing spot as her plane took off.

Onboard proposals were made with rings dropped into wine glasses, some declaring their intentions on bended knees in the aisle, and another had a cabin crew member crawling on the floor pretending she lost her engagement ring only for one gentleman to find it and propose to his girlfriend with it with all passengers receiving champagne in celebration.

In fact many told Wego that these flights were some of the most memorable. Marriage proposals definitely have a universal effect across all cultures with people reporting how 'touched' and even 'teary' they became when witnessing these momentous occasions.

While flying can bring out the romantic in us, it doesn't always have a fairy-tale ending. One passenger said during a long flight he watched the man seated next to him flirt intently with the flight attendant until he informed him that she was his wife, resulting in a very quiet journey. And a mother flying with her three boisterous boys was approached by a man with a twinkle in his eye requesting her phone number, to which she replied, 'No, I've no more energy for yet another boy'.

Wego also found that others found their life partners onboard an aircraft, with a number admitting to flirting with those they shared seats with resulting in long term relationships and marriage.

During one Valentine's Day flight a flight attendant asked for a volunteer to sing a love song. The passenger told Wego he serenaded the attendant and happily received a kiss in return from her as a reward. And when love goes wrong, as it did for one couple who argued mid-flight, passengers were kept amused watching the husband sing love songs to win back his wife's favour.

Cupid works in mysterious ways and one of the more unusual stories told to Wego was of the man on a flight to the Philippines. Upon opening the overhead compartment to retrieve something, a flower he had bought for his mother fell on the lap of a beautiful woman, who then became his wife.

Love is not restricted however to passengers it seems, with another reporting a marriage proposal over the intercom from the pilot to his flight attendant girlfriend.

Krakatoa: Playing With Fire

Krakatoa has the dubious distinction of being the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It sits on the crux of the Indonesian subduction zone and is a pressure valve for the immense tectonic forces that have and continue to shape Indonesia. Michael Travers went to see if it is all that it is cracked up to be and came away glad to be alive

“Let’s wait for one more explosion,” I said to the captain as I sat on the front of the chartered speedboat bobbing in the calm waters 500 metres off the south side of Anak Krakatoa. Ten minutes later there was an almighty sonic boom and the island was engulfed in dust and noise. Chang Loos, our local Java Rhino guide, made a sudden beeline for the back of the boat so quickly that I started to panic. Immediately, about 300m to port, a thousand volcanic bombs strafed the waters like a Pearl Harbour morning. Jaws dropped in disbelief as I caught sight of the two torso-sized rocks hurtling through the air towards us. There was no time to think anything before they hit the water not 20m off our starboard side. throwing huge plumes of water into the air. Before I even had a chance to exhale, the captain gunned the engines and headed out of there like his life depended upon it. “Mister, you are very lucky. You almost die,” were the exact words I heard before the shakes set in and we all cracked up in nervous laughter.

Krakatoa sits in the middle of the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and on August 27, 1883 it erupted in a series of violent explosions that almost entirely destroyed the island, creating a huge tsunami and sending 21 cubic kilometres of rock and ash high into the atmosphere in an explosion so violent that they were heard on the island of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean, 4,800 km away. Average global temperatures fell by as much as 1.2 degrees Celsius in the year and the dust cloud blanketed the Earth creating darkness in Asia and stunning sunsets as far away as Europe for months to come. The resulting pyroclastic flows and tsunamis killed more than 36,000 people and in a grizzly reminder to the global ferocity of the event, groups of human skeletons were found across the Indian Ocean in East Africa on rafts of volcanic pumice up to a year after the eruption.

On this day, however, the danger was not yet over and we had planned on landing on the island itself. We skirted around the west side of the island to a serene and sandy beach where pine trees grow on the sandy lower slopes. A constant rain of fine sand was falling and covered us and everything around us. After a ten minute walk uphill we reached the tree line, which opened to barren sand and rock slopes covered in volcanic bombs and impact craters. A volcanic bomb is a piece of rock that gets shot out of a volcano during an eruption and they vary in size from a pebble to the size of a small bus. The many broken branches on the tall, mighty pines were testament to this hard rain’s effect. The mountain was erupting with an unnerving frequency and after each successive explosion we could see several bombs falling and landing in the sand around us at a very uncomfortable distance. Even from behind the false security offered by the surrounding trees, Krakatoa is not without risk.

During the 1883 eruption, the entire island was destroyed leaving only three islands of which, Rakata is the only remnant. The active cone that we see today is known as Anak Krakatoa -Child of Krakatoa- and sits in the middle of the deep ocean caldera. It first appeared above the waves in 1930 and it slowly grew from the depths. It has been growing ever since thanks to successive eruptions and has now reached a height of almost 300m.

We were very lucky to be there at a time of heightened volcanic activity, with what seemed like multiple explosions every 15 minutes or less. Indeed, when we visited the seismic laboratory back on the mainland we saw that there had been 153 eruptions in the past 24 hours. The most recent eruptions began in April 2008, when hot gases, rocks, and lava were released and scientists monitoring the volcano warned people to stay out of a 3 km zone around the island. In May 2009 the eruption alert status was raised Level Orange and it hasn’t settled yet.

Rakata is about 3km south of the baby it spawned and with its calm and secluded beach is the perfect place to watch the volcano by night. The guides set up camp, supplies are brought ashore, fish are caught and a fire is laid in preparation for the evening’s entertainment. We sit and stare into the blackness for hours, watching the sky light up as the magma erupts high out of the volcano and snakes down the sides of the mountain like a melted ice cream. This sky show never stops and I was constantly woken from my sleep to fireworks spectacular without equal by each successive explosion of molten rock.

As we leave the next morning we skirt close to the volcano again to see what changes there have been overnight and I saw a boulder the size of a bus three quarters of the way down the western flank, obviously one of the huge red embers we saw being discharged during the night. What forces lie within the furnaces of Vulcan I can only imagine, but I know this much, Krakatoa is an awesome and mighty force that deserves respect. If you don’t you may end up paying for it with your life.

For more information on how to experience Krakatoa contact Java Rhino Eco-Tour Indonesia, a group endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund and dedicated to saving endangered wildlife and threatened cultures and encouraging local communities to conserve their bio-cultural heritage.

Contact Roman on +62 813 8666 8811

Or email info@krakatau-tour.com


February 11, 2013

Cruising Kerala's Backwaters in the President's Boat

by Michael Travers

A Chance Skype chat and a mention of India was all it took to get the ball rolling on a sailing trip through the backwaters of Kerala. Michael Travers reports.

The Kerala Backwaters are a 900kmlong chain of brackish lagoons and lakes in southern India, which are interconnected by a labyrinthine series of canals fed by 38 rivers that snake their way down the Western Ghats to the sea. By providing transport, food, water, rice and livelihoods the waterways are the lifeblood of the millions of people who make their living in the cities, towns and villages that line their banks. They are also home to the hundreds of houseboats that, each year, depending on the season, see hundreds of thousands of tourists, both foreign and domestic, arriving in droves to take in the serenity and natural beauty of the never ending watery ecosystem.

With four others journeying out from London there would be six of us in total making the three-day journey on the houseboat, which from the website photos was a beautifully laid out classic with dark wooden timbers, Persian rugs and plush cushions, polished brass fittings, large state rooms with modern bathrooms, and offering a uniqueness that only good money could buy. True to developing world form, however, our best-laid plans took a knock the night before our departure whilst enjoying a slap up feast to celebrate our meeting of the ways. Our booker rang to tell us that the motor on our boat had blown up. “Oh bugger!” we thought. “Here we go!” Our boat was indeed out of action but she was offering a replacement that ‘was even better!’ and instead, she promised, we were to be sailing on the President’s Boat (my italics). We hoped she meant the President of India and not the head of the local fishing federation, but with few options at the eleventh hour we had no choice but to wait and see what the tide brought in the next day. Times like this call for a good long drink but, as (more) bad luck would have it, we were in a Muslim restaurant. Never mind.

Made of bamboo and thatch most houseboats look pretty much the same so as we waited by the canal’s edge the following morning we had no idea which boat sailing past was ours. Eventually, after about 45 minutes of playing the “this one, no, this one game” the aptly-named Venice Castle hoved into view; a fitting nomenclature for a trip along the canals and it definitely looked something worthy of a Head of State. It seemed the gods - or God singular in this predominantly Catholic state – was smiling on us as we slowly sailed out onto a vast lake in the company of a handful of similar looking snail-shaped boats and into the afternoon sun.

Not all boats are rigged the same and despite the lushness of our three-bedroom palace there were some things that weren’t ideal. We had a great upper deck but only semi-comfortable chairs and a bit too much shade. The downstairs was open-plan but the air-conditioned dining room just took up too much space at the expense of minor claustrophobia.

And the furniture? Meh! But, there was no sense in bemoaning the loss of our original boat’s hammocks and chez longues and it was ‘acclimatise or die’. After all, we all had king-sized rooms with en-suite bathrooms with windows over the water – loos with views. And of course nothing to do for two three days but sit back and chill the hell out.
The going was deliciously slow as we sailed up and down canals lined with villages, rice fields and church steeples, and of course Keralans themselves. Kids and adults going about their days oblivious to the tourist intrusion a few metres off their back doorsteps.

It’s extremely rural with vast horizons, big skies and endless groves of coconut trees lining the waters. Children carry schoolbooks home, they swim and yell and wave to us as their mothers do laundry and light fires while their fathers tend rice and catch fish for the evening meal. The waters are also home to myriad species of birds, both visitors and permanent residents; the paddy fields providing rich feeding grounds for squadrons of Caspian terns on loan from Siberia and local inhabitants such as herons, egrets, finches, eagles, cormorants and kingfishers with beaks the size of sewing shears.

Being February when we were there, the canals were relatively traffic free but there are times when we could see and feel a bit of a build up. Apparently peak season can be somewhat like a morning rush hour in Beijing. Lucky for us, around 4pm many of the boats, who were only doing a one-night trip begin to peel off in search of a mooring close to the following morning’s drop off point. We, who were doing a two-night trip (highly recommended), continued further out into the wilderness in the company of just ourselves.

After watching the longest sunset ever we pulled up against the canal bank, tied off on a coconut tree and negotiated the vending of some fresh prawns and fresh fish for that evening’s dinner and slunk off for some Ayurevedic oil massages. Who would have thought that in the middle of nowhere one could find a massage centre with six therapists ready to go. Only in India! After dinner we sailed off in search of a deserted stretch of canal to spend the night. After going to bed well fed and massaged into a state of near zombification we (well, two of us) woke before the dawn in time to see the sun rising through the coconut trees and reflecting off the waters and a gentle morning mist filling the fields as the birds sang their morning greeting.

While my yogafied friend saluted the rising sun I wandered far out into the rice paddies where the stalks were tall and strong and only a few weeks from harvest as the birds and farmers looked on from a distance.
It doesn’t take long to break a sweat in this heat and the canal water looked too good to be true so the crew told us to just jump right in. One of our party was a doctor and (when he woke up) advised against it, but we ignored his words and kept on swimming coming up feeling healthier and more alive than ever; this was the water we were showering in on the boat, after all.

Swimming in the flat calm waters with the sounds of nature and the reflections of the palms and the early morning stillness felt like we were in Eden before the Fall and the full beauty and importance of what we were doing sunk in. A large breakfast followed before we cast off knowing that we had absolutely nothing to do that day except kick back and relax and wait for lunch, dinner and more of the same.

Ahh, the food. To complement the otherworldliness of where we were the food that was served was truly out of this world. From a tiny galley at the back of the boat we were served some the most amazing displays of cuisine we had ever set eyes upon. It was of such gastronomic quality that we discussed kidnapping the chef and taking him with us when we disembarked. Vast quantities and varieties of curries, vegetables, fishes, dips, sauces, different rices, breads, fruits and juices kept coming four times a day until we were fit to burst. But still we had room for more. These journeys are as much about feeding the stomach as they are about nourishing the soul.

As to the claim to be the President’s Boat, was it true? Sure enough, on the dining room wall was a signed certificate and photo of India’s first woman president, Pratihba Patil, who had spent time on this very boat. Sitting alongside her photo is a religious image depicting, in a Hindu style, the Baby of Prague, a Catholic guardian who brings good luck to the Venice Castle and all who sail on her - Man cannot live by politics alone it seems. We speculated that she stepped on board for a quick cup of tea rather than overnighting (where would her bodyguards sleep?) - this was confirmed by the crew. Still, it made no difference to the owners who have been using it as a marketing sweetener ever since to great effect.

India is a place to lose and find yourself and there are a hundred ways to do both. Some do yoga, some meditate, some visit ashrams and change their names and religion, while others like to take illicit drugs on the beach in Goa and dance the days away dressed like reincarnated refugees from the 20th century. It’s all each to their own, but it’s all about trying to find simplicity - something we have lost in our post-modern pursuit of the cult of the individual. It is what calms us and replaces the stresses of our day to day and the silly importance we place on the immaterial. For me, being in the Keralan silence of that boat, sailing past simple people doing simple things and simply being a community, was enough to calm whatever Western excess I had brought along for the ride. If we could just get a grasp on the little things that make a village a village, and if we could each take a little bit of it home with us then the modern world would be that little bit happier – at least as happy as we six became on our journey through a very special place with beautiful surroundings, great food, the company of good friends and best of all, the time to enjoy it.

Interested? See: www.keralahouseboat.co.in

Stockton Tin City: From Mad Max to five-star


David Ellis
with John Rozentals

THE welcome sign casts a shadow reminiscent of Arthur Boyd's Ned Kelly as Angus Jameson's four-wheel-drive mounts another crest to reveal Tin City, a post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max-like settlement amid the sand dunes of Stockton Beach just north of Newcastle.

And the first question one asks oneself is, how come such a place like this even exists? And the second, how come it survives the ever-shifting dunes that constantly threaten to swallow-up this mostly corrugated-iron "city," and which would look more at home in the war zone of Afghanistan than on the doorstep of NSW's second largest city?

The answers: necessity and tenacity. Tin City evolved during the Great Depression when a dozen or so individuals and families banded together and threw up a collection of galvanised iron shanties, eking out a communal existence based largely on catching fish off their rent-free, away-from-everything beach and trapping wildlife further inland.

Most drifted off after the economy improved, but the settlement re-emerged again after WWII, and while some of the oldest residences succumbed to the shifting sands, a handful are still occupied to this day – their owners daily having to dig-away wind-blown sands that pile-up against their walls, and the local council having a moratorium on any new construction.

(And yes, you have seen it in Mad Max and some TV commercials.)

Angus Jameson's Port Stephens 4WD Tours is one of several companies that operate daily tours along the 32km Stockton Beach – the largest "mobile" coastal sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere – and incorporating a visit to Tin City amid those ever-wandering 30m high sand dunes.

And he shares with guests his extraordinary knowledge of the local history, nature and diversity of the dunes, and their incorporated Worimi Conservation Lands that embrace Aboriginal middens (piles of shells and food bones) 12,000 years old.

And shipwrecks. Over 100 vessels have foundered off Stockton Beach, the largest the 53,000 tonne Norwegian bulk carrier Sygna that was blown ashore by 185km/hr winds during a horrific storm in 1974, and one of the largest ships to be wrecked off the Australian east coast.

Parts of it can still be seen today, as can concrete anti-tank traps and barbed wire entanglements laid to prevent a feared Japanese invasion during WWII… and interestingly while the first "community" grew up with those shanties during the Depression, other buildings had actually been put up on remote Stockton Beach as far back as the late 1800s – stocked with provisions for ship-wrecked sailors.

At the beach's extreme north-east, around Anna Bay, there's a car park for visitors, kiosk, camel rides and a magnificent slope of slippery golden sand that's a magnet for thrill-seeker sand-boarders who career down the amazing 60-degrees.

And while you can opt for accommodation right beachfront in Port Stephens, places like the 5-star Amarna Resort on Dutchmans Bay Beach are certainly anything but  beachfront Tin City: a 25-metre lap pool, 10-person spa, outstanding views, and luxurious furnishings are just the beginnings.

All one- and two-bedroom suites and three- and four-bedroom split-level penthouses here are fully self-contained with modern kitchens, large living areas, separate laundries and furnished balconies, making it the sort of place you'll probably not want to venture very far away from.

But if you do, it's just a 15-minute waterfront stroll to d'Albora Marina, Nelson Bay's focal point for dining and nautical activity.

Or just a short drive or slightly longer walk to Peppers Anchorage at Corlette Point, and which offers a spectacular location for breakfast, high tea, lunch or dinner.

Port Stephens and Nelson Bay, just 2.5hrs drive north of Sydney, also provide some of the readiest access to whale-watching the busy humpback highway that runs along our east coast from around May to November, and to pods of dolphins that enjoy Port Stephens' sheltered waters year round.

Other activities include snorkelling and scuba-diving, spotting for koalas at Anna Bay which has one of Australia's largest populations of the marsupial, Nelson Head Heritage Lighthouse and Reserve, testing your fitness walking to the top of Tomaree Headland to enjoy the expansive views of Port Stephens and surrounding islands, and parasailing over the dolphin-rich waters.

For more information contact Port Stephens Tourism on 1800 808 900 or www.portstephens.org.au; the Amarna Resort 02 49811644 or www.amarnaresort.com.au.



[] TIN CITY – a daily battle with the ever-shifting Stockton Beach sand dunes.

[] STOCKTON beach: the largest "mobile" coastal sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere.

[] HAVEN for sandboarders.

[] REMAINS can still be seen today of the 53,000 tonne Sygna that was blown ashore in 1974.

[] BIG contrast to Tin City: Dutchmans Bay's Amarna Resort – perfect location.

[] POOL with a view: looking out from Amarna Resort's pool area.

(Photos: Sandra Burn White)

Struth! Aussie Aussie Aussie .. almost

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis muses over P&O Cruises' choice of ice-cream that it gave away to guests to celebrate Australia Day aboard it's liner Pacific Pearl that was in Sydney Harbour to take part in several of the harbour's big day events.

Because the company sponsored the Australia Day Sydney Harbour program, using Pacific Pearl's ship's whistle used to start the Tall Ships Parade, passengers helped judge the Best Dressed Vessel on the Harbour, and the ship boasted 100m long banners on either side with the iconic Aussie sporting catchcry "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…."

But while this was all very patriotic and passengers on board were also given those free ice creams to celebrate Australia Day, it turns out the choice of ice cream was less patriotic.

Because it wasn't Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – but Enzie, Enzie, Enzie from the ship's onboard New Zealand ice cream parlour.

February 05, 2013

Ternate and Tidore: A Spicy Tale of Two Islands

Ternate and Tidore - the fabled Spice Islands of the Indies, two names whose very mention once enthralled the royal courts of Europe with dreams of exotic lands and unimaginable wealth. The only source of cloves and nutmeg, man’s desire for control of their trade ushered in the golden age of exploration that lead to huge profits for individuals and nations bold enough to make the journey to the ends of the Earth. Michael Travers takes his taste for the past and sails in their wake.

Langham Place: art gallery masquerading as a hotel

Langham Place, Mongkok, Hong Kong
Red Guards – Going Forward! Making Money! – Jiang Shuo

Langham Place, Mongkok, Hong Kong
Rainbow by Cheng Xiang
Langham Place Hotel has become the first hotel in the world to offer their guests iPod tours of their contemporary Chinese art, which is one of the world’s most impressive collections.

The hotel owns more than 1,500 pieces of contemporary Chinese art estimated to hold a readily increasing value of more than HK$20 million. The collection includes pieces by numerous legendary Chinese artists including Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Jiang Shuo.

The iPod art tour takes guests from the ground level to the 41st floor highlighting the hotel’s top 21 pieces. Via the iPod, Angela Li, Langham Place’s art consultant guides the guest explaining the philosophy and history of the art and artist and the key contributors guiding the artist.

Each level of the hotel carries a different theme designed to suit the likely state of mind of the guest. As an example, the entrance to the hotel (lobby level) is all about the essence of life while signature bar Portal – Work & Play (level 5) looks at humanity and the exhaustion of the modern world (yes, that’s when you know you need a strong drink).

Langham Place, Mongkok, Hong Kong
iPod Art Tour Guide
Langham Place general manager Shaun Campbell says: “We’ve introduced these tours in an effort to ensure that our art is easily accessible and fully enjoyed. We hope everyone gets something different out of it – some pieces will inspire, some will provoke, several are also controversial – most importantly it’ll make you think.”

The tours are conducted in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese and are free for all guests to experience. The iPod tour is accompanied with a complimentary take-home petite box-set guide with image prints and written explanations in English and Traditional Chinese.

Guests can do the tour at their own leisure seven days a week from 6:00am – 11:00pm.

For more information on Langham Place, Mongkok, Hong Kong visit http://hongkong.langhamplacehotels.com

More information on Angela Li and her gallery Contemporary by Angela Li

February 04, 2013

Struth! Hallstatt Austrian UNESCO village 'Made in China'

Original in Austria (L) and the Chinese knock-off

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that the idea of Chinese take-away has been taken to new heights in the city of Huizhou that's built a copy-cat of the Austrian village of Hallstatt, often described as "the most beautiful lakeside village in the world."

And the Hallstatters are anything but pleased… particularly after they discovered that the Chinese had for several years been mingling with the 800,000 tourists who visit their village every year, taking detailed photographs, making sketches and measuring-up the local wooden chalets, ancient churches, a 400-year-old inn, picturesque shops and cafés, and even the centuries-old market-place.

Just 800 people live in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt, which the Chinese have now replicated on a 2ha (5-acre) site as a "high-end residential development with mountain and lake views" – even though they're also having to build a lake as part of the copy-cat Hallstatt, and which will be complete down to a tourist ferry like in the real thing.

Huizhou is an industrial city whose local company, Chinese Minmetals Corporation believes will become a tourist magnet with its $8b replica Hallstatt – the same, it says, as the City of Chengdu did when it built a replica of part of England's historic little country town of Dorchester.

It's certainly elevated cloning to a new level.

Prince's Private A380 just another plaything

NOW that's a First Class seat fit for a prince. (Flight Fashion)
PRINCELY dining on world's first private A380. (Flight Fashion)


David Ellis

Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal will take delivery
of the world’s first customised A380 superjumbo jet next year
NEXT time you're about to get aboard that whopping A380 Airbus that seems to shade half the airport, and you're told you are the 350th passenger to step inside – and that there are another 200 still to follow – give a thought to a Saudi Arabian prince who'll  soon have no need to worry about looking to see if he turns left or right for First or Business Class.

Because he's about to become the first person in the world to own his very own personal A380.

A whole AU$363m worth from France's Airbus Industrie, and which a British company is now outfitting for a further US$90m-odd with luxuries ranging from a lounge for live concerts, to a marble-lined Turkish bath, and a glass floor so he and guests can gaze down on whatever they are flying over.

AN A380 like the one a Saudi prince has bought
for family and business travel. (Airbus Industrie)
At a total cost of around AU$455m, it means the prince will be absolutely relaxed as he zooms off to places as far as 15,500km away – and with tanks sucking-up 320,000 litres of aviation fuel, not even having to think about stopping to refuel.

(Which we guess is the old adage: if you can afford to buy such a plane in the first place, those litres should be the least of your concerns.)

The Prince's A380 would normally carry around 550 passengers in Economy, Business and First Class, with some airlines also having a fourth Premium Economy category as well, and others going for all-Economy into which to cram 853 backsides.

AND First Class sleeping on
Singapore Airlines. (Singapore Airlines)
But our Saudi prince won't have to worry about such crass sharing in his plane: he and his family will indulge in five luxury suites complete with king-size beds, handmade rugs, private lounges, and ensuites with full-size showers.

And there'll be First Class sleeper seats in private compartments for up to twenty business and other guests, lounging areas and a dining room … as well as a Prayer Room where computers will automatically always have prayer mats facing towards Mecca.

A member of the Saudi Royal Family, the prince made his money – his personal wealth is said to be in the vicinity of AU$25-billion – from a lifetime of shrewd investments, including 50% ownership of London's Savoy Hotel, and a 7% stake in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, the largest outside the Murdoch family.

HOW others enjoy an A380: First and
Business Class bar on Emirates A380.
(Emirates Air)
And in truth he probably doesn't think his purchase is all that unusual. Why would you when you already own your own customised Boeing 747, an Airbus A231 and a Hawker Siddeley HS125 mini-jet to get to that next meeting, more than 200 cars including Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Ferraris for when you're in a hurry on the ground in different parts of the world, and for holidays an 86m (280ft) mega motor-cruiser you can boast featured in the Bond movie Never Say Never Again (in which it was named Flying Saucer.)

Guests who go aboard at regular airports will enter through a normal door that will open into a large Entrance Hall with a wide spiral staircase, and a lift if you don't like stairs, going to the aircraft's upper deck. Where permitted at others, that lift will descend through the belly of the aircraft onto the ground below – with a red carpet automatically unfurling, and bathed by floodlights at night so these guests will feel they've arrived at a Hollywood premiere.

PRINCE's other play thing: his yacht Kingdom5KR
that appeared in James Bond Never Say Never Again.
He also owns 200 cars and a diamond-crusted
Ducati motorbike.(Mediterranean Yachting magazine)
A fully-outfitted boardroom will boast screens showing real-time world markets, and a 12-place Perspex table will embrace touch screens built flat into it at every seat, plus internet and satellite phone…

Down in the aircraft's belly, empty cargo and luggage spaces are being turned into recreation zones including a Wellbeing Room with a "Magic Carpet" glass floor to stand on, or lounge around, to look down on the passing world below – with scents of forest and sea for added ambience.

And a concert lounge will have a stage and baby grand piano… with the prince owning a number of entertainment companies, top artists will perform for family and guests.

Finally a "garage" in the plane's belly can take a Rolls Royce – and maybe on occasion the owner's diamond-encrusted Ducati motorbike.

Now, remember, you were number 350 going aboard your A380 for anything up to a 14hr flight – and there are another 200 still to follow behind you…


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