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Lost in Transit was the first travel blog to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald and it's sister newspaper The Age in Melbourne.

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A capital weekend

Only an hour’s flying time from home, yet I can fancy I’m in another country. This pleasurable feeling is a distinctive delight of spending a weekend in Melbourne, a city that’s geographically close to Sydney yet feels so distant, so utterly distinct in atmosphere and culture.

Walking in the Victorian capital is so unlike being on foot around my home town that, if it were not for the language and familiar vocal twang heard on the street, I might pretend I’ve touched down somewhere in Europe. This sense of “pleasant dislocation” provides an underlying thrill throughout our two-day breakaway.

I think it results from the combination of an acute local fashion sense quite unlike what I see in Sydney, together with the popular, casual lane-way dining, wonderful arcade shopping and, of course, the Melbourne trams. These are some of the elements imparting a European feel to life on the streets.

One initial pleasure is the efficient Skybus service from Tullamarine to Southern Cross station with connecting shuttle service to our hotel. Such seamless transport is wishful thinking in Sydney. And Melbourne – just like London and many European cities – also has an easy top-up transport card.

Another pleasure is exploring Fitzroy, now ranked among locals as one of the city’s most lively neighbourhoods with its all important fashion credentials honed by edgy outlets such as Bruce, E.S.S, Nu Couché, The Signet Bureau, Sadotna, NOM*d and Dagmar Rousset.

Fitzroy’s urban vivacity is best illustrated by the forever-feverish-at-weekends De Clieu cafe, for wine lovers by the Gertrude Street EnoTeca, for food lovers by fine dining at Casa Cuccio, Cutler & Co or Moon Under Water at the Builders Arms Hotel, while its artistic cred is shaped by the likes of the Dianne Tanzer Gallery.

Add on the multiple attractions found on nearby Brunswick and Smith streets and you have a dynamic precinct set on generating maximum buzz.

A weekend away is the perfect opportunity to take in something special. Our choice was The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia currently being staged at the Melbourne Museum in collaboration with the British Museum.

Who knew that the concept of the hour is based on ancient Babylonian measurements? So are the signs of the Zodiac. I’m happy to say that I learn something new every day.

Saturday night saw us return to favored haunts. Dinner at Movida in Hoosier Lane was as expected: forever good, the tapas forever tasty, the wine choice terrific and altogether great fun. We could have been in Spain! I can’t wait for Frank Comorra to open up a branch in Sydney which, I am told, will occur this October in Holt Street, Surry Hills.

Sunday being perfect weather for outdoor walking – bright yet with a chill on the breeze – we chose to stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens where green lawns lay dappled in soft sunlight.

Such was the gentle weather and the atmosphere in the tearooms – children sucking ice cream cones, adults devouring scones, jam and cream – it brought to mind similar afternoon pleasures at Kenwood House on London’s Hampstead Heath.

My sense of pleasant geographical dislocation – one minute being reminded of green and pleasant England and the next of some Italian, Spanish or Greek city – stayed with me until the moment I stepped aboard an ancient Qantas 737 to head home.

Tips for a top safari

“Africa seeps under your skin. It is at once seductive, a land ripe with promise and vitality, yet laced through with an undercurrent of primal fear. Such is the nature of the beast, for Africa is forever a tale of beauty laced with danger.”

I grew up in Africa. Since leaving to live elsewhere I’ve re-visited countless times, as both tourist and travel writer. So I’ve got a good idea about what makes for a tip top safari experience.

The wildlife safari is the most popular of Africa holiday options. You can go on a luxury lodge safari, a camping safari, a fishing or canoeing safari, by train or even elephant back! The choice of how you’ll bed down for the night ranges from the outlandishly luxurious and exclusive private game lodge to permanent tented camps to mobile treks during which you pitch your own tent, do some cooking and help wash up. Whatever comfort level you select, at some time do make sure you walk on the wild side.

Best foot forward: A safari should involve getting to close grips with Africa. One way to ensure this happens is to spend time walking through the bush with an experienced, armed ranger because, unquestionably, on-foot is the most thrilling way to see wild creatures. A rhino or elephant at 100 paces will appear to be twice the size – and doubly dangerous – to one viewed from the relative safety of a Landrover. A walk in the wild certainly provides the most heart-thumping moments and also the most treasured memories. Always ask about your chances of walking in the bush when booking your adventure

Sleep under canvas: Opt for the tented camp. Nothing beats the sensation of having just a sheet of material between you and any wildlife that might roam through the campsite at night. I’ve slept in the most fabulous lodges and thoroughly enjoyed the comfort, food and fine service, yet have often felt far removed from what I consider the real thing.

Go for wet: Choose a camp located near or beside water, if not a river then at least a waterhole. The presence of water practically guarantees the presence of creatures. The end of the dry season, between October and January, sees animals gathered close to rivers and waterholes in numbers not witnessed at other times of the year.

Big ain’t always best: Small is equally beautiful. You’ll hear people banging on about the Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo – a grouping of the most prized trophies for 19th Century hunters. And of course you want to see these amazing animals. But it’s often the tiny things that are most fascinating, especially when there’s no big creatures to be easily seen. In this respect, it’s crucial to have a guide who is able to point out and explain the ecology of little things, be they plants or insects.

Rise early: Africa is at its best at first light. Dawn brings birdsong, a lightening sky and aroused sensibilities. Thorny black silhouettes transform into acacias with grey trunks, gnarled branches, dark green foliage and spiky thorns. Morning game drives require pre-dawn starts as wild animals know these first hours of each day are when it’s best to be on the move.

Be informed: Purchasing the appropriate regional field guides to African wildlife and birds will prove invaluable both before and long after your trip.

Gasping for fresh air

There’s a simple question I ask when booking a hotel room. Can I open the windows?

I’ve lost count of the sleepless nights spent incarcerated in some hotel room with outside views through thick panes of glass set rigidly into the wall. Being captive in such a room renders me a caged animal.

Why would anyone even consider building a room with windows that don’t open? It’s warped logic. You can quote safety regulations all you want but what I want is the ability to breathe in and to hear wherever it is that I am. That intrinsic to my being there. Should it become adversely noisy, smelly, whatever outside, I can always simply close the window. I should have that choice.

Sadly, too many hotels today deny this basic human right of indulging in the simple pleasure of breathing fresh air. Instead, guests are doomed to incarceration, forced to inhale the recycled substitute for air that billows from an air-conditioning system, one usually set in a most inappropriate position so it chills you to the bone when asleep. Even worse are hotels where rooms have the double damnation of fixed windows and air-con you can’t adjust or switch off.

Granted the power of air-con control, guests then face another vexing issue. Most air-conditioning systems in “enclosed” hotels are always so damn noisy. You spend the night switching the apparatus off for peace and quiet only to have to switch it back on within the hour because you are gasping for oxygen or about to faint from stifling heat.

The solution? A simple breeze. It works wonders in combating both heat and fatigue and promoting relaxation. Open the windows, please!

Tribal tourism

My neighbour Ken flies choppers. He’s currently in Nicaragua, flying on back-to-back series of Survivor and Celebrity Survivor, a fanciful TV entertainment loosely based on tribal customs but owing its success largely to the titillating presence of a bevy of scantily clad contestants purportedly battling the elements.
 
The series has reaped rich reward for many. Gauging the actual benefit the show has brought to its many exotic locations is much harder. Contestants, in particular the winning Sole Survivor, certainly depart clutching wads of cash. But what exactly do they and the series put back in return?
 


There’s an alternative tribal venture that offers a more practical, realistic and proven way to make a positive input in far-flung regions. The Tribewanted project began a few years ago as an online community, then morphed into a real tribe on the real island of Vorovoro, off the north coast of Fiji’s second largest landmass Vanua Levu. Ironically, the island chief had turned down the lucrative opportunity to host Survivor Fiji.
 


The Tribewanted concept is a community (tribe) of like-minded travellers who get the chance to live in remote communities while helping the locals build a sustainable village. Since September 2006, says Tribewanted, more than 1000 tribe members have spent an average of two weeks on Vorovoro and more than two million Fijian dollars has been injected into the local economy. A village and a dam have been built. There are compost toilets and small amounts of wind and solar energy generated. The lease agreement with the landowners has been extended a further five years
.

Says founder Ben Keene: “I don’t particularly see Tribewanted as voluntourism – its more adventure meets education meets community – it’s tribal tourism.”
 


In October a new tribe will set foot in West Africa to start building a new life alongside a Sierra Leone fishing community. Tribewanted is currently seeking tribe members.

Find out more

Are you bad to the bone?

Just how evil are you? If you think you’re truly, really awful enough then you could be in the running for a six-month holiday – which can’t be all that bad, can it?

Copying the highly successful “world’s best job” Queensland multi-media web campaign, global tour operator On The Go is running a “world’s worst creep” campaign. The attractive prize is an all-expenses-paid trip across four continents. That’s six months on the road in China, India, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kenya, South Africa, Turkey, Nepal and Russia, including a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway!

This sounds far more exciting than admitting to personal faults in psychotherapy. The catch is this: becoming globally unpopular is the ultimate goal.

Having told all and sundry just how stinking rotten to the core you are and why you deserve this six-month “deportation”, you’ll also need to spark instant world-wide revulsion by encouraging everyone in the known Web-i-verse to vote for your spectacular admission. No shrinking violets need apply.

Given the subject matter, entries to date have been exceedingly lame. This means there’s abundant scope for you to really spice it up, right here: Get Rid Of Me!

The successful dirty rotten scoundrel will share their grand tour prize with A. N. Other. This simply begs the question: who’d wish to travel with someone so bad to the bone?

A global salute

Local knowledge is absolute king in tourism and indigenous operators can offer an intimacy of experience about their respective cultures that simply can’t be beat. This advantage is being increasingly recognised around the world, with the work of indigenous operators in Australian and New Zealand high on the list.

Congratulations go to Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre in the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd) in Victoria and Kakadu Culture Camp, owned and operated by Fred and Jenny Hunter.

Both outfits were judged runners-up in the 2010 ITBW Awards highlighting “the contribution of indigenous operators to biological and cultural diversity”. The winner was Nutti Sami Siida which runs reindeer sled trips in Sweden.

The popular vote, however, went to Auckland region specialist T.I.M.E Unlimited Tours. Another New Zealand operator Te Urewera Treks was also a runner-up. It’s eco-cultural wilderness treks adhere to Maori principles and values of sustainability.

Indigenous operators from 10 countries were considered. The ITBW awards may not rival the Oscars, yet every tiny spark of recognition surely helps boost the fortunes of homespun outfits striving to achieve best of practice while offering something unique to tourists. So now you know who to choose when you go.

Connection conundrum

Why do the most expensive hotels charge their guests extra for web access when the cheapest hotels offer it free of charge? It seems to be a prime example of “the more you pay, the less you get”.

There’s free internet in two-star budget hotels. You find it in a tiny café. But not in a five-star establishment with a multi-million dollar annual budget. The luxury end of the market persists in gouging guests as much as $25 a day for the privilege of connection. It doesn’t make sense. You’d think their top-notch room rates might include value-added extras. And there are some hotels that charge separately for in-room access and for lobby wi-fi access.

The answer is simple: they do it because they can. Their guests are either on company expense accounts and don’t care, or they are wealthy enough that cost is not an issue. Once you are willing to pay extra for high-end service these hotels are happy to oblige wherever they can.

eXposed!

MODEST air travellers are being assured that what is private will stay private when full body scanners are introduced to airports next year. The Government has stressed that only a stick figure would appear on the screen as passengers passed through the $28 million scanning machines, and not a naked picture. – source: The Daily Telegraph

    I’m all for safer flying, but ignoring the contrived corps de ballet pose, does anyone seriously believe that this photo depicts how we will appear under a scanner? Should we believe assurances that our body parts won’t show? There’s also the issue of radiation and health. And if you think your scan will be safe from public exposure, then what to make of what allegedly happened at Heathrow? BAA says the claims “simply could not be true”, stating that the scanners had no facility for printing images or storing them. So was it just a Bollywood publicity stunt?

    I think being sniffed by a trained dog would be far preferable, and prove more efficient in detection. Bring on the beagles!

Publish and be damned!

Disappointment at editorial treatment is just one of the many “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that come with the job of being a freelance writer. So it was with a commissioned piece I penned for a magazine. After submission, the editor suddenly got his marching orders. The magazine has since been published – without my timely story. The explanation given is that “the book got thin” (ie: lack of advertising = fewer pages) and something had to go, my article! Given the time-conscious factor of the piece, the only riposte left for me is to post it on my own website. You can read it here: Vancouver in style

Pipes & drums

I’ve become attuned to the sound of bagpipes. For the past week I’ve heard them swirling daily, first in rehearsal and then in performance at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which in its 60th year is being re-enacted about as far from Scotland as you can get. The Sydney Football Stadium, near where I live, has been transformed into a $1 million patch of the old country each evening, complete with rain squalls during the event just to add an authentic atmosphere. Invited to opening night, I was completely amazed by the spectacle, stirred by the sight and sound of the massed pipe band and overawed at the number of people who turned up to watch and enjoy – some 35,000 on the night I’m told, many from interstate. The show runs four nights.

It’s the second time the Tattoo has been to Sydney. The last time was in 2005, when it also bucketed down on those bearskins and kilts yet was watched by 150,000 people. Australia is the only country other than Scotland where this spectacular has been performed, a significance not lost on those watching, many of who probably attended five years ago. With a cast of about 1500, it’s a constantly entertaining and exceptionally colourful spectacle, run with expected military precision. Guest bands from as far afield as Norway, Switzerland, China and Trinidad & Tobago make it a truly international occasion. I’m going to miss the sound of the massed pipes and drums telling me it’s near bedtime …

Travel tip: The Diamond Jubilee Tattoo in Edinburgh takes place from 6-28 August.

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