To read my current blog go here: Transitory Traveller

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.

You'll find those blog posts archived here: Lost in Transit

 

African kitchen magic

One of the top things about travel is finding out “what’s cooking” with old friends, sometimes literally as in South Africa where an old pal from university days has opened a cooking school in the tiny Karoo hamlet of Prince Albert.

One of South Africa’s top 10 young chefs, Vanie Padayachee, is behind the stoves at African Relish, so what’s happening in the kitchen may well turn Prince Albert into a gourmet hot spot. This delightful historic village at the foot of the Swartberg Pass is a few hours drive east of Cape Town. It lies north of the coastal town of George on South Africa’s famous Garden Route and is close to the “ostrich capital” of Oudtshoorn. The Karoo is a semi-desert area occupying a large swathe of central South Africa.

African Relish offers an extensive program of creative seasonal cooking courses, as well as tours and accommodation. Guests chefs often star in specific courses. The restaurant is open from Wednesday to Saturday. Tours include culinary experiences in Cape Town and visits to game reserves. To find out more about this tantalizing program visit African Relish

Less ouch in the south!

South of the Equator is definitely the most affordable place to travel. Not only is the weather fairer over much of the southern hemisphere, now travellers find they don’t need to spend nearly as much as they do in the north simply to have a good time.

Two global surveys comparing the cost of living agree that Europe now has the world’s most expensive cities in which to live; one cites Oslo, the other says Moscow. And a third survey, released this week, adds that London is now the most expensive city in the world for dining out.

Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s annual survey covers 143 cities across six continents and measures the comparative cost of over 200 items in each location, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment. Moscow tops its list followed by London.

Thanks to the strength of the euro, other serious European dollar drainers include Copenhagen, Geneva, Zurich and Milan. In comparison Sydney ranks 21st.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2007 Worldwide Cost of Living survey names Oslo as the world’s most expensive city for the second year running, followed by Tokyo and Reykjavik. London ranks fourth whereas Moscow is way down the list, only a shade more costly than New York. But the Economist survey omits housing, so doesn’t truly reflect the total cost of living.

Much more tuned to the tourist pocket is the recent Zagat Restaurant Guide 2007 survey. Its focus is the cost of a restaurant meal and it finds that London demands the biggest splash of your cash. Expect little change from $200 for a three-course meal for two! (average cost $94.35 or £39.09 per person). Next in line is Paris ($85.40 pp) then Tokyo ($84.75 pp).

Such astronomical costs may well drive travellers elsewhere, most likely in the direction of South American cities at the opposite end of the spectrum. Both COL surveys rank Asuncion in Paraguay as the world’s least expensive city, with Quito and Montevideo also low down on the list.

Pain in the ear

When I first wrote about the introduction of mobile phones on aeroplanes, it seemed this might happen before the end of that year. Thankfully it has turned out to be a case of so far, so good …. although the gloomy day of mobile lift off edges ever closer.

Low cost carrier Ryanair has said it will equip its entire fleet of Boeing 737s with small base stations that use satellite links so mobile phones can be used during flight without interfering with ground-based networks. This system recently won approval from European aviation authorities. The “picocell” system is supplied by OnAir, a high tech outfit backed by Airbus and it will allow passengers to send and receive not only e-mails and text messages but also make voice calls.

Qantas also said it would consider allowing limited cell phone on its planes, then later modified that to allowing text messaging only. Emirates and Air France have also announced their intention to open up the airways to the chattering classes.

Could flying possibly get worse? But maybe you think this is a good idea? And perhaps it’s already de facto? At the end of a recent international flight a fellow passenger casually switched on his Blackberry and was busy jabbering away throughout our descent. The crew didn’t bat an eyelid.

No nuts!

I have a sailing mate who suffers from Popeye syndrome. Should he inadvertently overdose on spinach then his cheeks and forearms swell up, his eyes take on a weird metallic glint and he adopts a jaunty nautical gait. In the worst case scenario he puffs frantically on a cob pipe.

This patent rubbish is simply to focus your attention on a real and serious problem, one that can get even more problematic, even life threatening, when in unfamilar surroundings.

Food allergies and sensitivities are a critical issue when travelling in foreign countries where you are probably unable to speak the language and therefore unable to alert anyone to your problem.

The humble peanut, scoffed without thought by millions around the world, is a total nightmare for anyone suffering a nut allergy. They can even prove fatal without ingestion! Yet peanuts are found in all manner of foods, as are many other nuts.

For other people it’s fish or shellfish that presents a lurking and potential fatal danger. Other less serious food allergies may affect us when young but generally disappear as we grow older.

So how do you prevent a disastrous bite in a foreign land? One really bright and simple idea is to carry a card – such as No nuts with that! written in the appropriate tongue and flash it whenever you order a meal.

Customised, laminated food alert cards, available in any language and covering a wide range of foods, from alcohol to yogurt, can be ordered on-line from SelectWisely which also does multi-food, multi-language cards and special cards for specific needs. As a last resort, there’s also a “get me to hospital” card costing $5 (US$3.50)

A river ramble

I’ve been walking a few sections of the Thames Path, one of the best quick breaks out of London I can imagine. This national trail follows the river from its source in the Cotswolds all the way to the Thames Barrier in London so you can do the whole walk should you have both the time and stamina or choose parts to walk either for a day’s outing, a weekend break or a three or four-day hike.
Best of all, the weather turned splendid for the time I was strolling along its banks between Goring and Windsor. I arrived in Henley-on-Thames the day after the annual regatta ended which thankfully meant I could at least find a bed for the night, something that would be impossible while the event is in full flow.

Anyone visiting London and wanting some time out can easily access any part of the Thames Path trail simply using public transport. There are so many options for an overnight stay and plenty of lovely pubs to use as pitstops along the way or for an evening meal.

I felt I was literally following in the footsteps of history. Fittingly, I ended my Thames walk with a visit to Windsor Castle. I’d be very interested to hear any tales of adventures along this famous river.

All about the Thames Path

Cube, capsule, cabana, box or what?

Yo brother! A style that swept Japan* in the 1970s is back with a vengeance and about to land at airports. It’s called capsule sleeping Jim, but not as we know it ….

Yotel has announced that online bookings open next month for its new cabin capsule accommodation at Gatwick airport outside London. Just like flying, you can choose your sleeping class, the difference being between a 10 sq metre or 7 square metre cube, both with “internal rather than external windows”, which doesn’t sound very appealing.

A Yotel Heathrow is due to open in September and a third is planned for central London in 2008. The brains behind this new/old style sleepover is the man who spread the Yo! sushi train concept around London.

Simon Woodroffe explains the cabin window conundrum thus: “Windows face onto a corridor. Of course, guests can have total light and sound privacy by just closing the shutters if they wish.”

This total lack of natural light makes Yotel sound like the airport cousin of those cheap and windowless easyHotel rooms in central London, Budapest and Basl. But Woodroffe reckons Yotel’s improved comforts will win over fatigued business travellers.

A night in a standard Yotel capsule will cost $130 but, if faced with sudden delays or lengthy lay-overs, you can book a minimum initial four-hour block ($58 standard, $94 premium) then stay on by the hour (from $11.50 an hour, standard cube).

Yotel Gatwick is located in Gatwick’s South Terminal. Each air-conditioned cabin has a sofa that converts to a bed, a work desk, en-suite bathroom with shower, free Internet connection and flat-screen TV. Food can be ordered from an on-screen cabin service menu or eaten in a 24-hour galley.

Expect the concept to spread worldwide. Does it sound like your kind of place? Or does it leave you lukewarm, like those unwanted dishes on a Yo! sushi train?

capsule-hotel-small.jpg

* In 1972 Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa ushered in a cubic revolution with his Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo’s Ginza district. This world first had 140 fully-furnished, box-shaped replaceable living units suspended from a central core. Kurokawa’s ideas for the high life didn’t catch on but stripped to its bare bones the cube concept was a runaway success – the Japanese capsule hotel. Kurokawa later designed Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

The Jonah Complex

airbus-380.jpg

The length of time it now takes to get on or off a Boeing 747 or Airbus 340 is already a fractious and tedious element of flying, particularly at some airports. Now we face the imminent introduction of the double-decker Airbus 380 (above) into our travelling lives.

Imagine the queues to board this new behemoth. How long will take to discharge 555 passengers at the end of a flight? That’s 35% more passengers than on a Boeing 747. Maybe airlines will stuff booklets on patience management into each seat pocket?

It could be worse. The Airbus 380 passenger count could be 666, the number of the beast. Packed to capacity in a one class configuration, the superjumbo is capable of carrying as many as 853 passengers. But no airline would ever do that, would it?

And consider, also, the announced comfort advantages to be offered by the world’s biggest-ever passenger aircraft. An extra inch of shoulder room in economy class! Did I detect a Gallic shrug of indifference?

When, eventually, you do find your seat on your first superjumbo flight, take a look around and consider this: it would take 35 million ping pong balls to fill the aircraft – or 4.5 million tennis balls! But will sporty comparisons like this make you feel more comfortable, less like the proverbial sardine? And talking of fish, from nose-to-tail the plane measures 72.6 metres, slightly longer than two blue whales. Consider yourself Jonah. Gulp!

One of these big birds flew in and out of Sydney this week to rev up interest and provide a quick free promotional flip to selected Qantas corporate mates, premium frequent flyers and a gaggle of local aviation scribes. But it will be Singapore Airlines that’s first off the block with commercial passenger flights. It takes delivery of its first commercial superjumbo in October. That aircraft has already been decked out in the airline’s livery and will carry 555 passengers in a typical three class configuration.

airbus-singapore-small.jpg

Airbus 380 delivery has been extensively delayed by problems with the aircraft’s electrical systems. Qantas won’t get its first superjumbo until August next year. It’s said it will limit the number of passengers to 525.


Beyond belief

Cross the international dateline too frequently and soon your mind enters uncharted territory. The month of May saw me flit between Tahiti and the Tuamoto archipelago one week, spend two days back home, then fly to the USA. No wonder I experienced some discombombulation. How do trans-Pacific flight crews manage to cope with such regular temporal dislocation?

The effects of “crossing the line” thrice in short succession caught up with me in Las Vegas. Fortunately that’s one place in the world where, as the late Hunter Thompson said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”. So my parlous state of mind undoubtedly went totally unnoticed by anyone other than myself.

I blame the effects of dateline hopping. But from what I saw and experienced I might just as easily have been experiencing a drug-induced hallucination. Feeling totally weird is the natural state of mind for being in Vegas. There’s nowhere else like it.

Macau may now be the world’s gambling capital yet Las Vegas appears totally unfazed by this distant Asian competition as it heads full tilt into the future. Billions of dollars have been committed to future construction and expansion along the already densely-packed Strip. More than 100 hotel, high-rise, condominium and mixed-used projects are currently underway or on the table. As fast as they knock down one old casino or hotel, another more extravagant one quickly takes its place.

One behemoth project, City Centre, billed at somewhere between $7 and $14 billion and reputedly the largest privately financed development in America, is now rising from the dust of the demolished Boardwalk Hotel and Casino. It’s located between Bellagio and Monte Carlo. At the far end of the Strip entrepreneur Steve Wynn is now building Encore to complement his recently-opened Wynn Las Vegas casino resort hotel. Immediately across the road is the half-built golden-clad Trump Tower.

The upsurge in development represents a spending spree of staggering proportions, largely funded by the tsunami of cash which continues to pour relentlessly from the pockets of millions of willing punters who flock to Las Vegas each year. How anyone could imagine ever leaving Vegas a winner totally escapes me. Mere observation of the city’s perpetual expansion, the ever-expanding glitz and glamour, is surely enough to convince even the simplest visitor that the money never, ever, really leaves town; it’s simply ploughed back into the bedrock.

Las Vegas acts a Black Hole in the middle of a desert sucking gamblers’ cash into another dimension, where it’s transformed into a fantasy land of gargantuan proportions. This process of transmutation is so amazing it has to be seen to be believed. And that’s exactly what keeps ’em all coming back year after year.

Bali for bookworms

Anyone doubly blessed with an abiding love of literature and travel should definitely ink in the dates 25th -30th September into their diary and start plotting their attendance at the Ubud Writer’s & Reader’s Festival in Bali.

It’s six days of creative discussion, writing workshops, book launches, literary lunches and dinners, music and dance. This year’s festival will feature more than 80 writers from 16 different countries, including Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize, the author of Raise the Red Lantern, China’s Su Tong, and award-winning Australian author Richard Flanagan.

The literary talkfest is combined with poetry and jazz workshops, dance performances, market tours, cooking classes, mask carving, temple visits and walks through the paddy fields surrounding Ubud, my favourite hub in Bali. Workshops for children and teenagers aged from 3 to 18 include puppet and kite making, drawing and songwriting.

Australian Janet de Neefe is one of the festival directors. Originally from Melbourne, she married a Balinese and owns a restaurant in Ubud. Janet has since written a memoir
Fragrant Rice as well as opening other ventures on the island. Given Janet’s culinary skills and her focus on Balinese food you can expect literary lunches to spearhead the festival attractions.

She describes the event as “a celebration of the richness and diversity of the arts and literary cultures from both the east and west”, adding that Balinese hospitality is a particular highlight. The previous festival took place only a week after the bombings at Jimbaran and Kuta. It was more successful than she’d imagined. “The good wishes and solidarity generated by all the participants was especially heartwarming,” she says.

It’s an ideal recipe: a tropical holiday in a beautiful location with plenty of sustenance for both mind and body. Tickets go on sale 1st July. Festival website

50 years of snow fun

The Australian ski resort village of Thredbo celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter season and there’ll be all sorts of celebrations. I was there recently collecting information and enjoying the summer program of outdoor activities that’s made Thredbo a year-round resort, something I don’t think was remotely contemplated in the 1950s by the guys who first had the vision of a ski resort at a place called Friday Flat. You can get a mountain of information about what’s planned for the big celebrations and even get involved by simply skiing over to here.

What’s your opinion of Thredbo? How do you rate it in comparison with other Australian ski resorts?

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