Saturday, 28 November 2015

Destinations that need us - the rise of "positive" travel

Sometimes it's not about having "no impact". In fact how and where we travel can have a big positive impact on the places we visit. And some places need us more than others.

Mountain biking Ethiopia -
pic by Secret Compass
My cover story in this weekend's Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald is all about this: destinations that need us, and how trekking in Nepal after the earthquakes earlier this year or visiting Paris after the terrorist attacks a few weeks ago changes not just us, but those we visit.

It's about countries caught in civil strife, affected by the refugee crisis in Europe, regions where tourism protects animals in danger of being wiped out, and more. Here's an excerpt (click on the story title to read more).

When the going gets tough 
by Louise Southerden

“Every time we travel,” says UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Taleb Rifai, “we become part of a global movement that has the power to drive positive change for our planet and for all people.”

With tourism now the world’s largest industry, accounting for 260 million jobs and almost 10 per cent of global GDP, spending our disposable income in foreign lands helps in all sorts of ways, from stimulating economies and promoting employment and education to giving economic value to natural resources that might otherwise be exploited out of existence. 

Tourists wanting to see orangutans in Borneo, for example, are pressing “pause” on a palm oil industry destroying their forest habitats.

Travelling in developing countries has kickbacks for us too, of course: affordable holidays and first-hand experiences that open our minds and hearts to the world.

Nepal loves us,
let's love it back
In fact the more we travel, the more aware we become of world affairs and the more we care about people whose lives might be affected by them, all of which makes us more likely to give back on our next trip.

So where should we go to do the most good? One clue lies in this paradox: countries most dependent on tourism suffer twice when natural disasters or other events turn off the flow of visitors – but are quick to recover when travellers return.

In other words, the places we love to visit on holiday are the ones we rush to help when they’re in trouble. Think Bali after the 2002 bombing; Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand after the Boxing Day tsunami; Christchurch and northern Japan after the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami; and, more recently, Nepal after massive earthquakes earlier this year.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The life aquatic: 8 watery reasons to visit the Maldives

My first overseas trip in too long (see my last post Dear world, I miss you) was worth waiting for. The Maldives is a daydream of a place, a nation of islands and atolls (lagoons ringed by coral reefs or coral islands; the word "atoll" actually comes from the Maldivian word "atolu") in a sea even more exquisitely turquoise than it looks in the travel magazines. 

Happy feet, at
Cocoa Island by COMO
Everything revolves around water in the Maldives. It makes up more than 99.9 per cent of the country after all; the rest comprises about 1200 coral islands scattered like oceanic oases on an undersea plateau stretching between India and Madagascar. The local environmental organisation is even called Bluepeace

As a water-loving Piscean, I spent most of my five days there salty and sun-kissed. When I wasn't actually in the water, swimming or snorkelling, I was wrapped in a towel on a beach or a boat. Or sleeping over the water, listening to the wind talking to the waves beneath my bed. 

Snorkelling selfie
Or looking at the sea, which is visible from pretty much everywhere on a small island. Or drinking desalinated water (served in glass, not plastic, bottles, a victory against ocean pollution) and eating fresh seafood (fish is sustainably line-caught in the Maldives as fishing nets are banned). My only regret: no surfing (will save that for next time).

So you won't be surprised to see that my trip highlights - 8 more reasons to visit the Maldives - were all aquatic in nature:

1. Arrival. Where else in the world can you arrive at an international airport, situated on its own island, and step right onto a waiting boat? Like most visitors, I never set foot in the over-crowded capital, Male, population about 300,000. It was the middle of the night when I landed and found myself suddenly seduced by the tropical treacle-heat mixing with the dark sea air, en route to the first of three resorts I stayed at, Cocoa Island by COMO resort. 

My over-water cabin on Cocoa Island
2. Pre-breakfast swims. This is how my mornings went at the castaway-chic Cocoa Island by COMO: wake up, throw on a bikini, walk down a few steps into that gin-clear water for a pre-breakfast swim. (A word of advice: leave something recognisable on your deck. I almost bungalow-crashed my neighbours; got as far as their door before I noticed my towel wasn't where I'd left it and high-tailed it back into the water to swim back to my own bungalow. Oops.)

3. Marine beings. Juvenile sharks no longer than your arm, just off the beach. Manta rays that can feed in groups of more than 100. Whale sharks and hammerheads, at the right time of year. There are marine creatures great and small every time you put your face in the water here. I got to swim with hawksbill turtles (see below) and manta rays, moray eels and lionfish, and saw acrobatic spinner dolphins on a sunset cruise. 

4. Night snorkelling. A confession: I don't love snorkelling, largely because I always get cold too quickly. Not in the Maldives, where the water was a bath-warm 29 degrees and I could stay in forever without so much as a rashee. At Cocoa Island I even went night-snorkelling, a revelation, not just for the nocturnal marine animals we saw with our waterproof torches, including a needlefish that changed colour like a chameleon, but for the surreal sensation of being surrounded by blackness, like deep space without stars.

The castaway sandbank experience
5. Cast away experience. The Maldives is said to be the lowest country in the world, its highest elevation just 2.4 metres above sea level (hence its anxiety over climate change). Some of its islands exist only at low tide - like the sandbank my friends and I visited one afternoon for sunset, only to get a storm instead. I love it when weather has the last word.

6. Horizon-edge pools. Immersing yourself in water is one of the best ways to experience a new place, even if that water is a hotel pool (see my essay on swimming as travel). One monsoonal morning when the sea was too rough for swimming (it was the rainy season), I did laps in the new Amilla Fushi resort's pool, the largest in the Maldives. It was deep, there was no-one else in and a very kind pool-boy brought me a dry towel when I had finished. Bliss.

Aerial yoga warm-up
7. Aerial yoga. Even yoga can be aquatic in the Maldives. One of the highlights of my stay at One & Only Reethi Rah was a one-on-one aerial yoga lesson with Ukrainian teacher Yulia using a nylon sling suspended from the rafters of a thatched pavilion surrounded on three sides by the sea. Part circus art, part yoga, it makes you feel like you can fly right out and over the sea... 

8. Seaplanes. Much as I didn't want to leave, one island departure was my final highlight: the Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane flight from Amilla Fushi back to Male. The two pilots might have been wearing thongs, but the cloud's view of atolls, islands and reefs, like sapphires and emeralds laid out on blue velvet, was priceless. 

Even seaplane pilots go
barefoot in the Maldives
Big thanks to Maldives tourism, Singapore Airlines, Cocoa Island by COMO, Amilla Fushi and One & Only Reethi Rah for a wonderful first, but not last, visit to the Maldives.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Dear world, I miss you - 13 things I love about travelling

A confession, of sorts: a year ago, I returned to Australia after 18 months of no-fixed-address travelling and I haven't used my passport since. I’m ok with that from a “no impact” standpoint, but as a travel writer used to constant motion, it feels more than strange.

I hardly recognise myself
when I'm not travelling
This is the longest I’ve not-travelled in about 15 years. I’ve been grounded by choice, satisfying a yearning for a home, and I haven't been completely stationary: I’ve relocated from Australia’s largest city to northern NSW, I've explored my new surroundings a little and I’ve had a few trips within Australia.

Sometimes it's good to "stop"
(in Russian)

Still, I don't feel quite myself. 

“You’ve got itchy feet," a friend said to me the other day. "You need to get away.”

She's only partly right. I do need to get away, but I’m not just hankering for new sights or a different culture. 

I miss the "me" I am when I'm travelling, and I miss the travelling state of mind. I miss having my world view changed on a regular basis, being tossed around in a sea of new experiences, disappearing into a new place.

But a funny thing has been happening over the past year: by not-travelling, I've remembered what I most love about travel. That in its purest form it is not an escape from life, but a diving head-first into it. Being in a new place can wake us up to the world beyond our work-life balancing act, and clarify our place in it. At the same time, I believe you can take the spirit of travel with you wherever you go - even when that's nowhere at all. 

Like riding a bike,
you never forget how
to travel
Travel is just life in a different place, after all. And just as in life, it's not WHAT you do, it's HOW you do it. The joy of travel is less about where you go and more about how you feel when you're there.

You don't even have to wait until you get there. Travelling a lot, and not having a family to come home to, I've often felt more “at home" when away. Transience can be oddly comforting. Nothing lasts forever; when you understand that, hotel rooms and departure lounges aren't so different from our homes and driveways.

Still, not-travelling for so long, I’ve noticed my travel self getting restless. I love much about my new home town, not least the ability to converse and watch movies in my own language and understand the road signs. But a large part of me – the travelling me – is lying dormant, wondering what to do with the skills it has honed over the years.

So fellow travel-lovers, this post is for you. It’s an ode to travel with a twist, an invitation to reflect on what you love about travel and invite that into your life, wherever you are.

Because very few of us can be constant-travellers, and even the most nomadic among us come home eventually – even if it’s not to the place we set out from – if only to regroup, repack and plan the next episode of life’s adventure.

I give you: 13 things to love about travel, even when you're at home:

Simple me in a canoe in Canada
1. Freedom. Feeling free isn't the exclusive domain of the traveller, but being physically "away" makes it easier to shrug off everything familiar and relax into a simpler version of ourselves. And when we're at home, there are moments of freedom in even the busiest schedule; the trick is to catch them as they whiz by.

2. A sense of possibility. Whenever I board a plane headed for anywhere, I feel as if I'm stepping out of my small life and into the big world again. In a new place, new things can happen. Particularly when you have time on your hands, which can happen more often when you're away. For wherever plans are not tightly woven, the light of chance shines through. We can allow that in our home lives too, in the so-called real world. Try this: just for a day, accept whatever happens, trust life, expect nothing - and see how that feels.

Morning view, the Philippines
3. Simplicity. My favourite trips involve stripping life back to its essentials. This is one way travel can liberate us, by reminding us how little we really need. You don't need to carry your own pack or paddle a kayak; there's simplicity in a hotel where daily logistics are taken care of (no cooking, no cleaning!), leaving you free to experience each day.  

4. Offline time. Part of travel's simplicity comes from being out of touch and offline. Sure, free WiFi on the road can be useful, but spending too much time recording or sharing our experiences can make us miss the real thing unfolding right before us. The best thing about unplugging while away is that you have the perfect alibi for not keeping up with news, others' views and emails. "Oh, I missed that, must have been away..."

5. Time to think. Thinking and writing go together for me; when I have time to think, ideas land on me like butterflies, ready to be written down. Travel gives you the gift of do-nothing time, cleverly disguised as, say, waiting for a bus. Even if you don't want to write or create, do-nothing time can be a blessed relief for over-stimulated minds and hearts. 

Fun in the sun in the Philippines
6. Interacting with strangers. This one has a basis in science: behavioural researchers have found that interacting with people we don't know - say on the subway - makes us happier (here's a story about it in The New York Times). 

And when do we talk most to strangers? When we travel. We ask directions, we chat to people we don't know at cafes, we converse with guides. In fact, we don't even have to talk. A smile is worth a thousand words. And so much is communicated, in all cultures, without words. This is one thing I loved about living in Japan, feeling understood and learning to understand others before I'd learned a word of Japanese. We can do this at home too. Smile at the barista making your latte, or the deckhand on the ferry, connect with those around you. We're all in this together.

Man with mountain (Dhalagiri), Nepal
7. More outdoor time. Even when we're city-hopping on our travels, we're generally doing more walking than we do when we're at home, at our desks (except, of course, on those long-haul flights when all we do is sit...). Add a little cycle touring or trekking and you get the bonus of uplifting landscapes.

8. Learning. As a writer, it's my job to learn as much as I can about the places I visit, while I'm there. New words, new people, new ways of doing things - almost any kind of travel offers up new experiences of all kinds. Of course, advanced souls don't need new vistas, they can learn anywhere - without opening a book or Googling. As Marcel Proust famously said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." 

Fallen flower, Switzerland
9. Embracing ordinary. When you're far from the familiar, even a simple trip to the supermarket is a small adventure (another thing I learned in Japan). It's not all about the place; when we're away we often have a more open attitude, innocent and interested. We pay attention to details. What if we could do that anywhere, anytime? 

10. Taking pictures. Walking around with my camera - rather than just whipping out my iPhone when I see something interesting - always gets me in a travel frame of mind, reminding me to notice light and details and everyday beauty all around us. 

11. Feeling empowered. Real, unchaperoned travel throws us in the deep end every day. You have to quickly figure out how things work, how much things are worth in different currencies, where to stay and eat, which subway line will take you where you want to go. Decisions, challenges, small victories. Dealing with them all is a great confidence booster. 

Mongolian woman who welcomed
my friends and me into her ger
12. A sense of wonder and humanity. Boil it all down, and this is really why most of us travel: to remember that, despite what the 24-hour news cycle might tell us, the world is an amazing and mostly friendly place. Travel can restore our trust in life and other people. Interact with animals and you get to escape our humancentric world. They don't have to be wild elephants or whale sharks. As Eckart Tolle once said: “I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.”

So there you have it, my ode to travel, written from my virtual armchair - which is soon to take off. That's #13: Anticipation. It's true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. By the time you read this, I'll be on my way to the Maldives for a work trip. And I can't wait. 

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Australia's outback heart: 10 ways to "do" Uluru

I just spent almost a week in the beating heart of the Australian continent, a long-overdue return after my first too-brief visit eight years ago. And although I've been back home four days now, part of me is still out there, standing on the red earth under a wide blue sky, getting up in the dark to watch the sunrise, feeling the powerful pull of Uluru. 

Iron-oxide walls and blue Uluru sky
Because, expansive as Central Australia is, Uluru is the magnetic epicentre of this place. Even when you've been there, seen that, it draws you in, impossible to resist. 

It's so much more than a red rock in the desert. It's massive, for one thing, rising 348m from the ground (it's higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Statue of Liberty stacked on top) and extending 5-6 KILOMETRES deep into that red earth. It's ancient: because it was tilted almost 90 degrees after its formation, one side of it is 100 million years older than the other. It's surprising: Uluru might look brick-smooth from afar, but up close it has caves and canyons, pools and pockmarks, and its sandstone skin is flaky and oxidised (its real colour is grey, not rust-red). 

Most importantly, it's indescribably significant and sacred to the Anangu people who have lived in and cared for this land for more than 30,000 years. 

Touching Uluru
The first tourists took days to travel to Uluru from Alice Springs, 445km to the east, in the 1950s. Today you can fly to Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, aka Yulara, a village of low-rise hotels and apartments situated a respectful 20-minute drive from Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and there are now more than 65 ways to experience it. 

But Uluru is not a place to be busy. So this "top 10" is really a list of suggestions, highlights from my recent trip that I hope will inspire you to go - or go back.

Because no matter how often you visit, how long you stay or how much (or little) you do while you're there, you can't help but be affected by the magic of Uluru. So, a few ideas:

Base walking (not jumping)
1. Walk around it. The Uluru Base Walk is a classic for good reason. This 12km track that encircles the rock is desert-flat, takes you close enough to touch it (I loved being able to put my bare hands on Uluru's sun-warmed hide) and gives you time (3-4 hours) to just be there. When I did it with AAT Kings, we even did some silent walking. 

You can do the walk independently if you have your own vehicle, or catch the Uluru Express from Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.

Biking 'round the rock
2. Ride (around) the rock. The afternoon I spent riding a rental bike along part of the Uluru Base Walk (a new experience in the national park) with a couple of friends was one of my favourite things on this trip. It's a peaceful, easy way to see Uluru, I loved not having to wear a helmet and being able to just look up at Uluru's red flanks as I rode, and Outback Cycling's bikes have fat tyres so they don't get bogged in the red sand.

Nothing beats an outback sunrise
3. See an Uluru sunrise. Or three. Yep, I saw three Uluru sunrises, each one worth getting up at 5am for. My favourite was Desert Awakenings run by Voyages: a short drive in a 4WD vehicle to an ancient, sacred sand dune (the Anangu give Voyages privileged access), where you tuck into a bush breakfast of damper with golden syrup, plunger coffee and bacon-and-egg rolls hot off the fire, while the sky brightens and your guide talks about everything from Anangu culture to bush botany. Priceless.

Tali Wiru dinner under the stars
4. Dine under the stars. At the other end of the day, there's the Tali Wiru ("beautiful dune") dining experience. This was probably THE highlight of my stay: sunset views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the same sacred dune I'd been on for sunrise (see #3 above), a five-star dinner under the stars (the chefs work out of a corrugated shed), lanterns hung in the trees and Anangu stories by the fire with hot chocolate (or cognac). There's also the Sounds of Silence in a different location; more people, but also beautiful.

Lanterns in the trees at Tali Wiru
5. Listen & learn. As well as silence, there's much to listen to in the outback -- zebra finches at waterholes, the wind in the desert oaks -- and much to learn. All guides working in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park go through rigorous training, particularly in terms of what they can and can't tell visitors about Anangu culture, and doing a few tours really adds another dimension to your stay. Not only that but the stories the Anangu have chosen to share with us have built-in lessons (about respect, not climbing Uluru, living on the land), which feels incredibly generous and welcoming.

6. Dot-paint. You'll see Anangu women sitting on the ground painting outside Maruku Arts at the Uluru Cultural Centre in the national park, and in the town square at Yulara. Photographing them isn't allowed, so I have no pics to show how serene and focused they look, but you can join them for morning or afternoon dot-painting workshops run by Voyages. Building cultural bridges through art.

Traditional dancers come
out with the stars at Uluru
7. Star-gaze. With no light pollution and low humidity, the Australian outback is one of the best places in the world to see stars. Star talks are included in the Tali Wiru and Sounds of Silence dinner experiences, including Anangu perspectives on the constellations; I learned, for instance, that the Pleiades are part of a songline that crosses the entire continent from east to west. (Wow.) Or do an Outback Sky Journeys night tour in Yulara, or talk to the resident astronomers at the Outback Pioneer Hotel.

Kulata cafe, Yulara
8. Go slow. Yulara might be a resort-village, but there's real life here too, making it a great place to just hang out, especially in the afternoons. Maybe have lunch and an iced coffee at Kulata Academy CafĂ©, staffed by trainees of Ayers Rock Resort’s National Indigenous Training Academy. 

Or wander the beautiful new Windtjiri museum and art gallery, which opened in June. The "town square" has free bush yarns, an arts market and traditional dances. You might even see, as I did, a few Anangu kids doing handstands on the grass under the river red gums. And the nearby Imalung lookout is a beautiful spot for a sunset view of Uluru, minus the crowds.

Obligatory Uluru selfie
9. Take a selfie. This must be the most-taken photograph in the park: tourist with Uluru. But it's hard to resist. Go on, you know you want to.

10. See Kata Tjuta. It's easy for Uluru to steal the show, but Kata Tjuta is ruggedly special too, a lost world of 36 domes (its name means "many heads"), the highest even higher than Uluru (548m). I did the three-hour Valley of the Winds walk, which takes you through a culturally sensitive area, so I'm refraining from posting pics. Guess you'll just have to go there and see it with your own eyes...

Big thanks to Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia who hosted me at the beautiful Sails inthe Desert Hotel (part of Voyages Ayers Rock Resort), Tourism NT and tour operators AAT Kings, SEIT Outback Australia and Outback Cycling