A to Z of Adventure Travel: W is for Western Australia

18 06 2009

Wave Rock 2 mw 

Everyone knows Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock…but for a fresh taste of Downunder, Western Australia offers some of the most spectacular scenery and untouched wilderness in the entire country – and far fewer tourists! 

 

The state of Western Australia (WA) occupies almost one-third of the country and includes spectacular coastline, ancient forests, rugged outback and natural bushland. WA’s Indian Ocean coast has some of the country’s most beautiful and most unspoiled beaches and offers extensive snorkelling, sea-kayaking and some of its best seafood. At Monkey Mia, north of the state’s capital of Perth, visitors travel from all over the world to interact with wild dolphins whereas in Exmouth it’s possible to swim with giant whale sharks in season. The unspoiled Ningaloo Reef offers magnificent snorkelling and scuba diving with its and its colourful coral and vast array of sealife or from nearby Coral Bay, hope aboard a catamaran in search of humpback whales, dugongs, manta rays and turtles.

 

If you’re feeling energetic and want to explore the area on foot, The Bibbulmun Track is one of the world’s great long distance walk trails, stretching nearly 1000 kilometres from Kalamunda near Perth to Albany on the south west coast. Designed for foot traffic only, it meanders through peaceful rural and coastal towns like with names like Dwellingup and Balingup. Not physically challenging like the trails in New Zealand or elsewhere, the Bibbulmun offers the quintessential Australian bush experience and is best enjoyed point to point with the help of a good map. Trekkers can either make it a wilderness experience by camping out or do it in comfort staying at accommodation in towns along the way.

 

Several hundred kilometres east of Perth sits Wave Rock, a mammoth rock formation that resembles a giant surf wave of multicoloured granite about to crash onto the bush below. Formed perhaps 2,700 million years ago, the 15 metre-high barrier stretches for 110 metres and pre-dates even the dinosaurs and is as spectacular as it is isolated.

 

If it’s Baz Luhrman’s ‘Australia’ that you want, then it’s the movie’s location in WA that you should visit. The Kimberley is one of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Covering almost 423,000 square kilometres and with a population of only 30,000 it has fewer people per square kilometre than almost any other place on Earth. People come here to immerse themselves in the awesome landscape and to meet the locals. The Kimberley has two distinct seasons – the dry and the wet. During the dry, which continues from May until October, the temperature is warm and comfortable. The wet, which extends from November until April, is characterised by heavy and short downpours in the evening or late afternoon, providing a refreshing change to the heat of the day.  This is the real Australia of red earth, jagged rock formations, wilderness and wildlife, waterfalls and billabongs.

 

Although Western Australia sees fewer tourists than some of the country’s other regions, the area’s recent mining boom has created some headaches for visitors seeking hotel accommodation. If planning on visiting WA and exploring its endless unspoiled and natural wonders, make your arrangements before you arrive…unless you’re traveling with your own tent!

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: V is for Victoria Falls

12 06 2009

 Vic Falls aerial mw

 

There are lots of spots around the world that have been dubbed ‘Adventure Capitals’ either for the activities available or the rugged wilderness that surround them. The adventure capital of the world is arguably Queenstown, New Zealand. The adventure capital of Australia would be Cairns. And the adventure capital of Africa is definitely Victoria Falls.

 

Not only are the Falls one of the natural wonders of the world, but the area is one of the finest adrenalin capitals and even if you venture there solely for the sights, it’s difficult not to be lured into at least one unforgettable activity!

  

Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. In past years, the centre of the tourist trade was most definitely the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side, but due to recent political unrest and economic problems, much of that has shifted to Livingstone, Zambia.

 

The Falls themselves are every bit as magnificent as any photograph suggests. During the rainy season, the cascade of water over the steep precipice is positively breathtaking – if you can actually see it through the billowing clouds of drenching mist. In the dry season, the flood is reduced to a comparable trickle, but this not only allows a less-wet viewing experience but also provides a look at the chiselled rock cliffs that stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Even veterans of Niagara or Angel Falls can’t help but be impressed by Mosi-au-Tunya, or ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, as it is called by the locals.

 

For many visitors, Victoria Falls’ most captivating feature might well be its relative lack of commercialisation. There are no enormous skyscraper hotels towering above it and no neon-strewn casinos crowding its edges. Instead, there is bush stretching in every direction and only the most basic of paths and most rickety of fences preventing visitors from tumbling over the edge and into the frothing maelstrom.

 

This modest development has ensured that the area is still healthy with wildlife and the even the town centre has its baboons, watrthogs, birdlife and occasional stray elephant. Lion tracks are sometimes seen in the early morning in the soft sand that lines the paved road and pedestrians are warned to watch out for buffalo…all this within sight of hotels and curio stands.

 

The two most famous of Victoria Falls’ adventure activities are the whitewater rafting on the Zambezi – regarded as the best one-day rafting in the world – and the 111 metre bungee-jump from the bridge that spans the chasm, both within view of the Falls. However, there are also helicopter and microlight flights over the Falls and surrounding river and bush, sunset boat trips above the drop and game drives in the neighbouring parks and wild areas. You can embark on horseback or elephant back safaris, or take a walk with unleashed domesticated lions. There are night game drives in open-back 4WDs and guided hikes with armed rangers.

 

Both Victoria Falls and Livingstone have international airports and can also be reached overland by vehicle or train from larger centres – if you have the time and spirit of adventure. Both sides of the river offer basic campsites, budget hostels, deluxe riverbank tented safari camps and luxury hotel accommodation.

 

Most visitors today tend to use Zambia as their base and sadly often never venture across the border to its neighbour. Although not immune to the turmoil that has plagued Zimbabwe in recent years, the town of Victoria Falls has remained an island largely isolated from the political violence…if not the rampant inflation and basic shortages.

 

Victoria Falls provides something for everyone from the magnificence of the Falls themselves to wildlife and adventure.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: T is for Tasmania

29 05 2009

Port Arthur

If there is one place that could justifiably be called the single most underrated destination for soft adventure, my vote would go to Tasmania.

Australia’s only island state is located 150 miles south of eastern Australia, separated from the mainland by the Bass Strait. Roughly the same size as Ireland, Tasmania is a superb destination for anyone who likes natural beauty, a touch of history and unspoiled wilderness. Its size also makes it easily accessible for anyone with limited time and a variety of accommodation from well-appointed campsites to luxury lodges makes it ideal for every budget.

Tasmania is easily reached by regularly scheduled flights from most Australian cities or by overnight ferry from Melbourne. Once there, getting around is easy by self-drive, organised tour or local transport with no more than a few hours travel between most key sights.

Hobart is the state capital and the island’s largest city. It not only offers culture and history from the island’s European discovery by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642 and first European settlement in 1803, but also boasts many wonderful restaurants, cafes and wine bars with plenty of fresh, succulent local produce. For the best samples of local cuisine, beer and wine, head to Salamanca Place’s restored 19th century waterfront warehouses which hearken to the city’s whaling days. Not far from Hobart sits the quaint the quaint village of Port Arthur, site of the former penal colony around which much of the island was first settled. Today, the site has been preserved and tells the story of its first inhabitants.

As wonderful as Hobart and the island’s other population centres are however, it is the wilderness that draws most visitors. With a mild climate, rugged coastline and immaculate secluded beaches encircling the state and the coast never more than a few hours drive, Tasmania is the ideal destination for anyone who likes the crash of breaking waves and the scent of salt air.

Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park, is one of the most idyllic spots on earth with its perfectly curving beach and pristine surroundings. The best views belong to those who make the effort to climb to the lookout, although small environmentally-friendly cruises are now offered for anyone less energetic or with less time. Another site in the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area is the magnificent Cradle Mountain which attracts one quarter of all visitors to the island. The mountain also forms the start of the 40 mile Overland Track for those who want to stretch their legs and properly experience the region’s distinctive flora and spectacular scenery.

Bruny Island has some of the most breathtaking coastline in the world and award-winning three-hour cruises are a popular way to explore the crashing waves, towering cliffs and the local wildlife. Recently voted one of the greatest day trips in the world, Bruny Island is an unforgettable destination for any visitor to Australia.

Thanks to Looney Tunes, most people are familiar with the Tasmanian Devil but many more may have forgotten the island’s other eponymous creature, the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger. The last known example died in captivity in 1936, but many people claim sightings of this large striped carnivorous marsupial every year. Even if you don’t see the Tiger, there are always devils, wombats, platypuses and plenty else to keep wildlife buffs happy.

For active adventure seekers, Tasmania also offers plenty of hiking, mountain biking scuba diving, wreck-diving and sea kayaking in some of the most spectacular surroundings anywhere. Tasmania makes a wonderful addition to any visit to Sydney or Melbourne, but is truly a perfect destination in its own right.

Posting by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photographs by: Discover Tasmania

Wineglass Bay





The Devil of a Problem

26 05 2009

Tasmanian devil

             “Psst…gimme 5 bucks and I’ll dish the dirt on Bugs’ carrot dependency.”

My head is like a refrigerator. Not because it’s square, white and cold – which it is, especially in winter – but because it’s a great place to stick lists.

One of the most frequently consulted of these is the one that details the places I most want to visit. Some are fairly easy and inexpensive to reach, others will likely remain unfulfilled for quite sometime due to cost or difficulty. Some are there because of an appetite for the untouched – like Angola or the Northwest Passage. Others for culture – like Vietnam and Cambodia. While another good chunk have earned their positions on my list because they are home to wildlife that I would really like to see. These could be creatures that have long been of interest – like orcas or orangutans – or because they are endangered and I want to see them while I still can, like tigers or polar bears. Sadly, the endangered list has a new member today: the Tasmanian Devil.

Late last week, the Australian government upgraded the devil from vulnerable to endangered. This change not only assures that the small marsupial gets greater legal protection and increased funding, but is also an indication of the challenges that the species is currently facing.

Just over ten years ago, scientists on the island state of Tasmania discovered a disease ravaging their most famous animal. The disease was diagnosed as a form of cancer which spreads through bites and causes grotesque facial tumours which prevent the devils from eating and eventually kills them. Since 1996, the island has lost more than 70% of its devil population and scientists are struggling to prevent it from wiping out the wild species entirely.

Tasmania is the only place where the creatures live in the wild. Aggressive captive breeding programmes have been introduced in zoos on the Australian mainland in an effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct and with the hope of reintroducing them into the wild at a later date. In Tasmania itself, efforts are underway to protect isolated populations of devils which have so far remained unaffected by the rampant disease.

Visitors to Tasmania have long sought glimpses of the devil. Although not quite as ferocious as their Looney Tunes’ namesake, the devils do possess powerful jaws and a terrifying growl. While extremely violent amongst themselves, they pose little threat to humans, and many local tour operators offer night-time excursions into the bush hoping to spot the shy and elusive animals. For many visitors, such a sighting usually ranks amongst the highlights of their trips.

Today, these opportunities are obviously more limited than before but places do still exist where the chance of a sighting is still quite good…and some of these reinvest the proceeds from tourism into conservation programmes.

A decade ago the thought that the Tasmanian Devil might be wiped out within our lifetime was unthinkable. Although there is nothing yet to suggest that their plight can be tied to human encroachment or Global Warming, it is a sobering example of just how vulnerable our Home Planet and all of its species truly are.

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Possessions or Experiences?

18 05 2009

Serengeti sunset mw

                 “Do sunsets usually growl?”                           (Serengeti sunset)

If you were given the choice between a 60” high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound or a luxury two-week South African safari with private guide, which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term?

I am a homebody who has the unenviable burden of also enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my acquaintances are quite happy to live in a shoebox over a subway grating with 43 roommates and live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into travelling the world, I really do like a few special home comforts and lots of travelling. Alas, not being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, I usually have to pick between the exotic trip or the slab of apple-smoked cheddar.

As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the heady scent of eucalyptus in Australia, standing in a jungle-clearing in Costa Rica watching lava cascade from a volcano late one night or hearing a leopard prowling around my tent in Kenya. I will never forget the first glimpse I had of a wild mountain gorilla after several hours of arduous trekking, of waking to a spectacular view of the pyramids from my Giza hotel room or of a wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminium woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Himalayan foothills, photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise or camp on the farthest reaches of the Great Wall of China.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 18” TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





Snakes On A Plane….for real!

17 04 2009

 python-mw

What time’s the next flight to Melbourne?                       (Python in Amboseli, Kenya)

 

I love babies and small dogs and have a soft spot for old people. Any façade of stoic, disinterested masculinity evaporates when confronted by a wide-eyed, bubble-blowing, gurgling, bouncing bundle of joy, and I am genuinely more than happy to help any blue-tinted, zimmer-framed, slow-motioned senior reach the pureed apple from the top shelf of the supermarket…but I confess to harbouring a deep resentment towards both while on long flights.

 

Flying is not only a way of getting from point A to point B, but it’s also a wonderful reprieve from the stresses and strains of cell phones, e-mails and everyday life –even if I lose the feeling in my feet after a couple of hours. It is also a perfect opportunity to read that book I’ve been crawling through for several months or to catch-up on much needed sleep ahead of a busy schedule of meetings or sightseeing. So, woe behold anything that gets between me and a positive aerial experience.

 

Fortunately however, teething, kicking, flatulent babies and hearing-impaired seniors who bellow every word and pound the back of my seat in an effort to get their entertainment systems working are generally the only annoying things I have ever experienced on any flight – and even that annoyance is tinged with guilt at my own intolerance.

 

Some passengers on a recent flight in Australia were almost not quite so lucky.  During a two and a half hour flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne, four pythons escaped from their container in the aircraft’s hold and started slithering their way throughout the plane.

 

Fortunately, none made their way into the cabin – or at least if they did, none were spotted stealing the packets of pretzels or using the paper seat-covers in the toilets. Unfortunately, when their absence was discovered upon arrival, the aircraft had to be pulled from service and searched from nose to tail.

 

The Stimson’s pythons were each about 6” long, which makes them less threatening than a fully-grown constrictor with cold scaly skin, beady little eyes and a darting tongue…but also means it’s easier for them to climb into your seatback pocket, your bag in the overhead locker, your discarded shoe…or up your trouser leg while you sleep. Luckily, Qantas thought of all that as well, and after a fruitless search, eventually elected to fumigate the plane rather than risk having one of the serpents drop down with an oxygen mask during a safety briefing.

 

Passengers incovenienced by the delay were said to be understanding when they realised the alternative.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: F is for Fiji

17 02 2009

fiji-1-mw

    “Is it possible to PVR this evening’s sunset?”                  (Viti Levu, Fiji)

 

 

You know your vacation has truly begun when you land at your destination and are greeted at the airport by a band of musicians and singers. Not necessarily a full brass band or symphony orchestra, but just a small group of locals singing traditional songs and handing out lays with smiling faces and warm and welcoming greetings. When you see a separate immigration queue for seniors and families, you know you’re somewhere special. 

 

For most people, the name Fiji conjures images of sun-soaked jungle-covered tropical islands with white sand beaches lapped by warm, clear waters…and for once, the product matches the billing.

 

Located in the South Pacific approximately 3 hours flying time from New Zealand and 10 hours from Los Angeles, Fiji is comprised of 322 islands of which 106 are inhabited. The two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu are home to 87% of the country’s population as well as its capital and its international airport.

 

Fiji does indeed offer some of the world’s greatest reefs, clearest waters and best beaches. Much of the islands are jungle-covered adding to the feeling of tropical bliss and with a slower pace of life, it’s hard not to quickly find yourself immersed in mandatory relaxation and rejuvenation. The Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands offer some of the world’s most beautiful and luxurious resorts either hidden amongst the trees on the edge of private islands, or suspended on stilts above the water itself. If a helicopter transfer and full spa is a little beyond your means, Fiji’s hospitality is just as warm as its weather for even those on more modest budgets and offers unforgettable hostels and inexpensive simple beach-front bures, or cabins.

 

It would be a shame to visit Fiji and just stay on one idyllic beach for the duration, however. It’s possible to take a cruise and visit many of the smaller islands in a week or less, or to purchase a hop-on/hop-off boat pass and spend a couple of nights on different islands travelling as the mood takes you. Whether your idea of a vacation is to remain as inert as possible and move only when the next umbrella-adorned drink arrives beside your recliner, or to engage in every sport known to humanity, Fiji can offer both with excellent scuba diving, snorkelling, windsurfing, horseback riding and many other activities.

 

Although difficult, it is highly recommended to pull yourself away from the beach and veer off the beaten path for at least a few days. The Fijian people are renowned for their warmth and hospitality and any trip that didn’t include a visit to a village, an arts centre, a school or church would be an opportunity lost. While away from the coast, you can also further satisfy your thirst for adventure with a challenging hike up the rain forest-shrouded mountains or a spot of whitewater rafting on jungle rivers.

 

With a diverse culture, Fiji is also a great destination for food-lovers. Whether the freshest seafood imaginable or superb curries, Fiji has something for everyone and doesn’t forget those with more timid tastes.

 

Fiji can easily and inexpensively be visited on the way to or from Australia or New Zealand but is an excellent destination in its own right and one that will truly never be forgotten.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan