AS a travel writer, it’s natural for me to focus on the destinations in which I find myself, but for my last blog of 2017, I wish to highlight the people behind those places I was incredibly fortunate to visit this year. When you’re out in the world, hunting and gathering stories and photographs, it can be a bit of a lonely place, particularly if you’re travelling alone, as has been my strategy in recent years. Until you meet your guide. This year, I was blessed to have the most generous souls cross my path as I wandered around the planet, people who went above and beyond their roles as tour guides or tourism staff, many of whom became friends.
My travels started in February, at beautiful Noosa, on the Sunshine Coast. It was as hot as hell that weekend, where I partook in my first mountain bike tour with Bike On Australia. The next day, I kayaked the Noosa Everglades with Kanu Kapers Australia and both of my female guides were encouraging and taught me new techniques in both adventures, but above all, were the strong, smart women I so admire. Later that same month, I visited the remote Australian territory of Norfolk Island. Here, I met Tania from Norfolk Island Tourism, who introduced me to this destination’s incredible history, local food and wine, and the rugged landscape. I don’t have a snap of Tania, but I took plenty of the cows which inhabit this place, and which outnumber residents.
March was devoted to my home-state of Queensland, firstly visiting Tropical North Queensland’s Port Douglas and the Daintree. Here I ambled among the world’s oldest rainforest, Mother Nature being a particularly good guide on this trip, and snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, reminding me of why I love living in this part of the world so much. Two weeks later I was in Bundaberg for a series of stories, where among my great guides, I met Suzie from Bundy Food Tours. Mother Nature made another big impact on this trip, introducing me for the first time to her turtle hatchlings on Mon Repos beach. It was so beautiful, I cried.
I encountered one of my favourite guides all year in the Cook Islands, when I met Aunty Nane. Aunty’s laugh was a cross between a gecko and an erupting volcano, and epitomised the soul and spirit of these proud Pacific Islanders. Aunty loved to eat and talk, and we spent 10 days doing just that, enjoying the spoils of the tropics. Aunty was convinced I would find a husband if I accompanied her to church, so off we trotted. I never found a bloke, but the singing gave me goose bumps. On an outlying island I also met Aunty Mii, who told me she spent her days trying to avoid her husband because he was “stupid”. You can’t win ‘em all.
In May, I was in Fiji for the wedding of my beautiful friend Saskia who married her Fijian warrior Pauliasi. The Fijians are great and gentle guides, who teach you much without even knowing it. It’s all about Fiji time up here, learning to slow down, that things don’t always go to plan, but you can always find a reason to smile. It’s a lesson which was carried into later that month when I visited the Whitsundays, which was rebuilding after Cyclone Debbie. Resilience? These people have it in shades, and again, amid the destruction, there were still smiles.
In June, I was up at Noosa again, gathering some last-minute stories for an urgent deadline, but my biggest teacher in both June and July was my wild eastern Australian carpet python, Sylvia. For a few weeks every winter, if the stars align, I try to slow down, stay home, go to yoga and try to find some balance. It’s not an easy fit for someone like me with such an active mind, but it’s crucial if I am to continue a hectic travel schedule for the rest of the year. Sylvia, my beloved snake, taught me the importance of hibernation, to follow the natural rhythms of the seasons, and to just be, at least for a few weeks. And so I did.
By August I was ready to go again, and after a brief trip to northern New South Wales, I attended the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ annual convention, which was this time held on the Sunshine Coast. On a beautiful winter day, while cycling along Caloundra, I bumped into these bathing beauties, who taught me you’re never too old and it’s never too cold, to swim, or laugh.
September was hectic, but also delicious. First, I flew to Canada where I fulfilled a story wish to snorkel with the salmon over at Vancouver Island on the Campbell River. My guide, Jamie, from Destiny River Adventures, was a little hard core, and proved to be scarier than the unexpected rapids into which I was flung and told to “fly like a superhero” to avoid being injured by rocks. But in the end, Jamie and I became friends, particularly when I emerged from the 14 degree rapids, smiling and shouting “that was awesome.” I was back in Brisbane for only four nights before it was off to Hong Kong, where I met another of my favourite guides, Vivian. I was hunting a story about fortune tellers, and Vivian and I trekked the streets of Hong Kong, while I indulged in “villain hitting” (to banish former boyfriends) and having everything from my face to my tarot read. I also popped over to Macau on this trip, where the guide really understood my need, mid-tour, to pop into the local bottle shop to pick up a drop of the local Portuguese wine.
I spent two weeks in October in Morocco where I was fortunate to have Khaled as my guide as we trekked, on an Intrepid Tour with 13 others, across this incredible country. It was here that I really sat back and observed how tough it is to be a guide, dealing with 13 different personalities, three distinct nationalities, long distances and tiring days. But Khaled never faltered, always finding the positive in every situation, doing his best to secure a glass of wine for us at the end of the day, and at one point, turning up at my door with a can of cold Casablanca beer after listening to my endless observations about how warm the beer was in Morocco.
In November, it was off to Bawah Island, a luxury new destination half way between Malaysia and Borneo, and three hours from Singapore. In terms of guides, it was an unusual week for me, as I spent it with a group of men, mostly part of the management team from Singapore, who were putting the final touches on this beautiful resort. With five men from different destinations, all of whom spoke at least two languages, conversations were colourful and entertaining. One of my favourite guides was the Italian dive instructor Paulo, with whom I would book in a morning snorkel straight after breakfast, and whose enthusiasm for Bawah’s underwater beauty was infectious.
Which brings me to December where I have just returned from a trip to the North Pole to interview Santa. I’d love to say Santa was my best guide, but he was hugely overshadowed by the kind and eccentric Irene, an artist who makes amazing things out of reindeer parts. Irene also talks to her house elves (one of which is currently being naughty and getting naked while Irene is in her studio), which made her one of the most interesting interviews I had all year. I headed further north in Lapland and stayed at Beana Lapponia Wilderness Lodge, where I met Tony, the husky handler, and he was also an incredible guide, teaching me not only how to harness huskies, but how to drive the husky sled through the snow.
It’s been another incredible year and I’d like to thank all of the tourism and travel operators, local communities, kind random strangers, PR people, publishers, editors and fellow writers, who I met on this incredible journey that was 2017. See you out there in 2018.
And to my beloved readers, thank you for supporting me. Wishing you peace on earth.
I POSSESS the dubious fortune of being born under a lucky star and by dubious, I mean weird stuff happens to me all the time. By fortune, I mean that I have not only managed to find a way to laugh at most of this whacky business, but I somehow make a living out of it. Unlike one of my sisters, who is a nurse, when things go wrong in her profession, she can kill someone. When things go wrong for me, people pay me to write about it.
And so I am delighted to announce that I am now a regular columnist for Jetstar’s inflight magazine! Yes, you will find me, on the back page, or Row 57 (as we like to call it in the airline business…yes, I like to think I’m a pilot now too), telling more tawdry travel tales among a small stable of regular writers. Trying to be entertaining in 400 words is as challenging as watching those people who pack too much hand luggage, attempting to shove it into the overhead lockers. (Learn to pack properly, people). Please enjoy my debut column, out now on all Jetstar flights.
TALES FROM ROW 57*
WHEN TRAVEL RHYMES WITH UNRAVEL
For some who journey, it’s a jungle out there, as Christine Retschlag knows all too well
I AM WRITING this having just “showered”, crouched under the tiny faucet of the bath tap in my Cairns hotel room. I would have preferred to stand under a gushing flood of water like normal people, but not for the first time in my travels have I been unable to work out how the shower nozzle actually works. We’ve all got that one friend for whom the world is a big, scary place where inexplicably weird things happen while on holiday. I am that friend.
I once took my sister on a “relaxing” holiday to Queenstown, and I distinctly recall her scoffing as I grabbed two bottles of Duty Free Whisky as we dashed to the plane. Fast forward to the next four days among which included two of our tour vehicle’s four wheels precariously spinning over a cliff ledge; me being carried down a mountain in a white-out by not one, but two sherpas, and on our last day, at a seemingly sedate farm visit, a ram breaking free from the pack and charging straight at us. Drink? We were opening those whisky bottles for breakfast by the end of that trip.
Once, on a work trip to Phuket, I accidentally stole the room maid’s shoes, believing they were the hotel slippers. It was only at dinner that night, having pranced around the resort in those slightly worn orange wedges, did it become apparent that my colleagues had not been “gifted” the same footwear. From Cambodia to Coolangatta to the Cook Islands and everywhere in between, I’ve left similar stories of destination destruction.
Back in Australia, I recently tried to furiously open my Noosa hotel room, only to eventually realise I was on the wrong floor. This wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been a group of frightened tourists inside, staring through the peep hole at a complete maniac slapping at their door.
I am yet, unlike one friend who possesses similar dumb luck, to lock myself out of my hotel room, stark naked. In his case, he stole The Australian newspaper conveniently outside another guest’s room, and used it to cover his vitals while he sheepishly approached reception for a spare key.
I’m sure that day is coming and when it does, I intend to take this copy of Jetstar Magazine with me, and hope this tawdry travel tale adequately covers all of my sins.
*Row 57 is the last row of seating on Jetstar’s 787 aircraft. To book a Jetstar flight or holiday go to http://www.jetstar.com
AUNTY Nane’s chuckle is a cross between a garrulous gecko and a violently erupting volcano, the type of which formed the island of Rarotonga, on which I find myself. Aunty, a Cook Islands Tourism Ambassador, is here to tend to my every need, including collecting me at the airport upon my 2am arrival from Brisbane. So dedicated is this generous soul to her role, I am certain that if I asked her, she would also stroke my hair while I surrendered to a deep slumber and sing me a lullaby. She may possibly even spoon me. I decide she is the perfect wing woman to assist me in finding a Cook Islander husband. Yes, I have crossed the International Date Line, or dating line, so to speak, and figure I may as well try my chances at finding love over this invisible border.
Aunty loves to chatter as much as she loves to eat, and over freshly-caught tuna sandwiches on my first day in her idyll island, she gives me the run down on dating, Cook Islands style.
“Cook Islander women are strong minded and determined. We are modern now because in the past everything was about men and the women were in the kitchen and at home. Today, nah, ah,” she says, waggling her finger.
“Women have a big role in the community, at home, at church and wherever they go. Men are having that respect for women now.
“There are a lot of mixed marriages here. There are no taboos about mixed marriage. You have some of these young men who are like ‘I have a white chick, check it out’. I’m like ‘guys, don’t break their heart’.”
Aunty tells me my best chance of finding a Cook Islander husband is to accompany her to church on Sunday. Regular readers of this blog will know I have attempted many unorthodox methods around the world to secure a boyfriend, but I’ve never had a date with God, and so we schedule this in for several days time.
The next day, on a Tuk Tuk trip with Uncle Mata from Tik-E Tours, I learn that the Cook Islander man is “very quiet, very humble, very reserved and they support their women.”
“He is hard working and looks after the family. Whichever woman you pick they are all strong. Men have good values of bringing up their children,” Uncle Mata says.
Uncle’s advice on Cook Islands dating is similar to Aunty Nane’s.
“Don’t go to the pub, they’ll be too drunk and talk a lot of rubbish. Go to church and have a look,” he says.
“Just go up and talk to him. Just say ‘Kia Orana’ and whatever happens after that happens.”
Not since I first learned they gave out free wine have I ever been so excited to go to church.
Onwards I travel, to the island of Aitutaki, best known for its stunning lagoon. Here, my tour guide Aunty Mii tells me she loves her husband “very much” but spends her days trying to avoid him because he is “very stupid”.
“My stupid husband broke the washing machine and now he has to wash his own clothes,” she says.
“In ancient days women had to choose their partners. They had three of four because they had to breed the warriors for the tribe. But when Christianity arrived that ruined everything.”
I avoid asking Aunty Mii whether I should go to church to find a husband, partly because of her views on Christianity, and partly because I am very scared of her. Instead, I ask her if there’s a marriage counsellor on this remote island.
“Yes, that’s me,” she says, breaking into a toothless grin.
Two days before church, I am back in Rarotonga, having dinner with Geoff, 34, who provides me with a contemporary view on dating, Cook Islands style.
“For me, it is not dating per say. I have a couple of girls on the roster and it is a mutual understanding. We wait for the tourist season because the ratio of girls to guys will be in our favour,” he says.
“And white women tend to like Cook Islander guys. You’ve got this revolving door of visitors to keep the bachelors happy and in between you go back to the roster.
“Cook Islander women get complacent real quick. You date them for a year and after that you can’t do right by them. They’ve got that really strong personality.
“A lot of girls are always telling me ‘you are impossible to please’.
Geoff tells me there is also Tinder on Rarotonga but he is yet to find the “ideal woman”.
“The whole idea about the perfect woman I don’t understand yet. Someone with fair skin is quite exotic to me,” he says.
“I’ve had to defend my thoughts on dating many times. Until this system comes crashing down around me, it works.
“One of my best features is not my appearance, it’s because I can talk. I’ve really honed that to a fine art. If I was interested in you normally I’d square off and make sure I touch you on the arm at some stage. It’s all these little nuances you pick up on.
“Then I need to move you to a setting where I’m the alpha male. There will be drinking and dancing. It is so fluid. It’s the meeting, setting up, trying to close and then the logistics.”
Geoff, who has been operating on the same dating scheme for 20 years, has it down to a fine art, even having a draw full of sarongs and toothbrushes for any lucky ladies who happen to spend the night.
“It is a game of numbers. You run the strategy that yields a higher return,” he says.
He admits he sometimes lies to get what he wants and that it can be disrespectful.
“I’ve got four older sisters and they don’t know about this. If they found out they’d try and sit me down and say ‘hey’. I don’t think mum would understand.”
Sunday finally arrives and I dress in a floral frock and place on my head the gorgeous garland of flowers or traditional “ei” that Aunty has bought me from the markets. It’s D-Day. Divinity. Dating. Or Disaster. I enter the church and the congregation is packed, but they all seem to be aged either 5 or 85 with a distinct lack of the middle-aged men I was promised. There’s a visiting Samoan missionary, a huge hunk of a man, but the priest promptly describes him to his parishioners as “married to God”, which, frankly, is a hard act to follow. At one point a sprightly octogenarian breaks free from a prayer line to kiss me on the cheek. There’s lunch with the churchgoers afterwards but alas, no husband.
In the early evening Aunty drops me at dinner overlooking the ocean, paying for my meal before she heads back to church for the evening. I resist the urge to join her again. The only thing I took away from this morning was apparently it’s “Up, Up Jesus, Down, Down Satan.” Instead, from where I sit, the sun is setting, I have a glass of New Zealand wine in my hand, and I can smell the salt in the air. I am alone in possibly the most romantic spot on the planet when it dawns on me, I don’t need a Cook Islander husband, I need a Cook Islander wife. And I can’t wait for Aunty to get home from church to tell her.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism. To plan your own adventure go to https://www.cookislands.travel
I’m flying to the Cook Islands today on assignment for 10 days. I’ll be back just after Easter with some more pics and words on my incredible adventure where I’ll be snorkelling and sailing these beautiful waters, interviewing the only female chief of one of their tribes, participating in a traditional bush beer ceremony with the men, staying in a brand new eco retreat, going on a cycling storytelling tour and visiting some of their most remote islands. I can’t wait to meet these beautiful people.
Photos and travel courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism http://www.cookislands.travel