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 AM driving north of Brisbane to Bundaberg on my latest travel writing assignment when it strikes me that I am also on a personal pilgrimage. So caught up am I in the possibility of finally having the chance to experience the turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, that I have temporarily forgotten my strong links to this regional Queensland town.
It’s been nine long years since I’ve been to Bundy, the birthplace and childhood home of my ex husband, and to where we would retreat each year to visit his family. And now I am returning. Alone. The ghosts of the past first hit me as I’m driving through Childers, when I glance at the façade of the old Palace Backpacker Hostel. In 2000 it burned down, killing 15 young backpackers. I remember that day well, I was the Tourism Reporter on the Courier-Mail and wrote a story about backpackers to this destination, mapping their rite-of-passage along the Queensland coast. How they used Childers as a place to stop, pick fruit, and make money before heading north to the Whitsundays. A bunch of young adults brimming with life and hope. Dead. That’s the thing about being a news reporter. Often it’s months, and in this case years, when beyond the adrenalin of a breaking news story, you finally have time to reflect on what it actually means. In my car I slow down, glance at the building, now an art space and memorial to the backpackers, and keep driving.
This is a blog about new beginnings, courage and resilience. I drive north through a series of summer storms, arriving in Bargara mid afternoon. The sun is shining and I head straight for a swim at the Basin, a tidal pool at the beach. Under the warm blue sky with fish at my feet and the ocean crashing against the rocks, I’m feeling cleansed. There are no ghosts here.
By early evening I am standing in the dark with a group of strangers at Mon Repos, wondering if I’ll have the chance to finally witness the baby turtles hatch on this, the last night of the season. Just 10 minutes after opening there’s a sighting and on this balmy beach night we wander in the dark and experience not one, but two clutches, both numbering in their hundreds. The rangers say this is the best outcome all season.
We form a human channel and the rangers shine a light from the nest to the ocean for the hatchlings to begin their life journey. You want resilience? Consider this. Just one in 1000 of these babies will make it to adulthood. And 30 years later, against all odds, the females will return to this very beach to lay their own eggs. In the dark I feel something crawl up my leg. It’s a rogue hatchling. Its beauty makes me cry. Later, back at my resort, I research the spiritual meaning of turtles: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life.
The following day I snorkel with a green turtle off of Lady Musgrave Island. A 1.5 metre reef shark circles below me but I have nothing to fear. I hover over the turtle for the longest of times. Observing her feeding and resting on a reef cleaning station. I smile into my snorkel about my insatiable love of reptiles. Salty and sated, later that night I dine with Shane and Pascaline, the owners of the new Zen Beach Retreat in which I am staying. The theme of new beginnings recurs.
Shane, Australian, and Pascaline, French were living and working in Vietnam when they decided to swap their stressful, high-profile jobs for a different existence.
“We went back to Australia and went for a beach drive to try and find a block of land. I wanted to have something on the sea and it had to be hot,” Pascaline says.
“Some of the properties were stunning but there was not love there. We kept heading north. Shane stopped at Bargara Real Estate and saw this. We went walking and thought ‘what a great beach’. Both of us looked at each other and said ‘it is fantastic’.”
The couple opened the retreat in early March, after extensive renovations of this former 1970s Bargara beach motel.
“We will be offering health activities and corporate activities and finding a balance in between. In particular it’s about balancing the corporate wellness of the team,” Shane says.
“I found a lot of companies are losing their way, the way to innovate and keep their team motivated.
“What we’ve got here is a recovery treatment and corporate retreat.”
The property, which can sleep a total of 22 people including the couple’s beachfront home, boasts four themed suites – Executive, French, Asian and Oriental/Middle East. Each suite has been furnished with tasteful artifacts from the couple’s travels around the world.
“It is about creating an experience where people recover from the busy day-to-day life,” Pascaline says.
“It’s about having a guide to relax and building packages with different partners in the area such as nature, food, wellness and sports.
“We have a brand that is Zen. We want you to embody happiness.”
Happiness. I spend the next few days looking at Bundy through a different lense. I join Bundy Food Tours, a new tour which showcases the incredible innovation of the hardy farmers who have worked these fields for generations. There’s that resilience again. Even at the iconic Bundaberg Rum Distillery they’ve launched a new Blend Your Own Rum Experience. For the first time I visit Lady Elliot Island. There’s more turtles. More resilience. And I dine in new restaurants, all embracing food direct from the paddocks to their plates.
On my drive home I pause in Childers at the new Cane Fire Cheese House selling regional produce. I decide it’s time to embody the courage of the turtles and finally visit the Childers Backpacker Memorial. One of the volunteers accosts me at the door and explains the horrific events of that night. I listen, deciding against telling her I know the story all too well. She says the deliberately-lit fire, which saw Australian Robert Long jailed for murder, put Childers on the map for “all the wrong reasons”. I silently disagree. On the night of the fire, and for weeks and months afterwards, the locals opened their doors to the survivors and their families and embraced them as if they had lost their own children. And now they are immortalised in these walls. Forever part of this region’s fabric. On the drive south I think again about the turtles and their meaning: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life. Bundaberg, well she has these in spades.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Bundaberg North Burnett Tourism – http://www.bundabergregion.info To stay at the Zen Beach Retreat go to http://www.zenbeachretreat.com