Rubyvale: Lust for Dust

Here in Rubyvale, the lure of the sapphire is real. While the fabled el Dorado may have streets lined with gold, Rubyvale’s dusty pavements are littered with gems. Fossicking_2087_27317096

“Here you go,” says Kym with a cultured tone not often found in the Australian outback. Her finely manicured hands load a fat pile of “wash” into my sieve with a rough, well-used shovel. This where my search for a sapphire begins; with a pile of dirty gravel.

"Back in 1979, Smiley Nelson was walking home from school across the some of the fields mined by the big commercial operators,” says Tony, our guide, “and he kicked up a huge yellow sapphire weighing 2019 carats. It passed through a number of owners in the intervening years and I recently heard that it sold as a 1,400 carat, cut stone in New York for $1.2 million.”

I take the sieve, about the size of a big Frisbee, and plunge it into a 44 gallon drum full of water, jiggling and bouncing it vigorously just below the surface. This action, I’m told, washes off the clay dust and helps sort the stones into like densities. The theory is the valuable stuff will end up in the centre. Next, the whole lot is upended carefully onto a sorting bench.

Picking through the little coloured stones, my heart leaps in excitement as a produce a mighty bauble about the size of a garden snail. Kym takes about a half second to assess it and tosses it into the bush without a second look. “Quartz, darling … worthless. Keep looking.”

My delicate city fingers, used to no more mistreatment than a feather-touch computer keyboard, are soon painfully abraded and stinging. But wait, what’s this? A little pale pinkish stone peeps out from between two coarse chunks of ironstone. It’s my sapphire.

Kym and husband Dale operate the Miners Heritage, the region’s largest walk-in mine for tourists and, lucky me, I can have my new found gem cut and set while I take the underground tour with Dale. Deep in the bowels of the mine, the temperature is a constant 25 degrees, but the hard toil can have you working up a sweat in no time. Dale jabs at the coloured bands of gravel embedded in the walls with the end of his pick.

“These ancient creek beds are where you’ll find the best stones,” says Dale, “washed together after thousands of years of rain, long before man walked these lands.”

The Miners Heritage is one of several tourist mines in the region, catering to the waves of itinerant travellers passing through in search of weekend fun or even a small fortune.


Peter Brown was one such chap. Back in the late ‘70s, he arrived in Rubyvale in a smoking old Volkswagen combi and was immediately gem struck. Today, he and wife Eileen operate the award-winning Rubyvale Gem Gallery in town. Inside their homely cottage is a showroom more like a big city boutique with shiny display cases full of lustrous gems in their 22 carat settings and gift boxes. Instead of fossicking buckets and gift shop trickets, Eileen serves Devonshire tea and there is even a small cabin for overnighters. Behind the counter, Peter cuts and sets the stones extracted from his private mine nearby. “Let’s go take a look,” he says.

Unlike the Miners Heritage, Peter’s mine is not for casual visitors. We don hard hats and clamber down the rickety metal ladder. “You’ll need to duck here. Watch out.”

Further in we are presented with his piece de resistance; his grotesque pneumatic digger. Around the corner a generator throbs away, providing life to this mechanical cave monster. “Stand back,” he warns, and the beast erupts into a fierce crescendo of vibration, devouring chunks of the grotto wall which tumble onto the floor like a messy Cyclops munching giant fruit cakes.

The show’s not over and in rolls a little metal dump truck, obediently gathering up all the soil and rocks in a noisy, robotic performance. The self-powered unit ambles and stumbles erratically along a makeshift underground railway before disgorging its load into a vertical bucket shaft that transports the material to the surface where an even bigger, uglier monster awaits.

Peter’s surface rig is something out of Mad Max. This bizarre junkyard sculpture shakes the very ground it stands on as the tonnes of dirt and rocks are violently sorted in a painfully loud drum-rolling process that culminates in a trickle of pebbles on a small conveyor belt. The contraption is shut down after just a few minutes and Peter inspects the output, picking up a satisfying lump that immediately brings a smile to his dusty jowls. “That’s a good day’s work,” he announces, “that’ll make a thousand dollar piece.”

If it were only that easy, and back at the rustic and authentic Rubyvale Hotel we share a few yarns with the crusty locals over a beer and enormous steak. These guys, weathered and tempered by the ferocious dust and heat, are the sort of blokes you’d cross the street to avoid, but we manage a cautious discourse after shouting a few cold ales. The story everyone loves to tell, each with their own personal twist, is the tale of the Autumn Glory, a 100 carat rough stone that when cut to a 30 carat gem, revealed a completely unique stone of a highly unusual golden honey colour.

“This bloke, down on ‘is luck, turned up ‘ere one day about 15 years ago,” says Jack through thin, sunburned lips. Even as a fellow Aussie, I have trouble understanding his thick accent as he barely opens his mouth for fear of inhaling a fly, “and waddaya know, ‘e finds this flippin’ brute in a lizard ‘ole – by accident!”

Apparently this guy, Wal Shadworth, was completely intoxicated by his find, turned down several offers and finally is convinced it will sell overseas for much more. He sends it off to some shady dealer in Texas and never sees it again. The hunt for the lost “Autumn Glory” continues to this day. Another stone, a 1000 carat rock, was found by a 14 year old in 1935 and was finally cut to become the famous 700 carat “Black Star of Queensland” in 1948 after being used as a doorstop in the family home.

With my beer laden belly sore from constant laughing, I wander to my cabin and awake in the morning to find the discomfort shifted to my head. Over a sombre, but hearty breakfast back in the pub, we muse over the peculiar allure that sends folk crazy, plunges them underground for years on end, turning them into burrowing hermits who shun civilisation in the quest of few rocks. This scenario is enacted all over Australia. From the historic 19th century goldfields of Victoria and New South Wales to the infamous subterranean opal towns of Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge, man’s lust for dust continues unabated.

Back in the Land Rover, we head back to the airport in Rockhampton, but swing by the Miners Heritage to collect my trinket. Kym extracts a delicate pendant setting from the velvet bag, and the little violet stone winks at me with a tiny flash of light. I’m not about to throw it all in to go live in a cave, but the beauty of this modest gem, is undeniable. Mmm … maybe there’s a bigger one in that bucket over there?



Where: Rubyvale, Queensland Central Highlands. 300 kilometres west of Rockhampton.

Best time to visit: Annual Gemfest in neighbouring Anakie each August. []

Where to stay: Rubyvale Hotel and Cabins Ph: +61 7 4985 4754

Regional information:



What is a Sapphire?

Sapphires belong to the family of precious gemstones that includes rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Rubies are actually red sapphires created by chromium impurities in the sapphire’s aluminium oxide composition, while emeralds are beryllium aluminium silicate with chromium and exclusively green.

Sapphires, while commonly regarded as a blue gem, can actually occur in a wide range of colours. Purple are lower grade, while pink or salmon coloured gems fetch higher prices than regular blue stones. Diamonds are exclusively carbon in composition and their unique crystal (allotrope) is the hardest naturally occurring material but not the most valuable, which is the ruby. Cut Sapphires are valued at about A$10,000 per carat.

Sapphires are created deep inside the Earth and brought to the surface through volcanic action. The Central Queensland Gemfields, situated around the appropriately named towns of Emerald, Rubyvale, Sapphire, Anakie and the Willows Gemfields, is the most productive area in the world for beautiful sapphires. Here the stones can be found on or just below the surface and in ancient alluvial beds as a result of explosive distribution many million years ago. This is ideal for casual fossickers.


The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Mr Tony Walsh and the staff at Capricorn Tourism, Rockhampton, in the creation of this story.

Why Green is the New Black

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Everywhere you turn lately, it seems, people are talking about climate change, global warming, carbon offsets and lower emissions. What’s fact and what’s fluff? Roderick Eime looks at the arguments.

It would appear that even the most resistant critics have bent to the notion that the burning of fossil fuels is at least contributing to the climate change sweeping our planet. The jury is divided on whether it is the primary contributing cause or just part of an overall planet-wide cycle. Either way, pouring carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal and other greenhouse gases like methane and carbon monoxide is not helping matters. Agreed?

Shop Your Way to Carbon Neutrality?

Barney's, the trendiest of New York department stores, has heartily embraced environmental branding. It's a symbol of how chic environmentalism has become and how quickly causes can become trends. Do America's retail-entrenched society and notoriously "faddist" shoppers think they can alter the course of impending environmental disaster by shopping in stores painted green? It seems that getting the message across to a fickle and shallow public is as simple as altering their shopping patterns. But stamping a can of cheese spread with 'carbon neutral' is noguarantee of environmental responsibility.

Beware the ‘Greenwash’

Kris Madden of the Eco Media Group, is a consultant to government and industry on eco- and sustainable tourism, warns not to fall into a green trap.

“Although I acknowledge the contribution to global warming that mechanised travel can make, I’m still more than a little suspicious of all these carbon offset schemes popping up,“ warns Kris, “there is no framework of operation, no benchmarks and no real checks and balances under which these schemes operate. One has to wonder whether there is a real environmental benefit from some of them, or whether it’s just ‘greenwash’.”

The ‘greenwash’ to which Kris refers is the sceptics’ appraisal of these efforts to create a greener environment. In the competition for consumer sentiment, true carbon consciousness and fake green window dressing will be difficult to isolate as more and more businesses fly the “carbon neutral” flag.

“Sure, it’s better than doing nothing and it certainly raises awareness of the problem, but I fear it is more important for some of the worst offenders to be seen to be reacting to the climate change issue than actually making a difference.”

Tree planting is one example. Although reforestation is a critical activity in many areas, trees planted today will take at least twenty years to reach maturity. The critics will argue that attention needs to be directed at “now” schemes. What can we do to offset emissions today?

Think Globally, Act Locally

Kris reminds us that the popular catch phrase is just as important, if not more so.

“People can really make a big difference if they modify their own behaviour on a micro scale. Walk when they don’t need to drive, car pool and generally use less energy, especially around the home. It’s like earning your own offset credits and you can feel less guilty when you do decide to travel.”

Offset Your Carbon Consumption

It’s no surprise that motor vehicles feature highly on the list of greenhouse gas emitters, and car usage is something we can influence on a personal level. In reality, a great many of us will fly to our next holiday destination, either domestically or internationally, so what can we do to lessen this impact?

Virgin Blue, for one, offers carbon offset packages to passengers concerned about their own “carbon footprint”.

New Zealand airline Pacific Blue has announced that the first beneficiary of its carbon offset program is a Palmerston North renewable energy project where landfill methane gas is captured and used to generate electricity.

When we travel, whether it is by road, rail, sea or air, our desire for sightseeing and leisure is adding to the problem, especially when it involves long distance travel.

Can You Travel with Carbon Neutrality?

Environmentally responsible and sensitive travel is not a new phenomenon, but has certainly become a more widely recognised alternative in the last few years. Apart from travellers seeking out new and exciting destinations with an emphasis on nature and culture, travel operators are now enticing environmentally conscious travellers with taglines extolling their low carbon emissions and offset policies.

One of that rapidly growing number of tourism businesses claiming “carbon neutral” is Ecoventura, who operate a small fleet of expedition yachts in the Galápagos. This iconic group of islands west of Ecuador is one of the most precarious eco-systems anywhere on the planet and has attracted all sorts of attention over the decades, including poaching, over-fishing and habit degradation from human intervention.

The CarbonNeutral Company, one of the new wave of climate monitoring companies, has calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that Ecoventura emits and has come up with a number of projects to counteract those effects including funding for reforestation in Chiapas, sustainable energy projects in Sri Lanka and India, and methane recapture in the US.

Kerry Lorimer, an avid eco-conscious traveller and author of the Lonely Planet guidebook, “Code Green” offers this advice:

“Since virtually any type of motorised transport emits greenhouse gases, the obvious thing is to go for non-motorised transport such as walking, riding a bike or catching a train. Using public transport is another obvious way to lessen your personal emissions.

“Jet travel has had a bad rap for its high levels of greenhouse emissions. Look to the shorthaul and stay local where practical. If all you want to do on holiday is lie on a beach, do you really need to fly to the other side of the world to do it? For business, do you really need to have a face-to-face meeting? Could a video conference get the job done?

“And when you do fly, consider off-setting your emissions via organisations such as Their websites have carbon calculators that can compute the amount of emissions for your kilometres travelled. You can then pay to 'offset' these through projects such as tree planting and community development projects.”

Look for Low Carbon/Low Impact Destinations

“Do your bit for domestic tourism - choose a holiday destination close to home!” adds Kerry Lorimer, “We have some of the most amazing travel experiences in the world, right in our own backyard, yet many Australians and New Zealanders think first of an overseas destination when planning a holiday.

“Walking or trekking holidays are one of the best ways to keep your carbon emissions to a minimum. Peregrine, for example, offers a range of trekking holidays around the world - close to home there are treks in Borneo, PNG and the Himalaya. The company is currently assessing all of its operations and has pledged that all its tours will be carbon neutral by 2009. Trekking is also a great way to get to know the locals and to reach views and villages that are otherwise inaccessible. There's only one way to the top of a Himalayan peak!”

Although it may be difficult to label any single destination as “carbon neutral”, you can quickly determine your impact by assessing a few simple factors:

* How much carbon do I create to get there? Family travel and group travel in general is more efficient as resources are shared.
* How much carbon will I burn when I’m there? Will I walk around or drive? Will I be using lots of air-conditioning or camping? Will my activities be responsible?

For example, a camping holiday with your family, not far from home is a great idea. Look at some of NZ's great destinations like Bay of Islands, Bay of Plenty and Queenstown for starters. Folks come from all over the world to see these places!

Be Informed and Make Your Own Judgement

Clearly there will be a lot of “smoke and mirrors” in this climate and carbon debate with some entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity to be the new emissions trading millionaires. If you feel inclined to contribute or invest in these schemes, then do so carefully. The ultimate responsibility, however, falls with the individual. Do you really need to run a computer simulation of your intended journey to visualise your impact? Or can it be boiled down to simple common sense and more considerate and simple day-to-day living? You make the call. It’s your planet.


Some quick calculations by The CarbonNeutral Company []:

Approximately one tonne of emissions is produced by 5000 kilometres of driving in an over 2.0 litre car.

The same amount of travel on commuter trains produces just 200kg.

A direct flight from Auckland to Los Angeles (10500km) produces 1.2 tonnes of emissions per person.

So, if you took the train every day to work instead of driving, you could earn enough carbon credits to offset your flight. For those who can’t do without their car, the company offers “offset packages” up to NZ$50 that come in a ribbon bound folder complete with certificate. The money is channelled to community projects and energy-efficient technology development.


More Information: Ministry for the Environment

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I’ll take the high road …

High in the Garhwal Himalayas, Roderick Eime discovers two separate paths to Nirvana

It seems every travel story about India dwells on the unavoidable; the conspicuous, elaborate monuments, the chaotic transport and road systems, the infectious spirituality, the poverty and the overwhelming crush of humanity in a country with five hundred times the population of Australia.

Sure, my recent trip to India had it all, but do you really want to hear about that?

This story is about two destinations offering bliss, relief and enlightenment, yet contrasting in almost every other way imaginable.

Wanting to escape from the claustrophobic bustle and throng of Delhi and its nearby attractions, my wife Sandhya (a Fijian-born Hindu) and I ventured north into the Garhwal Himalayas just over two hundred kilometres from the capital. True, the arduous road journey presented a whole new set of tribulations as we wound up and up toward the distant snow-capped mountains. Rock falls, overloaded trucks and buses, erratic animals and pedestrians all kept us and our driver on a heightened state of alert. Indians, we discovered, place a great deal of faith in protection from the gods but aren’t anywhere near so fussed about such earthly matters as seatbelts, crash helmets or guardrails. Mr Sharma, our intrepid navigator, cites the motorist’s prayer; “Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

Our first objective was the holy shrine of Lord Shiva at Kedarnath, located at 3500m and a mere ‘stone’s throw’ from the Tibetan border. The ancient shrine is one of the four highly significant pilgrimages in the Uttaranchal region and one of the famed twelve ‘Jyotirlingas’ (very holy places) scattered throughout India.

The journey looks simple enough on any map, but the reality of Indian alpine road travel soon dispels that illusion. We set out soon after dawn from the holy Ganges town of Haridwar with the objective of being in Kedarnath by nightfall, a mere 250-odd kms away. It was well after dark by the time we crawled into Gauri Kund, the end of the vehicular road, and still a tantalising 14kms short of our goal.

The following morning, after a modest repast of chapatti and beans, we proceeded to the mustering point located just out of town. On the absurdly narrow track, hundreds of ponies were being lead around by lean, energetic mountain men, jockeying for position and trying to secure their mounts for the revenue journey upward. Other, less equestrian types, were already on their way in ‘dandis’, a sort of open-topped sedan chair carried by four extremely well synchronised sherpas.

Looking at my pathetic mule, I decided to do us both a favour and walk as far as I could before hypoxia kicked in. The snow-dusted peaks could just be seen at the end of the steep, twisting valley, while the Mandakini River roared below us. Pretty soon it was clear who the real pilgrims were. He we were, ambling along on the backs of sturdy donkeys, while others in top-shelf Paddy Palin hiking kit confidently strolled past both us and the toffy-nosed set on their dandies. Then, every so often we’d come across an emaciated straggler, plodding barefoot; each step one closer to ultimate salvation. These sadhus, or holy men, were the real McCoys. Clad in ragged orange and brown robes, these unkempt devotees often took an entire lifetime to complete their journey to each holy site, walking the entire distance and existing solely on the benevolence of others too busy with daily routine to make the journey themselves. I began to think that each such donation became a proxy request for the donor’s salvation and by the time the poor sadhu arrives at his temple, he is so burdened with the sins of his lazy brethren he must nearly collapse. And beware, there’s plenty of look-alikes ready to grant you salvation (or perdition) based on the extent of your generosity!

When we, the saddle-sore interlopers, finally arrived at our destination, the tiny village of Kedarnath was something of an anti-climax for me. Nestled in an otherwise idyllic Himalayan surrounding, the evidence of a non-existent sanitary system was everywhere, the town permeated by a wholly unholy aroma. To boot, our basic lodging came without heating or hot water.

The town centre, for what it was, thronged with over-conspicuous worshippers and holy pretenders chanting and flailing about, more in search of dinner party points than divine redemption. My wife, although thrilled to have made the journey to what is a genuinely holy site for devout Hindus, was likewise dismayed at the hypocrisy and duplicitousness taken root in the shadow of the ‘Celestial Jyotirlingam’.

Our itinerary also listed another ‘kedar’, the holy abode of Lord Vishnu at Badrinath, but a quick straw poll put paid to that in favour of more decadent destination, Ananda.

We made arrangements on-the-run as we descended back down through the Garhwal valleys to Rishikesh and Narandranagar, finally arriving in the wee small hours, looking and smelling every bit the authentic pilgrim.

Ananda in the Himalayas is a ’destination spa’ of the most opulent order. Set amongst one hundred picturesque acres on the estate of the Maharaja of Tehri-Garwhal, Ananda, in their own words, is “dedicated to providing guests with a total immersion experience … integrating the elements, the senses, rhythms, nourishment, aesthetics, time and space.”

We were greeted at the doors of the restored vice-regal residence by immaculately attired staff that politely looked past our weather-beaten appearance and welcomed us to our rooms.

Our suite, although not palatial, was flawlessly appointed with abundant little luxuries like perfumed soaps, salves and lotions, fresh fruit, flowers and crisp clean linen. Morning revealed the entire city of Rishikesh stretched out in the valley hundreds of metres below, and as we sat eating the most superb breakfast of fruit, cereal and gourmet Indian cuisine, we felt truly removed from the tribulations that had, only a few hours before, totally engulfed us.

As I explored the tranquil complex, camera in hand, Sandy plunged herself into a suite of holistic therapies including aromatherapy, massage and sauna. Even though she was cloistered away for the entire afternoon, soaked, soothed and saturated by a bevy of Nepalese Ayurvedic therapists, she had barely scratched the surface of Ananda’s vast catalogue of healing recipes.

From check-in to check-out, we had stayed a scant thirty six hours, and it was with some resignation that we handed back our little plastic ticket to holistic well-being and set out yet again into the hurly-burly of Indian traffic.

Clearly there are two distinct paths to spiritual and physical well-being. You choose.

Packages at Ananda are offered in 3, 5, 7, 14 and 21 night stays ranging from around A$1500 to A$10,000. Ananda is located 260 kms (5 hours by road) from Delhi. You can travel to Ananda by air, road, rail or chartered helicopter. For more information, see

Palermo, the city of countless conquests and crossroad of cultures.

When the huge Costa Serena jostled for a berth in the busy summertime season in Sicily, it was clear Palermo was not just another big ship whistle stop. Roderick Eime revisits.

I hadn’t been to Palermo for thirty years, and I’m pleased to report that very little has changed. Last time was as a student backpacker, this time it was almost red-carpet as we filed aboard our luxury coaches for a series of shore excursions into this 2800-year-old port.

The ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians were the first to recognize the value of the ideal harbour, with sheltered anchorages and high cliff tops for perfect defences and look-outs. These early traders and merchants operated blissfully there for some six hundred years until the Romans turned up – and they didn’t share very well. The Romans were extremely tough on the Punici and effectively drove them out of existence as well as Sicily.

The Byzantines had a brief turn running Sicily after the Roman Empire went belly up, but were blind-sided by the Saracens (Moors) in the 9th Century and the Arabs were in charge for a bit over a hundred years until the Normans, on a roll in the 11th Century, booted them out. The Arabs had moved the capital to Palermo by this stage and spawned an era of cultural and architectural prosperity.

The Normans and Arabs got along, after a fashion, and a melding of their architectures and art began to define the city. Things get messy thereafter and the next few hundred years include family feuds, and the combined squabbling of the royal houses of Spain, Germany and Italy. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Sicily and Palermo became properly and finally Italian.

The city took a pounding during the Second World War and much of the historic architecture was badly and irretrievably damaged, but we did manage to take in as much as we could from our ebullient and suitably shapely tour guide.

Here are some highlights of our whirlwind day in Palermo:

The Capuchin Catacombs

I’d seen the brochure and heard all the warnings, but nothing really prepares you for rows of dead and desiccated bodies hanging from the wall. Some of our group were clearly unsettled by the ghastly exhibition, but I felt more a sense of sadness, especially when whole families, including children, were dangling in tangled repose from the walls.

It all began in the very late 16th Century when the resident monks were looking for somewhere to store those late of the revered order. Locals soon were in on the act and it became a gesture of great nobility and pride to be strung up and dried out in the catacombs. Army generals, academics, noted civil leaders and clergy are all in silent attention, with the last being placed as recently as 1920, when the infant child Rosalia Lombardo was interred in a glass coffin. She remains the most expertly embalmed specimen in the exhibit, and looks for all the world like she might wake at any moment.

Palazzo dei Normanni

Begun in the 9th century by the Arab-Norman rulers and largely styled by the Spanish in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the palace is still a mish-mash of cultures that so defines Sicily and Palermo. The Cappella Palatina within is the best example of the so-called Arab-Norman-Byzantine style that evolved in the 12th-century Sicily. The sprawling building has housed the Sicilian Regional Assembly since 1946.

La Cuba

Built in 1180 by William II, it was one of the last Norman constructions and is certainly showing its age. Inside, careful restoration is in process and we had be careful not to bump any of the delicate-looking scaffolding arranged inside. Apparently there are early Punics (Phoenicians) buried nearby.

Space does not permit me to describe the many churches, cathedrals and palaces – in various states of repair – that remain in the city. But those surviving are clearly being nurtured back to health, albeit at a leisurely Mediterranean pace.

A bus tour to the peak castles is mandatory – even though our coach did not stop despite much pained wailing – for a sample of the panoramic view of the harbour and city.

After the tour, a small posse peeled off for some independent touring (read: shopping) and Palermo certainly presents plenty of opportunity for that. Just be sure to make time for a cool beer in one of the pleasant outdoor bars and watch the city pass by.

Space: The Final Frontier

Published Sunday Telegraph Escape - 9 March 2008 - © Roderick Eime [online]

Let’s Do Launch

“Space: The Final Frontier, … to seek out new life and civilizations …” so said Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise as he surveyed the expanding cosmos. Exploration, discovery and adventure are not the sole domain of science fiction. They have always been defining elements of the human psyche.

The celebrated psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow, called it “self-actualisation”: to boldly go where I’ve not yet been. Once mankind satisfied the lesser, more fundamental requirements such as food, shelter and community we looked beyond the horizon and wondered, “What if …?”

Sure, it took thousands of years for our sluggish and humble species to progress from canoes to steamships, yet much less than one hundred to go from powered flight to space travel. From a traveller’s perspective, now is the most exciting time in our specie’s existence.

And these are exciting times indeed. Such have been the astounding technological advances that in one lifetime, man has flown to the moon and now transverses every continent at an altitude of 10,000m in the company of hundreds of others, enjoying the latest movies and gourmet meals in pressurised comfort. To many, it’s even mundane.

Space travel fell somewhat flat after the delirium of the Apollo program. Many pundits like famous sci-fi writer, Sir Arthur C Clarke, predicted we’d be sticking flags in Mars and holidaying on the moon by now. Somewhere along the way we were sidetracked, probably because our expensive, clumsy rockets weren’t as reliable as we’d hoped. This is Second World War technology after all.

Riding what amounts to a ballistic missile still hasn’t deterred some despite a price tag equivalent to the GDP of a small African republic. At time of writing, there have been five “spaceflight participants” aboard the Russia Soyuz crafts, each paying a reported $20 million for the week long joy ride to the International Space Station (ISS). Tickets are now being sold for a planned flight to orbit the moon. Price? $100 million each.

Affordable space flight? Enter the X PRIZE Foundation (, a not-for-profit body offering multi-million dollar awards for technological breakthroughs. The 2004 Ansari X PRIZE was won by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen who led the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometres above the earth.

Pounced upon by Virgin supremo, Sir Richard Branson, the first commercial flights are now tantalisingly close, perhaps as early as next year. Announced in 2004, Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline expects to launch about 500 passengers annually. His proposed fleet of five spaceships will have a crew of two and just six passengers flying to an altitude of about 110 kilometres, the very edge of space, to experience almost ten minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle which uses huge and dangerous solid fuel rocket boosters, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will launch from a jet-powered mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo, and use a single hybrid rocket motor to reach its peak sub-orbital altitude. Because the craft will only travel at around 4000 km/h, it will not require heatshields for re-entry.

Branson appointed “space agents” last year and Gil McLachlan of Harvey World Travel, Manly is one.

"I know there are at least ten Australians fully paid up for the flight," said McLachlan, "and there will be more in the next twelve months for sure."

One such passenger eagerly awaiting his moment on the launch pad is Wilson da Silva, founding editor of Australian science magazine, Cosmos, whose ticket was one of four bought by Dr Alan Finkel, the publication's chairman.

"It's hard to believe that it's really going to happen," says da Silva with obvious delight, "it's always been a dream of mine since I was a kid."

In Clarke’s seminal 1968 classic, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Dr Heywood Floyd settles into the Orbiter Hilton for a family video call at a rather clunky terminal. The choice of the Hilton name for that movie was no co-incidence; it was a carefully engineered piece of product placement.

William Barron Hilton I, grandfather of the famous Hilton sisters and hotelier, bravely predicted in 1967: “When space scientists make it physically feasible to establish hotels in space and to transport people, the hotel industry will meet the challenge.”

Beyond an orbiting hotel, his plans extended to the Lunar Hilton, “To start with we will have only three floors, which will eliminate elevators and minimize power requirements. The multi-storied underground hotel will come later. But - and this is very important - in almost every respect the Lunar Hilton will be physically like an Earth Hilton.”

But Hilton appears to have lost the inside running to Branson and Robert T Bigelow, a rival hotelier and now aerospace magnate. His Genesis modules are already in space testing the concept of inflatable habitats for possible “hotel” adaptation.

For most of us reading this far, the reality of space flight will remain a fantasy, experienced vicariously in the Sensurround stadium of the cinema. The excitement of weightlessness however can be achieved on a Zero Gravity ( flight aboard G-FORCE ONE®, the same plane used to train NASA astronauts and film Tom Hanks for Apollo 13. Located at the Kennedy Space Center, near Orlando, Florida, for just $3500 you even get a DVD of your flight.

This writer’s prediction however, is that theme park, holodeck-style virtual reality will cater for the masses long before actual space flight does. After all, it was to such a synthetic environment where Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry’s homesick space adventurers went to “get away from it all”. As for the visionary Roddenberry, his one-way trip to space was in an urn.

Travel Tech

Travel, adventure and exploration have always been defining elements of the human psyche. It’s what makes us human.

The celebrated psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow, called it “self-actualisation”, but the concept, if not the name, had been known for much longer. Once mankind had satisfied the lesser, more fundamental requirements such as food, shelter and community he looked beyond the horizon and wondered, “What if …?”

The first furtive wanderings of the newly upright hominids were probably as much about the search for food and fresh hunting grounds as any curiosity-driven quest for new territory. But these early forays doubtlessly sowed the seeds for future exploration because, as is now known, homo sapiens populated the entire planet from a single genetic source.

For many thousands of years the preferred, or only known form of transport was by foot. Vast treks over many generations spawned the incredible anthropological diversity that makes our planet unique in the universe. We eventually tamed horses, built carts, canoes and ultimately vast ocean-going vessels that transported armies and minor civilisations around our world to populate, trade and conquer.

Perhaps the pinnacle of ancient maritime architecture were the enormous Chinese Ming-dynasty treasure ships of the 15th Century. These wooden leviathans dwarfed the petty craft sailed by the Europeans both before and after with the largest of these vessels measuring some 150 metres, over five times more than Cook’s Endeavour. It is now known that vast fleets of these huge ships, and their supporting entourage, ranged throughout the Indian Ocean, stamping China’s colonial authority on lands as far away as South Africa, perhaps even further.

It wasn’t until the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of iron and steel before this mark could be surpassed. In 1858, after enormous technical and financial difficulties, the SS Great Eastern was launched. At 211 metres, she was the largest ship ever built and was designed to carry as many as 4000 passengers on transatlantic voyages. Her size was her undoing and after a series of accidents and mishaps, many believed her to be jinxed and she saw out her days as a stalwart cable-laying ship. When she was broken up in 1890, the skeletons of a riveter and his child apprentice were discovered sealed inside the bulkhead.

The next quantum leap was in the early 20th century when the race to dominate the transatlantic route reignited with a spate of luxury megaliners typified by such majestic vessels as the Cunard Line’s Lusitania and Mauritania and the White Star’s trio Titantic, Olympic and Britannic. Again, the ambitious and unprecedented size of these ships could have contributed to their undoing. Only two of these 250+ metre vessels survived disasters to fulfil complete terms of service.

Today, computer-aided design and space-age metallurgy have allowed the cruise ship industry to revive and the size of the new wave of megaliners is only limited by the infrastructure of ports and the logistics of managing several thousand passengers at once. Even Sydney Harbour, renown for accommodating the largest ships, had to berth the world’s (currently) longest liner, QM2, in the naval yard where visiting nuclear aircraft carriers and battleships normally reside. The QM2 is 345 metres long and carries just over 2600 passengers and 1250 crew. Compared to the 4000 souls that could be crammed into the SS Great Eastern, the QM2’s passengers are transported in the lap of luxury with a mind-boggling array of dining, leisure and entertainment spaces that includes casinos, pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and a spa resort.

Propelling vessels of this size requires the absolute state-of-the-art in marine engineering. From sails and oars, through coal and oil fired boilers to advanced diesel and gas turbines, these huge ships require enourous oput puts of power to reach their cruising speeds of around 20 knots. The QM2 uses four 16-cylinder Wärtsilä 16V46CR EnviroEngine marine diesel engines generating a combined 67200kW at 514rpm. To supplement this, two General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines provide a further 50000kW. But to compound the wonder of this mechanical marvel, the dual gas and diesel powerplants do not drive the propellers directly, but instead drive generators which in turn supply electricity to four podded propulsion units located outside the ship’s superstructure. Are you following? The added beauty of this method is that the pods can rotate through a full 360 degrees allowing great manoeuvrability and eliminating the need for a rudder.

Even as you read this, plans are under way to eclipse these vessels. Royal Caribbean, whose Freedom class liners are fractionally shorter than Cunard’s QM2, will change the shape of cruising forever with their Genesis class liners. Already under construction in Finland and due for launch in 2009, these truly revolutionary ships will measure 360 metres and carry over 5000 passengers.

There are folks alive today who were born before the Wright brothers’ first powered flight on December 17, 1903. Such has been the astounding technological development of powered flight and aircraft that inside that same lifetime, man has flown to the moon and now transverses every continent in the company of hundreds of others, enjoying movies and meals in pressurised comfort.

But for at least thirty years after that historic 12 second event at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aeronautical travel remained a risky affair with machinery advancing little from the early string and canvas contraptions. It wasn’t until the 1930s, when all-metal aircraft construction became vogue that airlines could confidently offer scheduled services in commercially viable manner. Although the German firm Junkers, made the early breakthrough with the huge G.38, it was the iconic Douglas DC-3 that truly revolutionised commercial air transport after its debut in 1935. Over 10,000 of the incredibly rugged and reliable DC-3s were built and they regularly served for many decades in airline service. It is possible even today; over 70 years after the first ones flew, to ride in a 30-seat DC-3 with any of the specialist charter operators around the world.

But even with the introduction of this new wave of commercial planes, transatlantic crossings by fixed wing aircraft were invariably stunts by intrepid aviators looking to set new records. Regular commercial flights across the Atlantic were not to take place until well after the Second World War. But a select few passengers were able to travel from Europe to America in the magnificent giant airships operated by Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (Shipping Company).

The age of the massive Zeppelins is often looked upon by historians as the golden age and the true watershed in intercontinental travel. Measuring 245 metres and with an internal volume of 200,000 cubic metres, the largest zeppelins were as long as the largest ocean liners and more than four times that of a modern 747. Travelling at a modest 130 km/h top speed, the zeppelins could nevertheless complete a transatlantic crossing in just two days with her

Everyone remembers the ill-fated Hindenberg (LZ-130) that brought the golden age to such an ignominious end, but her older sister, the Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127) is the most famous airship of all time. Upon her forced retirement in June 1937, she had made 143 transatlantic crossings in her nine year career with a perfect passenger safety record.

Powered by five 550hp Maybach engines, the ingenious Germans had rigged them to run on Blau gas, an artificial substance very similar to propane or LPG. Why? Because it was non-explosive and had roughly the same density as air, thus it did not alter the buoyancy of the airship when burned as the tanks became depleted.

Her designer, the famous Dr Hugo Eckener, guided her around the world in 1929 along with sixty celebrity passengers that included the Australian explorer, Sir Hubert Wilkins, then in the employ of Randolph Hearst. The 21-day journey covered 31,400 kilometres and included the first ever non-stop crossing of the Pacific Ocean by an aircraft.

Dr Eckener was well aware of the dangers of hydrogen but could not obtain the helium he wanted in useful quantities because the USA, the only supplier of the inert, non-flammable gas, had embargoed it fearing Germany would use it for hostile purposes. Eckener was never comfortable with his country’s plunge into Nazism and Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Goering, rejoiced in cancelling all zeppelin construction and ordered all the surviving craft scrapped in 1940.

Today, a new semi-rigid inflatable, the Zeppelin NT, operates joyflights from the spiritual home of the great airships, Friedrichshafen, in the far south of Germany.

Following the Second World War, the great strides in heavier-than-air technology was diverted into civilian aircraft construction. The fearsome long-range bombers like the Boeing B-17 and B-29, responsible for such terrible destruction, served as the basis for the new wave of passenger aircraft like the Lockheed Constellation which was operated by Qantas on its Kangaroo route to London from 1947 until the introduction of its first jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, in 1959.

The “Jet Age” delivered the next great transformation of travel and soon the big (and bigger) jets were carrying passengers and freight from Sydney to London in about a day. Australia’s national airline followed the irresistible worldwide trend and introduced the revolutionary 747 Jumbo Jet in 1971. The range and carrying capacity of this marvellous aircraft changed the world forever. More people were flying further for less money everyday. In 1936, a return ticket on the Hindenburg cost US$720, well over US$10,000 today. A bargain return ticket of A$2000 to London from Sydney today, would cost $140 in 1936 – about three months wages.

Just as the Graf Zeppelin was the pinnacle of aspirational travel in the early 20th Century, the space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s has finally translated to tourism. Arthur C Clarke’s vision of 2001, when commuter flights to the moon took place aboard PanAm spaceships and Hilton had a hotel in orbit, look like finally being realised.

Currently it may take the equivalent of the GDP of a small African republic to get a ticket to the International Space Station, but all that is set to change. Renown physicist, the wheelchair bound Dr Stephen Hawking took a US$3500 space training flight aboard a specially modified 727 where clients experience about 30 seconds of weightlessness as the plane makes a steep dive. But that is just a teaser. Flamboyant entrepreneur and Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson’s plans regular space flights for mere punters with his ground-breaking “spaceline”, Virgin Galactic.

Announced in 2004, Branson’s spaceline plans to begin commercial operations in 2009 and expects to carry about 500 passengers a year into space. His proposed fleet of five spaceships will have a crew of two and just six passengers flying to an altitude of about 110 kilometres, the very edge of space, where they will experience almost ten minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle which uses huge and dangerous solid fuel rocket boosters, Virgin Galatic’s SpaceShipTwo will launch from a mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo, and use a single hybrid rocket motor to reach its peak altitude. Because the craft will only travel at around 4000 km/h, it will not require heatshields for re-entry.

The public accessibility of space travel will not stop there. Branson’s plans include a space hotel, larger vehicles and ... who knows what else? The Moon?

Served by
Served by

Australian is first Virgin Galactic Customer.
The first ticket into space was bought by a Brisbane woman, Glenys Ambe. It cost $US200,000 and was sold by World Travel Professionals, which was accredited last year as an official Virgin Galactic Space Agent.

Ms Ambe will have to spend three days in training before her flight leaves from a new American spaceport in New Mexico.

Lord Howe Island: The Last Paradise

When Bill and Janne Shead first took possession of their new Lord Howe Island property, it was euphemistically called, “zer dump”. Now the Arajilla Retreat is one of only two 5-star properties on the island and a beacon for relaxation and tranquillity.

Lord Howe Island was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1982 and is described as “a remarkable example of isolated oceanic islands, born of volcanic activity more than 2000m under the sea, these islands boast a spectacular topography and are home to numerous endemic species, especially birds.” Its fame is growing exponentially as the travelling world seeks out new and unusual locations away from the mass-market crush. The locals, and many others, believe Lord Howe Island to be the last true Pacific Island paradise.

The exclusivity of the location is enforced by remoteness and isolation. The only airstrip, a short sliver of tarmac in the shadow of the two iconic 1000m peaks, Mt Gower and Mt Lidgbird, was built by army engineers in 1974 amid some controversy. Rather than extend into the pristine lagoon, the islanders voted for a shortened strip with the knowledge that the smaller, less economical aircraft would keep visitations down - and the costs up.

Two hours by QantasLink Dash-8 200 carrying just 36 passengers is now the only means of arrival and departure, hence even a Super Saver return airfare is in excess of $800.

The Islanders, as Bill and Janne have become, continue to defend their patch against vulgar development with a parochial zeal. Only 400 guests are permitted onto the island at any one time and the once popular cruise ship visits are vigorously discouraged by a significant portion of the population of 350. A few expedition vessels land each year and receive a mixed welcome.

Arajilla’s original, long-demolished house was once the island’s curio shop, servicing the pre-war tourists, then delivered by steamer. It grew into a guest house of sorts offering rooms for the princely sum of $20. Outgoing proprietor, Hans “Schmutz” Ruekert boasted “ …we haff everyzing zat shutz and klozes”, but warned the new couple, “you vill hate zeez tourists!” Not only was Schmutz’s advice a little short of “best practice”, sadly it was indicative of the state of tourism on the island at the time.

Bill recalls his first visit to the island in the late ‘50s aboard one of the mighty Ansett flying boats that operated until 1974. He fell in love immediately. Bill’s father, with him for the trip, was a prominent real estate identity with an uncanny nose for opportunity, but Bill refutes any influence from his father. An avid blue water yachtsman, Bill made numerous visits to the island before seeing an advertisement for the property by chance in 1987.

“We just bought it on a complete whim,” he confesses, “and that’s the way it’s always been. It just called out to us and still does.”

“We began the transformation in 1988, pretty much straight away,” recalls Bill, “basically it was a demolition. Now, a few mill’ later it’s just a refurb every so often.”

When Bill refers to transformation, he really means it. Not only is the old building unrecognizable, but so are the hospitality, food and beverage standards of the whole island.

“We installed the island’s first espresso machine and it was the start of a minor revolution. Things were pretty ordinary back then,” continues Bill as we both tuck into a delicate chicken Caesar salad for lunch.

Daughter Kim, just back from an intensive Ayurvedic course, rejoins the family operation and will run the spa which opened this month. Set amongst imposing banyan trees and ferns on the 2.5 acre plot, the family is very excited about this new addition. Jo runs the superb restaurant, while the eldest, Emma, handles reservations.

Two additional, brand new suites have just opened and feature two bedrooms and family facilities, further enhancing Arajilla’s appeal.

Richard Rosebery, formerly of Select Hotels, took a very personal interest in the development of the property, assisting them with collateral and the website. “Of course every property is unique,” says Richard, “but Arajilla is like no other. Bill and his family have created an ecological and spiritual extension of the island that is both unpretentious and understated.”

But for anybody else considering opening up down the road, Bill reminds us that operating any business on Lord Howe, let alone a high end boutique resort, is a challenge in itself. The extraordinary Lord Howe Island administration imposes many difficult compliances and, as no freehold title exists, banks are very nervous about lending for development projects. But still, he and Janne sold everything to make Arajilla what it is today.

Consequently, Bill and Janne’s Arajilla Resort is truly a labour of love. For those few fortunate enough to stay at this remarkable property, the tenderness and care lavished on the resort spills over in gooey waves onto everything else, softening even the hardest stress-ridden hearts.

See for yourself at:

Zimbabwe: A Lion’s Tale

I could just see the young male’s eyes through the long grass as I focused my telephoto lens onto his face. The lion looked relaxed, satisfied and comfortable reclining on the grass barely 20 metres away. Click!

That tiny noise was enough to catch his attention in the silence of the savannah and he quickly turned to look me straight in the eye. My heart rate immediately shot up, but the next event completely took my breathe away. Lokuthula, the 16-month-old, 90kg African lion, stood to attention and begun a full charge with me as the target.

I reeled back in terror as the carnivore bore down on me. I’m a goner for sure. “No, cub!” yelled Paul, my guide, nudging me aside and standing in front of the lunging beast. “Stop!” he ordered, pointing a flimsy stick to the ground in front of the excited cat. Lokuthula, amazingly, came to an abrupt halt, looking imploringly at Paul and wondering why he was spoiling the fun.

Gasps turned to guffaws as the rest of the group realised the danger was passed and Paul was soon reassuring Lokuthula with a vigorous tummy rub. Langa, the twin, was also quickly on the scene for some attention while I stood, still quivering, relishing my “near death” experience.

When I was told we’d be walking through the bush with some lion cubs, here’s me thinking of little fur balls rolling and frolicking in the grass, nibbling each other’s ears. But these two guys are no cubs! At almost 100kg each, they’re about half grown and ready to start tearing into the other animals on the reserve.

“You must not show fear,” Paul reminds me of the briefing at the start of the tour, “and if he charges, you must stand your ground and say ‘no’. They are still cubs and just want to play. But they play rough and don’t realise they will hurt us, so we must stop them.”

Okay, I promise, next time a lion is about eat me, I will stand firm, look him square and chastise him sternly.

Zimbabwe’s Masuwe Lodge, near Victoria Falls, is unlike many of the surrounding big game reserves in that it has an active wildlife rehabilitation program. Volunteers from all over the world can come and take part, assisting with guided walks, feeding and exercising the animals. Masuwe is stage one in a four stage process of captive breeding and release that can take several years and is managed by the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) with Sir Ranulph Fiennes as its Patron.

Masuwe’s other attraction is elephant back mini-safaris, where you can ride aboard one of their tame African elephants for a few hours observing the wildlife from a much more confidence inspiring viewpoint. Unlike their Asian equivalent, you won’t see chains or rough-handling, African elephants only respond to kindness!

Access to the lodge is by car or minibus from nearby Victoria Falls township with accommodation in room-sized, safari-style tents. These are comfortable and sturdy, but are still open to the outside in places, so you must be diligent in keeping food hidden from prowling monkeys and sleep secured behind your supplied mosquito net.

Meals are served in a sheltered pavilion on a small hill overlooking a waterhole that ensures you are still in touch with the wildlife in between courses. Just as dessert was served, an almighty ruckus erupted down by the pond. Two tribes of elephants were engaged in an angry dispute over momentary water rights. Trumpeting and mock charges ensued for almost fifteen minutes while the mothers and their babies took to the water as the bickering males were occupied in jousts. Afterwards as I lay in my tent bed, I was disturbed by the occasional crashing of a nearby tree as one of the groups went about their midnight snacking.

In the morning the call rang out: “The boys have made a kill!” and I dashed breathless into the bush with my guide to see the two “cubs” ripping shreds off a water buffalo they brought down just moments before. Lokuthula had the poor creature in a vice-like neck bite, but his under-developed teeth meant the kill was slow. It was an agonising sight to watch the bull kick helplessly as Langa fed unperturbed. Such is the law of the jungle, I’m just glad it wasn’t me.

Our single-night stopover at Masuwe was just part of a larger exploration of the Victoria Falls region. The balance of our stay was at the glorious Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, a magnificent luxury lodge in true wild African style and just four kilometres from the roaring Zambezi waters. The Conde Nast Gold-listed, multi-award winning property gets consistent four to five star reviews on, not the least because of its dramatic location overlooking a busy waterhole that attracts elephant, antelope, wart hog, all manner of birds and the occasional lion – and all this just a short drive from town!

If you’ve read this far, you’ve no doubt asked yourself about travel to Zimbabwe and the moral and ethical entanglements. This writer is not about to preach one side or the other, but I can inform prospective travellers that at no time during our stay were we confronted with desperate poverty or hardship, begging or aggressive touting. Regular townsfolk just want to get on with their lives and were happy to do business with the encouraging number of tourists in town. Tourist Police are installed to ensure visitors are not subject to overenthusiastic commerce.

Most of the tourist operations and lodges will trade in US dollars and visitors should avoid Zimbabwe dollars for anything except souvenirs. My son’s eyes popped when I calmly handed him Z$0.25 Million when I got home (Value: about US$1.00).

Although many travel agents and tour operators are switching to the equivalent Zambian product across the border, I can see no reason why the Zimbabwean goods should be in any way inferior. The beer is cold, the steak is magnificent and my postcards all arrived. The lodge is able to import supplies directly from South Africa with foreign currency and this ensures the many staff and their families are also properly fed. Although I had my reservations throughout, I honestly felt my visit was of overall nett benefit to the Zimbabwean people.

The village of Victoria Falls has its own international airport where we arrived directly from Johannesburg with South African Airways. Customs and immigration procedures were surprisingly efficient and our visa (US$30 cash) was processed on arrival.

Outside a pre-arranged itinerary, there’s still plenty to do. Shearwater Adventures offer an exciting range of adrenaline adventures ranging from mild to wild. A helicopter ride over the falls is a must, or else there’s bungy jumping, jet boats, Zambezi River safaris, rafting or canoeing.

Be sure to stop by the delightfully colonial outpost of the Victoria Falls Hotel for an ice cold Zambezi Lager. Opened in 1904, this hotel has always been the place to stay for great white hunters. Now a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, a standard room will set you back about $300, including breakfast.

Highs: Close encounters with the wildest wildlife will leave you changed forever. The scenery and adventure possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Lows: Don’t forget the aeroguard and be sure to secure doors and windows at night from marauding primates looking for morsels. You make your own decision about the ethics of travel to Zimbabwe. I made mine and have no regrets.

Getting There:

For all enquiries about travel to Victoria Falls, contact Bench International on (02) 9290 2877 or 1800 221 451 or visit

South African Airways fly to Johannesburg and Victoria Falls
Five times per week from Perth with A340-200
Five times per week from Sydney with 747-400 (code share with Qantas)
Flights to Victoria Falls are daily from Johannesburg with 737 series
Ph: 1300 435 972



Averting Childhood’s End

Virtual worlds and cyber communities are no substitute for the wide open spaces. Get out from behind the computer and recall a time before ADSL urges Roderick Eime.

Hands up everyone who remembers when exploring the local creek meant squishy mud between your toes, tadpoles and even yabbies, not broken bottles, abandoned shopping trolleys and forsaken whitegoods.

Sometimes it’s those most simple of pleasures, those “priceless” moments that leave the enduring and lasting memories. What happened to them? Transformed I fear into virtual worlds of social networking and on-line swashbuckling.

Stricken with visions of a childhood disappearing down a broadband connection, I pried my two under-14s from in front of their flat-panel monitors and spirited them two hours away from a corrupted Sydney to Turon Gates. Just out of Lithgow and secreted in a fairytale setting on the namesake river, the 6,000 acres are set among glorious river gums and rolling paddocks stretching all the way to the horizon.

Still shackled with the urban stress, we arrived late on Friday, dumped our kit in the spacious cabin and flopped. I woke from a near comatose slumber to the sound of … nothing. Wait, yes it was a chorus of magpies greeting the rising sun, their shrill warbles running up and down an erratic scale. And I’m sure that was the distant screech of a cockatoo or galah in the distance. The total absence of alarm clocks, heavy traffic and air brakes was uncomfortably alien, at first.

Eager to extract the most from our short escape, I mustered the recalcitrants and urged them out of their hibernation. Cabins are either “mountain” or “river” and ours is the former. Evocatively named “Moonlight Ridge”, the full width verandah commands a view all the way to Dubbo, or so it seems. Wild goats gather in mobile herds on the adjacent ridge and several untroubled wallabies can be seen grazing on the fringe of the bush barely 100 metres away. The whole scene is disturbingly tranquil.

Well aware of the needs of their time-poor city cousins, owners Soren and Sonya Lunoe have a range of environmentally friendly and wholesome activities for those burdened by the mind-numbing urban routine. The river cabins each have a dedicated canoe for exploring the wild reaches of the Turon River that gives the property its character. The trail that joins the cabins is populated, not by petrol-powered annoyances, but hikers, (horseback) trail riders and the occasional mountain bike.

Large and airy, the mountain cabins are the newest, barely twelve months old. The cooking is by bottled gas, the heating by lusty wood stove and the power by a modern solar-powered electric system. Polite notes urge guests to minimise power use to preserve the batteries, but the huge bank of sealed lead acid cells under the porch looks like it could power a small submarine.

After a hearty breakfast prepared in the full-sized, gas-fired kitchen, we defer to the Range Rover to meet our appointment with Jasper, Wizard and Cup Cake. The drive down to the stables by the river is along a well-maintained unsealed road easily navigable by regular cars, but the urge to shun the narrow bridge and ford the shallow river is too much. We can now legitimately add ‘4WD adventure’ to the list.

Excited children gather in the corral like a scene from Saddle Club. Kids are supplied with sturdy helmets and a pair of authentic, well-weathered RM Williams boots. Rides are conducted for both beginners and experienced riders and the one or two hour rides follow the river upstream past sheer granite cliffs, powerful stands of ancient, thick-trunked river gums and sprays of vibrant wildflowers. Stocky little mountain wallabies stop and stare for a moment before you amble on.

Jasper, my very relaxed mount, is not about to scare me with any sudden moves. He endures several determined tail flicks across the jowls from Cup Cake without dismay, stopping occasionally for a munch on a tuft of succulent grass. The caravan meanders past intricate and intriguing rock walls constructed over a century ago by Chinese gold miners. There’s still gold in the Turon yet and each cabin comes with a pan for extracting a few dots of shiny ore.

“We bought the land nearly twenty years ago as a weekender,” says Sonya, the ghosts of city life clearly long exorcised, “now we have 17 cabins down here on the river and the new ones up on the ridge.”

Next to their own modest ranch is a lush green campground currently occupied by a patrol of luxury Land Rovers, each parked adjacent a neat, military sized tent. Kids play innocently with a collie that delights in a few rounds of fetch. Yes, pets are welcome at Turon Gates.

The Lunoes now live full time at Turon Gates, having divested themselves of their urban entanglements some years ago. Soren, with his deceptively haughty Scandinavian demeanour, was a celebrated chef, Sonya, a successful fashion designer and ‘rag trader’.

“Each cabin is privately owned,” adds Soren, still in his dressing gown and busily turning out espressos for the string of guests popping in for registration, “and there are a couple for sale at the moment.”

I do the mental arithmetic and briefly fantasise about a luxury investment weekender on the fringe of the Blue Mountains, but the mist soon clears. I’m happy enough to be reminded of my own carefree childhood away from the city crush. Even though it saddens me slightly to know my own kids will never experience that, I’m reassured by the little effort required to find a refreshing pocket of innocence so close by.

Fact File:

Turon Gates, Capertee, NSW. 25 mins on the Mudgee road from Lithgow.

A three night weekend stay in a mountain cabin starts at $480 and river cabins at $360. The cabins are self-catering, so bring food and linen (or do as we did and pay the nominal charge for supplied lined)

Activities include bushwalking, canoeing, horse-riding, gold-panning, mountain bike riding, camping, swimming and trout fishing.

Camping is $22 per car per night.

Bookings: (02) 9969 3818
More Info:

Japan: Before the Rising Sun

“One hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun walked this land, the Ainu lived here.” So says the ancient Yukar Upopo (hero legend) of the ancient Ainu race.

One of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences still possible in this era of instant gratification, synthetic theme parks and virtual existence is to delve into strange and foreign cultures as we travel the Earth. Indigenous cultures and unique dialects are disappearing almost daily despite the growing worldwide respect for these precious anthropological artifacts. Amazon Indians, Australian Aborigines, Melanesian islanders and many Asian ethnic groups are struggling to retain their disintegrating heritage on this globalised planet.

Today, many committed and conscientious travellers urgently seek out these struggling cultures in an attempt to learn and understand a little of our vanishing world before it’s too late. As these modern explorers set off to mix with the famous Masai of Kenya or the serene hill tribes of Thailand and Vietnam, one race is all but overlooked - even in their own land. The Ainu, a once hardy and self-reliant people from the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan, are living the twilight of their existence.

For centuries, anthropologists and scientists argued the origins of the Ainu and it wasn’t until modern DNA techniques were available that definitive results could be reached. The Ainu are now believed to have originated from the Russian Far East and Mongolia, although their genetic strains are as widespread as North America and Tibet.

Essentially a hunting, fishing and gathering people, the Ainu have strong spiritual beliefs that include the worship of many gods, particularly those representing the most important elements of the Earth and those providing for their daily struggle. They have a deep respect for the wild bear, and even though they hunt the beast in a brutal ritualised ordeal called ‘iyomante’, the poor animal is considered a god and the act of killing it is believed to return its spirit to heaven.

Beginning in the mid-15th century, the racially and culturally foreign Japanese from Honshu moved north and began usurping the Ainu’s land and oppressing the people until, at the onset of the 20th century, precious little remained of the Ainu culture as it was consumed and assimilated into that of the dominant Japanese. In 1993, the Ainu launched a famous last ditch effort to retain what was left of their land and heritage. A lawsuit against the Japanese was begun in an attempt to stop them damming the Saru River and submerging their last traditional town, Nibutani. Despite the outcry, the Ainu lost.

Today the most visible remnant of the Ainu culture is the expansive cultural museum in the town of Shiraoi, about 50 kilometres south of the capital Sapporo. Here visitors can witness several re-enacted traditional dances, wander an authentically recreated kotan (village), tour the museum or buy unusual mementos like dried whole salmon, tamasai (jewellery) and tribal t-shirts. Proud Ainu guides will escort the tours and cheerfully relate the secrets of their people and intricate ceremonies. Poignant 19th century photographs hang on the walls, showing clearly a handsome, defiant and distinct race of people still quietly resisting the Japanese occupation. Look into the eyes of the few remaining young Ainu and you’ll see the fiercely independent spirit still burning deep inside.


For the regular tourist, Hokkaido is famed for its winter sports, particularly skiing. The mountains of Hokkaido have some the most reliable snow in the world. But plenty happens in the warmer months too.

The dramatic scenery and landscapes are postcard perfect and play host to trekkers, kayakers, climbers, rafters and mountain bikers who revel in the off-season, snow-free forests.

The Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC) has a smorgasbord of mild and wild activities to entertain and exhilarate visitors for all ages for days on end. Their adrenalin catalogue reads like a how-to manual for the modern adventurer. Take the kids and let them learn the finer points of indoor rock climbing, river rafting or orienteering. There’s even a stag beetle search for those not afraid of the creepy-crawlies.


The On-Line Phenomenon – Pulling Dollars from Cybersapce

Self confessed nethead, Roderick Eime, reminisces on the birth of the ‘net and examines pitfalls its flourishing future.

It wasn’t that long ago when the Internet was derided as an esoteric plaything for geeks, nerds and the socially incompetent. I remember extolling the virtues of email to my friends and clients in the early ‘90s and triumphantly displaying my first web page in 1994. Some immediately saw the possibilities while many others, even the majority I must say, had to be dragged screaming to the computer. Now, over a decade later, it’s hard to imagine life without a tollpass for the Information Superhighway.

We all remember the first “clunky” web pages full of flashing text and naff rotating graphics. Now the art and science of web design is as much about the back-end architecture as it is the slick graphics. Web implementation, search engine optimisation and data streaming is now driven by near incomprehensible protocols like PHP Hypertext Preprocessors, Perl CGI Common Gateway Interface and JavaScript. Today we can chat in real time across the world with Skype, sell anything on eBay and indulge in any variety of previously unattainable subversion.

But, the Information Superhighway, like any public thoroughfare is fraught with peril. There are the cyber equivalents of highwaymen, lane-swervers, tailgaters and even car-jackers. Just as our use of the tools and advantages of the new technology have increased so too has our need for increased security and awareness. Once all we had to worry about were silly viruses that pulled faces at us on the screen, now there are Trojan horses, key loggers, spyware, malware, scams and the ever present fear of identity theft. And the speed limit is on an exponential curve; our once plodding 14.4 kbs modems have been replaced by lightspeed ADSL hubs pumping data at 24,000kbs.

Without too much debate, the most staggering recent development has been the Google phenomenon. Beginning with two nerds in a garage in 1996, Google now indexes well over 10 Billion web pages, is valued at US$80 Billion and employs 5,000 people worldwide. Google’s plans for ‘net domination are truly mind boggling. For one thing, they plan to index all the words from every book ever written. Gasp!

Google’s advertising through search keywords is the cornerstone of their financial success, and Internet marketers are only now going to grips with this convoluted formula. The quest for top Google rankings is now paramount.

The State of the Nation

HM canvassed the major players in the on-line booking scene for their take on the changing world.

Hitwise – ‘Travel’ amongst the most popular topics on the web

Hitwise is the leading independent online competitive intelligence service. Hitwise provides its 1200 global clients with daily insights on how their customers interact with a broad range of competitive websites, and how their competitors use different tactics to attract online customers.

We asked James Borg, Marketing Director - Hitwise Asia Pacific, how he saw the trend for Internet traffic heading to travel (and hotel) web sites.
“Travel sites, including destination, airline and hotel sites, account for a huge slice of the total Internet traffic pie. Hitwise predominantly measures traffic to individual sites within a given industry sector and in doing so we turn up some very interesting data.

Some grab-fact tidbits:

• 69% of all travel sites visited by Australians are local
• Travel is roughly equal to sport in Internet popularity (2.5%)
• Virgin Blue claims 90% of flights booked on-line
• Visitors spend 7 mins on average per site
• Monday is the most popular day for travel sites

“Our Director of Research UK, Heather Hopkins, did some analysis recently on the search terms sending UK visits to hotel websites and noticed two particularly interesting things:
- The most searched for hotel brands also have the most visited websites
- Searches for locations make up a larger share of search terms sending visits to hotel websites than do brand searches.

“Travelodge UK, InterContinental Hotels, and Premier Travel Inn own the brands that were most searched for by UK internet users. These hotel chains also have the most visited hotel websites in the UK. This pattern continues down the rankings with the exception of which relies on its sister company easyJet for visits rather than its own brand strength.

“So, the most searched for hotels brands also have the most visited websites -- but this need not be so! There is tremendous opportunity for smaller hotels to snap up market share from the leading players by capitalizing on the location opportunity!”

Euromonitor International

Total online accommodation sales in Australia during calendar year 2005 were estimated by Euromonitor International to be A$788.5 million from a total accommodation market valued at A$9,233 million. The compound annual average growth rate for online accommodation has been approximately 42% per annum.
Intercontinental Hotels Group – Keeping brand integrity in online environment

The Internet continues to be an important booking channel for InterContinental Hotels Group across all segments, as customers continue to research and book travel online.

InterContinental Hotels Group promotes its branded booking sites –,,,, and – in all marketing activity.

The Group promises that these sites offer the best available rates for its hotels on the web, through its Lowest Internet Rate Guarantee. This Guarantee stipulates that if a customer finds a genuinely more competitive, all-inclusive rate elsewhere on the Internet, the Group will beat that rate by 10%.

InterContinental Hotels Group was the first hotel Company to introduce a global Internet Distribution Standard, outlining how it wished to do business with third party online travel Companies. One of the benefits of this Standard was to ensure the Group could maintain its Lowest Internet Rate Guarantee.

Between 2003 and 2005, the Group’s hotels in the Asia Pacific region saw a 120% increase in online bookings. In 2003, half of the Group’s online bookings were via its own sites while the remaining 50% were via third party travel portals. By 2005, 65% of bookings were being made via the Group’s own sites, with 35% via third parties.

“Since the introduction of our Internet Distribution Standard and Lowest Internet Rate Guarantee, we have seen a marked increase in popularity of our brand websites. We have also established stronger relationships with online travel companies, who complement what we are doing with our own sites,” said InterContinental Hotels Group regional director of sales and marketing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific, Karin Nielsen.

“Our Internet Distribution Standard ensures that our online rates are completely transparent for the consumer, whether they’re found on our sites or a third party’s. This is the key benefit of a system that has precipitated a fundamental shift in the way the hotel industry sells online,” Ms Nielsen said. – Trading strong on back of growing leisure dollar

Launched in March 2000, is the leading online accommodation booking service in Australasia, offering more than 7,900 properties in 38 countries.

The site currently attracts approximately two million user sessions each month and converts this traffic into approximately 110,000 booking each month.

In both 2004 and 2005 was ranked as the number one 'Travel – Destinations and Accommodation' website across Australia, by Hitwise (the internet intelligence service).

The increasing popularity of the website as a means to book accommodation is attributed by to a number of key industry drivers:

* General macro-economic conditions - relating to a correlation between growth in disposable income and the level of tourism expenditure, with the Australian economy currently recording strong levels of economic growth while experiencing low inflation and low interest rates
* The increasing level of broadband penetration
* Consumer trust in e-commerce
* Growth of the independent traveller,
* Supplier adoption of the website. has just announced a strong trading and profit result for FY2006 driven by substantial growth in accommodation sold across all regions available on's website. Room nights sold increased 40%, reaching 2.74 million room nights (compared with 1.96 million in FY2005), with room nights sold in Australia up 37%, and New Zealand up 42%.

Despite strong growth, online sales still represent only a small percentage of total sales in the Australian accommodation industry. Euromonitor International has estimated online sales represent 8.5% of total accommodation turnover in calendar 2005. believes that the online channel will continue to experience strong growth by attracting customers away from traditional sales channels. It is considered that the convenience, product range, transparency and value provided by the online channel are driving a structural change in consumer behaviour in the sector. This belief is supported by industry estimates, with Euromonitor International forecasting online sales to reach at least 11% by 2010. – Shorter Lead Times, Short Stays Favour On-Line Booking.

Most hotel stays (overall 36%) are booked in the week prior to check-in, especially in Hong Kong (44%), Singapore (48%) and Korea (44%).

Australians (43%) and New Zealanders (39%) book hotels online with longest lead times in Asia of more than a month in advance of pre check-in, although more than a quarter of hotels (26%) booked online on ZUJI sites across Asia Pacific are booked more than one month in advance of check-in.

In the past two years, comparing available hotel booking patterns in Q2 2004, hotel booking habits have remained reasonably steady in Australia where 46% of hotels were booked with more than a month lead time pre-check-in (now 43%).

Booking lead time has reduced in countries like Singapore, where in Q2 2004, only 28% of bookings were made during the week before check-in – now 48%. Similarly, in Hong Kong, in Q2 2004, only 19% of bookings were made during the week before check-in – now 44%.

One, two and three night stays dominate the hotel booking trends, with 78% of
hotel bookings comprising 1/2/3 night stays. While predominantly short stay bookings, the length of stay has increased since Q2 2004 when 43% of all hotel bookings on ZUJI sites were for one night stays (now only 29%).

“Shopping for accommodation online is big business in Australia. We have some excellent hotel relationships that are of paramount importance to us. Having just added 12,000 new hotels to our portfolio of properties, ZUJI now offers customers a choice of over 72,000 hotels worldwide at fantastic rates. Whether the traveller is looking to make a booking a year in advance or a same day, last minute check-in, ZUJI can accommodate. We also offer our customers access to consumer reviews, maps, photos and plenty of information about the property's amenities and surrounding attractions. These added extras have proved to be very important to Australian consumers when it comes to the crunch of making a decision to book a hotel.” - Peter Smith, General Manager ZUJI Australia – Keeping brands a secret assures lowest rate

Within only five months since its soft launch, the popularity of Secret Hotels has grown exponentially with over 25,000 room nights booked into Secret Hotels!

Web savvy hotels nationwide have integrated's Secret Hotels as an extension of their online distribution network. "Secret Hotels is the proactive way for hotels to successfully move inventory without the fear of brand erosion due to the lack of rate parity. This is possible as the hotel name is not advertised to the general public. The results have been incredible; with some hotels selling in excess of 1,000 room nights in a single month, which would otherwise have become wasted inventory," says Brad Gurrie, General Manager Hotels at

Aside from providing numerous benefits to hoteliers, Secret Hotels is also proving to actively stimulate new demand within the FIT leisure travel market, with close to 80% of customers booking into a Secret Hotel for various leisure purposes such as romantic getaways. "Secret Hotels foster opportunistic purchases where customers are booking rooms on the spur of the moment to take advantage of the low rates. Instead of catching a taxi home, they're often paying the same price to check into one of the mystery rooms that start a $79 per night for a 3.5 star hotel," says Brad Gurrie.

Accor – Going multi-lingual to gather Asian bounty

Accor’s new web site offers booking options in seven Asian languages as well as English.

The launch of Accor’s accorhotels web sites follows a significant increase of 40% in on-line booking in 2006 (year to date) compared to the same period in 2005.

Accor’s Australian website ( has seen record growth in 2006 and the new look website, launched in early September 2006, aims to provide Accor guests with increased flexibility to book a selection of room styles, rates and ‘added extra’ options such as breakfast, massages and late check-out.

Visitors to the website will be greeted with a new search function amalgamating the Asian hotel website with the Australia, New Zealand and Pacific websites, enabling them to book an Accor hotel in any of 16 countries across the Asia Pacific region.

The website is available in seven local languages: simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Korean and Japanese.

about Hotel and Accommodation Management

HM, now in its 10th year, is the leading accommodation trade magazine in the region and is distributed to most accommodation properties in Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Noumea, Vanuatu and Tahiti. The magazine has a circulation of over 6000 and is received by all tiers of hotel management (from front office staff to general managers, regional directors and CEOs) throughout the three countries. HM also has alliances with the HMAA (Hotel Motel Accommodation Association) in Australia, the New Zealand Hotel Council (NZHC) and the FHA (Fiji Hotels Association).

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