It's wonderful to be back in Tasmania. The last time I was here, in early 2006, I was at the tail-end of backpacking the world, a very different sort of traveller on a very different sort of mission. At the time, I remember it being unusual to visit Tasmania. Most backpackers I'd meet were beelining it for Gold Coast and Cairns, but something about going in the other direction has always appealed to me. Hobart was sleepy, but it reminded me a lot of Victoria back in British Columbia, a city renowned for its population of the newly wed and the newly dead. Arriving in Hobart, I hooked onto an backpacker island tour with a company that no longer seems to exist, and ticked off some of Tasmania's greatest hits - Mount Wellington, Port Arthur, Wineglass Bay, Maria Island the Blow Hole, penguins, roadkill and hilarious locals in Bicheno. The odds on me becoming a full time travel writer, much less one that would return a dozen years later on assignment, were rather slim. And if you would have told me I'd return with my wife and two kids in tow, I'd ask what you've been adding to your scallop pie.
I ended up writing about Tasmania for a few publications around the world, and it's one of three Australian chapters in my Great Global Bucket List. Beyond the attractions and beauty of the island - which sell themselves rather nicely - I always felt indebted to Tasmania for rewarding yet another bold decision to go in the opposite direction. It also gifted me my first cover story, with me on the cover too! These days, tourism in Tasmania has exploded. On a whiskey tasting tour at Sullivans Cove, a small local distillery that won the World's Best Single Malt award in 2014, Joel from Sydney tells me such the tour didn't exist when he visited few years ago. The prospect of Hobart being home to MONA, surely one of the most incredible art museums in the world, would have seemed as bonkers as the museum is itself. Yet I've met so many Australians across the nation who have told me that Tasmania is their favourite place, and the emergence of world-class restaurants, hotels and attractions is there to prove their point.
This time round I'm on a mission to tick off the Australian Bucket List, and write about travelling with young kids. I've lined up some of the classics - biking down Mount Wellington, Wineglass Bay, Maria Island - and many new experiences too. I'm working with amazing companies like World Expeditions to hike, bike and kayak up the east coast for six days. Discovery Parks are hosting us in Cradle Mountain, Hobart and Devonport. We're getting around in a powerful sunset red Ford Everest, pulling a Move Yourself trailer, and thanks to Jetstar for getting us here too.
I guess it's not always true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Walking around Port Arthur, so much has happened in the past 12 years it felt like I was in a new place altogether, albeit one with the haze of familiarity. After the heat, dust and drama of Western Australia, the cool breeze of Tassie still weaves a wonderful spell, vindicating former and present life decisions, and keeping that big pancake-rock smile on my face.
Many years ago, before I set out on my first round-the-world adventure, I was faced with an intimidating challenge:
How do you pack for 12 months on the road, travelling across the diverse landscapes and climates of 24 countries?
I knew I’d have to pack light, remaining nimble for the opportunities while avoiding excessive weight, unwanted attention, and painful waiting at airport arrivals. I knew I’d have to be prepared for any situation. I knew my clothing would have to be lightweight, high performance, and work in any number of combinations.
I knew all this, and still I got it all wrong.
The last-minute jeans I threw into my backpack (at the insistence of my Mom) were used more than other garment in my possession. My colour combinations were horrific. Gray pants and gray shirts? My hiking boots were too heavy and I had to buy cheap sneakers on the road that quickly fell apart. I brought way too many medications and toiletries when I could have just picked up what I needed when I needed it. And I did not heed the sound advice from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that the only thing a traveller really needs is a good towel. And despite reading that one should pack everything and then halve it, I packed way too much, not accounting for the stuff I’d inevitable buy along the way (Indian hippie-threads! Thai pants! Souvenir T-Shirts!) to cram into my overstuffed backpack.
In the years since, I’ve became much more adept at packing, so much so that I can usually pack an hour before leaving for the airport. Two very solid pieces of advice have always stuck with me:
Some of the most impressive travellers I’ve met pack everything they need for a two week hot climate adventure in their day pack. Personally, I’m not one for hard-core packing sacrifices. I’d rather pack at least a week’s worth of clothing than scrub one of two pairs of underwear every night. Still, you can stuff a lot into your carry-on, or my spanking new, lightweight 69-litre wheeled duffel.
For my family’s upcoming 10-month adventure to four countries, I’m heeding all these words of advice. Victorinox (Swiss Army) have provided us with outstanding luggage options, from wheeled duffels to medium sized hard cases for the kids. Travelling with children, of course, is a different ball game. They can burn through clothing like a pyro with a matchbox, oblivious to the time and effort cost of laundering clothes covered in yoghurt, snot, mud, cream cheese, blood, drool, vomit, or any combination of the above. They’re also a lot less amenable to clothes choices. My daughter already insists on wearing her stained Elsa princess shirt for every and any occasion.
A dozen years of professional travel has certainly taken the panic out of the process. The same rules apply, as they always have, even if we’re packing diapers and wipes, stuffies and bedtime books. You lay it all out on the bed. Pack the best combinations for that one incredible day where anything can happen. And while anything you forget can be replaced or picked up on the road, the most important packing tip comes from within: Wherever you go, it’s essential to pack the right state of mind.
Just when I thought I’d seen something of the world, along comes a book about 45 remarkable places… and I’ve been to exactly one of them. Chris Fitch, a senior staff writer at the Royal Geographical Society’s Geographical magazine, has assembled an impressive collection of little known spots from all seven continents, divided into sections of Extreme Environments, Untouched Lands, Human Activity, Weird Worlds, Isolated Realms and Nature’s Wilderness. Illustrated with clear maps and black and white photography, it is an atlas of destinations so remote, rugged and bizarre that many chapters could be describing locations on alien planets.
A mysterious lake appears out of nowhere in the Tunisian desert. Off the coast of Croatia, a steep rocky island consisting almost entirely of volcanic magnetite sends navigational equipment haywire, and more than few sailors to their doom. In China, the world’s largest tidal bore draws thousands of people each year to watch a wall of water racing up the Qiantang estuary. On North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, an uncontacted tribe of hostile islanders continue to shower arrows (and occasionally death) on anyone who approaches their shores. The world’s largest cave system in Georgia, an accidental coal fire that burns beneath a town in Pennsylvania, the -93°C extremes of Dome Argus Antarctica, a hidden valley of impenetrable rainforest in Borneo – most of the short chapters had me reaching for Wikipedia and falling down an online rabbit hole. Google Mount Mabu Rainforest in Mozambique, Mexico’s Cave of Crystals, or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, and try not to annoy your friends by dropping the tremendous trivia of your discoveries.
This is the kind of book that inspires lunatics like me to actually run off and find these places. Sure, it could all be researched online (along with similar books like Atlas Obscura), but it does take a twisted genius to assemble these untamed places into something cohesive, and talent to write concise chapters that explain just enough to make you scratch your head, say “Whoa!” and desire to know more. As for the one place in the book I’ve actually visited? Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, a chapter in my own book, The Great Global Bucket List. Books like these, which belong on the coffee table of the more eclectic traveller, forever ensuring that your bucket list continues to grow.
Atlas of Untamed Places
By Chris Fitch
with maps by Martin Brown
Published by Aurum Press
US$29.99 / $38.99 CAN
Buy it on Amazon.
Having broken in my hostel chops around the world, I've identified factors that, combined with creativity, would result in the Perfect Hostel. It is a given, naturally, that any hostel today has no curfew, no lockout, a reception, security and lockers. These are still touted as if they are features when in effect, who wants to stay at some dodgy dump that won't let you in after 10pm. Those days are gone, and fortunately, most hostels now conform to international standards, and in many cases, international or regional associations. Below are my essentials, in no particular order, and they would be appreciated by just about anyone traipsing around the world with a backpack and a budget. Hosteliers and hoteliers, take note!
Staff & People
It's all about the people. A friendly patron can quickly make you forget about the other 33 points listed below, with advice, patience and all round enthusiasm for hospitality. Of course, you could have the Perfect Hostel with an asshole at reception. Assholes are usually broke foreigners who act as if they are doing you a favour when they buzz you in. Staff are the condiments, but the meat of the matter are the people you share your dorm with if they're loud, discourteous, obnoxious, snorers, smokers and stealers, even the Perfect Hostel will suck.
Given the cost of the Internet, and the fact that many hostels offer it as a free service, it irks me when hostels charge for a basic traveling service, nay necessity! More so, they tend to charge double what the Internet cafe charges on the corner. It's taking advantage and it's unnecessary. You will get more traffic, more recommendations and more happy clients if you have two machines available, with a 15-minute max usage if someone is waiting. A USB port so that people can download their photos wouldn't hurt either.
Hooks in the bathroom
Amazing how many places think that your towel, clothes and toilet bag belong on a wet floor full of someone else's pubic hair. Put up some hooks! And while you at it, plugs in the sink for shaving, and a mirror won't hurt either.
Everyone who travels has to put their alarm clock somewhere, as well as some keys, or a book, some water, or even a wallet. One hostel had a neat little lockable wooden cabinet by each bed for your essentials. Otherwise, it's dump everything on the floor and let people trip all over it, and if the guy on the top bunk needs water during the night, as he probably will, be prepared to be woken up with him falling all over you.
Lockers (under bed)
Lockers are so essential that if you have no place where people can secure their daybags (with cameras, iPods, moneybelts etc), stop calling yourself a hostel immediately. Lockers come in all shapes and sizes, but they should be roomy enough for a daypack, and close to the bunks. The best I've seen were on wheels under the bunks, and could fit entire backpacks so that the room was free of clutter and even your clothes were safely locked away.
Most, if not all travelers are using the Internet to find and research hostels. Hostels.com, hostelworld.com and others have valuable rating systems and booking facilities, and keep hostels on their toes. I usually find something interesting and then Google their website to find out more. A good site almost always means a good hostel. If it's ugly, slow and scary, it says something about the hostel. There have been exceptions, but even if your site is simple, make sure the information is current and includes everything a prospective patron needs to know, ie: location, cost, directions, facilities, services.
This one is surprisingly simple and rarely down well. You've just come off a long flight/night bus/delayed train. You're in a strange, new country, with a strange new currency and language. The directions to the hostel on the website say "Go to the east side of the station, catch the 41 bus south, walk up Flecheschmefer Road and you'll find us". Make the directions as easy and simple to follow as possible. Use signs and landmarks. What is the colour of the building? Which direction do I take bus 41? And who the hell is traveling with a compass to know where south or east is? Sometimes it is fun to find places, but not when you're tired, confused, and walking around town with all your valuables.
The key to a good night's sleep. When they wear down, get new ones. They are not too expensive, and in the price of board is it not too much to expect a pillow that's thicker than a folded towel?
Clean linen, including sheets for the blankets or duvet. If we have sleeping bags, which a lot of us don't, it's great to use them as little as possible. Also, linen helps with bed bugs!
Every once in a while, mattresses should be checked for bed bugs, dips and humps, smell and wear and tear. You know, just in case someone wanted to actually sleep. I've seen bed bud scars, and backs with bunkboard splinters through the mattress. Use foam if you're cheap.
"How was Vienna?"
"Oh, the shower was amazing!"
That's how much an impact showers have on dirty budget travelers. A good shower means getting clean and feeling good. If I want to stand under a broken cold water tap, I will stand under a cold water tap. Just don't call it a shower.
In the bathroom, in the dorms. We go out, we want to see what we look like.
Cheap IKEA lamps so that the person in bunk 12 can read if the person in bunk 7 is sleeping. One hostel had lamps built into the headboards. If you get back late and everyone's sleeping, you also need to see where your stuff is, how to open your locker, find that bottle of water. Lamps at least allow everyone in a dorm to operate independently; this "I must sleep we all must sleep" nonsense is unnecessary.
We're traveling with digital cameras, iPods, cellphones, laptops, video cameras. And there is, maybe, one plug in the room. Each room should have a charging station, or better yet, each bed should have its own plug to charge while you sleep (the other plug can be used for a reading lamp or pluglight). It is not an option having a charged battery or being afraid to leave it downstairs next to the toaster where you just know someone is going to steal.
This is a given. Just because we're budget travelers doesn't mean we want to sleep, eat and clean ourselves in your shitty house, where the garbage is overflowing, ashtrays are in the sinks and the toilets have last year's skid marks.
Pool, Foozball, Games
A hostel is largely a social hub. The main difference between hostel and hotel is the "s", which stands for "social." Social games make people meet and talk and that's where the fun is. In a hotel, the only people you meet are other losers like yourselves in the bar. Here, you can play ping pong with a professor or find yourself playing Uno with two gay couples and a pair of monks. And if you do have a pool or ping pong table, try keep it in shape. We don't mind putting a deposit down to ensure that nobody wrecks the equipment.
Non-essential, but fun in a hostel. Again, it's a social place to meet interesting people and make new friends from around the world. Do it over liquor. It doesn't have to be cheap, but it should be cheaper than bars in the town. You can make a lot of money at the same time too.
2-Ply Toilet Paper
Such a small difference, but oh so preferable to wiping with recycled half-ply tissue paper. We don't have our own bathrooms, but at least give us the luxury of pretending we do. Also, have back-up rolls always available in the loos, and keep a tab on how low they get. A toilet without paper is a sad toilet.
Nobody likes going anywhere with a wet towel in their backpack. And the hostel, hopefully, are doing linen laundry anyway. Even a tea towel is better than using my beach towel
Crucial to anyone who travels is having something to read. A few long flights, bus or train journeys can see you knock back a book every couple of days. Book exchanges are not uncommon, they just don't have much thought. Typically it is two books for one, or one for one plus a couple dollars. Some guys in Bolivia had the right idea. As readers, they could make judgment calls on the quality of books. The first shelf were airline reads. The second better. The third best. One for one to me is fair, providing the books are of equal quality, according to the hostel. People reading good books can swap for good books, or maybe two craps for one goodie. Be creative, build a library, save our boredom!
Nightclub shuttle / promotions
Why this doesn't happen more is beyond me. You have a hostel with dozens of interesting, dare I say attractive travelers looking to rip it. Any bar or club in the city would give you special deals, VIP access, maybe 2-1 drinks, for bringing in a bunch of foreigners. It adds spice to the club, plus we travel with dollars and euros! Who wants to go out in a city to line-up for four hours and be treated like shit. Cut some deals with your favourite clubs and bars, and make a win-win for everyone. Shuttles also encourage just about everyone to go out. Make it easy and people will party!
A hostel with everything mentioned here is great, but not if it's located amongst the crack houses of downtown's worst area, or a bus, tram and taxi away. The best hostels are within (safe) walking distance of the city's attractions , be it central squares, shopping, strips, bars and restaurants, the beach. Packers are prepared to walk, but it's got to be reasonable. As in all real estate: Location, location, location!
Many hostels offer a kitchen, which is great because you can cook up with a few people and save considerable bucks. Some of them, however, don't offer anything to cook with, or have one rusty small pot, a banged up pan and a spoon to scrape away any non-stick that might be left. The best have everything you need (especially pasta strainers, pots, pans, washing up liquid and sponges, sharp knives, cutting boards) and the very best have basic ingredients that don't cost much in bulk, but no traveler wants to buy a big tube of salt and pepper for one meal.
I always feel ripped off having to pay additional fees to leave my backpack at a hostel, especially those in major cities where day or two-day trips are common. Usually we come back to stay another night, and in any case, it costs nothing to throw a few backpacks in a locked room.
The best way to spend a slow afternoon with a good book. At the very least, some deck chairs or garden furniture or someplace when we can lounge in the sun and chill out.
Private Rooms & Dorms
Nice to have both options available at a budget price, but not essential. Sometimes, privacy becomes an issue, especially with intense short-term intimate friendships (aka one night stands) being quite common in this environment and lifestyle. I came up with an idea that each hostel should have a "Love Room", a closet that can be rented out by the hour for late night trysts. Take out the junk, put in a foam mattress with a red light bulb and start counting the extra dollars!
Laundry is offered free in many Eastern European hostels, while in others it costs a fortune. If sheets and towels are washed in-house, backpackers would salivate at the opportunity to wash their smelly clothes. Obviously, free and folded laundry is a service in my Perfect Hostel.
Perhaps the greatest scam in the entire hospitality industry is the so-called free breakfast. Usually this means a bun, some butter, and some jam, which somehow justifies hotels and hostels tacking on a few dollars for this service. Unless the breakfast has eggs or fruit, I decline this breakfast and see if I can get a few bucks knocked off the price, which I can then use to buy a real breakfast should I actually be awake to need one (which is hardly ever). Packers go out late and sleep late, so the free breakfast that ends at 9am gets very few takers and is part of the scam. Good breakfasts should end at least at 11am, which shows a good understanding of the needs of backpacking clientele.
Library of Guidebooks
A nice little extra to have up-to-date guidebooks available for Packers to read and refer to in the common room. They could be signed out to avoid theft.
Fans and Heat
A dark room with 12 people and bad ventilation does not make a peaceful nights sleep. Ceiling or standing fans are essential in summer, as are heaters in winter. This is especially needed in places with harsh climates.
Tips and Noticeboard
Get your staff to compile their favorite hangouts, bars, pastimes etc on a slow day. Create your own guide, because chances are it will be far better than the Lonely Planet. Your hostel will probably determine whether someone enjoys your city or not, so give us some help. Tips can include: places to eat, bad restaurants and scams to look out for, good nights at various clubs, current movies and exhibitions, transport and easy directions, must-sees, weather, even current events (a printout of the daily headlines will interest just about everyone). Give us a space to give our own advice to others, such as good places to stay in other countries or regions, things for sale, lifts etc etc.
Construction Sites & Traffic Noise
OK, I know this is often beyond anyone's control, but I went 2 weeks staying five hostels and everyone of them was in earth-shattering distance to a jack hammer.
Which always, as a rule, crank up at 6am. Perhaps this is an unwritten rule for all hostels. Lots of hostels also find themselves on busy streets where traffic is outrageous. If so, have cheap foam ear-plugs for sale. The same if you're above an industrial techno club. The best hostel is on a quiet street where the only noise I hear are the birds, chirping like angels in the trees.
Drop the Youth
Hostels are no longer only for youth. They are for budget travelers, of whatever age, and those that enjoy a social aspect to their travels. The sooner we dispel the "youth" aspect, the sooner hostels will get busier with a whole range of fascinating people looking to meet each other, and drink lots of beer.
Music and DVD's
A hi-fi playing some tunes, even better if travelers can jack in their iPods and play DJ. Without music, where is the vibe? I know some guys think a TV kills a social atmosphere, but a DVD Player and TV is also a great way to relax, spend a night in and save money. Ideally in a seperate room so those who want to party can do so, and those who want to watch a few movies can do so too. Have a couple of classic DVD's (they can be signed out), which doesn't cost much in any blackmarket.
A recent article brought to light hilarious predictions of travel in the future that didn't come true. I've made my own. Flying to fashion, entertainment to passports, here's my crystal ball of what the future of travel could look like.
I’m on a 15-hour direct flight from Sydney to Vancouver, an impossible flight twenty five years ago. Lighter aircraft using better technology means we can fly further and cheaper than ever before. Through the curtain a few rows up, I see business class passengers (the lucky bastards) fully reclined in their cubicles. Comfort and on-board entertainment is leaping forward. Perhaps one day we’ll see flying cruise ships, where it will be possible to reach anywhere in unimagined comfort. Perhaps we’ll have floating hotels, or stopovers in the sky. New environmentally friendly fuels generate power at a fraction of the cost, as the world becomes increasingly smaller, even for us here in Economy Class.
I remember backpacking through Europe many years ago, completely bewildered by the array and diversity of currencies. Not one to dwell on the socio-political impact of the euro (or the sinister whisperings around the so-called amero) but there’s no doubt it has made travelling easier. A worldwide currency? These days I use my credit card as much as I can, or withdraw local currency from global banking networks. Imagine a world where one card carries everything you could possibly need. Some people might argue we’re already there, but then some people should visit the developing world before making such assumptions.
The cameras get smaller, the memory gets bigger, the pictures get clearer. Here’s a device that fits via a radio frequency onto the cornea of your eye. All you have to do is blink, and a perfect HD video or high-resolution photo is recorded, and immediately sorted according to a voice command. Virtual visual experiences, like the ones featured in the classic underrated sci-fi movie Strange Days, could take you on lifelike adventures to foreign shores without leaving your living room. Until someone invents such a device, you’re stuck with travel writers like me.
James Bond zips around the world, looking fantastic, carrying nothing so much as a cell phone charger, yet with a different pair of sunglasses in every destination. Maybe Q invented a pair of sunglasses that double as video monitors, connected to a 10 terabyte harddrive the size of a pinhead. It’s loaded with movies, TV, guidebooks, a global cellphone, e-books, GPS maps, music, photos, translators, wireless in-ear receivers and recipes for gin martinis. James Bond doesn’t have time to go the movies, pick up a book, or carry an cellphone. One pair of shades, and we’ve got everything we need. Including an electronic locater, when we inevitably lose them at the backseat of a taxi.
In our increasingly digital age, it’s almost quaint to think we travel with a little book that is absolutely essential for our safe passage. Be it immigration officials or dodgy police officers who want to see our papers, our ID’s can instead be written in our very bodies, from our fingerprints to our retinas. Biometric scanners should be able to tag us wherever we are, although the potential for a ruthless big brother scenario is just as probable as the potential for less hassle.
Our safety is of such concern that we’ve been reduced to confiscating toothpaste on airplanes, or blowing up suspicious items like someone’s forgotten shopping bag. Unhackable E-passports should help lock down the bad guys, but if there’s a will there’s a way. That’s why X-ray vision capable of identifying weapons and contagious illnesses will hone in on everyone getting on a bus, plane or subway (privacy advocates will ensure it is not subject to abuse.). Meanwhile, political or environment turbulence will be analyzed information and quickly distributed by a panel of professionals, trained to avoid disseminating panic and fear. Hey, I can dream…
Besides the sunglasses equipped with every gadget you can think of (the failure of Google Glasses notwithstanding), I look forward to clothes with integrated nanobots that automatically refresh, clean and kill all foreign bacteria. Furthermore, one item of clothing will be able to change colour, shape and style depending on what you need it for. Surely this is what our favourite superspies Bourne and Bond use. Nanotechnology will also give us a hat that stretches into a hammock or cot, a belt that transforms into a sleeping bag, and while we’re at it, a jacket that turns into an indestructible mobile panic room, should you find yourself needing a sudden emergency exit.
The Final Frontier
Space tourism has already started, and much like tourism in its very early days, the final frontier is reserved for those of incredible wealth and means. At some point in the future, major hotel chains will open on the moon, and Vegas-style space stations will follow. After all, what goes on in Space, stays in Space. The discovery that quantum physics and string theory can bend the space-time continuum will open up new planets for brave explorers, and a few months later, name-tagged package tours. “Off the beaten track” will make way for the “off the chartered galaxy”, and expect a series of guidebooks, Lonely Universe, to shepherd budget-minded earthlings to the seven corners of the galaxy.
Not all bags are equal.
Suitcases are entirely functional, a means to an end. You want them to arrive in one piece, protect your contents, wheel with a degree of ease, and when the handle snaps or the wheels jam or the airline sends it on a one-way ticket to Togo, well shucks, you’ll just have to get a new, snazzier one. A suitcase is an acquaintance.
Backpacks are a different beast, especially when you use them for long journeys or epic hikes. You get to know your backpack. Appreciate its complexities, the inner pouches and deceptively large side pockets. You practice and perfect the technique for lifting them up and balancing them on your shoulders. They are adorned with stains and badges and sticky goop picked up on the floor of rural Indian train stations. You pray for your backpack’s arrival on the baggage carousel, and would be devastated if it never showed up. A backpack is a friend.
A Daypack follows you around everywhere and holds everything that is important in your travelling world – laptop, camera, books, journal, tablet, headphones, notebooks, adaptors, back-up credit card, medication, lucky charms. It never leaves your side, a trusted companion who always has your back. When you eat, you sling it around your legs so nobody can race off with it. It’s been your suitcase, your bullet proof vest, your tortoise shell. Your Daypack hangs around even when you stop travelling.
I first went travelling with an old Karrimor backpack that somehow survived about 30 countries. It lived through trains in Zambia and rat raids in Laos. It was hurled onto chicken buses in Guatemala and hurled on in Albania. I only retired the poor bastard because the zipper kept breaking and even repair shops couldn’t keep it going. I shed a tear when I let the old boy go. I’ve never used a suitcase, although I do use a small one for overnight trips that Tourism Victoria gifted me at a media event. Their logo is covered in obnoxious stickers, like Lionel Ritchie saying Hello, a Deadpool face, and a picture of our planet with the word Fragile all over it. Hope they don't mind.
My Daypack has been through various incarnations, because I’m always looking for a better mousetrap, the Bag of all Bags, the Holy of Holies. It must hold everything, in its easily accessible place. A fine Daypack must be comfortable, durable, and ready to double as both pillow and shield. When laptop pouches were first introduced, I had to have one for the sheer sake of efficiency. I’ve used an Eddie Bauer dayback for years, which has always grated me, because my name isn’t Eddie Bauer, so I don’t see why I should have his name on my Daypack.
My latest contender is called The Every Day Backpack 30 from a company called Peak Design. It was created by engineers and designers to “meet the needs of creative, adventurous people.” They got their start on Kickstarter, and now have 14 employees producing over 20 products that win all sorts of awards. Like myself, these are people who take bags very, very seriously. So they sent me the Every Day and I’ve been using it, well, every day. Things to know about this bag:
After working with Crumpler for a while, I decided their bags were simply too heavy to be of any practical use. When it comes to bags, designers should take a page out of Scandinavian design: Function over Form. It feels good to have this very practical DayPack, but it will take a few countries to break it in.
Unless I’m hiking or taking chicken buses, a wheeled duffel is now my choice of backpack. So many things died in 2016, including my wheeled duffel that had seen off a dozen countries, and the manufacturer that made it go bankrupt. Note: any product with a lifetime guarantee only works if the company remains alive. My bag resembled the actor Rip Torn. Everything came apart, except the wheels, which rolled strong and free. So I went to MEC and bought a new Wheeled Duffel, which is squat and ugly but who cares so long as it keeps showing up at the end of the long-haul.
Bags. We need them. They need us. As for what we pack in them, it's easy: The most important thing to pack, whenever you travel, is the right state of mind.
Have you ever been travelling somewhere and suddenly thought: “This looks familiar!” That’s because it is, as Hollywood location scouts scan the world for places that look just as dramatic on film as they do for tourists on the ground. Here’s seven of the best:
I love those offbeat romantic English comedies, a guilty pleasure on long-haul flights. I also see if I can pick out the locations used, like the big wedding scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral, filmed at the St Bartholomew the Great Church in London. Snowdonia, a national park in northern Wales, has served as Camelot in First Knight (starring Richard Gere) and is also seen in James Bond’s From Russia With Love. The historic manor of Chatsworth can be seen in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as The Duchess (starring Kiera Knightley) and the 2010 production of The Wolfman, with Anthony Hopkins. The Highlander, a classic fantasy film, had locations including Eilean Donan Castle and Glencoe, a beautiful part of the Scottish highlands. Back to Hugh Grant, Notting Hill is a popular area of London, and hosts the boisterous annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Whenever the scene calls for a thick jungle, you can bet there’s a producer on the plane to Hawaii’s oldest island, Kauai. Remember that scene in Jurassic Park as the helicopter approaches a dramatic coastline, and lands right by a waterfall? Helicopter tours over the Na Poli coastline are hugely popular, and Island Helicopters even land right by the waterfall, now known as Jurassic Falls, just like the movie. You can swing on the same rope as Indiana Jones (in Raiders of the Lost Ark) right into Huleia River., or swim in the Fountain of the Youth as featured in Pirates of the Caribbean. Tropic Thunder, Hook, Outbreak, Lord of the Flies - if you think Wailua Falls look right out of Fantasty Island, that’s because they are.
Although it was inspired by the Philippines, The Beach, a hit book and movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was set and filmed in Thailand. Tourists flock to Phi Phi Leh to see this celluloid paradise for themselves, including the iconic beach of Hat Maya. There are daily ferries from popular resort towns of Phuket and Krabi. While in Phuket, you might recognize scenes from Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and you can also take a boat out to James Bond Island, also known as Phang Nga Bay, as featured in the Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, the Hangover II used Bangkok as an able substitute for Las Vegas.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy put the Kiwi film industry on the map. The South Island, around the tourist mecca of Queenstown, was a perfect choice for Middle Earth. There are daily tours from Queenstown to over 20 locations featured in the movie, such as the Lothlorien Woods (Paradise Glenorchy), Rivendell (Lake Manapouri) and the Ford of Bruinen (Arrow River) where Arwen summoned a flood to dispel of the RIngwraiths. Fantasy fans might also recognize locations in the Milford Sound, and Kingston Beach on Lake Wakatipu, as featured in the movie Wolverine. There is also the Cook Strait, which was used for the ocean scenes in the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. As for the film’s Skull Island, it was none other than Lyall Bay near the capital of Wellington.
Paris inspires lovers, and filmmakers too. The list of films set or filmed in Paris is a long one. Amongst my favourites are The Bourne Identity, mostly filmed in Paris and Prague. You will recognize the Gare Du Nord, one of the busiest train stations in Europe, the Hotel Regina opposite the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, La Grande Arche de la Défense in the business district, and the Pont des Arts, where Bourne disappears into the credits. Before Sunrise, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is a love letter to the city, as our two lovers discover the city and each other. They walk through the Sorbonne, along the Seine, on the Promenade Plantée, above the old Viaduc des Arts. As they tuck behind the Notre Dame at Quai de la Tournelle, it’s no wonder they didn’t bump into Jason Bourne, who was featured in the same spot in the Bourne Identity. Paris, je t'aime is a beautiful romantic comedy that will inspire travellers, but avoid From Paris with Love, a John Travolta disaster doing no favours for the tourism industry!
This North African country has not hosted many Hollywood movies, but the few that it has have been illustrious. Tunis doubled as Cairo in the Oscar-winning English Patient, along with Sfax on the coast. More famously, Tunisia doubled for Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie. There actually is a place in Tunisia called Tatooine, but the scenes were actually filmed in Matmata, where people have been living in sandstone caves for centuries. A huge salt flat called Chott el Jerid allowed Skywalker to gaze longingly at two suns, while visitors flock to nearby Sidi Bouhel, now known as Star Wars Canyon, where R2D2 was captured. The series returned to Tunisia for its Tatooine scenes in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed in the Ribat monastery at Monastir. Indiana Jones pops up again, with the “Egyptian” desert scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark actually filmed around the Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kairouan.
Vancouver has the third largest film and television industry in North America, and the city often doubles for other locations. Simon Fraser University has been seen in Underworld 4 Spy Game, the X Files and Battlestar Gallactica. The Lions Gate Bridge makes a cameo in Tron: Legacy. The Fantastic Four flew into North Vancouver’s Pier 97, while X-Men: The Last Stand invaded Lynn Canyon Park and its popular local hiking trails. Chinatown doubled for San Francisco in Romeo Must Die, and the apocalyptic future in iRobot. Even the airport gets some screen time. YVR has been featured in Final Destination, Fantastic Four, The Killing, and Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. More recently, the smash hit Deadpool did something unusual for Hollywood. They filmed in Vancouver, and didn't pretend it was something else.
Fantasy, science fiction and spy movies gravitate to the Czech Republic, so don’t be surprised if some of the scenery looks familiar. Alien vs Predator, The Brothers Grimm, Hellboy, Von Helsing, Mission Impossible, XXX and From Hell were all filmed in locations around Prague.. Casino Royale was filmed at Barrandov Studios as well as in Karlovy Vary. The Bourne Identity pops up again, as Prague doubles for Zurich. Still on Matt Damon, the creepy Bone Church of Kutna Hora made an appearance in the Brothers Grimm, as did Kačina Castle and Kost Castle. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the winter park scene was filmed amongst the odd sandstone formations at Adrspach National Park on the Czech Republic-Poland border.
CBC News called to ask me what I think about a proposed Bill of Rights for airline passengers in Canada. Somewhat surprisingly, Canada trails the USA and many European countries who guarantee that passengers are compensated for delays, lost baggage and extended time on the tarmac. Passengers in Canada currently have to rely on the kindness of airline staff sorting out messes they're not responsible for, and insurance policies with print so fine you'd need a magnifying glass to claim any benefit. Throw in irate passengers foaming at the mouth and you can see how it can quickly escalate.
Personally, in countless flights around the world, my luggage has only ever been delayed three times. Not lost mind you, just delayed. We arrived in Colombia to film the first episode of Word Travels, but our bags didn’t meet us at the conveyer belt. Fortunately we had all our camera gear with us, so we just hit the ground running and bought a couple ponchos as a wardrobe change. It’s worth remembering that, according to the company behind the World Tracer System, just 7 bags per 1000 passengers get mishandled (although that does translate into over 24 million mishandled items a year). Still, there’s a 99% chance that your bag will make it through the labyrinth of airline travel and meet you on the other side, and if it doesn’t, it meets up you with shortly. Flights gets delayed. Screws need to be tightened. Weather causes havoc. It’s been my experience that patience, understanding, and a smile go a long way towards airline staff helping you out. If someone screamed at me, I’d go out of my way to ensure I help the understanding passenger behind them first. Remember, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes!
As I explain in the interview, a Passenger Bill of Rights will help Canadian passengers feel a sense of control. The entire flying process can be nervewracking because of the control we relinquish. We place trust our trust in a lot of people (and a lot of mechanics) to work efficiently and effectively so we can get to that meeting/beach/wedding on time. There’s simply not much we can do when things go wrong. Knowing there’s some form of compensation, be it a hotel room, meal or financial compensation, at least gives the semblance that we’re in control of something. And airlines should be held to task if they slack off on performance or make promises they can’t keep.
I was staring into a black monitor and didn’t know I was live for the first few seconds. With a 3-week old baby keeping me up all night, I look like I just got off a red-eye flight from Timbutku. Before my segment were typical news reports about upheaval and chaos. I was asked to share a story of an airline mishap, and so brought up the time photographer Jeff Topham and I joked how funny it would be if the airline lost our bags on the way to Antarctica. And sure enough, Jeff’s bags never made it from Toronto to Buenos Aires. He showed up for a 10-day expedition cruise in the icy wastelands of the 7th continent with jeans and a T-shirt. But with a quick (albeit expensive) shop in Ushuaia and loaner gear from the crew, it all turned out great. His bags were waiting for us at the hotel on our return. As soon as the interview was over, I realized that I probably said the last thing people expect to hear on the news: That despite occasional frustrations and mishaps, it always works out in the end.
I don't think of myself exclusively as a writer. Sure, it's the easiest answer for the Occupation box on an arrival form, but that's only part of the picture. I'm a photographer - my photos having racked up credits in newspapers and magazines around the world. I'm a broadcaster - my TV series seen by millions in 21 languages and 100 countries. I'm a blogger - using social media to spread messages and thoughts and stories and memes. I'm a travel expert - interviewed on TV and radio and print and web. I'm also a speaker - giving keynotes and presentations for everyone from students to doctors to government to realtors to enthusiastic travellers. So, I might tell authorities I'm a writer, but the more accurate picture would be: I'm a communicator. And it's time to communicate!
Ford Canada is presenting my 2016 Bucket List Spring Tour, with free talks about The Great Canadian Bucket List in Vancouver, Kamloops, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. It's an opportunity for me to communicate the wonders of this country, and in particular the prairies, in support of my latest Northern Canada and Prairie Canada books. It's an opportunity for me to chat about the growing appeal of domestic tourism on CBC Radio and CTV Morning News and Global News and various radio stations. It's an opportunity to bond with my Dad, who is joining me for another epic road trip in a sparkling Platinum Ford Explorer. It's an opportunity to meet top lifestyle bloggers and share a bucket list experience with them, including the Narcisse Snake Dens and Heli-Yoga and Edmonton's lively Ukrainian heritage. And best of all, it's an opportunity to connect with current and future readers of my books, building a relationship so that the personality behind my words is alive and passionate and trusted.
Here's the dates and times. I look forward to meeting to you!
Kamloops: Thursday Apr 28, The Noble Pig, 7pm
Jasper: Saturday April 30, Alberta Library Association (private event)
Edmonton: Sunday May 1, Audreys, 3:30pm
Calgary: Monday May 2, Campers Village, 7pm
Saskatoon: Tuesday May 3, McNally-Robinson, 7pm
Regina: Wednesday May 4, Chapters-Indigo, 7pm
Winnipeg: Friday May 6, McNally-Robinson, 7pm
Special thanks to Ford Canada, Travel Manitoba, Tourism Saskatchewan, Tourism New Brunswick, Keen Footwear, Great Canadian Trails, and Dundurn Press
A few years ago I had the honour of being the Master of Ceremonies at the Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner in New York. The Club, which is over a century old, has counted amongst its members adventurers like Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, Jane Goodall, and Theodore Roosevelt. After hobnobbing with astronauts and pre-eminent world explorers, I felt compelled to learn about the ten greatest of all:
A great explorer named Roald Amundsen once said: “adventure is just bad planning.” In the days of Marco Polo, a 13th century teenager journeying into the unknown with his father and uncle, an adventure was all but guaranteed. Polo returned to his native Venice 24 years after he set out, having travelled further into Asia than any European before him. Polo’s stories inspired people with tales of exotic lands, strange civilizations, and curiosities like paper money, eyeglasses and spaghetti. Although it is odd that he never wrote about The Great Wall of China, or tea, his writings inspired the imaginations of countless explorers to come, including Christopher Columbus.
Portugal gave the world many of its great explorers, such as Magellan, the first navigator to cross the Pacific, and lead an expedition that ultimately circumnavigated the globe. The Age of Discovery was not for the faint-hearted. Some 232 sailors died on Magellan’s expedition, including Magellan himself, who was hacked to pieces by a tribe in the Philippines. Although Portuguese, Magellan was funded by rival Spain in his quest to open new spice routes. The expedition discovered the need for an international date line, and reported of unknown creatures like the penguin and llama. While the great voyage did not reap the material benefits Spain had wished, it did establish the true scale of the planet.
During three great voyages in the late 18th century, Cook became the great discoverer of the Pacific Islands and beyond. On his first voyage, his crew mapped New Zealand and became the first Europeans to see Australia’s east coast. Surviving the rigors of sea and the malaria that claimed many of his crew, Cook returned home before embarking on his second voyage, crossing the Antarctic Circle, returning to New Zealand before discovering the islands of Vanuatu, New Caledonia, along with Easter and Norfolk Island. Here is a man who clearly was immune to seasickness. His final journey brought him to North America, where he sailed along the Alaska and the coast of what is now British Columbia. Cook was the first European to discover Hawaii, and it here where he met his fate at the hands of hostile natives. Considering the length of his adventure and the scale of his journey, it is remarkable that Cook survived as long as he did. The Cook Islands, which he discovered in 1773 as the Hervey Islands, was renamed in his honour in the 1800’s.
Richard Francis Burton
Before Richard Burton the actor, there was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great British explorer. Here is a man who could communicate in 29 European, Asian and African languages, who brought the Karma Sutra to the scandalized Victorian era, and who got circumcised during his successful plan to experience the Hajj to Mecca. During his African adventures, Somali warlords impaled his face with a spear, leaving an intimidating scar. He searched the source of the Nile, discovered Lake Victoria, and survived the politics and spats of the conservative Royal Geographical Society. Devoted to eastern religions and breaking sexual taboos, many of his journals were ironically burned by his wife after his death, perhaps scandalized by what she had read.
The domain of great explorers is not limited to men. Think of Amelia Earhart, or Junko Tabei who became the first woman to climb Everest and all seven summits. Gertrude Bell, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley, and young Laura Dekker, who sailed the world solo at the tender age of 15. In 1890, 26 year-old American journalist Nelly Bly set the world record for the fastest trip around the world. Inspired by Jules Verne, she completed the journey from England, through Europe, Asia and onwards to North America in 72 days, travelling primarily by rail and steamboat. Spare a thought for Canada’s own Aloha Wonderwell, once marvelled in the media as “the world’s most travelled girl.” Her remarkable life, which includes being the first women to drive across India as well as Cape Town to the Nile, reads like a big budget Hollywood movie just waiting to happen.
Vasco da Gama
We return to the Great Age of Discovery where Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed from Europe to Africa, before pointing his ships east into unchartered territories. The surviving crew had already sailed 6000 miles of open ocean, more than anyone before them. Now they made their way up the East Coast of Africa, encountering hostile sultans before crossing the Indian Ocean to land in India just 23 days later. After a less than favourable welcome, unfavourable winds resulted in it taking 132 days for the return crossing, by which time half the crew were dead. Although da Gama eventually returned to a hero’s welcome in Portugal, his subsequent actions were far from heroic. Returning to India several years later, he became known for his brutality, massacring innocents along the way, mutilating prisoners, and failing to secure peaceful trade with the Indian sub-continent.
Why is it that kids play the tag game “Marco Polo” and not Ibn Battuta? Here was a near contemporary who travelled more than 73,000 miles in an age of sailboats and mules, who explored most of the known Islamic world including North and West Africa, South and Eastern Europe, South, Central and Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East and China. It took him 30 years to visit today’s equivalent of 44 countries, aided by large caravans of unfortunate slaves for trading along the way. Ibn Battuta’s adventures were recounted from memory in a great tome called the Rihla, but scholars have since questioned some of his claims. The book lay in obscurity before it was rediscovered and translated in the 19th century, firmly establishing Ibn Battuta as one of history’s greatest travellers.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes
You’ll notice that everyone on this list is no doubt enjoying the great discovery of the afterlife. All except Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who owns the moniker of being “the world’s greatest living explorer.” Amongst his most notable accomplishments, Fiennes was first to reach both poles, cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean, hovercraft the Nile, cross the Antarctic unsupported, discover a lost city in Yemen, circumnavigate the world on its polar axis, and run 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents – less than 4 months after a massive heart attack. Clearly, the old boys would be proud that today’s stock are as hard core as ever, and what’s more, Fiennes has raised millions of dollars to fight cancer. No slaves, no mutilations, just physical prowess and a true spirit of adventure.
For all the great explorers who have explored our world on the ground and above the seas, one man stands out for his remarkable work underwater. 70% of the planet is covered in water, and Jacque Cousteau’s work to enable underwater exploration, conservation, and photography (so us landforms can see what before we could not) makes him an icon in the world of discovery. Cousteau’s efforts resulted in modern breathing apparatus like the Aqua-Lung, while he was the first man to brave the ocean, and freshwater deeps. Another great underwater explorer deserves mention here as well. Dr Sylvia Earle has proved underwater is far from a man’s world: The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence has led over 70 expeditions, broke numerous depth records, and logged lover 6500 hours underwater.
We know about many of these explorers because of the writings that have accompanied them through the ages. Travel writers have not only experienced wild adventures, they’ve communicated them in a way that brings us all along for the ride. Among the greats: Ryszard Kapuscinski, V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Newby, Pico Iyer, and a few of my personal favourites, Bill Bryson, Robert D Kaplan and Jon Krakauer. These and thousands of others have journeyed to last outposts, deep jungle and wild frontiers to bring us words and images of a brave new world.
With a nod to Shackleton, Columbus, Scott, Lewis & Clarke, Fawcett, Hillary, Astronauts, Cosmonauts, and all those brave men and women who continue to push the boundaries of experience. Hey look, apparently I'm among some of them too!