At this time of year, there are enough snowflakes falling in Canada to inspire a visit to any tropical island. Unless you fly via hubs like Dubai, Paris or London, Mauritius might yet remain one of those elusive calendar dreams, brightening up an office wall. Perhaps, if we dream big enough, we might one day yet find ourselves under the shade of a coconut tree.
When I was a teenager, my parents gave me an “islands of the world” calendar featuring 12 months of impossibly turquoise water. You know, the ones with coconut trees bending over a white sandy beaches. I’d cut out the photos, taping them to the walls on my bedroom, dreamily staring at them long after the months ran out, and a new calendar arrived. The islands had wonderfully exotic sounding names: The Maldives, Tahiti, Seychelles, and my favourite, Mauritius. Something about the way it rolled off the tongue.
It was no short flight to get to Mauritius. Located 900km east of Madagascar, it is a tear drop tropical island home to 1.2 million people, mostly descendants of Indians brought over by the British to work on sugarcane plantations. Since independence in 1968, the official language of Mauritius is English, everyone speaks Creole, and reads and writes in French, a throwback to its French colonial days. Not that I paid too much attention, soaking in my first warm summer night, and an all-night Creole celebration outside the capital of Port Louis. At last, I was invading those dog-eared photos on my old bedroom wall.
As one the most popular honeymoon and holiday destinations for French, German and British tourists, the island has around 100 resorts, primarily congregated in the north and west. I headed south, a region that is slowly shifting away from sugarcane into exclusive golf courses and luxury villas. Like other tropical islands, Mauritius is refocusing its resources on tourism to offset declining sugar prices. The Heritage Le Telfair Resort is part of four properties developed under the same locally-owned hotel group, oozing old world service. Every night, I dug my toes in the sand watching a picture perfect sunset, as one is prone to do on island escapes. A short golf cart ride away is the Villas Valriche, where foreigners can purchase luxury 4 bedroom villas overlooking a stunning 27-hole golf course. While you can expect to shell out a couple million dollars for the privilege, it comes with handy Mauritian citizenship. Sell your villa however, and you lose your passport.
On a boat cruise to the nearby Ile de Coco, a pod of Spinner dolphins are practicing their aerial gymnastics. In the distance, I see a mountain called Le Morne, where escaped slaves took refuge, and preferred to jump to their death rather than be captured. The captain plucks spiny sea urchins off the shallow lagoon floor, cuts them open, cleaned them out, and hands them to me with a dash of white wine and lemon juice. Seafood never tasted so good. Like other Mauritians I’d met, the Captain was cheery and good-natured, sporting a white toothy watermelon smile. He tells me about Snake Island (which is round and has no snakes) and Round Island (which has snakes and isn’t round). That people here leave their religion at home, which is how Hindus, Muslims and Christians co-exist peacefully. How 70% of the staff in the resorts springing up in the south are from neighbouring villages. Creole pop music is blasting from the speakers. I crack another cold Stag beer, knowing it can’t be that simple. A small white minority own most of the land, there are traffic jams every day inside Port Louis, and basic goods can be pricey, imported from as far away as Australia and South Africa.
I took a break from the beach to visit a roadside attraction called Casela, a bird and safari park, where I petted lion cubs and drifted amongst zebra on an offroad Segway. Around me were honeymooners and families, the Euros loving their ultimate tropical island getaway. I could drive from south to north in just three hours, leaving the mountains for the traffic of Port Louis, and the more developed north. Here I found resorts with rows of couples facing each other over candlelight at poolside restaurants. Fortunately, my wife was with me, because this is really not an island you want to experience on your own (nor does it appear to cater much to singles or backpackers).
At this time of year, there are enough snowflakes falling in Canada to inspire a visit to any tropical island. Unless you fly via hubs like Dubai, Paris or London, Mauritius might yet remain one of those elusive calendar dreams, brightening up an office wall. Perhaps, if we dream big enough, we might one day yet find ourselves under the shade of a coconut tree.
From the Archives of Modern Gonzo: A descent into conspiracy theory at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London.
The Fortean Times is a highly entertaining magazine that features in-depth investigations into all things bizarre and wonderful, all creatures great and small, and the "World's Weirdest News". The term "Fortean" arises from one Charles Hoy Fort, a sort of Victorian Fox Mulder who set out to prove that all scientific data was biased and could not explain phenomena which fell outside its realms. His "I want to believe" dictum was "One measures a circle beginning anywhere" - but that doesn't quite have the appeal of tacky poster in a forgotten 1990's FBI basement. Still, the man kicked alien butt, and Forteana now refers to all the bits and pieces that those in control (pesky Illuminati!)would rather you didn't think about. Like a giant "Thunderbird" that was shot and killed in Arizona in the 1800's, or who (if anyone) really took out Princess Diana, and how they did it. Split over the three floors of the University of London University Union, the Unconvention featured guests who write books that you always want to read but are too worried others will think you're being silly. Which is not to say they are silly. There was a renowned anthropologist, an internationally recognized biologist and a speaker named Peter Brookesmith who was so paranoid his picture was in silhouette. These are the people who I am told spend years dedicated to finding out what really happens in this magic show we call life. As Einstein said, "reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one."
I am not afraid of Men In Black, especially after Hollywood joined forces with the government to paint a picture of fun lovin' dudes with slick shades and big ears. I am not afraid of ghosts, because they're just spirits who turned left when they should have turned right. I am not even afraid of dragons, because they're probably quite cuddly if you're into that sort of thing. I am however petrified of Lunatics, and there was no shortage of them at the Unconvention. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy wearing blood stained Marilyn Manson T-shirts as much as the next guy, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with having frizzy long hair and a beard that comes straight out of the ZZ Top wardrobe. It's the eyes, man, the eyes. Beady, and "funny lookin", like "we're out to get you", which, if truth be known, I suppose they are. It was this kind of unnerving energy that filled the hall when a speaker proceeded to explain that most of conspiracy theory is not unlike extra-terrestrial turd. Something stinks, but no-one knows what exactly it is, nor how to clean it up. Bringing in a dose of reality (who's I'm not sure), he proceeded to elaborate how conspiracy theory is a mechanism for people to deal with events that make no sense. Like JFK's assassination and Diana the Princess Deceased. Evidence is often flimsy and unsupported. Witnesses are mostly goofballs. The surge in popularity of all things odd have led to increasingly desperate and dubious attempts to exploit the public's fascination. For every legitimate UFO sighting, there's the "Jesus appeared in my tomato."
Paul McCartney is dead, and has been for decades. It's all there in the last few Beatles record covers. Only and somewhat rather inconveniently, nobody told Paul McCartney. The next speaker examined conspiracy theory from a media studies perspective, examining how facts can have a Medusa's head full of meaning. Semiotics, point's of view, changing ideologies, fake news. One man's abstract art is another woman's blood vial on the cover of the latest Metallica album. Conspiracy theory rests heavily on interpretation, and if you want to believe something enough, then the truth really is out there. Blogs and publications have content to fill, somehow, but as long as absurdity can nestle between the "Royal Family are Drug Lords" and the "Sex-god alien fathered my child", it will always be greeted with a certain amount of scepticism.
After a few beers and a Jesus-was-really-a-nasty-fellow-who-murdered- his-political-rival John-the-Baptist-as-proven-by-Leonardo da Vinci afternoon banter, I felt more settled. The scary characters were innocuous folk who seemed to go about their thing like anyone else. There was this one woman though, about 4ft 8, with oversize almond eye and stretched skin that looked like it belonged to someone else. She was no doubt, a representative from the notorious Grey alien clan. She fitted in well.
I almost trampled over the host of Who's Line is it Anyway in my rush to get to the Princess Diana Conspiracy lecture. I was not alone. Everyone packed into the hall to hear what really happened. All conspiracy theory has its roots in inconsistencies. There are "facts" that just don't add up. Like the JFK assassination, like CIA mind experiments, like Gulf War veteran sickness. Well, we are told, it just so happens that with Diana, there are loads of inconsistencies. Like why the 17 cameras in the tunnel weren't working that night. Like who were the other two paparazzi that no-one knew, and why were these mysterious photographers the only ones to escape being arrested? Like, why was a braking mechanism in the Mercedes removed 6 weeks earlier? Like why did the ambulance take 2 hours to drive through a 45 minute route to the hospital? There were dozens more that ran the gamut between psychotic fascination and libel. I'm not going to get into how they did it (another cabal of CIA drug-runners altogether), but these are some of the ideas expressed as to who did it.
1) The Royal Family: Diana was rumoured to be 6 weeks pregnant, marriage to a Muslim arms dealer by the future king's mother would destroy the monarchy. Diana was meddling in politics, an inconvenient time bomb. MI5 and the CIA assisted in the hit. The paparazzi were a convenient scapegoat to divert attention to some blatant inconsistencies in the investigation.
2) The Chinese Arms industry: Diana had just cost the biggest land mine manufacturers in the world billions. She was taking on a very dangerous industry, and had to be stopped, much like a car is stopped when it crashes into a concrete wall.
3) Drug lords: Dodi was the hit, Diana was the message ("we don't care who you are"). A vial of cocaine was confirmed to be found in her bag. Bet you didn't hear that in the press, but it's in the police report (allegedly). Dodi reeked of Bad Karma with drug dealers, arms dealers, poker dealers, you name it. Not the kind of guy a popular princess should be running about with.
4) Satanic ritual: The car crashed into the 13th pillar, on a site that has been a Satanic hot spot for centuries. She was the princess that had to be sacrificed, and the whole plot was organized by those drug-peddling Royals who are seriously into their black magic and witchcraft. Yep.
5) Elton John: his career was flagging. Candle in the Wind (the Diana version) was heard before her death! Someone, somewhere swears it. And don't forget the UK Floral Association. Yes, now it all makes sense.
There were other theories, most of which received a laugh. Even weird folk maintain some tennis grip on reality.
Outside, vendors were selling all sorts of alternative spew, from The Church of SubGenius to Satanic decor, alien coffee mugs to Druidic jewelry. The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomolous Phenomena (ASSAP) hijacked a room and funnelled crowds through a range of experiments, testing ESP, remote viewing and water diving among other cool bar tricks. I tried to tip the scales with my mind, but all I got was a headache. And the image of a house that was telepathized into my brain was supposed to be noughts-and-crosses, but show me divining rods and I'll part the Red Sea.
If Conspiracy is really just Paranoia's girlfriend, aliens a muddle of dreams, and hallucinations the side effect of some haywire CIA mind experiment, then it's a pretty safe guess that life is far simpler than we think it is. We are born, and we die. We are awake, and we sleep. We never have dark, dangerous thoughts because it's wrong. We never do bad things because that would be naughty. Angels are playing the harps up in heaven, and Father Christmas is ho-ho-ho-ing somewhere up North with the Easter Bunny. It all makes sense. Unless you choose to believe the US Government has not told us a fraction of everything it knows regarding assassinations and aliens. Unless you choose to believe it is all lies. What if disinformation is a kind of phlegm in the froggy throat of our perceptions of reality. Ignoring it is to be blissfully ignorant, and yet to fight it is to be labelled paranoid, crazy, and neurotic. Somewhere in the middle lies curiosity and awareness, which is what brought me to the event in the first place. An old Greek proverb says it all: "When you hear there are plenty of cherries, always carry a small basket." When you visit an Unconvention, always be sure to leave plenty of room in your head.
Another year and another decade have passed, another year and another decade we won’t get back. Despite all the indicators to the contrary (I highly suggest reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now) it certainly feels like we’re living in particularly turbulent times. Brexit, Trump, ISIS, Facebook…the 2010’s have repeatedly been called the Decade of Crisis. It was also a decade that took us into science fiction more than one would think. Consider arriving in January 1, 2010, and telling a person on the street:
What the hell are you talking about? And this is just a fraction of the global fizzle-pop martini that has shaken and stirred over the past ten years. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens wrote that timeless line in 1859. There is always political, cultural and economic turbulence, although this decade frequent environmental disasters joined the party. Unprecedented droughts (South Africa, Argentina, Australia), floods (India, Louisiana, Oklahoma), hurricanes (Bahamas, Puerto Rico), storms (Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Irene), heatwaves, wildfires (Australia, California, BC), the melting Arctic, city-sized icebergs breaking off Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula. And facing this global challenge are a bunch of world leaders not too removed from comic book villains.
There have always been high season and low season, but overtourism – best represented by poster children like Barcelona and the Louvre, Venice and Dubrovnik - proved canaries in the coalmine for the onslaught of travellers benefitting from cheap airfare, growing middle classes and an obsession with social media validation. I’ve had to question my own role in all of this, as this decade saw me transform from a freelance writer and television host into the bestselling author of a half dozen “bucket list” themed books. Not to mention a husband and father. What hasn’t changed is the core of what set me off fifteen years ago: an insatiable curiosity, and the desire to share what I discover with others in the hope that it inspires them as much as it has inspired me.
My latest book is about the joys, trials, hilarity and wonders when travelling with kids across Australia. Gone are the days of intense budget travel, and I’m a little long in the tooth to be sharing dorms in hostels (plus kids under six are not the best bunk mates). But they do demand and instigate new adventures all the time. We’re kicking off 2020 with a true bucket list road trip adventure, visiting three incredible BC ski resorts to learn – as a family – how to embrace the Canadian winter, and make it down a mountain on skis. Having warmed up for a recent Vancouver Sun story about Whistler, we’re kicking off on the powder of RED Mountain, revving up for Revelstoke, and with any luck we will get a thumbs up from Olympic legend Nancy Greene on the slopes of Sun Peaks. As usual, I hope to inspire other families to do the same, and at the very least, avoid visits to the hospital (my ER visit in Whistler to saw off my wedding ring was enough, thanks).
Whatever happens in the year and decade to come, may the weather prove fair and your health fairer. May our challenges be met and our smiles frequent. I hope we continue to appreciate the incredible benefits of our privilege, and empathize with those who want nothing more than to share a piece of it. Every year that passes is a year we won’t get back. Regardless of what we might be telling ourselves in 2030, let’s continue to make them count.
It was important to stay awake on the overcrowded night train to Dharamshala. If I missed my stop I would end up north at the Pakistani border, where there are enough problems without a confused hack stumbling about. I was scheduled to arrive in a small town called Chakkebank at 3am, which, translated into Indian time, meant anywhere between last Wednesday and the coming of the messiah. Due to a festival, the train was steaming with people, but my sticky-vinyl top bunk afforded some distance from the disjointed beggars, the transsexuals who bring luck for a buck, and the tea guy who somehow managed to get through the throng every ten minutes screaming “Chaaiiiii!!” without inflicting third degree burns with his thermal. I dozed off and awoke to discover two guys had scaled my upper bunk and somehow positioned themselves between my open-scissor legs. When a third tried to join them, I put my foot down. Literally, on his head. I made my station, waited two hours for the bumpy dawn bus into the mountains, and finally arrived in Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Like cigarettes, I’m convinced this journey took years off my life.
It felt like I had arrived in another country, and in a sense I had. A traveller today can experience more Tibetan culture in Dharamshala than they can in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Along with Tibetan refugees, thousands arrive monthly from all over the world to study Buddhism, get involved in various Tibetan movements, catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama when he is in town, or just enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the surrounding mountains. The cold, wet narrow streets were lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing stalls, internet cafes, offices of Tibetan institutions, and too many westerners wrapped in blankets as opposed to their usual Gore-Tex jackets.
“It’s not so much a question of ‘Free Tibet’, so much as ‘Save Tibet’,” explains Tenzin from the Central Tibetan Authority. The Dalai Lama was in town and I was trying to arrange a camera permit, in the process learning something about Tibet’s current status. Decades of Chinese investment and migration has fundamentally changed the face of Tibet, so the Tibetans are now focused on preserving their identity as opposed to regaining independence. Like other world hotspots, religious and political boundaries are blurred in the conflict, and at the centre meditates the Dalai Lama himself – the political and religious head of a nation. His non-violent “Middle Way” solution continues to make Tibet a popular Western cause. Whatever happens, I am told it is all karma.
I did manage to see the Dalai Lama, and sat in on a Buddhist class. I walked the lovely Lingkhor path around the temple, spun the colorful mani wheels, chanted mantras, ate traditional dumpling-like momos, and lost my breath at sunset, staring out at the mountains and valley from the peaceful confines of the Tsuglagkhang temple complex. In lower Dharamshala, the Indian community gathered for the annual Dusehra festival, in which giant effigies were blown up to rid the year of evil. Huge fireworks lit up the snowy peaks, as crowds of happy Indians shook my hand and wanted me in their photographs. I could have soaked up this atmosphere for weeks, but my time in India was just about up. There was just one more thing needed to complete my Indian experience, and fortunately, it did not involve dysentery.
The Taj Mahal is the world’s most breathtaking and romantic mausoleum, built in 17th century to honor a sultan’s second wife, who died at childbirth. It is located in Agra, about three-sorry-four-oops-five hours by train from Delhi, and is India’s busiest tourist destination. It took me three hours just to arrange my return ticket, but by now I had learnt the most crucial lesson for successful travelling in India. Never be in a hurry to get anywhere! Certainly I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to my roach “hotel” - a prison cell with a crusty Hello Kitty bedsheet, creating a colorful, if disturbing touch. So off I went to the Taj, where tourists are happily fleeced and touts, taxi drivers and beggars jostle for pole position. When I arrived in India for my month of travel, I dreaded this scenario. Now my skin is hardened, my wits sharpened, and it’s just paneer for the course.
After dealing with massive lines, corrupt guards, confiscated cameras and a hefty foreign tourist entry fee, I finally got into the complex. The late afternoon sun glittered across the white marble of the Taj Mahal, silently reflecting in the ponds and floating like a fairytale palace. Was the day’s journey not a symbol of travelling in India itself? The frustration, the stress, the scams, the sweat, and finally, the magic that somehow made it all worthwhile. The Taj Mahal is truly as magical as it looks in the photos.
Back in Delhi after another completely eventful train journey (there’s no other kind in India), I packed my bags and headed for the airport. India, this world within a world within a world, had won me over. I remember what a traveller told me when I first arrived. “No matter what you've read, seen or heard about India, wherever you go, it is nothing at all like what you expect."
It’s been a tumultuous month in the world of bucket list experiences. The New York Times art critic ran a story about the sheer and utter disappointment of seeing the Mona Lisa, glassed away from the masses of crowds expecting something more...transcendent. Asked on national radio about my own experience with Leonardo’s masterpiece, I recalled seeing it many years ago, and feeling distinctly underwhelmed: “I thought there would be God rays and confetti, and angels would be singing with harps.” If I didn’t know it was regarded as the pinnacle of artistic expression, I would have walked past it, marvelling at plenty other works in the Louvre that would better match that description. The subject moved onto travel experiences that are disappointing. Each to their own, but there’s really only a few factors that will make an activity or destination disappointing:
All this to say: The experience did not live up to your expectations. The higher your expectations, the higher the chance that the destination or activity will disappoint you. Reality simply can’t compete with your imagination. And I can’t blame anyone for having an imagination stoked by the most perfect of all scenarios. On television shows, in travel articles, in books (ahem), you rarely see or hear about crowds, costs, and crap weather. The sky is mostly blue, and the animals always show up. It is very rare that everything comes together exactly as it does in the brochures, and yet the marketing of peak experience does no favours to your expectations. You’re being set up for disappointment, so better to have no or limited expectations to begin with.
One of the tools proposed to combat the scourge of overtourism is Responsible Marketing. This would require tour operators and destination marketing organizations to use real people in real situations, not models beneath a Photoshop sky. Imagine if casinos were restricted to responsible marketing? Instead of hot couples smiling as they win at the roulette table, you’d see leathered alcoholics flushing away next month’s rent. Any activity that depends on good weather is particularly vulnerable to unmet expectations. Nobody wants to visit a beach in a hailstorm, ski on a mountain without snow, or get rained on during a parade. My biggest disappointment is the northern lights – a dreamy bucket list experience that is particularly weather dependent. Ten times I should have seen a magical natural fireworks display in the sky, and ten times the sky was overcast, or the solar ions weren't firing, or the sky lit up the day before I arrived, and the day after I left. Ten times in the freezing northern winter, including trips to Whitehorse and Yellowknife during peak aurora-watching season. Eventually I did see the northern lights, but compared to all the alluring photographs and stories, witnessing a slight pulsating green fog in the frigid, early morning sky (few people know that the best time to see the lights is well after midnight) was a let down. At least I hadn’t flown in all the way from Japan, unlike the disappointed aurora-watchers around me.
The global bucket list took another hit this month with the chaos surrounding One Ocean Expeditions. I’ve worked with this Squamish-based company for several years, having visited Antarctica, crossed the Northwest Passage in the high Arctic and more recently taken my mom and daughter to remote islands in the Atlantic on their wonderful boats, guided by their wonderful crew. I’ve recommended the company at dozens of talks and in my books, and was shocked to hear they’ve been shipwrecked with financial difficulties. Passengers were left stranded shortly before an Antarctica sailing, most support staff have left the company, and information from the permanently closed head office to hundreds of out of pocket clients has been cryptic and scarce. The source of the issue appears to have been the damage that occurred to one of their Russian leased vessels in August 2018. There are competing claims as to who was responsible and should foot the bill, and as a result the Russians withdrew their ships from One Ocean’s service. This sent the company scampering to fill exist bookings on their single remaining ship, and in all likelihood broke the sea camel’s back. The company’s mysterious restructuring has been devastating for their amazing staff and crew, many of whom are owed tens of thousands of dollars in wages. It has been devastating for passengers around the world who have footed up to $14,000 per ticket, and have no travel insurance recourse to get their money back. It has been devastating for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, who benefitted from One Ocean as a major sponsor, and it has been devastating for polar tourism. One Ocean did vital, generous and important work for the Arctic and Antarctica, supporting scientists, educators, communicators and students. I remember telling passengers that One Ocean did not just help us tick Antarctica off our bucket list, the company had helped us become ambassadors for a truly incredible, vulnerable and oft-misunderstood eco-system. Despite hope that a new financial partner will save the day, the damage to the brand and betrayal of trust of both clients and crew is, in all probability, fatal. Despite some wild rumours swirling around, I do believe One Ocean had a wonderful heart. Operating at the mercy of the roughest of natural elements, it just needed a better business brain. Here's hoping for smooth waters and easy sailing ahead for passengers, crew, company and the polar region itself.
I heard a great line in a podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell this week, although not sure if it’s his line or if he was quoting someone else. Something about the true challenge of a writer is creating space and time one needs to write. I also recently read the War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a sort of half time locker room coach talk to inspire writers, artists, musicians or anyone to get off their butts and fulfil their creative destiny, or at the very least, give it their best shot. Pressfield talks about Resistance as a powerful force utilizing cunning tricks to distract and prevent this from happening. I know exactly what Pressfield and Gladwell are referring to. I’m currently immersed in a heated battle for space and time, and an all out war against Resistance. The reason: I’m writing a novel, which I can now talk about since the first draft is complete and so it’s not something I’ll get to, eventually, one day, but something I have already got to. Now I just have to put in the many, many hours of editing with the optimistic hope that it becomes a story people actually want to read, or hear, in their lives. Of course travel is at the core of my story, along with adventure and humour and musings and sweeping gestures towards life, the universe, a little bit of everything. The result might be complete drivel, but it’s a story I needed to tell in my own peculiar way, and perhaps I will find a publisher interested in getting it out there in their own peculiar way too.
Some days it feels like resistance against Resistance is futile. My car gets a flat tire, boom, there goes the day. A kid is sick. Ka-pow! Errands, school. Resistance is alarmingly creative. My back twists, oof. Oh crap, I have to renew my car insurance. The other kid has a dentist appointment. Interested in a short contract? Do an interview? And on, and on, Life, sparring with that space-time challenge Gladwell was talking about. He’s got a new book out, Gladwell, the guy who puts the P in Prolific. Another concept worth mentioning here is Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game, which essentially says that anyone undertaking a great endeavour must take a personal or professional risk in order for the work to measure up. If we don't have a personal stake in a desired outcome, why would we care? It's too easy to fail, to pass the buck, to blame others, to procrastinate, to retreat. Trust me, writing a 500-page novel (don’t worry, that’s just the first draft) without a publisher, an advance, or any reason to believe the novel will be published at all is as big a creative risk as I can imagine. And so while I can proudly look back on my nine published and two self-published books from the last six years - including four certifiable bestsellers! - it’s simply not the time to rest on laurels, or chase adventures without meaning. We’re approaching 2020, which feels, rather serendipitously, like the perfect year to look back on all that I have done. To triple distil, like a fine vodka, whatever wisdom I’ve stumbled upon in my fifteen years chasing peak experiences on seven continents. Much like my original motivation to travel in the first place, my latest goal is to simply say: I did it. Only instead of hang gliding or sandboarding volcanoes, the accomplishment this time round involves creating Time and Space, overcoming Resistance, and with Skin in the Game, committing to a project I hope will inspire others. If Lady Luck smiles upon me once more, perhaps I’ll even be able write another story to inspire the world. It’s been fifteen years since I took an enormous leap without a safety net, heading out solo to backpack the world with a laptop. Let’s see where this one takes me. Without 2020 hindsight, it’s impossible to tell.
This month sees the publication of my 9th and probably most personal book, 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go). You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, writing and researching this one. But family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast. We discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful, funny, inspiring and honest new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them. It works for Australia, but it works for everywhere else too.
Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.
You can buy 75 Must-See Places To Take The Kids at most bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, including online at Booktopia and Dymocks, and through Book Depository anywhere in the world.
You can really get a sense of place by its name. Take Istanbul, Timbuktu, or even Bird Island (where I write these words, off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Revelstoke, the BC transport hub on the way from Vancouver to Banff, certainly has a name better than most. A town that lets you revel in the stoke? Come on, a high-priced brand agency couldn’t have come up with something that good. The town, population 15,000, got its name from one Lord Revelstoke, an English industrialist who rescued the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. In the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains, sandwiched by the mountainous beauty of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks, the town also boasts a ski resort with the greatest vertical descent of any ski resort on the continent. Fun for another time. We’re here for a family roadtrip in summer, driving six hours up from Vancouver to explore local activities for all ages, including another tick on my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List.
After crossing dramatic mountain passes and driving alongside large, scenic lakes, we pull off the Trans Canada Highway to explore The Enchanted Forest and adjacent Skytrek Adventure Park. With various high ropes courses through the tall forest trees, the latter is catnip for kids and adults channelling their inner gibbon. The former is eccentric and certainly bizarre. Dozens of tiny and not so tiny fairy tale houses have been built on the forest floor, complete with a castle, a giant climbing a tree, mermaids, wooden horses, and mischievous forest elves. A passion project that has been a popular, quirky roadside attraction for half a century, my young kids embraced Enchanted Forest with sheer, unadulterated delight. Happy kids, happy parents, and happier still that both these attractions are less than a half hour’s drive from downtown Revelstoke, where our room at the Regent Hotel awaits.
A town that straddles the industries of railway, forestry and tourism, Revelstoke is refreshingly devoid of glitzy retail brands, and oozes small town charm. It is protected from being overrun by its relative isolation from a major city, resulting in the kind of place where locals greet each other at free nightly summer music concerts in Grizzly Plaza, or at the weekend street market bursting with local flavours. Our outstanding meals at Taco Club, Nico’s Pizza, Paramjit’s Kitchen and the exceptional Quartermaster offered funky, homely and fine dining, while a visit to the Aquatic Centre (a must for young kids) made me pine for something similarly inexpensive and less crowded in Vancouver. Toasting outstanding craft beer at Rumpus Beer Co, I admired the moxie of the husband-wife owners chasing their small town dream, and wondered, along with many others I imagine, if Revelstoke is the kind of place where I could chase a dream too. A real sense of community permeates the town, a community that doesn’t mind living ten minutes down the road from a world class ski resort, or two and half hours from Kelowna, the nearest regional airport.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort is famous for the highest vertical run on the continent, but is embracing its four season possibilities. This means world-class mountain biking, and for my bucket list, the longest alpine rollercoaster in Canada. Taking the gondola up to mid-mountain, my family soaked in the stellar mountain views and fanning Columbia River, before hopping into yellow go-cart like contraption connected on a narrow single rail. My wife and I each put a kid in our laps and strapped in for a thrilling 1.4 kilometre descent. The Pipe Mountain Coaster twists, curves and whoops its way 279 metres down the mountain, through forest and breathless dips at speeds of up to 42 km/hr. A simple mechanism allows us to brake and go at our own pace, and most first timers will take it easy. Get the three-ride pass (or more) and you’ll soon dispense with the brakes altogether, hitting the hell-yeah! controlled maximum speed that ensures it’s safe and fun for the whole family. “Faster Daddy!” yelled my daughter, and who am I to argue?
Feet away from the exit point of the coaster is newly opened Aerial Adventure Park, where you can easily spend two hours navigating fifty different balance and height obstacles, rising four stories above the ground. Graded like ski runs into green, blue and black difficulties, climbers are safely harnessed throughout the entire contraption. Watching brave little kids take on swinging rings or a knee-shaking four-story jump should add some pep to your steps. Fortunately, great food and craft beer awaits the victorious in the village regardless (and for the kids, ice-cream).
River rafting is another popular summer activity in Revelstoke, with various companies offering grade three runs. For younger kids, consider Wild Blue Yonder’s River Pirates Tour, complete with pirate costumes, face paint, bush battles and fun tales of yaargh! Downriver from the impressive hydro dam, we drifted on the glass mirror of the Columbia River, listening to Captain Jack’s brogue as he recounted the myth of the man-eating moose. My daughter - made-up with face paint, bandanna’d, and now known as Jolly Lips Sue - had a blast. Nobody got wet, and foam sword battles continued back in our comfortable family suite at the Regent.
Fortunately the sword stayed behind when we checked out the old world Railway Museum, although the knives came out when my three year-old had his thermonuclear meltdown when we told him it was time to leave the large, warm wading pool at the Aquatic Centre. We packed a lot into just three days, and could have easily spent a week exploring this underrated wonder of the BC interior. It’s all right there in the very name of the town, where families can revel in the stoke of it.
Every July 1st, Canada Day rolls around a little quicker than the year before. The long days we’ve waited for all year have an ironic effect of making the season shorter, because winter is great and all, but summer is when the Canadian Bucket List BBQ really starts cooking. The national and provincial parks, the festivals, the lakes, the hiking, biking, canoeing, and other ings you can think of. I missed Canada Day last year as I was on a one-year adventure with my family. We travelled the far and wide of Australia for six months, doing as much as we could for my book, The Great Australian Bucket List. Then we lived for a while in Thailand, Bali and Vietnam (you can read all about that if you wish), popping into Singapore and New Zealand for good measure. I can assure you, you miss Canada when it’s gone.
For all the comments that Australia is Canada with better weather, I discovered this is not at all the case. Are there historical similarities? Most certainly. Both have colonial hangovers, the Australians even more so with the Union Jack still part of their national flag (it’s 2019, don’t you think it’s time to move on, mate?) Both treated their indigenous populations like fodder, and both have done too little and never enough to make that right. Both are surrounded by ocean (especially if you consider the United States an Ocean of Political Disappointment). Both have relatively small populations with relatively gigantic tracts of land. The Canadian Arctic is a pretty hostile environment, as is the Australian Red Centre. One country is famously hot, the other famously cold. One has a marsupials, the other has bears (the koala is certainly not a bear). Both love sport, and both sport endless natural beauty. We have many of the same chocolate bars and burger chains (Hungry Jacks is Burger King, in case you were wondering), the same dominating commercial multinationals, the same insecurity about larger, wealthier and more ambitious geopolitical neighbours (spare a thought for poor New Zealand). I could go on, and one day I probably will.
For now, let me paint why Canada is not Australia, using a broad brush of generalizations. Please don’t look at my strokes too carefully, as you’ll see paint is all over the place…it’s really more of an abstract piece. Because of course Vancouverites are not Newfoundlanders, and those who live in Perth are a different kettle of kangaroo from those who live in Alice Springs. Still, Canadians, by and large, are milder, cool as their weather. Australians are rarely accused of being over-polite, and an Australian will sooner bear hug you than apologize. Canadians are more reserved, and barring the extremes, tend to be a little more reasonable. I was once pulled over by a traffic officer in New Brunswick racing way over the speed limit to chip factory. Did you know one-third of all the commercial French fries used worldwide come from Canadian potatoes? Did you know that up to 90% of all the global mustard seed - the stuff used to create your favourite French Dijon - are Canadian? I pleaded with the cop, and he let me off. The people of New Brunswick are friendly to a fault. Driving north up the remote coast of Western Australia, I was doing the speed limit when a cop appeared out of nowhere and pulled me over. He told me I was ten kilometres over the speed limit because I was pulling a trailer. I told him I’m Canadian and had no idea that was a law, because nobody told me. There wasn’t another car in hours on the bullet straight Bruce Highway, and with kids in the back, I assured him I’d just set the cruise control to ten kilometres slower. He still gave me a hefty ticket. I just know, in my maple leaf bones, no Canadian traffic office would ever have done that. Australians are obsessed with rule of law. Cameras everywhere, enforcers ready to pounce. Both are secure societies with some of the least corruption anywhere in the world. But you feel the law in Australia, and they know it.
I am a South African who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Canada, and a Canadian who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Australia. I feel I have a grasp on both these cousin nations, at least as much as my experience allows. I think my parents back in Vancouver were worried that my wife and I would fall in love with Australia, and decide to settle there. Admittedly, we loved Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (Melbourne and Sydney were way too busy and far too expensive to even consider). But we’re a faithful lot and have already given our hearts to the country that famously opens it doors to those, like us before them, who seek a better life. Canada is a country that isn’t walling itself off, instead choosing to embrace the global, multicultural spirit of our age. Canada is a country with problems (every country has problems) and a country that can and must do better (every country can and must do better). Canada recognizes the unequivocal right of same-sex couples to marry, that the war on drugs will never be won if you don’t take a different approach, and that no future can be attained without addressing the needs of the past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Australia isn’t quite there yet, but that’s OK. Each sovereign nation is on its own unique journey. This July 1, I’m just really glad that my own journey is in a country that flies a red maple leaf. Also, and I needn’t remind you, the Raptors.
My cabin is as comfortable as any you’ll find on a train, the bed adorned with soft sheets and pillows, and still I cannot fall asleep. Too much on my mind, too much to process from a day exploring remote underground homes in the world’s opal mining capital, too much fun at the open bar aboard The Ghan. I typically read before bedtime as a way to put my mind to rest, but tonight my eyes are too tired to stay open, and my brain too wired to close. It would be great if someone could read me to sleep, with a safe and soothing voice. As for the story, it should be deliberately and delicately crafted to avoid anything too exciting, and take me on a peaceful journey to Sleepland. Just so happens that Phoebe Smith, soon to be the official sleep storyteller-in-residence for the Calm mindfulness app, is in the cabin right next to mine. I’m sure she’s sleeping like a baby.
With over 40 million downloads, 200,000 5-star reviews, and Best App of the Year Awards from both Apple and Google, the Calm app has hit a cultural bulls eye with sharpened z-shaped arrows. It’s loaded with meditations, ambient music and soundscapes, and dozens of sleep stories narrated by folks like Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and The Wire’s Clarke Peters, who has richer Morgan Freeman voice than Morgan Freeman himself. Millions of satisfied subscribers swear that Calm does exactly as its very name suggests: it calms you down, whether you set-up an easy 15-minute Focus or Anxiety meditation, a fiction or non-fiction story to lull you to sleep, or soothing sounds to massage your ear canal.
“Two million people a month listen to my stories, it’s mind-blowing,” Phoebe tells me. “I admit I was sceptical, until I listened to one of my own stories and quickly fell asleep.” A year has passed since our Ghan adventure across Australia, and she’s in Vancouver on her way up north to explore the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Since we ran about Alice Springs trying unsuccessfully to get an epic author photo for my next book, she’s been called the JK Rowling of Sleep Stories, has been profiled in major media, and fine-tuned her craft. We’re in the lobby bar at the Hotel Vancouver, and having just flown in from Brisbane that morning, Phoebe looks like she could use a little sleep herself. Isn’t a 14-hour flight and 17-hour time the enemy of the well rested? “Honestly, travelling with my own pillow has been a game-changer. Your brain associates the scent of your pillow with sleep, and it really works!”
It pays to listen to someone who makes a living devoted to sleep.
Back in the UK where she lives, Phoebe is known for her books and stories about sleeping in unusual, extreme and wild places. I quite like the fact that Calm didn’t hire a scientist or psychologist to methodically bore you to sleep, but rather a storyteller. “Storytelling is such an old tradition, it’s how knowledge and wisdom has been passed down throughout history,” says Phoebe. But hang on, aren’t you essentially writing stories so boring it puts people to sleep? “As a kid, you didn’t want a boring story, but there’s definitely a technique involved. There can’t be too much action or excitement, and it should take you on a journey, which is why trains, boats, rivers and forests work so well. Feedback suggests that most people fall asleep within five to ten minutes, but I get lots of emails from people around the world wanting to know more about the places I write about.” Places like the lavender fields of Provence, the jungles of Madagascar, the Mississippi River and the forgotten forests of Morocco. There are travel stories about oceans and deserts, safaris and night skies.
There are train journeys aboard the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberia, and yes, our adventure aboard The Ghan. We both agree that stories are a far healthier alternative to medication and sleep aids.
“These days, we often treat sleep as an inconvenience,” Phoebe explains. “There’s so much going on and instantly available that we can’t switch off, which only adds to the anxiety.” It’s why she turns off her devices at least an hour before bed, keeps her bedroom free of distractions, and is passionate about sleeping in the wild. “When it gets dark, you sleep, and when the sun rises, you wake up. It’s the natural rhythm of our bodies, and it makes you feel calm and rested.” Unlike Phoebe, the very thought of sleeping outdoors, exposed and alone on say, a mountain top, freaks my poor brain out. So I’ll ignore her advice and keep my iPhone handy, ready to load up a Calm sleep story, and let her words inspire a blissful lullaby.
You can follow Phoebe's extreme sleeps and wild camping here.
Learn more about Calm here.