It's October, which means we're going somewhere creepy, and I'm not just referring to the snakes Down Under.
Australian has no shortage of brutal convict history, but there’s a tangible creep factor visiting the cells of the Old Melbourne Gaol. It's unnerving as hell standing before the same gallows that dispatched notorious criminals like Ned Kelly, Frederick Bailey Deeming, and 131 others. Especially at night, when the lights are dimmed, the daytime tourists have cleared out, and writer Trevor Poultney is leading a group of two-dozen tourists. He reassures us that he doesn’t need to make up any silly ghost stories, since the jail has plenty of real-life stories to do the trick. In fact, the jail’s consistent paranormal activity inspired Trevor to start the ghost tours in the first place. Of course, nothing has been proved and there’s no guarantee you’ll actually see anything. I ask two couples in my group why they feel it is a good idea to spend Saturday night in a dark, haunted 19th century prison block. Both reply that it is a birthday present. Price of a Ghost Tour: $38. Scaring the crap out of your spouse: Priceless.
A purple early evening glow still permeates the cellblock when Trevor begins.
“It’s dark in here, and it’s going to get darker. Keep in a tight group, as it’s less likely you’ll be picked off.” He’s joking of course, but he’s also a great storyteller, adding just enough bite to his words to keep everyone on edge. It’s a ninety-minute tour, mostly conducted outside the cells since they are too small, too dark, too claustrophobic and too damn spooky to spend much time in. Trevor begins with the tale of a site supervisor locking up the museum for the night. Suddenly, she felt someone kick her in the leg. Heavy doors began banging, chains rattled, and she heard groans and screams. Apparently, much of the weirdness tends to emanate from Cell 17 on the second level, although no particular record exists as to why this would be the case. Trevor tells us that prisoners were often moved around, documentation has vanished, but conditions were notoriously horrific. At the rear of the first level, we sit around the lit-up death mask of Ned Kelly, the most infamous bushranger in Australian history. Alongside replicas of the handmade armour Ned wore during his famous shoot-out with the law, Ned’s head is the museum’s most famous attraction. Gad is it creepy!
After the lifeless bodies of the condemned were removed from the gallows, it was common practice for prison officials to shave their heads and cast their death mask for research. It was part of a discredited 19th century practice called phrenology, which believed science could physically determine the motivations of criminals and lunatics. Ned’s head looks peaceful enough as Trevor whips out his tablet to show us the three types of ghost photos the jail receives from visitors. There are the fakes, easy to spot and silly to attempt. The second are from people seeing things that simply aren’t there, an easy but sincere mistake given the numerous shadows and effects of using a camera flash.
“You paid good money. It’s an atmospheric building. We’re very suggestible. Of course we want to see a ghost, why else would we be here?” he explains. Out-of-focus blurry zoomed-in photos do make great ghost photos, but the apparition is just about always in the eye of the beholder. But, as my own photo from Savannah testifies, not always. The third photos are the anomalies, the ones with no feasible explanation. Trevor shows us the spectre of a man with a hat standing outside Cell 17. We see the wraiths of a woman and child that can be seen hovering on level three. Other visitors, who have not taken a ghost tour, claim to have physically encountered these people during the day, with some even asking them for directions. At the gallows on the second level, the very spot where 129 men and four women took their last breath, Trevor shows us the one photo that continues to freak him out. His own feet appear at the top of the photo beneath the demonstration rope…only, he was with the visitor who took the photo on the other side of the cell.
“I think it’s a peaceful building,” he whispers. “Do I believe in ghosts? Things happen here, and that’s as far as I’ll go.”
We have fifteen minutes to roam about freely before closing. We’ll enter cells to gaze at the haunting death masks of dispatched prisoners, feeling an icy chill lick our necks. We’ll read about the torrid history and conditions of the prison, which operated between 1842 and 1929. Not many visitors will go as far as to enter Cell 17, because Trevor has done a bang-up job spooking us about it. This is where the belligerent man with the hat appears. Where guests feel something pushing on them. Where breath gets laboured, and electronic devices go on the fritz. This is the one cell where guide dogs refuse to enter. With nervous giggles, a few of us still walk into Cell 17. With our imaginations in overdrive, a sense of dread in the cell is unmistakable. I took plenty of photos, of course, and I’ve poured over them in search of an apparition. As much as I want to believe beyond the shadows, I did not strike ghostly photographic gold in the Melbourne Gaol. I did however encounter a fascinating cultural and architectural history, entertaining stories, unforgettable characters, and a true one-of-a-kind experience. What more could you ask for on a great night out in the city?
Click here for more information about a Melbourne Gaol ghost tour, although as with many other activities in Melbourne and elsewhere, this is something to consider in your post-Covid plans.
In less haunting news, you can read my latest Bucket Listed columns for Can Geo Travel which adds 11 new experiences to my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List, and reviews the incredible Arctic landscapes in renowned artist Cory Trepanier's new book.
Travel safe, stay inspired, and don't turn into a pumpkin.
You might also be a fan of the late author Douglas Adams, who wrote Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and the genius dictionary of made-up words, the Meaning of Liff. In 1992, he wrote a book called Last Chance to See, a travelogue about his journey to visit animals on the verge of extinction. Although the book has dated (some rare creatures have now completely vanished), I’m struck at how ahead of his time Douglas Adams was. Not only did he give us the meaning of life (the number 42, in case you forgot), but he foresaw the sad reality that a modern bucket list is not so much about doing something before you die, but before it disappears.
I write these words in the midst of a second unprecedented heat wave in a normally mild British Columbia summer. The first claimed over 500 lives in just three days, a staggering number that’s largely slipped under the flood of the 24-Covid news cycle. Meanwhile hundreds of wildfires are burning in the interior, smoking our skies sepia, evacuating thousands of people and torching the entire town of Lytton, a popular destination for river rafting. Scientists estimate over a billion marine animals cooked in the first heatwave, and more are undoubtably boiling in their shells this weekend as the temperature and humidex approach the mid 40°Cs. Climate change has come home to roost, and techno-evangelism (technology will save us!) suddenly rings a little hollow for Pacific Island nations soon be underwater, communities going up in flames, loved ones burying their dead or biodiversity battered by urban encroachment, poaching and agriculture. I know you come here for good news, but since I’m a pragmatic optimist, we have to accept that the near and far future will suffer increasingly extreme weather events, causing unparalleled environmental, financial and cultural devastation. All I can hope is that this finds you in a safe and stable nation with enough progressive foresight and resources to prepare for this eventuality. All I can hope is that my bucket list books do not become works of history – much like Last Chance to See - a review of destinations that also no longer exist. Unfortunately, not much has been gained in thirty years since Douglas Adams sounded his convincing warning bell, and so much has been lost.
My new ‘Bucket Listed’ column for Canadian Geographic Travel combines commentary with my travel recommendations. Each column is short and punchy and well worth reading, especially my second column about Indigenous tourism. My joyous and poignant Celebration of Canada column was sunk by the sombre nature of this year’s Canada Day, which coincided with horrific discoveries of residential school graves, sparking outrage at the nation and Catholic church’s complicity in an obvious attempt at cultural genocide. It’s a heavy topic for non-Indigenous Canadians to grasp, which is why I highly recommend reading Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth about Lies about Indians which uses a lighter touch to help us understand the many challenges and injustices that Indigenous communities face today. Next, I explored risk tolerance with a column entitled: Is it Safe to Travel Again? before jumping into practical tips for planning bucket list road trips and revealing some of my favourite, less-known experiences in every province.
Speaking of road-trips, I recently returned from a little adventure of Vancouver Island with the kids, ticking off some must-do experiences along the way. The new Malahat Skywalk was spectacular, with a few unexpected offerings (like a slide, boardwalk and adventure net) to elevate the experience well above just another roadside attraction. I’ve long heard about caving on Vancouver Island, so I’m a little shocked it took me so long to get to the Horne Lake Caves. I just assumed they were typical show-caves, but it’s more aligned with my best spelunking adventures abroad: hardhats, overalls, scrambling, twisting, ducking and climbing. Letting the kids hammer away for fossils under the guidance of an enthusiastic and experienced dinosaur museum curator was a stroke of genius, and we finished off at a fun camping festival in a forest near Courtenay. After 60 days of no rain, the heavens opened up and drowned us with the heaviest rainfall in years, soaking the thirsty fields and farms, and maintaining my 85% record of a mud-soaked fiesta whenever I camp at a festival. The Canadian government should just drop me off with a tent, a band and a DJ in the country’s most drought-impacted regions: statistical probability will take care of the rest. You can read about my Vancouver Island road-trip in my latest post on the newly relaunched www.canadianbucketlist.com
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the team at Great Canadian Trails, who are also passionate about remarkable Canadian outdoor adventures. You don’t need to be a hardcore backcountry explorer, cyclist, hiker, or paddler to experience the joys of a true bucket list adventure. GCT offer guided and self-guided tours that take care of all the logistics and make these kind of adventures far more achievable, accessible and enjoyable than you’d ever expect. We’ve been working together for years, they’re great people, and I’m thrilled they’ve managed to endure the challenges of Covid to emerge even more determined to help me build your lifetime highlight reel.
Congratulations! Each decade of your life is an accomplishment. Goals are realized, professions evolve, priorities shift, families grow and experience is gained. This is also reflected in how we choose to travel, and where we choose to go. Celebrating these important milestones, I've gathered inspiring destinations to suit this passage of time. Of course, every journey is unique. You can turn these decades upside down, or mix them up entirely. A bucket list is as special and individual as the person who crafts it, and each life journey is one’s own. As for the passing of the years themselves, I defer to the wisdom of Mark Twain: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”
Meeting Boris Becker as an 18 year old at Madame Taussad's in London.
20’s - LET'S PARTY
In our twenties, we travel to relish in the excess. All night parties, camping on beaches, intense relationships – all with a no-holds-barred commitment to the carefree abandon of youth. It's a time to make the kind of mistakes you'll learn from, and sacrifices you'd only make when you're young. Legends of Full Moon parties and all-night desert parties sound particularly appealing, and you don't mind sleeping on floors or eating instant noodles for a month if it means you can get to them. Backpacking across Western Europe is a rite of passage, although it's also very expensive, Stretching your travel dollar, you'll be drawn to budget-travel meccas like Thailand, Central America, India and Laos. You might be drawn to a Kibbutz in Israel or volunteering with animals in Bolivia. Everything and everyone will be particularly vivid and intense, an opportunity to learn and grow and let your hair down. You'll only realize just how big that opportunity was when you're further along your life journey.
Sharing a special sunset in Mauritius
30’s - ROMANCE AND FAMILY
As we grow into our third decade, life might have rearranged itself so that we'd want to visit special places with a special partner who one day will grow a family with us. As we circle the possibility of a major life milestone, a romantic adventure is definitely in order. Bus around Thailand, from the white, sandy beaches in the south to the rich culture of the north. Brave the bungie jumps and wild adventures of New Zealand. Take a tour through Eastern Europe, exploring cobblestone alleys and medieval town squares. Perhaps towards the end of the decade or the start of the next, your partnership has grown. Parents of young kids know that happy kids will always make a happy vacation. Choose a sunny beach resort with lots of activities in Hawaii, Mexico, Barbados, or Jamaica. Introduce your kids to new cultures and cuisines. Slow down and bond with your nearest and dearest, as together you build the memorable traditions of meaningful family vacations.
Here's an idea: let's hire an RV for an epic road trip in the Rockies! So we did!
40’s - IN MOTION
At last, the kids are at summer camp, or old enough to join us on an adventure that's physical, but not too strenuous. As careers stabilize and hobbies strengthen, perhaps it’s time to hike the Inca Trail, trek in Nepal, or spend our well-earned holidays on a multi-day bike ride through the valleys of Italy or France. A fly-in fishing trip in Canada, a multi-day rafting excursion between the Grand Canyon, or maybe just an epic road trip to explore the Oregon coast, Route 66, Yellowstone or Banff National Parks. Consider a few weeks camping across Iceland, or taking a tour to pack in the highlights of Western Europe. Volunteering in a foreign country delivers a rich, rewarding experience. Teaching kids, building wells, looking after rescued animals – making a difference in the lives of others makes a difference for us too. Old enough to know better and yet young enough to go with the flow, the forties is a milestone decade to follow our feet, and safely veer off the beaten track.
Smoked burnt ends and dinosaur bones. This is going to be so bad for me, and so, so very good.
50’s - FOOD AND FESTS
Do you remember when 50 used to be old? Not anymore. Today it’s a time to celebrate our decades of hard work, and the settled income that it has brought us. Now we can appreciate the more expensive bottle of wine, the fine dining restaurant, the outstanding stage play. Forget nightclubs, it’s time to appreciate the spectacle shows and world-class performances on offer in Las Vegas. For something more exotic, we’ll turn to major cultural spectacles like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Rio’s famous Carnaval. Perhaps a major sporting event is in order, such as Wimbledon, an Olympics or the Superbowl. The very idea of exploring one of the world’s great wine routes – Napa in California, Mendoza in Argentina, Margaret River in Western Australia – is intoxicating. We’ve finally booked to see the world’s largest jazz and comedy festivals in Montreal, the best acts at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, or the latest hits on Broadway. Enjoy the festivals, performances, wine tastings and feasts. You’ve earned it!
You can take my youth, but you can never take my freedom!
60’s - TIME FOR HISTORY
As we usher in the next decade, the allure of history is more fascinating than ever. We begin to see our lives in a greater context, and appreciate the passing of time. Once we might have ticked off the Louvre in a couple hours before racing off to the next Parisian attraction. Now we take our time in the world’s great museums – the Louvre and Hermitage, the Guggenheim, the ROM and the Museum of Natural History. Waterways and rail transports us in comfort to treasures of antiquity: cruise down the Yangtze or Nile Rivers, or along the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Sit back in a viewing carriage to marvel at the Canadian Rockies, the Australian Outback, or the highlands of Scotland. We’ll take our time exploring the ancient temples of Cambodia’s Angkor, the biblical alleys of Jerusalem, the Mayan ruins of Mexico, or the narrow canals of Venice. There is so much to see, and still plenty of time.
Making friends with young Masai warriors in Kenya,
70’s + - BUCKET LIST
We’ve always wanted to go there. We’ve always wanted to do that. As we enter the seventh decade of life, we realize our bucket list destinations are not going anywhere, but we most certainly are. Fortunately, in an age of affordable airfare and such a diverse variety of packages, our dreams are more accessible than ever. Cruise among the islands and abundant wildlife of the Galapagos. On the plains of the Serengeti and the legendary Masai Mara, witness the migration of the wildebeest from the comforts of a luxury, or self-catered bush camp, and make friends with Masai tribesmen. It’s not always easy, but we’ll put up with a sweaty trek for a face-to-face encounter with endangered mountain gorillas in the jungles of Central Africa. Iconic landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal draw us like magnets. Perhaps it’s also time to finally tick off that Alaska or Caribbean cruise, or visit long-lost relatives in the nations of our ancestors. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and appreciate the value of all that is to follow.
I was recently speaking about the insanity of fixed gear biking, that is, bikes that don’t have brakes. I first discovered them many years ago one memorable Halloween night on the hot sticky-duck streets of Hong Kong. More recently I discovered my unpublished article about that experience, which was used as part of the script for the Hong Kong and Macau episode of Word Travels. Fans of biking, couriers and fixed gears will definitely enjoy. It also feels good to find a home for my long-lost and wayward words.
My bicycle accelerates into the crowd, zigzags through a small gap into the street, dodges oncoming traffic before turning sharply left into a side alley. A brick wall brushes my shoulder as I slice across two trams, ramp over a sidewalk, and pedal towards a major intersection. Sweat has drenched the shirt beneath my daypack, and in a city known to rush, people stare and wonder: why the big hurry? I have just a few minutes to get to the White Stag bar, do ten push-ups in front of someone called Big Glenn, have him sign my manifesto, and shoot off into the traffic to find the next checkpoint. I’m too busy playing chicken with traffic to ponder how many times I’ve almost tasted road burn. In a city famous for its pulse, fixed-gear Alley Cat bike challenges really gets Hong Kong racing.
A growing worldwide underground sub-culture, local Alley Cat races have their origin with bicycle messengers in North America. In order to test local couriers’ streetwise knowledge, their speed and ability to navigate obstacles, Alley Cat races were set up in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago and Vancouver. Legends were born as couriers, often seen racing around these urban centers in dangerous traffic, challenged each other for titles, prizes, but most often fun. Races consist of checkpoints to be reached, and in some cases unusual tasks to be performed on arrival. Upping the thrill factor, most couriers ride fixed-gear bikes that have no brakes, no gears, and require an expert level of control and ability. Fixed gears are popularly used in the courier messenger community because they’re easy to maintain, and for anyone with a job requiring them to run into buildings to deliver packages, the bikes are confusing and difficult for thieves. Hong Kong has seen the emergence of an urban cyclist community, attracted to the lifestyle and challenges of riding on fixed-gears. Amidst the choking car and foot traffic beneath the late-night neon lights of the Central district, I went along for the city’s first unofficial Alley Cat race. When it comes Alley Cat racing, it's important to note that nothing is official anyway.
Em, where's the brakes on these things?
“In Hong Kong, you have the taxis, the cars, the trams, the mini-buses, buses and pedestrians, it’s a little crazy but we’re doing it for the challenge,” says Brian Fu, one of the organizers. “The key is, you never stop, you run into a problem, you turn right, you keep moving,” says Jeff Welch, a native of Washington DC and courier veteran who designed the race route. “People have always looked at messengers in a special way, with a mixture of envy and lack of respect,” he tells me. “They’re attracted to the freedom and the lifestyle, but repulsed because of the sweat, danger, and dirt.” With road rage, traffic, and pollution, it’s a high-risk game, but the money can be good - top couriers can earn more than $70,000 a year delivering envelopes. “You’re on the bike nine hours a day, you’re almost killed nine times a day, but you get used to it, and you begin to need it,” says Jeff, who has a few dozen Alley Cat races under his belt. For some messengers, including some of Jeff’s friends, the job costs them their lives. Messengers trade war stories about accidents, reminisce about fallen comrades, hold parties, and even attract groupies.
About half a dozen riders meet at 10pm outside a coffee shop. The manifesto is handed out, including a checklist of destinations and tasks that must be reached in order before reaching the finish line. One of them requires racers to find two girls and tells them that they are “sooo... beautiful!” Another requires us to find a bald man named 9-Ball and rub his head. In each case, a third party must sign our manifesto to prove the task has been accomplished. We count down to the start, and the race is on, each contestant racing off into the crowds. I decide to shadow a more experienced veteran, since without him I’d be lost in the traffic and spaghetti streets within seconds. We pedal frantically, every second counts. A policeman shouts at me from the sidewalk, but I’ve already disappeared around a corner. Alley Cat racing is a do-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of activity. Biking in a light drizzle at night in Hong Kong traffic is not for the fainthearted, neither is racing on a bike that, perhaps I forgot to mention, doesn’t stop with squeeze on the handlebar. But with the wind in my hair, the exhilarating speed and the quasi-legal thrill , I can certainly understand the attraction – it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun, and hopefully surviving to trade stories at the finish line.
Just as prestige television has reinvented the high concept of broadcast drama, documentaries that investigate global issues have become vital components of civic society. Supported by the deep pockets of Netflix, Amazon, HBO and the like, it gives me hope that we’ve transcended the overly-commercial, ratings-dependant, and largely vacuous focus of traditional broadcasters, who seldom gave docs light of day. Important films and series are now being made that would never have been made before, and are seen by more people than would ever have seen them before. Their impact on our world is real. On Netflix, The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma have exposed the shocking consequences and murky mechanics of social media. Icarus unmasked Russian sport doping, 13th clearly explained systemic racism, while Capital in the 21st Century has revealed the scale of our financial folly. Produced by elite sports stars, Game Changers rewrote the book on veganism, while Last Dance and F1 Drive to Survive gave us wild access to wilder sports. Becoming and Knock Down the House hold up political heroes too. And then there’s David Attenborough.
Now in his 90’s, the legendary natural history filmmaker has grasped the potential of streaming to reach mass audiences, hosting ground-breaking series that air on Netflix as well as traditional broadcasters like the BBC. Night on Earth, Planet Earth II and Our Planet have truly pushed the boundaries (and no doubt the budgets) of what the genre can achieve, giving us jaw dropping never-before-seen glimpses into the natural world. Attenborough’s wise voice adds indisputable credibility and trust. For me, he’s always been the ultimate school teacher, an inspiring voice and authority worthy of respect. The teacher you listen to, and never forget. Other than perhaps Morgan Freeman, I can’t imagine another voice narrating spectacular natural visuals with such wonder, gravitas, reverence and enthusiasm. Which is why his latest film, David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet, moved me to tears. The final card reads: “This film is David Attenborough’s Witness Statement. Who else needs to see it?”
Everyone needs to see it. Absolutely everyone, and their families, friends and cousins too.
I read a review for the One World series that questioned why the show didn’t focus more on the imminent and deep threats to the natural world, why Attenborough is celebrating ever-diminishing diversity instead of hitting the panic switch. There’s no crime in focusing on the positive, and while all his series do address critical threats to our planet’s eco-systems, panic switches have never been Attenborough’s forte. Also, he likely knew well in advance what was coming, and exactly what his panic switch would look like.
A Life on Earth begins in spooky, desolate Pripyat, the abandoned Ukrainian city that once supported Chernobyl. I spent a couple days there, I’ve been in the same hallways, cracked apartment blocks and eerie streets. The world’s worst nuclear disaster has made this model Soviet city uninhabitable for thousands of years, an avoidable mistake blamed on human error. Likewise, we are doing the same for our planet, but our destructive global meltdown is taking place slowly in real time. When Mr. Attenborough (he deserves the prefix, as do all great teachers) tells us he has witnessed the devastation taking place over his own lifetime and with his own eyes, it warrants no discussion. For 118 minutes, everyone – boomers, millennials, scientists, corporations, politicians - needs to shut the fuck up and listen to what this extraordinary elder has to say, and respectfully bear witness to his statement. Accompanied by incredible images pooled from his many shows, he explains what is going on in clear, concise language so that a child might understand it. How the oceans and jungles and forests are dying, how we’re entering the planet’s sixth great extinction event, and how every step forward is through a series of one-way doors with no turning back. Once nature’s system is out of equilibrium, it all goes to hell. As a graphic shows the passing of his years, the loss of natural habitat, and the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, Mr. Attenborough becomes visibly more frustrated and upset. How fortunate we are to have shown up during the Holocene, a 100,000-year Eden of unprecedented natural stability. But like bad hotel guests, we’ve completely trashed the place. At this rate, Earth won’t be nearly as bountiful or habitable for future generations. The most harrowing part of the film is a projection of what the world will look like in 2030, 2050, 2080. Wildfires, dustbowls, ocean deserts, collapsing food stocks, melted ice, displaced millions…Attenborough looks away in horror, and we feel the blackness of his despair. We had so much, and we wasted it. How will the future ever forgive us?
But this is David Attenborough, a man who has seen more wonder and amazement than anyone could ever hope to see. All is not lost, and there is hope. “I’m going to tell you how,” he says. Once again, I sit up and pay attention, because as the film cuts to clips of Attenborough lecturing in Davos and for the UN, I know he’s not going into platitudes about recycling saving the Earth. Using real-world success stories in Costa Rica, Palau, and yes, even Chernobyl, Mr. A discusses the imminent approach of our peak population, with ambitious plans to protect our oceans, re-wild the scorched forests and plains, and increase vital bio-diversity. Because, he insists, that’s what it all comes down to: if we sustainably restore the system, our planet will breathe again, and it will be a win-win for our food security, stability, and human prosperity.
Often, the “we all need to change to save ourselves” diatribe can feel overly simplistic and dismissive of economic and political realities, but from the mouth of Sir David Attenborough, it left me with renewed hope and purpose. With any luck, it had an impact on his audience at Davos and UN, for those with political and economic power are the “We” that need to change most of all.
Other essential documentaries:
In a while, crocodile. Cango Wildlife Park, South Africa
have entered a cage four times to stare into the eyeballs of four famously dangerous creatures that one is strongly advised – and I cannot emphasize this enough - not to stare into the eyeballs of. Psychologists could unpack a fascinating study behind the motivations behind the people who choose, willingly and with good money, to get close to animals like sharks, crocodiles and lions. Not that such a study has ever been commissioned, since scientists of all ilk are currently laundering lab coats for more pressing concerns. Since we live in an age of misinformation, I may as well just invent one. According to global peer reviewed research study (*that was neither peer-reviewed, researched nor studied), thousands of people choose to cage-dive with dangerous animals because:
Curiously, 63% of these non-existent participants said they harboured a deep and unexplainable fear of the above-mentioned animals, and 12% said they only signed up having felt guilty for entering the booking office with the sole intention of using the toilet. Whatever floats your boat, and that's where we'll begin, bobbing off the east coast of South Africa on the lookout for man-eating Great White Sharks. Since they are widely known for bearing progressive and egalitarian natures, the Great Whites eat women too.
Nice fishy: Mossel Bay, South Africa
When I entered the cage, I was still between the teeth of the shark phobia that had plagued me since watching Jaws on a hotel movie channel as a 6-year-old on his first beach holiday. Fast forward a few decades, and I’d seen far better movies which highlighted the vital role sharks play in the eco-system, the horrific carnage behind their hunting for shark-fin soup, and their overall misunderstanding within popular culture. Fact is (and this is a real fact): Sharks are amazing. If they wanted to eat people, hundreds of us would be attacked every day, all around the world. In reality, you have more chance of struck by lightning or drowning in a bathtub (this is also true). I jumped into the cage, and had a life-changing experience with a rather large great white who could have attacked me from beneath (where the thick cage inexplicably and unnervingly morphed into a wire-hangar-thin mesh). From that moment, I resolved to learn how to scuba dive, and have since shared an underwater, cage-free space with sharks from Hawaii to the Papua New Guinea. That first cage dive truly changed my life for the better. If you insist and persist on eating shark-fin soup, please look at yourself in the mirror, then jump out a high window. Millions of sharks needlessly massacred each year will thank you.
Swimming with Salties: Crocosaurus Cove, Australia.
Crocodiles are an entirely different beast. For starters, they simply want to eat you. No curiosity here, no meeting of creatures or confusion because you look like a seal. To a crocodile, we look like lunch, which is why they quickly surrounded me in the pool. At Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa, I entered a steel cage and was lowered into a pool. At Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, northern Australia, I was inside a cylindrical Perspex tube with a few too many croc teeth scrapes for comfort. The Nile and Saltwater dinosaurs that decided I looked too delicious to pass up bumped me around a bit, their large orange reptilian eyes gazing deep into my soul. 17% of our fictional survey participants mentioned they enjoyed the sensation of feeling like prey. I, for one, did not. While my shark cage encounter made me want to dive with (admittedly less fierce) sharks in the wild, the croc cages left me twitchy about the Crocodile Warning signs I later encountered at popular swimming holes outside of Darwin and in tropical north Queensland. The mere thought of saltwater crocs patrolling the coast keeps locals off the beaches, and one taxi driver told me about a pet dog that ran to the beach, jumped into the water, and was promptly gobbled up by a lurking croc. According to a BBC Report, the best tip for surviving a crocodile attack is to avoid getting attacked. That's one helpful report, I don't know what we'd do without it.
Somewhere in Bohol, Philippines.
The Burmese python acting as a living sofa above was a roadside in attraction I passed somewhere in the Philippines. Entering its cage seemed like something to do. Once I was seated, I started questioning what on earth they could be feeding this thing. The answer, I hoped, was not dumb tourists who enter snake cages at roadside attractions
Lions 360 at Monarto Zoo, South Australia
Finally, I should mention that I once got into a cage surrounded by hungry lions. Inspired by shark cage dives, the Monarto Zoo in South Australia offers a Lions 360 experience, with feeding time for the zoo’s female pride coinciding with lucky tourists paying a little extra to be in a caged enclosure. The lions, which roam in a very large space that resembles the African bush, get to walk on the cage feet above your head, and close enough for you to smell their aroma, breath, and, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, their urine. My daughter was five years old at the time, and the lions paid special attention to her, recognizing our group’s weakest link. As well fed as they were, I had little doubt they would have gladly added a curly-haired dessert to their carefully monitored intake of horse (or perhaps kangaroo) meat. For further insight, here's a little video of Lions360 that I made about that experience.
Lions, crocs, snakes, sharks…getting close to dangerous wild animals is always memorable, especially when you’re in an environment designed to ensure you’ll live long enough for the memories. I’ve had close encounters in the wild with hippos (which kill far more people than crocs in Africa), grizzly bears, polar bears, piranha, elephants, orca, cheetahs, baboons, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and far too many mosquitoes (which kill many, many more people each year than any of the above). Every experience left me in awe of nature and the creatures we share this planet with. Except the mosquitoes. Those bastards just left me itchy.
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.
Now this is how one executes a photo bomb.
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."
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.
An Old Lady Lived in a Shoe in an Enchanted Forest
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.
The Pipe Mountain Coaster
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?
Paddle at the Rumpus Beer Company
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).
A Pirate Battle
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.
Here comes the train!
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.
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.
Phoebe finds a nice, warm, comfy place to sleep for the night.
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.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.