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.
With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper). Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.
We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?” Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.
The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips. Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get. Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.
Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.
Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do. Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.
I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences. You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia. Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT), being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis). But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.
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.
A recent article brought to light hilarious predictions of travel in the future that didn't come true. I've made my own. Flying to fashion, entertainment to passports, here's my crystal ball of what the future of travel could look like.
I’m on a 15-hour direct flight from Sydney to Vancouver, an impossible flight twenty five years ago. Lighter aircraft using better technology means we can fly further and cheaper than ever before. Through the curtain a few rows up, I see business class passengers (the lucky bastards) fully reclined in their cubicles. Comfort and on-board entertainment is leaping forward. Perhaps one day we’ll see flying cruise ships, where it will be possible to reach anywhere in unimagined comfort. Perhaps we’ll have floating hotels, or stopovers in the sky. New environmentally friendly fuels generate power at a fraction of the cost, as the world becomes increasingly smaller, even for us here in Economy Class.
I remember backpacking through Europe many years ago, completely bewildered by the array and diversity of currencies. Not one to dwell on the socio-political impact of the euro (or the sinister whisperings around the so-called amero) but there’s no doubt it has made travelling easier. A worldwide currency? These days I use my credit card as much as I can, or withdraw local currency from global banking networks. Imagine a world where one card carries everything you could possibly need. Some people might argue we’re already there, but then some people should visit the developing world before making such assumptions.
The cameras get smaller, the memory gets bigger, the pictures get clearer. Here’s a device that fits via a radio frequency onto the cornea of your eye. All you have to do is blink, and a perfect HD video or high-resolution photo is recorded, and immediately sorted according to a voice command. Virtual visual experiences, like the ones featured in the classic underrated sci-fi movie Strange Days, could take you on lifelike adventures to foreign shores without leaving your living room. Until someone invents such a device, you’re stuck with travel writers like me.
James Bond zips around the world, looking fantastic, carrying nothing so much as a cell phone charger, yet with a different pair of sunglasses in every destination. Maybe Q invented a pair of sunglasses that double as video monitors, connected to a 10 terabyte harddrive the size of a pinhead. It’s loaded with movies, TV, guidebooks, a global cellphone, e-books, GPS maps, music, photos, translators, wireless in-ear receivers and recipes for gin martinis. James Bond doesn’t have time to go the movies, pick up a book, or carry an cellphone. One pair of shades, and we’ve got everything we need. Including an electronic locater, when we inevitably lose them at the backseat of a taxi.
In our increasingly digital age, it’s almost quaint to think we travel with a little book that is absolutely essential for our safe passage. Be it immigration officials or dodgy police officers who want to see our papers, our ID’s can instead be written in our very bodies, from our fingerprints to our retinas. Biometric scanners should be able to tag us wherever we are, although the potential for a ruthless big brother scenario is just as probable as the potential for less hassle.
Our safety is of such concern that we’ve been reduced to confiscating toothpaste on airplanes, or blowing up suspicious items like someone’s forgotten shopping bag. Unhackable E-passports should help lock down the bad guys, but if there’s a will there’s a way. That’s why X-ray vision capable of identifying weapons and contagious illnesses will hone in on everyone getting on a bus, plane or subway (privacy advocates will ensure it is not subject to abuse.). Meanwhile, political or environment turbulence will be analyzed information and quickly distributed by a panel of professionals, trained to avoid disseminating panic and fear. Hey, I can dream…
Besides the sunglasses equipped with every gadget you can think of (the failure of Google Glasses notwithstanding), I look forward to clothes with integrated nanobots that automatically refresh, clean and kill all foreign bacteria. Furthermore, one item of clothing will be able to change colour, shape and style depending on what you need it for. Surely this is what our favourite superspies Bourne and Bond use. Nanotechnology will also give us a hat that stretches into a hammock or cot, a belt that transforms into a sleeping bag, and while we’re at it, a jacket that turns into an indestructible mobile panic room, should you find yourself needing a sudden emergency exit.
The Final Frontier
Space tourism has already started, and much like tourism in its very early days, the final frontier is reserved for those of incredible wealth and means. At some point in the future, major hotel chains will open on the moon, and Vegas-style space stations will follow. After all, what goes on in Space, stays in Space. The discovery that quantum physics and string theory can bend the space-time continuum will open up new planets for brave explorers, and a few months later, name-tagged package tours. “Off the beaten track” will make way for the “off the chartered galaxy”, and expect a series of guidebooks, Lonely Universe, to shepherd budget-minded earthlings to the seven corners of the galaxy.
CBC News called to ask me what I think about a proposed Bill of Rights for airline passengers in Canada. Somewhat surprisingly, Canada trails the USA and many European countries who guarantee that passengers are compensated for delays, lost baggage and extended time on the tarmac. Passengers in Canada currently have to rely on the kindness of airline staff sorting out messes they're not responsible for, and insurance policies with print so fine you'd need a magnifying glass to claim any benefit. Throw in irate passengers foaming at the mouth and you can see how it can quickly escalate.
Personally, in countless flights around the world, my luggage has only ever been delayed three times. Not lost mind you, just delayed. We arrived in Colombia to film the first episode of Word Travels, but our bags didn’t meet us at the conveyer belt. Fortunately we had all our camera gear with us, so we just hit the ground running and bought a couple ponchos as a wardrobe change. It’s worth remembering that, according to the company behind the World Tracer System, just 7 bags per 1000 passengers get mishandled (although that does translate into over 24 million mishandled items a year). Still, there’s a 99% chance that your bag will make it through the labyrinth of airline travel and meet you on the other side, and if it doesn’t, it meets up you with shortly. Flights gets delayed. Screws need to be tightened. Weather causes havoc. It’s been my experience that patience, understanding, and a smile go a long way towards airline staff helping you out. If someone screamed at me, I’d go out of my way to ensure I help the understanding passenger behind them first. Remember, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes!
As I explain in the interview, a Passenger Bill of Rights will help Canadian passengers feel a sense of control. The entire flying process can be nervewracking because of the control we relinquish. We place trust our trust in a lot of people (and a lot of mechanics) to work efficiently and effectively so we can get to that meeting/beach/wedding on time. There’s simply not much we can do when things go wrong. Knowing there’s some form of compensation, be it a hotel room, meal or financial compensation, at least gives the semblance that we’re in control of something. And airlines should be held to task if they slack off on performance or make promises they can’t keep.
I was staring into a black monitor and didn’t know I was live for the first few seconds. With a 3-week old baby keeping me up all night, I look like I just got off a red-eye flight from Timbutku. Before my segment were typical news reports about upheaval and chaos. I was asked to share a story of an airline mishap, and so brought up the time photographer Jeff Topham and I joked how funny it would be if the airline lost our bags on the way to Antarctica. And sure enough, Jeff’s bags never made it from Toronto to Buenos Aires. He showed up for a 10-day expedition cruise in the icy wastelands of the 7th continent with jeans and a T-shirt. But with a quick (albeit expensive) shop in Ushuaia and loaner gear from the crew, it all turned out great. His bags were waiting for us at the hotel on our return. As soon as the interview was over, I realized that I probably said the last thing people expect to hear on the news: That despite occasional frustrations and mishaps, it always works out in the end.
Los Angeles traffic feels like a stuffy nose. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, or the 10, or the 91, you start wishing for a cosmic tissue to blow away the insufferable congestion. Eventually the jams peter out on the I-15, disappearing on Highway 79 South altogether. At last, some tumbleweed! My car slices through rolling brown hills that seem familiar from Hollywood westerns. Up ahead is the Warner Springs Airstrip, a saloon for modern sky sailors. We are here to tick off sailplaning, or sky sailing, or soaring, or whatever you want to use to describe the act of gliding a fibreglass dragonfly in the dreamy California sky.
Lining the airstrip are white coffin-shaped boxes containing easy-to-assemble sailplanes. Although fixed-wing gliding has been around since the Wright Brothers, the aircraft took off recreationally after World War II, when Germans were restricted to flying non-powered planes. Modern German-built gliders, withstand more pressure than fighter jets, have reached over 13,000 metres in altitude, and covered an incredible 2250 kilometres. It is said that the best pilots in the world are avid gliders, capable of feeling the winds beneath their wings. Case in point: when a section of a fuselage blew out, a pilot named Dave Cronin credited his gliding skills with saving all aboard his Boeing 747. Good to know as I cram into my seat behind the sailplane pilot. We are connected to a small prop plane with a sixty-metre metal tow wire. It’s a bumpy take-off, the glider rattling and flexing on the ground with the grace of a running swan. My nerves start to shake with the seat. Unless one is prepared to invest $300,000 for a new state-of-the-art Stemme, most gliders are designed for thrills over comfort. Before the tow-plane even leaves tarmac, our glider lifts gently into the air, tuned up and eager for altitude. The swan elegantly takes flight. Once we reach one thousand metres, the pilot signals me to pull a lever and cut our umbilical cord to the plane. Suddenly, I am inside the eye of an albatross.
Much like hanggliding or paragliding, sailplane pilots hunt warm pockets of air called thermals in order to gain elevation. Each pocket of warm air results in a dramatic upwards swing. Safely strapped in, there’s not enough room in the cockpit for too much bouncing around from the turbulence. Air gushes in from breathing holes on the sides, which I open up all the way in case of motion sickness. This increases the noise level, but takes nothing away the thrill of pure flight. No engines, no fuel – just air currents, speed and grace.
“Do you want to see what this baby can do?” asks the pilot.
That’s usually a rhetorical question, one I’ve been asked several times researching this Bucket List, and one I have never yet answered in the affirmative. Dave Cronin suddenly nosedives the sailplane and there is so much blood rushing to my head it might just explode. He's pulling a David Cronenberg!
You know that moment when you’re on a rollercoaster and wonder if you’re going to fall out? When you pull tricks in a sailplane, that moment doesn’t stop. The speed and pressure is incredible, increased as the pilot points the nose upwards, giving us the sensation of negative G-force. Weightless for a moment, his walkie-talkie floats above our heads. Worth noting at this point is the volume of my screaming, and the fact that I am wondering if vomit can cleanly squeeze through the diameter of the breathing holes. We level out, and after a twenty-five minute ride, land on the runway, speed along to the main office, and come to an abrupt stop. Gravity feels especially heavy, but there’s some relief when my feet touch the ground. Unfortunately, I’ll have to use those feet for the drive back to Los Angeles, where soaring is strictly reserved for the imaginations of would-be starlets.
For more info, including directions, weather and rates, visit: www.skysailing.com
I’m standing on a gravel airstrip on the north of Somerset Island, permanent population zero. During the summer months, tourists visit an amazing eco-lodge called Arctic Watch, watching thousands of Beluga whales, swimming in crystal waterfalls, and hiking in the tundra. As we waited for our charter return flight to arrive, with supplies and a new arrival of guests, the weather closed in. Keeping an eye out for polar bears, it got me thinking about other remote landing strips, and in particular airports. Pilots can land a plane on any dirt strip, but a commercial airport requires infrastructure, a yellowing bathroom, maybe a broken vending machine. Military airports need not apply. Here’s some of the world’s most remote, along with some of my own adventures discovering them.
Resolute Bay Airport, Nunavut
Airport Code: YRB
Since we’re in the North, lets start with the closest airport to my landing strip on Somerset Island, in this case, Resolute. It’s the second most northerly community in Canada, population around 240. The Inuktitut word for Resolute literally means “place without dawn.” Midnight sun in summer, Arctic night in winter, and the sun never rises either way. The airport receives regular flights from First Air as well as charter planes, and plans are afoot for the Canadian Military to expand the airport to make it a major Arctic centre for its operations. In the meantime, the community gratefully receives its supplies, and lifeline, from planes landing at its simple airport.
Perth International, Australia
Airport Code: PER
It’s the fourth busiest airport in Australia, serving the capital of Western Australia with a population of 1.75 million. So how does Perth International feature on this list of outposts? After all, it services 37 airlines flying to 77 destinations, and over a thousand flights a week! The answer is simple: Perth is arguably the most isolated city in the world, closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney (there are arguments that Honolulu is more isolated, in which case, we should add Honolulu International HNL to this list). Sure, it’s far from everything, but it also boasts sensational beaches, Australia’s wine growing region, and a wonderful quality of life.
Bahir Dar Ethiopia
Airport Code: BJR
Admittedly, Bahir Dar is not one of the world’s most remote airports, but trust me, it’s the last place on earth you’d ever want to end up. OK, I’m being a bit harsh, but I did spend 8 hours there, and you probably did not. What happened was our Ethiopian Airways flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela stopped off in Bahir Dar as per schedule. We took off again, flew ten minutes over Lake Tana, and the pilot announced engine troubles. Not a good thing to hear, so I was somewhat relieved when we landed safely back at Bahir Dar. Four sweltering hours later, during which time I counted every cracking tile in the airport wall, the replacement plane arrived. Problem is, it had broken down too. So we waited another four hours for the replacement replacement plane. We arrived 10 hours late, nerves frazzled, but thankfully, in one piece. And that’s all we can really ask for, right?
Kulusuk Airport, Greenland
Airport Code: KUS
Another isolated northern airport, this time on the east coast of Greenland. Since everyone knows Greenland is far icier than Iceland (which services the airport), it’s rather disturbing to note the airport doesn’t have de-icing equipment. The terminal does have a duty free shop, a small cafeteria, and considering there are only 3 to 5 flights a day, a reputation for being chaos in the arrivals/departure hall. Kulusuk is the gateway to Ammassalik, a remote region that does receive a fair share of tourists chasing Arctic adventures.
Atiu, Cook Islands
Airport Code: AIU
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands, covering a whopping 1.8 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean. Tourists might visit a couple inhabited islands, and the views of the turquoise lagoons are simple staggering. On Atiu, I got dirty in an ancient burial cave, joined in a local birthday party, and had a great time in a traditional bush pub, sharing homemade orange moonshine out of a coconut cup with a dozen locals. When it was time to fly back to Rarotonga, the friendliness of this tiny island (population 560) was literally on display at the airport. A sign above the waiting hut read: “Voluntary Security Check: Would passengers please hand in their AK47’s, bazookas, grenades, explosives, and nukes to the pilot on boarding the aircraft. Airport Management thanks you for your cooperation. “
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport, Russia
Airport Code: PKC
In the world of highly remote eco-adventures, the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka is making waves with its lunar landscape, snowcapped mountain peaks and volcanoes. Since there are no roads or rail connecting the region to the mainland, the airport is the lifeline for the region’s main town, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Seasonal flights are bringing tourists in from the USA, Japan, China and Moscow. The peninsula is also home to Russia’s largest submarine base, and while isolated, has a population of 180,000. Moscow is just a nine-hour flight away!
Mataveri International Airport, Easter Island, Chile
Airport Code: IPC
Widely regarded as the world’s most remote airport, Mataveri is 3759 kilometres away from the nearest airport, in Santiago, Chile. For all its isolation, the airport does do brisk traffic, thanks to tourists arriving from Santiago, Tahiti and Lima primarily to see the famed stone heads that mysteriously guard the island. Easter Island is perhaps the world’s most remote inhabited island, so stands to reason its airport makes the list. With an asphalt runway serving 737’s, the airport was also an abort site during the space shuttle program.
St Helena Airport, British Overseas Territory
Airport Code: TBA
When construction is complete, the South Atlantic island of St Helena will boast one of the world’s most remote civilian airports, more than 2000 kilometres from the nearest landmass. The island is actually the centre of three British Overseas Territories, which are easily accessible should you happen to own a superpowered submarine. Ascension Island is only 1,300 kilometres north, while Tristan da Cunha is 2,400 kilometres south. Some 4255 people live on St Helena, with all food, equipment and supplies arriving by boat, which is expected to be retired in 2016 when the airport is complete.
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 battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.