- There are too many people and the crowd overwhelms the experience.
- It is too expensive and you feel jilted by the cost.
- The wildlife didn’t turn up because, you know, wildlife.
- The weather sucked, so you’re too busy focusing on how great it would be if the weather didn’t suck.
- You were robbed, fell ill, got hit by a bus, or were press-ganged into slavery aboard a Thai tuna fishing vessel.
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.
Get over Jaws. Sharks rarely attack humans, are vital to the marine eco-system, and as any diver will tell you, a thrill to meet in their natural habitat. With rampant shark finning, the entire species is at risk. Encounter them underwater, and you’ll quickly realize just how beautiful, and harmless sharks really are.
Mossel Bay, South Africa, Great White
The coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape is full of Great White Sharks, the most feared predator in the ocean. Cage diving is popular and while thrilling, is completely safe. Years later, I can still see that Great White coming towards me, literally rattling my cage.
Malapascua Island, Philippines, Threshers
A stunning tropical island, Malapascua is the only place where you can dive with thresher sharks every day, due to “cleaning stations” that attract the sharks in nearby Monad Shoal. Shy around divers, threshers are known for their distinctive tail.
Shark Reef, Fiji
For those looking for variety, Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve has a regular shark population of 8 different species: Whitetip Reef, Blacktip Reef, Grey Reef, Tawny Nurse, Sicklefin Lemon, Silvertip, Bull and Tiger sharks are all found in the reserve.
Galapagos Islands,, Hammerheads
During the December to May season, divers on live-aboards yachts around Darwin and Wolf Islands can find themselves in the water with thousands of hammerheads. Aggressive predators for marine life , hammerheads do not attack humans unless provoked.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico, Whale sharks
From June to September, hundreds of whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, gather north of Isla Mujeres to feed in waters rich with plankton. Tour companies let you snorkel with the sharks, although you are not allowed to touch them.
Flora Islet BC, Six Gill Sharks
Divers hope to encounter elusive six gill sharks in the emerald waters off Vancouver Island. Typically found in deeper waters these ancient-looking sharks can grow to over 6m in length. Thanks to the Scuba Diver Girls for this great video of a sevengill shark dive off La Jolla Cove, California.
Grand Bahama, Tiger Sharks
Fierce Tiger sharks gather by the hundreds in the warm, clear waters of “Tiger Beach”, a dive site popular with cage diving operators. Experienced, less timid divers can leave the cage and be surrounded by Tigers, who are not afraid to get up close and personal.
Palau – Reef sharks
With 50 metre plus visibility clear Palau is renowned as one of the best diving locations in the world. Since establishing the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2001, it’s also one of the best places to dive with sharks.
Get on the Friends of Sharks Facebook page, and look into organizations like Shark Truth that are helping to spread the word about the evils of shark finning.
In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets and monitors, sits a small button. 24 hours a day, an officer monitors the equipment, awaiting a single phone call. On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads hits multiple targets in the United States. In the ensuing carnage, each warhead vaporizes an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it. Millions die instantly, millions more slowly from the release of deadly radiation. Life as we know it ceases to exist, as thousands of similar missiles criss-cross the skies seeing their targets. All it takes is one push of the button, located in a control room 33-metres below the Ukrainian countryside. My finger draws near. My hand starts to shake.
Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the countryside, missile units were surrounded by armed guards, 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases. Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled. Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister. Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world. As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo. Immediately, the atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy. Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.
Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade. If the orders had come down, as they nearly did on several occasions, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities. Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a stick pointer. He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing. The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions.
I remove my Ray Ban sunglasses as we leave the bright sunshine behind and enter the guts of the facility. The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only. Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, while above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo. The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks. In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”.
We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12. A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck. I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank. Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door. Bleak as a tomb, this was the living quarters for the two officers on duty. An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room. All signs of life are removed. Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities only exist here in the imagination. I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing.
Even though the button is useless and the missiles long since destroyed, it feels like I’m playing with an unloaded gun. I’m thinking about the horrifying photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above. Is the barrel empty? My hand shakes. I just cannot bring myself to do it. Some buttons are just not meant to be pushed.
My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot sun to warm them. I put my sunglasses on, my eyes struggling with the afternoon light. Various missiles are on display outside, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built. NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”, an apt name for pure technological evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.
The most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist around the world, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call. Even as Russia and the USA work to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.
Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this tool of “mutually assured destruction” into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is located 3.5 hours drive from Kiev. It is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Tour operators in Kiev can arrange transport and entrance.
It took three, long hours to get to the temple. An hour of that was figuring out which bus to take, negotiating the ticket, and finding directions to the correct platform. Five people were crammed into a seat built for three, and although there were no live animals, there was a freshly slaughtered chicken. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, it was intense, and it was vivid. This is travel, and this is all worth it. I hike up the hill, and there it is, a beautiful stone temple, glowing in the sun. I take a deep breath, pull out my camera, and then I see them. Over a hundred tourists, wearing name tags, following a red umbrella. Ladies and gentlemen: begin the debate!
Travellers carry towels, never iron their clothes, and freak out when there’s a schedule. Tourists stay in nice hotels, look forward to going home, and typically pay the set price. Travellers discard guidebooks, tourists clutch them closely to their chests. Travellers need a holiday when they return home, tourists leave home for a holiday. Or vice-versa.
The Traveller vs Tourist is a timeless, heated debate. Many backpackers make proud, public announcements so nobody might confuse them with being a tourist. Many tourists seem compelled to sheepishly justify their package vacation, while others would never dream of leaving the comfort bubble of a tour bus. Never mind that both groups are united in the same purpose – to leave their homes and discover something new. And never mind that tourists don’t seem too bothered by the whole debate in general – it’s usually travellers, sitting in a dive bar, scratching the dirt from under their fingernails, scoffing at the thought of seeing anywhere from the comfort of, dare I say it, a brightly coloured tour bus.
I get queasy when I read or hear others talk about what makes a real traveller. Writes one popular blog: “A real traveller avoids hotels or restaurants. A real traveller does not buy souvenirs because a real traveller never goes home. A real traveller only carries two pairs of underwear, knows more than the guidebooks, and never goes where the tourists go.” To which I say: “Real Traveller, you also sound a like a real idiot.”
At the root of this inane rivalry is the assumption that one experience is better, more authentic, and more valuable than the other. I love it when I meet “real travellers” and the conversation goes like this:
Them: “Have you been to Bolivia.”
Me: “Yes, I’ve spent three weeks in the country.”
Them: Did you go to [insert obscure destination here].
Me: No, I would have loved to, but focused on [insert second obscure destination].
Them: Oh, then you haven’t seen the REAL Bolivia!
Me (under my breath): So many stupid people, so few asteroids.
Every single one of us is different, and every single one of us will have a different experience, even if we’re in the same place. Further, by definition, anyone who travels can be called a traveller. Some travellers like comfort, peace of mind with their security, being told where to go, and even what to wear. Some travellers like crowded buses, smelly toilets, sleeping in dorms and bargaining for everything. Seriously, they love this stuff! Judging someone by the experience they choose (with little thought to decision-making factors like budget, time, health, or personal preference) is like judging someone because of the colour of their skin, religion, or personal belief.
There, I’ve said it. The old debate is nothing more than thinly veiled racism, which, like all racism, is steeped in ignorance, fear, envy, and several ounces of basic stupidity. Still, I don’t see the argument ending anytime soon. As I watched the busload of Japanese name-taggers descend on my (my!) hard-fought temple, having being comfortably dropped off by their luxury air-conditioned bus, I couldn’t help but feel they had missed out on the best part of the journey. And when I told them what I could expect on the long road home, they wondered why anyone in their right mind would put themselves through such an ordeal. It felt rejuvenating to be independent, but I was jealous as hell of their comfort.
There’s no right way to apply ketchup to your fries, scratch an itch, or smile at a stranger. While we can always and should learn from the advice of others, there’s also no right way to see the world.
There is only your way.
Bucket Lists are so much more than places to see and things to do. They can teach us about the world we live in, our place within it, who we are, and where we come from. Whatever nationality you’re descended from, visiting the country of your ancestors results in rich, emotional travel. Genealogical tourism first exploded in the 1970’s, largely credited to the success of Alex Haley’s book (and subsequent television series) Roots. With the evolution of online genealogy tools - designed to make databasing and research as simple as ever – it has now become one of the busiest traffic segments online. Dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers become private investigators of their familial pasts, looking for unlikely connections, unusual stories, and answers to questions of their origins. If you think social media is addictive, try looking into your own lineage.
Genealogists advise to start with what you know. I know my grandfather was born in a small village in northern Lithuania called Kupiskis. Before booking a flight to the Baltics, I hit up the All-Seeing Eye of Everything (aka Google) and found a wealth of knowledge. Kupaskis, like all shtetls in Europe, has a tragic history. Before World War II, forty-one percent of its population were Jews, all of who were rounded up and brutally murdered by local Nazi collaborators. Over three thousand men, women and children were massacred, including members of my own family. While many people travel to the countries of their heritage expecting to encounter long lost relatives, there is no chance of physically discovering a forgotten branch of my own family tree. Despite this, I headed off to Lithuania, eager to see what else I might discover.
Vilnius is a lovely European capital, with big town squares, cobblestone, cheap beer, few tourists, and welcoming locals. It’s a three-hour drive from the city to Kupiskis, which is no longer a shtetl, just a small industrial town. Piloting an old rental van, the surrounding countryside explodes in the colours of fall. Each passing kilometre is one more step into the past. A bold sign on the outskirts signals I have arrived in the town. I feel like a grown turtle washing ashore on the very beach on which I was hatched.
In 2004, a group of fifty Kupiskis descendents from as far away as the US, UK, South Africa, Denmark and Australia visited this small town to dedicate a memorial to the Jewish families wiped out in the war. They were greeted by the town mayor, and presented with a list of the names and ages of the victims compiled by a local midwife during the war – the only such list that exists in the country. These names are now engraved on a memorial on a plaque on the old synagogue, which is now the town’s library, and my first stop. I run my hand over the names on the memorial, stopping at several with the surname root of Ezroch. It is exhilarating to meet the names of these ancestors, and depressing to know what happened to them. I’ve found and lost new family members all at once.
Late afternoon Kupaskis is half asleep, the streets deserted. Red and gold leaves cover the roads. Some locals still get around in a horse and buggy. There are a few clues of the town’s rich Jewish history; the old library, and a street named Sinagogo, still lined with century-old old wooden houses. It is cold and damp, and I wonder how my great-grandparents adjusted to the hot, dry veldt when they immigrated to South Africa before the first World War. I wonder what might have been if they didn’t. With the help of a local guide named Regina Kopilevich, who specializes in genealogical tours, I visit several mass graves, some of them with memorials, some of them with vandalized plaques. Who would deface a mass grave? The same kind of person responsible for its existence in the first place.
Jews and Gentiles had co-existed peacefully here since the 16th century. Regina leads me to the ancient, wooden house of a 91 year-old local woman named Veronica. Floating in and out of lucidity, she recalls babysitting Jewish children, even singing me a few Yiddish lullabies from the depth of her memory. Her house overlooks the Freethinkers Cemetery, a nearby site of one of the worst massacres. Veronica witnessed the children in her care stripped, lined up, and murdered.
“I still see their faces,” she says, “I cried and cried.”
The room is freezing, as if all the joy in the world has been sucked right out of it. Veronica died a few months after my visit, taking those lullabies and horrors to her own grave.
Watch an extended clip of my visit to Kupiskis while filming my TV show, Word Travels
Back in Vilnius, I spent hours researching life in Kupiskis, reading old reports, and the testimonials of survivors. I Skyped my grandmother in Johannesburg and asked questions, feeling somewhat disappointed in myself that I had never asked her these questions before. In turn, she was fascinated by what Lithuania looks like today, what has become of Kupiskis, a place that always haunted my late grandfather. Lithuania’s history did not settle. First the evils of Hitler, then Stalin, it became the first Eastern Bloc country to declare its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Although my own roots were dug up, I’m nevertheless drawn to country, its under-the-skin familiarity. Three of my four grandparents were Lithuanian. It must count for something.
Michael, a distant cousin in New York, is an amateur genealogist and proved a great resource prior to my visit. He amassed over three thousand names on my family tree. I asked him how others should begin their personal journey. “Talk to your parents and the oldest people you can find in your family. Ask them very specific questions. Names of places, birth dates, if they have any newspaper clippings,” he told me. Every time an elder family member passes away, they take with them an important piece of the puzzle.
Genealogical travel brings the rewards of travel you’ll find anywhere: beautiful landscapes, interesting new cultures, people, food, and history. Yet when you journey into the land of your heritage, it makes those rewards all the more relevant. You don’t need plane tickets or hard earned savings to begin your quest either. If you’ve ever wondered about where you come from, your Bucket List simply wants you to start asking questions.
Note: There are thousands of volunteer genealogical societies worldwide who can help you start your search. Websites like Cyndis List and JewishGen contain many links to get you started, and there's all sorts of software to utilize. Talk to the people you know before going to online archives, census records, obituaries, newspaper clippings, and other sources of information. It is highly likely you’ll soon encounter a relative or enthusiast on the same path, eager to share and learn from you. Remember, when publishing personal information on websites and databases to respect others privacy.