Miracles and moments in Lourdes

Fifteen kilometres from the holy theme park that is Lourdes I veer off the D937 at the sight of castle turrets poking out from behind trees. Closer inspection and an illegal U-turn reveals a picturesque Pyrenees village called Lestelle-Betharram, which comprises a boarding school, a Baroque church and not much more.

The fairytale castle turns out to be a series of magnificent stone follies set along a path that zigzags up a woody hill. These house the Stations of the Cross extravagantly carved representations of Jesus’s grisly journey and I follow them to the top, where a young man in a Scouts uniform silently points me towards a simple church. It’s so peaceful up here, eye-to-eye with the surrounding hills, fat with foliage on this early summer morning.

Opposite the church, three empty crucifixes gleam white like bones in the sun. As I’m making my way back down the steep path the stillness is broken by boys on mountain bikes, brakes squealing and tyres slipping on golden leaves. In their wake, the place seems rejuvenated, enlivened by the fearlessness of youth.

When I reach the seventh station, I wonder if I’ve lost the plot I can hear angels singing. It turns out to be a troupe of Scouts led by a priest in black robes. They are singing a Latin hymn in three-part harmony as they slowly proceed up the hill. They pause before the station and the priest gives a sermon. I don’t understand the words but his voice has me in a trance and I close my eyes and say “amen” with the boys. Nothing exists except the voices of the choir as they carry on singing.

An hour later, I’m in Lourdes trying to choose between a Mother Teresa tea towel and a St Bernadette snow dome as a gift for my nanna. This village, where the Virgin Mother appeared to St Bernadette, is overrun with souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants serving every cuisine from the Catholic Empire.

There are pilgrims, of course, millions of them every year, and tourists too. Down in the Sanctuary, you see the former being carted around in blue wheelbarrows and the latter snapping pictures of the devout at prayer in the gaudy church.

I pass a scrum of pilgrims jostling to fill official and unofficial vessels with holy water and find myself at the place where it all began. I don’t join the queue of people waiting to be admitted to the cave where Mary is said to have revealed herself to the young shepherdess but watch on as a woman cries out to the Virgin, pressing her palms to the walls.

At that moment, I hear music heralding from above. It’s the sound of bagpipes reverberating off the cliff-face above the cave. With the sound comes a procession of Scottish pilgrims wearing tam o’shanters as they’re pulled towards the cave in their blue carts.

The bagpipes stop and a priest gives a Scottish sermon. When the music starts again, the pilgrims are helped through the cave and I realise: on a big scale or small, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Something About Mary, The Sun-Herald, May 3, 2009

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Harrassed by hawkers at Angkor Wat

Perched on a temple in Angkor, Cambodia, I paused for a moment to adjust my camera’s settings. It was peaceful up here, not a tourist in sight. When I’d told my motorbike driver I wanted to see everything, he hadn’t believed me. Halfway into day three and he was starting to get the picture.

Speaking of pictures, I needed to change film. Sitting down to open the back of my camera I heard a high-pitched, “Mister! Mister!” A tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her five-for-a-dollar scarves at me. I already had 20 of the things.

“Mister! Mister! Mister! You want batteries?”

Before I could respond she came flying up the side of the temple. These junior hawkers aren’t allowed to solicit business on the sacred monuments but somehow she’d taken my panicked, planes-are-landing refusal gestures as a yes. I fled down the other side of the temple, hopping down the steep tiers with a six-year-old in hot pursuit. A toothless monk cackled as I passed; it was like a scene from Tomb Raider.

I know I could have just said no, but these kids were professionals and I was a big sucker. They knew it, I knew it and my dwindling supply of US dollars (they weren’t interested in the Cambodian kind) proved it. The day before I’d fallen for the old let-me-show-you-around trick and later that day had found myself trying to outrun a one-legged man because I had no money left to give.

I leapt on the back of the bike shouting, “Go, go, go!” at the rider. The ride to my last temple was hot and dusty and when we arrived I was desperate for a drink from an abandoned-looking shack.

I’d barely sat down when a young boy appeared looking forlorn beside me. “Scarf, lady? Where you from? Flute?” I somehow managed to decline and he planted himself opposite, examining me.

“You buy me a Coke.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

He beamed at me with a good-natured smile. He was a stunning child with a grin that would do a Hollywood dentist proud.

“You have beautiful teeth,” I told him. “I don’t want to ruin them. I’ll buy you a water. Deal?”


He spoke eight languages, yet had never been to school. His family had come from the south to Siem Reap for the tourist dollar.

He ran off to tell my driver where to take me for dinner that night and when he came back I was scribbling in my diary. I looked up and he gave me the huge smile, then chomped on the piece of sugar cane in his hand. So much for his teeth.

“Can I take your picture?” I asked. He posed for me, sugar cane in fist, but my camera wouldn’t work. I fiddled with the buttons, checked the film was loaded properly. My new friend looked at the camera, then asked, “Lady, you want battery?”

“Yes,” I told him, “I want battery.”

Assault & Battery, The Sun-Herald, November 13, 2008


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A fight where the bulls win every time

I MET a girl once who had been trampled by a bull at Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. As she proudly showed me the nasty grazes from the beast’s hooves, I thought: it’s just not for me. The idea of running in front of a one-tonne, panicky bull just doesn’t appeal.

So it was with much relief that I found myself high above the makeshift arena in Bayonne, watching the daily highlight of the annual fete. In the sand-covered car park below, the crowd of young men steadily grew. This was the Basque region of France and the whole town was decked out in Pamplona-esque white outfits, with red sashes around their necks and waists. The oversized red beret and half-drunk bottle of red was a nice French touch as a fearless bloke prepared to take on some angry beast. He and the brave youths of the region linked arms to form a human corridor into which the beast was released.

As this is the gentler, French side of the region, the opponent was a small cow – albeit one with long, sharp horns. A crowd formed around her and she waited for a moment, assessing the situation, then put her head down and charged, scattering the men like seagulls. The crowd cheered wildly when one of the participants managed to cling onto the cow’s back for a few seconds, then sucked in with collective sympathy as another was trapped beneath her digging horns. For the most part, the animal charged and the men ran; not so much the running of the bulls as the chasing of the cow.

All Hail the Lord of the Ring, The Sun-Herald, April 1, 2007

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Bessie does Europe…

It could have been the end of the world. The line between sea and sand was a shimmering mirage, impossible to pin down. From the knees up local women hovered in this bright fog, collecting shellfish for lunch, and all around me were miles of flat sand. I heard a distant sound, the toot of a horn: the bread van.

I jumped out of my seat and flagged down the multicoloured Renault. With two generators strapped haphazardly to the roof, this van travelled the length of the beach twice a day, plying bakery goods and cold drinks. This was the only service on Beauduc beach, which is at the edge of the Camargue, a national park on France’s south coast; everyone here brought their own water and took their waste away with them. I bought two chocolate croissants for breakfast and a fresh baguette, then waved as the van hurtled toward a group of French motorhomes half a kilometre away. You’ve got to love France, I thought, the nearest fresh water source may be ten kilometres away, but you can still get fresh bread delivered to your door.

After living in England for two years, I wanted to see Europe. But I didn’t want to rush around the continent in a blur of towers, cathedrals and priceless statues, staying in damp-smelling characterless rooms and eating in cheap restaurants. I wanted to get to the heart of the countries I visited rather than taking them at face value.

My partner, Jon, and I bought an eighteen-year-old VW campervan named Bessie, a grand dame of a vehicle in two-tone blue, and planned a prolonged tour of the continent. When we finally left in June there were serious doubts that we wouldn’t be back soon – our van, an LT35, had broken down four times before we’d even booked the ferry to Dunkerque. The first time was worrying, the second and third annoying and the last catastrophic, costing us a small fortune to replacing the cylinder head.

As a result we were hesitant to put a timeline on our trip: we’d just keep on going for as long as we could. This turned out to be nine months, covering 13 countries and 24,000 kilometres. We went through 17 jars of Nutella and an unspeakable amount of diesel (we decided early on not to keep track of how many bottles of wine).

Before Bessie, I’d never driven anything much bigger than a Ford Festiva, but it didn’t take long for me to get used to steering our three-tonne home around corners without clipping the wheels. It’s a lot more fun than driving a car. Sitting up so high meant we could see over stone walls and hedges and – we’d soon discover – wave to farmers in Sicily, who would down tools to return the greeting with both hands.

Thanks to a combination of her immense mass, the sturdy bull bars on the front and her unhurried cruising pace, I felt safe in Bessie. Even in Naples, where everyone performs illegal manoeuvres at breakneck speeds with an espresso in one hand, Bessie sailed through the traffic like a tanker.

Just as I got used to driving Bessie in England we were ready to leave for Europe. There were a few scary moments when we got to France – usually involving roundabouts – but within a couple of days I’d forgotten the Commonwealth way and was comfortable driving on the right.

France is mobile-home heaven. On weekends, it felt like every second person in the country owned a campervan or motorhome. At 5pm on Fridays, a tide of big white boxes flowed towards the coasts, forests and scenic spots in the countryside. And no wonder: the whole country is covered in étapes camping-car, designated areas for campervans and motorhomes to park overnight..

We made good use of these abundant areas – the book we used listed a mere 6,400, but we found more – staying in the middle of picturesque villages, with river views or by the sea. Most are free of charge, but in July and August popular spots charged a small fee. For ten days in August, we stayed 50m from Pampelonne beach, parked in a pretty bamboo grove for just 7€ per night. I got a certain thrill knowing that not many other people were getting such a good deal: Pampelonne is just round the corner from St Tropez and it’s here that the glitterati come to cool off.

After France – where you can find good, hot showers in many motorway service stations – Spain was a bit of a disappointment. It’s one of the only countries in Western Europe where you can’t stop overnight in your van and we were forced into campsites most nights. Tarifa, the southern-most tip is a stunning exception, here hundreds of campervans park wild by the beach in summer. We heard from other travellers that Portugal is a great place to take a motorhome, but we had to miss it out and head back up North to catch a Tour de France race – yes, it was a tough life, indeed.

When we arrived somewhere new the first thing I wanted to know was: Which day is market day? I became obsessed. I would happily have never shopped in a store again, if only European supermarkets weren’t packed with so many weird and wonderful things. After market day, a rope of garlic hung above the sink and my basket was overflowing with dirty root vegetables, shiny eggplants and kilos of sweet fruit. Into the fridge went cured meats, fresh fish and non-pasteurised cheeses. We learnt that vegetables are seasonal not available, shrink-wrapped, year-round, and became more creative with our meals, trying out local recipes based on semi-understood instructions from the fennel guy or a restaurant chef.

I still can’t decide which was the best market in Europe – Apt in France, Bruges in Belgium and Palermo, Sicily are close contenders – but one’s thing’s for sure: we were never without fresh produce. On a back road leading to Strasbourg we put a euro into an honesty box and chose from a pile of bright pumpkins, we bought a box of cherries on the N100 in France and a strange, hybrid brocciflower (or caulioccoli) out of a car boot in Sicily.

Following the lead of our fellow European motorhome owners, we weren’t afraid to take our van anywhere. Bessie trundled up dirt tracks to visit cheese farms in the Auvergne region of France and parked on harbours hastily built during the second war, we even took her over the Alps into Italy, although we did lose all our hubcaps on the descent and the brakes failed temporarily so I’d recommend the coastal route.
Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium were all well-equipped for motorhome travel. It’s hugely popular with the locals so there’s always somewhere to fill up with drinking water and get rid of your waste. We stayed in campsites when we needed to do some laundry or if we were going to be leaving Bessie for prolonged periods of time, but when we weren’t on sites, we rarely had difficulty finding somewhere to spend the night. A carpark would suffice, ports are very secure, church carparks always a winner. Eight times out of ten we’d be joined by another van by the time we were ready for bed. And only once did we wake up to find ourselves in the middle of a wholesale florists’ market.

Living our freewheeling dream, it came as quite a shock when we were robbed. We’d only been away for about six weeks and it was most definitely not part of the plan. Laptops, camera lenses, our beloved generator: gone. We learnt our lesson, though, and stopped blithely chucking our valuables beneath the seats and abandoning all our worldly possessions in non-secure locations. On the night in question, we’d left Bessie in a carpark in a forest while we dined a five minute walk away. The thieves mustn’t have believed their luck. To rub it in, they nicked our French dictionary, making the morning’s visit to the gendarmerie an interesting challenge.

After that we realised how easy it was to secure our campervan, how effective the little things: thinking twice about where we parked; putting stuff away properly; covering our shiny new bikes and always seeking out fellow travellers (motorhome owners are, by nature, busy bodies, they’d notice anyone dodgy sniffing around). Jon had bolted a mini safe to the base of the van, so our passports, documents and credit cars were safe.

Summer seemed endless as we soaked up France, Spain, North Italy and Croatia, and when winter came, we felt it. After a tour of the Germanic countries and the Massif Central of France, we joined the migration south and spent two months in Sicily, escaping most of the cold weather. Travelling in winter certainly has its advantages – less tourists being the major one – but it does mean that there are fewer campervans around, campsites are far between and the nights are longer.

In Sicily we had our perfect day. We woke up on top of a mountain and by sunset had seen more amazing things than a holidaymaker would see in a week. From Enna, we could see snow-covered Mount Etna, hazy in the distance; we popped into Lake Pergusa, where Persephone was snatched by Hades before time began; then saw the most stunning Roman floor mosaics in the world at Villa Romana del Casale. And that was before lunch – a quick pasta made in the van and eaten overlooking the blue dome of the cathedral in Caltagirone. This village is famous for its 142-step staircase made with hand-painted tiles and high-quality ceramics. We ended up just 100km from where we’d started in Modica, a beautiful baroque town little-known to outsiders, but renowned in Sicily for its dolcerie that produce chocolate in the Ancient Aztec way. The evening was spent munching on a chocolate and meat-filled empanada and marvelling at the hidden gems of this rough island.

It was at our own leisurely pace that we took in The Sights as well: Rome, Paris, Munich, Barcelona, even Venice wasn’t out of our reach. We saw David, the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, even Cezanne’s studio. And it has to be said, after a long day traipsing around the big cities, it was a wonderful feeling to arrive back at the campsite, spy our two-tone bus and think, ‘Home at last’. There was our indefatigable pot plant, Velcroed to the bench, the doormat out the front and cold beers in the fridge.

Sicily is a long way from England and we took our time getting back, reminiscing as we went, and stopping off to see Pisa and Florence. After nine months, I didn’t feel that we’d visited Europe, but that we’d lived there. Through the windows of our moving home we saw that the hills are indeed alive in Austria, just how small (and dull) Luxembourg is, how diverse Italy and how integral food is to France.

Driving on a route nationale, we were surprised to see a detour in the middle of a quaint village. It was a beautiful summer evening and road had been given over to restaurant diners, the traffic diverted through the adjacent carpark. We were so impressed that we went back to dine on the road. Where else but France?

Bessie’s Big Adventure, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2006

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Holidays for Body & Soul

Body & Soul Escapes: where to retreat and replenish around the globe.

I was involved in the research for this book, submitting 11 reviews and editing submissions for the Australia chapter. In the acknowledgments, editor Caroline Slyge thanked me for “fearless exploration” and for being “a dream to work with”.

Reviews included:

Budawang Yoga Retreat
Cradle Mountain Lodge
Daintree EcoLodge & Spa
Blue Spirit surf and adventure retreats
Fountainhead health retreat
Gaia Retreat & Spa
Byron Bay
Hopewood health retreat
Gunya Titkikala
Prema Shanti meditation retreat
Well-Awareness meditation retreats

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Surf camp in WA’s wine region

‘Right there,’ said Blair, ‘that’s your sweet spot.’ The last guy who said that to me got slapped, but this was different. I was head to toe in neoprene, prone on an eight-foot piece of foam, toes dangling over its edge.

The sweet spot – it’s where you should be positioned on the board to catch a wave. This was the first thing we learnt at Redgate Beach on that beautiful Monday morning. As we paddled the sand and practised our pop-ups, I knew I wasn’t the only one wondering what on earth I was doing there. Oh well, it beat being in the office.

Along with seven others, I was spending five days learning to ‘carve it up’ in the glorious Margaret River region of WA. Surfing is one of those things I always thought I should try but knew I was too much of a wuss to commit myself to anything. What’s to be scared of, you might ask? To which I reply: sharks, rips, dumpers, drowning, rocks, seaweed, concussion and now stingrays.

You see, I’m not the bravest of people. On the group’s first night together, we were asked to share the most adventurous experience we’d ever had. ‘This,’ I’d squeaked, then confessed that my adventurous streak had less momentum than Shane Warne on a hot day.

The Beauty of Learning to Carve it Up, The Sun-Herald, January 14, 2007

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Say hello to South Korea’s capital

It may be children’s day but the young boy looks very serious as an assistant dresses him in a heavy orange robe. His father is sitting nearby, being fitted with fake facial hair and his sister is dressed already, swathed in a red and green hanbok with gold embellishment. A female assistant in jeans delicately balances a hairpiece on the girl’s head and pins it in place. The young Korean boy can hear the drums coming from the entrance to Gyeonghee Palace and is no doubt wondering when this torture will end and he can go watch the taekwondo display.

In front of the palace, a crowd has gathered to watch a farmers’ dance in which participants leap around a square, defy dizziness by spinning long white ribbons attached to their hats while playing traditional percussion instruments. Their maroon smocks with yellow, red and blue detail reflect the colours of the ancient buildings behind them. More drummers follow; young men and women beat out a heart-pounding rhythm.

Meanwhile, the taekwondo experts are limbering up for a breathtaking display set to the theme music from Pirates Of The Caribbean. For a nation that has survived 900 invasions over its 5000-year history, physical strength is important and this sport is hugely popular. Pollen floats through the air as boys, girls, men and women line up to spin through the air and kick apples from knives, or smash concrete with bare hands.

Life in Seoul, The Sun-Herald, April 13, 2008

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