Up close and personal in PNG

‘The villagers want to know why you came here. They think you must be bigmen from your villages,’ our guide explained. ‘Are you bigmen?’

No, we most certainly weren’t. We felt far from big at that moment, mud stains up to our knees, sweaty, sunburnt and humbled by the hospitality we’d received at this village deep in the Nebilyer Valley.

The day before we’d arrived at Haus Poroman near Mount Hagen, capital of Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands province and stood on the edge of the lodge property, looking over the prehistoric valley, half expecting a pterodactyl to screech past. We’d be sleeping somewhere down there the next night.

I’ve been on cultural tours before. In places like Thailand and Morocco these ‘village experiences’ have a staged feel, with conveniently-placed snake charmers and kids that charge you five baht to take their picture. But this was the highlands of PNG, where there’s little tourism. The beaten track, if you could call it that, was a long way from here.

Meet the Neighbours, The Sun-Herald, March 4, 2007

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Escaping a guided tour in Morocco

I DON’T usually do guided tours, but it was just an extra EUR6 ($10) on top of the return catamaran trip. That’s a pretty good deal. So we booked onto our Magical Moroccan Mystery Tour departing from Spain’s southernmost point and prepared for a day of socks, sandals and inane questions from the rest of the group. We might not get to see the “real” Morocco, but at least we’d get lunch, we concurred.

On arrival at the port in Tangier, our tour guide identified us from all the other guides’ charges by the coloured stickers we’d been issued with in Tarifa. For an organised tour, they weren’t very organised and the hundred or so tourists baked on the bitumen while the guides argued about which bus belonged to which group. We learnt quickly to shout “English speakers” to any of the robed men who approached.

Eventually, we were crammed onto a plush coach with Spanish, German and French speakers and taken into the hills to admire the walled homes of wealthy Tangier. We regrouped by the road where a tired fleet of camels lifted heavy men and squealing children up for a photo, then down, ready for the next. We were still operating in euros and it was one for a ride.

Bussed back down to the kasbah, we happened upon some musicians charming a snake from a wicker basket and in a tiled courtyard two dancers were spinning in brilliant blue robes. Lunch was what you’d expect from a North African meal: couscous, shish kebab, chickpeas and harissa served with mint tea and baklava to finish, and an ear-piercing band for atmosphere. Vacating our table for the next group, we did whistlestop tours of a pharmacy and a carpet shop where a 10-minute talk preceded a 15-minute shopping allowance.

Racing through the kasbah from one attraction to the next, my partner and I were in hysterics. Our eyes were fixed on the baseball cap held aloft by our guide, and we were aware of ancient walls and intricate alleys, stunning mosaic tiles, palm trees and arches. In the market we stopped to buy olives while the group rushed on.

That’s all it took; we were lost, left behind in the warren of alleys, with no language or local currency. Rather than panic, we took it all in. The piles of dates, the colourful textiles and foreign smells. We saw a communal bread oven and a shop filled floor to ceiling with watermelons.

After a few minutes, a grinning old man in a fez tapped my travelling partner’s shoulder and pointed down an alley. At the next junction, a young woman giggled and hid her face, pointing left. And so it went, a pair of tourists loose in the kasbah were ushered through the maze and returned to the fold.

When we joined our group in an antiques store, no one noticed we’d been missing. It occurred to me that, in fact, it was they who had missed out.

Looking for Guidance? Get Lost, The Sun-Herald, March 25, 2007

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Opening the doors to Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea and cruise ships may seem as likely a match as Indiana Jones and lawn bowls, but the pair has been getting very close. New to courting our nearest neighbour is Aurora Expeditions, making it five vessels to now cruise its pristine waters. Even the venerable QE2 called into New Britain for a bit of a singsing. No disrespect to cruise travellers, but let’s face it they’re not renowned for their adventurous streak. And surely that’s what PNG is all about – adventure, excitement – even danger.

Until recently I was only dimly aware of Papua New Guinea and like many Australians harboured a fairly negative impression of it, imagining a place terrorised by raskols and overrun by expatriates. But if there’s one thing travel teaches, it’s that expectations rarely align with reality.

Meet The Neighbours, The Sun-Herald, September 23, 2007

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The sweet scent of Sicily

This story was shortlisted for an Australian Society of Travel Writers award

IT’S A cold night in Modica. Corso Umberto I is deserted and dim lights flicker from within the grand old houses lining the wide, main street. This used to be a raging river but it flooded one time too many and was filled in to create the city’s main thoroughfare.

Two men in overcoats and felt hats hurry past, muttering to each other, bringing with them an intriguing scent. It’s not chocolate – Modica is famous for that – but something far simpler, and its sticky fingers reach down the small, dark alleyway, wrap around some basal pleasure centre and reel us in.

At the end of the little alley the smell abandons us. Confused, we peer through the window of the shop, then tentatively open the heavy door. With its dark wood panelling and glass cabinets lining the walls, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto looks more like an old-fashioned pharmacy than a chocolate shop. A white lab-coated woman with long grey hair is deep in conversation with a customer.

More Than Just a Modicum of Taste, The Sun-Herald, August 19, 2007

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A gorgeous motel in Gerringong

Motel. It’s not a word that conjures up images of luxury and romance – unless you’re on the run after escaping prison. But maintaining that motor-inn feel was key to the rebirth of this Aussie classic to create Bellachara boutique hotel.

Situated at the edge of sleepy seaside Gerringong and surrounded by verdant pastures and the gentle mooing of dairy cattle, Bellachara is a shadow of its former self. Red bricks have been rendered over with soothing taupe, white feather poles dance in the breeze and the family pool at the centre of the property sparkles sapphire in a way that no pebblecrete pond ever could.

One for the Road, The Sun-Herald, January 20, 2008

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Meditation in the Daintree Rainforest

THE FIRST “om” was a little dubious, the sound pushed out through pursed lips, chins disappearing into chests. A collective deep breath and we were more focused, rounding out the sound to an A-U-M that vibrated in the chest, then the throat and finally the head. We were getting there.

If you’ve ever said “Give me a break!” and really meant it, then the Prema Shanti meditation and yoga retreat is for you. Surrounded by the ancient Daintree Rainforest and at the foot of Thornton’s Peak, the B&B-style retreat is relaxed, fulfilling and secluded – mobile phones don’t work this side of the river.

Every morning at the Prema Shanti started with the soft tinkling of bells from the temple above. Filtered blue light outlined the open window and, in noble silence, we each made our way upstairs and sat comfortably in a circle to meditate and welcome the day, starting with 21 resonant oms.

Peace in The Forest, The Sun-Herald, May 11, 2007

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Cheese superstars from the Auvergne

THE BIG doors close behind us and we’re underground, enveloped in cool, moist air. The smell is overwhelming: heady, frowsty and thick. It’s an unmistakeable, unforgettable odour. With the flick of a switch, row after row of fluorescent lamps blossom overhead, revealing two long benches that disappear into the distance; resting here, as far as the eye can see, is cheese.

Felix Malvezin strides ahead, then stops to carve off three chunks of cantal for each of us to chew on; each piece is about the size of a good wedge of brie. We munch our way along the tunnel, Felix pointing out the new arrivals, with their whitish-yellow skins, and the mature cheeses, covered in a reddish bloom.

For 30 years this old railway tunnel was forgotten, save for local kids who would run into the cavernous darkness as far as they dared. In the 1960s this and four other disused tunnels in the vicinity were turned into caves, maturing cellars, for the famous Auvergne cheeses.

Quality in Every Whiff, The Sun-Herald, November 26, 2006

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