From hell on Earth to paradise


Looking across the landscape in front of me – a black, hot, desolate plain of molten slag – it’s easy to understand why the first visitors to these islands considered them hell on earth.

It wasn’t just the landscape. The animals also looked like the spawn of hell. This was the view of Spain’s Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, who arrived in the Galapagos Islands in 1535 after drifting off course en route to Peru.

And compared to the bountiful paradises found elsewhere in the Pacific, surely these remote, uninhabited, harsh islands did seem hellish.

The Galapagos: A world within itself

Craig Platt gets up close with the unique and diverse wildlife of the Galapagos Islands on a catamaran cruise. The reporter travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre and LATAM

More than anything, it is the lack of rainfall here, combined with the burning equatorial sun, that made it such a hard place for humans. In the age of exploration, ships would anchor at islands with the expectation they could find fresh water and replenish their supplies. Not here.

And yet, the Galapagos Islands are a paradise in their own way – it just depends on your perspective. Here, dozens of unique species have evolved and flourished because of their isolation and ability to survive in the tough environment.

Charles Darwin is considered something of a father figure here, as the man who recognised the significance of the islands, even if his theory of evolution was still just a glimmer in his mind’s eye at the time he visited in 1835.

His identification and classification of the many unique animals – particularly the finches, which were different from one island to the next – put the Galapagos on the map as a place of biological importance.

Darwin’s legacy continues to this day: protection of the unique environment has become a serious business here. The Ecuadorian territory has placed limits on the number and size of the cruise ships that can operate here, so planning your trip well in advance is advised.

The tourist demand isn’t surprising because the islands remain a true bucket list-destination, particularly for Australians: a recent survey on Traveller.com.au found it was top of the list for many of our readers.

And as the extraordinary Planet Earth 2 series from the BBC hits our screens, the Galapagos is a place where you can have your own “Planet Earth” moments. The BBC’s viral footage of an iguana narrowly escaping a onslaught of snakes was filmed here on the island of Fernandina.

My own visit is on board the Ocean Spray, a luxurious catamaran that sleeps up to 16 passengers. The width of the catamaran means the common areas – the dining area, the lounge and the rooftop sun deck – are particularly spacious. And the cabins are also quite luxurious, and large with their own bathrooms (the shower is one of the largest I’ve seen at sea). All have private balconies, even my own single-berth room.

Day one: Blue feet and red throats

Wildlife is the number one reason to visit the Galapagos Islands and, unlike some other parts of the world where the animals can prove elusive, here visitors will discover it immediately and in abundance.

Killer whale’s spectacular attack caught on camera

Incredible footage captured by Traveller.com.au editor Craig Platt shows an orca throwing a green sea turtle metres in the air as it plays with its prey off the Galapagos Islands. The reporter travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre.

Before arriving at the aforementioned hellscape of southern Isabela island, we set out from Santa Cruz – one of the only islands to be inhabited by humans. Shortly after boarding the Ocean Spray we cruise across to our first island stop, North Seymour Island. From the deck we watch as blue-footed boobies circle and dive for fish, their bodies folding into perfect arrow shapes the instant before they hit the water.

Despite North Seymour’s tiny size, the number of animals that live here is staggering. As with all on-shore visits to the Galapagos, we’re accompanied by a naturalist to inform us about the island and its animals as well as ensuring we don’t stray from the defined path. This is just as well, as the wildlife is so abundant one could easily end up stepping on a poor creature by accident (the animals have no fear whatsoever of humans so won’t bother getting out of your way).

North Seymour is home to hundreds of the blue-footed boobies – the males will whistle and do a little dance, lifting each of their bright blue feet in turn before spreading their wings, in the hopes of attracting some female attention. The island is also a popular nesting spot for frigate birds. The males of this large black species have bright red sacks at their throats, which they inflate into enormous balloons. Again, it’s all about getting some female attention.

Day 2: Vast volcanoes

We arrive at Isabela, the largest of the islands by a long way: a vast, volcanic landscape of harsh cliffs and ancient lava flows. We tour by Zodiac in the morning and quickly discover that what appeared to be sheer barren rock from a distance is teeming with life. More boobies, Galapagos doves, and black aquatic iguanas all perch or cling to the rock face. In a sheltered bay a small group of another of the island’s’ unique species can be found – the world’s only flightless cormorants. Such is the abundance of food in the water, the birds have never needed to travel far. As a result, their wings have shrunk to become near useless. If anything they have begun to resemble penguins, without yet having the abilities in the water that the latter’s flippers provide.

Our second stop is Fernandina, essentially a huge single volcano that resembles Mt Fuji without the snow. Its volcanic landscape is harsh and unforgiving, covered in rocks of cooled lava that makes it impassable to most animals and unwelcoming to plant life. We walk along a designated track, being careful not to step on the island’s most abundant residents – marine iguanas, which are sunning themselves in large groups on the shore. We also spot several rarer Galapagos snakes, small constrictors that hunt for baby iguanas.

But we leave the island after our guide spots a killer whale cruising the shoreline. Getting in our boats, we follow it, watching it occasionally surface to spout and breathe before it disappears. Shortly after, it resurfaces right on the bow of our dinghy, a hapless sea turtle clenched in its jaws. A few minutes later, we gasp and shout in awe as the whale knocks the turtle 20 metres into the air with incredible force, seemingly in an attempt to crack its hard shell. Or perhaps it’s just playing with its food. It’s hard to tell. Even our guide has never seen a whale exhibit this type of behaviour.

Day 3: Penguins and turtles

We return to Isabela in the morning for a brief hike from Tagus Cove, a small volcanic crater lake that offers beautiful views of the harbour. Further up the hill we can see the tallest point of the islands, Volcan Wolf, a volcano on Isabela, along with the adjacent Volcan Darwin. We then tour the bay in dinghies and see our first Galapagos penguins – the most northerly based penguins in the world and the only ones you can find north of the equator. After that, we snorkel the shoreline and see a large number of sea turtles grazing on the seaweed. They are completely unperturbed by our presence. While the sea turtles are not interested, a young sea lion decides to pop in to have a look at our snorkelling group.

After lunch, we head to one of the Galapagos newest beaches, a place called Urvina Bay – which did not exist until 1954, where an earthquake forced the land to rise up, creating a new shoreline for this part of Isabela. Here there’s a lot more vegetation, but little life. There are a few land iguanas and birds, but the tortoises that are said to live here are likely in higher ground, where there is better eating and cooler air.

Day 4: From mangroves to hell on earth

Still circumnavigating Isabela, we find the landscape has completely changed from our last stop. Here it’s a mangrove forest, though the water in the channel remains beautifully clear. We see plenty of turtles and sea lions again (one, in a bizarre sight, lazing in the branches of a mangrove tree), but the real attraction this time are the eagle and golden rays. Though small compared to some other ray species, they are both colourful and move beautifully through the water.

After lunch we move further down the coast and the landscape changes again. Gone is the greenery of the mangroves, replaced by black volcanic rock as far as the eye can see. The dark surface reflects the sun’s blazing heat back at us as we walk along and the “hell on earth” descriptions come back to my mind. Depressions in the landscape have created small salt-water lakes and here we find one of the Galapagos’ rarest inhabitants – flamingoes. There is only a small population of the exotic birds to be found in this part of the world, yet they still survive here, dining on the small shrimp that can be found in these pools.

Day 5 and 6: Darwin’s legacy

Day five is a full day of sailing and chance to rest. We round the southern coast of Isabela and make our way back to Santa Cruz. While it’s a travel day of relaxation on board, I find myself constantly distracted – in regular intervals I see a spout out the window and find there’s a whale off the starboard side. Later, we even spot a whale shark from the upper deck, recognisable due to its vertical tail fin.

Back at Santa Cruz the next day, we visit the island’s town of Puerto Ayora, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station – a place where projects are developed to protect the wildlife of the region and also an opportunity to see some of the giant tortoises that are difficult to see in the wild. It was also the home of Lonesome George until 2012, when the 100-year-old tortoise – the last of his species – finally died.

In the gift shop, T-shirts are emblazoned with a quote attributed to Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Strangely enough. given his name is on the centre, the quote was never actually said by Darwin. Instead, it reportedly originated with an American business professor in the 1960s.

A more accurate quote from Darwin is this from one of his journals: “The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.”

Indeed it feels like it’s own world. One that, despite its initial appearance as hell, turned out to be a paradise.

Trip notes

MORE

traveller.com.au/galapagos-islands

ecuador.travel/

FLY

LATAM flies from Sydney to Santiago, Chile with connections to the Galapagos via Quito, Ecuador. See latam.com/en_au

CRUISE

South America Travel Centre arranges high-end cruise trips in the Galapagos Islands. A four-day cruise on board the Ocean Spray luxury catamaran starts from $US3090. See southamericatravelcentre.com.au

See also: I went to the terrifying snake island from Planet Earth 2 – here’s what it was really like

See also: 20 things to love about the Galapagos Islands

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of LATAM and the South America Travel Centre.

Follow the writer on Twitter and Instagram.

Listen: Flight of Fancy – the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.



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New Zealand’s bizarre landscape that’s ‘hell on earth’


There are some things you never think you’ll encounter while travelling, such as the fire and brimstone offered as torment to the ungodly in the Old Testament’s more excitable verses. The sort of thing you see in church frescoes, where sinners are being thrust into bubbling cauldrons by horned devils with pitchforks.

No one is being tossed into the brew at Wai-O-Tapu, but there’s plenty of fire and brimstone, which is an archaic word for sulphur. One of the pools is called the Devil’s Bath and is filled with lime-green mud that would peel your skin off. It owes its cartoonish colour to sulphur and ferrous salts that rise up through the earth’s bowels, bringing with them the stench of hell itself. Or so you might imagine, because this bizarre landscape leaves you with few other references.

You’ll find the Devil’s Ink Pots nearby. They aren’t as immediately eye-catching, but the round, grey craters burp with boiling mud and steam. They’re so mesmerising you start to lean in towards them – surely the devil’s work – until the heat and smell remind you to take a step back.

The fencing is flimsy in Wai-O-Tapu. At the Devil’s Ink Pots only a wooden picket fence holds visitors back from the salt-encrusted edges of the craters. At one point a completely unfenced boardwalk runs right across one of Wai-O-Tapu’s biggest thermal pools. It’s a wonder more selfie-enthusiasts haven’t fallen in and been instantly dissolved.

From a distance, you get terrific photos of people on the boardwalk, appearing to stride across the surface of yellow and white pools like astronauts from a science-fiction movie. It’s the crumpled green hills behind that look curiously out of place, reminding you that New Zealand’s placid domesticity is just a thin veneer on a landscape still in creation.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is 30 kilometres southeast of Rotorua and has a few hokey entertainments, chief among them Lady Knox Geyser, which blows its top daily at 10.15am thanks to human intervention. But the rest is the real deal, and an astonishingly close-up look at nature in the raw, roiling and steaming and with a stink that’s half open sewer, half rotten eggs.

This is New Zealand’s biggest geothermal area, extending over 18 square kilometres, though the parts accessible to visitors are more compact. Although the landscape isn’t grand in scale, it’s unlike anything you’ve likely seen before. The best view over it is at Artist’s Palette lookout, across a mud lake and pools variously coloured rust-red, orange or cockatoo yellow.

A highlight is the ridiculously misnamed Champagne Pool, which is neither genteel nor champagne-coloured, though it does have a slight fizz. Its mineral-rich waters are a vivid aquamarine rimmed with startlingly bright orange edges caused by elements such as arsenic and antimony that you’d normally only encounter on a periodic table.

Walkways meander through the geothermal park, which is pockmarked with fumaroles and small craters that leave you wondering whether another might open to swallow you up at any moment. You could hurry around the chief sights in an hour, but paths extend beyond the boardwalks to outlying thermal pools, and are worth a wander.

These aren’t sights you see every day, so you might as well take your time. The rocks hiss, the mud blooms in exotic hues. Pillars of salt grow like mushrooms. At one point a big crack in the earth opens up, allowing you to see brimstone streaking the rocks with yellow. Hell on Earth, but really rather thrilling.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Treetops Lodge.

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

newzealand.com/au

FLY

Air New Zealand operates multiple flights between Australia and Auckland, with domestic connections to Rotorua. See airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

Treetops Lodge & Estate sits on 2500 acres of private native forest outside Rotorua. It has lodge rooms and villas, an excellent restaurant and experiences such as hunting, fishing, horse riding and wellness. Rooms from $NZ995 ($935) per night. Phone +64 7 333 2066, see treetops.co.nz

VISIT

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a 30-minute drive southeast of Rotorua and is open year-round. Adult tickets $NZ32.50 ($30.50), children $NZ11 ($10). See waiotapu.co.nz

See also: Twenty things that will shock first-time visitors to NZ

See also: The 10 most beautiful views in New Zealand



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Australia’s convict ‘hell on Earth’ is now more like a paradise


Hell on earth isn’t such a bad place. A harbour six times the size of Sydney’s surrounds it, and it’s just a handful of kilometres to the immaculate rainforest reflections of the Gordon River, which are like etchings on the water. It feels more like an original paradise than damnation. When convicts named Hells Gates, however, all they saw was a wild channel of water at the entrance to Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour. It was a notorious wrecker of ships, and the convicts’ gateway to Sarah Island, imprisonment and a life of hell.

But as the Spirit of the Wild catamaran idles outside of Hells Gates, the sea is in a good mood. In winter, the average wave height here is five metres, but this summer day the Southern Ocean rolls beneath the boat like small corrugations.Twin lighthouses sit at the harbour entrance, blinking their warnings each night, and if you head west from here it’s 15,000 kilometres to the next landfall, which is Argentina. The Spirit of the Wild, however, is heading east, squeezing through Hells Gates and into Macquarie Harbour.

Spirit of the Wild is Gordon River Cruises’ new 33.8-metre vessel. Launched last June, and carrying up to 190 passengers, it’s fitted with both diesel engines and electric motors. The diesel engines propel us across Macquarie Harbour, but as we slip past Sarah Island and into the mouth of the Gordon River, the quieter electric motors take over.

A hush falls over the World Heritage-listed river and landscape, and we seem to skate over the water that’s darkened with the tannins that pour down the river. It’s the classic colour of Tasmanian river water, as though the island floats in a giant keg of beer.

In the early morning, the Gordon River is a breathless place, creating reflections so perfect they turn the world on its head. At this lower end, the river runs wide and shallow, but as we head upstream, entering First Gorge, it narrows, deepens and rainforest pours down the slopes. The forest is a snarl of myrtle beech, sassafras, celery-top pine and Huon pines angling out over the river.

We glide upstream to a pier at Heritage Landing, the furthest point up the river at which tourist boats can travel, where a 400-metre-long boardwalk circuits through the rainforest. Halfway around, the walk breaks into a clearing where a 2000-year-old Huon pine crashed down, flattening the forest around it. From the landing, it’s a quick cruise back to Sarah Island. Afloat near the mouth of the Gordon River, it’s a tiny island with a huge reputation for brutality. The great white mass of Frenchmans Cap rises in the distance, and a pair of actors from Strahan’s Round Earth Company await the boat’s arrival, ready to guide us around the island and its strange rags-to-riches convict story.

Up to 380 convicts at a time were held on this glorified rock between 1821 and 1833, and the half-metre-thick walls of the British Empire’s first solitary confinement cells still stand among its other ruins. The authorities’ plan for Sarah Island was to have convicts fell Huon pines upriver, float them to the island and ship them to Hobart. The fierce seas of Tasmania’s west coast proved too formidable, however, so convicts built Huon pine ships on the island instead. It became the most productive shipyard in Australia, launching 131 ships in 12 years.

As the Spirit of the Wild departs, the wind rises, stirring the sea and shaking the island. It’s a moment when you feel the inhospitable and impossible nature of Sarah Island. It’s a great day out, but it would have been a hell of a life.

TRIP NOTES

Andrew Bain travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/tasmania

discovertasmania.com.au

FLY

Virgin Australia flies to Hobart or Launceston from Sydney and Melbourne. Gordon River Cruises depart from Strahan, about a four to five-hour drive from both cities. See virginaustralia.com

CRUISE

Gordon River Cruises leave daily at 8.30am from Strahan, heading to Hells Gates, the Gordon River and Sarah Island. Trips run for around six hours and include lunch, from $135 . See gordonrivercruises.com.au

See also: Ten of Australia’s most beautiful beaches are all in our smallest state

See also: Tasmania’s 10 most spectacular natural wonders



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The rock tourists think is Uluru


It starts with a touch of eavesdropping at Uluru. A couple standing near me are admiring the monolith. “I can’t believe we mistook the other rock for this one,” one of them says to the other.

Sorry? There’s another rock?

Everyone knows the Red Centre has two big attractions. There is Uluru and there are the domes of Kata Tjuta. When I ask a local about the mysterious third rock, she nods sagely. “Mount Conner,” she says. “Fools a lot of tourists. We call it Fool-uru.”

Apparently it is mainly visitors driving up from Alice Springs who spot the mysterious Mount Conner, which appears on the horizon at some point during the long drive. After a surge of excitement and a flurry of photos, it eventually dawns on most of them that this rock actually looks quite different from Uluru’s famous silhouette. 

Enchanted by the idea of another big rock hiding out in the desert, I’m keen to see Mount Conner for myself. There is, however, a hitch. Mount Conner is on private land. If you want to do more than admire it from a distance, you need to book on a tour, which is how if find myself in a four-wheel-drive with a guide, Brett, heading off on a desert day trip.  

As we drive, Brett explains that most of the land around Uluru is either national park or run by the Central Lands Council. Mount Conner sits on the nearest private lease to the rock, which belongs to Curtin Springs Station, run by the Severin family since 1956.

The Severins didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. Locals love telling the story of how Peter brought his wife, Dawn, and infant son, Ashley, up to the property, which at that time had no habitable shelter, and proudly showed them their new home.

Dawn turned to him and said, “I’ve got news for you, and it’s all bad.” 

The Severins stuck it out, although it’s hard to grasp the isolation of those early years. Uluru was not yet a tourist destination, and few people travelled the unsealed road to their property. In their first year, the Severins had just six visitors: two stock agents, two family members and two intrepid travellers. 

Another thing that was lacking was rain. After a small amount of rain in the first year, there was not a drop for the next seven years. 

Fortunately, the Severins are stayers. They found other ways to generate income. Dawn’s decision to offer Devonshire teas for the rare traveller who did pass through ultimately changed the way they ran their business. 

Pull up at Curtin Springs station today and you will find a flurry of activity. Cars are standing at the fuel pumps out the front. Two coaches are in the parking bay. A couple of travellers are heading for the shower block. Also on site are accommodation, a shop, a bar, an alfresco dining area and aviaries filled with parrots. There is even an emu called Mongrel scratching around in the dust, trailed by a group of excited overseas visitors. 

Not far from the homestead, we turn off the main road and onto a small track. Brett unlocks the gate, and we follow the rich, red dirt road deeper onto the property. 

Mount Conner is not the only natural wonder on Curtin Springs’ 1 million acres. After a short drive, we pull up at the shore of Lake Swanson. There is no water to be seen – just a salty crust, tinged with pink. Lake Swanson is a salt lake, one of seven on the property. This salt mass, stretching to the horizon, is an eerie sight.

“The longer you go without rain, the wider the lake grows,” Brett says.

We walk out on to the cracked crust, feeling the rough salt grains through the soles of our feet. The lake is twice as salty as seawater. Pointing out the desiccated corpses of insects stranded in the salt, Brett tells me that because of the high salt content, when insects land, all the moisture leaches out of their bodies. Their corpses are left trapped amidst the salt crystals. 

The Severins have just launched walking tours around the lake, but our goal today lies further afield. We drive off again, to where a mountain is steadily looming larger on the horizon. 

As we drive, I get some insight into how an outback cattle station operates. The Severins run 1500 head of cattle on this arid land. Only about 15 per cent of the vegetation is edible for the animals. As a result, each one needs about three hectares of land to survive. Unsurprisingly, we don’t see much livestock, apart from an occasional calf, startled by the sound of the engine, bolting off through the scrub. 

We pass a simple fence separating two paddocks, although I’m not sure whether the word paddock can be properly applied to an area of 10 square kilometres. According to Brett, the fencing materials alone cost $150,000. Running a cattle station is not cheap. 

We pull over at the cattle mustering yard, part of an ingenious mustering system. There are 14 bores across the property, each of which can be turned off remotely. When it’s time to start the muster, the furthest bore is turned off, prompting the cattle to move to one of the closer bores. Then that bore is turned off. As the pattern is repeated, the cattle move closer to the mustering yard, which houses the final functioning bore. Once they enter the yard, a system of one-way gates ensures that they can’t leave. I’m impressed by the simple genius of it. 

Throughout our cattle conversation, we are drawing closer to our ultimate goal: Mount Conner. It’s surprising that anyone would confuse it with Uluru. Their shapes are so different. Mount Conner has a distinctive flat top with a separate top layer, like icing on a cake. Their sizes are about the same. Mount Conner is a few metres shorter than Uluru, but covers a larger area. 

Unlike Uluru, Mount Conner was once part of a broader mountain range. The sandstone on either side of it was worn down by the elements. Thanks to its protective layer of hard conglomerate rock on top, only Mount Conner survived. 

As we circumnavigate the rock, we see that one side of it is heavily eroded, giving it a horseshoe shape. We stop for a pre-sunset drink to admire the view and check out the animal tracks.

The shadows are lengthening and the kangaroos are stirring as we head back to Curtin Springs, where a freshly grilled steak is a fitting end to an illuminating day. 

FIVE MORE DESERT HIGHLIGHTS

There’s a lot more than rocks to see in the Red Centre.

Cave Hill The colourful paintings at Cave Hill make this one of the most significant rock art sites in Central Australia. Members of the local Anangu tribe will lead you through the site, sharing the story of the Seven Sisters or, at least, the part of the song line that lies within this site.

Valley of the Winds From afar, the rocks of Kata Tjuta look stark and inhospitable. Follow the eight-kilometre circuit that winds through these striking domes, however, and you will find grassy valleys and mulga-lined riverbeds. You may even spot a wallaby.

Kings Canyon Take a day trip to this oasis in the desert. The 300-metre-deep canyon is home to more than 600 species of plants, as well as zebra finches, honeyeaters and buzzards, drawn by the presence of life-giving water.

Camel trekking Watch the sunrise from the back of a camel on this memorable tour. As the desert slowly comes to life, you will learn about local flora and fauna, before enjoying a freshly baked breakfast. 

The Sounds of Silence Dinner under the stars is an unforgettable experience. One of Uluru’s signature experiences, this alfresco event includes a buffet dinner and a stargazing talk. 

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Jetstar flies daily to Uluru (Ayers Rock) from Sydney, and four times a week from Melbourne. See jetstar.com.

STAYING THERE

The five-star Sails in the Desert is Ayers Rock Resort’s premium accommodation option. Rates start from $368 a night room only, with a two-night minimum. A three-night package, including breakfast, is available for $322 a night. Phone 1300 134 044.

DINING THERE

Ayers Rock Resort has a variety of dining options, from upscale to casual. At Sails in the Desert, Ilkari Restaurant offers buffets for dinner and breakfast, while the Walpa Lobby Bar has a selection of light meals, from pasta and burgers to seafood. Also worth checking out are the Bunya Bar at Desert Sands Hotel, and the Arnguli Grill, which showcases indigenous ingredients.

TOURING THERE

SEIT Outback Australia runs several tours across the Red Centre. See seitoutbackaustralia.com.au.

The writer travelled courtesy of Ayers Rock Resorts, SEIT Outback Australia and Jetstar.



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One of Australia’s best outback walks


In the biblical Garden of Eden there were apples, but in the Garden of Eden inside Kings Canyon, everything is oranges. The canyon’s iron-stained cliffs glow as brightly as flames, and their reflection is stencilled in orange across the dark pool of water at their base.

It’s early morning and I’m halfway around a trail that’s often described as one of Australia’s best day walks, circuiting the rim of the Northern Territory’s Kings Canyon and dipping briefly into this Garden of Eden inside the canyon.

The sun is still low, and the heat is already high, but inside the Garden of Eden the riverbanks are lush, damp and bristling with cycads, a relict, fern-like plant that existed with the dinosaurs. The song of a grey shrike thrush lilts through the “garden”. It’s the very definition of a desert oasis.

Like most visitors, I’ve come to Kings Canyon, in Watarrka National Park, for just a short time, but unlike most, it’s taken me little time to get here. My visit is part of a new Overnight Delight package offered by Kings Canyon Resort, which includes charter flights to and from Uluru, a night at the resort, an Aboriginal cultural tour and a guided walk on the canyon rim trail.

From Uluru, it’s little more than 30 minutes in a five-seater plane to the dusty airstrip at Kings Creek Station. From 2000 metres above the desert, the red sands of central Australia are like a dot painting of spinifex rings, and the saltpan of Lake Amadeus, the Northern Territory’s largest salt lake, leaks to the horizon like a paint spill.

Kings Creek Station is the sort of airstrip at which you need to close the gate as you leave to keep camels off the runway. With the gate latched behind us, we drive west along the foot of the George Gill Range, the single bump in the landscape as far as the eye can see.

This range’s escarpment forms an almost unbroken line of rock levitating above the desert, but when it does break open, it does so spectacularly, becoming the immense chasm of Kings Canyon.

There are several walks in the vicinity of the canyon, but the rim trail is the headline act. This six-kilometre loop walk begins at the mouth of the canyon, 10 minutes’ drive from the resort. In the faint light of approaching dawn, we set out walking along Kings Creek, the dry waterway that somehow, over time, carved this enormous rift in the sandstone.

“I’m biased but I think this is one of the best walks in the world,” says local guide Marcus before we begin the climb known locally as Heart Attack Hill – a rock staircase of 400 steps from the floor of the canyon to the rim.

This morning it’s a climb into light as the rising sun begins to illuminate the slopes, and quickly we’re standing atop the canyon’s 100-metre-high walls, with the relentless red desert stretching off to a distant horizon.

It’s the sort of scene that inspired explorer Ernest Giles to write of Kings Canyon in 1872, “could it be transported to any civilised land, its springs, glens, gorges, ferns, zamias (cycads) and flowers would charm the eyes and hearts of toil-worn men who are condemned to live and die in crowded towns”.

The climb tops out near a narrow V-shaped break in the rock. Popular culture has transformed this notch into the canyon’s most famous landmark. Since featuring in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the notch has become known as Priscilla’s Crack. It’s also a portal of sorts, because as I step through it I’m entering the Lost City, where a crowd of sandstone domes atop the canyon rim creates a scale-model version of the Bungle Bungles in Western Australia.

Among the Lost City domes, a side track detours 300 metres to Cotterill’s Lookout, perched atop one of the cliff-edge domes and looking straight across to the canyon’s south wall, which appears as smooth and polished as the panels of a showroom car.

The lookout also provides a view through the mouth of the gorge and across the eternity of the desert. From where I stand, it’s 1800 kilometres due west to the next town – Carnarvon on the West Australian coast – and yet the view is so vast it’s tempting to believe I can almost see Carnarvon.

From here, the walk descends on wooden stairways into the Garden of Eden, before climbing out again and swinging back to the gorge entrance atop the precipitous south wall. Three hours after setting out, we’re back.

To so many visitors, this rim walk is the extent of their Kings Canyon curiosity, but there’s more here than rocks and rifts.

“I think that if you come out here and you only have time to do one thing, forget the rim walk,” one staff member at the Kings Canyon Resort tells me. “Go to Karrke. I’ve never had anyone go to Karrke and not say it’s the best Aboriginal cultural experience they’ve ever had.”

Karrke (an Indigenous name for the western bowerbird) is a cultural tour run by Aboriginal couple Christine Breaden and Peter Abbott from their home in the community of Wanmarra – population 10 – at the edge of Watarrka National Park.

Christine is a Luritja woman, one of the traditional owners of the area, and for the next hour we’re guided through a series of stations – many of them beneath shade cloth to dull the desert heat – on a step-by-step journey through Aboriginal existence and survival in the desert. There are short talks on grinding stones, bush tucker, bush medicine, art, jewellery, ochres, weaponry and musical instruments.

It’s a compact circuit through culture, as Breaden and Abbott give erudite explanations of bush practices and beliefs, along the way debunking a couple of myths.

“This is a non-returning boomerang,” Abbott says, holding up a weapon with an unfamiliar shape. “In central desert regions we don’t use didgeridoos or returning boomerangs. They are more used in coastal areas.”

Nor is the next station one of tradition. Here, Breaden unrolls a dot painting – representing a week of her work – explaining that this most familiar form of Aboriginal art only began in the 1960s. Before that, rock art, petroglyphs and drawings in the sand had been the traditional way for thousands of years.

“Dot paintings are a great modern way for us to pass information to young people,” she explains.

This particular painting is of food – witchetty grubs – and as Breaden speaks, she pulls from beside her the root of a witchetty bush, peeling it back to reveal a plump white grub.

“Five or six of these grubs is what an adult would usually eat,” Abbott says, explaining that the grubs can actually be found in nine different tree species, each of which provides the grub with a distinct and different flavour.

“A grub from an Acacia kempeana (witchetty bush) tastes like a mix of melted butter, popcorn, corn and egg.”

As Abbott talks, Breaden rakes back a patch of sand and drops the grub onto hot coals buried beneath. Afternoon tea is served.

FIVE MORE CANYON WALKS

KAIBAB TRAIL

Begin on one rim of the Grand Canyon, descend to the Colorado River and make the long, steep climb out to the other rim.

FISH RIVER CANYON

Billed as the world’s second-largest canyon, slicing through southern Namibia. A five-day trail traverses about half of its 160-kilometre length. Open May to September only.

GARGANTA DEL CARES

A day-long hike through the spectacular 1500-metre-deep gash of the Cares Gorge through Spain’s Picos de Europa mountains.

TIGER LEAPING GORGE

Take the high road or the low road through China’s wildly named canyon; allow about two days.

GRAND CANYON TRACK

A half-day walk through NSW’s own Grand Canyon, a mystical slot canyon in the Blue Mountains.

TRIP NOTES

Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of Kings Canyon Resort and Tourism NT.

MORE

traveller.com.au/northern-territory

northernterritory.com

FLY

Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly direct to Uluru from Sydney; Jetstar also flies direct from Melbourne. See virginaustralia.com jetstar.com

STAY

Kings Canyon Resort’s Overnight Delight package begins with a charter flight from Uluru to Kings Creek Station. It includes a guided rim walk, Karrke tour and a night in a standard or deluxe spa room at the resort, with prices starting at $715/1150 for a single/double. See kingscanyonresort.com.au karrke.com.au



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Tokyo’s mad world of gaming, manga and maids


It’s a crazy sub-culture that has become mainstream; where ‘Witch Coke’, maids, Geek culture and video games mix with men in business suits. Welcome to the wild – yet strangely mild – side of Tokyo.

“No!” cries Izumi, her eyes wide with alarm. “It’s dangerous!” I quickly put the drink down and she shows me the spell required to break the curse. I follow her lead, making a W-shape with my fingers, waving them over the glass and repeating the magic chant. Now I can drink my glass of Witch Coke.

Welcome to Akihabara, centre of Tokyo’s otaku (geek) culture, a bewildering maze of video game arcades, manga stores and maid cafes.

On paper, maid cafes sound seedy and awkward. Men pay to chat with and be served drinks by young girls dressed as maids or schoolgirls.

In reality, the experience is neither. Izumi, my 217-year-old maid (she earnestly explains she’s a ghost who was born on the planet Spada Ark), is delightful and is probably using this job at Queens Court to pay her way through university.

Izumi’s English is limited so we’re communicating through Tyler, my guide from InsideJapan. The company launched this tour earlier in the year to give people an insight into Tokyo’s fascinating gaming subculture.

I’ve opted for Queens Court’s ¥2000 Fairy Set package ($24.50), which includes unlimited Witch Cokes and a souvenir photo. For an extra ¥600, Izumi will play 10 minutes of the classic Nintendo racing game Mario Kart with me.

She hands me a controller and we choose our characters: a green dinosaur for me, a blonde princess for her. As we take our positions on the start line, she turns with narrowed eyes and says: “Prepare to lose.”

And lose I do. Three times in a row. I finish 12th, 10th and 12th (out of, you guessed it, 12). She comes second, second and first.

Before leaving, we pose for a Polaroid photo, which she carefully decorates with a felt-tipped pen and presents to me with a polite bow. It’s now midday and the place is almost full. There are six guys at the bar, ranging in age from early-20s to mid-40s. All of them are greeted by name when they arrive and one middle-aged man in a suit is proudly showing his maid the toy gun he’s just bought. “Is it for your son?” she asks. “No,” he replies indignantly. “It’s for me.”

Our next port of call is an Akihabara icon. Super Potato draws gamers from all over the world thanks to its unrivalled selection of rare retro video games.

We enter through an unassuming doorway and squeeze into a lift reeking of noodles and stale sweat. “The smell of gamers,” remarks Tyler.

There’s a floor of vintage arcade games plus two more selling discontinued consoles and cartridges. Some of the prices are eye-watering. There’s a cycling game for Nintendo’s 1983 Famicom system for ¥49,800 and the CD soundtrack to an old Godzilla video game for ¥21,800. If only I’d kept my old Commodore 64.

By now I’m itching to play something so we head to Hirose Entertainment Yard, a multi-storey arcade often used by professional gamers. It’s quiet when we visit but Tyler points out the TV screens either side of popular games that allow gaming groupies to see all the action.

I start off with a classic from my youth: Street Fighter, a bargain at ¥10 a game. Next up is a shooting game with a disturbingly sticky plastic pistol, then an immersive first-person warfare game so disorienting I have to abandon it after three minutes because I start feeling sick.

Youngsters flock to these arcades to try out the newest releases and Tyler shows me the latest instalment of the Final Fantasy series, which comes with a hefty instruction booklet and a socket to plug in your own headphones. Some games, such as World Club Champion Football, require gamers to buy cards representing individual players, the cost of which can quickly escalate as they search for an elusive Messi or Ronaldo.

Each floor is a sensory assault, a relentless cacophony of alarms, klaxons and explosions. Upstairs we find three teenagers playing a driving game, dutifully cheered on by their girlfriends, and a businessman in a suit dispensing aliens with an Uzi.

Not all the games are violent. There’s a parenting-themed educational game where you raise a child with a virtual partner. Do a bad job and the child ends up wearing glasses.

Blinking, we emerge into the street to find a gaggle of maids in frilly short skirts spruiking their respective cafes. Teenagers clutching manga comics shuffle past in giggling groups while others line up to buy energy drinks from video game-themed vending machines.

It all feels like a fantasy world, a bizarre self-contained microcosm. Except it isn’t. Video game revenue far exceeds that from movies and music and increasingly video game characters are encroaching into mainstream culture. Last year, Nintendo created pop-up cafes inside three Tokyo Tower Records stores to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Brothers. The cafes sold limited edition merchandise and Mario Brothers-themed drinks and food. The video game giant is also partnering with Universal Studios to bring its franchises and characters to Universal’s theme parks.

On our way home, Tyler points out a Louis Vuitton store emblazoned with a two-storey poster of a beautiful red-haired girl in a shimmering metallic dress. Her arms are crossed defiantly and dangling seductively from her hand is a Louis Vuitton handbag. Who did the luxury fashion house choose to model its latest range of designer bags? Lightning, a character from the video game series Final Fantasy.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Gotokyo.org

GETTING THERE

ANA flies direct from Sydney to Tokyo’s Haneda airport using the latest Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner. See ana.co.jp.

STAYING THERE

With spectacular views over Tokyo Bay, the sleek five-star Conrad Tokyo is walking distance from Ginza shopping district. See conradhotels3.hilton.com.

TOURING THERE

InsideJapan can create a tailor-made Japanese itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and a day in Tokyo with one of its gaming experts. Phone 02 8011 3229; see insidejapantours.com.

Rob McFarland was a guest of InsideJapan and the International Luxury Travel Market.

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Japan

See also: Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto: Where to go next in Japan



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Plans to make New Zealand capital a Maori language city by 2040


There’s an ill wind and it’s blowing us clear across Wellington’s Whairepo Lagoon. “Tokihi!” roars our crew master, his voice echoing across the water like an ancient war cry. “Haa!” we scream in response, thrusting our white-tipped paddles into the water as one.

“Haa!” We tilt forward, shoulders on fire as we propel the wooden canoe through driving rain.

The lagoon is a tempest; heaving and rolling like a living thing, yet our Maori waka (canoe) holds steady, our chants keeping us in time, like seafarers of old.

We’d started outside the Te Wharewaka o Poneke (waka house) a vast building in the shape of a traditional cloak. “Our vision is to return a strong Maori presence to the waterfront,” says Taupuruariki Brightwell, one of our guides for the two-hour waka tour.

Maori culture is experiencing a revival, but nowhere is it more obvious than in the nation’s capital. The new Te Tauihu te reo Maori policy – named after the ornately carved figurehead of a waka – aims to make Wellington a Maori language city by 2040, the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“Tokihi!” comes the command, as we turn into the wind for the gruelling paddle back to the waka house, as a small group of bystanders cheers us on.

And that’s the strength of a tour like this; it elevates Maori art and culture, putting it centre stage, while helping to rekindle Indigenous pride across the entire city.

The following day I head to Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s bold and innovative national museum, where I learn more about Polynesian navigation than a girl needs to know.

“Testicular navigation,” says my guide Pene Kiwi Kiwi, as we pause in front of a voyaging waka. “The early navigators used their testicles to feel the direction of the swell when it was too dark to see the stars.”

I don’t doubt she’s telling the truth; there’s even a signboard to prove it. Whether the technique relied on sensing vibration through the waka’s wooden seats, or if the navigators adopted a commando-style “stand and swing” position, is still open to debate.

Dinner that night at restaurant Hiakai, a fine-dining experience dedicated to the exploration of Maori cooking, is a sure sign that Wellington is leading the Indigenous food movement. Set inside a restored brick kiln on the city-fringe, chef Monique Fiso serves up six, eight and 10-course set-menus, including boundary-pushing dishes such as green-lipped mussel-flavoured ice cream on a base of heirloom potatoes, and ika (fish) paired with parsnip, kowhitiwhiti (a native watercress with a mustard flavour), kawakawa (a native healing herb said to aid digestion) and bone broth.

Over three hours, my eight-course degustation transports me from the heights of New Zealand’s pine forests to the depths of its oceans, from the simple pleasures of beach barbecues to flavours I never knew existed. It’s a dream, a challenge, a celebration of art, nature and culture. No wonder Hiakai made Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel 2021” list.

One afternoon I visit the Dowse Art Museum where I meet Neke Moa, a contemporary jeweller well known for pounamu (nephrite jade) carvings. “Working with pounamu allows me to channel the knowledge and spirit of my ancestors,” she says. “It provides a direct connection with the people of this land and the land itself.”

Opened in 1971 the museum is currently celebrating “50 years of uplifting ideas”, with a special program of exhibitions, talks and events to be rolled out across 2021. Topics include everything from “Not today…Can you decolonise an art gallery?” to the “Connotation of craft for contemporary Maori artists”.

On my final morning I stroll along the waterfront, now called Ara Moana – “Ocean Pathway”. Overhead the sky is a streaked paua shell, while in the distance a waka pushes through the water, its curved Te Tauihu a symbol of determination and courage. Shielding my eyes against the sun I see a bright, golden city, poised, not just for a new day, but a new era.

THE DETAILS

MORE


traveller.com.au/new-zealand


WellingtonNZ.com

DINE

Hiakai is open for dinner Thursday to Saturday. See hiakai.co.nz

FLY

Qantas operates flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Wellington. See qantas.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of WellingtonNZ. See wellingtonnz.com

Travel to New Zealand from Australian states aside from Western Australia is permitted. A high degree of caution is recommended due to the COVID pandemic. See smartraveller.gov.au



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The heart of hippy Byron Bay is an odd, but peaceful, attraction


I’m willing to bet that most people these days have a yellow aura billowing upwards from the tops of their heads. Not vibrant yellow like a trumpet blast, but muddy as mustard. An aura, in short, that indicates indecision and uncertainty.

You can find out at Crystal Castle in the Byron Bay hinterland. Here your aura’s electromagnetic pulses, which change with the fluctuations in your health, emotions and energy levels, can be detected by a special camera. Then they are converted to a corresponding colour and printed out like a Polaroid to show you surrounded in hazy halos of light.

That’s the theory, anyway, no more improbable than any other theory in Byron Bay. This NSW north-coast getaway of the well-heeled and gullible also indulges with psychic readings, ear candling, chanting and chakras.

Crystal Castle itself dabbles in auras, reflexology, positive energies and cherry-picked aspects of Buddhist and Hinduism. If you feel your aura is a little tarnished and world weary, this is where to find positive vibes as you head into 2021.

Even sceptics shouldn’t be put off. Crystal Castle might have its ethos in the hippy era but is a rather sophisticated and highly enjoyable tourist attraction. Even if you don’t believe in nirvana, you’ll surely find your spirit soothed.

Crystal Castle’s main drawcard is its Shambhala Gardens, tucked into spectacular hinterland folds of hills. As you walk about you come across Buddha statues, sculptures and giant geodes glittering with purple crystals. At 5.5 metres, two of the geodes are the world’s tallest, and a stunning sight.

Here and there a Hindu goddess, labyrinth or water feature give you reason to pause. Take off your shoes and hobble along the pebbly Reflexology Path or sit inside the Enchanted Cave, a 20-tonne geode twinkling with amethysts, for the ultimate test of crystal healing.

Signboards urge you to contemplate, meditate, feel the karma and get in touch with your inner compassion. Walk the sacred Damanhur Spiral and awaken your divine essence. Circle the Kalachakra Stupa clockwise and you can accumulate further good vibrations.

Whatever path you want to take towards peace and love is up to you, but Crystal Castle reminds us that spirituality is a universal human preoccupation. For the irreligious, perhaps the secret to its soothing success is simply its natural beauty.

Among the garden’s highlights is the soaring, cathedral-like bamboo grove and the Rainforest Walk through regenerated hinterland forest where birds screech and chatter. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or New Age nutter to appreciate the explosions of heliconias and delicately blushing water lilies.

If it weren’t such a pricey pleasure ($60 per reading plus photo), you would be tempted to have your aura checked again on the way out. Chances are, your yellow glow would no longer be quite as startling, and some happy green light might be bursting out of your left side – an indication of renewal and development.

Not a bad result after spending a few pleasant hours in one of Australia’s most odd but unexpectedly peaceful places. Maybe Byron Bay does sit on the right ley lines after all. Or maybe the holiday is enough in itself to renew you.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Qantas flies from Sydney to Ballina-Byron with connections from Melbourne and other Australian cities. See qantas.com 

SEE

Crystal Castle is 20 kilometres northeast of Byron Bay. Adults $39, family pass $98. See crystalcastle.com.au 

STAY

Soma is a chic retreat in the Byron Bay hinterland and offers various types of wellness retreats. See somabyron.com.au 

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-south-wales 

visitnsw.com 

Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense.



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Australia’s longest running wellness retreat


Nestled at the end of Currumbin Valley, just north of the NSW border, Eden Health Retreat feels like a well-kept secret cocooned from the rest of the world, a place to talk about in gushing whispers to trusted friends.

Driving in under a canopy of poinciana trees and past immaculate lawns is like arriving at an exclusive country club. Or a rehab clinic, I think, as the automatic gate closes behind me and I remember that ahead lies a week with no Wi-Fi, mobile reception, alcohol or coffee.

Or summer camp, I think again, because I’m checking in that Sunday with 23 other guests, mostly women, from all over Australia. Quite a few are Eden regulars; one Sydney couple has stayed “countless times”. The rest are newbies like me. At our first “stretch and let go” class that afternoon we all smile nervously at each other and wonder who our new friends will be.

My “cabin” for the week, a Valley View Deluxe room remodelled last year by Brisbane design group Collectivus, is all peace and neutral tones. Sliding glass doors open to a private balcony facing the rainforest. The deep bath in the enormous en suite has the same view – and a jar of Epsom salts, replenished daily. There’s no TV of course, but there is a stereo and a stack of CDs for soothing music.

The name isn’t biblical, by the way. Originally home to the Yugambeh people, the land at the mountain end of Currumbin Valley was cleared in the 1860s by a Henry Eden who called his new dairy farm the Garden of Eden. In 1985 the dairy farm next door became Camp Eden, a personal development bootcamp based on “est” training, a precursor to the US-based Landmark Forum personal development courses popular in the 1990s. For 10 years it was all bunk beds, Pritikin meals and group-therapy sessions between weight-loss activities.

Then its attitude relaxed and it became the considerably more comfortable Eden Health Retreat. Now owned by Sydney businessman/philanthropist Robert Christie (remarkably, Eden has had only two owners in 34 years), it has 28 luxurious cabin-rooms, an airy dining room/lounge overlooking a dam and a state-of-the-art gym , steam room, sauna and spa treatment rooms – all set on 160 hectares of mostly native forest.

New manager Chris Van Hoof, who has worked at Eden for nine years, is also ushering in a few changes, developing partnerships with wellness teachers to offer themed events such as Pilates forums and men’s weeks.

Eden may no longer have an over-arching belief system, but it does have an ethos, says Van Hoof. “It’s about meeting people where they’re at, showing them a few ways to be healthier and asking them to see how that feels, just for a week, so they can make their own decisions. It’s a pretty simple formula really: eat well, move, rest, nurture. We just create a safe space for that to happen.”

We certainly do eat well. Eden’s chefs serve up gorgeous, nutritious creations at every meal, all organic, seasonal and unprocessed, much of the produce sourced from Eden’s own garden. Even the morning and afternoon snacks – the maple-roasted nuts, “red velvet” beetroot protein balls, single-serve pumpkin soups – are a treat. And the drinking water comes from a mountain spring, triple-filtered to make it “bio-available”.

All of which gives us plenty of energy for a week that is basically a wellness sampler covering everything from acupuncture to Zumba. There are boxing classes, gym circuits, Pilates classes and nutrition talks. There’s a tennis court and a heated outdoor swimming pool. There are guided bushwalks, forest trails to explore on your own and a grassy path called the Quiet Way which we’re encouraged to walk barefoot. Then there are the spa treatments; the kahuna massage I have on Monday afternoon is so good, so profoundly healing it’s possibly the best massage I’ve had anywhere in the world, ever.

But everything is optional. Most mornings I skip the 6.15am qigong or yoga class to do some stretches in my room, walk the meditative labyrinth or just lie in bed, listening to the birds. There’s time for after-lunch naps and before-dinner baths. One afternoon I spread a picnic blanket on the grass under a tree to read a book and listen to the nearby bamboo grove creaking like the rigging of a tall ship in the wind.

One of the unexpected joys is sharing the Eden experience with new friends. There’s something about everyone staying all week that creates a sense of camaraderie – and emotional safety. “We tried shorter stays,” says Barry Hogg, who has worked at Eden since it opened, “but when people are coming and going it’s hard to create harmony and connection. It lacked the cohesion of people starting together and finishing together which is, in my opinion, the X-factor of Eden – the bond that happens within the group. Some people make lifelong friendships here.”

Then there are the adventure activities, another of Eden’s signature offerings, designed to take us safely out of our comfort zones – with the support of our comrades. First there’s the flying fox. The Giant Swing ups the ante with a thrilling free-fall from the upper branches of some tall pine trees before cables catch you and swing you high over everyone’s heads as they cheer you on.

I find my edge on Friday morning atop the “power pole”. Climbing the seven-metre telegraph pole while clipped to safety lines, isn’t so bad. It’s the standing up on a tiny platform no bigger than two sheets of A4 paper at the top, with nothing to hold on to, that gets my heart thumping. Eden’s personal trainer, Kane, belaying me from ground level, far below, sends up words of encouragement. Breathe, he says. Then comes the “leap of faith” – to a fixed trapeze a couple of metres away. It’s terrifying and transforming. When I make it, on my second try, I can’t help thinking, once the elation subsides: what else can I do that I didn’t think I could?

Twice that week we venture “off campus”. One sunny morning we paddle sea kayaks and swim in the surf at Currumbin Beach, resisting the temptation to check our phones. Another day we ride bikes to Currumbin Valley Harvest, a biodynamic farm and cafe where we manage to ignore the barista and his shiny espresso machine. Both times, returning to Eden is like going home.

We’re free to leave any time, of course. Cougal Falls in Springbrook National Park, spared by the September bushfires that tore through neighbouring Lamington National Park, is a five-minute walk up the road. The award-winning Currumbin Ecovillage with its Pasture & Co cafe, organic grocery store and Saturday farmers markets is a short drive in the other direction.

After dinner every night, a calming activity readies us for sleep: a guided meditation, a glow-worm walk by torchlight, a sound-healing session with singing bowls. On our last night it’s a campfire, where we sit on logs gazing at the flames while Simon, one of Eden’s teachers, plays guitar.

Looking around at the faces lit by firelight, I mentally snap a few pictures to help me remember this night, this week, these people. Did we really meet only five days ago? Tonight we’re all friends, laughing together and singing songs under the stars and a nearly full moon.

A kind of happiness I haven’t felt in a while rushes at me, making me want to smile and cry at the same time. This is it, I think. I’ve found my Eden.

FIVE MORE HEALTH RESORTS

GAIA RETREAT & SPA

Founded by Olivia Newton-John and three friends in 2005 in the Byron Bay hinterland, Gaia offers two- to seven-night stays and has a day spa. See gaiaretreat.com.au

SAMADHI RETREAT

Mindfulness is at the core of Samadhi, an architect-designed property in Victoria’s Mount Macedon mineral springs region with themed retreats. See samadhiretreat.com.au

GWINGANNA LIFESTYLE RETREAT

Situated in the Tallebudgera Valley in the Gold Coast hinterland, Gwinganna is ecotourism-certified and claims to offer more options than other Australian retreats. See gwinganna.com

KANGAROO ISLAND HEALTH RETREAT

KIHR is a holistic nature-based bootcamp offering one program: Dynamic Detox and is situated on the north coast of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. See kihealthretreat.com

ELYSIA WELLNESS RETREAT

Formerly Golden Door health retreat, Elysia in the Hunter Valley has contemporary suites and offers personalised two- to seven-night programs. See elysiaretreat.com.au

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/gold-coast

destinationgoldcoast.com

FLY

Eden Health Retreat is 30 minutes from Gold Coast airport. Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar all fly direct to the Gold Coast from Sydney and Melbourne.

STAY

Eden’s six-night packages run from Sunday to Saturday and start at $3050 a person twin-share ($3350 for a single room) including gourmet organic meals, $400 of spa treatments, daily wellness, fitness and adventure activities and transfers from Gold Coast airport. See edenhealthretreat.com.au

Louise Southerden was a guest of Eden Health Retreat.



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Where history and modernity meet


Ballarat may just be the gold standard when it comes to fusing history and modernity, as regional towns seek to add modern chapters to their stories that still feel part of the same book. Ballarat’s tome spans its role as the “resting place” of the Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung people to the meeting place of armed rebels and celebrated courtesans, and now it is reinventing itself yet again.

This new chapter celebrates creativity following the town being crowned a UNESCO Creative City in 2019 and there is a buzz about the city that is attracting talent away from a lockdown-scarred Melbourne as well as nurturing home-grown stars. The changing face of the city is chronicled at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Australia’s oldest and largest regional art gallery that embodies the spirit of change with its motto “where old meets new”.

Our walking tour starts firmly in the past when director Louise Tegart proudly announces to us her collection of “middling 20th century European paintings” bought back when there was a cultural cringe that forbade the gallery from purchasing Australian artists, instead favouring the Continent’s also-rans.

The highlight of these gilt-edged works is Austrian painter Eugene von Guerard’s Old Ballarat as it was in the summer of 1853-54. It shows a tent city propped up by gold-rush cash, promise and hard labour. Preserving the gallery’s salon of mediocrity is a masterstroke by Tegart and her team because when you cross over into the rest of the gallery it is like changing the TV channel from black-and-white to technicolour. Spread across six buildings are some of the Australia’s finest contemporary and First Nations artists such as Deanne Gilson who welcomed us to country in the foyer and whose artwork Bunjil, of the Wadawurrung creator deity, rounds out our visit.

Dinner that night is a reinvented dinner party at Underbar, where chef Derek Boath serves up a degustation from his open, white-tiled kitchen to a single, long table of diners. You might start with Western Plains pork, sweetcorn, cornbread and honey or kingfish with radish, avocado and horseradish; these seasonal ingredients are then treated with some classical skill learned working for US chef Thomas Keller, but with Boath’s own playful touch. Our 10-course marathon is paired with wines from Eastern Peake Vineyard, where young winemaker Owen Latta puts his twist on the generational family winemaking business.

The following morning I am heading to Ballarat’s biggest attraction, Sovereign Hill, a place that people tend to go to when they are a kid then again when they have kids, but rarely in between. Over dinner the previous night Sarah Quon, CEO of Sovereign Hill, told me that a new master plan aims to bridge that gap. It’s a bold reiteration with phase one being the Australian Centre for Rare Arts and Forgotten Trades (CRAFT), designed to celebrate trades that are used at the living museum now such as heritage ironwork, leatherwork and wheelrights (wooden wheel makers). Celebrating and teaching these forgotten trades, much like music purists’ love of vinyl, is a way to connect people with Sovereign Hill more intimately and more often. CRAFT launches in June 2022, but one trade you must go back for right now is the raspberry drop candy making which is just as good as you remember from primary school.

Walking back into town from Sovereign Hill, I see yesterday and today sitting seamless side by side all over Ballarat. I grab a coffee at a retro servo that is now Drive café where I indulge in a bacon-and-egg roll with relish and jack cheddar that is dripping like a car in need of an oil change. Later that afternoon I meet John O’Brien from Rebellion Brewing who has taken the ancient art of brewing and tweaked it for the modern ailment of gluten intolerance, and we sip his XPA at Hop Temple, a craft beer joint with enough new brews to tempt Melburnians up to visit where they hangout in what was once an old garage.

The night ends at The 18th Amendment Bar hidden down a lampshade-strewn alleyway. It’s a low-lit, louche kind of place where one bartender saws away at a huge block of ice. One of the signature tipples, the Thomas Edison, is rye vodka, melon, lychee and mint served with an electric daisy (a flower that supercharges your tastebuds when chewed) served in a light bulb. This cocktail, and most experiences on my weekend, have been inspired by the past, using skills from the present, and they are a great sign that Ballarat has an amazing future.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Qantas flies to Melbourne from most Australian cities. See Qantas.com

SEE

Sovereign Hill has an autumn program celebrating design and tradition that foreshadows the CRAFT master plan. Online bookings needed due to COVID. See sovereignhill.com.au 

EAT AND DRINK

Drive café (drive-cafe.com) is a breakfast must. Book in advance to get one of the 16 seats at Underbar (underbar.com.au) Drop in for a craft beer at Hop Templev (hoptemple.com.au) and finish the night with a cocktail at The 18th Amendment. See the18thamendmentbar.com.au

STAY

Ballarat’s oldest stay, Craig’s Royal Hotel, is like a gold rush time capsule; doubles from $260 a night. See craigsroyal.com.au

MORE

visitballarat.com.au

Traveller.com.au/victoria

Visitvictoria.com

Paul Chai was a guest of the City of Ballarat.



Thanks for stopping by and seeing this news release about Australian travel tips called “Where history and modernity meet”. This news update was posted by MyLocalPages Australia as part of our Australian travel stories services.

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