Friday, 15 June 2018

Hadrian's Wall by Bus

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

Last year Narrelle Harris and I visited Hadrian's Wall, constructed in AD 122 by the Roman Empire in order to mark and guard its northernmost border.

You can hike the entire length of the wall, but that's a long way to walk - the trail runs 135 kilometres from eastern Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. And the best section is in the middle, where the hilly country with its lower population has left much of the structure intact.

The solution for us was to catch the seasonal AD122 bus. The bus runs between the railway stations of Haltwhistle (in the west) and Hexham (in the east), with easy connections to Carlisle and Newcastle.

As it stops at key sites along the wall, including museums and former forts, it makes the historic structure accessible to everyone, though there's still some walking to do from the bus stops to the wall itself.

Not everyone's up for a long walk, especially in such hilly country, so it's a good option for travellers who are less mobile.

In the end we did walk a section of the wall, taking a leisurely two hours to stroll up and down the sloping trail west from the fort site now known as Housesteads.

Once we'd had enough of that, we used a farm access road to get back to the main road, where we were happy to flag down the next bus. A day ticket allows multiple rides, and the bus will pick up anywhere that's safe along its route.

The walk was great, but we were happy to get back on the bus and use it to reach the ruins of the former Roman military town south of the wall, Vindolanda [pictured above].

We used it the next day as well, to see some of the wall-related sites closer to Haltwhistle. It was a great way to explore Hadrian's Wall, and allow some walking without exhausting ourselves.

For more details about the AD122 bus, click here.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Mind Your PMQ: Hong Kong's Design Hub

I was hosted on this trip by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

When I visited Hong Kong last year, I spent an afternoon at PMQ.

Opened in 2014, this arts and design hub is housed within the former Police Married Quarters from the British colonial era.

The complex contains workshops, galleries, pop-up shops and food outlets, housed within two seven-storey blocks remaining from the original institution.

These wings are linked by a modern structure called QUBE, which has a rooftop garden.

It's interesting to wander around the complex, up and down between the floors. There's always something new to see in each shopfront.

For an article I was writing, I talked to some young designers who were able to get a start in otherwise-expensive central Hong Kong by taking on a shop in PMQ.

One, Coney Ko [pictured left], designs and sells jewellery with a retro look reminiscent of Art Deco. Another, Yeung Chi, is an award-winning fashion designer.

It's a fascinating place to visit, both for its outlets and its heritage. To learn more about the latter, you can join a regular free PMQ Heritage Interpretation Guided Tour.

For tour bookings and more information, visit the PMQ website.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Nexus of Change: Gdańsk Shipyard, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

In 1980, the Solidarity trade union was founded at the Lenin Shipyard (later renamed the Gdańsk Shipyard) in Gdańsk, Poland.

Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity became the first independent trade union recognised in Eastern Europe's communist bloc, after a massive strike forced the Polish government to legalise it.

A decade of struggle, repression and civil disobedience followed, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of Europe's communist regimes.

The Wall's collapse can be traced back to Solidarity, its foundation having forced the first cracks into the totalitarian structure.

Nowadays the Gdańsk Shipyard is much reduced as a working facility. On part of its former footprint stands the European Solidarity Centre, opened in 2014 with an exhibition explaining the long struggle for freedom which began here.

I walked through it on my 2016 visit, and for a student of history it was fascinating. From mock-ups of communist-era homes and offices, to chilling details of the surveillance state, it gives a sense of what it was like to live through those times.

At the end of the exhibition is a stylised replica of the circular conference table which negotiated a peaceful end to the regime. I saw it as a symbol of hope. Not every tussle for power has to end in bloody civil war.

In addition to housing the Centre, the shipyard site has hosted major rock concerts to mark Solidarity's struggle, and its distinctive Gate Number Two has become a symbol of freedom.

The gate still stands, and makes an impressive architectural counterpoint to the hyper-modern ESC building.

In a time of political uncertainty across Europe, with democracy seemingly shaky, this site - so crucial in the spread of freedom across the continent - is well worth a visit.

The European Solidarity Centre is open daily from 10am, admission 20zł ($7). For more details, visit its website.

Friday, 25 May 2018

"He Gave Joy": Visiting PG Wodehouse's Grave on Long Island, New York

When Narrelle Harris and I visited New York in September 2014, we spent our last full day out of the city.

Catching a train along the Long Island Railroad on a sunny Sunday morning, we alighted at Speonk station, which serves the locality of Remsenburg.

It was in Remsenburg that our favourite author, PG Wodehouse, had spent his final years, and we wanted to pay tribute to him with a little pilgrimage while we were in the vicinity.

Visiting Wodehouse-related sites as I travel had become something of a hobby. In 2011 I visited the prison in Poland where he had been interned in World War Two; and earlier in 2014 I'd had a drink at the Berlin hotel where he was subsequently quartered. In 2012 I had joined a group of PG Wodehouse Society members on a memorable weekend excursion to Norfolk, UK, visiting places connected with his life and work.

I didn't know what to expect when we arrived at Remsenburg, and was pleasantly surprised to find a cafe in operation next to the train station:

When we stepped inside for coffee, we realised it actually was the station. Or more correctly, had once been the station until replaced by the windswept concrete platform a slight distance west.

The interior was decked out with reminders of its railway past:

When we mentioned our quest to our waitress, she pointed to a section of wall - and we were delighted to discover a framed photograph of Wodehouse (top right), strolling to the local post office to send a manuscript to his publisher:

It was heartening to see that PGW's local fame had not entirely subsided, some four decades after his death.

We walked to the Remsenburg Community Presbyterian Church, an attractive white wooden structure with a modest spire. It was a pleasant 20 minute stroll on a sunny day, along Phillips Avenue to its intersection with Country Road.

Though it was a residential area, there were plenty of trees along the walk, giving the area a serene, semi-rural feel. I could see why Wodehouse had chosen this place as a retreat late in life, after the scarring experience of his imprisonment and manipulation by the German military in World War Two.

As we crossed to the church a pair of cyclists paused courteously to let us pass, then we stopped at the front of the building to examine a large commemorative sign:

Detailing his life and work, it ended with the words "His gentle humour and superb mastery of the English language continue to bring joy to readers all over the world."

In the graveyard behind the church, we found his final resting place:

And on top, to one side, a small figure placed there by a fan, suggesting the Infant Samuel at Prayer. Plaster figures of Samuel are mentioned several times in Wodehouse's short stories and novels, often in an amusing light at odds with their apparent piety.

In my favourite Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia uses a figure of Samuel to relieve her anxiety about the possible loss of her superb chef, Anatole:
She rose, and moved restlessly to the mantelpiece. I could see that she was looking for something to break as a relief to her surging emotions – what Jeeves would have called a palliative – and courteously drew her attention to a terra cotta figure of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. She thanked me briefly, and hurled it against the opposite wall.
So it was good to see an approximation of Samuel here, unsmashed and working away at the old stand (as Wodehouse would have put it):

At an initial loss of how to mark the occasion, Narrelle and I decided to read aloud a few of our favourite Wodehousean extracts (thank heaven for the Kindle app on our phones!).

So I read out part of the short story in which Bertie first hires Jeeves, then Narrelle read the funny poem A Pastoral; I continued with part of a Jeeves short story set in New York City; and Narrelle concluded with the amusing poem Good Gnu.

It was fun, and moving, and made us shed a few tears as well.

After a while we started walking back to the station, and met one of the cyclists who'd let us cross earlier. It turned out he was originally from Perth, which surprised me not at all - you find random Australians everywhere around the world, in the seemingly most unlikely places.

Living in the area, he was curious about our mission, and why so many people made the trek out to Long Island to visit Wodehouse's grave. I could tell he was unfamiliar with PGW's work, so I mumbled a few words about enjoying his books and we pushed on.

Looking back, however, I wished I'd expressed myself more fully. All I needed to do was to borrow three words inscribed at the base of his gravestone: "He gave joy."

Friday, 18 May 2018

Signs of South Africa

I've just returned from South Africa with a sizeable dose of jetlag, so please excuse me if this week's post is short and sweet.

While being driven around urban South Africa, I took a photo of the occasional advertisement or other sign on the walls of buildings.

It struck me that the ads in South Africa resemble the country's cities - a melding of African and international. Have a look at these, and see if you agree...

Friday, 11 May 2018

Saving the Rhino in South Africa

Last week our media tour, hosted by South African Tourism, spent two nights at the Madikwe Game Reserve in the far north of the country.

We saw an enthralling array of wild animals, many up close. On one occasion elephants walked right by our vehicle. I made a list of the creatures we saw over our three general nature drives, and it ran like this:

  • Buffalo
  • Lions (with a dead zebra)
  • Elephants
  • Rhinos
  • Giraffes
  • A jackal
  • Wild dogs
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Wildebeest
  • Zebra
  • Baboons
  • A crocodile
  • A hyena

But the most impressive drive was the one which focused on one animal only: the rhinoceros.

These big animals are in grave danger of poaching; every year they're illegally hunted in reserves across Africa. One of the ways to forestall this is to create a precise biological record of each rhino, which maximises the chances of a successful prosecution of smugglers and poachers, and thereby acts as a deterrent.

We were told there had recently been a prosecution in nearby Swaziland in which a poacher had received a 29 year prison sentence, his fate sealed by the irrefutable biological evidence trail back to a specific rhino.

In Madikwe this initiative is funded largely by visitors to the reserve's various lodges, who make donations which are dedicated entirely to that purpose.

We were lucky enough to see the program in action.

This is how it worked. First, a helicopter went up to locate an untagged rhino. Then the vet with the team sedated the animal with a tranquilliser dart, and we scrambled to reach it as it went under.

At this point we were allowed to approach the sleeping animal and hand the vet the necessary jars for the samples of horn and blood to be placed into. It was remarkable to stand next to such a large, exotic creature, it seeming something like a small dinosaur at rest.

Once the procedure was over, the vet injected the rhino with an agent to reverse the sedation and it awoke almost instantly, lumbering off through the bush to be reunited with its companions.

It was a special experience, and hopefully one which will help make rhino poaching ever more difficult in South Africa. And it enabled us to get an unusually close look at one of the country's many amazing animals.  

We stayed at Jaci's Lodge, see For general information about Madikwe Game Reserve, see

Friday, 4 May 2018

Penguins & Vineyards: Attractions Outside Cape Town, South Africa

I'm currently in South Africa with a media group, courtesy of South African Tourism, and we've started our journey in Cape Town.

It's a great city, with a lively waterfront area and a lot of personality. It's also surrounded by interesting attractions, some of which we visited on our first day in the city.

The Atlantic coast is particularly impressive. We started the day at Maidens Cove, west of the city...

... then ascended to Chapman's Peak, with an equally stunning view. That's not my bike in the photo by the way, I'd never make it up that far! Though there were plenty of cyclists on the road, surprising in such hilly country.

At Boulders Beach we met a colony of African Penguins. They used to be known as jackass penguins due to their braying cry, and we heard plenty of that as they waddled around. They're big birds too, probably twice the size of the famous penguins at Phillip Island near Melbourne.

At Muizenberg we hopped out of the minibus briefly to take a look at the colourful bathing boxes on the beach:

Heading east, we entered wine country. We had an interesting wine tasting session at the Spier winery, matching chocolate with the varietals...

... then lunch at Le Petite Ferme came with this view:

We finished the day with a visit to Drakenstein prison, the final place at which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned before his release by the apartheid-era government after 27 years behind bars. A statue of the great man has been erected outside the facility's entrance, immortalising his triumphant stance upon walking to freedom:

It was an inspirational place at which to finish our day trip. The next day we visited Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of his imprisonment, for a grimmer look at the experience of freedom fighters against apartheid. But that's a story for another day...

Friday, 27 April 2018

Cafes of Bendigo

I was in Bendigo last weekend for my brother John's wedding to his longtime partner Chris, so while I was there I thought I'd check out the cafe scene.

The regional city, 150km north of Melbourne, has a wealth of attractive gardens and buildings inherited from the gold rush era of the 19th century. Now it has a fine collection of cafes too. Here are four I visited...

1. Cortillé, 322 Lyttleton Tce, Bendigo.

There's a bunch of good cafes near the railway station on the west side of the CBD, and this is one of the best. The interior, spread through two shopfronts, is a light-filled space with bricks walls painted white, floral artwork on the walls, and comfortable modern furniture.

Its coffee comes from Axil Coffee Roasters, and it's great stuff. The cafe's food menu is divided into those famous three meals: Breakfast, Lunch, and Waffles. The most interesting breakfast dish is the scrambled tofu with kale and enoki mushrooms, and at lunch there are items ranging from Moroccan lamb to a vegan pad thai.

2. Bay Leaf, 102 Mitchell St, Bendigo.

This cafe with Greek-inspired dishes was my and Narrelle's favourite of the four places we visited.

Mediterranean cuisines are perfectly suited for adaptation to a brunch menu, with their sharp flavours and unfussy ingredients, and the crew at Bay Leaf have cleverly converted Greek standards by adding a few extras: for example, the traditional cheese and spinach pastry spanakopita becomes a breakfast dish by adding a poached egg.

My own 'big breakfast' was an assortment which included some spectacular slow-cooked beans and a zucchini-based fritter. Lovely food from a menu with plenty of vegetarian options.

3. Get Naked Espresso, 73 Mitchell St, Bendigo.

The '90s live again at this grungy cafe, which specialises in coffee rather than food. Its interior off Mitchell St is a pared-down space with old armchairs and quirky posters on the walls. But wait! Step through the back of the space and it opens onto a surprisingly vast outdoor area, which turns into the bar known as Handle Bar in the evening.

The coffee is from Honeybird Coffee Roasters, an outfit based in Mount Beauty, and it's excellent; though I wasn't that fussed by the double-shelled reusable plastic cups the coffee is served in if drinking on the premises. It keeps the coffee hot, but doesn't have the classic feel of ceramic.

The Mitchell Street premises is one of three, and ideal if you're after a quick caffeine jolt rather than a meal.

4. Brewhouse, 402 Hargreaves St, Bendigo.

This is the biggest of the cafes we visited, with a rambling interior decorated by colourful graffiti-like images across its walls. On a Sunday it was heaving with groups of family and friends - including our post-wedding party across two long tables. The service seemed to falter under pressure, but the staff stayed cheerful.

Brewhouse roasts its own coffee and accompanies it with an extensive menu, so this is the place for a leisurely catch-up over brunch. I tried the Smashing Pumpkins: pumpkin and sage smash with feta, kale and dukkah, and scrambled eggs [see image, top right]. It was good, though personally I'll be happy when the kale trend passes and that bitter crunchy stuff can be taken off menus. 

Narrelle ordered the Eat Your Greens dish, which matched eggs with asparagus, broccolini, green beans, spinach, avocado, and pumpkin hummus. It was very green. And good.

For more info on visiting Bendigo, see Bendigo Tourism's website.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 (Part 2)

It's the final week of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Narrelle Harris and I have seen more shows. Here are our final two reviews for 2018...

1.  Ladylike: A Modern Guide to Etiquette
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

In her vintage frock, high heeled bubblegum pink shoes and be-ribboned blonde hair, Louise Beuvink presents as the epitome of womanliness. Then she kicks the shoes off, because who can wear those for an hour without crushing foot pain?

There's a fine tradition of salty women puncturing the ridiculous social standards to which women (and men) are held. With her easy tips for entertaining, how to stay beautiful for your man, and how to keep a smile on your face at all times, Louise Beuvink joins the ranks of the best of them.

Along the way we meet Drunk Louise and a vividly awkward scenario involving a cup in which she seizes the day, a woman's guide to cricket, and musical tips to help ladies get their needs satisfied.

My favourite section is a long riff on how women are so emotional and the flipside of the "Friendzone". A few lines are delivered too quickly, reducing the laughs, but most of the time she rollicks along with the audience right alongside her.

Ladylike is Louise Beuvink's MICF debut and it's robust, full of biting humour, and just a spicy touch of rage.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Summer Camp
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Steve Bugeja doesn't seem the perfect role model for kids, especially the 18 year old version he reflects on in this show. Nerdy and squeaky-voiced, young Bugeja was an unconfident teenager when he went to the USA eight years ago to work at a summer camp for autistic children. Assigned to a challenging child named CJ, he struggled to cope with his role.

There's a lot of awkwardness in this show, but it's not at the expense of CJ; the kid did some funny and unpredictable stuff that made adults embarrassed, but Bugeja paints him as a happy, untroubled soul. The comedian himself is the butt of the joke, as he relates how he tried to figure out the best responses with minimal training.

Being a geeky young guy among more confident peers means he was also competing for the affections of a female colleague and being outshone at every turn. Unlucky as the young Steve was in love, however, the adult version is a likeable storyteller and his mishaps generate plenty of laughs.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you had some laughs! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 (Part 1)

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is on again, and Narrelle Harris and I have been seeing shows. Here's our first set of reviews for 2018...

1. Good
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I wish I had a dollar for every comedian I've seen who dumped a career in law for a career onstage. Tom Cashman is another one on the list, and his story about a dire interview with a law firm convinces me he made the right choice.

Cashman is a funny guy who combines the physicality of a skinny nerd (and cartoonish raised eyebrows) with the confidence that comes from not having been bullied at school; he says he went to a nerdy institution and never learned to cower.

The theme of Cashman's show is his attempts to be good, but that's a slight premise for an act that's largely observational stand-up. He has entertaining stories to relate about awkward escapades in his past, including the time he ogled a couple making out on Sydney's Oxford Street, the time he needed to have quiet sex, and the time he had a very unfortunate encounter with a treadmill.

There's the odd joke that falls flat - some of his sexual material is tacky rather than funny - but Cashman is an amusing new comedian. It'd be interesting to see him tackle a show with a more substantial theme.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Don't Worry They're Here
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

John Kearns wears a tonsured wig (he won't tell us why) and false buck teeth reminiscent of those of Gromit's hapless owner Wallace. He has the air of that world-weary, slightly aggressive older blue collar worker at the back of the pub, intent on sharing his take on life with you. You're almost certain that at some point you're going to be horribly offended, yet you'll have to politely endure.

Luckily, John Kearns turns out to not be that kind of philosopher.

Instead, he delivers an hour of seemingly unconnected pugnacious-melancholic philosophy, pleading with us to seize life's fleeting joys. He's full of non-sequiturs and warns that 40% of us will be disappointed by his show, "but I'll take those odds".

Kearns may seem to ramble, but he returns to themes and references, employing bathos and absurdism to low-key yet surprising effect.

His style is odd and thoughtful. While not filled from wall to (as he says, reassuringly dependable concrete) wall with laughs, it's a refreshing comedic take.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. The Bear Pack
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Improvised comedy can be bad. Very bad. Or maybe, when the performers know what they're doing, very good. Lucky for us, performing duo Steen Raskopoulos and Carlo Ritchie are in control of their created-on-the-spot art as they work with two topics tossed to them by audience members: a sinking ship, and a pickle.

What follows is an absurd tale of a second mate leaving a stricken ship for help, and being led across a mysterious island to a throne room where a malevolent king turns out to be a gherkin in disguise. This silly stuff is expertly given a soundtrack by Ange Lavoipierre, sitting onstage and playing the cello.

The plot matters less than the opportunities it presents for the actors to challenge and test each other, often pushing into awkward territory: setting up a situation where one of the actors has to play two conversing characters at the same time, for example; or one performer fleeing the stage for a snack break while leaving the other to carry the show.

It's a fun hour of unpredictable story-telling, and well scheduled at 11pm as a wind-down from more cerebral work earlier in the evening. And each night's story is, of course, unique.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 6 April 2018

Eerie Masuria: Revisiting the Wolf's Lair, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
In Poland's northeast lies the beautiful region of Masuria.

It's a land of lakes and forests, but also has a dark past. When it was part of Germany in World War II, this was where Adolf Hitler sited his HQ for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

It was given the overly dramatic name of The Wolf's Lair (Wolfsschanze in German, Wilczy Szaniec in Polish).

Only partly destroyed before the Nazi retreat from the Red Army, the once-hidden forest base is now an eerie collection of monumental broken concrete bunkers among the trees; along with a monument to Von Stauffenberg's 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler (see the first photo below).

The site is a fascinating wartime relic, but also an eerie place to visit, walking among the huge shattered structures.

I first visited the Wolf's Lair in the depths of a Polish winter, when the ruins were covered with snow; then two years ago, I revisited in spring, when they seemed no less strange surrounded by vibrant greenery.

Here's what I found on my second visit...

By chance, on both visits (ten years apart), I was met by the same guide, Jadwiga - you can see her in the photo above. If you're ever visiting Masuria and need an English-speaking guide, I recommend hiring her services. You can contact Jadwiga by email, by clicking here.

And as a bonus, here's another shot of Bunker 13 - Hitler's personal bunker - from my first visit in March 2006, when The Wolf's Lair felt like a very cold and lonely place indeed...

Friday, 30 March 2018

The Historic Tree of Albury, Australia

Between Christmas and New Year's Eve last year, Narrelle and I stayed in Albury for a few days.

To anyone fascinated by borders (as I am), Albury is an interesting place. It lies on the north bank of the Murray River, which is the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria.

On the south bank, Wodonga is its Victorian twin; together they form a busy regional centre of about 100,000 people.

We arrived at Albury's impressive railway station (see photo, top right) via the XPT train which runs twice daily between Melbourne and Sydney.

It's a grand edifice partly because of its lofty station building, which marked its importance in the 19th century as the crossing point between colonies.

Another impressive aspect is its very long platform, a product of the insanity by which each colony had different rail gauges. Until 1962, passengers on the Melbourne-Sydney journey had to change trains here, crossing from one side of the platform to the other.

We walked to our accommodation at the Best Western Hovell Tree Inn, on the western edge of the city centre near the banks of the Murray. The river here is fringed by a beautiful section of parkland, the Noreuil Park Foreshore, a lovely place to walk and a credit to the city.

Nearby is Hovell Tree Park. One day Narrelle and I were sitting at a barbecue area there, eating something we'd bought from a bakery across the road, when I found myself wondering what and where exactly was this Hovell Tree?

So I walked across the grass toward the river and found the tree!


It was marked by the explorers Hume and Hovell on 17 November 1824, on their epic expedition from Appin, south of Sydney, all the way to Corio Bay near where Geelong now stands.

This journey took place over a decade before Melbourne was founded, so much of this terrain was unknown to the white newcomers to Australia, though had been inhabited for millennia by Aboriginal peoples.

They were apparently surprised to encounter such an impressive river as the Murray, and had to jerry-rig a boat using a tarpaulin, in order to cross it.

The rest of the trip was equally eventful, with many difficulties involving the crossing of rivers and mountains, with occasional backtracking; you can read about it here.

Anyway, it was interesting to discover a fragment of colonial history across from our hotel, almost by accident. I felt a bit like an explorer myself.