Monday 28 April 2008

Shadowing Ned Kelly

When you've had enough of travelling to tick off major landmarks, travelling to a theme becomes attractive.

Whether it's an itinerary built around food, history or a love of Elvis, a theme provides a "shaping mechanism" for the journey, livening it up and adding interest. There's also the fun of piecing together a puzzle as the fragments of the theme come together, creating understanding.

I had that feeling last week, as I joined the dots on the Ned Kelly Touring Route. Based in the High Country region of northeast Victoria, Australia, the route is a collection of places associated with the Kelly Gang.

For those unfamiliar with the legend, Ned Kelly was a young man from an Irish Catholic background, whose family of poor farmers was frequently in trouble with the law in the late 19th century British colony.

After an uncorroborated incident in which Ned was said to have shot at a policeman visiting the Kelly house, Ned and his brother Dan went on the run.

Joined by their friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, the Kellys emarked on the life of bushrangers (the Australian term for highwaymen), involving bank robberies, police deaths, a network of sympathisers, a sensational siege in their now-iconic homemade armour, and Ned's execution by hanging in Melbourne.

It's a breathtaking story, and the Touring Route takes you through some impressive places while contemplating it, from regional cities to isolated bush settings. And because I had to come to terms with the story in a "full immersion" way, actually visiting the sites personally and engaging people with what they thought of this complex man who's been called both a hero and a villain, it was a fascinating, fulfilling experience.

Some highlights, by location:
  • Benalla: Seeing the green sash the 11-year-old Kelly was presented with, after he'd saved a younger boy from drowning. He was discovered to be wearing it under his armour when captured after the siege. Seeing it in a simple glass case, still stained with his blood, was deeply moving.
  • Glenrowan: Walking around the historic sites and imagining the events of the siege: the near-derailment of the police train; the hotel alight; Kelly emerging like a metal-clad ghost in the pre-dawn light, bullets bouncing off him.
  • Beechworth: Seeing the metal gates of Beechworth Prison, the same gates which replaced the timber gates when Ned's mother Ellen was jailed, as authorities worried that she might be broken out by protesting locals.
  • Stringybark Creek: Standing in the eerily quiet clearing where the crucial gun battle took place in 1878, that led to the deaths of three policeman and the official declaration of the Kellys as outlaws.
  • Mansfield: Standing in the morning light at the local cemetery in front of the graves of the slain police, being challenged in my inclination to see Ned as a folk hero.
  • Beveridge: And finally, standing outside the humble, decaying, fenced-off house just north of Melbourne where Ned lived as a young boy, his large family around him and his father still alive.
It was an intriguing week, and I feel like I've learned so much from being there, rather than just reading about Kelly's life in a book. The facts are essential, but the emotional connection creates a lasting personal link to those historic events.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

Friday 18 April 2008

"I'm on the Plane!"

In a scary development for people already crammed in like sardines alongside their fellow airline passengers, the European Union has agreed to standards for mobile phone use during flights, according to this story in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Yes, that's right, the standards will allow text messaging, email, and... voice calls. This last item is likely to be the cause of much anguish. As mentioned earlier in this blog, planes the size of 737s are already tiny.

If you're sitting on the right hand of most passengers, their raised phones (and voices) will be some 30cm from your left ear, not to mention where their right elbow will be. Intruding into your airspace, presumably.

The enabling of voice calls on aircraft will probably prove to be a grave mistake. Then again, who knows, perhaps flying has become so horrible in the 21st century that the airlines figure we can't get more pissed off.

And here's another thought: even on airlines that allow text messaging only, how annoying is that "BEEP-BEEP" message alert every two seconds of the flight going to be?

I've actually canvassed this issue before, in a freelance article I wrote a few years ago on mobile phone etiquette. I surveyed a number of acquaintances by email, asking their opinions on mobile phone use in various situations. Here's what they had to say about the possible uses of mobiles on flights:

Claire: “OK for calls that are not too personal. If you’re getting those medical test results, wait till you’re off the plane.”

Melissa: “If you can't survive without your phone for a couple of hours, you have a problem. Give people time to miss you!”

Trevor: “Maybe the ease of eavesdropping will be better.”

Lucy: “Aren't plane trips bad enough already?”

Lyn: “You won’t be able to sleep if the passenger beside you is a phone-aholic.”

Stella: “Can you imagine how terribly annoying this would be?”

Jamie: “Oh please don't lift the ban! I don't need any more distractions on planes.”

Jo: “Maybe it’s the final straw that will release the air rage in all of us?”

Ben: “It’s bad enough being stuck in a tin projectile with other people, without them yelling "I'M ON A PLANE! YEAH NO, THE PLANE I CAUGHT BEFORE! A PLANE!”

Janet: “Oh, dear God! Isn't there enough air rage already?”

I think we have a consensus. Want to add any thoughts?

Friday 11 April 2008

Swings and Roundabouts in USA Tourism

A gloomy story this week in eTurboNews suggests that the USA is losing billions of dollars in inbound tourism because the outside world is convinced that entering the States will be a hassle - both in the time it takes to get a US visa, and in the potential delays and suspicion foisted on travellers on arrival.

Though they're a bit vague on whether the latter problem is based on reality, there definitely is a perception out here (outside the US) that immigration officials are looking for a reason to kick you out.

Certainly, some knee-jerk high profile knockbacks from recent years - like the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens - have made would-be travellers cautious.

This reluctance to head to America is ironic, though, for in one significant way there's no better time for outsiders to head Stateside.

For months now, my Australian dollar has been buying over 90 US cents, easily the best rate I can remember in my adult life. Travellers from other nations are also noticing the effect: the Euro, for example, recently rose to its best rate ever against the USD.

Curiously, the USA carries out little in the way of large-scale tourism promotion in other countries. Perhaps they could adapt Tourism Australia's recent unsuccessful campaign slogan, "Where the Bloody Hell Are Ya?", into something like "Where the Heck Are Ya - It's Cheap Here!".

As the article mentions, there are now plans for the US to set up a tourism promotion fund - by slugging incoming travellers more for their visas! Ouch. Hey guys, shouldn't you pay for it yourself?

Meanwhile, the Aussie dollar has quietly been rising against the Japanese yen as well. The tourism authorities there have cottoned onto the fact that their reputedly expensive destination is now distinctly cheaper for gaijin from Down Under and Europe; hence this promotion, Affordable Japan.

Hmm, that looks good... I think the US might have to wait until I've seen those cherry blossoms.

Friday 4 April 2008

How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm, After They've Seen Paree?

A report released last month by Tourism Australia (reported on by eTurboNews here) tries to raise the alarm over a generation of children living without the traditional family holiday taken somewhere within their own country.

Apparently, without fond memories of regular excursions to that beach house down the coast, and with their exposure to that new-fangled Intertube, these kids will be lured overseas by the promise of exotic foreign lands.

Well... I have to ask... what's wrong with that? One of the best things about travel is its ability to expose people to cultural experiences, and ways of thinking, that they would never have encountered at home.

Yeah, I know, there are plenty of people who go overseas and come back just as narrow-minded as ever. But on the other hand, there are plenty who come home and see their own country in a different light - and learn to mix the best from overseas with the best of their homeland.

Living in a hugely successful multicultural city, Melbourne, I can appreciate every day the richness that borrowing from other cultures bestows. Sure, a lot of our vibrant diversity has been introduced by the migrants who've come here from every continent; but a deal of it has come from Australians going overseas, doing the traditional months-long backpacking tour, and learning from their experiences.

And it's not as if those young people won't travel locally at all when they grow up. In our busy work lives, there will always be a market for those quick out-of-town getaways, to escape from work for a de-stressing break.

The demand for these mini-breaks has already revived some of our region's great Victorian-era resort towns (Daylesford, Queenscliff etc) decades after the car had threatened to make them redundant.

Though that's another inhibiting factor to local holidays - the cost (both environmental and financial) of running a car.

As much as aircraft emissions are complained about re climate change, could a traveller choosing an overseas holiday, then using public transport while in his/her destination, be causing less greenhouse gas emissions than if he/she went on a longish driving holiday? Interesting thought. Anyone got any figures?