Wednesday 28 February 2018

Visiting the Russian Woodpecker near Chernobyl, Ukraine

An article featuring my 2016 visit to the derelict Duga-1 radar base in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was rewritten when the publisher wanted a different focus. So here’s my original description of the former Soviet radar base, for your enjoyment…

The eeriest moment on our overnight tour of Chernobyl happens not at the infamous reactor site, which exploded in 1986 and spewed radioactive waste into the sky.

Instead it’s at ‘Chernobyl 2’, a code-name used by Soviet authorities to hide an even more sensitive facility. For hidden within the forest was a huge radar installation guarding against an incoming missile launch.

It’s just one of several strange places visited on the tour, all abruptly deserted after the 1986 accident.

Clearly, this is not the itinerary of your average tourist jaunt. However, in recent years the Ukrainian government has allowed tour companies to take small groups into the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the doomed reactor complex.

The company that’s hosting me, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by one of the emergency workers who helped clean up the site in the 1980s. Most of its customers visit on a day trip from Kiev, two hours away; but there’s the option of a two-day tour, which means a sleepover and more sites to visit.

The exclusion zone contains more than the radar base and the reactor complex with the ruined Reactor 4 under its protective shelter.

Numerous villages were also abandoned, along with the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat. In many ways the villages are the saddest places to explore, with their collapsed houses and empty schools, still scattered with belongings including children’s toys.

The radar complex, formally known as Duga-1 but nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker for its endless clicking sounds when operational, is another memorable site.

It’s a spooky place, reached by turning off the main road past a dilapidated bus shelter painted with cartoon animals – part of its Cold War cover as the supposed location of a children’s holiday camp.

At the end of a bumpy road of concrete slabs is a huge radar array. Over 150m high and stretching for 800m along a forest clearing, it’s a complex structure of metal girders and components.

And it creaks in the wind, a creepy sound in a dead-quiet grove in the middle of nowhere. The sounds of the paranoid past, haunting the present.

Tim Richards was hosted by Chernobyl Tour. You can find details of its tours and make bookings at

Friday 23 February 2018

Mysteries of French Island

I was recently hosted on a tour of French Island, in Western Port Bay southeast of Melbourne. This was a test run for a new series of tours being offered in conjunction with the ferry service which links the island to the mainland.

This was an intriguing invitation. Though it's long been possible to reach the island by ferry, there was no way to get around once there. There's no public transport on French Island, and its road surfaces aren't ideal for cycling.

I knew only a little of the history of the island; specifically that it was named in 1802 upon the visit of the French ship Naturaliste, part of the Baudin expedition to Australia. Other than that, it was a closed book to me.

The first thing I saw after disembarking the ferry was this impressive 4WD vehicle which Naturaliste Tours had purchased to penetrate to the most difficult parts of the island, which is largely a national park:

There's a lot of interesting wildlife on French Island. On our way to its southeast corner we passed this difficult to see echidna, shuffling along in the grass by the side of the road:

Then we broke out from bush into this large open space, an abandoned farm which had an eerie desolate air, with its empty farmhouse and old (but recently re-roofed) chicory kiln:

Near a nearby rocky beach, our guide pointed out many discarded shells, remnants of millennia of Aboriginal use of the foreshore:

On our way to French Island Vineyards, we spotted a koala up a tree:

The winery was a decorative contrast to all this wild nature, and we sampled some its wines while having lunch:


We finished our tour with a visit to the striking wetlands at the other end of the island, proof of the variety of its landscapes:

Then it was onto the return ferry to Stony Point on the mainland, and two trains back to Melbourne's CBD. Well worth the trip, and a fascinating insight into a lesser-known island on the city's doorstep.

Details of Naturaliste Tours' French Island tours can be found by visiting its website.

Friday 16 February 2018

A Travel Reading Holiday in Lorne (Part 2)

Every couple of years I take a short summer holiday in the seaside town of Lorne (see above photo), and do a lot of travel reading.

Last post I talked about two travel books I read there in late 2017, each regarding Africa. Now here are two more reviews of travel books among my holiday reading, set in South America and Europe...

1. Turn Right at Machu Picchu; by Mark Adams

The basic premise here is that Adams, an adventure travel magazine editor who rarely gets to do anything adventurous, decides to conquer the Inca Trail. in fact he goes much further than this, seeking to replicate the exploratory quests of Hiram Bingham a century ago.

It was Bingham who visited Machu Picchu and popularised its existence in the West, but he also explored several other significant sites over the following years. In the course of the book Adams visits these while detailing Bingham's expeditions, providing us with parallels between then and now.

It's an entertaining set-up, particularly as the writer is no hardened hiker; it makes it easy for us to identify with him when he struggles with the journey's demands.

The most entertaining element by far is the Aussie guide enlisted by Adams, an eccentric hardened bushman who seems like a real-life version of Crocodile Dundee; just as Bingham was said to have inspired Indiana Jones.

This was a thoroughly good read about a destination I'm not familiar with.

[see this book at Amazon]

2. Border; by Kapka Kassabova

Finally I struck a book with a style of travel more in tune with my own.

Kassabova is a Brit who was born in Bulgaria during the Cold War. In this book, she flits along and over the borders between three Balkan countries: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Along the way she explores the history and folklore of the region, as much at home with relating ancient myths as detailing 20th century events.

This work had much less of the driving linear narrative that was present in the other travel books I read on my Lorne getaway. Instead, the author moves here and there, back and forth, sometimes staying in one village for an extended time.

As a result the book reads like a series of vignettes based on specific villages or border sub-regions, with local people and landscapes at their heart.

It's not as much a page-turner as a traditional travelogue, but Border does lend a lot of insight into the far southeast corner of Europe and the cultural and historical forces which have shaped it.

[see this book at Amazon]

That was my Lorne reading list in 2017. What should I read on my next tech-free travel reading holiday? Feel free to make suggestions in the comments section below.

Friday 9 February 2018

A Travel Reading Holiday in Lorne (Part 1)

Every couple of years I take a short summer holiday in Lorne, on the Great Ocean road here in Victoria, Australia.

It's always a few days about two weeks before Christmas, as that's a period before the festive season rush; when room rates drop while everything in the seaside town opens.

As I've done before, I made it a tech-free break, putting the phone in a drawer once I'd checked into the hotel. The objective - in addition to swimming and walking - was to read as many books as possible.

So here are some reviews of my travel-themed reading, starting with two books about Africa...

1. Walking the Nile; by Levison Wood

There's something slightly irritating about this adventurer who decides to walk the entire length of the Nile, from Rwanda to the Mediterranean. He exudes a subtle air of outdated British imperial folly, perhaps, though he is good mates with the Africans he employs as guides along the way.

There's something meaningless about the goal, though it does lead him through an interesting variety of landscapes and nations, and into difficult encounters which make for dramatic reading. One specific episode within this true story is shocking in its outcome, and nearly brought the walk to an end.

In fact the Nile is never fully walked, as Lervison is forced to skip a section of South Sudan after civil conflict comes too close for comfort. And Egypt, the final country, is something of a damp squib as his progress there is so closely monitored and regulated by the authorities.

Having said that, it is an entertaining journey which reveals a lot about the cultures encountered and landscapes crossed.

[see this book at Amazon]

2. The Last Train to Zona Verde; by Paul Theroux

Some people aren't fans of Paul Theroux's travel writing, as they detect a cold misanthropy in his on-the-road observations. I'm not sure about that. It seems to me he is fact deeply invested in the places and people he encounters, but has a naturally detached way of relating them.

He also has a knack of getting people to speak to him, which seems the opposite of misanthropic.

In this follow-up journey to an earlier book about an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town, he travels from Cape Town to Angola and talks to plenty of people along the way: shanty dwellers in South Africa, elephant handlers in Botswana, San tribesmen in Namibia, random strangers in Angola.

What Theroux doesn't do is suffer fools gladly, and if he takes a dislike to someone or something you know it. He's not a fan of Western culture in its incarnations as mass tourism or rapacious capitalism, and he's particularly scornful of international aid agencies.

He doesn't mind giving African people a serve over their societal shortcomings either, which can make for uncomfortable reading; though he's just as scathing of Europeans who fail his measures of decency.

The journey itself is fascinating, especially since Angola in particular is little visited by Westerners; partly because of its dependence on its misused (in Theroux's eyes) oil wealth. Indeed, it's in Angola that the trip - originally aimed at reaching the Mediterranean - falls apart and is abandoned.

Theroux, as if feeling awkward about not completing his stated quest, spends far too much time justifying himself at the end of the book. It didn't bother me; the journey as it was was intriguing, and I would've myself dropped out after the first difficult Angolan day.

[see this book at Amazon]

Next: Two more reviews - one of a hapless hike through the Andes, the other about the mysteries of a three-nation border region...

Friday 2 February 2018

Clifton's: LA's Retro Cafeteria Lives Again

From 1935 to 2011, Clifton's Cafeteria served meals on Los Angeles' Broadway as the LA Downtown went from boom to bust, then gradually became fashionable again. 

I visited the legendary eatery in 2015, when I was being hosted by Discover LA. It had just reopened after extensive renovations, intended to update it for the 21st century while not losing too much of its retro appeal.

Here's what I found...

Clifton's attractive retro exterior gives way to a wild interior. Simple wooden tables are set on four cascading levels, tiered as if placed on a hidden hillside.

Each of these terraces has a rough-hewn look, with massive timber logs holding up the roof and criss-crossing each other.

This faux forest look is enhanced by murals of more trees, and pot plants scattered between the tables. There's also a big fake bear above the entrance, captured in mid-growl.

Facing the bear is a rough castle facade, and a staircase leading up to a bar area.

All this cheesy splendour is backed up by the soundtrack, a selection of mid-20th century popular songs: All of Me, You Ain't Got That Swing, various jazz tunes.

The bar area is impressive, the void in its centre dominated by a hollow tree trunk rising up several storeys.

Beyond the crazy tree there's more of the feel of a Western saloon, with waistcoated bartenders pouring drinks to customers seated on bar stools, or lounging in armchairs.

The downstairs cafeteria is the prime focus, however.

In addition to its outlandish decor, Clifton's was famous for not turning anyone away, subsidising the meals of those who couldn't afford to pay.

There's still an original water feature by the entrance with a plaque asking people to toss in coins to help the needy.

Past the tables, diners enter the kitchen area, which is laid out like a food hall with separate counters serving burgers, roast meats, salads, deli-style sandwiches and desserts.

You collect what you fancy, then pay for the lot at one of the tills on the way back to the tables.

If the tray is a bit unwieldy or too heavy to carry up the stairs to a table, one of the energetic resident busboys in their striped shirts will take it there for you.

Even when I call in on a Monday afternoon it's extraordinary how much energy there is in the place - from the lively music, the busboys hurtling to and fro, and the buzz of conversation from diners stimulated by the over-the-top decor.

Attempting to assemble a vegetarian meal (not so easy, considering the meat-heavy menu), I select three side dishes from the burger counter - a bowl of sauteed vegetables, a serve of mac and cheese, and a serve of fries.

Not entirely healthy, but tasty in combination, with a sachet of hot sauce drizzled over the mac and cheese.

This is teamed with a large, chilled glass of lemonade, a drink the Americans do inordinately well. It has just the right balance of sweet and sour, with a refreshing crisp chill. Perfect.

And the whole thing costs me just US$11.98. Fine by me.

Clifton's is located at 648 S Broadway, Los Angeles, USA. See