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Various travel writings

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Shiny New Newcastle

by Roderick Eime - OUTthere Magazine

Smelly, smoky buses, noisy old cars and shabby, grimy storefronts is what I remember of Newcastle when I first visited the no-nonsense steel and coal city in the late 1970s. Definitely not the sort of place you’d ever consider for a holiday.

Today, I can barely recognise Hunter Street. A stylish, harbourside promenade graces the foreshore along with sparkling new apartments, Scratchley’s exclusive restaurant and the immaculate, brand new Crowne Plaza – all part of a multi-million dollar facelift for this once glum industrial city.

In line with similar waterfront rejuvenations like Port Adelaide, Wollongong and even Cardiff in Wales, these once simply utilitarian ports had all the appeal of a post-industrial scrapyard. Newcastle is in the midst of beautification scheme that is more than skin deep.

Newcastle Council’s Economic and Tourism Development team are working overtime to present their city as an attractive hub, not just for a quick weekend away, but also as a vibrant business hub for new investment.

Whilst retaining the crucial functionality of Australia’s oldest commercial port, Newcastle is reinventing its marine and nautical lifestyles in way more conducive to the needs and expectations of the modern world. Beautifully renovated Victorian and Edwardian buildings retain the charm of downtown, while smart hotel developments exploit the fantastic beachfront environment.

Australia’s second oldest city has plenty around town for the history and art buffs – and it’s all within easy walk from the centre of town.

• Cooks Hill: the local art precinct, stroll amongst the many funky galleries, cafes and boutiques.
• The Junction: at least window-shop this upmarket retail precinct, the haunt of Newcastle’s increasing population of the well-to-do.
• Hamilton: Newcastle’s cosmopolitan hub was largely rebuilt after the 1989 earthquake. Loaf along colourful Beaumont Street and soak up the Mediterranean lifestyle.

For those looking for something a little more immersive, a range of very accessible activities include:

• Scenic helicopter joyflights: Spot whales and dolphins off shore, or take a longer trip to the Hunter Valley or Port Stephens
• Learn to Surf: Hook up with a former world circuit pro, Daniel Frodsham, and learn to hang ten.
• Go kayaking: Jump in a sea kayak and explore the harbour up close.
• Youloe-ta: Explore a 5 hectare bush tucker garden with local Aboriginals. Book ahead for ceremonial dancing and other activities.
• Fort Scratchly: the only Australian coastal fort to fire its guns in anger. This historic Crimean War-era fort is now an enthralling museum.

Just out of the town is the world famous Hunter Valley with all it has to offer, and to the north, the vast and highly significant 2500 year old Stockton sand dunes of Port Stephens.

Based in an oasis in the middle of this vast sea of rolling dunes is “Sand Safaris”, an adventure tour operator with a distinct difference. After a short, but intense safety and riding instruction, we spent two hours aboard 350cc ‘Quad Bikes’ exploring the seemingly endless expanse of sand that continues to grow and consume the coastal forests at Stockton Beach.

Far from a free-for-all “hoonfest”, Sand Safaris encourages you to enjoy your ride and have fun without resorting to wild, hair-raising exploits – not that you need be tempted. The near vertical drop into the massive sand bowl was enough to keep the adrenaline junkies quiet for a moment or two!

In a convoy of up to twelve machines on the “Coastal Desert Discovery Tour”, you’ll see the fascinating WWII defence relics, the largest shipwreck on the shores of Australia (Sygna) as well as the sheer beauty of these huge sand formations.

For More Info:

Newcastle Tourism
Ph: 02 4974 2999

Crowne Plaza Newcastle
Ph: 02 4907 5000

Sand Safaris Active Adventure Tours
Ph: 02 4965 0215


The Blue Tarp Resort

Roderick Eime (Get Up 'n' Go Magazine) suggests you consider the portable canvas option for your next road trip.

After Mum and Dad told me their camping stories from the ‘50s, pitching a tent somewhere in the great Aussie outback was about the last thing I ever wanted to. But on a 4WD trip to Cape York recently, I rediscovered the primal joys of sleeping under canvas miles from the nearest streetlight or flush toilet.

As you flick through the pages of your favourite travel magazine (yes, this one!) gazing longingly at the golden, palm lined beaches and the lush forest destinations, you might be thinking these exotic locations are the exclusive realm of the rich and famous. Maybe, not! Camping has long been a favourite Australian pastime and an accepted means of visiting places a long way from home without running up exorbitant hotel and resort bills.

I’ll confess that on our tour to the “tip”, we mixed and matched our digs. From the glamour of swish Bloomfield Lodge, to a humpy on the beach at Munbah we truly experienced the extremes of accommodation options. Yet, it was the camping experience that defined our journey.

Sure, camping isn’t for everyone, but you might find it makes an enriching and cost effective alternative for that dreamed-of road trip across the country. By alternating tent, cabin, motel and resort, you can spoil yourself occasionally while keeping a lid on expenses.

My mum, now well into her seventies, rediscovered the joys of camping when she and a friend spent two years exploring the far corners of the continent in a station wagon packed with camping gear.

“Well, darling,” Mum recalls, “we really enjoyed ourselves. It was a relaxing, fun holiday. But we didn’t go without our comforts.”

In those two years, Mum covered the length and breadth of the country, ticking off favourite locations like Charters Towers, Alice Springs, Hughenden, Arkaroola and Kings Canyon.

“We only pitched the tents when we intended to stay more than a couple of nights. It’s a bit of a pest putting them up and down every day, so we’d get a cabin if we were just passing through.”

“Come on Mum,” I implored, “there must have been something you didn’t like.”

“Not really love. We were pretty well prepared and we chose our locations and weather very carefully.”

Knowing your destination and its climate is a key to enjoyable camping. Do your homework and visit locations during their most agreeable weather. For example, the Outback is gorgeous mid-year when the weather is mild and rainfall at its lowest.

Mum rattled off her list of camping must-haves and I compared it with mine.

Tent (one per person); fully-floored with insect netting. Blow-up mattresses. Doona, sheets and pillow (I took a sleeping bag and camp stretcher). Long extension cord, power board with appliances; Jug, toaster, electric skillet, hot plate (or gas primus), portable telly, fan heater. Other useful inclusions; Cut down occasional table for inside tent, hair dryer, reading lamp and/or torch.

Exterior accessories were kept to a minimum, but included folding chairs and table, kitchenware and washing up kit.

Take your pick with food. Alternate eating out at pubs and cafés with cooking yourself. Fresh meat, fish and vegetables where available and tins of soup and stew for the remote spots.

“What about, you know, ones and twos?” I delicately enquired.

“Well we had that sorted too. Let’s just say we had the modern equivalent of a chamber pot when I didn’t feel like going outside.”

Around the country there are serviced campgrounds (showers, electricity, pool, cabins etc) and caravan parks or, for the more adventurous, unserviced grounds deep within National Parks and Reserves with perhaps a “long drop” and a rainwater tank.

Some parks create an instant community, complete with social nights, sausage sizzles and happy hours while others are simply quiet retreats. Or choose somewhere on your own and enjoy the solace and seclusion of a night under the stars with just the sound of a breeze in the trees and birds as your alarm clock.

“After my experiences in the ‘50s, I never thought I’d camp again, but the gear is just so much better now and the caravan parks and campgrounds are almost like resorts now with restaurants, games rooms and activities,” says Mum, “Boy, we did it rough back then!”

A road trip doesn’t mean a remake of “The Long Long Trailer”, instead travel light and lean and consider the camping option to extend your trip and keep costs down.


The Emperors of Snow Hill Discovered

Report by Roderick Eime - World Adventurer

The world’s largest penguin, the Emperor, lives exclusively in the deepest regions of Antarctica, right? Wrong!

In November 2004, the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, encountered substantial numbers of Emperor Penguins in the water around the ship at 64 degrees south. Take a look at your atlas. The Antarctic Circle is 66 degrees! What were they? A new tropical breed of Emperor Penguin?

Frank Todd, ornithologist, author and naturalist guide aboard the Khlebikov, had heard stories of “lost” Emperors way up toward the tip of the Peninsula, on the Weddell Sea (eastern) side. In December 1893, Norwegian Captain Carl Larsen reported “numerous” Emperors in a colony on the fast ice (as in stuck fast) at around 67 degrees. In the last decade, the disintegrating ice shelf probably caused this colony to scatter and some, it would appear, headed north in search of more stable breeding grounds, or ice as in the case of Emperors.

Keen to confirm, or otherwise, the existence of a new colony so far north, Frank and other members of the scientific team boarded the Khlebnikov’s jet helicopters for a reconnaissance. Following their instincts and some earlier reports by Argentinean scientists, the colony was located on the ice a few hundred metres off the southern shore of Snow Hill Island.

The party landed, and after some initial data collection, brought back the awestruck passengers, split into small groups, to observe this incredible expedition bonus. They would have clambered like schoolchildren to see just one Emperor Penguin and not one of them could possibly have imagined finding a large (8,000 birds, Frank reckons) colony on this trip so far north. What’s more, they were without doubt, the first humans to visit this colony on foot.

“It was pleasing to see the colony in such good shape, “says Frank, “we counted 3885 downy chicks about a month old, almost all healthy and attended by a parent.”

Eager to preserve the integrity of the colony, passengers were landed behind a large iceberg to shield the birds from the noise and scary imagery of a Russian helicopter. Despite what was almost certainly these animals’ first encounter with humans, their innate curiosity took over and soon Emperors were standing to attention and marching over for a closer look at the new visitors, occasionally trumpeting their royal presence.

With this new colony now properly documented, number 44 of 45 known, Snow Hill Island will become a regular fixture on the Kapitan Khlebnikov’s expedition calendar. Previously, Penguin fans had to travel as far as 72 degrees on the other side of the continent for a look at a decent flock of Emperors. What once took over 20 days, can now be achieved in less than a fortnight, with plenty of time for exploring.

The Weddell Sea in November is still shaking off the last of its wintry hangover, and dense ice around the islands is common. This limits access to only the toughest of ice vessels, the icebreaker, and Khlebnikov is currently the only one operating passenger journeys to Antarctica.

Emperor Penguin Fast Facts

The Great Hong Kong Camera Scam

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, a colleague related to me his perplexing experience after an attempt to purchase a camera.

“I’ve just had the most bizarre experience,” he said, clearly disturbed by the event.

My friend had attempted to purchase a particular Nikon DSLR camera from a prominent, Nathan Road camera store.

He’d done all his research and really had his heart set on this unit. He also had existing Nikon lenses he could use.

After some protracted haggling, as is the norm, he ended up with a price that was some $1000 less than the Sydney price he was quoted, plus he had a lens and sundry accessories thrown in.

Next, the assistant wanted his credit card details for an up-front payment prior to delivery of the goods. The camera, he explained, was not in stock and he needed a firm sale before he went to get it. Not entirely happy with this arrangement, my friend (wisely) insisted on sighting the goods before payment.

Hearing this exchange, a more senior assistant moved in to close the sale.

“Why do you want this camera?” he berated my friend. “It’s no good. Rubbish. You want this one,” and proceeded to extol the limitless virtue of the new Canon product.

Of course, this new Canon was a lot more money and came without the goodies he’d been promised with the Nikon.

“My staff has made a mistake,” he retorted bluntly, tearing up the order form for the Nikon. “.. and what sort of job you do?”

And here’s where things took a nasty turn.

“I’m a journalist,” my not-too-discrete friend replied, whereupon he was virtually man-handled out of the store.

The moral of the story: If the price seems too good, then it probably is. Beware!


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