Thursday, November 29, 2007

I’ll take the high road …

High in the Garhwal Himalayas, Roderick Eime discovers two separate paths to Nirvana

It seems every travel story about India dwells on the unavoidable; the conspicuous, elaborate monuments, the chaotic transport and road systems, the infectious spirituality, the poverty and the overwhelming crush of humanity in a country with five hundred times the population of Australia.

Sure, my recent trip to India had it all, but do you really want to hear about that?

This story is about two destinations offering bliss, relief and enlightenment, yet contrasting in almost every other way imaginable.

Wanting to escape from the claustrophobic bustle and throng of Delhi and its nearby attractions, my wife Sandhya (a Fijian-born Hindu) and I ventured north into the Garhwal Himalayas just over two hundred kilometres from the capital. True, the arduous road journey presented a whole new set of tribulations as we wound up and up toward the distant snow-capped mountains. Rock falls, overloaded trucks and buses, erratic animals and pedestrians all kept us and our driver on a heightened state of alert. Indians, we discovered, place a great deal of faith in protection from the gods but aren’t anywhere near so fussed about such earthly matters as seatbelts, crash helmets or guardrails. Mr Sharma, our intrepid navigator, cites the motorist’s prayer; “Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

Our first objective was the holy shrine of Lord Shiva at Kedarnath, located at 3500m and a mere ‘stone’s throw’ from the Tibetan border. The ancient shrine is one of the four highly significant pilgrimages in the Uttaranchal region and one of the famed twelve ‘Jyotirlingas’ (very holy places) scattered throughout India.

The journey looks simple enough on any map, but the reality of Indian alpine road travel soon dispels that illusion. We set out soon after dawn from the holy Ganges town of Haridwar with the objective of being in Kedarnath by nightfall, a mere 250-odd kms away. It was well after dark by the time we crawled into Gauri Kund, the end of the vehicular road, and still a tantalising 14kms short of our goal.

The following morning, after a modest repast of chapatti and beans, we proceeded to the mustering point located just out of town. On the absurdly narrow track, hundreds of ponies were being lead around by lean, energetic mountain men, jockeying for position and trying to secure their mounts for the revenue journey upward. Other, less equestrian types, were already on their way in ‘dandis’, a sort of open-topped sedan chair carried by four extremely well synchronised sherpas.

Looking at my pathetic mule, I decided to do us both a favour and walk as far as I could before hypoxia kicked in. The snow-dusted peaks could just be seen at the end of the steep, twisting valley, while the Mandakini River roared below us. Pretty soon it was clear who the real pilgrims were. He we were, ambling along on the backs of sturdy donkeys, while others in top-shelf Paddy Palin hiking kit confidently strolled past both us and the toffy-nosed set on their dandies. Then, every so often we’d come across an emaciated straggler, plodding barefoot; each step one closer to ultimate salvation. These sadhus, or holy men, were the real McCoys. Clad in ragged orange and brown robes, these unkempt devotees often took an entire lifetime to complete their journey to each holy site, walking the entire distance and existing solely on the benevolence of others too busy with daily routine to make the journey themselves. I began to think that each such donation became a proxy request for the donor’s salvation and by the time the poor sadhu arrives at his temple, he is so burdened with the sins of his lazy brethren he must nearly collapse. And beware, there’s plenty of look-alikes ready to grant you salvation (or perdition) based on the extent of your generosity!

When we, the saddle-sore interlopers, finally arrived at our destination, the tiny village of Kedarnath was something of an anti-climax for me. Nestled in an otherwise idyllic Himalayan surrounding, the evidence of a non-existent sanitary system was everywhere, the town permeated by a wholly unholy aroma. To boot, our basic lodging came without heating or hot water.

The town centre, for what it was, thronged with over-conspicuous worshippers and holy pretenders chanting and flailing about, more in search of dinner party points than divine redemption. My wife, although thrilled to have made the journey to what is a genuinely holy site for devout Hindus, was likewise dismayed at the hypocrisy and duplicitousness taken root in the shadow of the ‘Celestial Jyotirlingam’.

Our itinerary also listed another ‘kedar’, the holy abode of Lord Vishnu at Badrinath, but a quick straw poll put paid to that in favour of more decadent destination, Ananda.

We made arrangements on-the-run as we descended back down through the Garhwal valleys to Rishikesh and Narandranagar, finally arriving in the wee small hours, looking and smelling every bit the authentic pilgrim.

Ananda in the Himalayas is a ’destination spa’ of the most opulent order. Set amongst one hundred picturesque acres on the estate of the Maharaja of Tehri-Garwhal, Ananda, in their own words, is “dedicated to providing guests with a total immersion experience … integrating the elements, the senses, rhythms, nourishment, aesthetics, time and space.”

We were greeted at the doors of the restored vice-regal residence by immaculately attired staff that politely looked past our weather-beaten appearance and welcomed us to our rooms.

Our suite, although not palatial, was flawlessly appointed with abundant little luxuries like perfumed soaps, salves and lotions, fresh fruit, flowers and crisp clean linen. Morning revealed the entire city of Rishikesh stretched out in the valley hundreds of metres below, and as we sat eating the most superb breakfast of fruit, cereal and gourmet Indian cuisine, we felt truly removed from the tribulations that had, only a few hours before, totally engulfed us.

As I explored the tranquil complex, camera in hand, Sandy plunged herself into a suite of holistic therapies including aromatherapy, massage and sauna. Even though she was cloistered away for the entire afternoon, soaked, soothed and saturated by a bevy of Nepalese Ayurvedic therapists, she had barely scratched the surface of Ananda’s vast catalogue of healing recipes.

From check-in to check-out, we had stayed a scant thirty six hours, and it was with some resignation that we handed back our little plastic ticket to holistic well-being and set out yet again into the hurly-burly of Indian traffic.

Clearly there are two distinct paths to spiritual and physical well-being. You choose.

Packages at Ananda are offered in 3, 5, 7, 14 and 21 night stays ranging from around A$1500 to A$10,000. Ananda is located 260 kms (5 hours by road) from Delhi. You can travel to Ananda by air, road, rail or chartered helicopter. For more information, see

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Palermo, the city of countless conquests and crossroad of cultures.

When the huge Costa Serena jostled for a berth in the busy summertime season in Sicily, it was clear Palermo was not just another big ship whistle stop. Roderick Eime revisits.

I hadn’t been to Palermo for thirty years, and I’m pleased to report that very little has changed. Last time was as a student backpacker, this time it was almost red-carpet as we filed aboard our luxury coaches for a series of shore excursions into this 2800-year-old port.

The ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians were the first to recognize the value of the ideal harbour, with sheltered anchorages and high cliff tops for perfect defences and look-outs. These early traders and merchants operated blissfully there for some six hundred years until the Romans turned up – and they didn’t share very well. The Romans were extremely tough on the Punici and effectively drove them out of existence as well as Sicily.

The Byzantines had a brief turn running Sicily after the Roman Empire went belly up, but were blind-sided by the Saracens (Moors) in the 9th Century and the Arabs were in charge for a bit over a hundred years until the Normans, on a roll in the 11th Century, booted them out. The Arabs had moved the capital to Palermo by this stage and spawned an era of cultural and architectural prosperity.

The Normans and Arabs got along, after a fashion, and a melding of their architectures and art began to define the city. Things get messy thereafter and the next few hundred years include family feuds, and the combined squabbling of the royal houses of Spain, Germany and Italy. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Sicily and Palermo became properly and finally Italian.

The city took a pounding during the Second World War and much of the historic architecture was badly and irretrievably damaged, but we did manage to take in as much as we could from our ebullient and suitably shapely tour guide.

Here are some highlights of our whirlwind day in Palermo:

The Capuchin Catacombs

I’d seen the brochure and heard all the warnings, but nothing really prepares you for rows of dead and desiccated bodies hanging from the wall. Some of our group were clearly unsettled by the ghastly exhibition, but I felt more a sense of sadness, especially when whole families, including children, were dangling in tangled repose from the walls.

It all began in the very late 16th Century when the resident monks were looking for somewhere to store those late of the revered order. Locals soon were in on the act and it became a gesture of great nobility and pride to be strung up and dried out in the catacombs. Army generals, academics, noted civil leaders and clergy are all in silent attention, with the last being placed as recently as 1920, when the infant child Rosalia Lombardo was interred in a glass coffin. She remains the most expertly embalmed specimen in the exhibit, and looks for all the world like she might wake at any moment.

Palazzo dei Normanni

Begun in the 9th century by the Arab-Norman rulers and largely styled by the Spanish in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the palace is still a mish-mash of cultures that so defines Sicily and Palermo. The Cappella Palatina within is the best example of the so-called Arab-Norman-Byzantine style that evolved in the 12th-century Sicily. The sprawling building has housed the Sicilian Regional Assembly since 1946.

La Cuba

Built in 1180 by William II, it was one of the last Norman constructions and is certainly showing its age. Inside, careful restoration is in process and we had be careful not to bump any of the delicate-looking scaffolding arranged inside. Apparently there are early Punics (Phoenicians) buried nearby.

Space does not permit me to describe the many churches, cathedrals and palaces – in various states of repair – that remain in the city. But those surviving are clearly being nurtured back to health, albeit at a leisurely Mediterranean pace.

A bus tour to the peak castles is mandatory – even though our coach did not stop despite much pained wailing – for a sample of the panoramic view of the harbour and city.

After the tour, a small posse peeled off for some independent touring (read: shopping) and Palermo certainly presents plenty of opportunity for that. Just be sure to make time for a cool beer in one of the pleasant outdoor bars and watch the city pass by.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Space: The Final Frontier

Published Sunday Telegraph Escape - 9 March 2008 - © Roderick Eime [online]

Let’s Do Launch

“Space: The Final Frontier, … to seek out new life and civilizations …” so said Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise as he surveyed the expanding cosmos. Exploration, discovery and adventure are not the sole domain of science fiction. They have always been defining elements of the human psyche.

The celebrated psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow, called it “self-actualisation”: to boldly go where I’ve not yet been. Once mankind satisfied the lesser, more fundamental requirements such as food, shelter and community we looked beyond the horizon and wondered, “What if …?”

Sure, it took thousands of years for our sluggish and humble species to progress from canoes to steamships, yet much less than one hundred to go from powered flight to space travel. From a traveller’s perspective, now is the most exciting time in our specie’s existence.

And these are exciting times indeed. Such have been the astounding technological advances that in one lifetime, man has flown to the moon and now transverses every continent at an altitude of 10,000m in the company of hundreds of others, enjoying the latest movies and gourmet meals in pressurised comfort. To many, it’s even mundane.

Space travel fell somewhat flat after the delirium of the Apollo program. Many pundits like famous sci-fi writer, Sir Arthur C Clarke, predicted we’d be sticking flags in Mars and holidaying on the moon by now. Somewhere along the way we were sidetracked, probably because our expensive, clumsy rockets weren’t as reliable as we’d hoped. This is Second World War technology after all.

Riding what amounts to a ballistic missile still hasn’t deterred some despite a price tag equivalent to the GDP of a small African republic. At time of writing, there have been five “spaceflight participants” aboard the Russia Soyuz crafts, each paying a reported $20 million for the week long joy ride to the International Space Station (ISS). Tickets are now being sold for a planned flight to orbit the moon. Price? $100 million each.

Affordable space flight? Enter the X PRIZE Foundation (, a not-for-profit body offering multi-million dollar awards for technological breakthroughs. The 2004 Ansari X PRIZE was won by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen who led the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometres above the earth.

Pounced upon by Virgin supremo, Sir Richard Branson, the first commercial flights are now tantalisingly close, perhaps as early as next year. Announced in 2004, Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline expects to launch about 500 passengers annually. His proposed fleet of five spaceships will have a crew of two and just six passengers flying to an altitude of about 110 kilometres, the very edge of space, to experience almost ten minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle which uses huge and dangerous solid fuel rocket boosters, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will launch from a jet-powered mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo, and use a single hybrid rocket motor to reach its peak sub-orbital altitude. Because the craft will only travel at around 4000 km/h, it will not require heatshields for re-entry.

Branson appointed “space agents” last year and Gil McLachlan of Harvey World Travel, Manly is one.

"I know there are at least ten Australians fully paid up for the flight," said McLachlan, "and there will be more in the next twelve months for sure."

One such passenger eagerly awaiting his moment on the launch pad is Wilson da Silva, founding editor of Australian science magazine, Cosmos, whose ticket was one of four bought by Dr Alan Finkel, the publication's chairman.

"It's hard to believe that it's really going to happen," says da Silva with obvious delight, "it's always been a dream of mine since I was a kid."

In Clarke’s seminal 1968 classic, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Dr Heywood Floyd settles into the Orbiter Hilton for a family video call at a rather clunky terminal. The choice of the Hilton name for that movie was no co-incidence; it was a carefully engineered piece of product placement.

William Barron Hilton I, grandfather of the famous Hilton sisters and hotelier, bravely predicted in 1967: “When space scientists make it physically feasible to establish hotels in space and to transport people, the hotel industry will meet the challenge.”

Beyond an orbiting hotel, his plans extended to the Lunar Hilton, “To start with we will have only three floors, which will eliminate elevators and minimize power requirements. The multi-storied underground hotel will come later. But - and this is very important - in almost every respect the Lunar Hilton will be physically like an Earth Hilton.”

But Hilton appears to have lost the inside running to Branson and Robert T Bigelow, a rival hotelier and now aerospace magnate. His Genesis modules are already in space testing the concept of inflatable habitats for possible “hotel” adaptation.

For most of us reading this far, the reality of space flight will remain a fantasy, experienced vicariously in the Sensurround stadium of the cinema. The excitement of weightlessness however can be achieved on a Zero Gravity ( flight aboard G-FORCE ONE®, the same plane used to train NASA astronauts and film Tom Hanks for Apollo 13. Located at the Kennedy Space Center, near Orlando, Florida, for just $3500 you even get a DVD of your flight.

This writer’s prediction however, is that theme park, holodeck-style virtual reality will cater for the masses long before actual space flight does. After all, it was to such a synthetic environment where Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry’s homesick space adventurers went to “get away from it all”. As for the visionary Roddenberry, his one-way trip to space was in an urn.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Travel Tech

Travel, adventure and exploration have always been defining elements of the human psyche. It’s what makes us human.

The celebrated psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow, called it “self-actualisation”, but the concept, if not the name, had been known for much longer. Once mankind had satisfied the lesser, more fundamental requirements such as food, shelter and community he looked beyond the horizon and wondered, “What if …?”

The first furtive wanderings of the newly upright hominids were probably as much about the search for food and fresh hunting grounds as any curiosity-driven quest for new territory. But these early forays doubtlessly sowed the seeds for future exploration because, as is now known, homo sapiens populated the entire planet from a single genetic source.

For many thousands of years the preferred, or only known form of transport was by foot. Vast treks over many generations spawned the incredible anthropological diversity that makes our planet unique in the universe. We eventually tamed horses, built carts, canoes and ultimately vast ocean-going vessels that transported armies and minor civilisations around our world to populate, trade and conquer.

Perhaps the pinnacle of ancient maritime architecture were the enormous Chinese Ming-dynasty treasure ships of the 15th Century. These wooden leviathans dwarfed the petty craft sailed by the Europeans both before and after with the largest of these vessels measuring some 150 metres, over five times more than Cook’s Endeavour. It is now known that vast fleets of these huge ships, and their supporting entourage, ranged throughout the Indian Ocean, stamping China’s colonial authority on lands as far away as South Africa, perhaps even further.

It wasn’t until the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of iron and steel before this mark could be surpassed. In 1858, after enormous technical and financial difficulties, the SS Great Eastern was launched. At 211 metres, she was the largest ship ever built and was designed to carry as many as 4000 passengers on transatlantic voyages. Her size was her undoing and after a series of accidents and mishaps, many believed her to be jinxed and she saw out her days as a stalwart cable-laying ship. When she was broken up in 1890, the skeletons of a riveter and his child apprentice were discovered sealed inside the bulkhead.

The next quantum leap was in the early 20th century when the race to dominate the transatlantic route reignited with a spate of luxury megaliners typified by such majestic vessels as the Cunard Line’s Lusitania and Mauritania and the White Star’s trio Titantic, Olympic and Britannic. Again, the ambitious and unprecedented size of these ships could have contributed to their undoing. Only two of these 250+ metre vessels survived disasters to fulfil complete terms of service.

Today, computer-aided design and space-age metallurgy have allowed the cruise ship industry to revive and the size of the new wave of megaliners is only limited by the infrastructure of ports and the logistics of managing several thousand passengers at once. Even Sydney Harbour, renown for accommodating the largest ships, had to berth the world’s (currently) longest liner, QM2, in the naval yard where visiting nuclear aircraft carriers and battleships normally reside. The QM2 is 345 metres long and carries just over 2600 passengers and 1250 crew. Compared to the 4000 souls that could be crammed into the SS Great Eastern, the QM2’s passengers are transported in the lap of luxury with a mind-boggling array of dining, leisure and entertainment spaces that includes casinos, pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and a spa resort.

Propelling vessels of this size requires the absolute state-of-the-art in marine engineering. From sails and oars, through coal and oil fired boilers to advanced diesel and gas turbines, these huge ships require enourous oput puts of power to reach their cruising speeds of around 20 knots. The QM2 uses four 16-cylinder Wärtsilä 16V46CR EnviroEngine marine diesel engines generating a combined 67200kW at 514rpm. To supplement this, two General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines provide a further 50000kW. But to compound the wonder of this mechanical marvel, the dual gas and diesel powerplants do not drive the propellers directly, but instead drive generators which in turn supply electricity to four podded propulsion units located outside the ship’s superstructure. Are you following? The added beauty of this method is that the pods can rotate through a full 360 degrees allowing great manoeuvrability and eliminating the need for a rudder.

Even as you read this, plans are under way to eclipse these vessels. Royal Caribbean, whose Freedom class liners are fractionally shorter than Cunard’s QM2, will change the shape of cruising forever with their Genesis class liners. Already under construction in Finland and due for launch in 2009, these truly revolutionary ships will measure 360 metres and carry over 5000 passengers.

There are folks alive today who were born before the Wright brothers’ first powered flight on December 17, 1903. Such has been the astounding technological development of powered flight and aircraft that inside that same lifetime, man has flown to the moon and now transverses every continent in the company of hundreds of others, enjoying movies and meals in pressurised comfort.

But for at least thirty years after that historic 12 second event at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aeronautical travel remained a risky affair with machinery advancing little from the early string and canvas contraptions. It wasn’t until the 1930s, when all-metal aircraft construction became vogue that airlines could confidently offer scheduled services in commercially viable manner. Although the German firm Junkers, made the early breakthrough with the huge G.38, it was the iconic Douglas DC-3 that truly revolutionised commercial air transport after its debut in 1935. Over 10,000 of the incredibly rugged and reliable DC-3s were built and they regularly served for many decades in airline service. It is possible even today; over 70 years after the first ones flew, to ride in a 30-seat DC-3 with any of the specialist charter operators around the world.

But even with the introduction of this new wave of commercial planes, transatlantic crossings by fixed wing aircraft were invariably stunts by intrepid aviators looking to set new records. Regular commercial flights across the Atlantic were not to take place until well after the Second World War. But a select few passengers were able to travel from Europe to America in the magnificent giant airships operated by Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (Shipping Company).

The age of the massive Zeppelins is often looked upon by historians as the golden age and the true watershed in intercontinental travel. Measuring 245 metres and with an internal volume of 200,000 cubic metres, the largest zeppelins were as long as the largest ocean liners and more than four times that of a modern 747. Travelling at a modest 130 km/h top speed, the zeppelins could nevertheless complete a transatlantic crossing in just two days with her

Everyone remembers the ill-fated Hindenberg (LZ-130) that brought the golden age to such an ignominious end, but her older sister, the Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127) is the most famous airship of all time. Upon her forced retirement in June 1937, she had made 143 transatlantic crossings in her nine year career with a perfect passenger safety record.

Powered by five 550hp Maybach engines, the ingenious Germans had rigged them to run on Blau gas, an artificial substance very similar to propane or LPG. Why? Because it was non-explosive and had roughly the same density as air, thus it did not alter the buoyancy of the airship when burned as the tanks became depleted.

Her designer, the famous Dr Hugo Eckener, guided her around the world in 1929 along with sixty celebrity passengers that included the Australian explorer, Sir Hubert Wilkins, then in the employ of Randolph Hearst. The 21-day journey covered 31,400 kilometres and included the first ever non-stop crossing of the Pacific Ocean by an aircraft.

Dr Eckener was well aware of the dangers of hydrogen but could not obtain the helium he wanted in useful quantities because the USA, the only supplier of the inert, non-flammable gas, had embargoed it fearing Germany would use it for hostile purposes. Eckener was never comfortable with his country’s plunge into Nazism and Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Goering, rejoiced in cancelling all zeppelin construction and ordered all the surviving craft scrapped in 1940.

Today, a new semi-rigid inflatable, the Zeppelin NT, operates joyflights from the spiritual home of the great airships, Friedrichshafen, in the far south of Germany.

Following the Second World War, the great strides in heavier-than-air technology was diverted into civilian aircraft construction. The fearsome long-range bombers like the Boeing B-17 and B-29, responsible for such terrible destruction, served as the basis for the new wave of passenger aircraft like the Lockheed Constellation which was operated by Qantas on its Kangaroo route to London from 1947 until the introduction of its first jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, in 1959.

The “Jet Age” delivered the next great transformation of travel and soon the big (and bigger) jets were carrying passengers and freight from Sydney to London in about a day. Australia’s national airline followed the irresistible worldwide trend and introduced the revolutionary 747 Jumbo Jet in 1971. The range and carrying capacity of this marvellous aircraft changed the world forever. More people were flying further for less money everyday. In 1936, a return ticket on the Hindenburg cost US$720, well over US$10,000 today. A bargain return ticket of A$2000 to London from Sydney today, would cost $140 in 1936 – about three months wages.

Just as the Graf Zeppelin was the pinnacle of aspirational travel in the early 20th Century, the space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s has finally translated to tourism. Arthur C Clarke’s vision of 2001, when commuter flights to the moon took place aboard PanAm spaceships and Hilton had a hotel in orbit, look like finally being realised.

Currently it may take the equivalent of the GDP of a small African republic to get a ticket to the International Space Station, but all that is set to change. Renown physicist, the wheelchair bound Dr Stephen Hawking took a US$3500 space training flight aboard a specially modified 727 where clients experience about 30 seconds of weightlessness as the plane makes a steep dive. But that is just a teaser. Flamboyant entrepreneur and Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson’s plans regular space flights for mere punters with his ground-breaking “spaceline”, Virgin Galactic.

Announced in 2004, Branson’s spaceline plans to begin commercial operations in 2009 and expects to carry about 500 passengers a year into space. His proposed fleet of five spaceships will have a crew of two and just six passengers flying to an altitude of about 110 kilometres, the very edge of space, where they will experience almost ten minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle which uses huge and dangerous solid fuel rocket boosters, Virgin Galatic’s SpaceShipTwo will launch from a mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo, and use a single hybrid rocket motor to reach its peak altitude. Because the craft will only travel at around 4000 km/h, it will not require heatshields for re-entry.

The public accessibility of space travel will not stop there. Branson’s plans include a space hotel, larger vehicles and ... who knows what else? The Moon?

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Australian is first Virgin Galactic Customer.

The first ticket into space was bought by a Brisbane woman, Glenys Ambe. It cost $US200,000 and was sold by World Travel Professionals, which was accredited last year as an official Virgin Galactic Space Agent.

Ms Ambe will have to spend three days in training before her flight leaves from a new American spaceport in New Mexico.