Saturday, March 29, 2008

Palin’s Travel Tonic

Michael Palin, that icon of independent travel, actor, comedian and grandfather made his seventh visit to Australia to promote his latest book and TV series, New Europe. Roderick Eime hounded him, and his PR people, for two weeks to get this interview.

Almost one thousand expectant guests crammed the auditorium, a record-breaking sellout for the Sydney Morning Herald Dymocks Literary Lunch. The mainly grey-haired, bespectacled audience sat entranced, their veal fillets a mere side dish for the main course; English adventurer and raconteur, Michael Palin.

With New Europe, Michael claims to fill what has been a void in his own experience and that of many of his own generation. In all he visits 20 countries, starting high in the Julian Alps on the border between Slovenia and Italy where the Iron Curtain once ran, he travelled through the Balkans and the countries bordering the Black Sea before turning northwards through the heart of old East Europe to the Baltic States, almost as far north as St Petersburg.

I sit diligently listening and making notes, preparing for the scant fifteen minutes I will get to ask him my own questions, when he answers one, unprompted, from the podium.

It’s day 86, Estonia, and Michael has an appointment with a hirudotherapist. “After a small striptease, Ms Agajeva, a woman in her fifties and buxom in a generous, motherly sort of way is applying leeches to my torso. Why? Because Roger the cameraman thought it would be painful and unpleasant - and therefore mandatory. Apparently the application of leeches is an ancient and proven way of treating impotence, high blood pressure and a myriad other complaints.

“After fifteen minutes the little buggers are swollen and satisfied and have supplied sufficient discomfort to delight Roger. Lyudmilla, we’re on first name terms by now, dresses my wounds with a thick, industrial sticking plaster warning me that further blood loss is likely until the anti-coagulant is absorbed. Back in Tallinn I feel a celebration is in order and I end having more than a glass of wine or two at the excellent restaurant in Tallinn’s Hotel St Petersburg.

“Next morning I wake to a re-run from The Godfather, the bed and my T-shirt are soaked in blood and I look around for the horse’s head that thankfully is not there. I rip off Lyudmilla’s military grade bandages to an ear-splitting noise and the promised 300 mls of blood sprays around the bathroom. Now it’s like a scene from M*A*S*H. I tidy up, check out and am well on the way to Latvia before someone discovers the frightening scene I’ve left behind. It was a charming hotel though.”

The lunch continues amid intermittent waves of laughter and applause, and yes, someone urges Michael to sing the lumberjack song, which he obligingly does, only in German, to a rapturous ovation.

After the 200 metre queue for book signings disperses, I prepare for my introduction. “Hello Michael, I’m Roderick” to which he looks at me with the hint of annoyance reserved for such a feeble attempt at humour. “No, really” I say, handing him my card. He looks at it and then at me with a revised, apologetic gaze, “Oh, you poor man.” My copy of New Europe is duly signed with an official apology from Pontius Pilate. But I’m forgiving, after all I have him to thank for my freedom. (If you haven’t seen Life of Brian, then the joke is lost and you’re probably not reading this anyway).

My turn. Michael, your experience at the Hotel St Petersburg had us in stiches, was that your worst hotel experience?

“Well, to be fair it was me who spoilt it, the hotel was excellent. But several places in China were pretty strange and one comes to mind: the Rongbuk Guest House was a stand out.”

This is how Michael describes it. Day 60, Himalaya. “From the filthy, littered courtyard to the soulless concrete rooms with broken windows and the foul, doorless lavatories, Rongbuk Guest House is pretty much a hell hole.”

Michael adds some flavour that was missing in the book. “It’s run by a bunch of monks whose minds are clearly elsewhere. The toilet was down a freezing corridor and just a slit in the floor. So many people had used it over the years that there was this stalactite of frozen excrement protruding out of it. A shame, such a spectacular location right next to Mount Everest.”

Your favourite hotel?

“Our lodge in the Torres del Paine National Park overlooking the glaciers was just the most magnificent location.”

Day 161 from Full Circle: “Few souls have ventured far into the park at this time of year and we have the hosteria almost to ourselves. Sit by the wood-burning stove, playing dominoes and drinking seven-year-old scotch with seven thousand-year-old glacier ice. Sometimes work is almost bearable.”

On a more serious note, I ask Michael – with all his experience in branded city hotels – what is the one thing a hotel needs to get right?

“Well I think that, just like in good restaurants, a manager or person in authority should be around at all times. When a manager says, ‘Call me anytime if you need something’ they should mean it, not just between 10 and 12 or after 9. It’s service after all.”

“Hiltons, I find are particularly good. The name certainly stands for something and they have a standard of service I can trust.”

Day 80 Pole to Pole: Addis Ababa. “Culture shock as we arrive at the Addis Hilton, into a world of white faces, blond hair, thick legs, full bellies. Curfew from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m, but telephones and mini-bars. Gorgeous, sensational and wonderful shower. The dust runs off in muddy channels. My eyes are red-rimmed and sore, and I have picked up a cluster of flea bites from somewhere but I suppose that's a small price to pay for what we've just been through.”

At 65, Michael Palin seems as bright and spritely as a man half his age, or just a bit older than me. For a bloke who has circled the Earth on both the horizontal and vertical perimeters, climbed mountains, crossed deserts and stood in front of a camera (for two takes) at minus 50 degrees at the South Pole, he’s in pretty fair nick. I don’t need to ask him the next question because it’s written all over him. Travel is obviously a great tonic. Drink your fill!

Palin Trivia

Palin became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to television in 2000.

Along with each member of Monty Python, Palin has an asteroid named after him. His is Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin.

In recognition of his many rail journeys, Palin has two British trains named after him. In 2002, Virgin’s new £5m high speed Super Voyager train number 221130 was named "Michael Palin".

Michael Palin is president of Campaign for Better Transport whose motto is "transport that improves our quality of life and reduces our environmental impact."

In 1993, following his award winning performance in A Fish Called Wanda, Michael agreed to (well, he had to) the naming of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.

New Europe

Michael Palin

As in all his series, Palin's NEW EUROPE takes the form of a journey through countries with rich and complex cultures. Few have survived intact, as the ebb and flow of warring armies have continually changed the map of Europe.

ISBN 0297844490 (978-029-784449-5)
RRP $49.95

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Great Aussie Cruise with Real Bite

The enormous chunk of tuna flesh bobbed on the end of the line supported by a small foam ball. Matt ladled great gobs of minced gills and guts onto the surface creating a lumpy, letterbox red slick just behind the boat. Then he struck.

We’d seen his ominous black shadow patrolling beneath us like a menacing midget submarine probing for a weakness, but nothing prepared us for what happened next. In a heart-stopping explosion of gaping crimson jaws filled with rows of razor sharp teeth, the 5 metre, 1000kg monster breached its full torso out of the water in a triumphant display of total dominance. Gotcha!

Underwater, the view is even more terrifying. The seemingly flimsy aluminium cage appears barely strong enough to withstand the fury of this consummate killing machine. Those who remember the Jaws trilogy will recall the complete inadequacy of the metal sanctuary and in no coincidence, many of the scenes that employed live sharks as stunt doubles to the mechanical star were filmed in these very waters. Rodney Fox, the famous diver who displays gruesome body décor courtesy of the great white, is moored alongside with his own clients.

The cage is tethered to the stern with tough mooring lines and divers enter via a manhole in the top. Air is surface fed via a compressor and up to four ‘clients’ squeeze together in a tantalising clump that draws hungry and inquisitive gazes from the circling creatures. Our feet are hooked under a rail in the floor and we cling nervously to handles arranged around the sides while surveying the waters for sharks through viewing holes which strike me as overgenerous. Suddenly there’s a tug on my shoulder and a rubberised finger jabs frantically into the gloom. That famous theme tune plays in my mind as a dark shadow slowly morphs into a full size predator with a very determined purpose.

For thirty minutes we watch totally awestruck as three adult great whites glide effortlessly past in search of the tuna bait dangling rather too close for my liking. That lifeless, inexpressive eye is a porthole to a tiny brain pre-programmed for one task only. A ladle of guts excites them and they’re now intent on the juicy prize. Mouth agape and on target, Matt jerks the bait away at the last minute but the shark lunges again taking the chunk whole, thrashing heavily against the cage’s already dented structure. The water around us is full of bubbles and froth both from the shark’s turbulent antics and our combined hyperventilation. “Mmmerrh!” I scream incomprehensibly into my mouthpiece.

Moose, a 5m male Great White Shark, is a regular visitor off Neptune Island at the very end of South Australia’s Gulf St Vincent and is identified by the red tag applied by Andrew as well as the multitude of battle scars. The nearby Australian Sea Lion colony keeps the carnivorous monsters hanging around, preying on some of the four thousand pups born here each year. Andrew and Matt operate shark cage diving expeditions from nearby Port Lincoln and are regularly booked out months in advance, but today is a special charter for passengers from the luxury expedition yacht, True North, undertaking its inaugural Southern Safari itinerary in the azure waters around South Australia’s peninsulas.

Purpose built for the burgeoning domestic adventure cruise industry, Broome-based North Star Cruises operate the 740 tonne, 36 passenger boutique vessel between March and September among the astonishing rock formations and wilderness waterways of Australia’s Kimberley region. But such is the demand for new and exciting destinations from the growing throng of repeat customers that the company has been obliged to seek out new activities during what were once the off months.

“Our style of touring is very Australian,” says director Craig Howson, also along for the ride, “Some folks take a little while to settle into our deliberately informal atmosphere, but after they’ve got used to bare feet, t-shirts and char-grilled Wagu beef fillet or lobster tail for dinner there’s no going back.”

At the close of the Kimberley season she sets sail for Papua New Guinea via Darwin and Cairns before heading to Sydney for New Year festivities. The brand new, 8-night Southern Safari is a creative utilisation of the return journey to Perth. After taking on its cargo of discerning guests in Adelaide, True North then heads momentarily south to explore the abundant wine region of McLaren Vale before making the crossing to Kangaroo Island. After that, it’s the visual and gastronomic delights of ‘tuna town’ Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay before the trip’s culmination in Streaky Bay.

Expedition cruising is often a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous and North Star Cruises’ version is a well-balanced blend of gourmet cuisine, natural, historical and ethnological enrichment with the occasion adrenalin burst thrown in for good measure. True North is one of the very few local vessels equipped for helicopter operations which she makes use of in the Kimberley and PNG.

After the jaw-dropping exploits of the great marine marauders, those not totally spooked don wetsuits for a serene swim with the sharks’ preferred foodstuff. The playful pups and young adults are almost jumping out of their skin in anticipation and are quick to engage in exuberant interaction when the swimmers enter the water. The mammals swirl and twirl in an aquatic ballet around their hopelessly inept and oversize playmates, yet display a generous tolerance that keeps us entertained for over an hour. It’s tragic to recall this delightful naivety was repaid with lethal consequences when both British and American sealers plundered the happy herds to near extinction in the 19th century. Even today the species are still listed as rare and endangered.

Back in Port Lincoln, there’s a visit to Matt Waller’s tuna farm and again we’re in the water hand-feeding his baby (20kg) Southern Blue Fin. More foodie frolics ensue in Coffin Bay where tray after tray of delicious oysters are served up in various concoctions with surprisingly good local Port Lincoln wines. Coffin Bay oysters are not, as the name might suggest, endemic shellfish, but rather the imported Pacific gourmet variety which thrive in the ideal conditions along the west coast of Eyre Peninsula.

The adventure winds down in Streaky Bay and the passengers, many now friends for life, gather to exchange final farewells before setting course for home. The chatter is overwhelmingly positive with many openly scorning the mass market, big ship alternative. Even by local standards, True North is one of the smaller such vessels but its track record, including two national awards for adventure tourism, speaks volumes for the little company in far-flung Broome and for the growing appreciation among sophisticated travellers for small capacity, intimate and personal vessels offering destinations and experiences that will always be off limits for the mega vessels.

Fact File:

North Star Cruises’ annual 8-night Southern Safari departs Adelaide in January and visits McLaren Vale, Kangaroo Island, Neptune Island, Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay, the Investigator Group and Streaky Bay.

Prices start at $6995pp and includes all meals, shore excursions and activities. Alcohol, laundry and satellite communications are extra.

True North accommodates 36 passengers in three cabin grades and offers al fresco bar, lounge/theatre, dining room, observation deck and boutique. Scuba diving is offered on selected itineraries.

Details: North Star Cruises 08 9192 1829 or

Monday, March 24, 2008

Lake Taupo – A Scenic Spot so Hot, it’s Steaming!

Australasia’s largest inland lake was created by an enormous volcanic eruption less than two thousand years ago. Today it’s a hive of activity for lots of different reasons. Roderick Eime visits.

Adrenalin junkies swarm to Taupo and the lake for sky-diving, jet-boating and waterskiing. Motorsport fans congregate in droves for the annual A1GP and fishermen love the challenge of the trout, but the region’s abundant natural beauty is its own attraction.

The great land of Aotearoa was still untroubled by man when the great eruption took place in 181 AD. So fierce was this event it is estimated that 30 cubic kilometres of debris was ejected in just a few minutes and about 100 cubic kilometres in total. We know the date because ancient Roman and Chinese historians recorded the red skies over their cities and ash was found in recent ice core drilling in Greenland.

  • “Taupo's name in full is Taupo-nui-a-Tia. 'Taupo' means shoulder cloak, 'nui' means big, 'a' means of and 'Tia' is the name of the discoverer of the lake. Therefore the literal translation is 'the great cloak of Tia'.

This cataclysm would have emptied the lake and then resealed it with huge pyroclastic (lava) flow, creating the 616 square kilometre freshwater lake we see today. It’s as big as the entire island of Singapore, over 100m deep, full of trout and easily seen from space.

Fed by 47 rivulets and streams, the only outlet is the mighty Waikato River that runs through magnificent canyons where it reaches the famed Huka Falls, one of the most visited natural attractions in New Zealand. Over 200,000 litres of water crashes through the narrow 15 metre wide opening every second and is later harnessed to supply 90 megawatts of hydro-electric power to the city. The ultra-exclusive Huka Lodge is just visible from the lookout.

The volcanic and geothermal landscape typifies the scenery around Taupo and just to the south is the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage listed Tongariro National Park. The 80,000 hectare park was inscribed in 1993 under new criteria covering cultural landscapes. According to UNESCO, “the mountains at the heart of the park have cultural and religious significance for the Maori people and symbolise the spiritual links between this community and its environment.”

The park is easily accessed via New Zealand’s excellent road system and offers a diverse range of nature-based activities with a particular focus on walking, or ‘tramping’ in the local vernacular. Forests, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, craters, wildlife and dramatic snow capped-ridges all form part of Tongariro’s personality. Those with a more active bent can visit either of the two ski fields, one on an active volcano, or even rock climb.


Craters of the Moon thermal area in Wairakei Park. Walk among steaming mud pools and hot springs in this otherworldly park just outside Taupo. Free admission.

East of Tongariro National Park, the Kaimanawa Forest Park is a large area of ancient native forests, shrublands and tussock grasslands where you can hunt, fish, camp or trek.

Waipahihi Botanical Reserve was established in 1966 as a 35 hectare park of native trees and plants, and a refuge for native birds and has been developed and beautifully maintained by dedicated volunteers.

More information:
  • NZ Department of Conservation (search Tongariro)
  • Lake Taupo Tourism
  • New Zealand