Safe Travel in the COVID era

Will it be safe to travel after COVID?

Will there be an after?

Or will we just have COVID21, COVID23 and on and on?

I had plenty of travel plans, pre-COVID. My next big adventure was still unscheduled but I had Iceland, Scandinavia and the remainder of the UK on the list. It was going to be a race to get my bucket list covered before I was too old and wobbly on my feet to hike 30 kilometres a day.

I was not planning on going anywhere in 2020 anyway, but with COVID19 still impacting our lives, many people are posting about their missed travel opportunities.

Their are sad tales of cancelled trips and lost deposits. Would-be travellers are wishing they could be somewhere else. Anywhere else than where they happen to be. Stories of cabin fever and boredom are flooding the internet!

People!?  Think of all the money you’re saving and the mega-trip you’ll be able to take when things settle down! Rumours abound, but some media is predicting that international travel out of Australia will not even begin until mid-2021 and then not return to normal for a few years after, that if ever.

The bucket list gets an update.

I am seriously contemplating whether I will return to international travel at all. I’ve been rethinking factors other than health risks such as my carbon footprint, over-tourism, exploitation of developing countries for cheap holidays and the positive impact, both environmentally and economically, spending my tourist dollar in my own country would have.

That’s all very pie-in-the-sky thinking as the only travel that is 100% safe right now is time travel! Since I have no new travel photos or stories  I have been trawling back through my archive to find some oldies to share.

These ones are from a trip to Vietnam in 2015. I’ll post some more from other travels over the next few weeks.

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Camping on Cockatoo Island

What a treat! Camping in the middle of Sydney Harbour with uninterrupted views of the sun rising over the Harbour Bridge! Must be a private resort? No!  This harbour gem is owned and managed by the Sydney Harbour Trust and is open to the public.

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour.  A UNESCO World Heritage site with a busy history, its been a place for indigenous women’s business, convicts, a reform school for women and girls and most recently a shipyard.

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The bar was serving drinks and hamburgers and closed at 6 PM

The various buildings leftover from these previous uses are still in place and many are open for public viewing.  The island re-opened as a picnic spot and cultural precinct in 2007 after the shipyards closed in the late 1980s.

Camping on Cockatoo Island

Aside from day visits, you can camp on Cockatoo Island. You can either bring all your own gear or rent a tent with beds and linen.  The accommodations are basic but comfortable. There is an amenities block with hot showers and toilets, a laundry block and a camp kitchen. There are three cafes, however these close fairly early in the evening, so don’t rely on them for dinner. (Closure times were affected by COVD restrictions so check it out before you go) You can not take alcohol onto the island although you can buy some limited takeaway supplies from the cafes. Your bags may be checked at the wharf by security or rangers.

The camp kitchen has a toaster, microwaves, fridges and plenty of BBQ plates. There is no other cooking equipment, so you need to come properly prepared as you would for any camping venture. Given you need to take it on a public ferry, you also need to be pretty frugal with your packing!

The campsites are unpowered. There are power points (only 4) at the camp kitchen and in the shower cubicles. Take your own torch for inside the tent, or hire a lanterns from the site officce.

When I visited, in July 2020, the number of tents had been reduced by half to ensure there was adequate spacing between them and to reduce the number of people on the island due to COVID. There were only 2 other tents in use the night I stayed, so it was certainly not crowded! There are rangers and security guards on duty 24 hours, so I felt safe and secure. You might want to take a small padlock to secure the zippers on your tent when you are out and about during the day.

The setting is amazing! Massive metal structures, cranes and slipways all creating tantalizing backdrops for photographers. I wandered around after dark looking for spooky spots! The staff organise a fire pit when the weather is fine so perhaps you’d like to take a guitar and sit around the fire and sing! There is a ghost tour as well if you wanted to book. This is currently on hold due to COVID!

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By happy coincidence, the  Sydney Biennale, an art exhibition, was on during my visit. It is normally on in March but had been postponed because of, you guessed it, COVID!

How to get to Cockatoo Island.

There are very regular ferry services to Cockatoo Island leaving from Wharf 5 at Circular Quay. Rivercat ferries heading downriver to Parramatta and the ‘normal’ green and yellow harbour ferries both visit the Island.  They start early and finish late so you should not have trouble getting there.

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one of the many shipbuilding cranes still in situ.

The bloody seagulls!

My only complaint, if it is one, where the bloody seagulls! There were plenty of them and it was mating season.  They were also very loud and territorial, much more so than the other times I had visited. I didn’t think I would be able to sleep but their raucous squawking did not end up bothering me too much. I didn’t see a single cockatoo!

 

How much does it cost to camp on Cockatoo Island?

The cost of the ferry will depend on what day you go and ranges from $2.50 – $6 one way. The deluxe camping package which is the deal I took was $155 per night. I could have got a 20% Biennale discount but I did not see the promo until after I had already booked. I purchased some groceries from the Woolworths near Wynard Station. This is the closest supermarket to the Quay. I bought items that I could heat up in the microwave.  I had my cutlery kit with me so I was all set for a cheap night in!

Mt rating for this venue is 5 stars! If you had a group of buddies to sit around the campfire with on a frosty winter night – 10 stars! If you’re a photographer – 12 stars!

Victorian Fortifications at Middle Head.

Cheapskate travel in Sydney!

I recently took a day trip from sunny Wollongong (best place on Earth!) to the big smoke of Sydney to check out the Victorian-era fortifications at Middle Head. There is nothing quite like being a tourist in your own patch. You speak the language, know the lingo, and you don’t have to exchange any money. And you don’t have to self-isolate for 14 days afterwards!

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Verdigris – metal meets elements

I am living a Year of Zero and have given myself a strict travel budget to follow. It’s pretty close to zero! I factored in an allowance for some short local experiences to stop me from going completely crazy.  This expedition was cheap!  If you travel on a Sunday, your public transport fares will max out at $2.80, and if you bring your own food, you don’t need to spend anything else all while enjoying million-dollar harbour views. I went on a Friday, but still, the daily cap is just over $16.

It was an easy half-day excursion which I rounded off by heading over to another lovely harbour location – Cockatoo Island for the (free)  Sydney Biennale exhibition. I’ll write a separate post about that.

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One of the metal rails used to slide the cannon.

New “Old” Stuff in Australia.

While Australia may be the continent with the oldest human culture on Earth, it’s not big on castles, paleolithic excavation sites or massive cathedrals. The oldest building in Sydney, Elizabeth Farm, is only 227 years old. The oldest (non-indigenous) structure in Australia is a stone fort built by shipwreck survivors from the Batavia. The Batavia was wrecked in 1629 near the (now) town of Geraldton.

Prior to European settlement, Middle Head was home to the Borogegal People, the Traditional Custodians of Headland Park.  I acknowledge and thank them for their continuing care of the land that is, was, and always will be theirs.

While our indigenous culture is rich and old, our European culture is only a pup in global terms. None-the-less there are still some interesting things to see for those with an interest in history. The Victorian-era fortifications at Middle Head near Mosman are just such a place.

The first fortifications on the site were built in 1801 and the larger battery positions were constructed in 1871.

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Middle Head is, well in the middle of Sydney Harbour, and is a very good defensive point to prevent ships coming into the Harbour itself. In addition to the concrete fortifications, there are some old army barracks from the 1940s, most of which are currently empty, and crying out for gentrification.

The Sydney Harbour Trust and the NSW National Parks rent out the Officers Quarters as holiday lettings. (Currently $400 – 600 for 2 bedrooms with  a total of 4 beds)

How to get to the  Fortifications at Middle Head:

  • From Taronga Zoo: Catch a ferry from Circular Key to Taronga Zoo and then walk along the headlands. Rather than cutting across to Balmoral Beach as shown in the map, walk downhill near HMAS Penguin on Middle Head Road or Chowder Bay Road. After you have finished at the fortifications, you can continue on to Balmoral Beach for lunch and coffee and then catch a number 245 bus back to Wynyard Station. The is a handy bus stop at the corner of Raglan Street and the Esplanade. Be on the shop side of the road. The walk is about 8 km all up. Also, see Wild Walks for good directions.
  • Directly from Wynyard Station: If you don’t want such a long walk, catch the No. 244 bus from Stand A in Carrington Street, and get off at the stop just past HMAS Penguin. Then walk around to Balmoral Beach. It’s a relatively easy walk of about 1.5 km on a paved surface. Catch the No 245 bus back to Wynyard Station from the southern corner of Raglan Street and the Esplanade.

Word of Caution: Check the timetables before you go to make sure you don’t get stuck! The TripView App or the NSW Transport webpage will help here. Google Maps also has info about timetables.

Food, Water and Toilets!

If you decide not to bring your own food, there are two cafes (Middle Head Cafe and Burnt Orange). There are more places to eat at Balmoral Beach. The Bathers’ Pavilion is pretty swanky and definitely beyond my budget. (Set menu $110 pp!)  However, Balmoral Beach is a great place for a picnic, so I’d pack a healthy and more frugal lunch box if you are also keen on saving some money.

I went on this little excursion while some COVID restrictions were still in place and chose only to get a takeaway cup of tea. Things were still a bit awkward as you needed to book ahead, and there was reduced capacity, so it was hard to just rock up and expect service at the cafes. There are some fish and chip places which are not dine-in.

There are toilets at the entrance to the Middle Head Park just past the boom gates and at the building near the round-a-bout as you get off the bus. There are several sets of toilets along the Esplanade at  Balmoral Beach

There are water fountains on Balmoral Beach, or fill up at the taps at the loos.

PS: The Old Chooks made a comeback and travelled with me. Don’t tell Iain he’ll be furious he was left at home on the shelf!

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Wollongong’s Mural Trail

Fancy a trip away from the hype of Sydney, where you can enjoy an afternoon eating great food while following a mural trail to rival that found in Glasgow?

Well, come on down to Wollongong, a thriving regional city just 90 km south of Sydney! Wollongong is Australia’s 10th biggest city and the 3rd largest in NSW. Sharing a similar history to its northern sister Newcastle, Wollongong’s industrial roots are giving way to a vibrant small bar scene, hatted restaurants, quality coffee and a fantastic collection of street murals. The murals have been created during three days of frenzied painting for successive  Wonderwalls Festivals.

READ THIS POST IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE MAP:

This map gives you a suggested mural trail route, starting and ending at the railway station, with some recommended eateries.

Choose the cafes that match your budget and the time of day.

Lace-up those walking shoes, slap on your explorer’s hat, and let’s get started!

This article was first published in a condensed form in Culture Trip

Wollongong Railway Precinct

You’ll spy your first glimpse of colour as you walk up the ramp from Wollongong Railway Station. The five artworks here include Clarity by Gary. Turn right to grab a seat at the Lettuce B Frank Wholefoods Cafe. Take your time to peruse the menu which has offerings to please everyone from strict vegans to paleo carnivores. Check the mural trail map and get your bearings. Decide now whether you want to venture to the two furthest flung murals The Maid and The Indian.

 

 

A few metres from the Clarity site, duck into the driveway next to Dicey Riley’s pub to see the Photo Opportunity Collection.  Double back a little and head down the eastern ramp of the station and walk through to Auburn Street. You’ll pass the Welcome Pelicans before finding the Green Gecko.

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In the Alley next to Dicey Rileys

MaCabe Park Precinct to Crown Street Mall

A cluster of works borders McCabe Park on Keira Street including an unofficial set of practice walls. Depending on the time of day you may even find an artist at work.

Work your way up to the Crown Street Mall. Here, things get a bit complicated. There are a lot of murals crammed into a small area and there will be some crossing over. That’s good because you’ll work up an appetite!

On Burelli St, to your right, you’ll find Fever, an abstract riot of colour, and Smug’s (slightly creepy) Koalas. Turning left you can see work by Mikey Freedom and John Kaye. Double back to Globe Lane and walk through to the Crown Street Mall. You’ll find some small scale works on the garden walls.

two koalas and a man
The work of world-renown Smug.

 

If it’s Thursday, the Eat Street Market is open between 5 – 9 PM with plenty of food trucks and music. Save room for a pastry at Kurtosh! The entrance is very unassuming and easy to miss. The big feature you will not miss is Smug’s Harmonica Player on the flyover.

Crown Street Mall to Smith Street.

Once you’re done in the Mall, get back onto Keira Street and head north, turn left into Market Street and then the car park entrance.  You’ll find two very large scale works. (Man with a Magpie and Life). There are public toilets in the Centre if you need them.

Keira Lane heading North

Head into Keira Laneway and past Bull and Bear, a cafe and tapas restaurant, which opens seven days a week. Bull and Bear commissioned their own mural which butts up against the Black Cockatoo fresco. Follow the lane to Smith Street.

North end of Keira Street

This end of town is awash with restaurants including the hatted Caveau. You’ll pass Red Square, a vodka bar and Junipers, a gin bar, both opening late afternoon. Tucked away in the alcoves between the buildings you’ll discover four more murals. My favourite is the Woman with Red Lips by Rone.

Street mural of a woman with red lips
Woman with Red Lips by Rone

Continue heading south and you’ll find Ziggy’s House of Nomms.  Ziggy’s is worth stopping at just for the Cheese McBurger Dumplings! Quirky, cheap and cheerful, it shares an entrance with Xanadu (a Chinese restaurant).

Market Street Car park to the Arts Precinct.

Head back into Market Street for the entrance to the Central Carpark. There are several murals in the car park on its various levels, as well as at the entrance. If you walk towards the pedestrian access, you’ll find Dearly Departed; a dot painting and a long cartooned wall stretching for 20 metres. Make a very quick foray in Crown Lane to see the Mexican Jaguar.

You’ll now cross back over your route to head through the Mall again, and down Pig Alley to Simpson Lane. Lining the walls of Pig Alley are some metal panels with works commissioned by Wollongong City Council. These are changed at regular intervals so there is no point describing them here.

Drop into Burelli Street heading east to view the many artworks in this area. The Art Gallery is well worth a visit. There are some murals inside The Icon. The Icon, one of Wollongong’s newer bars, is a casual dining option.

Photo 12 Chimneys

Visit two more far-flung works on Stewart Street (Predators and the Crowned Emu)  if you’re up for it, otherwise, take Moore Lane for Yam Fam, Steel City and the Glowing Cicadas.

Final Leg of the Mural Trail!

Is it gin o’clock yet?  Make your way to Kembla Street. Heading north you’ll pass Nikka Luca’s work and the rosy faces on Ox King’s panel.

One last highly recommended stop is Births and Deaths, a boutique gin bar. Jared will make you feel welcome and tell about his sustainable business while you try to choose from the extensive drinks menu. I have reviewed Births and Deaths in my series on Small Bars in Wollongong.

You can now head to the railway station for a sleepy ride back to Sydney or stay another day, you haven’t even seen our beaches yet!

 

Used my map for the Mural Trail? Please let me know what you thought and if there are any glitches I need to fix.

Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mini-Doc of the Week 7 – Sustainable Tourism.

Sustainable tourism?

This week’s mini-doc looks at one isolated aspect of sustainable tourism.  Millions and millions of people visit Niagara Falls every year.  This obviously puts an incredible strain on such a beautiful area but is no doubt essential to the local economy.

A big part of the experience is a cruise up river to view the falls close-up. The ticket price includes a plastic poncho.

I’m left wondering exactly what do they do with all those ponchos? While I am sure some get kept as souvenirs, the majority would end up in the bins at the end of the gangway.

Are there other options? I don’t know what the answer is beyond getting wet. What did they do before plastic ponchos were invented? I guess people brought their own raincoats. Could Maid in the Mist (on the US side) or Hornblower (on the Canadian side) have reusable ponchos? Or sell heavier duty ones which were not single-use? Perhaps there could be a discount for people who don’t use the poncho and bring their own?

 

The footage was shot in 2016 and repurposed for this clip in March, 2020. Shot with a Panasonic FZ1000 and edited using iMovie on my iMac.  Music from Purple Planet. 

Canada was a spectacular place to visit and I could happily go back again. I have shared other stories about my time in Canada in these posts:

The road-tripping photographer (one of my favourites!)

Canada – Just like Australia except with Mountains and Bears.

Winning the lottery at Moraine Lake – you never know who you’ll meet!

Five out of six ain’t bad  – AirBnB gone wrong!

 

Mini-Doc of the Week 6 – Vietnam

Chaos and Quietness in Vietnam.

I’ve got to be honest with you dear reader, I think this video challenge is going to be too much for me to manage! When I’m at work full time and not enjoying school holidays, I don’t have much time to get out and make new content. But still I’m not ready to give up just yet so I am trawling my archives to use old footage in new ways.

 

This mini doc uses footage I took in 2015 while in Vietnam. I put it into this format in February 2020. I am hoping it makes you feel a bit edgy and chaotic. The traffic scenes are from Hanoi and the carrot carving happened on a boat in Ha Long Bay. I travelled with Intrepid Tours. I have written about the experience in this blog post.

It was filmed on a Panasonic FZ250 and put together using iMovie on my iMac. Music is from Purple Planet, a great source of free music.

 

The Rock Route

Science Nerd Heaven?

Scotland is an excellent place to get your geology nerdiness happening! The Rock Route, which is part of the Northwest Highlands Geopark, is a great way to see some breathtaking scenery and get a bit of education at the same time.

Rock Route Explainer Board.
The explainer boards point out the major features that you can see in an easy to understand way. Here my photo is overlaid with sections of the board.

For me, a science nerd from way back, the “Rock Route” was a dream come true and discovered almost by accident. I was heading that way anyway and then I saw the purple road signs. It combined my existing road trip, incredible scenery and information all in bite-size chunks!

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With plenty of “explainer boards”, maps and signposts along the way you can trace the tumultuous geological history of the area.  The rocks along the rock route are old, really old and represent the oldest rocks found in Europe. They contain evidence of tectonic movement and the fossils captured in the sedimentary rocks are some of the earliest life forms ever discovered.

 

The Rock Route
It’s easy to see the two layers of different rock in this image. The darker rock, now on top, is older than the lighter one.

To top it off, the North West Highlands was one of the birthplaces of modern geology with Benjamin Peach and John Horne showing how stratigraphy needed to be carefully interpreted because the rock layers on top might not necessarily be the youngest. The accepted idea is that rocks are laid down in layers. The rocks on top are the youngest, the ones underneath are older. However, if the layers become deformed and folded, they can overlay each other, and older rocks might be higher than younger rocks. Geologists look for clues in the types of rocks and fossils to help put the rocks in the right order.

 

 

 

I started the Rock Route in Ullapool and while not stopping at all the highlights was able to get a good feel for the area. I dallied at the Rock Shop in Kylesku (just north of Unapool) and had one of the best toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches I have ever had! The day was a bit bleak outside and the warm cosy shop and museum, a welcome respite.

UNESCO Geoparks

The NorthWest Highlands Geopark is one of the many UNESCO Geoparks.

The UNESCO Geoparks are

“are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. Their bottom-up approach of combining conservation with sustainable development while involving local communities is becoming increasingly popular. At present, there are 147 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 41 countries.”

Getting to the Rock Route

I don’t think it would be efficient to do the Rock Route any way except by car. This allows you to take your own time, stop where you want and take as long as you like. I did the trip from Ullapool right through to Scrabster in one day covering a  distance of 197 miles  (317 km).  This was made possible through an early start and a late finish, thanks to the long daylight hours!! As stated, the weather was not great, and I did not take in all the highlights or linger long except at Knockan Crag, where I took a walk along the well-marked track and Unapool for lunch.

The best place to start the Rock Route is either Ullapool or Durness. Look out for the signs with a purple Celtic design on the A835 heading out of Ullapool.

Durness Beach - The Rock Route
The end of the Rock Route at Durness.

 

St Kilda, Scotland.

St Kilda Island - Sea Stack

St Kilda Island

I often develop a theme for my travel photography. For instance, when I went to France for my 50th birthday, I took pictures of the numbers from 1 through to 50. In Italy, it was doors. In New York, it was taking photos of photographers taking photos.

My original intention on my vacation to Scotland was to take photos of place names that were the same as places in Australia. I was quickly overwhelmed, with nearly every place name having a twin somewhere in Oz. I would have had to of stopped at every suburb, so I ended up abandoning the idea.

St Kilda is a case in point. In Scotland, it is a tiny remote island in the outer Outer Hebrides. Two and a half hours from Harris (on a relatively speedy boat)  which is already about an hour from mainland Scotland on the ferry. In Australia, it’s a hip inner-city Melbourne suburb. They don’t seem to have a lot in common!

St Kilda is a dual World Heritage site and managed by the National Trust of Scotland. It is listed for both its historical value and its wildlife.  It has a fascinating history. Now abandoned, it was once a small community of only 36 people. These hardy souls were evacuated in 1930 because they had no food and no way of supporting themselves.

These days, St Kilda is a defence base, a tourist destination and a place for scientific research. It’s not easy to get to, so visitor numbers are relatively low, although smaller cruise ships can come into its harbour.

Kilda Cruises

I took a trip out to St Kilda with Kilda Cruises.  Kilda Cruises takes small groups (max 12) out to the island from Leverburg, on Harris Island, a few times a week, depending on the weather. When you book, you need to make allowances for a two-day travel window. If the seas are too rough for travel on one day, you need to be available the next day. If it is still too rough, you will get a refund.

It takes about 2 and ½ hours cruising to get to the island. If you are prone to seasickness, I suggest you stay out on the back deck. Here you will be able to watch the sea birds following the wake and breathe in the fresh sea air. It is, however, noisy, so you may want to consider noise-cancelling headphones.  You may catch sight of puffins diving into the water and coming up with mouthfuls of small, silver fish. You might also be lucky to see some whales or dolphins.

St Kilda

The boat leaves Leverburg at 7:45AM and returns at around 7:30PM. You can get a great cup of tea and a bacon butty at the Butty Bus before you depart. The Kilda crew will drop you off at St Kilda’s little harbour where you will transfer to the island in a small dingy. A ranger from the National Trust will give you a run-down on  the island and its history. After this introduction, you’ll have around 5 hours to explore, walk and take in the scenery on your own.

Swamp Orchid - St Kilda

There is no place to buy food, so you need to take your own food and water for the whole day. There is a toilet in the village, near the museum, but away from there, it is a matter of “hide and squat” behind one of the many stone walls!

On the way back, Kilda Cruises provides a lovely hot cup of tea, cake and a shot of whiskey to warm you up. Even though I went in “summer”, I was dressed in fleece-lined Gortex pants, a Gortex jacket, beanie, gloves and a few other layers! Make sure you wear good shoes and be prepared to step in a lot of sheep shit!

Here is a short (long) video of my day on St Kilda. Sorry about the wind noise! While too late for this post, I now have a proper mic for connecting to the phone to cut out the wind!

 

This video shows some of the histories of the island and is obviously (!!!!) not made by me!