Monthly Archives: September 2010

BIKE HELMETS – an on again off again argument

Before the 'incident' - this man is invulnerable

After - not so confident, but note that hair remains undamaged. Helmet at work?

I’ve heard the most contentious issues on the internet at the moment are burka bans, gun control, gay adoption…and mandatory bike helmet laws.

I’ve decided to bite the bullet, grit my teeth and step up to the plate and into the minefield… Continue reading


Filed under Cycling, Sport

BLUE MOUNTAINS, NSW AUSTRALIA – the best one day walk

The Jamieson Valley

I discovered a new candidate for Best Short Hike in the Blue Mountains last weekend. It’s got the lot – waterfalls, forest, cliffs, views across the Jamieson Valley, plenty of birds and an antechinus (a marsupial bush rat) running up my mate’s trouser leg. Continue reading


Filed under Hiking, Travel-Australia

LAKE TAUPO, NEW ZEALAND – geysers in the garden

Orakei Korako

186AD was a very exciting year around Taupo. That was when the local volcano blew its top, reddening the skies as far away as ancient Rome and China. Fortunately there were no thrill-seeking backpackers on New Zealand’s North Island at the time; the eruption would have, like, totally ruined their day.

When the dust cleared, a hole in the ground started filling with water, eventually becoming the biggest lake in Australasia. Note how Kiwis call it ‘Australasia’ when they want to remind us they have something bigger and better than our puny specimens across the ditch. Lake Taupo looks as cool and wet as any other lake, but it is still classified as a caldera volcano and a dormant, rather than extinct, one at that.

Taupo is a hot destination, in a particularly beautiful spot, with rivers, waterfalls, rolling hills and snowy peaks in the distance. Kiwis and international tourists flock there for adrenalin-pumping excitement. There’s skiing in winter and hiking in summer. There’s jet boating, bungee jumping, tandem skydiving and white-water rafting. If such experiences leave you wanting more action, after dark the bars throb and the nightclubs rock.

Garden of Wellbeing

But we went to Taupo for something much quieter – to see a little garden behind the Taupo Museum. It goes by the unwieldy name of “100% Pure New Zealand Ora – Garden of Wellbeing” and in 2004 it won gold at London’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, which features show-gardens from some of the world’s most exciting designers.

The Poms are hard markers. Just getting into Chelsea is a major achievement, and few gardens win a coveted gold medal. The Kiwis may have been the first ‘Australasians’ to do it, though their feat has since been matched a few times, notably by Aussie Jamie Durie in 2008.

After its Chelsea success, the Ora Garden was recreated here in Taupo with the help of the original design team and became part of the local museum. We’d only seen it on the telly, so we were anxious to see the real thing.

But first, on our way into town we stopped off to visit the area that inspired the Ora garden’s designers – Orakei Korako, or ‘place of adornment’, touted as ‘the best thermal area left in New Zealand’. Naturally it’s also the best thermal area in Australasia.

Many thermal resorts offer people the chance to bathe in hot water or cover themselves with mud. Personally I don’t see the point. I have a bath at home, and mud is something I normally wash off when I find it adhering to my body. Why would I suddenly want to wallow in it, just because I’m in New Zealand? It makes you smell a bit funny for a few days too, a local expert informs me.

I’m pleased to report that at Orakei Korako, visitors can look at the thermal activity, without getting down and dirty in it.

From the Orakei Korako visitors’ centre, shop and toilets (‘Guys-ers’ and ‘Gals-ers’) we could see across Lake Ohakuri to where white silica deposits spilled down into the water. The advertising calls the area the Hidden Valley, though it was remarkably easy to spot it from the clouds of steam rising out of the bushes. The place smelled a bit funny.

A little boat ferried us a couple of hundred metres across the lake to where a crowd of very excited, very noisy Singaporeans had just landed on the jetty in front of us. We politely agreed to take photos of couples standing in front of geysers – ‘Wait, we smile first. You press already? Thankyou sir. Thankyou very much.’ Then we moved on up the hill.

Signs warned of the dangers of stepping off the path. Scenes from the BBC TV series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ were filmed here, and though there was no T-Rex around, it seemed very unwise for those Singaporeans to be tiptoeing round the edges of bubbling pools to get better photos. Geysers can gush at any moment, the ground can cave in and you could end up with a picture of the kids taking their very last hot bath.

We found the features quite interesting enough viewed from a respectful distance, with extraordinary colours of orange and yellow silica surrounding steaming turquoise pools and plopping mud-holes. At the top of the walk was Ruatapu, a sacred hot water pool in a deep cave. An unexpected bonus was the lovely surrounding forest, and the views out over the countryside.

It took us an hour and a half to stroll the two kilometres of steps and boardwalk around the area, but it was time well spent. Then we drove on to Taupo, parked the car at the museum and walked straight through to the Ora Garden.

The New Zealand Garden Trust (also hard markers, I’m told) recently declared it a Garden of National Significance, ‘its strong design elements encapsulating spiritual qualities’. It was smaller than our backyard in Sydney. We thought we’d been clever landscapers, planting a few natives and sticking in a frog pond, but this Ora garden was in another league altogether.
Hot water bubbled from steaming ponds at the top of the garden, then spilled into a pool, down the long winding spine of a wooden lizard, sculpted by Lyonel Grant. Living ferns were carved with Maori designs. The inspiration of Orakei Korako was obvious. The replica silica terraces, created in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington, were miniatures of the formations at Orakei and the garden’s little cave cleverly mimicked sacred Ruatapu.
Weaving all this together was a tapestry of lush ferns and other New Zealand natives. Remarkably the little garden seemed to change character radically depending on the angle from which it was viewed.

This Garden of Wellbeing certainly did its job and was truly a work of art. All right, I’ll go further than that. It was without a shadow of a doubt the finest Chelsea gold-winning thermally inspired garden of wellbeing in Australasia.


Getting there: Regular bus services also run from Auckland to Taupo (about 4-5 hours).

Orakei Korako is about a 25minute drive north from Taupo. Riverjet run boat safari packages from Taupo to Orakei Korako for NZ$145 including park entry.

Further information: Entry to the Orakei Korako is NZ$34. Entry to the Taupo Museum and Ora Garden is NZ$5 .


Filed under New Zealand, Travel

HILL OF CROSSES – a Mecca in Lithuania

The faithful, the curious, the believers and the photographers flock to an extraordinary site 12km outside the town of Siauliai in northern Lithuania, where a small hill is covered with crosses. There are over 100,000 of them. Some say 500,000, some claim it’s closer to a million. I didn’t attempt to count them. This is not a cemetery, but it commemorates the departed. It also commemorates Lithuania’s struggle for political and religious freedom under the Soviet yoke.

The exact origin of the tradition of visitors placing crosses here is disputed, but the first ones seem to have appeared after the November uprising against the Russian Empire in 1831.

Its symbolic importance grew when the Soviets tried to stamp out religious icons, bulldozing the hill in 1963 and 1973. But under cover of darkness, the crosses always reappeared, a peaceful protest against the oppressors.

After Lithuania gained independence, a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993 confirmed the Hill of Crosses as a place of pilgrimage not only for Lithuania’s Catholics, but also for tourists from around the world. I was impressed to find a Jewish monument between all these Christian symbols.

Anybody can add a cross to the collection, and naturally you can buy one in the gift shop if you forgot to bring your own.

The writer was the guest of Odyssey Travel.


Odyssey Travel runs guided tours of the Baltic States, including a visit to the Hill of Crosses. See


Filed under Baltic, Travel, Travel- Europe


We had some fun with this game this week on, so I thought I’d post a few pics on RT’s LOTR to see who is paying attention and can identify the spots where any or all of the five shots were taken. I’ve made sure there is a clue in each one. No prizes – just glory, bragging rights and the joy of seeing your name up on a cyberspace honour board. The entrant with the most correct, specific, humorous answers in the comment box wins.

The judge’s decision is final and all correspondence will be cheerfully entered into. Solutions in next week’s blog post.

Where in the world? #1

Where in the world? #2

Where in the world? #3

Where in the world? #4

Where in the world? #5

1 Comment

Filed under Cycling, travel photography

AFL FOOTBALL FINALS – go Sydney Swans!

Sydney Swans vs Hawthorn Hawks. Note some empty seats and Swans and Hawks fans sitting together.

Dear Overseas Tourists visiting Australia,

Do you want an authentic Aussie cultural experience? Don’t climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge or cuddle a koala – only other tourists do that. Instead, go to a footy match.

The AFL (Australian Football League) finals start this weekend, with the country’s top eight teams playing off in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth for the national premiership. Geelong Cats and Collingwood Magpies will start as firm favourites to meet in the Grand Final after finishing clear of the pack at the top of the ladder, but RT’s LOTR outside tip is the Sydney Swans to cause an upset. My own true team, the once high-flying Essendon Bombers, had a miserable season and missed the finals.

For those of you who don’t know the rules of this exclusively Australian game, here they are: prior opportunity, push in the back, out on the full, holding the man, holding the ball, dropping the ball, throwing the ball… oh, forget it. It will look as if there are no rules, just 44 blokes running around smashing into each other and kicking a pointy orange ball.

It’s almost non-stop action during four quarters of about 30minutes each. You won’t see players rolling around clutching their ankles the way those wussy European footballers do every time someone nearly bumps into them and scratches their nail varnish. In Aussie Rules, if someone, say, dislocates a collarbone, the game just goes on and team has to play without them. It’s remarkable how fast fit young guys can pop their shoulders back into place.

The Hawks arrive on the ground. Booooooo!

If you want to fit in with the home crowd in Sydney, learn the words of the club chant and yell them after every goal. “Sydney, Sydney, Sydney, Oi, Oi, Oi! Sydney, Oi! Sydney, Oi! Sydney, Sydney, Sydney, Oi, Oi, Oi!’’ Not exactly Shakespeare, but this is Australia, mate.

You should also come armed with a few basic terms of abuse. Don’t bother yelling them at players; save the insults for the umpires, and use them whenever somebody gets tackled: “Booooooo!” ,”Use yer eyes, ya green maggot!” (Interesting to notice that the umpires are sponsored by spectacle manufacturer OPSM), “Ball!”, “He’s been doing it all day, ya mug!”

Knowing the names of a few players will also help you feel like you belong. It’s not hard. To start with the Swans, there’s Kennelly, Hannebery, Grundy, Goodesy, Kirky, Malceski-y, Dennis-Laney and of course the coach Roosy.

Some tips:

(1) Don’t take alcohol to the ground – bag inspections make sure you can’t get it in, so you’ll have to buy beer and rotgut wine in the bars at absurdly inflated prices. But at least if you can’t get drunk, you can expect people around you to be fairly civilized too.

(2) If you want to eat healthy, take your own food – the Australian pies and chips (fries) on sale at the ground may be part of the cultural experience, but they’re not a great contribution to world cuisine.

(3) You and your kids are perfectly safe supporting either team, and it won’t matter where you sit or what colours you wear. There’s no segregated seating for fans, and while there’s plenty of verbal barracking, crowd violence is fortunately very rare indeed. Rival AFL fans do not trash towns or beat each other up.

Happy Swans fans after a win.


The AFL season runs from March to September. Nearly all games are at played on Friday night, or Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings. For full fixtures, see

Except for the Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in September, games are seldom complete sell-outs, and tickets are available at the ground or online. Individual tickets usually cost between $35-78, with family packages available. See:

STOP PRESS: My prediction of a Swans’ upset win is still on track. They struggled to beat Carlton in the second elimination final, but fell over the line and now face the Western Bulldogs in the semi. The Swans recently had a convincing win over the Bulldogs so they’ll give themselves a good chance of going further into the pointy end of the season.

STOP STOP PRESS: Swans are gone. Geelong v Collingwood and Bulldogs v Saints in the preliminary finals. Collingwood should be favourites now, but for reasons I don’t quite understand the world is divided into those who love Collingwood and those who hate them. I don’t love them, so I’m supposed to be a magpie-hater. I’d like to see a Geelong-Bulldogs Grand Final, but I fear Collingwood-Saints is more likely.

STOP STOP STOP PRESS: Collingwood thrash Geelong and are through to the Grand Final. Magpie fans will be unbearable.

STOP ALL THE PRESSES, THIS IS GETTING RIDICULOUS: I had to miss the Grand Final (on the TV) due to hiking commitments which took me out of mobile phone range. St Kilda and Collingwood conveniently played a draw, so I can watch the replay next week.

FINAL STOP PRESS: THAT’S IT, ALL OVER, MAGPIES WIN…I don’t want to talk about it any more.


Filed under Sport, Travel-Australia