Bikes and blooms at Mount Iwaki

If you’re heading to Japan in spring you’ll want to leave with a beautiful photograph of sakura (cherry blossom) to wow your friends. At the southern foot of active volcano Mount Iwaki, 15 kilometres from Hirosaki City, you’ll find the world’s longest blossom-lined road, where 6,500 cherry trees stretch for 20 kilometres. Planting started in 1985 and this has now become one of Aomori’s sightseeing spots. Hirosaki Park is another of the region’s best cherry blossom gardens with over 2500 trees, some of which are illuminated with lights at night. Another must-do while you’re here is the Iwakiyama Shrine, dating back more than a thousand years. It’s about two kilometres from the cherry blossom trees in Hyakuzawa. If you’re having relationship issues, call in here – the shrine is believed to bring good luck to marriages, along with economic fortune and improved business prospects.

Kayak glassy Lake Towada

It wouldn’t be summer without being on – or in – the water. You can do both at 200,000-year-old Lake Towada. Formed during repeated volcano eruptions, it has a circumference of about 46 kilometres and is the largest caldera lake on Honshu. Drift on its deep blue depths in a kayak at dawn as the mist rises off the waters that begin to glow gold under the morning sun. As it warms up, jump in to cool off. You can also take a hike around the lake and find a spot for forest bathing, where you’ll be serenaded by incredible birdsong. Another nearby aqua attraction is Oirase Mountain Stream. Hire a bike and follow this 14-kilometre-long waterway, which flows gently over mossy stones. Trees arch over its length and bridges cross its cascade to create a tranquil, natural scene.

Revel in the colours of Shirakami Sanchi

Autumn in Aomori rivals spring as one of the most picturesque times to visit. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shirakami Sanchi is Japan’s largest virgin beech forest, and at this time of year it is bursting with golden beech and maple leaves. The forest is home to valleys, lakes, waterfalls and rare animal species, including the black woodpecker, golden eagle and Japanese serow (a goat-antelope). Make your first stop a hike to Anmon Falls. It takes an hour to reach the first of the three falls, and three hours to do the round trip to all three. For more serious hikers, paths lead to the mountain summits of Shirakami-dake and Tengu-dake. And don’t miss Juniko (the name means 12 lakes), where there are actually 33 ponds and lakes, including Aoike where the water is the colour of blue ink.

Go hardcore at Hakkoda

Let’s be honest – you can’t go to Japan during winter and not head for the mountains. And if you’ve been searching for the winter wonderland of your dreams, you can’t go past Hakkoda. This powder playground is one for advanced skiers and boarders, with its incredible backcountry terrain. There’s very little in the way of chairlifts here; most of the upwards action is via a ropeway. But hire yourself a guide and the rewards are exceptional: deep powder (up to 12 metres falls here each year) and eight mountains to explore off-piste. The runs follow the landscape, providing a thrilling experience thanks to frozen trees – known as juhyo or snow monsters – spread across the slopes. An added bonus? It’s rarely congested, especially during the week.

Gone for a Song

According to oft-repeated hikers’ wisdom, cotton kills. It’s a dictum that rings true across most of Australia, as anyone who’s ever been caught out in a cold, wet t-shirt can attest. But on the Jatbula Trail, an outdoor-ed teacher named Elly has turned that belief on its head.

With the accumulated wisdom of a season spent in the Top End, she’s hiking across the southern edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment with an infectious grin and a cotton shirt that she drenches at every opportunity. “Cotton cools,” she says, extending her o’s with a laugh as she puts the sopping wet tee back on.

In nearby Katherine the temperature is close to 40 degrees. Here on the bare escarpment the rocky ground radiates the heat back up at us and it’s hotter still. For the first time I can recall, I curse my synthetic moisture-wicking shirt.

“You’re going to get pretty warm,” the grizzled ranger warned me at the compulsory pre-hike briefing. It echoed advice I’d already heard, but I’d also been told repeatedly that it was worth braving the heat for one of the most beautiful hikes in Australia. Our party of five includes Dan, a film producer from Sydney, and his German friend Anne, who lives up to the stereotype by being the most organised of us; Tom, a perpetually smiling hydrologist who has spent much of his career in the South Australian desert; and Chris, a Melbourne-based journalist who insists he’s not a hipster hiker, but who bought a new portable coffeemaker specially for this trip.

Pre-warned of the soaring temperatures, we’re keen to get an early start and rise before dawn on day one. Skittish wallabies form a guard of honour by the roadside on the half-hour drive from Katherine to Nitmiluk National Park. A golden glow is creeping above the horizon and our windscreen frames the fast-rising sun directly ahead.

After a short boat ride across the Katherine River, we step off between broad trees and pandanus palms into knee-high grass that shimmers in the early morning glow. Closer to ground level, the view is slightly less magical. A disturbingly large pyramid of dung has been deposited in the middle of the path and, despite earlier voicing his hope for plenty of wildlife sightings, Dan takes one look at the giant mound and declares, “I don’t want to see a buffalo any more.”

The first section of the walk follows the base of the escarpment and we enjoy the shadow it casts even in the early morning cool. It won’t last long; as we walk, the sun creeps over burnt orange rocks, dry yellow grass and spindly white gums with crowns of green. Climbing out of the shade and onto the escarpment, the air seems to hum gently with heat and I’m grateful that the first day is a short one. With only 8.3 kilometres to cover we reach camp by 10am.

By then it’s already baking hot and the sound of running water is like music to my ears. Without hesitation I drop my pack, cast off my clothes and follow the sound to a series of small falls at Biddlecombe Cascades. Despite it being the dry season, they look anything but to me, and I gleefully jump in the top pool then scramble down over the rocks to get a strong massage at the bottom of the falls. Because we’re on top of the escarpment, there’s no need to worry about crocs – we checked, multiple times – but I still start when I hear Chris screaming my name. Rushing back to camp, I find a jagged hole torn in the top of my pack, muesli everywhere and even a few zips tugged open. I shake my fist at six red-tailed black cockatoos sitting watchfully in a nearby tree before a harsh, mournful caw behind me informs me that I’ve accused the wrong birds.

Having secured my bags more carefully, I head back to the cascades. With bubbling spas, placid pools ringed by sparkling sundew plants, rocks perfect for jumping off and even a small cave hidden behind a fall it’s like a private waterpark. And, for a few hours, it’s all ours. One of the great joys of the Jatbula is that it’s never crowded. A maximum of 30 permits are issued each day (15 for self-supported hikers, 15 for tour operators), but we’re walking late in the season and only have four other hikers with us at camp each night.

The trail guidelines ask hikers not to wear sunscreen because it damages the waterholes. Knowing this, we plan to take regular breaks in the shade, but camping next to the falls proves too tempting. After a day spent lounging by the pool, Hollywood Dan looks like a red-breasted robin and serves as a warning to the rest of us throughout the hike.

The waterholes provide much needed respite from the heat, but they’re far from the only highlights of the trail. During the days we walk through stone country, where rocks criss-crossed with fracture lines are surrounded by dry grass the colour of straw. Bloodwood trees ooze bright red sap that crystallises where it falls and sparkles in the sun like piles of garnets. We walk between termite mounds scattered like gravestones in a poorly organised cemetery – over six days they change with the colour of the soil from white to yellow and deep red before turning a tired, dusty grey. The clifftop views from the edge of the escarpment – rocky red bluffs that seem to glow in the early morning sun protecting a broad valley of dry yellow grass streaked with white gum trunks – are worth the days of walking.

Even more arresting is the rock art hidden under overhangs near the track, evidence of the area’s continuing importance to the Jawoyn Traditional Owners. This is unforgiving country and water is essential to survival. It’s why the Jatbula Trail follows a Jawoyn Songline, an ancient route that connects the permanent water sources along the escarpment. These magical spots have hosted countless generations and we get a sense of that longstanding connection at the trail’s most spectacular stop.

The air in the Amphitheatre is still and muggy, but the wide natural bowl offers welcome protection from the sun. Water seeps through large hanging gardens of ferns before trickling down to a thin creek on the valley floor. On the surrounding rock face, more than a hundred open-air art galleries depict Jawoyn People, spirits and animals in ghostly white, mustard yellow and deep red ochre.

Some are recent additions, but others have been here for thousands of years. And they cover every available flat surface. It’s a place of wonder, but also great peace, and we linger for hours before resuming our walk, marvelling at the longstanding connection with Country in a place where past, present and future seem to fuse.

We take our time rearranging our packs before continuing, and our ever-smiling hydrologist uses the brief pause to whip out a book. His propensity to read at every drink break has earned him the nickname Two Page Tom, but there are times when the stultifying heat means I’d happily let him finish an entire novel before emerging from the shade.

On my map the Jatbula Trail looks like an easy hike. It’s mostly flat and the distances are manageable, but it’s absolutely crucial to take regular breaks because of the sapping heat. The 62-kilometre walk takes five or six days and, as we traverse the sandstone plateau, the environment becomes increasingly tropical. Dry buffalo wallows appear with increasing frequency, along with piles of fresh dung and wafts of pungent urine. It’s a wild landscape, a place where humans seem like the most temporary of visitors, and I keep expecting to round a corner and find a giant beast with wide horns ready to chase us out. But the stillness is broken only by the chirp of cicadas (whose “nit, nit, nit” call gives the park its name) and the attention-demanding screech of a sulphur-crested cockatoo. Occasionally a grasshopper buzzes in front of me, roaring like a biplane as it takes off.

We walk past sharp clumps of sword grass that threaten to slice any exposed skin, beneath lush palms and across bone-dry riverbeds. This is the paradox of the Top End in the dry season – it’s an incredibly fertile landscape with no visible water.

It makes us appreciate the waterholes by each campsite even more. At Sandy Camp, a giant circular pool is ringed by tall paperbarks full of birdlife and grevillea whose flowers resemble long, curling eyelashes. Scraggly blue-winged kookaburras, unrecognisable as relatives of their southern cousins, give a stifled laugh and the iridescent wings of rainbow bee-eaters catch the sun. There are even enough fish to attract cormorants, although they disperse as we gleefully dive in.

“How’s the water?” Elly calls out as she strolls into camp with a grin. It’s perfect, I tell her. A cotton t-shirt might be a surprisingly good outfit on this Australian hike, but fortunately it’s not the only way to stay cool on the Jatbula.

Meeting With Tradition

As we’re walking back along the beach, there’s a cluster of blokes around a tinnie. It’s been pulled up on to the sand and they’re milling around.

“They’ve got a turtle.” We’ve been strolling down Cooya Beach with Juan Walker. The tide is out and we’ve wandered along the edge of the mangroves, watching the mud skippers skim across the damp sand. He’s plucked leaves from bushes and demonstrated how they’d be used as medicine. The whole way we’ve been accompanied by his niece Chili, who runs out in front, pointing out crabs hiding beneath driftwood. There are few other people around; just a lone woman walking her dog far off on the tidal flats.

At one point Juan stops and points into the distance. Port Douglas is south, Snapper Island – it looks like a huge crocodile floating way off shore – is out at sea, and Thornton Peak is to the north. These are the Traditional Lands of the Kuku Yalanji people – the people of the rainforest – and they’ve been home to Juan’s family for thousands of years.

Juan has been leading travellers on his day-long Walkabout Cultural Adventures into the Daintree Rainforest and down to the ocean since 2008. Every day is a little different, but all who join in will check out traditional bush foods and medicines, have a go at throwing a boomerang, visit the Mossman Gorge and find out more about Kuku Yalanji life.

Today, we’re sticking to the beach. When we arrive, Juan’s brother Brandon is sitting near a fire chatting to other guests. “Try this,” he says, handing over a plate with a few pieces of what I think is fish.

“It’s turtle,” he says, as I chew down. “We marinate it in soy and garlic then cook it in some coconut oil.”

He then shucks an oyster with a screwdriver. “These are from mangroves off the Low Isles,” he says and points out towards the sea. Out there is the Great Barrier Reef and it has provided well for the Kuku Yalanji. Cooya Beach, Juan tells us, gets its name from gooya gooya in his language, which means many fish. Coral trout, spangled emperor, trevally and crayfish are often on the menu.

By the time we get back up the beach to the boat, the men are preparing to carry the green turtle to their ute. There’s a family celebration the next day and it is going to be lunch. Many white Australians are alarmed by the eating of turtle, but both Juan and Brandon, whose duty it will be to prepare it for cooking, tell us the population is strong and they hunt sustainably.

“We have friends who live further north who occasionally hunt dugong,” says Juan. “But we’d never do that here – there just aren’t enough.”

Just as we’re about to leave we take one last look at the turtle. “Before I kill her, I’ll tell her why she’s here,” Brandon explains. “I’ll tell her the name of everyone coming to the party, and thank her for feeding them all.” If only everyone showed such respect for the animals they eat.

North Queensland is a massive drawcard for travellers from across the world. It’s the place where two World Heritage Sites – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree – meet. Whether you’re keen to dive, stay on an island, find adventure on the tablelands or simply soak up long days in the sunshine, it’s all here. What has become more prominent in recent years, however, is visitors adding Indigenous culture to their itineraries.

One of the most popular attractions is Flames of the Forest. To experience this dinner extravaganza with little prior knowledge is absolutely incredible, so I won’t spoil it too much for you. Except to say arriving is like walking into a twinkling fairy land. Each Tuesday and Thursday evening, guests not only get to tuck into three courses, including lemon myrtle kangaroo and locally caught reef fish, but are also treated to tales and tunes from Kuku Yalanji brothers Gary and Skip. Beneath huge rainforest trees they entertain and share their culture with Dreaming stories and traditional music played on the didgeridoo. It’s certainly a different way to dine than booking a table at the majority of Port Douglas restaurants.

The next morning we find ourselves sitting in the back courtyard of Janbal Gallery in Mossman. Brian ‘Binna’ Swindley is an artist and owner of the gallery, which is downstairs from his parents’ house. “We used to have dinner over there,” says Binna, pointing at what is now his painting table.

While guests can simply check out the paintings by Binna and his late mum Shirley, there’s also the chance to take part in a workshop that’s hands-on but also includes plenty of information about the traditional ways of life. Today, we’re painting tiny canvases, Binna leading us through the process of dipping brushes into pots of colour and placing them gently on to the canvas.

“Because we’re rainforest people, dots mean rain,” he tells us as we work, explaining that every element of Indigenous art has a meaning.

He takes regular walks into the rainforest and dives on the reef to refresh his ideas and bring new inspiration. “I respect the Dreamtime stories of my people,” he tells us, “But I also make my own art.”

It’s fair to say some of our paintings are better than others, but they’ll be an excellent reminder of a couple of days spent finding out more about a culture that stretches back more than 40,000 years.

Go Wild in Gariwerd

Thirteen days, 160 kilometres and the ancient mountainous region of the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd in the Jardwadjali language) in northwest Victoria. If you're looking for a less vigorous trek, make a plan to tackle Stage One, a two-night, 36-kilometre loop from Halls Gap to Bugiga Hiker Camp and back via Borough Huts Campground. There’s also the option of organising a pick-up from that final site to make it an overnight trip, which is my grand plan.

The hike shows off two of the park’s popular peaks, the Pinnacle and Mount Rosea, each of which comes with a steep climb rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and farmland. It’s a real tease, giving you a sneak peek into what will undoubtedly be a special experience when the full trail opens.

Day 1 | Halls Gap to Bugiga Hiker Camp, 8.6km

I wake early at Plantation Campground, just outside Halls Gap. After fuelling up on coffee at local cafe Harvest, I start my solo trip from the head of the Wonderland Loop trail on a clear, hot summer day. The trail steers out from behind the Halls Gap Caravan Park and quickly enters a beautiful gum forest, before crossing a dry river and meandering beneath soaring sandstone rocks. A steady ascent leads to a series of pools called Venus Baths, which, in rainier seasons, would be filled with crisp, cool water. After a seriously long drought and an already blistering summer, it’s unsurprising that only two pools have water trickling into them. Regardless, I consider the shoulder-deep water enough to warrant a break to cool down.

An exposed rocky path leads up through the Grand Canyon. Ancient sandstone forms boulders and twisted chasms and I have fond flashbacks to visiting this area as a kid. The landscape dwarfed me back then, and it still does.

Families and groups visiting from the city join me on the trail to conquer the Pinnacle as a day hike. After a lunch break overlooking Halls Gap and Lake Bellfield, I quickly lose the crowds as I continue my trek toward Bugiga Hiker Camp, the first of many new camping grounds built to service the Grampians Peaks Trail. After a few hours walking in direct sunlight, the last section between Sundial Carpark and the camp is a welcome relief, shaded, as it is, by tall grass plants and banksias.

Bugiga Hiker Camp is a sustainability-focused stopover consisting of 12 round wooden platforms connected by a boardwalk. Each of the pre-booked platforms has enough space for a tent and faces out to the eucalypt forest or Mount William. There’s a central shelter built from rusted red iron, two pit
toilets and a water tank. Everything else has to be brought in and out by hikers, including between three and four litres of drinking water for each person. Fires are not permitted.

Here I while away the afternoon reading and watching small robins hunt for seeds until the sun slowly sets behind Mount William. Only two other people arrive for the night. The definition of solitude!

Day 2 | Bugiga Camp to Borough Huts Campground, 13.8km

The start of the second day’s hike moves through tall eucalypt forest before opening up to a rocky path that seems to head continuously upward. With a pack on it is definitely strenuous, but I pause frequently to look back across the valley. It’s here I start to appreciate the scale of this national park, which covers more than 1,600 hectares.

Gariwerd is a spiritual place for the Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali people, as it is central to Dreaming stories and once provided an abundance of food, water and shelter. More than 90 per cent of Victoria’s rock art sites are here, in Gariwerd.

On reaching the vertical lookout at Gate of the East Wind, an expansive view of Lake Bellfield and the surrounding mountains is laid out before me. The path then twists and turns beneath and around boulders, requiring a fair amount of rock hopping and climbing along the ridgeline.

After about two-and-a-half hours following the trail towards the sky, I reach the peak of Mount Rosea, a rocky plateau with an elevation of 1,009 metres and 360-degree views over Mount William and the Serra Range. I bask in the sun drinking coffee and snacking, a few other people nearby doing the same.

After some rest, I embark on the descent, following a series of large rock steps into a banksia- and fern-lined forest. By this point, I’m fairly fatigued, but the path soon becomes an easy bushwalking track shaded by gums. It meanders until it reaches a clearing with a small river crossing and signs for Borough Huts Campground. It’s possible to stay here for the night and take the 14.2 kilometre trail around Lake Bellfield at the base of the Mount Williams Range, finishing at Halls Gap. For me, though, this hike is over. I’ve arranged the shuttle service and my car is waiting for me. Now, I’ll bide my time until December, when the entire trail is due to open.

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Pearls of Wisdom

in the sticky shade of an oyster hatchery veranda, a pearl oyster is pulled from a holding tank. Rivulets of salty water cascade from the encrusted shell. Beyond the concrete terrace, orange sand dunes bake and mangrove roots spread like giant eagle claws, gripping the edge of an exposed mudflat. Distant water shimmers as the tide prepares to return.

Guide Terry Hunter places the oyster on a rustic wooden table and gently prises open its shell. He explains how tiny pieces of mussel shell and oyster tissue are inserted to stimulate the deposition of pearl shell and form a cultured pearl.

He shows us the meat, which he says he’ll be eating later, and probes around the oyster, finding the pearl sac. As the pearl emerges, I gasp. A large, lustrous orb rests in Terry’s rugged palm.

I’m at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia’s Kimberley, 220 kilometres north of Broome. Terry is the fourth generation of his family to live and work at Cygnet Bay. His great grandfather was a diver and skipper for founder Dean Brown. But his people go way back. Terry belongs to the local Bardi tribe and they’ve lived here for at least 40,000 years.

Terry’s oldest friend is James Brown, the current managing director of Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm and the third generation of his family to run it. James’ grandfather started pearling here in 1946, initially using his wooden pearl lugger to harvest the local pearl oysters, Pinctada maxima, for their mother-of-pearl shell.

Dean Brown scratched out a living in this harsh environment. “He was frowned upon by white people in Broome because he chose to work and live out with the Aboriginal people,” James says. “He paid them, he lived with them and they were his closest friends.”

Cultured pearls were first produced in the Kimberley at Kuri Bay by Japanese technicians, but Dean and his son Lyndon were keen to discover the secret to their success. Living in a paperbark hut at Cygnet Bay, Lyndon eventually produced the first South Sea pearls cultured by a non-Japanese technician. With Lyndon, three Bardi men, Aubrey Tigan, Tom Wiggan and Gordon Dixon, became the first Australian pearl seeders.

In the region’s original mother-of-pearl industry, the relationship between white pearlers and other races was far less amicable. The town of Broome owes its existence to demand for pearl shell that was used for buttons, cutlery handles and furniture inlay. In the 1860s it was mostly collected by Aboriginal ‘divers’, many of whom used no breathing equipment or goggles.

It’s not a career they chose. Slavery was not officially legal in Australia, but traders known as blackbirders would abduct Indigenous people from their country at gunpoint and march them, often in neck chains, for sale in Broome. It is said the women had astonishing lung capacity, diving to 13 metres to collect shells.

Terry has his own confronting links to this deplorable human trade. His great, great grandfather was Harry Hunter, a known murderer and notorious blackbirder who traded Aboriginal slaves. “It’s a dark part of our history, but a part that needs to be told today,” Terry says. “Being part of that Hunter family, it’s really important to share that message.”

In the 1880s, diving with helmets and suits became the norm. Workers and divers were brought from Japan, Malaya, China, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Roti, Timor and the Moluccas. Most workers were indentured labour, forced to pay back debts, including the costs of their transport from Asia – many never succeeded. One in 10 divers would die from what is known these days as decompression sickness.

By 1914 Broome was supplying 80 per cent of the world’s pearl shell, with more than 3,500 people involved in the industry. World War II interrupted its progress, but the growing preference for plastic buttons had already seen demand dwindle.

Northwest Indigenous tribes have had a more enduring relationship with pearl shells. “It’s what makes the Bardi people connect to land, to the ocean,” Terry explains. Remnants of pearl shells from this part of Australia have been found in distant regions like western Queensland and coastal South Australia, traded from tribe to tribe for ochre, spearheads and boomerangs for at least 22,000 years.

In the Cygnet Bay showroom, I see tear-drop shaped shells, mother-of-pearl shimmering, amid carved Aboriginal motifs. These are riji, and black-and-white photos show men adorned with the shells, wearing their own stories.

Each riji story is handed down through a family’s generations. The tradition continues, and Bruce Wiggan is a master carver who still creates riji at Cygnet Bay. “Now the younger generation will shape the riji for him, then watch and listen to the stories as he’s carving it,” Terry explains.

Pearling traditions have continued in the town of Broome, too, but instead of ramshackle tin sheds, these days shiny jewellery stores with harvesting demonstrations and statues of Japanese pearling pioneers line Dampier Terrace.

Broome’s inequitable past has morphed into a multicultural present. Today, the town supports a thriving Chinatown district, and tourists beginning a Kimberley adventure dine in funky Asian-fusion restaurants. Visitors stroll the serene Japanese cemetery, the last resting place of the pearl divers. The Chinese and Muslim cemeteries remember others that died far from home.

The town celebrates its pearling heritage with the annual Shinju Matsuri festival. This year between 29 August and 6 September the event will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. After being opened by Sammy the dragon, it will include events like the long-table dinner on Cable Beach, a floating lantern ceremony and Indigenous art light projections.

Although affected by Covid-19, the pearling industry will bounce back. James explains this is not the first dilemma it has faced, citing the global financial crisis and climate change-induced oyster fatalities.

To survive, Cygnet Bay’s hatchery now breeds from from the strongest pearl oysters proven to endure the warming ocean. In 2009 Cygnet Bay diversified into tourism, offering a variety of accommodation, including stylish eco-tents, complete with en suites and glorious morning birdsong, overlooking the ocean.

The company also changed its model and moved away from wholesaling. “There are a lot of substitutions, and factories that are chemically altering low-grade pearl products,” James says. He wants people to understand the provenance of their pearls, so the business is now vertically integrated, encompassing pearl production, jewellery making and retailing.

After Terry’s harvesting tour, my learning continues at a hands-on pearl grading lesson with Tamika Michie, who tutors us on the five virtues of pearls: size, shape, colour, surface and lustre. Among the jewels we scrutinise is Terry’s freshly harvested orb. Tamika concludes it will retail for $1,120.

Aside from pearling tours, James wants his guests to understand the Kimberley marine environment that nurtures these masterpieces, and I find myself on an amphibious vehicle, trundling across expansive tidal mudflats.

We transfer to a speed boat, and Indigenous skipper Dennis ‘Balla’ Davey tells us traditional stories as we zoom beneath mighty eagles and past bobbing sea turtles. His legends are enhanced by science, as marine biologist Ben Leeson explains the extreme tidal forces here that buffet our boat and facilitate pearl oyster growth. “Every six hours, 66 billion litres of water fills or drains nearby King Sound, and Escape Channel is one of the main exit points for that water,” he explains.

At Waterfall Reef, the falling tide pours out of an ancient, living reef, creating a cascading wall of seawater. Before returning, we pull alongside the pearling team’s boat as they check on panels of seeded oysters suspended in the ocean.

Experiences like these may soon be even more popular – later this year the unreliable Cape Leveque Road will finally be sealed, providing an easier link to Broome.

The road will also deliver more tourists to nearby Kooljaman, a remote wilderness camp owned and run by the Bardi Jawi community. When I ask James if increased tourism will damage Indigenous culture, he explains that tourism has actually helped preserve it: “You’ve got people who have created really amazing businesses from tourism, and it’s all based around their cultural integrity.”

With the support of his friends, Terry has also started his own business, Borrgoron Coast to Creek Tours, operating from the pearl farm. James hopes to assist other Indigenous tourism and aquaculture businesses. He says the Dampier Peninsula could be a case study of how to make significant differences to the lives of First Nations people by working together. “The only thing that works is empowering people,” he says.

Cygnet Bay may one day employ a fifth generation of the Hunter family. “My third oldest boy is interested in pearling and cultural tours,” Terry says. “Problem is, a lot of Indigenous kids are very shy.” It’s astounding, but this problem apparently plagued Terry himself. He assures me he got over it with the right support. “I’m not so shy any more,” he says and laughs. With partnerships like these, the multicultural future of pearling is almost assured.

Family values

Well, that idea can float off
You’ve had to put on hold a homestay with the Uros people of Peru’s enormous Lake Titicaca, who have been living on floating reed islands for hundreds of years.

Lucky you’ll be swept away…
When you visit a Yolngu Homeland and become part of the community. After being welcomed, you’ll slot into life in East Arnhem Land, a place so beautiful you’ll never want to leave. There’s no set schedule, but you’ll be fully immersed in Traditional culture, perhaps going spear fishing, weaving a basket, learning how the Yidaki (didgeridoo) is made and played, or gathering bush food and medicines. As is the way in these parts, you might even head off in separate directions to your friends or family to take part in either men’s or women’s business. Lirrwi Tourism offers day tours, but to get the best experience choose one of the extended itineraries. Whatever you decide, you’ll come away with plenty of memories and new friends.

Hot stuff

So much for snowtime splashing
You thought you’d spend part of the northern hemisphere winter immersed in natural hot springs staring out at snow-covered mountains in a Japanese resort town like Takayu Onsen.

Soak it up here instead
Take to the waters in the heat of the Northern Territory at Bitter Springs and Mataranka Thermal Pool. Set in the Elsey National Park, made famous in Jeannie Gunn’s book We of the Never Never, the two swimming spots offer very different experiences. Mataranka is more developed and extremely popular, so get there early if you want some peace and quiet. Bitter Springs is a much more natural affair. Jump in where the springs pour warm water – it’s about 31°C – into Little Roper River and go with the flow, letting the current carry you beneath fan palms and ferns to the next swimming area. When you stop drifting, hop out, walk back and start again. It’s only about a couple of hundred metres but it’ll leave you feeling like a new traveller. Bring your goggles or snorkel, too – the clear water is home to freshwater turtles.

Night vision

Well, that idea’s gone dark
Forget about taking in wildlife during the day and star-filled skies as the sun disappears over Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve, the first place in the world to achieve Gold Tier status from the International Dark-Sky Association. The safari tents at Wolwedans Dune Camp, with their loungers on timber decks perfect for late-night stargazing, will have to wait.

This one will light up your life
Go on a road trip to Coonabarabran in New South Wales’ central west to visit the southern hemisphere’s first Dark Sky Park at Warrumbungle National Park. Unimpeded by any artificial light, the millions of stars above are free to do their sparkling stuff. The best way to enjoy it is to sort out a spot in the campground, book a stargazing session with Donna the astronomer at Milroy Observatory (milroyobservatory.com.au) then go back to your tent, pull your swag out into the open and fall asleep as you stare up at the Milky Way while listening to the call of the southern boobook owl.

Plunge in

It was the dive trip of a lifetime
Sorry, but surrounding yourself with 1,220 square kilometres of pristine marine park and jumping in with sharks, mantas and marine creatures at Misool Eco Resort in Raja Ampat will need to go back on your travel to-do list.

But this one makes a bigger splash
Avoid the crowds at Australia’s best scuba destination. Christmas Island, which is set at the edge of the Indian Ocean’s deepest trench, has more than 60 different dive sites, most of them very close to the shore. Stick to coral gardens and admire the beautiful parrotfish, gropers, angelfish and eels or drop off a wall to swim with the big boys. Barracuda, reef sharks, turtles and dolphins are common, hammerheads and mola molas sometimes make a showing, and whale sharks migrate through here between November and April. Book a package at Swell Lodge and you’ll sleep with the sound of waves outside the door of your sweet suite, enjoy all sorts of activities on land – walks to waterfalls, birdwatching, yoga – and revel in four days of unbelievable underwater action. Oh, and time your visit right and you might get to witness the migration of 50 million red land crabs. The great scurry takes place whenever the first wet season rains fall, some time between October and January.

Blow your top

No volcanoes for you
Put off trekking across Java to explore some of its active volcanoes for a later date, when you’ll climb Merapi during the night to reach the top at sunrise. That’s some adventure.

Instead there’s a whole lotta lava
Step into prehistory in Queensland. The Undara Lava Tubes, about four hours’ drive southwest of Cairns, are huge caverns formed by volcanic activity about 200,000 years ago. Way back then a single volcano – you can still see its enormous crater – spewed 23 cubic kilometres of red-hot basalt into the environment. It cooled quickly on the outside, but remained liquid in the centre, leaving more than 160 kilometres of impressive hollows beneath the earth’s surface. Some are 10 metres high and 20 metres across and you can go walking through them, marvelling all the while at what is thought to be the world’s most extensive series of lava tubes in the world. Wanna explore some more? Stay overnight in rooms set in old train carriages.

Wild thing

Safari so good
Maybe next year you can throw caution to the wind, fly to Tanzania and get back to basics on safari. Apart from the amazing wildlife you might see near Kwihala Camp in Ruaha National Park – lions are definitely the stars here – what else do you need apart from a comfy tent, good meals and a sundowner.

A whole bunch of croc
Lucky for us we can head out of Darwin for an unforgettable overnight adventure. Top End Safari Camp is part of Matt Wright’s portfolio – he’s the Outback Wrangler, as seen on the National Geographic Channel – and you’re guaranteed fun. Bell tents are set on wooden decks near the Finniss River, but you’re unlikely to spend much time in them. Set off on a scenic helicopter ride, fang around floodplains in an airboat and, while there are no lions in this part of the world, you’ll see plenty of saltwater crocs. You’ll spot them in the wild but can also feed some of the rescue crocs, including Tripod, so named because he lost a leg to a trap. There’s a gourmet barbecue around the fire pit at the end of the day – c’mon, would it be Australia otherwise? – followed by tall tales and stargazing before you slope off to your tent for the night.

Oar right

U.S. ahhh, no you don’t
Minnesota’s Boundary Waters is a wilderness area with almost 2,000 kilometres of water routes to explore. It’s also almost half a million hectares, so put a guided trip with Moose Track Adventures on your wish list.

Local paddle power
Put your vessel in the Glenelg River at Dartmoor in southwest Victoria then follow it downstream for about 75 kilometres to the river mouth at Nelson. You’ll float through the spectacular limestone gorge forged by the moving water, stay at campsites reserved for those travelling by canoe and kayak, and throw in a line to see if you can catch your dinner. Most of the four-day journey cuts through Lower Glenelg National Park, which also has some great walks – look for emus, kangaroos and the koalas who languish in the river gums – and is home to the Princess Margaret Rose Cave and its rare cave coral formations.

Salt lake statue city

Texas will have to wait
The work of Donald Judd is set in fields and abandoned buildings surrounding Texas’s high desert town of Marfa. It’s not going anywhere.

Throw some shade
Make tracks to Western Australia’s goldfields region to see what Sir Ian McKellen describes as “one of the greatest artistic installations I’ve ever seen”. This area was given its European name thanks to Robert Ballard, who managed goldmining leases in North Coolgardie in the late 1800s. And Lake Ballard would likely have remained an obscure salt flat northeast of Perth if it weren’t for Antony Gormley. Invited to create a work for the Perth International Arts Festival in 2003, the sculptor chose this spot to show it. He installed 51 metal figures, as a whole called Inside Australia, created using body scans of locals from nearby Menzies. They inhabit 10 square kilometres of the shimmering saltpan, throwing epic shadows and creating an almost mythical experience for those who visit.

All washed up

There’ll be no coming in on the 12.30 flight
Still, we wouldn’t mind chilling out with the turtles in Robinson Crusoe style at Azura Quilalea Private Island off Mozambique some time.

But it’s gonna take a lot to drag us away from…
Living out all our Castaway fantasies – minus the whole plane crash/being lost for four years/only friend is a volleyball sitch – in luxurious bliss on Haggerstone Island. This tiny private island, off the coast of furthest Far North Queensland (it’s so far north it’s closer to Port Moresby than it is to Cairns), has just five beachfront villas, all with luxe-rustic, Africa-meets-PNG style more often associated with chic safari camps. They’ve been created by owners Roy and Anna Turner, who arrived here in 1985 and built the entire resort by hand. Daily excursions in the 40-foot speedboat take guests to reefs where they can snorkel or try to catch their own dinner, either with a line or speargun. For something really special, call in the big guns for a helicopter ride to waterfalls, deserted cays or rivers filled with fish. The delicious meals consist of what comes from the ocean or is grown in the island’s plentiful orchard. This really is epitome of desert island living.

A real corker

Put this one on ice
An eight-day jaunt in Portugal’s mountainous Ribatejo, Dão and Douro regions scoffing down exceptional wine and food with Paladares Travel.

Pop the top on this
Reroute to the Barossa Valley, where a magnificent 170-year-old winery offers a taste of your own history. Just 15 years after the first European settlers arrived in South Australia, Johanna and Joseph Seppelt began growing tobacco on a 158-hectare property he named Seppeltsfield in what we now call the Barossa Valley. By the late 1800s, though, the family was exporting wines and spirits back to England. Now the winery is particularly well-known for its fortified goodness; in fact, it’s the only winery in the world to release a 100-year-old, single vintage wine each year – its Seppeltsfield Tawny. It also has a complete and unbroken lineage of tawny port vintages dating from 1878 to the current day. And guess what? Book a Taste Your Birth Year experience and you’ll head to the Centennial Cellar with a wine educator, who’ll draw some of the vintage tawny created during your birth year from the barrel for you to imbibe. This might be the one time you wish you were older.

Cruise control

Pull up anchor
Island hopping in the northern hemisphere – Scotland, the Faroes, Iceland and more – on an expedition with Hurtigruten will need to go on the back burner.

Get on board with this
Cruise the South Australian coastline when you board True North for an eight-night Southern Safari tour. Beginning in Adelaide, your journey on the high seas actually kicks off with a trip inland to visit two local institutions: Penfolds Magill Estate and The Farm Eatery, home of beloved Australian cook, Maggie Beer. Once you’ve loaded up on wine and jam it’s full steam ahead to the vessel, which, amid welcome cocktails, canapes and cabin checks, sets course for Victor Harbour. From there, it’s a non-stop carousel of heart-stopping adventure, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, stunning natural scenery and all-out luxury. Highlights (if we had to pick just a few) include exploring Kangaroo Island, cage diving with great white sharks off Port Lincoln, reaching dazzling new heights on a helicopter flight over Coffin Bay National Park and visiting the lovely township of Streaky Bay. Combine that with an unwaveringly high level of service and impeccable modern Australian menu, and you may very well find departing in Ceduna to be a lot tougher than initially anticipated.

Mad props

Forget the sin city scene
You’ll have to hit the Vegas slots, re-enact a few scenes from The Hangover then amp up the awe factor with a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon in 2021.

Get high over another canyon
Soar over the World Heritage-listed bushland and towering sandstone cliffs of New South Wales’ Capertee Valley. Did you know it’s the second largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon, of course)? You can get some great views from spots like Pearsons Lookout, but for maximum eye-poppage book a scenic flight with Capertee Valley Helicopters. You’ll follow the curves of the canyon, drop low to check out areas of interest and take in all of this wonderful wilderness from above.

The reorient express

A travel card’s no good here
But we wouldn’t mind getting a ticket to journey across the top of the world by train on the Qinghai–Tibet Railway. It’s the highest train line in the world and offers some incredible scenery.

Rattle and roll in the outback
Stare out as the landscape changes from rolling green countryside to rich reds and rugged beauty. That’s what you’ll get when on board Spirit of the Outback, which travels 1,300 kilometres from Brisbane to Longreach and back twice a week (capacity is reduced at the moment to ensure social distancing). It stops briefly at towns like Emerald, Blackwater and Barcaldine, and it’s entirely up to you whether you stop over and explore Queensland history. The question is: are you happy to kick back in economy or is an upgrade in order? Private cabins come with seats that convert into a bed and provide access to a restaurant and lounge, where you can watch the world go by and meet fellow travellers.

Into the blue

Cancel the cannonball
Visitors to Mexico – that’s not us at the moment – love a subterranean waterhole. And there are thousands of cenotes dotted across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Strap on a tank instead
Grab your togs and make a beeline for South Australia’s Kilsby Sinkhole. This watery playground is located beneath a sheep farm just 15 minutes from Mount Gambier – the halfway point between Adelaide and Melbourne. Once only accessible to highly qualified cave divers or the South Australian Police (they use it as a training site), Kilsby is now open to all those who are brave enough to venture into its depths. Keep your feet dry on a sinkhole tour that covers everything from how it was formed to its history as a centre for secret weapons research, or take the plunge on a snorkelling or scuba diving adventure. All equipment – wetsuits, fins, masks – is provided, and experienced guides are on hand as you glide through the shimmering water. Be sure to toast your successful swim with a nip of Sinkhole Gin, inspired by the crystal-clear waters of the sinkhole and crafted using local native botanicals.

All the rivers run

Put thoughts of Indian sunsets on hold
A houseboat on Kerala’s backwaters of Kerala, where you can float through canals, lagoons and lakes, is out of reach for now.

Say aye, aye captain
Float on the mighty Murray, one of the world’s longest navigable rivers, stretching from the Great Dividing Range in northeastern Victoria to near Adelaide in South Australia. At Murray River Houseboats you can choose from a small two-berth vessel to an architecturally designed five-star apartment on the water. The latter, aptly named Indulgence, has four bedrooms with queen beds, flat-screen TVs and sliding doors opening to private balconies. On the top deck is a 10-seat hydrotherapy spa with massage seats. Spend the days cruising past forests and ancient limestone cliffs, fishing, kayaking and swimming. The best bit is you don’t need a boat licence to skipper one.

Over the hump

Desert ship be damned
Take your Lawrence of Arabia dreams of rumbling through Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert on the back of a camel and put them on hold – just for now.

Join a walking caravan
Lace up your hiking boots and instead join a nine-day adventure, complete with camels, in the Flinders Ranges. You’ll carry your day pack, while the beasts making up your desert caravan cart all your food, clothing and swags – yep, you’ll be camping beneath the stars – through this remote region. Expect to walk for up to five hours each day, traipsing through landscapes covered in purple wildflowers, following immense rocky gorges and marvelling at the wildlife – it’s not unusual to see yellow-footed rock wallabies, flocks of emus and plenty of other smaller bird species.

Summon the devil

Don’t make a monkey of yourself
Put the Dian Fossey fantasies of picking your way through the dense Ugandan jungle in search of mountain gorillas to one side.

Track down an Aussie icon
Take part in an important research project helping to save the last natural population of disease-free Tasmanian devils. On the Devil Tracker Adventure, run by the dedicated team at Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, channel your inner conservationist and head deep into native bush near Taranna, along the Tasman Peninsula, to gain an incredible insight into how the at-risk devils are being tracked and monitored. Not only will you have the opportunity to record and observe devil behaviour and learn how to identify traces of nocturnal wildlife activity, you’ll also visit the hidden camera site and check out the latest imagery. With Devil Facial Tumour Disease devastating much of Tassie’s devil numbers, the ones still roaming wild in this region are vital to the ongoing survival of the species, making any data collected highly valuable. It’s an experience that well and truly beats your average day at the zoo, but most importantly you’re also a making a tangible difference to the environment.

Trail mix

A walk for later
South Africa’s first accredited hiking track, the two- to six-day Tsitsikamma Trail through ancient forest, gorges and rivers will welcome you another time.

One foot in front of the other
Challenge yourself with an epic nine-day hike with Trek Tasmania. The South Coast Track walking tour covers 91 kilometres of rugged World Heritage-listed wilderness. You’ll climb peaks that plunge into the Southern Ocean and cross meadows of wildflowers. This isn’t a ramble for the faint of heart, though. You’ll carry your 20-kilogram pack through dense rainforest and muddy moorlands and camp out for eight nights. But the rewards are plenty – not only are you walking in some of Australia’s most spectacular scenery, but there’s also that huge sense of achievement when you reach the end.

Like shell you will

No lobster soup for you
Diving for conch and catching crays in the Bahamas with a guide from Abaco Beach Resort is but a mere post-Covid dream.

This is shucking heaven
Wade out into the waters off the Freycinet Peninsula in Tassie and eat fresh oysters straight from the shell with Oyster Bay Tours. The Freycinet Marine Farm is an 80-hectare area with two different growing regions. Pop on some waders and learn how oysters grow, have a shucking lesson, and eat the oysters you plucked from the sea. When your tour is over, head back to base where you can relax with a plate full of Pacific oysters and Tasmanian blue mussels paired with local wines. Have a travel companion who hates oysters? Not to worry. The scenery alone, and the information about the region is worth the trip – and, well, it’s just more oysters for you!

Roadtrip revelation

Put it in park for now
There’ll be no getting to grips with the rollercoaster ride that is Norway’s Atlanterhavsveien, otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean Road. Its nine kilometres of bridges and causeways connect the mainland to Averøy Island, taking in the rocky coastline, tiny islets and picturesque villages.

It’s pedal to the metal
Check out Western Australia’s coastline on what some people believe is the world’s best road trip. Start in Perth then head north along the Coral Coast Highway to, oh, Cape Range or thereabouts. Clock up about 3,500 kilometres in what takes 10 or so days. Given you’re going to want to stop at places like Kalbarri National Park, Shark Bay, Monkey Mia, Carnarvon and, of course, Ningaloo along the way, take your time. Explore those fringing reefs, hike those trails, frolic through those fields of wildflowers. Ten days? We might just take a few months to explore it all.

Wild about food

Put the basket down
For the moment, we’ll leave foraging for Cornwall’s seaweed, fungi, roots and berries to the folks at Fat Hen. They also cook a three-course lunch with the spoils, but we’re not going to talk about that.

Don’t forget to pick your lunch
Join Wadandi custodian Josh ‘Koomal’ Whiteland to fish and search for bush foods near Cape Naturaliste in the Margaret River region. He’ll tell you about the six Noongar seasons and how they guide the way the Wadandi forage and hunt, then stoke the fire for a beach barbecue where you’ll cook what you caught.

Time to step it up

This dream has gone dark
The life of a lighthouse keeper in the Canary Islands at Faro Punta Cumplida on La Palma isn’t in your immediate cards. Book one of its three luxury suites for later when you can do laps of the infinity pool and conquer the 158 steps to the Sky High Mini Bar.

Become monarch of all you survey
Reach new heights in the Tasmanian wilderness at The Keep. Launched in July, this Scottish-style fortress sits on top of a 650-metre-high rocky pinnacle with 360-degree views of the Blue Tier Forest Reserve. It’s just you and the curious wildlife. Fill the huge granite bathtub set into boulders as the sun sets and watch for shooting stars or the beams from the Eddystone Point Lighthouse as you lie back and soak. Walk to Tasmania’s largest myrtle tree just 10 minutes away, have a picnic at a nearby creek or stoke the outdoor fireplace, grab a deck of cards and just relax.

Fresh is best

Rays are so passe
Not really, we love them. But checking in to Anantara Kihavah Maldives and booking a snorkel with the awe-inspiring manta rays who visit will have to wait till next season.

Monotremes are where it’s at
We can’t promise you Penelope and Latisha, the resident platypuses at a rainforest billabong in Queensland’s Mackay region, will be around when you don scuba gear and jump in, but the chances are good. There aren’t many opportunities to dive in fresh water in Australia, so you should grab the one offered by Rainforest Scuba with both hands. Divemaster Luana Royale gives a rundown about platypus behaviour and the other wildlife you might find beneath the surface before getting in the water. There are turtles of all sizes, eels, catfish, plenty of other animals with gills and freshwater prawns. Best of all, there’s nothing dangerous in the water and you can spend as much time exploring as you like.

Pour decisions

This one’s a bit wobbly
We’ve got this trip on our one-day list: climb aboard your trusty velocipede and set out to explore the Oregon Beerway and its cult craft breweries with Beer Cycling.

On the straight and narrow
Get a taste of northeast Victoria while following the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail. The self-guided, two-night trip from Beechworth to Bright takes in cellar doors, craft breweries, farm gates and plenty of postcard-perfect alpine scenery. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about though because it’s mostly downhill and, if you organise your ride with local company Tour de Vines, everything is organised for you. All the accommodation and meals are booked before you leave, luggage is transferred along the route, maps are provided and someone will even fetch that case of shiraz you couldn’t leave behind and deliver it to you at the end of the trail. All you need to do is pedal. In fact, you don’t even need to do that because you can choose an electric assist bike if it’s more your speed.

Quad workout

Stuck in the sand
Look, we’d really love to be getting our kicks going dune bashing during a desert safari in Oman’s Wahiba Sands. But, you know, bit hard at the moment.

Release your inner rev head
Take the wheel – so to speak – on a quad bike and fang it over the sand dunes near Port Stephens on the New South Wales Central Coast. Best of all Sand Dunes Adventures is owned and run by the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council, so you’ll get to see midden sites, find out about bush foods and dig for fresh water. The guides will also pass on their ancient stories about and the significance of the dunes. Plus, there’s the chance to sand board down one of the highest sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. You don’t need to have ridden a quad bike before; there’s a safety briefing before you head off and you’re free to just cruise along if adrenaline isn’t your thing.

Go Beyond Baklava in Azerbaijan

Its origins are rather hazy. While the flaky pastry rich with nuts and honey is eaten in many parts of the world, no one agrees on where or when the first incarnation of what we now call baklava developed.

Some claim the Assyrians were the first to layer flat bread, honey and nuts as far back as eighth century BCE. In the second century BCE the Romans prepared the honey-covered placenta cake, which thankfully bore no resemblance to any part of the female anatomy. Then came the Byzantine Empire, with its heart in what is now modern-day Turkey. It spread its influence across parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, so it’s no surprise there are countries in all of these parts claiming the oozy, nutty pastries as their own.

For now though I’m in Azerbaijan and my attention is focused on one regional variation, Baku pakhlava. My first stop is Ichari Shahar, the ancient walled city at the heart of modern-day Baku. The architecture of the atmospheric, UNESCO-listed old town almost distracts me from my calling until I catch a sight to behold: row upon row of glorious, shiny pakhlava.

There is, however, more than one variety on display. That’s because each of Azerbaijan’s regions has its own style of pakhlava, food photographer and recipe developer Samira Damirova tells me. Samira, who was originally from Baku but now lives in Australia, explains there’s also brightly coloured Quba pakhlava filled with coriander, walnuts and saffron, Gandja pakhlava resplendent with its 18 layers of filo, and the famed Sheki pakhlava, made from rice flour and finished with saffron decorations.

We continue on to a bakery called Sunbul where I’m to learn how to make the delicacy. I arrive at the address expecting an elegant shopfront; instead, it’s an apartment block. The industrial staircase leads towards the gentle hum of female voices, and I’m welcomed warmly into Elmira’s home, where three aproned women await, rolling pins in hand.

“We do things a bit differently here,” baker Nigar tells me with a big smile. “The main two products we make are Shirvanshah pakhlava and Semeni halvasi.”

The dough for these sweets is made using the ‘milk’ produced when sprouted wheat is ground and strained, which is then mixed with flour. “We only sweeten them with a little honey,” Nigar continues. “They are so healthy for you.”

The aim at Sunbul is to create handmade Azerbaijani treats for visitors to take home rather than a box of mass-produced sweets. “This is the real deal,” says Nigar. “When most tourists come they don’t know what they are buying and how it should taste. Some makers will not put nuts in every layer – they’ll scrimp on the ingredients. It compromises the taste and quality. We are keeping to the old traditions and you can taste the difference.”

As I pop a piece into my mouth, I nod in agreement. The flavour is intense. The spices sing, the pastry flakes and melts in my mouth, and I’m not left with a layer of sugar masking my taste buds.

We spend three hours in the kitchen. Every step in the creation of the pakhlava is carefully undertaken by one of the women: grinding the walnuts by hands, kneading the dough, rolling out the pastry into eight fine layers, sprinkling each with just the right amount of spicy nut mixture, then cutting, baking, pouring over melted butter and finally drenching the cooked pastries with syrup. Traditionally, this process would bring women together, with each one taking control of one part of the method.

“At home we can’t make it as beautiful as a factory,” says Elmira. I beg to differ. These are the most beautiful pakhlava I have ever seen. “It’s still our first year of business and things are growing so fast,” she continues. “Next time you visit we hope to be in an industrial kitchen.”

Just a few months later, I check back and they have indeed moved into new, expanded premises. More pakhlava for all can only be a good thing.


Here are two of the best spots to try pakhlava in Azerbaijan.

This boutique bakery in the heart of Baku’s old town specialises in handmade pakhlava and halva from traditional recipes.
Karvansara Bazaar, Icheri Sheher, Baku

It’s not uncommon for people to drive here from all over Azerbaijan to get a fix of Sheki pakhlava. The line out the door all day speaks for itself.
122 Mirze Feteli Axundov küçesi, Sheki

Soaking It Up in Sabah

It’s a lovely countryside drive past colourful weatherboard houses, followed by a 30-minute boat journey through Kimanis Bay, to reach the destination. When they arrive on aptly named Pulau Tiga, a group of islands of the west coast of Sabah, guests of Borneo Eagle Resort are greeted at a large hut that’s said to resemble the wings of an eagle landing in its new nest.

It’s small, considered details like this that make the resort so breathtaking. Like the first few minutes of a yoga class, arriving at the long timber jetty mimics one extended exhale into relaxation. From here, you have the choice of staying in a calming child’s pose equivalent by soaking up the sun’s rays alongside your private pool while gorging on fresh fruit platters or diving into a more adventurous flow with an island trek, diving, snorkelling and kayaking.

On my first night Benny, the resort’s manager, joins me for dinner at The Eagles Nest restaurant, which features a delectable menu using produce from the resort’s own farm, One Green. Benny tells me the overall goal of the destination is to get guests to relax. “You can tell,” he says. “When they get off the boat they’re full of stress, and we want to give them an opportunity to unwind.”

He insists I’m here to do the same, but I’ve never been good at relaxing travel and ask if we can arrange a snorkel safari followed by jungle trek … following my private in-room massage, of course.

The pathway back to my luxurious spa villa is every bit as exciting as the days to follow. To my right, through rustling leaves I spy monkeys playing hide-and-seek. Opposite, the ocean meets soft yellow sand, blanketing the shore in its crystal blue before receding back out to the reef that lurks below the glistening surface.

Sebastian, my personal attendant, warns me that while the monkeys may look cute, they’re actually quite aggressive: “You’re from Australia, so nothing probably scares you, but don’t get too close to them.”

“A little while ago, I saw a crocodile here,” Sebastian adds, glancing at me with a smile. “I’m not sure if it’s from the ocean or the freshwater inland, but either way, look out for the little guy.”

I’m glad my manicured pink nails and colourful floral kaftan does nothing to disguise my true identity and somewhere deep within me wants to respond with, “Yeah mate, that’s not a knife, this is a knife. But seriously, please don’t leave me in the jungle!” As we continue up the path, I sidestep away from a small monkey hiding in a nearby bush.

My villa’s courtyard is taken up by a private saltwater pool, fed directly from the ocean just metres ahead of me. I have the option to spend the following afternoon lazing on a bright yellow outdoor bed or flippering up to explore the reef. Of course, I opt for a date with the fish and hope Mother Nature pulls through with the weather goods and provides a clear, calm ocean.

With my fins on and mask as ready as it can be, I walk backwards into the enticing cool of the not-so-calm waters. My hopes fade and Jane, my guide, yells over the crashing waves, “We’ve had a bit of wind so it might be a bit dusty.” We venture out as deep as we can go anyway. There are moments of clarity, but mostly it’s a particle-fuelled haze.

No matter, we keep trying and after seeing endless corals in browns, yellows and dusty pinks, a giant clam and a couple of colourful fish, we decide to retreat from the sea and venture further inland in search of monkeys, snakes, monitor lizards and the hornbill eagle. I’m thankful Jane is there to guide me and share her knowledge. “I learned from my dad who is a ranger on the island,” she tells me. “They originally discovered this island by accident. A fisherman got lost and, in the search, they found Pulau Tiga. They also found the fisherman who survived.”

She points out a liana, a long woody vine that clings to the trees and produces two types of liquids: one is safe to drink, the other poisonous.

“Only drink the clear,” Jane warns. “If it’s black or murky, it will be bad.” Suddenly, I feel like I’ve entered a game of Jumanji and everything is a test of survival. Jane points to a termite mound, standing among trees that dwarf it. “If you’re lost in the jungle, you can eat them,” she says. I take her word for it, since getting lost in the jungle isn’t high on my priority list.

The trek is an easy one, and the only obstacles are some fallen trees and vines that occasionally catch my foot and send me tumbling. The air is thick and humid, and sweat covers every exposed inch of skin, offering up a gold mine to the local mosquitoes.

As we pass a long vine hanging from a tree, I contemplate channelling my inner Tarzan. “How sturdy are these vines?” I ask Jane, hand on the woody vine ready to launch. “I wouldn’t pull too hard,” she responds quickly. “There are two things you’ll find up there: snakes or a hive.” I pack away the loincloth, step away from the not-so-sturdy rope, and shield my face from a possible falling snake.

“Are the snakes here deadly?” My Australian ‘nothing scares us because everything is deadly in my country’ confidence has waned. “Yes, on snake island [one of the three islands that make up Palau Tiga] there are the yellow-lipped sea kraits.

“I don’t know why they call it yellow,” she explains. “It’s black and white. Anyway, they try to bite you between the fingers because it’s venom gets into your system quicker. They’re very dangerous. More poison than a cobra.”

Deadly snakes aside, I’m quickly distracted by the beauty of the jungle. It’s far greener than I ever imagined, with tall trees forming a lush emerald canopy that occasionally parts to reveal a glimpse of blue sky and sun. Vines weave their way from branch to branch, like purposefully placed decorations. There’s the occasional hoot of a monkey or squawk of a bird, but the jungle of this small island is otherwise peacefully silent bar the rustling of leaves.

Eventually we make it to the mud volcano area, for what’s known as virgin mud. Don’t let the word volcano fool you. When we arrive, I’m shown to a small mound that’s been pushed up through the earth by the pressure of sulphur gas, forcing mineral-rich mud to flow from the top. It’s unsightly and reminds me of a very specific part of the human anatomy, thankfully without any offensive smells. The mud is said to have therapeutic properties, and is not out of place in Borneo Eagle’s spa features.

Jane tells me to scoop up a handful of the grey mud and smother it over my skin. “It’ll make you look 10 years younger,” she insists. I’m hesitant. Sticking my hand in a gurgling hole as if it’s the fountain of youth seems more akin to an Indiana Jones movie than a Sunday trek, but I do it anyway. I slather the grey paste on my face. It is smoother than I expected and glides over my sweaty skin like clay. It feels surprisingly comforting and calming and, as an added benefit, instantly shields my body from the thickening heat of the day.

On the trek back to the resort, the mud’s cooling effect works so well, I almost need a jumper in the 30ºC heat. As a bonus, it also acts as a natural bug repellent. When we arrive back at the resort, I enter the ocean a swamp monster and imagine re-emerging a youthful, toned Bond girl. Alas, the mirror’s reflection tells a different story – I look like the same version of me, only a little less stressed and puffy around the eyes. Benny was right, maybe there is something to this relaxation thing after all.

Hike the Swiss Alps

For someone who considers herself relatively fit, it’s safe to say I’m struggling. I take a moment to stop and catch my breath, mumbling something about “that view!” and taking a couple more photos – an excuse I’ve now rolled out an embarrassing number of times – and stand there panting as quietly as possible.

It’s not like I’m lying about that view though, or the fact that I can’t resist whipping out my camera time and time again. Surrounded by jagged, snow-capped mountain peaks, pea-green hills and the prettiest cows I’ve ever seen – seriously, they’re wearing embroidered cowbells around their necks – it’s near impossible to walk around and not feel the urge to capture this sublime, takes-your-breath-away beauty at all times.

I’m huffing and puffing and admiring the view along the Bear Trek, a section of the 5,000-kilometre Via Alpina, a long-distance hiking route that links Monaco on the Côte d’Azur with Trieste on the Italian and Slovenian border. This particular portion of the trail begins in Meiringen, a Swiss village in the Interlaken–Oberhasli administrative district, and ends in Lenk. We’ll only be going as far as Mürren though.

Words of encouragement from our fearless leader, Birgit, ring out across the valley. “Not far to go now,” she calls out to our group of four women, pointing to the chalet-style building in the distance. Considering she hasn’t hiked in her native Switzerland in years, Birgit sure knows her way around these high-altitude tracks. She turns and powers up the incline ahead of us with such ease and lightness I can’t help but feel equal parts impressed and envious.

Trying to match Birgit’s energy levels I soldier on, one foot in front of the other. And she’s right, within 15 minutes we’ve made it to Grosse Scheidegg, a mountain pass that sits at an elevation of 1,962 metres and boasts epic views of the Eiger peak and Grindelwald, a postcard-perfect village in the valley below.

After leaving Meiringen bright and early at around 9am, this is our first major stop for the day, so we settle in for lunch at the Berghotel. With just over six kilometres under our belt (mostly uphill, I should add) we’re suddenly ravenous, and Birgit orders accordingly. An enormous platter of cheeses, cured meats and pickled vegetables arrives first, followed by steaming hot bowls of gerstensuppe, a hearty barley soup served with a side of sausage that proves the ultimate hiking fuel. It’s all washed down with a round of Rivellas, a Swiss soft drink made from milk whey that’s kind of like a healthy version of Red Bull.

And because this is Switzerland, no meal is complete without a hot chocolate and a slice of cake – or, in our case, two slices: pflaumenkuchen, a traditional plum tart, and cremeschnitte, a custard, Chantilly cream and puff pastry creation.

Our bellies well and truly full, we roll out of the Berghotel and make tracks for Grindelwald, all of us grateful the next eight or so kilometres are downhill.

While organising a hiking trip like this by yourself isn’t an impossibly hard task, we’ve been lucky to have a bit of a helping hand. UTracks is a Europe-based active travel company that specialises in walking and cycling itineraries. Offering 450 small group and self-guided tours across almost 50 countries, its aim is to provide travellers with as much – or as little – assistance, flexibility and freedom required in order to best explore the most incredible corners of Europe.

In our case, this means our accommodation along the Bear Trek has been booked in advance (all charming Swiss-style residences with breakfasts included). A welcome pack featuring maps, a guide book, luggage tags and other handy tips is provided. Then there’s my favourite UTracks inclusion: every morning our luggage is picked up from our hotel and transported to the next one. That’s right – there’s no need to haul 23-kilogram backpacks along these tough routes since all we need to take with us every day is a small daypack containing our walking essentials.

You could say it’s hiking made easy. All the stress of finding and booking places to stay overnight is removed, and the already well-marked and well-maintained routes are made all the more navigable thanks to the immense amount of helpful information on offer. As a hiking novice who’s never tackled more than a couple of laps of Melbourne’s Tan track, it’s the ideal entry point to a surprisingly addictive world of switchbacks, false peaks and fancy Kathmandu gear.

After a good night’s sleep at Hotel Kirchbühl, a blindingly gorgeous alpine lodge complete with brightly coloured geraniums cascading over the balconies, I pull on my newly purchased hiking boots – now looking slightly more worn after a day’s worth of trekking – and head down to meet the group for stage two of our journey.

The Grindelwald to Wengen section of the Bear Trek is the most well known, passing by the world-famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. It’s also the busiest part of the trail, and you can’t move more than a couple of hundred metres without hearing a cheerful “grüezi!” (a casual Swiss-German greeting) as someone walks by.

With 16 kilometres ahead of us, and everyone feeling a teeny bit fatigued in the legs, we decide to save about two hours of uphill climbing and catch the train to the small settlement of Alpiglen. It’s worth it for more spectacular valley views, and it’s nice to be able to enjoy the scenery without the worry of tripping over our own feet.

Once off the train the hard slog begins again, although having now properly acclimatised to the altitude and with a couple of good, filling Swiss meals powering us, we find ourselves setting a cracking pace up to Kleine Scheidegg. If it wasn’t for that familiar urge to stop and take a million photos again, we joke, we could set a record pace.

As the gateway to Jungfraujoch – a glacier saddle connecting the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains that’s also known as the Top of Europe – Kleine Scheidegg is swarming with people even though it’s almost the end of the summer season. Home to several restaurants and shops, the historic Hotel Bellevue des Alpes (built in 1840) and a railway station that connects with the Jungfraubahn, it offers plenty to see and do.

Keen to continue our good hiking form, we resist the lure of an ice-cold Rivella, take our snaps of the legendary Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau summits (Kleine Scheidegg is the best place along the trail to capture gorgeous, unobscured shots of the trio) and continue on. Once we have moved through the bustling mountain pass it gets a lot quieter on the trail, and our group of five moves into single file, each of us happy to plod along in silence for a while, simply content with walking in the shadow of these majestic marvels, enjoying nothing more than the region’s natural beauty.

There’s something almost meditative about this particular section; the trees get thicker, the ravines steeper, the path narrower and the views more dramatic. It doesn’t have that classic Swiss feel about it – there’s hardly a cow or flower-adorned house to be seen – but it’s special in its own wild way.

Unsure of just how far we have left on the trail, we turn a corner and spot Wengen in the distance, but a far more welcome sight in the foreground: Restaurant Allmend. This delightful wooden inn is a cosy mecca for skiers during winter, as well as exhausted hikers like us who are in desperate need of a cake break.

We settle in on the balcony, which overlooks the magnificent Lauterbrunnen Valley, and much to our relief Birgit once again takes the lead on food choices. She orders what is fast becoming our staple hiking diet: a cheese and meat platter, cake and hot chocolates. Although this time there’s an added kick: a few cheeky shots of schnapps “to make sure we make it the rest of the way to Wengen”, Birgit justifies.

As delicious mouthfuls of food are shovelled down, schnapps necked and the conversation turns to tomorrow’s plans (an excursion up to the Schilthorn), I can’t help but think that if this is what hiking is all about in Switzerland – walk, eat, admire the scenery, repeat – then sign me up for the next trek. I’m sold! 

Step Out (and Off) in Donegal

At the base of a 25-metre sea stack, surrounded by the pounding ocean, I ponder my life choices. “I honestly don’t think I can do this,” I scream up at Iain Miller.

I am just metres from the surging waves of the wild Donegal coastline. It’s so close I notice the salt in the air lingering a little longer on my lips while I plot where next to move my hand. The whitecaps match the colour of my knuckles and bull kelp laps angrily at my toes. The only thing keeping me attached to the rock face is Iain’s smile and a will to survive.

“Yes you can, mate,” the Unique Ascent guide shouts back. “Push your shoulder into the crevice, use your legs and remember I’m not going anywhere. You’ll have to pull me down with you!” His response is a mixture of candour and comedy I’ve come to expect from every local I meet on this hidden piece of coastline.

It’s at this point Iain’s smile, reminiscent of that of a cheesy game-show host, begins making me want to throttle him the moment we are finally standing face to face again. Still, I know his demeanour is all theatre in an attempt to allay the obvious terror he can detect from my voice.

With a deep breath and the slack on my belay line firmly in Iain’s grip, I heave my wet, trembling body up Tor na Dumhcha. It’s the name given to this particular sea stack, which rises from the ocean like a dark clenched fist punching through the waves.

Ten minutes of climbing later, I finally drag my limp torso onto the ledge where Iain has been patiently waiting. At the top we embrace like old friends, and I feel the adrenaline surge through me as if I’ve just conquered my own Mount Everest.

The view in front of me is the Atlantic, but just behind me are the unmistakable rolling emerald hills bleeding over the grey basalt cliffs of the Irish mainland.

This is the second time in an hour I’ve had to literally “step off” and push through the fear that this might well be my last-ever travel adventure. But first I had to get to this precarious outcrop surrounded by ocean by traversing a makeshift slackline in a harness Iain had set up the day before.

But perceived fear is very different to real danger, Iain later tells me. He assures me after my climb that at no point was my life ever in real danger. In fact, tucked around the corner of the sea stack, out of sight, is the inflatable lifeboat he was going to use to rescue me if I had given up at any stage.

I trust what Iain is telling me because people in this part of Ireland know a thing or two about struggle, survival and real danger.

Donegal is an ancient land, both in its topography and culture. People have always lived their lives here in balance. When you meet locals, there’s an obvious mixture of those who are thriving and ones who are merely surviving in a place very different to the rest of the country. Its geography is partly responsible for this, but because it shares most of its border with Northern Ireland, County Donegal has a distinct cultural identity and pride of place in the country’s Gaelic community.

It was the people of Donegal who suffered the worst during the cataclysmic potato famine of the 1840s, leading to starvation and mass emigration to the Americas. Spend a day in the nearby Doagh Famine Village, a makeshift museum-cum-memorial of life in those dangerous times, and you begin to realise partly why they are who they are today. In contrast, the place brings my recent experience of stepping off the edge of a sea stack into stark focus and it makes it look as if I had simply walked off my front porch.

Sea stacks like Tor na Dumhcha are formed when a part of a headland is eroded by wind and water. An arch slowly forms then eventually collapses leaving just the stack perched as an island out at sea. Iain has explored and climbed every single one of the near hundred sea stacks along the Donegal coastline, including the undisputed king of stacks, Cnoc na Mara – the name means hill of the sea.

Unique Ascent collects its semi-adventurous, zero-experience clients from the nearby Teac Jack hotel in Glassagh and, along with company from Iain’s friendly Australian sheepdog, provides guests with all the necessary kit and climbing equipment they might need for an exhilarating day out.

“For most Irish, adventure is a brisk afternoon walk in the sunshine,” Iain tells me once we are both safely back on terra firma. “But there is so much more to see and do here.”

Most visitors know this region for its tourist trail, the Wild Atlantic Way. Donegal’s coastline forms a large part of the more than 2,500-kilometre route. The reason for its popularity is that driving in Ireland is easy once you become accustomed to navigating the tight roads and stone walls that threaten your hire car’s duco on just about every corner.

The distances between marked tourist destinations in Donegal are short too, but to understand the real story of this county and the Wild Atlantic Way you need to push your exploration off the main inland roads and right to the edge of the coast.

One such spot is Donegal’s hidden Magic Road, which is accessed through the breathtaking Mamore Gap. Without a car, it’s impossible to witness this seemingly gravity-defying experience, where you stop on what appears to be an uphill slope then release the handbrake and magically roll forward towards the coastline. It’s an optical illusion I have to repeat no less than three times in a bid to ensure I haven’t gone mad.

But it’s the entirety of the jaw-dropping Inishowen peninsula that has captured the imaginations of writers, as well as modern-day filmmakers like Rian Johnson who, in 2016, filmed sections of Star Wars: The Last Jedi at Malin Head, the most northerly point of mainland Ireland. As I pass through, dodging wandering sheep that are another danger to my rental car, my eye is caught by a giant Yoda emblazoned on the side of the pub. It makes it impossible not to stop at Farren’s Bar for a beer with a few local farmers. It also confirms my suspicion that the Guinness tastes better the further north you travel.

From Malin Head, my journey takes me to the very tip of the adjoining peninsula. After a near two-hour drive through Letterkenny I reach Fanad Lighthouse for an overnight stay. Perched on the headland with commanding views of Lough Swilly, this structure has stood here for more than 200 years. A sign on the door asks guests to be kind to its imperfections – a nice reminder you’re entering a building that’s as much a historical entity as a guesthouse.

There are three styles of self-catering accommodation for both families and couples – all have peat fires and a soundtrack of crashing waves – at Fanad Lighthouse, offering the perfect off-the-grid escape. It also makes real my childhood fantasy of Round The Twist-style adventures in a working lighthouse. That is until a young Irish couple staying in the next-door room invites me over for an Irish whisky and we muse about local banshee spirits, who are believed to wail along parts of this coastline.

Thankfully morning breaks before I have to deal with screaming spirits, and the lough is flat right to the horizon. I brew the fresh coffee provided in the kitchen and stumble outside in my pyjamas where I catch sight of a pod of dolphins breaking the surface of the water like lumps in freshly blown glass.

Sliabh Liag (pronounced slee-ve league) is yet another chance to go right to the edge on County Donegal’s coastline. It’s a hikers’ paradise, but even the walk up to the main viewing point is not for the faint of heart. At 596 metres high, these fog-covered mountains plunging steeply into the sea are almost three times bigger than their more famous southern counterparts, the Cliffs of Moher. Plus, these sea cliffs come free from tourists and fees.

From the very top of Sliabh Liag, I take one last glance across an angry Atlantic. I feel like I’ve seen it in all shapes and colours during this road trip. More importantly, though, just below the viewing point is a set of modest, very climbable sea stacks. I think back to Iain’s cheeky game-show–host grin and once again feel ready to step off.