Whenever you’re heading somewhere new and exciting, it’s hard not to get carried away with a few drinks when you’re 30,000 feet in the air. Before long you’re best mates with the people next to you, and soon enough you’re hearing things like “Sir, can you please be quiet,” and “Sir, please get out of the cockpit, you’re not allowed in here.” Wait, what?
You won’t have any of those issues on the British Airways Boeing Negus 747, which, earmarked for retirement, has been made into a specially designated ‘party plane’. For AU$1900 an hour, you’ll be able to rent out what might be the ultimate space for an event or party.
Almost AU$500,000 has been poured into the plane in order to make it party-ready, which includes an epic dancefloor, lighting, a DJ booth, a kitchen and a bar.
We do hope you don’t have anywhere to go though – the plane is permanently grounded at Cotswold’s Airport in England. While you won’t have to deal with jet lag in the days following, you will likely have a different kind of headache to contend with.
On Friday April 22 we celebrate Earth Day, a day to think about how bloody amazing this planet is, and to make investments into keeping it that way.
One of the most beautiful corners of this planet is Palau, an otherworldly set of islands filled with sandy beaches, palm trees, grassy fields and even mountains in the Pacific Ocean. In Palauan, “Ol’au” is a way of calling out to a friend to invite them into your space. And that’s what the Palauans are doing now – only, in a way that ensures these islands stay as beautiful as they are now.
Ol’au Palau is a tourism initiative that unlocks new experiences and places in that country through sustainable action. Whereas money buys you access to the best places around the rest of the world. In Palau, the more you show you care, the more points you get. The more points you score, the more places you unlock. It’s innovative, but pretty simple, system.
In 2017 Palau became the very first country in the world to change its immigration laws for the cause of environmental protection. Visitors are required to sign a passport pledge to act in an ecologically responsible way on the island.
It’s this sort of forward thinking that’ll keep this tiny archipelago as gorgeous as its always been. It’s win-win – a win for the country, and a win for the rest of us who get to enjoy the world class diving, beaches, marine and island life there is here.
A 14-year-old-boy pointed his gun at me, as I crouched nervously on my haunches.
We were squatting with about 20 others in a circle while the leader, a smartly dressed man with a beard, conducted things from the centre of the ring. There were about 200 other men in the room.
A few had warned us not to go to Iran.
I thought of this as we waited to see how the situation would unfold. I looked at Henri, who was doing well to conceal his terror. We were petrified at being called into the middle, as there was just no way we could possibly match this dancing, all sinuous, affectionate and enthusiastic – like some troupe of Middle Eastern M.C Hammers.
Iranian weddings are lit.
The circle was filled with guests at the wedding we’d been invited to, and the smartly dressed man was the groom, a cousin of Hamid, the friend we’d made in Isfahan. The 14-year-old boy’s gun was his fingers twisted into the shape of a gun, which he would occasionally point at me in fits of laughter until I returned fire in a game that lasted all night, although I’m still not sure of its meaning. Right now the groom was bringing individuals up one by one to dance with him in front of everyone.
It is worth mentioning that we had only met Hamid two days earlier, in cliche fashion: over a cup of chai in his carpet shop. His willingness to acquire extra invitations for two white westerners he’d only just met, with no commercial gain on his end, was our first introduction to the famed level of Iranian hospitality.
Isfahan is a busy city with a population of a couple million. Stunning Persian architecture line the streets in the city centre, while endless sand dunes flank the outskirts, where camping, sandboarding and trekking are all popular.
Based on a family’s level of conservatism, weddings here are generally (after a brief but extravagant ceremony) split into two parties based on gender. We’d watched at the start of the night as the bride and groom walked down a makeshift aisle to fireworks and flares, before dramatically releasing two white doves into the night sky. Shortly after we said goodbye to the girls, who disappeared into a separate hall to us.
Women and men split into two seperate rooms after the walk down the aisle.
What followed was six hours of delectable food, wild dancing and selfies, as we came to terms with our celebrity status at the event. Happy and gregarious Iranian men came from everywhere to introduce themselves, hugging and kissing and welcoming us to Isfahan. It seemed everyone wanted to dance with us, to know what we did for a living and to tell us about their relative in Sydney.
After our turn dancing in the middle we were beckoned over to the table of Imam, a tall and mischievous looking character who was probably the least conservative of Hamid’s endless line of cousins. With a dangerous look in his eye he reached into his jacket and pulled out no less than 20 small cucumbers, placing them on the table. This seemed extraordinarily random on face-value, but our modus operandi by this stage was to go with it.
The cucumbers turned out to be chasers for arak, a lethal home-brew spirit which I found almost undrinkable, but ended up drinking quite a lot of. While alcohol is illegal nationwide, a blind eye is turned to occasions behind closed doors like this.
When the DJ’s eclectic mix of Arab-disco and Pitbull (he truly is Mr. Worldwide) concluded we filed out of the building, waving goodbye to the happy couple as they got into their car and drove off. End of the night, it would seem.
This however, proved to be a false conclusion. With Hamid at the wheel, and eight grown men packed into a tiny Fiat, we sped off after the newlyweds in a convoy of around 30 cars, swerving and maneuvering at 100kph and waving white towels out of the window on a highway. Lanes became obsolete in a game where the aim seemed to be to get as close to the bride and groom’s chariot as possible without touching it. Every 10 minutes or so we would all pull over to the side of the road, or down a sandy back alley, for some more dancing and fireworks before piling back into Hamid’s car for another game of cat and mouse.
The race ended at the bride’s mother’s house, where (after more fireworks and dancing) an unlucky sheep was slaughtered in the name of love, a sacrifice the two guests at the wedding certainly didn’t see coming.
In the middle of nowhere, and without any idea of how to get home, we turned around to find our taxi driver from the start of the night ready to take us home – having waited for six hours and kept up with us in the speedy procession. We might have been surprised, but by now we were getting used to that feeling.
The travel game has well and truly changed and while we’re all madly rushing back to board planes, trains and automobiles (and spaceships), it will never be the same.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because in the blistering wake of the great travel break some tourism businesses have emerged as avant-garde; the sort of forward thinkers that we’re all desperately seeking when planning our future adventures.
You want to stay in a space hotel? Surprisingly that’s an option that’s not too far away. You want a personal travel concierge without the price tag? Let us introduce you to the virtual travel agent of the future. How about learning to kitesurf in the crystal lagoon surrounding Amanpulo island in the Philippines? Strap yourself in, this vacation is all about making you a better person.
Here are nine ways you can travel like a trailblazer:
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Connect with nature
We have high expectations when it comes to booking hotels these days, and the trend is definitely towards accommodation that better connects us with nature.
Plants are the new pets; they’re everywhere in our homes, so it makes sense that they come on vacation with us, too. ‘Biophilic design’ is a term used to define our connection to nature in a building or hotel, where nature can play a restorative role when we wake up on a holiday. We particularly love the Arctic Bath in Harads, Sweden. A giant nest-like structure that looks like it’s been constructed by a beaver on a river.
Your wallet has the incredible ability to shift commerce and social change when you’re on vacation.
Tour companies, airlines and hoteliers are all reacting to market forces where consumers are not just requesting, but demanding sustainable holidays and tours which give back to local communities. Adventure World Travel recently launched their Make Travel Matter journeys, which are specific itineraries that meet a set of criteria measured against the United Nations Global Sustainability Goals.
ALTER ECO www.adventureworld.com.au/maketravelmatter/
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Come back better
Fitness holidays and wellness retreats in Asia aren’t new, but for the solo travel trailblazer, it will be a big part of any future travel plans to learn a new skill while overseas and come back better than when they left.
Aman Journeys have a range of Extreme Sports Retreats to choose from, from the white-sandy beaches of the Philippines to the snow-capped mountains of Italy. Learn to Kite Surf in Amanpulo or take a driving course through the Italian Alps in a sports car alongside an experienced race car driver.
Ground control to Major Tom: Space travel is not far away.
As the billionaires battled it out in their own personal space-race this year, California-based Orbital Assembly announced it would welcome its first guests to its outer-earth hotel in 2027. That’s literally only six years away! Just like all the sci-fi movies, the super futuristic rotating space station (complete with gymnasium, sauna and bar) will produce artificial gravity by increasing and decreasing its rate of rotation.
The day of the travel agent is well and truly numbered, but in their place virtual travel concierges have emerged as the go-to tool, for travellers seeking immersive and experiential travel experiences without having to lift a finger.
By using clever technology platforms like Jubel, you can get a hyper-personalised vacation based on your lifestyle choices with the assurance someone else is managing all the bookings and logistics.
Once upon a time, booking a mystery flight was a wild and exhilarating concept! But sometimes the best adventures are completely unknown from the minute you step off a plane.
Take for example the team at Rustic Pathways who book mystery trips just for students. When you book, all you recieve is a Patagonia duffel bag in the mail, filled with subtle hints about your upcoming adventure and a packing list that arrives a month before you leave. Then there’s the crew at Pack Up + Go who also plan domestic trips for couples around the United States. All you have to do is fill out a quick survey and tell them your budget. The rest is completely out of your hands.
If the last year taught us anything, it’s that getting away and having your own time can actually be pretty good.
Getting away from absolutely EVERYTHING is what Do Castaway specialise in, offering authentic marooned-on-an-island experiences: on a secluded island it’s you, and only you. Forage for your own food, seek refuge in a basic shelter, hear the waves crash and live out your own Robinson Crusoe adventure.
Travel should be rich, immersive and deeply educational. Arcadia Expeditions is a new-age travel company using expedition leadership teams of two on every small-group tour.
From Georgia to Sudan, Arcadia uses an expert (academic, photographer, poet, artist) on the trip’s specific theme to narrate the story of the tour alongside a local guide that also shares their knowledge and insights with guests.
Rocio, the woman behind Mexico City food tour Eat Like a Local, absolutely hates tours. Which is why her tours work so well.
Inspired by a night out on the town with homeless men in Istanbul, the Mexico City native created a food tour that forgoes most traditional tour aspects: Employing only women, there’s even a tour run by kids. Noting that anyone can Google the best restaurants in a city, Rocio takes guests into the streets: the back alleyways, the hoods – the real Mexico City, in other words.
Some places in the world are blessed with lovely scenery. Or adventure sports. Or a nice restaraunt or two. Or a quietness that can't be found in the city. And then some places, like County Mayo, are blessed with all of that, and a bit more.
“We have the best fishing, the best golf, best water sports, the finest food, and absolutely no crowds,” says Alan, the owner of the grand Mount Falcon Estate, on the banks of the River Moy in Mayo.
The Wild Atlantic Way – which stretches from the tip of Malin Head in County Donegal to the quaint seaside town of Kinsale in County Cork – is extremely easy to access when driving from Dublin.
While the infinite beauty of the west of Ireland could take a lifetime to explore, my expedition has brought me and my travelling party to the southern seaside counties of Sligo and Mayo, where we’re due to get the best sampling of what this ancient corner of Europe has on offer.
I’m starting off in Strandhill; a tiny town so darling and delightful it makes you want to stay here and start a life. With a picturesque main street that empties out onto the vast sandy coast, the town is lined with artisanal restaurants, classic pubs, seaside spas, and even friendly surf shops.
“There isn’t just surfing in Ireland, there’s some of the best surfing in the world here,” says Tom Hickey, my surf instructor from Perfect Day Surfing School. “Strandhill, Mullaghmore Head, and Easky are really world class [surfing] spots, where swells can reach up to 3 metres,” he tells me.
Luckily as he says this I’m already wearing the full steamer wetsuit he has rented me so he didn’t see me shame myself.
After surviving what can only be termed a torrid surf lesson on the angry Sligo coast, I quickly duck into Voya Spa to continue my sea therapy with something a little calmer – their signature seaweed bath. It’s a centuries-old coastal Irish tradition brought to life in a beautiful modern setting.
“You’re going to really like this. It’s much easier than surfing,” the receptionist at Voya says to me with a smile.
She was right, the tension and stress disappeared from my body almost immediately. And after 30 more minutes of soaking I’m brand new. The warm bath water extracts the natural, silky, gelatinous qualities from the freshly harvested seaweed from just out the front door.
What’s more, Voya Spa sells all sorts of seaweed-based health and beauty products, including a seaweed kit so you can have the same experience at home.
THE WARM BATH WATER EXTRACTS THE NATURAL, SILKY, GELATINOUS QUALITIES FROM THE FRESHLY HARVESTED SEAWEED FROM JUST OUT THE FRONT DOOR AND IT REALLY IS ONE OF THE MOST LUXURIOUS EXPERIENCES YOU CAN HAVE.
If you aren’t yet sold on Strandhill, the little gelato shop called Mammy Johnstons might be the real clincher. Here they lay claim to the prestigious title of the world’s best gelato.
“It’s not us saying it either,” the owner, who studied his craft in Bologna, tells me. “We’ve won best gelato in Italy for three years running.”
Saying farewell to Strandhill is not easy, but with a coastline that stretches more than 2,500 kilometres there’s still so much more to see. Is there anything more idyllic than traversing this landscape on horseback? If so, I’d love to hear it.
“What level of rider are you?” asks Ursula from Island View Riding Stables in Monygold.
“Well, I ride the train, almost daily,” I joke to hide my trepidation. Soon after, I’m handed a furry four-legged tank named Delores. Ursula and her team are professionals, as are their animals, comfortable with city slickers like myself. Under their guidance, I find it easy bouncing down the beautiful Sligo coastline with the majestic Benbulbin Mountain flanking me in the distance.
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And as our horses and feet wade through the blue-green tidal water, I crane my neck to marvel at Slieve League just up ahead, the tallest sea cliffs in all of Europe are hard to miss. The beauty here on this beach is so raw, so natural, and frankly gigantic, that it leaves you feeling incredibly small and insignificant – even on the back of a trusty steed like Delores.
Saying goodbye to my all-terrain, four-legged transportation, our group travels to a local farm to rendezvous with another four-legged companion.
“You’re really going to like this. The dog you’re about to meet can do amazing things,” says Martin Feeny from Atlantic Sheepdogs.
Oh. Wonderful. A dog show. How … riveting? I have to stop myself from cringing.
Martin is a tall and bespectacled man we meet at the entrance to a modest sheep farm.
“We have some tea and biscuits here for you, we’re sure you’re hungry from your journey. Have a bite and then I’ll bring out Bob.” “Sorry, who is Bob?” I ask Martin.
“Oh Bob is one of our dogs. We’ll get him moving around for ya,” Martin replies with a confident smile.
I think to myself that these biscuits better be really good. Real good.
A minute later, most of the biscuit falls out of my fully agape mouth.
“Bob. Comebye. Comebye. Stop. Combye. Stop. Away’is. Stop. Combye. Stop.” Martin says calmly to Bob the Sheepdog, his beautiful black and white best friend, controlling him with ease as if the dog was mechanical and voice controlled.
“I can’t even get Siri to tell me what the weather is. How are you doing this?” I ask Martin while wiping the biscuit crumbs from my mouth.
“Well,” says Martin, “Bob wants to do this. Sheepdogs love chasing sheep. They would be doing it if I weren’t here. So if you get them young enough, you can teach them pretty easily.”
Saying goodbye to Bob, biscuits and black sheep, we move onto Mount Falcon Estate in Ballina. Once inside, the opulence of the 19th century manor is breathtaking, with rich mahogany timber balustrades and stone floors, fresh flowers and a warmth greeting you in every room like a hug.
“Well, well! Looks like our travellers have arrived!” says Alan the owner with a thunderous bellow. He greets us like ambassadors or dignitaries having just arrived from a long sea journey. “I think food and drink is in order! This way!”
Alan leads us to the dining hall, which used to be the old granary. It’s here he tells us the rich history of the Estate where we’re spending the night, he bends our ears over a delicious meal of local roasted meats, vegetables grown on the grounds, and some very fine single malt whisky.
“My father worked for the United Nations, so my siblings and I grew up all over the Middle East. Even so, I have always been Irish, so when I came home I wanted to do something that really spoke to me. I found this place. I bought it. Spent years restoring it to its original beauty, and now, I get to share it with everyone. Couldn’t be happier.”
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The next day – well rested – we’re bounding into the town of Belmullet which is dotted with lively pubs, small shops, and a single roundabout in the town’s center. What you may not expect from Belmullet, however, is the affinity they have here for water sports.
“What would you like to do today?!” says our guide, Paddy. “You want to kayak or maybe do a bit of snorkeling? Let’s do both!”
Paddy is more excited than all our travelling group put together, mainly because he’s accustomed to putting on a full winter wetsuit everyday. “Trust me, you’ll want the booties,” he says.
Carrying our kayaks down to the cove, we launch into the icy northern Atlantic. To my surprise, my first reaction was not to scream like a small child. Instead, I was able to quite comfortably paddle out around the cape and down the coast, marvelling at the towering rock formation that plunged into the sea.
“You know they just found three, three, Spanish galleons. Right here on this coast. All from the 16th century. It’s unbelievable the secrets the sea has here,” says Paddy.
Towelling off while simultaneously warming with a dram of whisky in my hand, we’re again back on the road toward my final stop; Clare Island.
“Just to give you an idea, in 1841 there were over 1500 people living on this tiny island,” mentions the captain of the ferry over the radio, “Today there are just 152. Not one soul more nor less. That Sir, is what a famine can do to a place.”
What makes this island really magical isn’t so much it’s complex past, but the remaining inhabitants who have stayed behind. Take the kind eyed, sublimely centred Christophe who helps run Macalla Farm, which is a unique yoga retreat nestled in a lush valley overlooking the sea.
Travellers come to the farm from all over Ireland to work the land, meditate and further their yoga skills with the green mountains and deep blue Atlantic as their classroom. On Clare Island, you might also wander to the Ballytoughey Loom where master weaver Beth Moran still uses traditional methods to create some of the most beautiful and sublimely soft local clothing.
But most impressive was our visit to the Lighthouse Hotel overlooking the northern rocky tip of the island. Perched out on the black seawall over the Atlantic, this specialty hotel features six unique rooms in what was once a functioning Lighthouse from as early as 1806. Each room is beautifully appointed, modern, and one even has a private sauna.
As we leave the coast, the green hills and sodden bogs behind us – heading back to bustling Dublin – I keep thinking of something Alan from Mount Franklin Estate said to me before we left.
“The Irish people will make tourism a success, you won’t find any people in the world who are warmer, more welcoming, or prouder of their land. That is for sure.”
The wild west coast of Ireland as a destination is wonderful, full of nature, rich history, and outdoor experiences, but it really is the people that take it from extraordinary to spectacular.
“This is a very old land, they have found neolithic settlements here that date back to 3,000 b.c, some of the oldest in all of Europe … so I guess you could say that 5,000 years ago we invented the concept of neighbours.”
It’s no wonder they are so good with people; they’ve been practicing being neighbourly for millennia.
Nature seems to save its absolute best for Utah, where rock, mountain, lakes and valleys coexist in perfect harmony in America's west.
Within hours of flying in, our group is already travelling into the deep, ancient mountains of Zion National Park, near St George in the southwest of the state. This is a place steeped in natural wonders, adventure experiences and it’s one of the very few states in America ripe for those looking to experience the outdoors in its rawest form.
We arrive at the famous Angel’s Leading Ledgewalk via ferrata in Kolob Canyon, and very quickly I understand that Utah is not the place for your average outdoorsman. For the uninitiated, via ferrata means ‘iron path’ in Italian and is a type of climbing apparatus whereby metal rungs are drilled into vertical cliff faces thousands of metres in the air. Whilst the climber is attached to a steel cable, they walk across the cliff face with nothing but empty space and a cavern below them.
This particular via ferrata is advertised as something one can do from years 8 to 80, but obviously your comfort with heights may limit that severely. While you can now do via ferratas round the United States, here in Utah it affords you two spectacular advantages. The first is that the landscape here is nothing less than jaw dropping, as you spiderman through the seemingly painted chasms like you’re in a Kate Starling painting.
The second is that you’re guided by the man who actually created this particular course. Ian Crowe’s background in engineering affords you not just the benefit to ask a bunch of probing questions, but the added security knowing that if you go down, he’s going with you.
The next morning before the sun rises, we’re at Zion Outfitters sliding on thick neoprene socks and waterproof orange hiking boots. Before long we’re marching down a river flowing freely in an extraordinary cavern with walls about 150 metres high. The idea of walking in water for five hours sounds like a particular type of machiavelian torture chamber, but in reality it is one of the most amazing earth grounding experiences you can have in the natural world.
The walls are striated in reds, golds, blacks and whites, while trees sometimes defy gravity from cracks in the surface, and the rocky outcropping afford amazing light and shadow photo opportunities.
The water in late summer for a tall person can come up to your waist, higher in spring, and even higher the further you walk upstream, but the wetness of this experience is a welcome cooldown from the Utah heat.
The following day, no longer waterlogged but definitely feeling the memory of the trail’s watery beauty in my quads, we find ourselves in the darling hamlet of Cedar City. It’s a quirky model all-American town with an actual replica Globe Theater. As in, famous playwright, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, which our host Becki Lewis tells us is a major draw for the iconic town.
“We do about a dozen productions a year and people come from all over, even New York where the acting troupe is from. We have seminars before and after shows for anyone that wants to learn more about the plays. It’s a great way to get introduced to Shakespeare, even though we do other more contemporary plays here as well.”
But art thou looking for outdoor adventure in Utah? Back to the epic. Brian Head Resort is an epic ski destination in Southern Utah. This unplugged destination offers some amazing powder snow and epic backcountry skiing opportunities throughout the winter, and all without the crowds that typify the resorts up north.
In the summer, the fun doesn’t stop, as mountain bikers flock to the hill to fly down at breakneck speed. At Capitol Reef we stop at a pick-it-yourself cum honour system apple orchard, grabbing a few ripe Red Delicious off perfect trees which could be cartoons. I throw some cash in a little basket hanging on a tree like something out of the 1920s.
The next day is a bucket list moment for myself – a filmmaker in another life – when we visit Sundance, the mountain resort made famous by the film and arts community that resided and worked there. We visit exquisite restaurants and famous Owl Bar, frequented by the likes of Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford.
While most of our travelling group take to the mountain to hike or bike, I opt to instead visit the local art studio, to learn from the myriad artisans how to spin plates, make jewelry or in my case, perfect the art of crafting beautiful, artisan candles. I love bringing a bit of hand made magic home from magical places.
We stay in ‘Switzerland’…or as close to Switzerland as possible while still being in the southwest of the United States. Zermatt Utah Resort is an eerie carbon copy of it’s Swiss namesake. Complete with chateaux style hotels and mountain cuisine, Utah’s Zermatt Resort is something to behold; a grand hotel with spa and ski service, and quite simply the best apple strudel you can find in the New World. It’s kitch and crazy and I loved every minute of it.
At Soldier Hollow in Midway, a town which hosted the Biathlon event for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, we strap on some roller blades and roll around shooting precision .22 caliber rifles at targets, all while being guided by a Olympic Biathlete Zach Hall. I never gave the Biathlon much thought when watching on TV, but after channelling a little of my inner-James Bond, it is my new favorite event.
IT IS TRULY A UNIQUE ADVENTURER’S PLAYGROUND, READY TO BE DISCOVERED. JUST BE SURE TO PACK AN EMERGENCY STASH OF BOOZE AND WATERPROOF SHOES.
On our final night we land in Salt Lake City; a brackish mix of staunch belief and wild outdoorism. It’s surrounded by geological brilliance, and cultural importance, and an interesting history beginning with its Mormon founders.
This is a unique American city where the food and bar scene is cosmopolitan and prolific, but with a sprinkling of country hospitality. During the day, we explore Utah’s famous Natural History Museum which resides right along the great bath tub ring of the Great Salt Lake, with a petrified ocean that you can see from space and a fossil record that would amaze even the most advanced of paleontologists.
In the evening I dive deep into the bowels of the city and explore Carson Kitchen, a modern American eatery where every plate is a welcome adventure. Then at Fisher Brewing Company, I finished a beer flight featuring every ale on the menu before seeking out a nightcap at an alluring establishment called BAR-X, which made me feel like I was back in a trendy part of East Village, New York rather than a Mormon-stronghold.
Even the arduous stumble home to the Peery Hotel was a delight in itself, this old Grande Dame of lodging made me feel honoring it’s historic roots while prioritising modern comfort.
In the morning I leave the mountains for my metropolis home, and I marvel out the window at the immense span of land beneath me. This is some of the oldest earth on Earth, a wilderness that many visit, but fail to even scratch the surface.
Utah is not glamorous from the outside. It’s probably not yet fully set up for hordes of tourists, but therein lies the beauty of this natural amphitheatre.
It is truly a unique adventurer’s playground, ready to be discovered. Just be sure to pack an emergency stash of booze and waterproof shoes.
The sky is darkly bruised, the breeze stiff. Without a guide, we forge along a faint track on the roof of Victoria in Australia’s southern alpine region, completely encased by mountains. The two-way radio strapped to my pack crackles briefly and, aside from the odd marker pole reassuring us we’re on track, there’s no sign of civilisation. I think to myself, damn, we’re so hardcore.
Ah, who am I kidding? Our group of five were let loose in the High Country; our mission, to walk the Falls to Hotham Alpine Crossing, a 37 kilometre route bridging two major ski resorts. Though we’re tackling it on our own two feet, someone else is lugging the gear and food; it’s the perfect balance of luxury and challenge. I mean if I don’t find my way to camp tonight there’ll be no Moroccan lamb and Tempranillo to wash it down, and if there’s no Moroccan lamb or Tempranillo…well, I don’t want to think about it.
Jean-Francois Rupp of Alpine Nature Experience is our hero for this adventure, taking care of all the responsible-adult stuff and leaving us to wander the wilderness carefree. Alpine environments require care and, having grown up in the French Alps, they’re second nature to him.
Mountains are like a latino lover: drop dead gorgeous but also, at times, tempestuous and wildly unpredictable. Only a day earlier, thick fog and 70 millimetres of rain hammered the area we’re walking in.
“A lot of people love walking but find it daunting to plan a trip like this,” he says. “There’s gear, logistics, route-finding and assessing the weather. We take care of all that.”
A morning briefing gave us – theoretically – all the tools we’d need: a topographic map, trail notes, mapping app, plus a lesson in handheld radios (for when mobiles are out of range). But the biggest draw for me is that there’s no big backpack to weigh me down on the hills ahead. Okay, that and the promise of Tempranillo.
With the curtain of cloud now hoisted well above the horizon, the vastness of earth and sky is awe-inspiring. The Bogong High Plains float between 1,600 and 1,800 metres – a mass of heath, grass and wetland scattered with clumps of wildflowers quivering gently in the breeze. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to swirl around with your arms wide and sing the “the hills are alive…” a la Maria von Trapp.
The ground covering makes for a cushy start, notwithstanding the fact that yesterday’s deluge has turned parts of the track into a running creek. Frogs croak. Boots slosh. We leap from one raised cushion of grass to the next. But, so far, we haven’t lost ourselves and the mere fact of walking independently really enhances the sense of discovery.
In winter, snow lays a blanket of white over everything here and the only occasional trail markers are tall pine poles – numbered for easy identification in a whiteout. At Pole 333 we detour to historic Westons Hut in the West Kiewa Valley, a steep descent through skeletons of snow gums (burned in the 2006 bushfires) that gives us a prime view of imposing Mount Feathertop, which is Victoria’s second highest peak at 1922 metres.
Westons is one of many historic huts that litter the High Country, reminders from a time when its grassy meadows were considered prime grazing for cattle and sheep, and hardy mountain men built shelters from slabs of snow gum or corrugated iron. The practice continued from the mid 1800s until 2005 when grazing was deemed too damaging to this fragile alpine environment.
Tawonga Huts marks the end of our first day and, after 20 kilometres and almost seven hours on the go, Jean Francois’s camp looks as welcoming as a five-star hotel. A white cloth covers a trestle table, fairy lights hang from a massive twisted and gnarled snow gum, and our sleeping quarters – a cross between a hammock and tent – span the trees like spiderwebs.
Jean-Francois braved knee-high rivers and rough tracks to meet us here, towing a custom camper trailer fitted out with everything from USB charging points to a hot shower. Only one of us is bothered to use it straight away though, our sights set instead on the frosted glasses of Billson’s Beechworth gin and tonic, clinking with ice.
It’s an irrefutable fact that food dominates the minds of hikers and Jean-Francois’ is seriously good. “In France, we don’t shop for a recipe, we shop for good seasonal produce and then design a menu around it.”
He takes the same approach here and our antipasto spread includes smoked chicken and prosciutto from Tawonga South Butchery, and goats and cheese and brie from Milawa in the King Valley.
“The quality of food and wine available in this region is amazing and we use local and organic as much as possible,” he says.
On an open fire, the long-awaited lamb is chargrilled and served with roasted vegetables and an orange and herb salad, and it’s about fifty times better than the two-minute noodles and canned tuna I usually dine on when out hiking in the wild.
With bellies full, we perch on logs fireside with a glass of that smooth Tempranillo we were promised. Dancing flames crackle and pop. A billion stars argue with a full moon over who is brighter. We’re the modern day equivalent of mountain men and women – sans cows and horses.
“My motto is that simplicity is luxury,” Jean-Francois says, and it’s a claim that seems accurate on two counts. Not only do we not have to worry about logistics, life itself is simple out here. Mobile coverage is sporadic and there are no reminders of the city life we’ve left behind.
“You don’t need much to be comfortable,” he says. “With a little bottle of gas, a battery and a solar panel, we have hot water, refrigeration and good food. That’s all that’s essential.”
Minimising environmental impact is also important to Jean-Francois. He participates in the global movement 1% for the Planet, he plants snow gum seedlings with a Mount Hotham nursery and runs a leave-no-trace operation.
Later I slink away to my treetop home, hovering discreetly above the grass and bush, and it envelops me like a cocoon though, albeit a spacious one. The base is surprisingly rigid and there’s only a gentle bounce when I roll over that lulls me to sleep.
“MY MOTTO IS THAT SIMPLICITY IS LUXURY. YOU DON’T NEED MUCH TO BE COMFORTABLE.”
Day two is considerably hillier but a cloudless blue sky keeps us pumped. Three mobs of wild brumbies scatter over the hills, manes trailing in the breeze. A descent through snow gums leads to Cobungra Gap and the chunky log cabin of Dibbins Hut where a snack and a soak of the feet in the nearby creek revive us before the solid climb up Swindlers Spur.