Friday, March 28, 2008

Best of Blog Awards

Time for a little personal horn blowing - I've been nominated for a 2007 Best of Blog Award for the best Travel/Leisure blog!! While I am sure I don't really qualify since I only started my blog at the beginning of this year, it's nice to know that I have a fan or two out there. So, thank you!

The BoB's began in 2005 as a way to bring attention to lower profile bloggers like myself (we can't all blog for National Geographic). There's still time to get your nominations in for more than 20 different categories, but hurray, as voting begins on 14 April. For more information click here.

Speaking of web awards, nominations are now also being taken for the 2008 Travvies which celebrates the best blogs devoted to travel. For an excellent summary of what makes a great travel blog visit Heather on her Travels and read her post on what she loves in a travel blog – she even mentions yours truly (yes, I know, more horn blowing)!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Being a tourist at home

As a travel writer when I'm not on the road, I'm either planning my next big overseas adventure (as I am now) or writing up my last trip. But with so much of my time spent researching and writing about exotic foreign locales, I often tend to forget that you don't have to go traipsing off to the other side of the world to see some pretty interesting sights.

While hiking the Inca trail in Peru, island-hopping around the Mediterranean or sipping mai tais on a beach in Phuket are certainly great holiday aspirations – there are plenty of adventurous experiences to be had right in our own backyards. What's more, with loads of tourists as anxious to explore our backyard as we are to escape it, you can always write about it for them.

After all my years working as a travel writer, this only dawned on me when I moved back home to Australia a couple of years ago and began working as an editor on Ninemsn's domestic travel website for Tourism Australia. Having spent so many years living, working and travelling abroad, I quickly realised that I knew very little about my own country and that I had in fact explored many of the world's far-flung destinations more thoroughly than I had my own backyard – to this day, I still haven't seen Uluru! Like many Australians, I guess I thought that the world around me was far more intriguing and that I could always see Australia later. So this position provided me with the perfect excuse to rediscover my Australian roots.

Since I was living in Sydney I decided this was the best place to start. While I had been living there for more than a year, I'd barely scratched the city's surface. Sure I'd seen the Habour Bridge and the Opera House – they're hard to miss! – but, my everyday life involved working from my flat in Newtown, the odd trip to the grocery store, walking around the local park and catching up with my friends for dinner or a movie; not taking in the sights.

One of the best ways to experience your city or hometown in a new light is to join a tour and see it through the eyes of a tourist. So I signed up for a cruise of the Sydney Harbour aboard The Deerubbun, a former navy torpedo recovery vessel now owned by the Tribal Warrior Association. While numerous boat cruises ply Sydney's busy waterways every day, what was unusual about this cruise was that it offered an Aboriginal perspective of the city's famous harbour. Growing up in Australia during the 70s and 80s at school we were only taught about the colonial history of the country which only made passing reference to the country's indigenous people, so it was a real eye-opening experience.

Since relocating back to my old stomping ground of south-east Queensland at the beginning of the year, I've now had the opportunity to rediscover parts of the country I (mistakenly) thought I knew well such as the Noosa Everglades on the Sunshine Coast - I never knew there were everglades in Australia, let alone in my own backyard! - and, most recently, I joined Goanna Adventures for a safari-style day tour of Brisbane's best kept secret; Moreton Island. Even though I was born in Brisbane and spent more than a decade living in the city after finishing high school, I had shamefully never stepped foot on the island which is only an hour's ferry ride away - I suppose that is why it's advertised as the city's best kept secret! ... Perhaps I need to reconsider writing my article?!

So my challenge for you is to get out and experience your hometown, city, region or country as a tourist. You’ll not only gain a greater appreciation for the place where you live, but also have some fun along the way.

Have you played tourist in your hometown? If so, what did you discover? And what are your best tips for being a tourist at home?

Friday, March 14, 2008

One on one with guidebook author Philip Briggs

When it comes to guidebooks on Africa, without a doubt one of the most prolific and respected authors is Philip Briggs. Since the early 1990s he has travelled the length and breadth of the continent researching and writing some 25 guidebooks, including the first editions of Bradt's guides to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ghana, and penned more than 100 features and columns for a variety of publications such as Africa Geographic, Travel Africa, BBC Wildlife and Wanderlust.

I first heard about Philip when I was researching the impact of tourist imagery on the small seaside resort of Coffee Bay in South Africa for my masters dissertation in 2004. While I had previously travelled through the region updating the 5th edition of Lonely Planet's South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland in 2001, Philip had trail blazed the way in 1991 with his South Africa: The Bradt Travel Guide produced while other international guidebook companies sat back and nervously awaited the fall of apartheid. Everyone I interviewed for my study mentioned Philip and his guide and suggested that I contact him. And so I did; even quoting him in my final thesis!

Now some four years later as I'm preparing to work with Philip on the up-coming 6th edition of his Bradt travel guide to Tanzania, I thought it was about time I got to know a little more about the man behind the myth.

What made you become a guidebook author? How did you get started?
When I started travelling in Africa, in the mid 1980s, guidebooks were pretty thin on the ground – Lonely Planet and Bradt published extremely patchy guidebooks to the whole continent, and that was about it. A couple of years later, Rough Guides brought out a fantastic one-country guide to Kenya, and it opened up so many exciting new travel possibilities that I was inspired to try to do the same for another country. In 1990, I wrote to Hilary Bradt from South Africa suggesting a few possibilities – Tanzania and Uganda as I recall. To my utter astonishment Hilary got back saying that she felt the time - months after Nelson Mandela was released - was right for a guidebook to South Africa, and since I was there, would I be interested? So, pretty much a case of being in the right place at the right time... and from there, I went on to produce several other pioneering guides for Bradt, including the first dedicated guidebooks to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda.

What are the best and worst things about life as a guidebook author?
Best thing is the travel. Worst thing is the writing, or at least the isolation that it enforces.

What is a typical day like for you on the road?
No such thing. I'm married to a photographer and we usually travel together, so every day is a fresh juggling act of priorities. The closest thing we have to a generic blueprint is: get up at dawn for the best photographic light, dedicate the middle of the day to getting from A to B and/or research and updating, then photograph again late afternoon, and relax over a meal and a few drinks after dark.

What is your favourite place and why?
That's an impossible question. Serengeti-Mara for wildlife, Cape Town for its combination of scenery and urban buzz, Virunga Mountains for its mountain gorillas, rock-hewn churches of Tigrai (Ethiopia) for their utter weirdness, Namibia generally for its sense of space... But for me, guidebook writing/updating involves more revisiting old haunts than I’d ideally choose to do, and a lot less time seeing new places, so I'm generally most enthusiastic about places I first visited recently. Last year, my coups included Alexandria, which has to be one of the most engaging cities in Africa, and Madagascar, with its revelatory cast of oddball creatures, and this year it looks like I might finally make it to the Okavango – probably top of my Africa wish list!

How do you feel about the plethora of online travel e-zines and free travel information sites like Wikitravel and their impact on print media such as guidebooks? Do you think this signals the end of the traditional guidebook?
I don't have strong feelings. I find that online travel information for Africa has to be filtered with greater scepticism than a good guidebook. The net does have the potential advantage of being more up to date, but often it isn't, or at least it's difficult to tell. Guidebooks are more focused and portable, you have more of a sense of who wrote and researched them, and for the time being a book seems like a less clumsy option than carrying a ream of computer printouts, or booting up a laptop every time you need information or a map. So no I don't think the traditional guidebook is in any immediate danger, but publishers may have to take a more innovative approach to online updates etc.

It's the age-old question, but can you make a living as a guidebook author?
Yes, especially if you supplement the guidebook work with magazine and other writing. But it's not easy, and it will probably take several years of hard work and scraping by to reach an acceptable income level. It’s not a job I’d recommend to anybody who places earning big money high on their list of priorities.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a guidebook author?
I'm not sure. Its probably a tougher field to break into today than it was 15 years ago. But I think its vital to make the most of any opening that comes your way, to take on board editorial priorities (a list that’s almost always topped by 'meet the deadline', followed by 'read the spec properly', 'don’t overwrite' etc) and to take a long view of things – you need that repeat business, and that means building up good working relationships and mutual trust with editors and publishers. More mundanely, have enough money saved to see you through the first couple of years, when your income is unlikely to vastly exceed your expenses.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The greatest woman traveller?

When it comes to travel, woman have always been adventurous, but, as usual, it's the men who've gotten the glory. While manly explorers like Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingston and Christopher Columbus have been immortalised forever in the history books and are still revered today, adventurous women like cartographer Gertrude Bell and British anthropologist Isabella Bird have become mere footnotes to history and today remain largely forgotten.

British magazine Wanderlust has decided to redress this imbalance by asking readers to vote for the top woman traveller of all time. Some of the woman on their list include African explorer Mary Henrietta Kingsley, 18th-century author Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and American aviator Amelia Earhart. They've also thrown in a few more modern women travellers such as Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy and world-record-breaking long-distance yachts woman Ellen MacArthur.

Personally, Mary Henrietta Kingsley gets my vote for travelling through parts of Africa I still haven't been to, dressed in those ridiculous, voluminous Victorian get-ups and for fighting off a crocodile with a paddle - what a woman!

You can cast your vote until 8 April.

So who'd get your vote? Who do you think is the greatest woman traveller of all time?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Time out in Tanzania

For the last couple of months, I've been busying myself with preparations for an up-coming round-world trip that will take in South Africa, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Cuba and the U.S. I can now announce that my mammoth world adventure has just gotten a whole lot bigger with the addition of Tanzania to my already hectic itinerary.

After a short hiatus, I'm re-entering the world of guidebook authoring, helping renowned author Philip Briggs update the 6th edition of the Bradt travel guide to Tanzania. So for six weeks over May and June I'll be training, busing and bush taxiing my way around some of the least visited parts of the country including the South Coast, Lake Nyasa and the Southern Safari Circuit. Needless to say, I'm very excited about returning to Tanzania.

I guess the saying is true - a leopard really never does change its spots!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tourists of reality part II: St James

One of my favourite places in Cape Town is the False Bay coastline which is flanked by the Silvermine mountain range and dotted with fabulous little seaside villages from Muizenberg through Kalk Bay all the way down to Simon's Town. While I was living in the city I'd often spend my weekends exploring the coast; having breakfast at the Olympia Cafe & Deli, rummaging through the antique shops and second-hand book stores or stopping in for a Windhoek (yes, I know Castle Lager is the national beer of South Africa – I’m just more partial to Windhoek) at the Brass Bell.

For most people though, False Bay's main drawcard is its string of sheltered, family-friendly beaches. With the water around 5-7 degrees warmer than on the Atlantic Coast on the opposite side of the peninsular, it's hardly surprising that it became Cape Town's first fashionable bathing area. There are several magnificent beaches in the area, such as Fish Hoek and Boulders Beach just past Simon's Town where you can swim and sunbathe with a resident colony of penguins. But by far the prettiest and most photographed beach is St James with its brightly coloured bathing houses and tidal swimming pool (see above).

While the stretch of beach itself is not very wide and can get quite crowded in summer, St James has become one of Cape Town’s landmark tourist attractions with its colourful beach houses popping up time and again on postcards, books and paintings of the city. The "tourist reality" captured by these images evoke a romantic vision of the Victorian seaside which is strangely at odds within the context of its modern southern African setting. Yet in an endeavour to sell the past to the present the "touristic reality" has been selectively framed so as to focus squarely on the old-worldly charm of the bathing houses while simultaneously erasing all traces of modernity including the Cape Metro train line that runs directly behind the beach (see below).

I wonder how keen Tourism Cape Town would be to show this reality of their picture-perfect tourist view?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tourists of reality: reframing travel photography

Following on from some of the comments I received from my last post, I thought I'd shed more light on Susan Sontag's concept of 'tourists of reality'. That is, through the proliferation of photographic images we unwittingly become 'customers' of a 'recorded' reality. In the case of travel photography it is a reality that is formulated, packaged and sold, in the form of glossy travel brochures and postcards, by slick marketing companies and tourism bodies keen to tempt us with the scopophilic pleasures of a holiday in their country. Thus, while Africa has become a continent of wild animals, exotic peoples and vast savannahs, Australia is represented by a monolithic red rock, endless deserts and a coathanger bridge.

Lara Dunston recently touched on this subject on her Cool Travel Guide blog with a post on Blue Chairs: imagining Greece, the perception & reality where she questioned the authenticity of the blue cafe chairs in Greece, which are an omnipresent feature in all brochures and postcards produced by the Greek National Tourism Board. I have to admit I was totally sold on this image and went snap happy for the cute Mediterranean blue chairs while I was in Greece!

Yet so effective has this form of photographic marketing been that we invariably end up spending much of our vacation time searching out so called 'sights' in order to capture these touristic images for ourselves. Because without capturing them we'd have no proof that we did in fact visit that particular place, town, city or country. After all, if you travel to Paris the only way you could possibly prove you'd been there is with a smiling snap of you standing in front of the Eiffel Tower; right?

A few years ago I explored the same theme in an article published by itch magazine in Cape Town in which I studied the city's visual representation in postcards. While postcards of the city showed all the iconic sights such as Table Mountain and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, what they in fact presented was a piece of a puzzle that forms only a minor part of the mosaic that is Cape Town. So I purchased several of the most popular postcards of the city and set out to discover what had been left outside the focus of the touristic lens.

The most overdetermined of all Cape Town's touristic sights is the omnipresent Table Mountain. Its monolithic form graces almost every postcard, travel brochure and coffee table book produced on the city. While the mountain has been captured from almost every possible angle, the most dramatic and most photographed view of Table Mountain is easily the view from Bloubergstrand on the opposite side of Table Bay. It gives you a panoramic wide-screen view of the whole mountain with the city nestled cosily at its base.

With the postcard as I my guide I made my way to Bloubergstrand to view and capture the 'touristic reality' (see the image above). Once I arrived at the sight I discovered that there were numerous 'view points' from which to obtain the picture-perfect rendition of the 'touristic reality'. I quickly snapped a couple of pictures then plonked myself down on the sand and sat back to await inspiration for my 'alternative realities'. As if on cue another tourist/photographer, armed with an expensive camera and heavy tripod, walked casually up the beach. Stopping directly in front of me, he turned towards the ocean and carefully surveyed the scene before him. Then having decided he had found the perfect 'viewing position' he quickly set up his tripod to capture his own version of Table Mountain's 'touristic reality'.

Immediately inspired, I jumped to my feet and hastily rolled-off a couple of shots of the same scene, though this time reframing my viewfinder to include the tourist/photographer (see above). Then suddenly sensing that my unwitting subject had become aware of my presence (and not wanting to be exposed as a crazy photographer with a peculiar fetish for taking pictures of strangers) I quickly turned around and randomly pointed my camera skyward. But as the lens slowly came into focus I was pleasantly surprised by the new 'alternative reality' that filled my viewfinder. All the time I had been facing forward and focusing my camera on the 'realities' that lay within the usual touristic view of Table Mountain I had been unaware that as the sun was slowly setting the sky behind me had been staging its own magnificent display. Through my viewfinder I now watched mesmerised as the clouds stretched endlessly across the late afternoon sky. Fascinated by their elongated forms, I snapped at my camera again (see below).

The sad thing is, if I hadn’t been doing this project at the time I more than likely would not have seen this amazing sight let alone have captured what has turned out to be one of my favourite and most requested photographs. While photography will always be an integral part of the travel experience, as will the predetermined touristic sights, what I learned from this project is that as travellers we need to open ourselves up to the possibility of life outside of the viewfinder. So the next time you are in Paris and confronted with the Eiffel Tower, I challenge you to buck the trend and discover what is not within the touristic frame. Turn around and take a picture of what is behind you – after all you never know what you might capture!