Friday, August 29, 2008

So you want to be a travel writer?

On Wednesday night I gave a guest lecture on travel writing to a postgraduate class at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. I thought some of you might be interested in reading a little of the advice I gave the students. So here it is. Enjoy!

Along with fashion model and rock star, travel writer certainly ranks high in most people's perception of glamour jobs. After all, what could be more glamorous than hotel hopping your way around the world on someone else's dollar? Before you all quit your day jobs and sign up, let me set you straight about a few things. Being a travel writer is not nearly as fun or as glamorous as it seems. In fact, it is a lot of hard work and often done for very little financial reward.

People imagine that being a travel writer my life is like one long holiday, where I spend all my time sitting on a beach, sipping a cocktail and tapping away at my laptop every now and then. Don't I wish! On the contrary, while everyone else is sunning themselves on the beach, I spend my days running around between tourist offices, attractions, restaurants and hotels, talking to numerous PR people, while frantically scribbling down notes and drawing up maps. What's worse, I'm usually dripping in sweat and wearing the same smelly clothes that I've been wearing for days on end. Then, come the evening, if I have any energy left, I usually end up alone in my hotel room typing everything up. Hardly glamorous at all!

Travel writing of course has its perks otherwise no one would do it. Over the last eight years it has taken me to some amazing places that I never dreamed I would visit and given me the opportunity to meet and learn about people that have challenged my way of thinking and opened my eyes to the world. Travel writing has also provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life: I had dinner with a real live Count in his castle in Transylvania in Romania, I island hopped my way around the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece all in the name of research, I spent five days in the mountains of the Transkei in South Africa as one of only two outsiders invited to witness an inauguration ceremony of a Traditional Healer, and last year I travelled to Libya to attend a small dawn service on Anzac Day to honour the Rats of Tobruk.

Mind you on the downside, I was almost arrested in the breakaway Republic of Transdneistr in Moldova for arriving at the border crossing half an hour late and on my most recent trip I wound up spending three days in hospital in Jamaica after picking up a severe case of salmonella food poisoning from something I ate in Cuba. But, even though I still have no permanent base and continue to live out of a backpack, I wouldn't change a second of it.

What does it take to become a travel writer?

Apart from loving to travel and being content to live the life of gypsy, to be a travel writer you also need a few other very important qualities and skills:

  • 1. This should go without saying, but you need to be able to write well. You need to be able to write in a way that transports your reader to the region or place you are writing about. They need to be able to see it, feel it, smell it and breathe it.

  • 2. Going hand in hand with writing well you also need a sharp eye for detail. You need to be able to observe details about a place and its people that other travellers might miss.

  • 3. You also need to be well-organised because travel writing of course involves travel; usually within a very limited time frame and budget. So you need to be able to organise your itinerary in such a way that you cover every aspect of a place quickly and efficiently without missing out on the details.

  • 4. You must be able to think quickly on your feet. Travel is never smooth – flights get cancelled, your luggage might go missing, attractions might be closed – so you must be able to work your way around any curve ball that is thrown at you.

  • 5. And finally, you must be a good salesperson because to be a successful travel writer you need to be able to sell your story ideas to editors and publishers.

Where do you start?

Write what you know: You don't need to travel overseas to be a travel writer. Take a closer look at the town where you live now. While you might not find the local flower festival exciting, but someone, somewhere in the world will. So who better to write about it than you?

Find your voice: You need to write with your own voice, not imitate someone else’s. By writing about your own personal experiences, your voice will begin to develop. And as you nurture and develop your voice, the articles that you write will stand out.

Good luck!

Monday, August 25, 2008

The things we leave behind

I recently stumbled across this article, What we leave behind, by Kelly Westhoff on the Wanderlust and Lipstick website. Not only did her article intrigue me because it was about an encounter she had in Cuba, but it got me thinking about the trail I've left behind in my many years on the road. While like Kelly, I'd like to believe that as a traveller I've "taken only photographs and left only footprints", as I'm usually limited by what I can carry and, of course, can't resist buying a few souvenirs along the way (not to mention all the PR paraphernalia I collect as part of my research) I inevitably leave things behind to "lighten my load".

On my recent round world trip alone, I left behind my jeans, a sweater and a pair of thick woollen socks (which I had worn every day in cold and chilly Cape Town) at a hotel in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania along with a note for the maid telling her to either donate them to charity or keep them for herself. Considering it was averaging around 38 degrees Celsius outside, I'm sure she had as much use for them as I did – none! In Nairobi, I left behind two of my three travel guides to Tanzania and a DVD I’d been given at a friend's place. Then in Cuba, I left behind my towel and some more clothes with the local family I was staying with, before finally dumping some of my souvenirs from Cuba, including Cuban cigars, in my hotel room in Jamaica because I was too afraid to enter the US carrying them!

The oddest thing I've ever left behind though was a drum in Libya last year. I'd spent a day shopping in the souks of Benghazi with my guide who rather charmingly, though disconcertingly, insisted on buying me every item I vaguely showed interest in, including a large terracotta drum which was covered with what looked like a very fresh goat's hide (I swear I could still see blood around the edges!). Knowing that there was no way that I would ever be able to get the drum through Australian customs I "accidently" [read: on purpose] left it behind in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at in Tripoli on the morning before I departed. (I had actually tried to leave it behind in my hotel room in Benghazi the previous day, but my guide spied it just as I was closing the door to my room!).

If this is what I left behind on only two trips, it truly frightens me to really think back and start listing the trail of belongings I've dumped in unsuspecting hotel rooms and backpacker hostels over the years!

Most travellers have been guilty of leaving behind books and clothing – they're the first things to be evicted from my bag when I start getting weighed down – but perhaps this says much about about the throw-away society we live. What have you left behind in your travels?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I'm dreaming of Africa: My top 10 movies set in Africa

With Australia in the middle of its coldest winter on record (well in my books in any case!), I'm finding myself dreaming of Africa and longing desperately to be back on the beach in Mwanza with an ice, cold Tusker in my hand. Of course it doesn't help that I am writing up my research from Tanzania! So here are my top 10 movies set on the continent that help me keep my African dream alive when I cannot be there:

1. The Power of One (1992)
I’ll probably be universally paned for this listing The Power of One as my all time favourite, but this is the movie that started my love affair with the continent. It's undoubtedly a very flawed movie, but it's nevertheless a good adaptation Bryce Courtney's 1989 novel of the same name. Set in South Africa against the backdrop of apartheid it tells the story of Peekay (Stephen Dorff) a lonely English orphan and perpetual outcast who through his two mentors - Doc (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a liberal German scientist, and Geel Piet (Morgan Freeman), a black prisoner – learns that to overcome life's adversities and to make a difference all he needs to do is reach into his inner spirit and discover of the power of one...OK, you can start throwing the tomatoes!

2. Tsotsi (2005)
I loved this gritty drama and was so happy when it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. The film centres on the life of a young Johannesburg township gang leader named Tsotsi - a colloquial term roughly meaning "thug" in township patois – played by Presley Chweneyagae. After hijacking a car one night he inadvertently ends up looking after the baby that was still in it and is thus propelled along the not-so-easy road to redemption.

3. Cry Freedom (1987)
Another movie that helped fuel my passion for the Africa continent, Cry Freedom is based on the true story of newspaper editor Donald Woods' investigation into the murder of Steven Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa. While originally mistrustful of Biko (Denzel Washington), after being persuaded to meet with him, Woods' (Kevin Klein) attitude changes and the two men become friends. When Biko is brutally killed by the South African police, Woods is determined that the world knows the truth and, as a result, he and his family are forced to flee South Africa.

4. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Labelled by some as the Schindler’s List of Africa, Hotel Rwanda tells the story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, played brilliantly by Don Cheadle, who saved the lives more than 1,200 people Tutsi refugees by sheltering them in the hotel during the midst of the Rwandan genocide. While it may not be the greatest film, it is certainly an important one.

5. Yesterday (2004)
This beautiful yet heartbreaking story puts a human face on the AIDS crisis in Africa. The film tells the story of Yesterday, played by Leleti Khumalo, a young mother who, after learning she is HIV positive, becomes determined to live long enough to see her daughter, Beauty, attend her first day of school. The first commercial feature-length production in isiZulu, Yesterday was nominated for an Oscar.

6. U-Carmen in eKhayelitsha (2005)
U-Carmen is a bold, bawdy, and offbeat remake of Bizet's classic 1875 Sevillian gypsy opera Carmen. Set in a modern day cigarette factory in the township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town, the film is sung entirely in isiXhosa. In the movie Bizet's Carmen (Pauline Malefane) is transformed into an alluring and outspoken cigarette roller who has a doomed love affair with weak-willed police sergeant Jongikhaya (José in the original opera).

7. Red Dust (2004)
This is another movie that I am sure would not make it on too many people's top 10 list, but for me it is all about location. The film which stars Hilary Swank as a South African-born attorney who reluctantly returns home to represent a young black politician (Chiwete Ejlofer) forced to confront his former torturer who is seeking amnesty from the TRC, was shot on location in my favourite dusty Karoo dorp, Graaff-Reinet. What can I say? I’m a Karoo girl at heart!

8. African Queen (1951)
No list of great movies set on the African continent would be complete without this 1951 classic adventure staring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Set during World War I, it tells the story of a drunken riverboat captain (Bogart) who provides passage for a Christian missionary spinster (Hepburn). Taking an instant dislike to each other, the pair bicker continually whilst tackling white water rapids and dodging German bullets and in the process eventually fall in love.

9. Out of Africa (1985)
This multiple Oscar winning epic follows the life of Danish writer Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), better known as Isak Dinesen, who travels to Kenya to be with her German husband (Klaus Maria Brandauer) but falls for an English adventurer, Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford). Who could forget the incredibly romantic scene in the bush where Denys washes Karen's hair while quoting from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"? … Sigh!

10. Casablanca (1942)
“Of all the gin joints, in all the in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”… Yes, another great Hollywood Golden Era classic, this time starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Yet while Rick’s “gin joint” was supposedly located in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II, the movie was shot entirely on a Hollywood sound stage. Location aside, there’s still plenty to admire in this doomed wartime romance saga including wonderful performances and cracking dialogue – So go on, play it again Sam! (The actual quote was in fact: "You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it!")

I’m sure I’ve left many great movies off my list such as Cry the Beloved Country, which – Shock! Horror! – I still have not seen yet. So if you have a favourite movie set in Africa you want to add to (or remove from) my list let me know.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oh where, oh where can my luggage be?

Losing your luggage is every traveller's nightmare. Unfortunately on this trip not only did I wind up in hospital, but my luggage also went astray...

I'd just arrived at the airport in Nairobi, and was waiting patiently at the carousel for my luggage when I suddenly realised more than an hour had past and everyone on my flight (including Dan) had already collected their bags and long departed. When the carousel finally came to a grinding halt, my heart sank as I realised my bag had not made the journey with me. What was I going to do? I was stuck in a foreign country without even a change of underwear!

No traveller wants to deal with the hassle of lost luggage. Unfortunately, however, misplaced or lost luggage is as inevitable as flight delays and cancellations. So here are my best tips on how to ease the pain.

Look around
Before you panic, take a look around. Luggage can often be placed on the wrong carousel by mistake, so search the other carousels for your bag. Also, look out for bags that resemble yours and are left on their own; another traveller could have accidently taken the wrong one.

Report lost luggage immediately
If your luggage cannot be found, report it immediately, and do not leave the airport without completing the appropriate paperwork. Also, make sure you get a copy of your lost luggage claim form and a contact name and number so that you can monitor the progress of your claim.

Find out what the airline can do for you
This wasn't something I was aware of at the time, but most airlines will provide you with petty cash to cover basic necessities, such as toiletries, if your luggage is lost or delayed, while others will reimburse you for essential purchases. If I had known this, perhaps I might have at least been able to recoup the cost of the expensive new underwear I purchased (I was still thinking in Tanzanian shillings, so accidentally paid $US25 for a pair of undies!). So make sure enquire about the airline's policy.

File a claim
In most cases, as with mine, your luggage will usually turn up within a day or two. If it is lost, however, inform your travel insurance company straight away and supply them with a list of items that were in your bag. Also, ensure you list the value of the suitcase itself and include any out-of-pocket expenses you may have incurred to replace any items (keep all receipts).

The only fool-proof way to prevent lost luggage is to only take a carry-on. This, of course, is not always possible. So here are some tips on how to make sure you luggage arrives with you:

Pack important items in your carry-on
Take as much on-board with you as you can. Make sure you pack a change of clothing and carry important items such as keys, money, essential medication, glasses and toiletries (keeping in mind restrictions on gels, liquids and aerosols) with you. Not packing a change of clothing and underwear was of course the big mistake I made. As it was only a short one-hour flight, I didn’t see the need – Never Again!

Label luggage clearly
Ensure that every piece of your luggage is labelled both inside and out with your name, home address and contact details as well as your destination address and phone number. This way if your luggage does go missing, at least the airline will know where it is meant to be.

List your contents
Before you take off on your holiday, make a list of everything you pack in your bag. Also keep a note of the make, model and colour of your suitcase. If your bag does go missing, this will help when making your claim.

Check-in on time
The most common cause for lost luggage is a late check-in. Try to arrive at the airport a few hours before your flight departs to avoid any problems. Of course this still won’t guarantee that your luggage won’t go astray. I was the third person to check in for our 6.00am flight and my bag still managed to get lost. What’s more, it was the only flight leaving Dar es Salaam at that time of day, so God only knows how it missed the flight!

Double-check the destination
It is not uncommon for staff to make a tagging error. On my way back from Cuba I almost had my bags checked through to Montego Bay in Jamaica instead of Kingston. Luckily I noticed and had the tag changed immediately. So double-check the tag the airline puts on your bag to make certain it is checked through to the right destination.

Image sourced from

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

From Cape to Cuba

I know I've mentioned this before, but when I lived in Cape Town I loved spending my weekends hanging out in the small seaside suburb of Kalk Bay; having breakfast at the Olympia Cafe & Deli, rummaging through the antique shops and second-hand book stores or stopping in for a beer at the Brass Bell. It was here where I took the above photograph of one of my favourite watering holes; the Cape to Cuba restaurant. Now as I sit back home in Australia reflecting on my 11-week round-world journey, it's only just dawned on me that this trip quite literally took me from Cape to Cuba. So before time gets away from me, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share a few of the most memorable moments from my Cape to Cuba odyssey.

Getting down and dirty in Cape Town
As many of you are aware I'm a big fan of offbeat tours and attractions, so the first thing I did when I arrived in Cape Town was to organise a Below the Surface sewer tour of the city with Figure of 8. The tour, which was part of an "amazing race" experience organised to raise funds for one of the outlying townships, took us through a network of secret underground tunnels to emerge in the grounds of the city's castle; the Castle of Good Hope. It was certainly an odd experience shuffling my way through the pitch-black tunnel with only my dim headlight lighting the way, all the while trying desperately not to fall into the stream of cold water that ran between my feet. Luckily I'm not claustrophobic!

Traipsing around Tanzania
Naturally topping my list of highlights from my time in Tanzania were the couple of days Dan and I spent game viewing in Ruaha and Mikumi National Parks – being charged by an elephant is not something I’m likely to forget anytime soon! But, there is of course much more to Tanzania than famous parks and abundant wildlife.

In Tanga, a quiet seaside town near the country's northern border with Kenya, Dan and I met the indomitable Mama Ruth and joined her to watch a local village soccer match (made all the more entertaining by the appearance of a herd of stray cows!). Outside of Mbeya, a sprawling town in southern Tanzania, we stayed at the wonderfully delicious Utengule Coffee Lodge, where we learned the art of coffee cupping – a tasting technique used to evaluate the aroma, fragrance and flavour profile of a coffee. In spite of my newfound understanding of what it takes to make a perfect brew, I still remained an avid tea drinker, so was thrilled when we took some time out for tea with Rungwe Tea & Tours in Tukuyu.

My most heartfelt and emotional experience in Tanzania was visiting SOMAFCO; the former ANC school close to the town of Morogoro where young exiled South Africans were educated between the late 70s and early 90s after fleeing the apartheid regime. Finding the campus however proved a difficult task, with the campus now the Sokoine University of Agriculture and many people either unable on unwilling to remember the school and its location. This discovery was made more special knowing that one of my dear friends from Cape Town had grown up here. You can read about my friend's experience in the paper I wrote: I dreamed of South Africa: History, memory and identity.

Walking on the wild side in Nairobi
I know many tourists can't wait to come to Australia so that they can hug a koala or see a kangaroo, but for me nothing beats coming face-to-face with the world's tallest creature –the giraffe – or watching the antics of a mischievous baby elephant. Surprisingly, Nairobi, Kenya's big, bustling capital city unfortunately renowned as Nairrobbery, is one of the best places to get up close and personal with Africa's wildlife. Just 12 kilometres from the city centre in the leafy suburb of Lang'ata is the Giraffe Manor, a quintessential English manor which is a sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild giraffe. At the manor's attached Giraffe Centre Dan and I lined up with busloads of local school children to feed and hug a giraffe – Dan even kissed one! The next day we then visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a haven for orphaned baby elephants next to the Nairobi National Park, where we watched the playful baby elephants as they were fed milk from bottles and were given a dust bath. For anyone who is interested, the Trust has created an online fostering program whereby you can adopt an orphan elephant. It might not be the same as having one at home – but then again, do you really think an elephant will fit in your backyard?

Discovering Jamaica
In Jamaica I met up my dear friend Natasha Himmelman to attend the 2008 ACS Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference at the University of West Indies in Kingston. While sadly our time in the country was limited and, of course, marred by my unfortunate 3-day stint in hospital, we did manage to squeeze in a little sight seeing in between seminars and preparing our presentation. Not only did we explore Bob Marley's Kingston and taste-test the country's famous jerk chicken, we also popped by the prime minister's house for dinner – OK, so it was a reception dinner for the conference, but I still got to check out the PM's diggs and drink Jamaican rum on his lawn!

Cars, cigars and cabarets in Cuba
Visiting Cuba was definitely a dream come true. The politically isolated Caribbean island has been on the top of my "must see" list for as long as I can remember. After reading Hemingway’s "The Old Man and The Sea", I was keen to indulge in the legend of 'Papa'. From sipping daiquiris at El Floridita, where the novelist’s former seat is preserved as a shrine, and rumbling down the road in a classic chrome-laden Cadillac to smoking a fresh cigar straight from the factory and watching the spectacular Las Vegas-style cabaret at the Tropicana, the famous pre-revolution open-air nightclub where Carmen Miranda once performed, my fantasies were not only fulfilled, they were surpassed. While Cuba is undoubtedly intoxicating it is still clouded by the sinister shadows of the past with the stern visages of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro keeping a careful watch over the country's citizens. Yet somehow this caught-in-a-time-warp feel only added to its appeal!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tales from the road: My latest travel articles in print and online

I know many of you think that my recent round-world adventure was all fun and games, but it spite of how it may have seemed my trip was definitely all about work. (Okay, with a little game viewing on the side). Not only was I helping author Philip Briggs update the new edition of the Bradt travel guide to Tanzania, I also researched and wrote a number of travel articles that were published while I was on the road.

Oddly enough, even though I was travelling around Tanzania and Kenya, I had several articles published on other destinations, most notably on Australia for Ninemsn Travel. I even managed to crack a couple of new markets with a blog style travel article on going in search of Count Dracula in Romania's Transylvania published in Australian Women's Health as well as a new destination guide on Queenstown, New Zealand, for Fastcheck AB. But, my biggest coup, of course, was scoring an interview with Terri and Bindi Irwin.

Meanwhile for MSN Travel NZ I wrote two pieces on my travels in Kenya - An elephant tale and the Get out of Africa at the Giraffe Manor - as well as a series of travel advice articles including How to travel for free, The dos and don’ts of haggling, How to waste time in an airport and How to save money on holiday costs.

Yet no matter how often I am published, I must admit that I still get a thrill out of seeing my words in print whether it is online or in glossy magazine or book. I suppose that is why I continue to be Wild About Travel + Writing!