Matiu Somes Island, Wellington harbour (NZ)

In the middle of Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, is a fabulous island. Easy to visit, by the Dom Post Ferry, I have been there quite often and have even stayed overnight a few times.

Matiu Somes Island is a predator-free scientific and historic reserve with a rich multicultural history.

The island is owned by local iwi (Te Atiawa) following a Treaty (of Waitangi) settlement. It is governed by a Kaitiaki Board – of local Maori and DoC (Dept of Conservation)

Since the mid 1800s, it’s been a quarantine station, for people and animals, and during World War 2 was a prison for non-New Zealand citizens.

I had planned a trip there last week but was unable to go, but because of that its been on my mind so thought I’d post a few photos for you. See a previous post about the island here

Visiting one of the oldest Tulou: China’s ancient earth buildings

During my trip to Fujian province in China we visited the Nanjing tulou area which I found absolutely fascinating. Built between the 12th and 20th centuries these earthen buildings are unique to the Hakka people in the mountainous areas of south-east Fujian.

very thick walls ... this one is 5 stories high
very thick walls … this one is 5 stories high

These, mostly round, enclosed buildings with thick rammed-earth walls, are many stories high, and can often house about 800 people.

Forty-six tulou sites were inscribed (2008) by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and as “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment.

Self explanatory
Self explanatory

We only spent a few hours in the area, and as I knew nothing about them before visiting, I will let my photos do the talking – hover over the  picture to see the captions.

However, Wikipedia tells me that the one we visited is called “Yuchanglou (裕昌樓) is a five-storey tulou located at Nanjing County, Shuyang Town, Xiabanliao Village. It was built in 1308 Yuan dynasty by the Liu family clan. It is one of the oldest and tallest tulou in China. Yuchanglou has been nicknamed the “zigzag building”, because the vertical wooden post structure is not straight and perpendicular, but zigzags left and right. It was built that way due to an error measuring the building materials. But in spite of this apparent infirmity, this tall tulou withstood 700 years of natural elements and social turmoil. Yuchanglou’s outer ring is 36 m in diameter and boasts five storeys, with 50 rooms on each floor, 270 in total.

Each of the 25 kitchens on the ground floor at the back half of the circle has a private water well beside its stove. This is the only tulou in all Fujian with such convenient water supply”.

 

I’d certainly visit here again, and stay longer if possible – apparently you can be hosted in one of the tulou.

What is ecotourism?

Not everyone can travel. Living in New Zealand means we have a better chance than many. We have a far higher rate of people with passports than most countries, and countries which are poorer are much more likely to be visited than to produce travellers.row of travel books

I’m a travelophile. Like Asians need rice, Italians pasta, British curry, Kiwi’s fish and chips: I need to travel. When I travel I feel good and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to and not have to go the flavour of the month.

Sometimes it's hard to be a travel writer with view like this. Not! My view from Doubtless bay Villas
Sometimes it’s hard to be a travel writer with view like this. Not!
My view from Doubtless bay Villas

 

This means I often arrive in places that are not on the tourist trail. I get to be a cultural tourist in that I stay longer in places and get to know people; absorb the local flavour.

This means that although I don’t often sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism?

My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are, very briefly, that’s it an activity that has least impact while providing greatest benefits.

Independent travellers are the ones most likely be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours have often paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.P1124662 travel tips web

Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.

Life on a marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes, the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then leave  – taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – usually bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags abound.

The kiwitravelwriter, arrives on Talang-Taland Island, Sarwawak, Malaysian Borneo. photo by Gustino from Sarawak Tourism Board, who hotested me)
The kiwitravelwriter, arrives on Talang-Taland Island, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. photo by Gustino from Sarawak Tourism Board, who hosted me)

We think of New Zealand as a clean green destination but pollution is not just rubbish on the ground or dirty air. So, are we conservation minded or is it just our low population that produces less rubbish? Have we have sold the visitor a too narrow view of places to visit; given them a list of sights they must see, activities they should take part in? This produces problems such as Milford Sound has. Buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors (and fumes) to see wonderful pristine sights. An oxymoron? This is not a New Zealand only problem.

It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However, I know that beside me, waiting for their turn, to record the moment, is another busload of chattering travellers.

eat local
eat local

The problems of being poured into the tourist funnel will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.

TheTravelBook-2-pic for web

This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”

However, help maybe at hand. An organisation called Green Globe 21 is on the rise in New Zealand. Some 200 companies have embraced its ten different indicators for sustainable environmental codes. What is even better is that many local authorities have signed up too. (www.greenglobe21.com)

What can I do? Shop at locally owned places wherever I am; support companies that practice high standards; (e.g. Kiwi Host, Green Globe) are a good start.

Combining the universal codes of pack it in pack it out and take only photos, leave only footprints along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’ll be able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.

A LoveLetter to Malaysian BorneoIf you’re interested in this topic see my small book about travelling in Borneo which looks at some of these issues too.

The Prince and the bogus guru. India

 “Come with us” the Prince said, and with a royal invitation I feel compelled to follow him and three other men.

Down the ancient steps, past Ahilya temple, past widows, their hands out for alms, past stones identifying extreme monsoon levels, and further down, we reach the 300-year old ghats where women are washing clothes. Others proffer water, in cupped hands or in a container, towards the sun, and as the water runs through their fingers they are reciting sacred verses.

Beside Nandi the bull and Shiva lings that mark the cremation sites of various nobles, we climb onto a flat-bottomed, traditional boat on which white plastic chairs sit. The prince is taking us upstream to another temple that belonged to his ancestor.

Mediatation on the banks of the holy Namada River, Maheshwar.
Meditation on the banks of the holy Namada River, Maheshwar.

Twenty–two generations ago, Maharani Prince Shivaji Rao Holkari Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, the celebrated Indian Queen (died 1795) renowned for her piety, charity, and statecraft, built Ahilya Fort at Maheshwar on the banks of the holy Narmada River. Now her direct descendant, Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, allows a few guests in his fabulously restored palace. After weeks of backpacking, I value the luxury.

part of the palace from the holy Namada river
part of the palace from the holy Narmada river

Another guest in this boutique, royal-homestay, is Sam Adams Green who, incidentally, introduced Andy Warhol to his muse – society girl Edie Sedgwick – and also gave him his first exhibition when he was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Now founder and director of Landmarks Foundation, which works at protecting global sacred sites: our destination is one of those sites.

Two young men, standing at the rear of the boat, move us upstream with large paddles; we have tea and biscuits that the prince produces from a picnic basket, watch life on the riverbank and cattle cooling in the water, as we glide towards Kaleshwar Temple, a 12-century temple complex. “It has been a site of Hindu pilgrimage destination since the beginning of time and memory,” Sam tells me.

There are 7 holy rivers in India, including the Ganga in the north and this one, the Narmada, in the south – it divides the north from the southern peninsula of India.

The southern bank is ancient Gondwanaland, which, as it moved north collided with the Central Asian landmass. Between the two, a rift valley was created and through which the Narmada flows over some of the oldest rocks in the world. The north – where the palace and temple are – is made of hilly sedimentary sandstone while the southern bank, peninsular India, is flat igneous basalts.

Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the holy Narmada traditionally takes 3 years, 3 months, and three days to walk. Starting 3000 feet above sea level and finishing some 1300 miles later at the Arabian Sea this is the only Indian river where a parikrama of the entire course is performed. (the top photo is of a young pilgrim)

In ‘Sacred Virgin Travels along the Narmada’ by Royina Grewal (whose own sacred journey began in 1993) says: ‘depending on where you meet her and how, the Narmada can mean different things to different people. For the many turbulent stretches, she is called Rewa, derived from the Sanskrit ‘rev’, to leap. Of her many names, this is my favourite. But she is also called Manananda, who brings eternal bliss, Rajani, the spirited one, and Kamada who fulfils desire, Vibhatsathe the terrifying one, and Manasuardhini who craves the lifeblood that she has nurtured. Ferocious, insouciant, benevolent.’

Prince Richard tells me that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped for he is the only god who has the tranquillity to calm her

Approaching Kaleshwar, we see two sackcloth clad, and orange wrapped devotees standing on stone fortifications that have tumbled down from the temple to the waters edge after a high monsoon.Prince Richard of Indore has ambitious plans for the rejuvenation of this ancient temple and dharmasala – a pilgrim’s rest house – and those who make donations over $US5000 towards its restoration are invited to tour the princely state of Indore and stay as his guest in his 18th century palace home.

Currently a bogus guru is holding up the process, effectively denying a free place to stay for some 50,000 pilgrims annually.

A couple of years ago this ex-army man asked the prince if he could stay at the temple for a few months. Soon he had set up a health clinic and was giving fake injections to cure many ills. Eventually chased out of town, he came back, ran up many bills, was run out of town again and when he next appeared was wearing the saffron robes of a holy man. Moving back into the temple, he has gathered a few devotees around him and intends to stay: it seems squatters have rights here and he cannot be evicted. Money has been offered for him to go but even this honey has not sweetened a move.

Prince Richard and the Landmark Foundation must be feeling like Henry 2nd when he said of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ as they too wonder what to do with this man who happily poses for my photos – an incongruous guru with a mobile phone hanging from his neck.

Back at the rivers edge the holy men who are walking the length of both banks of the river have washed and re-covered their bodies with ash.

India is vivid and varied, a melting pot of religions and people from central Asia, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions and here, with a, prince, a fake guru, and genuine devotees” it’s just as Sam said: ‘these guys could have walked straight out of central casting for a Bollywood movie.”

Twenty-one hours before I check in …now what?

websuitcase-usa-tripWith less than a day before the shuttle delivers me to Wellington Airport (NZ) I’m now ready to sit back and relax in front of TV and a book. I’m reading Open, by Andre Agassi – once at the airport I’ll start something new on my e-reader)

I’ve watered my balcony plants, I’ve had a little tidy-up  of my allotment. The only washing left to do will be the bed-linen in the morning – and my coffee plunger and cup.

I’ve charged my electronic gear, I’ve checked my gear for leads. My at-my-seat bag is all ok too — headphones, e-reader, sox/socks, eye mask, peppermints, pen and paper so no getting up and own to my carry on luggage, and  I’ve re-read my pre-travel airport checklist

  • Passport? check
  • tickets? check
  • money? check
  • camera? check
  • plus all my other pre-flight essentials
Carry-on bag, plus little red cube for at my seat
Carry-on bag, plus little red cube for at my seat

I also have my clothes to wear sorted: layers for hot or cold conditions in planes and airports, and have done my last luggage check.

So, time to relax, post this and then that’s it! Don’t even have to prepare a meal tonight as I’ve bought salads and cold meat at the supermarket, and tomorrow will go to the Preservatorium for breakfast.

Ready to go
Ready to go

Duishan Art District, Xiamen, China

 

The Duishan Art District, near Jemei University in Xiamen, China has a gallery to display contemporary work by regional, and prominent, artists. Like the art I saw at the University was thought provoking and different to our (my) expectations.

Our group, all coffee aficionados, were also happy to drink the excellent coffee served at the café.

Despite the coffee, tea plays an important part in the artists lives – each had a tea ceremony area in their studio.

 

 

The King is dead – Thai people will be mourning their much-loved leader

Hearing of the overnight death of Thailand’s 88 year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, makes me think of the day, in Bangkok, that I was invited to become part a ceremony which was celebrating the King’s 79th birthday, and when 79 men became monks in his honour.

He was the world’s longest-reigning monarch, has died after 70 years as head of state. My condolences go to all the Thai people, who I’ve met over many years, who absolutely loved him.

 

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will be the new monarch, the Thai Prime Minister has said.

Under the gaze of a photo of their King these men gather to be ordained as monks.

 

I too take a snip of hair from each man