Author John Brierley spends every spring and autumn following in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims making their way to the medieval cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in far western Spain. He has been walking the Camino de Santiago for 25 years.
When he is not walking, he is at home, writing and playing with his grandchildren. John has written dozens of guides for pilgrims from all walks of life, who plan to walk some of the than 80,000 kilometres of authenticated and waymarked routes that lead to , on which every nation on Earth has set foot.
But it’s not about counting your steps, monitoring your heart beat, he says.
“To experience the Camino directly, you have to listen to your heart,” says John. “Listen well; it might only come as a whisper. But beware! If you have truly heard the call, you have become infected by a disease which will become fatal to your limited ego identity.”
I interviewed John for my The Knowledge column in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning and The Age newspapers, and his passion is infectious. I do believe that was his aim: to get me on the route.
“Our troubled world is crying out for solutions to the war and injustices that are raging everywhere we look,” he told me in our interview while he was in Australia recently. “But we have been looking for answers in the wrong direction. We have been looking out, not in.”
“The Camino asks us to step out of our comfort zone and to take some risks.The solutions we seek can only be found in the stillness of our own hearts and minds. ”
“That is the incredible gift of the Camino – it provides time in the silence of nature to empty out our outworn belief systems and allows time new insights to arise in the spaciousness of higher Mind.”
It’s the prettiest town in Kosovo, and the centre of Prizren is its Shatërvan square. Its cobbled streets are lined with cafes, snow-tipped mountains send snowmelt rushing down the river through the town’s centre, a Byzantine-era fortress keeps a watchful eye over all: what’s not to love?
If you’re venturing into the Balkans, my advice is to skip staying in little Kosovo’s rather drab, earnest capital, Pristina, and instead make Prizren your base from which to do day trips – to the vineyards, to the mountains, to the capital city.
DISCLAIMER: I travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
A couple of years ago, I found myself on the Vava’u archipelago, in Tonga, ready to jump into the water with a whale.
With that gigantic dark shape moving around in the water below, I confess I was pretty nervous! No, we did not cavort, the humpback mum and her humpback calf decided they weren’t in a playful move, and, in the blink of an eye, one of the world’s largest animals simply sank down to the watery depths and disappeared.
Recently, I chatted with Carmen Ellis of Majestic Whale Encounters, for the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers. She says that if they don’t want to play, whales just don’t hang around. Drawing on her experience running whale swimming tours in Tonga, French Polynesia and Norway Carmen says, “If they don’t want to be there, they just turn their pectoral fin and, within seconds, they can be gone.”
However, every experience is amazing, she has had bumbling calves simply bump into her (the calves totally ignoring each country’s exclusion rule that applies about swimming with wild animals), and says that even sub-adults and dolphins are such curious creatures, they will interact with swimmers.
She has swum with orcas in Norway and pilot and humpback whales in Tahiti, where she’s also seen the unusual Reeso dolphins, while in Tonga, she has spotted the false killer whales (which are the same dark grey as an orca, but without the white patches), and lots of stingrays, sharks and turtles all round.
Her company’s next tour destination is Sri Lanka, swimming with blue whales. “We’re not the first, years ago, there was an industry shut down because it wasn’t being respectful to whales, but a new industry is developing in the country’s north, in Trincomalee.”
To read my story in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on swimming with orcas, humpbacks, pilot and other whales, click here
A perfect day in Torres del Paine, Patagonia from sunrise to sunset, starts with dawn with the dirtiest Jeep, and continues with chasing guanacos through the highlands, nose running while clinging to a bolting horse tearing across icy plains, and all day watching snow clouds gather through the towers and teeth of the Paine massif on a winter adventure.
But the real reason we’re here is for the pumas of Patagonia. Nicknamed ‘ghost cats’ because they’re so elusive, they’re the reason we’re braving sub-zero temperatures, snowy afternoons and chill winds that tear down the Patagonian ice fields to claw at our faces.
I’m lucky enough to be able to say that it’s my second time in Torres del Paine national park, and my third time visiting Patagonia, twice on the Chilean side, and once on the Argentinean side.
This time, I travelled with Quasar Expeditions,
If you’re after a chilly, nose-running read on spotting these beautiful pumas, click here and (hopefully) enjoy!
Quasar Expeditions runs five-day Secret Season itineraries from $4300 a person. Puma-tracking itineraries cost from $5540, including a tracking fee and four- or five-star accommodation. See quasarex.com
I’m not great with tunnels – I don’t like the idea of the weight above me. So I was pretty surprised that I was so keen to get into the Bent Pyramid, the earliest of Egypt’s smooth-sided pyramids, out in the deserts past Cairo.
The tunnel down into the heart of the pyramid is 79 metres long, double the distance of the tunnel in the Great Pyramid. It was so low that I actually scraped my spine, as I was so doubled over.
The pyramid was a practice run ordered by the pharoah Sneferu, father of Cheops (who went on to build the Great Pyramid in nearby Giza). It earned its sobriquet because the architect in charge of its construction realised that the calculations of a 55-degree angle for the pyramid was wrong, and changed it half-way through construction, for a rather wonky look, as you can see.
Still sporting much of the white stone cladding that would have let it shine in the desert, the Bent Pyramid recently reopened for the first time in 53 years, and with Saqqara and Giza, makes up what is known as the Memphis Necropolis, a royal burial ground for Egypt’s kings, queens and nobility (also, lots of sacred bulls, just FYI).
Click here to read about the three burial sites, and how they all link in, in my story published in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers. Enjoy!
I have just spent six days on the Golden Eagle – a private train travelling along the web of Silk Road routes, from Almaty in Kazakhstan though Uzbekistan and to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
I’ve long wanted to visit the ‘Stans, but as the song goes, it was just that the timing was wrong. So the chance to visit aboard a luxury train couldn’t be passed up.
Of all the stops on this journey – Almaty, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Ashgabat, the winner of the beauty prize is Samarkand.
Its Registan Square, pictured above, is just so big, and so awe inspiring, it’s almost overwhelming to try to take in all its beauty in one day, let alone in one photo.
However, it was the quieter, more secretive streets of Khiva that possibly caught my attention. Even though its historic Old City isn’t lived in anymore, it just seemed to have more life. Maybe it was the fact it had more scarf and textile shops, each tucked into a picturesque niche lined with Uzbekistan’s trademark turquoise tiles.
This part of the world is no stranger to travellers – these oasis towns have been receiving new ideas, cultures, languages and religions since time began.
But they’ve slipped off the radar in recent decades, only to be coaxed back on by new, more lenient visa requirements and our desire – and ability – to explore further, with international flights now into all the major cities.
A few details:
I flew into Almaty and out of Ashgabat via Dubai with its low-cost carrier, fly Dubai.
The Golden Eagle is a luxury private train that started its great rail journeys on the iconic Trans-Siberian route across Russia, www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.
Sydney music administrator Mikaela Atkins-Blake moved to Scotland…and fell in love with a piper. A cliche, she freely admits, but she now calls Glasgow home. This week, she is the Expert Expat in my weekly column in the Traveller section in the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers.
Click here for Mikaela’s tips on where to eat and what to do in her adopted hometown.
Last month, I found myself hiking along a section of Chilean Patagonia’s most famous walking route, the W.
The route curls around the Paine Massif, a majestic family of jagged peaks, whose tops were shrouded in cloud and cloaked in snow. Condors hunted between their teeth, and the air jolted to the sound of avalanches, hundreds of meters above me.
It all taps into the recent story I wrote for Prevention magazine, a women’s health publication, about five great hiking holidays. In it, I included the W, but also Tasmania’s new Three Capes Walk and the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Northern Territory, as well as the Kumano Kodo in Japan and the Spanish classic ultra-long walk, the Camino de Santiago.
Why do we walk? To get fit? To slow down? To go on pilgrimage?
The benefits include better health and spending time in nature, while some walks, like the Kumano Kodo and the Camino, were very deliberately designed to create time to clear your head and sift and sort through the bigger problems in life, says Di Westaway, founder of Wild Women On Top.
“Finishing a trek that takes you outside your comfort zone is a confidence-building exercise. It might be really arduous at high altitude, with plenty of “OMG, what was I thinking?” moments, but that exhilaration and achievement afterwards is a huge personal lift,” Diane adds.
You can read the story online, or you can just pull your hiking boots on now…
Recently, I completed an epic trek from Cusco, near Macchu Pichu in Peru, to Cairo, Egypt.
Let me tell you, it took some serious, late-night internet hunting! I could have travelled via Sao Paulo, (Brazil) then across to Casablanca (Morocco) and on to Egypt, or from Sao Paulo via a 12-hour layover in Addas Ababa (Ethiopia) and on to Cairo. In the end, the best connections were flying from Lima (Peru) up to Madrid (with three hours cooling my heels in a secondary airport in Ecuador) with LATAM and from Madrid on to Cairo with Egyptair.
This is my review of the Egyptair flight – I’ve flown many times domestically and internationally with the national carrier – on the Madrid-Cairo route, a direct flight of 4 hours 40 minutes.
I’m going to paste my favourite para here, about the food on board:
Chicken or the beef? The beef arrives cubed in a sauce with spiral pasta, and is surprisingly comforting. It’s accompanied by a dried, tired salad, crackers, chocolate cake, a wholemeal dinner role, butter and a triangle of La vache qui rit (The Laughing Cow, incidentally, is the nickname of Egypt’s deposed military dictator, Hosny Mubarak). Because you needed to know that last fact : )
Over the past decade, I’ve watched Cairo Airport change and grow – definitely for the better – from the raucous taxi chorus and decaying bathrooms of the old Terminal 1 to the snappy design of its newest expansion, Terminal 3.
If you’re coming through the Egyptian capital any time soon, here’s my take on Terminal 2, which sees the major Middle Eastern carriers, Etihad and Emirates, passing on through.
What to remember: security is paramount, and there are plenty of screening points. What to forget: Facebook, as wifi is but a beautiful dream.
Far better to grab a seat and watch the parade of fashions, from central African men in patterned jellibiyas (traditional robes) and matching kufis (caps) to women from the Gulf states in well-cut abayas and heels. You can identify the rare Antipodean by their khaki zip-off pants. If you want to hang with the locals, they’re in the smoking rooms.