December 11, 2007


The task of cleaning up my office and bringing order to the chaos was a simple chore, yet one that compounded years of disarray inside my head. In the end it only happened with the dedicated efforts of my wife, and I realise now how difficult life can be without a rail to guide one's path.

Working for yourself is one way to test your metal. Not only are you accepting full responsibility for the financial failure or success that lies ahead, but you are suddenly "free" to do anything and nothing. Keeping the momentum moving forward requires a certain kind of personality. Being an achievement based person is a big plus, but I've seen many talented and driven friends over the years head out into the world of independent employment and simply spiral into depression.

Most of us move through our working careers with clear directions on which way is up, where the next forward step will be and a clear indication of how far we have come. These are the small rewards that keep us coming back to endure the unpleasant realities of employment. The most powerful aspect of leaving a corporate career behind is that you suddenly realise that these traditional milestone markers are just mirages, and in their absence an entire world of possibilities opens up. 

You literally can do anything, be anyone and go anywhere.

This new found personal power is frankly a little frightening, because it comes with responsibility and accountability. Having removed the facade of boundaries you have the freedom to move in any direction, but little in the way of a compass to direct you. In the absence of a clear path, a schedule of things to do and a guide on how to behave the process of getting through the day is one cloud of indecision after another. In the freedom of life without an office we get the chance to immerse our consciousness in life as we experience it within - once we get off the treadmill the best aspects of our lives are magnified, and so are the worst.

After years of working in high-stress jobs and pitting personal sanity against deadlines it's little wonder that some of us step out on our own and become refractive to the very notion of deadlines. What was once a punitive motivation to work harder and get the job done is now a blaring alarm to run the other way. Deadlines become an echo of past traumas, instantly reconnecting your emotional state to the very worst of what you left behind in the corporate world.

In my case the simple act of arranging some shelving and do some filing had become a mountain too high. Not only did I need my wife's help to do the job, but I needed her help to commit to doing the job. My list of people to call, stories to write and photos to process was getting longer and longer - yet I was frozen solid with inactivity due to the cyclone of chaos in my workspace. Having cleared the physical mess it's now obvious that the clutter is just as bad inside my head too. One step closer.

The difficulty of living in a world so wide with opportunities and choices is the lack of restrictions, lack of boundaries, lack of guidance. With so few limitations on what can be, you can end up feeling powerless instead of powerful. The locomotive force of a steam engine changed the modern world, but that engine would have been useless without railway tracks to follow.

December 08, 2007

Liberal Lessons

The dust has settled and the historic winds of change have swept across Australia. In the face of overwhelming popular opinion we have left behind the relentless arrogance of the conservatives in favour of something a little more kinder.

Just how kind is yet to be seen, but the most interesting development in the post-Howard era is not the collapse of the Liberal Party - that was entirely predictable - but the pathetic gum-flapping and denial about why they lost so badly.

The equation is very simple. If you accept that Howard was never a popular leader, but was never opposed by a serious alternative, then the result in November makes a lot of sense. If you cling to the rosy belief that he was a great man and loved by all the people then the debate becomes a farce. The real losers in this conservative blind-spot are the people of Australia.

We don't need ten more years of puerile name calling in our parliament, grubby factions sleazing over remnants of power, or false debates along ideological lines. We need some respect to be demonstrated by our leaders on both sides of politics, we need government for the people and in the interests of the country and we need informed discussion that explores opinion instead of party lines.

So far the new look Liberal Party is stacking up to give minor lip-service to a few obvious policy blunders, but inherently has not changed its spots. They still blame the unions and their TV advertisements for the election loss. They still call the Labor Party a bunch of thugs and they still resort to name calling instead of just answering questions on policy.

Perhaps the most poignant words this week have come from Paul Krugman, a columnist and author who has written much about the decline of values in the democratic process in America. The reflections into our own political problems are worth pondering. At what point did the conservative agenda become taken over by the interests of so few and leave behind the middle-class? At what point do we as a people wake up and start challenging the bullshit our political leaders are feeding us?

Listen to his speech on Radio National

November 23, 2007

History Lessons

The key to good government is a strong opposition. The irony of this truth is easily lost in Pakistan at the moment, but in Australia we're only just waking up to the reality of 11 years of poor opposition politics from the Labor Party.

Such is the arrogance of the current Howard government that their brand of politics borders on fascism. Having spent 11 years running down budgets for health and education, widening the gap between rich and poor, plummeting our troops into a war we cannot win and ignoring the academic and scientific community we finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. John Howard truly is the modern Captain Bligh, charging his little ship of fools head-first into the unknown and blindly sealing his own fate with acts of desperation and fear.

Scandalous leaflet drops in marginal seats is not the real low-point of this election campaign, it's the way the Prime Minister chose to handle the issue. Once again when faced with a serious failing and obvious evidence he chooses to deny culpability on any part of the Liberal Party and paint the problem individuals as acting outside the authority of the party. Yes, even though the people in question were not only members of the campaign team but husbands of the Liberal candidates.

Saturday will bring a new future to this country. Bloody hell we need one. Saturday will give us a chance to begin to think for ourselves again, to start putting a value on educating *all* children instead of just those who have the deepest pockets, to start respecting the fragile nature of health care and avoid the disasters that are befalling the US model, to build a path to true foreign policy and a better relationship with the international community - particularly our neighbours in Asia.

At a time when the country is flush with money from natural resources we should be putting that money to good use and building a stronger society that can withstand the uncertainties of the future. Instead we have spent 11 years pissing it up against the wall, fattening the bellies of the rich and powerful, and squandering talent and opportunity for the sake of misguided ideology.

The legacy of the Howard government will be a leadership that spent all their time working on the task of holding onto power, and in the process let our nation slip backwards. Instead of listening to the experts, respecting the academics and learning from our scientists we have been governed by a mob of idiots who have the arrogance to believe that they know better than anybody. Discussion and debate have been replaced with spin and bullshit.

Saturday night will be historic, and lets hope that both sides of politics learn lessons from the outcome.

October 28, 2007

Boston Business

Evil is created when good people say, "it's good business".

- Boston Legal

October 23, 2007


Flying with Jetstar on an international flight is a bit like meat-loaf - you know it won’t be as good as a decent stake or lamb chops, but you end up disappointed by the experience none the less.

I'm convinced that most of the "low-cost" differences that characterise low-cost airlines are purely for show. They want you to think you're saving money by pointing out constantly that nothing is included in the fare - even a bottle of water will cost you a few dollars, your boarding pass is printed onto a receipt slip and your luggage can’t be checked through to the final destination without having to be re-checked at the next airport.

I recently flew Jetstar on a new international route and it was all just weird. For a start the plane was empty, so you had a mix of absolute poverty in the way of inclusions but total luxury from having four seats yourself. That's Jetstar for you - nice new planes and nice smiley staff, but I was still afraid to use the toilet during the flight in case I had to pay for that too.

What bugs me the most is that all this cheapness isn't actually necessary, it's just part of the theme. Remember those tacky restaurants where the music cranks up every 30 minutes and the waitresses have to line-dance? It didn't get your order back from the kitchen any quicker did it?

That's what you're getting on Jetstar – pretty girls, hokey music and a distraction from what could otherwise be good service.

Even the checkin procedures are a song and dance. You enter the departures at Melbourne Airport and to the left is Qantas who are forcing you to checkin with a touch-screen, and to the right is Jetstar who cattle prod everyone into the same queue for manual processing. It’s worth a reminder that Jetstar is owned by Qantas, so what’s wrong with this picture?

In a touch of irony the previous week I had tried to manually checkin to a Qantas flight and was told I couldn’t. Only business class or Qantas Club members were given a queue for checkin, all others had to punch a computer first and then queue to drop off their luggage. Again, impressions count and Qantas want us to believe that we’re getting a more modern experience and that’s worth paying extra for – despite the fact that we’re doing their work for them by checking in ourselves and then have to stand in a queue anyway.

Well I’m sick of meat-loaf, maybe it’s time to try something Asian instead?

October 13, 2007

Society of Spirit

The Australian Society of Travel Writers (ASTW) is a unique group of people who are incredibly talented, very intelligent and almost without exception full of generosity.

Two years ago it was suggested to me that I join the ASTW, and I was encouraged to come along to a few functions as a guest of some more established members. At the time I didn't realise what a lift-up I was getting for my career, or my personal confidence.

ASTW is full of writers, photographers and public relations people, but it's not just about mingling and networking. Anyone who picks travel journalism as a career is kissing away the opportunity to earn lots of money in favour of living a lifestyle that is less rigid and more expansive. These are real people making real connections, it's not about money.

These are also people who want to broaden their minds, most certainly where the journos are concerned. Most of the public relations members fit a similar mould, it's just that they have found a balance between travel and paying off debt. Most of them still get it, they still understand what a travel writers life is like and what they need to survive.

But the real gem that lies discretely hidden under the logo of the ASTW is the sheer kindness of the journos. Editors, staffers and freelancers who welcome new-people, share their experiences and help each other along the way. It's easy for freelancers to fall into a mode of competing with the world, but that's not the norm inside the ASTW. These are old souls, people who have varied experiences and have learned that you get more flies with honey than vinegar.

It's not easy getting into the ASTW, that is true. But the bar has been set to a standard that ensures only those who are dedicated can join. And dedication is what characterises the ASTW.

I was lucky to have the support of many members before I joined, and even more since. Last weekend I even won their award for Travel Photographer of the Year. As grateful and honoured as I am for being chosen, I also know that my selection says more about the ASTW than it does me. I wouldn't have been in a position to enter the awards if not for the spirit of ASTW members - past and present, old and new.

Thanks ASTW, you've made me proud.

September 25, 2007

Good and Bad

My parents always told me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. I didn't listen to them and I don't listen to them now.

My favourite piece of writing this year is a short piece on cruising the Pacific, which at first sounds like any other sun-drenched travel story that focuses more on the pool deck than the countries a ship visits. This one did neither, because it was a WWII theme cruise populated by the most conservative of Americans. Not only did these people vote for George Bush, but they helped fund raise for his elections. Even the family nanny was onboard, I kid you not.

My story about the cruise had to be tamed down a little, because some of the comments and behaviour of the passengers aboard this ship were so outrageous and vile that to publish the events would be tasteless. But the story did run and for that I have to thank my editor at the Herald Sun.

It's not often we get a chance to "tell it like it is" when writing travel. For starters most of the travel I do these days is with very professional companies who make damned sure the trip goes well - no use sending a bunch of journos on a tour that sucks is there? Besides, when people read the travel section they want to be inspired to travel, to leave their real world and enjoy a moment of make believe.

As a travel journo, however, you desire more than anything to spill the beans on shoddy operators and tell people what the reality is like in the world of travel. Companies spend a lot of money to present an image to the market, but they don't always make the same commitment to ensure their product lives up to the hype.

September 03, 2007

Small Tales in Tabin

Sometimes you can't see the forest for the palm trees.

Tabin Nature Reserve is one of the more important patches of forest in Sabah, held high by the Malaysian government as an example of eco-tourism and green friendly governance. While the reserve is now home to an increasing number of rehabilitated orang-utans, tht hasnt translated into better opportunities for tourists to actually see the wildlife that Borneo is famous for, let alone photograph it.

Bird watchers are avid fans of Tabin, because it offers very comfortable accommodation and the chance to see some exotic species. But if it's jungle and wild animals you really want, then you're better off to visit Danum Valley.

One of my major disappointments at Tabin was the lack of basic walking trails. Any adventures into the forest required a guide and gumboots, and there are no simple trails for guests to explore at their own lesuire. As such the opportunities for shutter-bugs to patiently seek out wildlife to photograph is equally limited.

The guided walks do take in some lovely sections of forest, albeit ankle deep in mud for much of the way and mostly unfetted by sightings of wildlife.

Tabin is located not merely on the outer edge of a forest, but the very edge. To one side is the secondary growth that has rejuvenated since logging stopped in 1978, and to the other side are miles of palm plantations.

The most interesting animals for foreign visitors, the orang-utans and rhinos, live deep in the jungle and are never seen by the guests or even the guides. A night safari can yeild decent glimpses of leopard cats, civetts, and flying squirrels but none of these make for great photography either.

Alas Borneo is no easy challenge for the man who likes to snap pictures of wildlife. Jungles are dark places and wild animals are notoriously shy. Even wide open spaces such as the Mud Volcano at Tabin provide more promise than opportunity. Animals can sense a photographers desperation.

An expensive telephoto lens is no guarantee of success in Borneo, and indeed the best shooting is often found when you focus on the little things. Sneaking up on butterflies, frogs and lizards is perhaps the most rewarding of photographic pursuits where wilderness is the subject.

August 07, 2007

Kev's Back

I've been a little worried about Kevin Rudd lately. He's been somewhat absent from the pre-election-campaign campaign. But it looks like the Labor Party has been quietly preparing themselves for the main event.

It has to be said that John Howard's effort to make himself and his government seem relevant of late have not done the job. The dirty tricks and grand stunts are reflecting poorly on a desperate party which seems to crave power like Gollum and his ring. "Vote for me my precious!"

The Liberal party seems to under-estimate the ability of Australians to spot a phoney. We're not an intellectual electorate, but we're not a pack of morons either. After all the show-boating and interventions, the name calling and blame-pushing the latest polls reveal the government is still sliding backwards.

That bodes well for Kevin. Labor hasn't landed many direct hits of late, but they haven't had to. Everytime "Honest John" appears on TV he does a good job of convincing the voters to "go left". Every ten million dollars the government spends on propaganda commercials for their IR laws is another reminder of why you shouldn't trust them.

So Kev, I'm looking forward to the real battle and finding out just who really has got some ticker.

August 01, 2007

Grab-Hands Howard

Arrogance runs rife in Tasmania today as John Howard flies into Launceston to intervene, interrupt and ingratiate.

The sudden allocation of $45million to negate the planned downgrading of a regional hospital came as a surprise to most people. Not the least of which is the state government who had their hand out for Canberra's crumbs, but told they need to be held more accountable.

So who accounts for the $45million now?

And will the government continue to find wads of cash to prop up an ICU unit that exceeds the needs of the community? I guess that's a post-election matter, after all the government is offering cash, not promises.

Little Johnny seems to have big hands of late.

He and our army has reached out to grab children in the Northern Territory, regardless of the more subtle community building work that has been underway for decades. Perhaps Johnny really does believe you can solve social problems with army intervention - after all that worked in Iraq right?

No it didn't work in Iraq. So the west sent more troops into Iraq. Still it doesn't work, just seems to have increased the rate of death of civilians and military personnel. But wait, it worked in Afghanistan right?

No it didn't work in Afghanistan either.

The rule of law continues to evade many parts of that country, while violence and death is still a way of life in the cities and illicit drugs still make their way out of the country. Doesn't sound like the army has got it sorted their either does it?

I want to know why John Howard thinks he alone can solve the social and health problems of regional areas, in disregard for expert and local authorities? And if he really does think he has the better answer, then why was it not the answer for the last 10 years, only now?

The fact is he doesn't. This is a government that will say and do anything to hold onto power. The desperation is palpable, they are drowning in lies.

I was reminded today that Howard's fans are not ignorant of his lies. Everyone knows he is a liar, but his supporters brush this off as a minor character flaw. They tell me, "All the politicians are liars". Iraq, NT and Tasmania remind us all of what happens when you catch someone out with lies but don't punish them for it.

The lies get bigger, and the hands get grabbier.

Isn't it time we demanded better of our politicians, all of them? They earn a lot of money, they enjoy privilege and power, and yet they squabble and bicker like kindergarten children instead of acting as "honourable" members.

Big hands, small brains.

July 24, 2007

Sensational Sipadan

Palau Sipadan is truly one of the world’s most remarkable underwater sites.

From above the water you can see little more than a few buildings, sandy white beaches and lots of trees. What you cannot see from the shady view of the beach is the sudden drop-off a few metres from the beach. One minute you’re floating above the coral and thousands of schooling fish, the next you’re facing hundreds of metres of darkness. It’s too deep to see what may be down there.

Along the drop-off the marine life takes full advantage of the unusual geography.
Unique coral forms branch out from the cliff and an endless stream of fish, big and small, travel in schools along the ridge. And I do mean endless. As soon as one cloud of yellow and blue streaks washes past you another school of shiny silver fish follows.

And of course there are the less transient residents of the reef, the brilliant pearls of iridescent life that speckle the coral with vibrant colours. The waters off the coast of southern Borneo are the most bio-diverse in the world.

The highlight of Sipadan is not the fish, and they can be seen emerging from the darkness along the ridge. They are the greenback turtles and they move with a grace and ease that defies their heavy shell and small flippers.

Slowly they rise from the deep blue, heading for the shallow waters above the drop-off.

They don’t mind our intrusion into their world. When you stare into their eyes they stare back and give a turn of the head. I swam for a while with my new companion, side by side just below the surface of the water. I was working hard to keep pace, while I knew he wasn’t even trying.

I had caught brief glimpses of sea turtles in other parts of the world, but usually travelling at immense speed to avoid humans of any kind. Sipadan is very special in this regard, and combined with the stunning snorkeling off the beach makes it my new favourite place to get wet.

July 17, 2007

Monkeys and Martinis

The mysterious jungles of Borneo are home to cheeky troops of Orangutans, bizarre outbursts of Rafflesia flowers and a very nice place for cocktails.

The first two days of our adventure into Sabah to capture images of habitats and wild creatures has been flavoured with truly exotic encounters and true five-star service. Our home base has been the Rasa Ria, a Shangri-La hotel based just north of Kota Kinabalu along the beach. The sand is very very white, the food is amazing and the service is exactly what you want from a great hotel.

This resort is a little unique by offering support for a nature reserve and orangutan rehabilitation program. Just a few minutes from the pool you can enter a regenerated section of forest and see the orangutans swing from trees. Every time I leave the comfort of my ocean view room and head for the restaurant I know that my indulgent dining experience is benefiting the wild animals too.

We have journeyed a little further as well, deep into the Tambunan forest in search of the rafflesia. In fact we journeyed further than we planned, but were lucky enough to actually find this rare bloom. No one was left behind, so the day ended with success and another fabulous set of images for our band of talented, and charity minded, photographers.

> Rasa Ria near Kota Kinabalu

> The Borneo Charity Photo Challenge

July 12, 2007


Make bags, not war.

That's the lesson from Sarah Conners. Unlike certain governments from wealthy western nations, Sarah has found something better to do with her time than just invade countries and manipulate world oil prices.

She makes bags, groovy bags.

Being a straight man raised in Melbourne's outer suburbs I clearly know nothing about fashion, but I have had the good fortune to marry into it - Sarah is my sister-in-law.

Even if you don't like bags, do have a look at the website and tell me if the puppy dog featured on the "About" page is not the cutest thing you've seen all day?

Really funky bags for fashionable females

July 09, 2007

Coyotes and Kings

Thomas King is a native Indian who lives in Canada. He's also a great story teller who imbues his conversations and correspondence with a measure of historical perspective.

I had the pleasure to hear Mr King on the radio again today, a repeat of a lecture he gave many years ago. He talked about "status" and the law, and the way in which white mans legal definitions can remove the status of being a native Indian.

topics of this nature are often dull listening to a western audience, we don't like to hear about our cultural failings and especially the plight of minority groups who have not faired so well from the historical events of recent centuries. But in the hands of Mr King the task of education is blended with wit and intellect.

In particular I got another chance to enjoy the story of the Coyote, whom the story reveals as being envious of the brilliant white feathers of the ducks. The hapless ducks are placed into peril and forced to bargain for their survival. Over successive dealings they trade over most of their feathers so that they may keep a few for themselves. The Coyote is careless with his bounty and repeatedly returns to extract more from the ducks.

The symbolism is not hard to grasp.

In Australia today we have a government that is seeking to remove the what few feathers our native people have left, in the hope of extracting a hint of authority for themselves. This is a careless government indeed, people who have neglected the rights of children in refugee camps but now claim to be defending the needs of children in aboriginal communities.

It's an embarrassment to the nation.

Haven't we taken enough feathers from the traditional land owners of this country? Have we failed to heed to ramifications of imposing our white-mans way of thinking upon a proud people? Have we so little respect for other cultures that we would ignore common sense to impose chaos upon the lives of those who have so little?

It's the height of arrogance and folly that the Australian government should return to the disadvantaged and politically abused communities of Australia and seek a few more feathers to dress themselves with.

Clothes do not maketh the government.

July 04, 2007


Visiting Lake Titikaka is not a wildlife adventure. Nearly everything that moves has become a part of the local diet, and as you journey out into the unknown depths by boat the only thing you can see are weeds, reeds and lots of water.

The real stars of the lake are the handful of inhabited islands, and the quirky lifestyle aboard the floating villages at Uros.

How do you float a village on a freshwater lake? Simply collect slabs of water reeds and stitch them together to form large floating platforms, then put down another layer of reed-stalks to provide a squishy but insulated foundation.

Homes can then be constructed for each family on the island, once again employing the craft of binding reeds together with rope.

The usefulness of Lake Titikaka aquatic plants seems boundless. Not only are the huts and the islands themselves made from reeds, but even canoes are constructed from elaborate bundles tied together and left to dry in the sun before setting afloat.

These villages remind me of my Nanna who learned to macramé stitch when she retired, and within months had decorated every inch of her home in wool. Only in the case of the floating villagers their raw materials are floating reeds.

June 15, 2007

Disney Landed

Four fun highlights to enjoy in Anaheim California.

• Watching a freeway pursuit in a bar

Australians go to the cricket and run across the pitch naked, and Californians steal cars and try to evade the police while television choppers spotlight them from above. I like to think of LA freeway pursuits as the purest form of reality TV. The line between art and life has been removed completely and we are left with the pure entertainment of one man’s struggle against the LAPD. Like any good reality TV show the contestants are poorly equipped to succeed, setup to fail from the outset. The fascination of their inevitable demise is enjoyed in bars and hotels across the city, providing stimulating distraction while you sip on a pre-mixed margarita.

• Freaks on show

I felt like I had entered a theme park before I even got to Disneyland. The main attraction in Freak Show USA are the hideously obese families – Blobs. Society in America is tolerant of the obese, yet never grows to truly accept these misfortunate people who manage to keep their gene pool very exclusive. Blob meets Blob, marry in front of an Elvis impersonator and have Blob children who will go on to raise their own Blob families. Everyone thinks that Americans don’t travel outside their own country because they don’t know the names of anyone else’s, but the real reason is that most of them can’t fit through the security gates at the airport. Blob culture has reached its critical threshold, the point at which society is so accustomed to Blobs that people no longer recognise the life threatening condition for what it is. Blob has been normalised, just build bigger cars.

• Queue on cue

The main reason you need a five day pass to truly experience Disneyland is because you spend at least two of those days standing in queues. The park reaches capacity at 60,000 people, but once you get to 20,000 even the spinning cups of the Mad Tea Party require a little patience while you stand in line and watch everyone else enjoy the magic of Disney. We’re not really talking about the kind of queue found at a McDonalds counter either, no no no. Some of the most talented people on the Disney payroll are employed to invent new ways to cope with the miles and miles of congo lines created by the bigger attractions. Human lemmings are shunted along ramps, down spirals and spilt in different directions – all designed to conceal the true length of the queue. I waited over 60 minutes at Splash Mountain to enjoy a 7 minute ride, after which I joined a 15 minutes queue to order lunch.

• Parade of Dreams

In spite of the crushing crowds, mountains of merchandise and incessant broadcasting of “It’s a small world after all” Disneyland is still a place where dreams come true. If you think it’s about the rides you miss the whole point of Walt Disney’s creation. Walt’s dream was a place where everyone is happy, everything is fun and anybody is welcome. Gualos, Cholos, Skips and Chinks all hang out together at Disneyland, all soaking up the love and suspending reality for those precious hours spent inside the park. Muslims dads take their sons on the pirates ride and Japanese newly weds snap bridal photos with Cinderella. What kind of world would we live in if the United Nations moved their headquarters to Mickey’s Toontown? The showstopper for me was the Parade of Dreams, when twice a day the main thoroughfares are transformed into a cavalcade of stories and dance. It’s a great show, it’s a family show, and it finishes with Mickey Mouse robed in royalty atop his castle – which is kinda nice because as Walt Disney always said, “It all started with a mouse”.

June 10, 2007

Walts Dream

Disney Land is a place where dreams still come true, where young children are immersed in a world of fantasy. This is not an amusement park, the rides are about fantasy instead of terror. It's the traditional themes that still make Disney a unique destination.

The looks on children's faces as they stand in line for a ride says it all. They're bursting to get onto a ride and the excitement is infectious. Children of all ages, races and religion patiently wait in line, trying to figure out how many turns before they get on.

The Mad Tea Party is what finally gave me a personal connection with the park. A simple cup and saucer spinning around in colourful circles, with families and couples sitting inside spinning the wheel and making themselves dizzy. There were just as many teenagers on this ride as any other, enjoying some Disney inspired romance at the happiest place on earth.

April 24, 2007

Ship of Fools

In the middle of the South China Sea I’ve discovered that I am on a cruise entirely filled with self-serving members of the Republican Party.

I didn’t realise that we had a few ‘Liberal Democrats’ on the ship until enduring repeated comments from the more voluble of our passengers, former advisers, trade attaches and men who made their money from oil. I’m stuck on a floating cliché.

Over dinner I sat through the garrulous rantings of a rotund Houstonian. Conversation focused on a handful of attractive women on the boat who were looking for some action, as though tattooed on their foreheads. The evening ended with a bottle of Hennessey and a very generous box of cigars, shared amongst six men who didn’t look like they were going to see any of the action themselves.

The clincher was a southern gentleman who was bigger than Texas with an accent wider than the Mississippi. In long drawn tones he laid out the misgivings of his seating arrangements earlier in the evening, having been sat next to the pretty young philly from New York. Not only was the hapless girl a damned Yankee but her extreme liberal persuasion made her an entirely unsuitable conversation partner for dining.

She apparently was not considered to be worthy of seeing any action either, and the last drops of cognac were emptied into glasses and thrown down like swill.

Most of my conversations aboard the ship have the potential to create enemies, as the majority of passengers are fervent believers in the good sense of President Bush and the righteous manner in which the American forces have conducted themselves to make the world a safer place.

These people have described to me the excellent conditions at Guantanamo Bay, a prison of comfort and privilege. They deny the liberal media’s representation of torture and abuse and tell me that ‘proper reports’ have shown otherwise.

These people are keen to point out that no-one has attacked the USA since 9-11, due to the deterrent force of the US military. They seem to overlook Madrid, Bali and London in this testament to how the world is a safer place.
These people blame the media for showing such graphic pictures of the combat and wounded soldiers – this is war after all and ‘they declared war on us’!

For a group of travellers so keen to learn about the history of war in the Pacific they seem to be very flexible with recounting the history of more modern events.
But not everyone on the ship are obnoxiously tragic fans of the conservative right.

Strangely enough the two historians and authors, who are the lead identities in telling the story of WWII in the Pacific, are both of liberal leaning. It is with begrudging respect that our compliment of Bush barkers sit back and listen the telling of history, a balanced and factual account of the greatest conflict the world has ever known.

The lessons of a war sixty years old are no less relevant today.

April 04, 2007

Ignorance is Strength

There is some very good analysis being written on the state of human rights in the USA. It's the stuff of history books. Decades from now people will look back at the remarkable events surrounding the Iraq war and the subsequent collapse of trust in the American style of democracy.

If this was a plane crash the explanation would be described as a "chain of errors". No single fault could have produced the final disaster, only a series of independent events linked to each other.

Eugine Robinson points out to readers of the Washington Post the tragic reality of court-room confessions being played out in Guantanamo Bay this week. No one is surprised that men locked behind bars and tortured, having been denied basic human rights for over four years, fronted up to a secretive hearing and confessed to any crime put before them.

[ The story in the Washington Post ]

No one is surprised - the torture and deprivation has done its job. This great disaster to mark the beginning of the 21st century is the result of a chain of errors that begins with ignorance.

There could be no dodgy trial if not for the sham of a court setup by the Bush Administration. There could no extracted confessions in the sham court if not for the barbaric treatment of the prisoners. There could be no barbaric torture if not for the re-classification of these men as "enemy combatants" and the detainment on foreign soil. There would be no "enemy combatants" if the Bush Administration had not undermined civil liberties.

The undermining of civil liberties could not have happened without a climate of fear and distrust within the American people. The politics of fear could not have been manipulated if the threat of terrorism had not been exaggerated by an influenced government. The government institutions would not have been so easily influenced if the executive power was more accountable to the people. The people of America could hold their government to account if they enjoyed the privilege of a true democracy. The American democratic process would be a true democracy if not tainted by corporate money and an ill-informed population. The voters of America can never be expected to make an 'informed decision' when they vote, not without an effective media and a basic standard of education for all citizens.

And there's the starting point. Ignorance is strength.

We're not just talking about an Administration in the USA that keeps the people ignorant of the truth, it's an entire class of our Western society that maintains the status-quo and reserves the privileges for themselves. Lack of funding for public schools, indulgent taxation benefits and the folly of aspiration to keep class awareness under control.

Someone put it nicely when they pointed out that "Capitalism doesn't work for everybody". It needs a strong democracy and an effective government to ensure the spoils of success are distributed with a little equanimity.

Orwell's pithy revelation was more than just observation, it was a warning. The chain of errors that lead to the appalling display of human betrayal in Guantanamo begins with our ignorance, our dejection and our apathy in the democratic process.

Ignorance is strength.

March 19, 2007

Broken Pillars

For an interesting glance at how the political landscape has been changing in Australia and a timely reminder of what essentials a democracy make, try this document prepared by the Humand Rights Council of Australia...

Eric Sidoti's Paper from August 2003

March 18, 2007

Prime Miniature

John Howard tells us that the next election will be decided on character - he says the people of Australia will have to decide who they trust.

Thanks goodness for that.

Little Johnny seems to be under the apprehension that people voted for him in the past few elections, but it's more likely that people voted against the other guy. As we get closer to the election date expect to see a few more skeletons come rattling out of the closet as the spotlight is put on the 'character' of Howard and his band of merry makers...

Peter Reith
- $50,000 phone card illegally used by his son and friends
- retires as defence minister to join tenex as a consultant, months after reviewing sensitive tender submissions
- found culpable by a senate committee for deceiving the Australian public during the 2001 election campaign regarding 'children overboard'

Michael Wooldrige
- $5m worth of funding for an organisation he later joined as a consultant
- MRI Scan Scam scandal

Bill Heffernan
- distasteful allegations about senior judges made under parliamentary privilege and backed up with nothing more than a lousy stat-dec and a shabby receipt
- the ironic comparison of the farmers' plight in the AWB affair and children abused by priests

Philip Ruddock
- Keeping media out of Woomera and Naru to avoid the human face of (dare I use the word?) *refugees* from being seen on the television - they even demanded they be called 'asylum seekers' instead of bestowing any assumption of status
- The arrest of Natalie Larkins for being a reporter
- Child abuse scandal and the entire issue of privatised detention centres in place of refugee processing

Amanda Vanstone
- Cornelia Rau Scandal
- The failure to respond to the Scandal

And let's not forget a mention of AWB and the lack of recall from Alexander Downer.

The Cole commission found no evidence to link the government to the activities of the AWB, but likewise found no competence on the part of the government either. Don't be thinking this one is dead yet - once the political tide turns and Howard is out of a job I just know some of those faded memories will come good again.

The final word goes to Oxfam, who seemed to smell a rat long befor the Cole commission did...

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad chief executive officer Andrew Hewett told the Congress Daily in June 2003 that the Australian Government's appointment of Flugge to advise Iraq on reconstruction is "like appointing Henry Ford to advise on public transport." He asked: "Is Mr. Flugge's appointment about helping the Iraqi people reconstruct their run-down rural economy -- or is it about making sure that Australia's $800 million grain deals with Iraq can continue and not be replaced by U.S. or domestically grown products?"

March 16, 2007

Thin Ice

Al Gore's attempts to legitimize the climate change debate have drawn criticism from mostly the least credentialed of our society. Attention seeking scientists with no expertise in the field, infotainment publications and the occasional current affairs show trying to masquerade as news.

The New York Times has published a clever piece of work that demonstrates the essential problem of debating climate change - most people don't understand the science, especially the media.

The article in question was reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald, minus an estimated 770 words. The author takes the position that Al Gore fudged his numbers and ignores dissent within the scientific community. To support this assertion the author brings up a few old chestnuts that have been floating around the media for years, which suggests to me that the real scientific debate was a little too complex and wouldn't make for interesting reading.

The pitfall this author has fallen into lies in trying to fit the data into a different model instead of reporting on what the experts have been able to conclude.

The most common error is made by comparing 20,000 years of climate changes to our present situation. Many journos have fallen for this trap - the current temperature changes are not outside the ranges of those previously experienced and naturally occurring. The statement is true, but the interpretation is usually wrong. The key issue is whether the weather is changing *because* of man or nature, and the cause of the change is of paramount importance when estimating the future changes heading our way.

This is not a trivial distinction. The scientists know that global temperature changes in the last 20,000 have tracked with CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The data shows that when CO2 levels rise, so does the temperature. What is most alarming is the rise in CO2 in recent years, which goes well beyond the levels recorded over the last 20,000 and is still rising. We know that our modern lifestyle has created enormous CO2 emissions, we know that the atmosphere is filling up beyond previously recorded levels, and we know that global temperatures have historically risen with CO2 levels.

To ignore this data and fob it off as "part of the earth's natural cycle" is folly. The ability of civilized man to load the atmosphere with CO2 is not part of any natural cycle, and we are heading into uncharted territory.

The secondary issue is that regardless of the cause, if global warming is happening then we need to do something in order to minimise the impact on the lives of billions of people. It's not just about rising sea levels, ecological destruction by regional temperature anomalies, or an increase in natural disasters - when you put these all together the challenge of sustaining the current human population on earth becomes even more difficult.

I'll add a third issue into the mix, tipping points. Scientists of any specialisation will be familiar with this concept, not to mention a few of the more savvy marketing people out there. Tipping points reflect the inertial nature of all dynamic systems, and remind us that dramatic changes are often preceded by the most subtle of signals.

Cause and effect are rarely linear.

Take a glass of milk sitting on the table. You can slide it towards the edge and nothing happens. No milk is spilled. Maybe if you slide it quickly a few drops spill over the edge, but not much. Keep sliding it. Once you reach the edge of the table the whole glass tumbles over and the milk is all over the floor.

At that point there will be no use in crying.

>Sydney Morning Herald abridged version of the story

March 14, 2007

Unprincipled Profit

Benevolence is big business in travel these days. Every company wants to be seen handing out money to children, helping to build hospitals and launching themselves a new foundation.

But marketing their generous credentials seems to warrant bigger spending than the charitable donations.

In the days after the 2004 Tsunami the reaction from Maureen and Tony Wheeler was decisive and committed. Money was needed urgently and they shelled out US$400,000 on the spot. Half went into bank accounts of relief agencies that same day, the other helf held back to be spread across another six months as a clearer picture of need emerged.

Staff at Lonely Planet were given leave to assist with their chosen relief agency, and since then the company has continued to give 5% of their profits directly to charity.

I've just written a story about Responsible Travel with an angle of normalising the idea of being nice to people and the planet. Holidays can be pampering and still be RT friendly.

But I didn't get to say everything I wanted to.

I didn't get to point out that Peregrine Adventures have donated over US$100,000 to help save the Albatross. There wasn't room to include the Tanzanian guides who help Exodus travellers climb Mt Kilimanjaro for 10 months a year - and then receive development english classes during the rainy season in the hope of educating them into a better life.

And I had a snow-flake's hope in hell of getting printed the fact that one of the most RT awarded companies on the market is nothing more than a sham. We'll call them Company X.

This is the problem with awards, they follow the addage that, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil". Company X is covered in oil at the moment and still keeps pumping their marketing resources into maintaining the facade of being responsible tour operator.

This is a serious flaw in the system of selecting award recipients, which is based on review of submitted documents instead of hands-on knowledge. The latest trend is for passenger feedback to be used as a qualitative data source for how well RT principles are implemented.

Passengers are good at spotting things like a visit to an elephant hospital, but are usually unaware of the fact that Company X switched hotels a few months ago to save $10 a night per group.

X learned early in their company growth that cheap travel has a lot in common with RT. Of course, that all changes once you start sending 10,000 people a year to Thailand, but they've managed to side-step that issue pretty effectively to date and keep the fantasy alive.

In the month of April Company X will run 17 departures for their hill-tribe trek, north of Chiang Mai. At what point is "small group travel" no longer classed as low impact? It's difficult to tell but I'm betting it's well before you hit 17 trips a month.

But that's not the worst of it for me, the real kicker is the abuse of fair wages. Now that Company X is a volume business the pressure to be price competitive is immense. In fact it's a significant part of their market strategy; to be so cheap that new companies find it difficult to start up competing products.

So how do you keep your prices cheap when you have so much market clout?

Yep, you put the local operators under the thumb-screws. You can name your price when you provide so many customers each month, and if the price is too low for one person then maybe someone hungrier and leaner will take your business. And thus the cycle begins: Eager local suppliers are drawn in like a month to flame, only to get burned and fail, making room for someone else to give it a go.

Company X need not worry, they're business is sustainable. It's just that the local operators they are hammering on price each year are not.

Eventually the queue of eager hotels and guides starts to thin out in places - you can only tap the market so low before you reach the point of diminishing returns.

The next step is to drop some of the quality aspects that have made Company X great. Training tour guides is expensive, so changing to local guides not only reduces costs but it helps with the "RT friendly image" to be employing needy local people - just don't mention the fact that their wages are significantly less than those of the western guides who once took the job. And we'll have to ingore the tendency for local guides to be ill-educated and mis-informed about issues within their own country such as democratic rights and freedom of the press.

Don't be fooled, a passionate foreigner with a graduate school degree is always going to make a better tour-guide for a group of english speaking travellers.

Other money saving ideas come into play, such as local payments that arent advertised in the price and removing benefits like travel insurance from guide remuneration packages. But at every step of the way these changes are sold to the travellers, the employees and the media as if Company X is doing the entire planet a big juicy favour. The marketing machine kicks in, reality is phased out.

RT is a marketing tool instead of a philosophical ideal. Profit without principles. "It's just good business", as if that was a legitemate excuse for behaving without ethics.

There's a fine line out there somewhere, and without a doubt you cross that line well before 200 people a month visiting the same 'unique and remote' village in Thailand.

March 12, 2007

Love you Barry

The last voice of considered reason in Australian politics is Barry Jones. He'll never be Prime Minister, he's not that much of a bastard to apply for the job.

He gave the Manning Clark lecture this year, at a time when conservative politics has elevated their arrogant attacks on anyone and anything that disagrees with their twisted and self-serving view of the world.

Barry gives us hope, just as Manning Clark gave us insight.

Listen to the lecture

Read a shortened extract

...And ask yourself whether a democracy can be effective if the people who vote are denied education, freedom of speech and a questioning media?

January 25, 2007

Shoot to Thrill

The key to great holiday photos to enjoy the experience and let the photo reflect the moments, people and places that made your travels so memorable. Here are five basic tips to help you return home with photos that show everyone else what a great time you had.

  1. Get closer – To some people this is obvious and to others it’s the exact opposite of what they expect. A wide angle lens will allow you to get up-close and involved in any scene, while bringing in details and context from all around you. The best travel cameras have 24mm wide angle, and if you own an SLR or Digital SLR then you can go even wider.
  1. Know your subject – Don’t be one of those tourists who jump of the bus and start snapping at anything that doesn’t move. Let the beauty of the scene capture you before you capture it. The insight you gain into the people and history of a place will become your primary focus in the photos. Your main objective with the camera is to reveal the charms of your subject.
  1. People are special – Photos of people you meet on your travels will your memories more vivid, because it is the people that make places different. Many scene are enhanced with the artful presence of local people or happy travellers. But, never take someone’s photo without asking them first. Language is no barrier to getting permission; just hold up the camera and smile and wait for them to smile back.
  1. Little things matter – even the simplest of cameras these days has a macro function, usually a button with a flower on it. This is worth some experimentation before your next holiday, as close up photos of craftwork, produce or wildlife can enhance your collection and really bring home the colour of a destination.
  1. Tell a story – the difference between a good photo and great photo is context. A picture can tell a thousand words, so let your camera do the talking. A wide angle lens makes this task easier too, by including more of the background even when you fill half the frame with your main subject. A photo of a cow can be interesting, but a cow walking down an alley-way shopping for a T-shirt is even better!