Woman In…Outback Australia: Camooweal, Queensland

 

 

I will be taking my 84 year-old mate, legendary stockman Luke McCall back to the Drover’s Camp Festival at Camooweal, Queensland again this year. (Read about Luke McCall in Go Meet)

He likes to do it in style these days. It’s a 7000km road trip for me and takes about 3 weeks, staying in the best motels I can find and making sure he has two smokos, lunch and a fine dinner every night! His days of ‘cigarette swags’ and tea with damper are long over and he figures that he’s entitled to a little bit of comfort in  his old age.

 

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Right across the top of Australia, old drovers are rolling their swags because it is time to head to Camooweal for their annual reunion at the Drover’s Camp Festival held every year on the 4th weekend in August. This event commemorates the droving tradition when Camooweal was the centre for the largest cattle drives the world has ever seen.

Immortalized by Slim Dusty, ‘the little border town of Camooweal’ of 300 hardy souls, slumbers west of Mt Isa on the Queensland side of the Northern Territory border in outback Australia.

It is the place where droving teams once spent the Wet season. They camped on the Common beside the Georgina River waiting for telegrams offering contracts to take delivery of cattle from stations in north-western Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley area of Western Australia. These mobs of cattle numbering 1000 to 1500 head, would be walked into railheads and fattening depots in Queensland and the south.

They were months on the road and the drovers experienced incredible privations living in ‘cigarette swags’ on a diet of beef, damper and tea and battling both stifling heat and bitter cold as storms swept down the Rankine Plain.

My old mate, Luke McCall, tells of droving trips when he was in the saddle every day for nine months as well as taking a shift on watch each night.

The droving game lasted a hundred years but when change did come in the 1960s, it came with a rush. Within a few short years the sound of motors replaced the music of horse bells. Road trains were introduced to perform the long haul of cattle to markets and meat works. The days of the pack horse drovers passed into history…… but they have not been forgotten.

A complex  has been established at Camooweal comprising an outdoor function area, a droving museum, a portrait gallery of old drovers and a camp ground where every year, more than eighty old drovers congregate to relive the days of stockwhip, saddle and spur.

What I like most of all about the Drover’s Camp Festival is meeting and being with the old drovers. They are a rare breed. Collectively they all have big hats, big bellies and bung knees. They express their individuality with the bash of their hats. They are all different and unique and are a photographer’s delight. You can easily pick out from a distance who is who by the shape of their hat.

This is just a part of the Drover’s Camp Festival. It starts on Friday afternoon in town with a street parade and a hilarious charity race. It finishes with an old-time ball.  Saturday and Sunday are packed full of action at the Drover’s Camp complex.

Activities include competition bronco branding, country music (including a big Country Music Concert under the stars on Saturday night), bush poetry recitals, art and photographic displays, along with historical displays and information and lots of Australiana books and merchandise. The local race meeting is also held over the road on Saturday.

I enjoy watching the bronco branding. This is the way calves were branded on the stations in the old days before yards were built. Mobs mustered on the run were held by ‘ringers’ (stockmen) on horseback and a ‘gun catcher’ on a sturdy bronco horse would lasso each calf and pull it up to an improvised fence panel. Three men would then leg rope it and pull it over and earmark, brand and where required, castrate it. A good team would do a calf a minute in those days. Bronco branding as a procedure has long since gone, but is now a competitive sport in North West Queensland.

The best of the best teams compete at Camooweal.

I have been attending this festival for about 7 years now and have seen it grow in size until last year, when close to 2000 people attended. The camping spots along the Georgina River are filled with campers and caravans.

Everyone is welcome. It’s a chance to meet these legendary figures and get a taste of Australia’s outback heritage.

For more information go to droverscamp.com.au

 

Pat McPherson is a retired nurse from Victoria. She worked as a nurse for years with the Australian Inland Mission at Fitzroy Crossing in the Western Australian Kimberley region in the 1960s and  regularly travels to the outback which she considers her ‘heart country.’

 

 


 

 

 

Woman In …. Paris

Two girlfriends and I were sitting outside a suburban Melbourne  café, toasting a recent birthday. The sun was shining and we had a scenic view of the Yarra River. We were surrounded by majestic trees, colourful cyclists, and energetic rowers. In a very off-hand manner my friends mentioned that they were both thinking of going to Paris and asked if I would like to join them. They couldn’t even finish the sentence without giggling and I could tell both thought the idea was great, but that it was a bit ‘pie in the sky’.

A trip away to Paris. I took their brilliant concept and ran with it ….why indeed NOT?!!!!

After a few short weeks of flurried phone calls and to and fro texting to try and find a two week period that three women (who were also busy wives and mothers of even busier nine children) could in fact, run away to Paris for a much needed getaway. Miraculously,  we found a window that seemed to please all husbands and children involved.

Tickets and accommodation were promptly booked (following some great research and leg work from my friends)…Our adventure to Paris was set to go!!!

Most of the flight was spent celebrating the fact that we had managed to escape on a whimsical adventure. I marveled at how relaxing it was to travel without my beautiful but boisterous and demanding family.  The peace and quiet was delicious. Paris, here we come. As this was my maiden trip to Paris, my eyes were wide open from the word go.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Parisians were quite tolerant of our non-existent French vocabulary. Most people were happy to try and help with our queries.

Below I have listed, in no particular order, our ‘ Top 10’ experiences.

 

Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

1. Musée d’Orsay (7th arrondissement)

This ended up being my absolute favourite gallery. The art work is held in a converted railway station which makes the building a remarkabkle home to an extensive and exciting art collection. Within the museum, there are two fantastic cafes – check them both out before you decide which one to dine in. We ate in the very nice and  reasonably priced café. On our way out of the museum, we stumbled across the more spectacular and lavish café. It’s worth just peeking through the doors to see its spectacularly ornate interior, even if you decide not to dine there.

 

Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Montmartre, Paris

Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Montmartre, Paris

2. Montmartre (18th arrondissement)

Lots to see and do, including the Sacré-Coeur basilica,  a fantastic Dali exhibition (just happened to be on) and a zillion tourist shops – a good place to nail lots of pressies. It started to get late and as daylight slipped away the lights on the famous black lamp poles illuminated the streets with a warm glow. The high vantage point treated us to spectacular views of the city. As night drew in, parts of the city became a bit sleazy – but even that had a charm of its own.

 

 

Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen: Parisian flea and antiques market

Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen: Parisian flea and antiques market

3. Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen: Parisian flea and antiques market (just north of 18th arrondissement)

Slightly further out, but really just a few train trips and so worthwhile.

Imagine narrow walkways in between dozens and dozens of permanent market stalls, housing French antiques of all sorts. I wish I had an apartment in Paris that I could furnish and decorate with these French antiques. I visualised all the French antique shop owners back home buying up big here and shipping it into their expensive shops in Melbourne’s Armadale and Malvern. Beautiful light fittings, tables and small furniture, antique collectables of all sorts, silverware, antique posters. The stall owners were as charismatic and authentic as the merchandise they were selling. If it weren’t for the freezing cold conditions and the persistent rain, I felt I could have fossicked there all day. A short walk from here and you will stumble upon another market. A more conventional market selling clothes, food, bags etc.

 

Musée Rodin

Musée Rodin

4. Musée Rodin (7th arrondissement)

The main part of the gallery was unfortunately closed for renovations.

The garden however was open. There were numerous Rodin sculptures  tastefully displayed in a beautiful garden that I could imagine would be absolutely stunning in the warmer months, when the now bare rose bushes would sprout glorious flowers. The coffee shop (albeit in a temporary building) provided us with a very enjoyable refuge from the cold. Definitely factor in a pit stop here as the food choices were great and the prices reasonable.

 

Marais District, Paris

Marais District, Paris

5. The Marais District (4th arrondissement)

Often referred to as ‘the old Paris’ and located on the right bank of the river is the Marais district. Meandering around the cobblestone streets is an absolute must. It has a much more lively and playful vibe than the more conservative city centre of Paris. It is filled with boutiques (some decent damage to the credit card was achieved here). Lots of fashion and jewellery shops (or is that because they were the shops I happened to focus on?). I also recall many small galleries and hidden courtyards. The Jewish Quarter is located here. We visited the Jewish Museum and filled our bellies with the best felafel any of us had ever eaten- in L’As Du Fallafel (32-34 Rue des Rosiers). Our late arrival of  3:30 pm meant that we avoided the customary long queues and were able to be seated immediately in a their large restaurant, crowded with locals and tourists.

 

Laduree Patisserie, Champs Elysees, Paris

Laduree Patisserie, Champs Elysees, Paris

6.  Ladurée pâtisserie and tea rooms (3 venues in Paris)

On our very last day in Paris, we got up early, dressed in the most glamorous clothing we had and ventured out to breakfast at the famous Ladurée. A very ostentatious place to go for ‘high tea’. It has an incredibly ornate French interior – visualise lots of gilding, mirrors, totally gorgeous and over the top. Photos in this building are banned (destroys the posh ambiance). The tea/menu service is truly an experience. We admired the silver, the tea cups and crockery, even the napkins and of course the presentation of the food. Our waiter was a young opera singer (unfortunately he has been banned from performing for his customers. He used to be able to do this on request, but started to get into trouble as he was neglecting his waiting duties). Don’t forget to look up at the ceilings, and a trip to the bathrooms is also well worth a visit for its grandeur. Definitely book ahead (one or two days should be fine, leave a bit more lead time if you’re after a weekend booking or in peak tourist times) and request to be seated upstairs. There’s a lovely shop downstairs, so on your way out you can purchase some of the beautifully packaged sweets. They make great gifts.

 

Patisserie in Paris

Patisserie in Paris

7. Window shopping the pâtisserie shops

I don’t even eat pastries – but I couldn’t help myself. I just had to stop and admire each window display of every patisserie or chocolatier shop we passed (there were so many). They all looked wickedly delicious and sophisticated – very Parisian. My friends assured me they were every bit as good as they looked.

 

 

 

 

La Terrasse, Paris

La Terrasse, Paris

8. Our local bar

It seems as if on almost every corner there is a bar/restaurant. They seemed to be mainly filled with red lounge chairs. We found our local favourite and popped in most evenings on the way back from the train station en route to our apartment. Early on the waiters recognized us, seated us in our regular armchairs and served us our ‘usual’ for drinks and snacks. Our local was called La Terrasse (although we named it the ‘Rouge Lounge’). The service was excellent, the ambience perfect – a great place to unwind, reflect on our accomplishments that day and watch the locals and tourists passing by.

 

Chateau in Loire

Chateau in Loire

9. The Loire Region (outside Paris but worth a trip)

A region of vineyards, floral gardens and many chateaux (castles).

On my next trip to Paris, I plan to spend a couple of days in this region rather than squeeze it into a day trip. It took roughly three and a half hours to reach there by train, leaving only time for a half day trip to visit two chateaux (there were so many more to see). The castles were amazing and the scenery en route was beautiful countryside. I can envisage spending a few days cycling around this gorgeous town in my next visit (if I had money to burn maybe even renting a small chateau to stay in).

 

Jackie Pila at Eiffel Tower

10. Eiffel Tower (7th arrondissement)

We did this in the evening. The views were stunning and not at all compromised by the blanket of night. As there were no queues, the whole experience took under an hour.

 

Some other suggestions 

Not quite making it into the Top 10, but definitely worth a mention, and a visit, is the Père-Lachaise cemetery (20th arrondissement). It’s huge. You will find many tourists looking for the graves of famous people like Jim Morrison and Rita Hayworth.

A lesser-known destination, but one I found totally charming is the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop (5th arrondissement). This is a good place to pop into when you are visiting the Notre-Dame Cathedral (as it’s just across the bridge on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement.) It’s a tiny bookshop that has inherited the tradition of the original. It houses both second-hand and new books (beware, you could barely swing a cat in there) but it has a special feel – I almost felt well-read and literate by just stepping in there and taking a browse. Be cautioned though – more than a few books make for heavy weight in your suitcase.

Definitely fit in a cruise down the Seine. It provides a picturesque perspective of the city and plenty of photo opportunities.

It’s helpful to get an overview of the city on the first day. You can achieve this by going on the ‘hop–on/ hop-off bus’.

 

Paris Travel Tips

* The Metro was a great way to get around and very user friendly. We purchased ten single-ticket rides. (cheaper than buying individual tickets). We eventually learned not to store these tickets together with our credit cards – it deletes them.

* Here’s a very important tip – Don’t queue for the Louvre! We pre-purchased tickets from an outlet in the nearby underground shopping mall. Alternatively, you can purchase the Paris Pass or Museum Pass. In our case this saved an hour and a half of queueing (and that was in the off peak period).

* DON’T use a selfie stick – very unchic!

* It was definitely worthwhile travelling off peak in the cooler months as it meant minimal queueing (we hardly saw any waiting lines – with the exception of the Louvre). It also meant our flights and accommodation were considerably cheaper – leaves more money for shopping! Just make sure you have a very, very warm coat – it’s an absolute essential.

* Use Google maps to help orientate you and to get you to places (we found the local paper maps way too confusing)

* Always arrange a back-up place to meet if you get separated or lost (in case phones not working or if they run out of batteries). Our meeting place was usually the museum shops.

* Carry a spare phone charger with you. We found this very handy as using Google maps and taking photos both chew up the battery pretty quickly.

* Baguettes are baked so frequently and are so readily available. Get into the local mind set of buying one baguette in the morning and then another one freshly baked in the afternoon/evening. A big French no no is to eat in the evening a baguette you bought in the morning.

* Dress très chic. If you’re wearing athletic gear, you had better be running or exercising. It is unacceptable to be walking the streets in runners or tracksuits whilst you’re in the fashion capital.

* A visit to the  Galeries Lafayette (9th arrondissement) is worthwhile if you like large department stores. I personally prefer the smaller, more personal service of the unique boutiques, but Galeries Lafayette has an amazing dome roof and apparently you can get out on the top level for a great view of the city (we missed this). From time to time Galeries Lafayette holds fashion shows. You can ring ahead and check. It is possible to get a refund of the 10% VAT but you must produce your purchased goods in the airport and by the time you wait in line at  Galeries Lafayette for the paper work and then again at the airport – you may be tempted not to pursue this refund.

* Duty free shopping at Paris airport was surprisingly good – a final opportunity to buy presents for loved ones.

* I’m sure this is not news to most of you, however no matter how much your travel agent may assure you, ensure you have a minimum of an hour and a half in between connecting flights. This will greatly improve the chances of both you and your luggage arriving to the intended destination on time!

* If you luck out and your luggage misses your flight, you can request compensation (you are entitled). We did this upon arriving in Paris.

* A couple of cute stores to visit; Merci in the Marais (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais) – a cool lifestyle store, and Monoprix (3 locations in Paris) – fun, affordable homewares, food and fashion.

*Most important – start a ‘must do’ list for your next Paris trip

Some of the ideas I have written down for next trip to Paris include;

* Stay in the Marais; spend a few days in the Loire and Bordeaux areas (rather than just day trips); make it to the Pompidou Centre (closed on Tuesdays); visit Versailles and the Luxembourg Gardens (ran out of time).

* One more piece of advice, when relaxing on the aeroplane, don’t forgot to supervise your steward when he passes your neighbour their hot beverage. Make sure he passes it in front of you rather than over your head, so that if he accidentally drops the whole cup of steaming hot coffee, it won’t spill (and burn) all over your head, face, clothes and seat!

If you’re planning a trip to Paris…Bon Voyage!

******

Jackie Pila is a Melbourne social worker, art therapist, mother, and is passionate about travel. In her spare time, she enjoys boxing and Brazilian Jui Jitsu.  This trip was a rare opportunity to escape daily life and immerse herself in a wonderful French experience.

Woman In…. Esperance, West Australia

Our Road Trip

Esperance is a seaside town on the south-eastern coast of West Australia. To get there, my daughter and I set off on a road trip from Perth, and in one day, drove 730 kilometres  through the lower belly of West Australia.

On our journey on National Route 1 and on smaller local roads, we passed through a great inland sea of wheat, salt lakes and remote towns.

 

My daughter has lived in Fremantle in Western Australia for the past three years and will be returning to Victoria later this year, so before leaving the west she was keen to see more of the state. I work from home as an editor and at the time I had no looming deadlines so I was free to join her.  So we decided to visit Esperance and Cape Le Grand National Park.

In spite of the air conditioning being on its last gasp, ‘Olivia’, my daughter’s trusty old  all-wheel drive Subaru was in good mechanical condition, a must for travelling the roads of West Australia. We had extra water and snacks as a precaution. Even though we weren’t going to be travelling in extremely remote areas and the roads were all sealed, it’s always wise when driving in rural West Australia, to take extra water and food in case of emergencies.

Picnic at Yilliminning Rock

Our first stop was Narrogin where we bought lunch and decided to stop along the way to have a picnic. About 20 minutes from Narrrogin we pulled onto Birdwhistle Road to follow a sign to Yilliminning Rock, where sure enough there was a concrete picnic table and an information board. Keeping an eye out for snakes and our feet up on the bench-seat away from large hungry ants, we ate our lunch in a cocoon of heat and bush silence;  I took my first long, relaxed breath since leaving my home in Melbourne five or six hours earlier.

Yilliminning Rock is a granite rock rising about 50 metres from the surrounding farmland. The 10-minute climb afforded a lovely 360 degree view of the plains through which we had travelled and were yet to venture. Tiny pins of heat stung the skin on our backs, somehow finding their way through the threads of our clothing. It was time to get back in the car, with a change of driver.

Through the Wheatbelt and a Milkshake at Lake Grace

For most of the 730 kilometres we were shoulder to shoulder with straw coloured walls of wheat, the West Australian wheatbelt. While some might find the kilometres of wheatfields tedious, I didn’t. I was fascinated by the very largeness, the weight of blue sky, and the silence, and I entertained myself imagining what life on the land would be like. I enjoyed the memories from childhood of similar journeys my father took us on into the Australian bush. We stopped for a close-up look at the wheat, and the dry, red aridness dispelled any romanticism. A kind local woman stopped to make sure we were OK, as we were pulled over on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere.

We drove on stopping for petrol and coffee and a milkshake at Lake Grace. We visited the gallery next door to the café and discovered that the town had a vibrant arts and crafts community. The locals had been busy knitting and a gush of red knitted poppies filled the median strip dividing the highway running through the town.

About nine hours after leaving Perth we arrived in Esperance, and found our accommodation, a barn-like holiday flat called Doo Drop Inn. Quaint, but it had everything we needed.

Esperance and the Whale

Esperance is a small seaside town with comfortable accommodation choices. You probably won’t find five star rooms, and certainly not five star restaurants but you will find hospitality and somewhere to fill your tummy at the end of the day.

We discovered three highlights of Esperance (there would be more but we only had a short stay). The first was the development of the waterfront, including a path winding through low indigenous planting. Even in its incomplete stage the path was interesting and relaxing to walk. It was the local jogging and exercise route.

The second highlight was a beautiful sculpture of the tail of a breaching Southern Right whale, at the centre of this redevelopment and at the entrance to the Tanker Jetty. The piece stood meters high and was made from steel and wood, inlaid with coloured glass. We later met one of the artists, Cindy Poole, at her studio, Section Glass Gallery, (a must visit) who told us the story of the sculpture. The brief was to incorporate the elements of the local area and she and another artist decided on a whale to represent beauty and the migrating whales that pass the town, steel and wood for industry and the port as well as fishing vessels, and glass to reflect the colour of the area. The sculpture is one of the most beautiful pieces of public art I have ever seen.

The third highlight was a coastal route that takes you past some stunning ocean scenery and swimming beaches. We stopped for a swim in the aqua waters of a Twilight Bay, just out of town. On our return we stopped on a cliff top to watch a storm approach over the ocean. We longed for the cool and wet of the storm, and hoped it would reach the dry fields inland.

The next day we would leave for Cape Le Grand National Park.

Cape Le Grand National Park and Frenchman’s Peak

At 50 kilometres south-east of Esperance, Cape Le Grand National Park is an ideal day trip, or if you have camping gear or a camper van you can stay as long as you like. At Lucky Bay camping ground, where we stayed for one night, there was an outdoor kitchen, BBQs, clean amenities (toilets and showers) and ample sheltered space for tents, with a separate space for camper vans. There is no power and you will need to bring your own drinking water. There is a small charge per night.

On our way into the park we stopped to climb Frenchman’s Peak (262 metres). I resorted to crawling on hands and feet for a short section early on, however the rest of the climb, while needing endurance, wasn’t difficult. The rock faces could get slippery so I wouldn’t advise this climb during or just after rain. Having said that, it rained lightly while we were at the top so we took extra care on our descent.  The 360-degree view from the summit is beautiful. On one side we watched the rain approach. From the height we could see the perimeter of the rain cloud, and it moved like a swarm across the land, over us, then out to sea. Looking in the opposite direction, the colours and formations of sea and sky mirrored each other and we could not tell where one started and the other stopped.

After setting up camp we used the clean outdoor kitchen to cook dinner. More campers arrived during the evening, many of them young people and families from overseas. There is a ranger’s cottage nearby the camping area, and even without this we felt safe and comfortable. Lucky Bay is famous for kangaroos that come down to the beach, and it was very strange seeing kangaroos lying around on the sand. We saw a group of people who had been four wheel driving along the beach to get to remote fishing spots, but most people were there to bushwalk. There is a main 15-kilometre walk (one way) that can be done in a day, or broken into smaller walks, which are around three hours one way. We kept our activity to beachcombing as we only had one night available.

Before heading the 800 kilometres back to Perth, I woke early for a walk and to watch the sun rise over this natural, unspoilt corner of Australia.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

Photographs – Jacinta Agostinelli

Jacinta Agostinelli is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She also works pro bono on the management committee of a local community organisation, cares for her granddaughter, and grows vegetables and raises chickens using organic and sustainable methods. She enjoys spending time with her family of five daughters and husband, especially in far away places.


 

 

 

Our Woman In….Havana

One of my favourite ways to prepare for travel to a country, particularly one that is off the beaten track, is to read the country’s literature and newspapers. So before heading to Cuba earlier this year, I downloaded Everyone leaves (Todos se van), by contemporary Cuban author, Wendy Guerra.

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The book was set between 1978 and 1990 during the revolution, in a region in southern Cuba and in the bohemian quarter of Havana preferred by the intelligentsia of the time. It is about artist Nieve Guerra and, as the title suggests, about how the people she loves gradually leave her. Central to everyone’s leaving is the unrest and uncertainty of Cuban society during the revolution—which is the part that interested me the most. Putting aside any romantic notions of Che Gueverra and of revolution, I am fascinated by how people live during revolutionary times. The book gave me insight into the lives of Cuban intellectuals and artists who opposed the revolution and its curtailing of individual freedom.

By the time we arrived in Havana I knew which streets I wanted to walk and which localities I wanted to stay in.  When we reached our casa particulare, (a room in a private apartment or home rented to travellers and international workers) in a faded, blue-painted, concrete block of apartments in Vedado, Havana, I knew about such apartment blocks in this, the choice suburb of the intelligentsia.

I knew to question the closed up and condemned apartments we passed on the stairs on our way up to where our host lived; from my reading I was sure these were once the homes of people who were extradited for their political views during the sixties and seventies. Our host confirmed my suspicions with a shake of her head and a finger to her tightly closed lips.

I knew about the Bertolt Brecht theatre, which joy of joys was across the road from our casa. I knew about the famous Malecon, the stretch of water the city of Havana is built alongside, and the path on its edge leading from the suburbs into old Havana, for my heroine, Nieve, had walked the Malecon in winter, summer, day and night. I was determined to find the real Havana beneath the buzzing layer of hustlers, taxi drivers and self-proclaimed tour operators—although these too added a certain excitement to our adventure!

Travel guides gave conflicting advice around accommodation, from ‘don’t stay in the casas’ to ‘don’t stay in the hotels’! So we spread our time in Havana between staying in a casa particulare with Adele, who had Spanish origins, and her family—her husband, daughter, son-in-law and grandson—and a hotel in Old Havana. We booked from Australia and the confirmation we received from Adele was a bit like Clancy of the Overflow’s thumbnail dipped in tar! Once in Cuba we were quick to realise however, that Adele’s access to email was a feat in itself as no-one had internet connection to the outside world, and even the big hotels had rationed and unreliable connections. Informal, non-official looking emails are the norm, not a sign of dodginess.

The casa was terrific. Adele provided our meals and cleaned our room, and helped us with transport—her son-in-law owned one of those old American cars Cuba is legendary for—and suggestions of what to do. Cuba is not a wealthy country and the people have the bare essentials. They are on rations for some foods, they line up to do anything from going to the bank to buying ice-cream, and the government has only just given families permission to supplement income by renting out a room in their private home to travellers, so we were pleased to give Adele our business. But it was hard going because she spoke no English and we spoke a few words only of Spanish.

Adele booked us a bus trip to a holiday town, which happened to have a festival running the weekend we were there. Cubans love their festivals and this one went all night. Between the cracking thunder of a storm and the vibrating thud of the music, nobody slept much! But we were in one of those quaint, brightly painted houses with a rocking chair on the front veranda, so we were happy.

Adele had also booked us a horse ride to see traditional cigar making. Off we went, through the muddy back lanes of the town, over a creek swollen from storm the night before.  The horses swam across the creek and we dare-devilled along a plank while holding tightly to a single support wire which had far too much slack and wavered with us as we tried to balance. We continued up and down gullies tortured with erosion, to a dark, old shed where our young strapper made us a Cuban drink and showed us how they used to make cigars. Not quite the sanitized tour wrapped up in occupational health and safety compliance one would get in Australia, but it was typically Cuban. As it rained for most of the ride we were wet through and my sandals clogged with mud but we knew the inner workings of a cigar!

Perhaps the most defining moment of a trip is not one that is planned or found in a tour guide. Returning from our horse ride on the wet Sunday morning, we passed an ordinary looking apartment block, and it was the singing and chatter coming from within that struck me. We barely stopped, but I nudged my husband and said “listen”! Such apartment blocks in Australia are mute, but here in Cuba they sing! An unassuming moment but I’ll not forget it.

Considering their poverty you would be surprised to know that Cubans are among the most highly literate populations in the world. I was intrigued by the accessibility of art, theatre, history and music. While we were in Old Havana it was International Book Day so we dawdled around the streets lined with makeshift bookshelves and bought ourselves a pirated copy of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a delightful send-up of British intelligence and espionage pre-Cuban Missile Crisis, set in the very bars and street blocks we were passing.

We went to the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution), the most sacred building in Havana, where a young guide told us an absorbing story of Cuba’s history. The spectre of Che Guavera and the legacy of Batista can be seen throughout Havana, and of course we brought home the obligatory red scarf and Che T-shirt. Cubans are proud of their history and they can all talk about it. This museum was one of the highlights of our visit.

Old Havana was once a grand, old, Spanish colonial city. It has block after block of ornate buildings in all manner of disrepair and if the parts and materials needed for restoration or repair come from America, then an embargo means there is no immediate hope that the repairs will be done. The elevator in the Museo de la Revolucion, for example, had been broken for a year and as the parts come from America it will stay broken for some time yet. Scaffolding erected with hope around some of the old buildings is covered in vines. One day soon Cuba will open its doors and capitalism will move in. The Old Havana may be restored to its former glory, but I suspect this will come at a social and cultural cost.

Did I find the real Havana of Todos se van? Not in the sense that we met like old friends over coffee, but yes, the real Havana was there, just in passing.

*     *    *    *

Photographs by Jacinta & John Agostinelli

Jacinta Agostinelli is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She also works pro bono on the management committee of a local community organisation, cares for her granddaughter, and grows vegetables and raises chickens using organic and sustainable methods. She enjoys spending time with her family of five daughters and husband, especially in far away places.

 


 

 

 

Woman In … Lake Balaton, Hungary

Woman travelling with extended family.

With two grown-up sons, their partners  and a grandson living in London England, my base being a couple of hundred miles north of that, and a husband working in Hong Kong, it’s hard to get us all together for an extended piece of family time away from the day-to-day (i.e. me in the kitchen). Hence most years,  I’ve taken to booking a large comfortable villa (more of that later), somewhere close to the UK via a budget airline.

 

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Our age range is 3 to 57 years,  so I’m looking for somewhere that’s family friendly with the potential for a bit of gentle sightseeing, when I can drag them away from the pool. We like warm but not sweltering; much hotter than 30 degrees and we Brits melt. This year’s criteria also included a venue outside the Eurozone, as, until recently, UK travellers were taking a hefty currency hit against the Euro.

Joe, my eldest and dad to Theo (3), is my holiday guru.  Despite being half my age he’s seen twice as many countries as I have and he suggested that Hungary fitted all our criteria. He’d visited Budapest a couple of times,  loved it and he’d heard about the beauty of the Balaton area. Hence, after a couple of hours flight from London on Ryanair, and a further  1.5 hrs drive from Budapest airport, we found ourselves  a few minutes’ walk from the shores of Lake Balaton.

All sorted.

Views over the lake are certainly stunning; it is the largest inland body of water  in  Central Europe and a haven for bathers and small yachts;  speedboats and jet-skis being verboten.

I say verboten because it turns out that the Balaton region is a magnet for tourists from the old East Germany. And whilst the lake may be beautiful, looking back towards land is no less spectacular; the grassed area which forms the shore (there’s  no proper beach)  is where they all hang out during the balmy summer days.

And it really does all hang out. Everyone from aged 8 to 80 years, men and women, opts for the skimpiest swimwear.  Think Helmut Kohl in Speedos! My body is more Angela Merkel than Claudia Schiffer, so my idea of beachwear is nearer to the burka than the bikini: strappy maxi dresses, a tastefully draped sarong.

Unfortunately the Soviet era vibe continued to our accommodation which had looked first-class on the website and was pricey (twice as much as the fabulous villa in Turkey we’d booked the year before). When on holiday I want to stay somewhere AT LEAST as comfortable as home.

I know that there are intrepid women out there at this moment, setting off with two pairs of knickers and a T shirt in a rucksack, the jeans they stand up in and a sleeping bag that won’t see the inside of a washing machine for a month, …… but I’m not one of them.  I want deep mattresses, Egyptian cotton sheets, thick towels and gallons of hot water beating me into submission after a dusty day.

In 1994-ish  I went to East Berlin as a guest of a visiting Professor at the Humbolt University. He booked us into Humbolt student accommodation.  It was very basic, but clean, with a surprisingly good bathroom. Our villa turned out to be of a similar standard, but without the power shower.

A good meal was called for! So we headed to what we were assured was the best local restaurant. We English have a reputation for awful food (once richly deserved, but no longer). However this was truly terrible. Suffice to say that this was the first time I’d been served canned potatoes in about 40 years.

Thankfully, after this, things started to look up. We found excellent supermarkets with good fresh food and local wines that wouldn’t embarrass an Australian vineyard, but at prices Australians can only dream about. 1000 Hungarian Forint (about five Australian dollars) bought us a very quaffable bottle. We kept eating out to a minimum – a sandwich at lunchtime – and cooked cracking BBQs around the pool in the evenings.

We got into a groove – in the mornings a swim either in the pool or the lake, followed by a lazy breakfast. Then everyone into the hire car to explore the region.

Highlights included the Tihany peninsula which is accessible by ferry. We walked up the hillside to the magnificent Benedictine Abbey with wonderful views of the lake. The still-functioning abbey was founded in 1055 AD, although its church was rebuilt in the Baroque style in 1754. It was a blistering hot day so on the way down we ambled into a shady bar and availed ourselves of ice cold Hungarian beer served in terracotta mugs. The local food might not be great , but the ale is awesome.

Keszthely is also a must. Its centrepiece is Festetics Palace,  a Baroque palace set in parterre gardens which contains a magnificent library.  The palace  is a venue for evening classical concerts and houses a puppet museum. However, there  are tiny museums down every alleyway, including a display of pornographic waxworks! My sons visited it (in the name of research for this article, obviously) and assured me that the Bill Clinton & Monica Lewinsky exhibit is very lifelike…

We also spent a very pleasant afternoon in Badacsony, a hillside region scattered with small vineyards and wineries. The owners aren’t as geared up for visitors as Australian vintners, but they were very welcoming to tasters and justifiably proud of their wines. These are small concerns producing boutique wines which aren’t available in large stores and the prices reflect that. Nevertheless, we were sufficiently impressed to bring home a few bottles as presents.

We had five nights in the Lake Balaton region, before moving on to Budapest which is a whole different story – a magnificent city with an international vibe.  Once we’d found our feet in Balaton we had a thoroughly enjoyable, very relaxing family break and I would certainly recommend the area to families looking for something similar. However, on the basis of our experience I’d be aware that accommodation and restaurant standards can be below par for westerners. Choose your villa carefully and stick with a BBQ washed down by the excellent local hooch!

 

Sue Robson-Catling is English. She has run a Stage School and stood for election to the UK Parliament, amongst many other ventures. She is currently a company director of a management consultancy working for Airlines. Despite having flown many thousands of miles, for work and pleasure, she still never gets on a plane without thinking that aviation is a modern miracle.

 


 

 

 

Woman In…Patagonia

“Oh, that’s impossible, I can’t do that!” This is what I would have said, if I had known what I was about to embark on beforehand. But I didn’t know. And so, when my daughter asked me to go with her to Patagonia, I agreed. Although this remote part of Argentina and Chile had never appeared in my travel imaginings, I knew that I was going on a 60 kilometre trek of medium difficulty over five days, and I knew I could do that.

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So off we went, first to the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, and then to El Chalten in Argentina. We set off happily on our first day shouldering backpacks with six to seven kilos of bare essentials, our sturdy waterproof walking shoes, a map, water- and wind-proof jackets, and the promise of experiencing natural beauty which an American trekker we met in the base town of Puerto Natales told us “nothing can prepare you for.”

The natural beauty

The American was right. The mountains of snow and ice, the blue lakes (paine is the native word for blue) and the painted skies were endless. Natural tracks that were not manicured but still safe and easy to follow, lead us around the mountains, through wooded areas and over trickling waterways. The sky was a great empty plain and we could hear the rumble of avalanches falling miles from where we stood. There is only one path to follow so it is impossible to get lost, and yet you have the sense that you are lost from the rest of the world. I am privileged to own such rare,unique moments.

The refugios 

On the Torres del Paine trek you take a day to walk from refugio (lodge) to refugio. The path is well marked, and there is enough time to make the distance without having to hurry. You measure distance in time because the terrain has to be considered. Pre-booking is essential to make sure you get a bed, and we did all our booking from Australia. There are lots of companies online. I was unsure what to expect from the refugios as they are remote and Patagonia isn’t economically wealthy. We had dormitory sleeping arrangements and I hadn’t slept like that since I was young. But the lodging surprised me and it was always exciting to arrive at our new lodge, each one warmed by a stove and the sound of exhausted, hungry and happy trekkers. Food was delicious and ample, and we ate at long mess tables, so you always had company while dining. We collected a picnic lunch and snacks in the morning when leaving, which meant we only had to carry food for the day.

Fitness

I am in my mid-fifties and if referring to age and fitness, I was in a minority. Most of the trekkers were under thirty-five. Some were extremely fit and I swear some of the young men who galloped past us were cloven-footed, their feet barely hitting the ground. But there were still plenty like me, moderately fit and young at heart, and we managed steeps ascents and the distances. Perhaps it was the curiosity of what’s around the next corner that kept me going, but mostly my strength of mind compensated for my lack of physical strength, and meditating on the present kept ‘what if it’s too hard’ thoughts at bay. I would have liked to have been fitter. It may have made the difficult stretches easier, although I have no lasting ill effects on my knees or ankles! However, be aware that once you leave the drop-off point and head into the mountains, there is no vehicular access. If you injure yourself you will rely on the goodness of strangers to carry you out or on the availability of a donkey.

Other trekkers

While there are many welcome ‘alone’ times, you are never lonely. We met women travelling on their own, families, dads carrying their small children in backpacks. We met an artist returning after ten years; people of all ages from around the world. So many interesting people and conversations.

El Chalten

Just when we thought it was safe to hang up our trekking shoes, we arrived by bus in El Chalten and Los Glaciares National Park – the trekking capital of the world. We hired a local taxi driver – enterprising young people use their own cars to provide a taxi service – to drive us out of town to a starting point for the Laguna los Tres hike. This day-long hike was the most difficult of all the hikes around El Chalten – but the most beautiful. At the bottom of the steep ascent to view FitzRoy Mount was a sign warning that only trekkers in top physical condition should attempt the climb. I knew by now that I always had one more step in me, so off we went. We climbed for an hour or so, the people on the rocky slopes ahead of us like a thin trail of ants. I treated it as sacred, my treading on the aloofness of mountains.

The weather

We had expected strong winds and rain, which are daily occurrences in Patagonia, particularly in March. But the gods were smiling on us and we had still, sunny weather for four out of five days. It was cold but it was a clear sunlit cold that is ideal for trekking. And being cold means the paths and lodges are less crowded.

And in conclusion…

Now back in Australia, I want my steps to stay slow, the silence of mountains to stay in my mind and their grandeur impressed on my imagination – and the impossible to remain possible.

 

Jacinta Agostinelli  is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.  She enjoys spending time with her husband and five daughters, and travelling to far-away places.