This year is my 10th as a freelance travel writer. It hasn’t always been plain sailing – I’ve had plenty of ups and downs – but the job has taken me places most can only dream of.
To celebrate the milestone, I’ve put together my top 10 of everything I’ve seen and done. And while I’ve reported from more than 40 countries, half of my top 10s are here, in Australia
1. Neptune Islands, South Australia
“The water looks sharky,” Rodney Fox told me as our ship ploughed its way south from Port Lincoln to the Neptune Islands, a set of rocky outcrops home to large populations of New Zealand fur seals – the favourite food of white sharks.
Mr Fox, a South Australian man who was severely injured in a white shark attack yet went on to become a dedicated shark conservationist, set up the word’s first commercial shark cage-diving experience on the Neptunes in the 1980s.
Despite stiff competition from day cruises, Fox’s multiday expeditions sell out most of the time. I still can’t find words to describe how I felt when a fully grown female white shark – more than five metres long and wide as a Kombi van – swam past the cage. What I can say is it was the best wildlife encounter of my life.
2. The Zard-Kuh, Iran
The fortnight I spent hitchhiking around Iran was one of the most rewarding journeys of my life.
The highlight was the Zard-Kuh, a 4200-metre mountain range close to the border with Iraq. The scenery in the Zard-Kuh varies from bone-dry desert to snow-capped promontories, to high-altitude plains where nomadic sheep herders set up summer camps along ice-cold streams.
The largest camp, Chama Qar Yakhi, has a population of about 100 nomads. The lunch the nomads made me for $1 – lamb cut fresh from a carcass, chargrilled with onion and served with flatbread and salt – is one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
But it was only a prelude for the Zard-Kuh’s pièce de résistance: A sub-tropical glacier the size of a football field with an ice cave running through the middle of it – in the middle of a desert. You don’t see that every day.
3. The Austral Highway, Chile
Motorcycles are the ultimate travel machines: Point the wheel, twist the accelerator and the world is yours.
I’ve ridden motorcycles all over the world, from Spain to Nepal, but no road I’ve ever been on beats the Austral Highway, or Carretera Austral.
Some 1240 kilometres long, it was built by the Chilean military in the 1970s to counter Argentinean encroachment into the Chilean side of Patagonia. Today it’s a popular tourist route billed as one of the most scenic roads on Earth.
The forests in Patagonia have trees that are thousands of years old. Some of the fjords that intersect the highway are so large you can’t see across to the side and the only way to get across is with vehicle ferries.
The mountains are capped with snow and ice, while the lakes are bluer than turquoise. Waterfalls kiss the road. And at its southernmost tip, the Austral Highway is lined by glaciers on either side.
4. Orpheus Island, Queensland
The problem with the Great Barrier Reef is all the really good stuff is hard to get to. You need a serious speedboat or the power of flight to reach its pristine outlying reefs.
Orpheus Island Resort, the only hotel on Orpheus Island, solves the problem by getting a helicopter to pick up its guests on-demand from Townsville or Cairns airports for the hour-long flight to what I reckon is the best beach resort in all of Australia.
Orpheus is luxurious but low-key: There are only 12 villas, a pool that seems to float above the ocean, a restaurant and jetty with a small fleet of boats.
But all you need to explore the reefs is one of its little dinghies. Ask the staff to pack it with some fishing rods, snorkelling gear and a cooler and take it out on your own. The Great Barrier Reef in all its glory is only minutes away.
5. Ancient city of Fez, Morocco
Just about everyone who goes to Morocco visits the mediaeval city of Marrakesh. But there’s another old city in Morocco that’s far less touristy and better preserved: Fez.
With more than 9500 cobblestone alleyways and hundreds of mosques and markets inside massive castle walls, this 1200-year-old citadel resonates energy from the past. Cars can’t fit inside its walls. Instead, locals use donkeys and handcarts to carry comically tall loads.
Fez is basically one big maze. I lost count of the number of times I got lost, though there was always a little kid around who would take me back to my hotel – for a price. But getting lost inside Fez is actually part of the fun.
6. Koh Phra Thong, Thailand
I’ve probably spent more than 12 months in the islands of Thailand over the years.
My favourite is Koh Phra Thong, a pancake-flat island 200 kilometres north of Phuket with a very rare ecosystem – a tropical savannah that bears striking resemblance to those of Africa. In place of lions and gazelles, Koh Phra Thong’s savannah supports deer, wild boar, monkeys, pythons, otters, leopard cats and carnivorous plants.
One morning, I saw a deer with tall antlers go for a swim in the ocean and catch a wave back to shore. Another time I saw monkeys using rocks like tools to open oysters.
I also kayaked along the river that cuts through the middle of the island. But on most days I just relaxed, read books on my balcony, ate spicy Thai food and swam at the beach. It was the closest I’ve come to being Robinson Crusoe.
7. Huon Peninsula, Tasmania
The best destinations are usually the ones we discover by chance. For me, that place is the Huon Valley, the mountainous landmass that runs south-west from Hobart to the southern tip of Tasmania.
My sister, who moved there a couple of years ago, had built a little house among apple orchards about 20 minutes’ drive from Geeveston, the nearest town. She was always asking me to visit but I never had time. When I finally did, I regretted not going sooner for it was so much fun.
We took long walks with her dog along the banks of the Huon River. We visited farmgate stores, little bakeries, boatyards and old pubs. We stuffed our faces with Tasmanian oysters, salmon and lamb. And we took a day trip to Cockle Creek, the farthest point south one can drive in Australia. If I ever retire, it will be in the Huon.
8. Southwest National Park, Tasmania
A chain of six national parks that covers one-fifth of Tasmania, Southwest National Park is one of the largest undisturbed wildernesses left on the planet: 6000 square kilometres of gold-green ranges, glacial lakes, raging rivers, rainforests and moors.
The only way in is on a small charter plane from Hobart, but there are two ways out. The first is a gruelling 84-kilometre walk along the South Coast Track. The second is on a kayak with Roaring 40s, a Hobart company.
Its week-long tour takes you along eucalyptus-lined rivers, lagoons ringed by beaches and estuaries with soft coral. It even paddles out to open sea, around rocky windswept islets and under paddle-through arches. There’s nothing out there, just nature and its creatures.
9. Papua New Guinea
PNG is the only entire country that features on my king-list. And that’s because there’s simply nothing else like it: An almost mythical place where fact and fiction intertwine and stories about sorcery, tribal warfare and other such wackiness pepper the evening news.
I’ve been there seven times and can’t even begin to recall all the crazy stuff I’ve done there.
But, to name a few: Trekking through the jungle to find a shrine full of mummies, including a baby mummy sucking on its mother’s mummified breast; walking inside the crater of a live volcano; eating a banana-passionfruit, banana skin on the outside, passionfruit meat on the inside; hitching a ride on a dugout canoe across a crocodile-filled swamp; and nearly landing a black bass, the strongest freshwater fighting fish in the world.
10. The Maluku Islands, Indonesia
In 2016 I travelled to Sulawesi Province in far eastern Indonesia to meet Raul Boscarino, an Italian shipbuilder who makes luxury versions of ‘phinisis’ – traditional seven-sail schooners used for fishing, transport and piracy in Indonesia for more than 1000 years.
Raul and I became friends and have gone sailing on his phinisi thrice. The creme de la crème was a three-week cruise around the Malukus on his yacht Mantra.
Also known as the Spice Islands, it’s where Portuguese, Dutch and British navies fought for control of the lucrative nutmeg trade in the 16th century.
Today the former Spice Islands are one of the most peaceful places in the world. We often went days without seeing another boat or person, and when we did, it was villagers on outriggers wishing to trade fish and coconuts for cooking oil. It was the trip of my lifetime … so far.