Numbers surround us when we go on journeys, and deserve closer attention. We ask seven writers to each ponder a significant number and how it has affected their travels.
At first glance, numbers are the killjoys of travel. Who likes a guide droning on about the Eiffel Tower's 20,000 lightbulbs and 2.5 million rivets? Who wants to divide by 31,794 to convert Iranian rials into dollars? Certainly no one wants to think about the 17 hours and 20 minutes of endurance when flying from Perth to London.
Yet numbers play a big part in travel. We must decide how much to pay for a hotel room, how much to tip, what row to choose on a plane, how many days we want to linger in Dubai or Dresden, what distance we're prepared to walk. We must take note of our reservation code, the exchange rate, the bus route, our hotel-room number, the cost of a beer.
Numbers can be much more than this, however. Numbers are indicators of our beliefs and superstitions, and pervade popular culture. Even travel is rife with symbolic numbers: the seven seas, the seven world wonders, the Three Sisters and Twelve Apostles, the four corners of the Earth. We asked seven of our travel writers about numbers they find significant in travel. Here's the tally.
There's an undeniable, heart-thumping magic to travel firsts. The first time slurping a mouthful of steamy, fragrant pho in Vietnam; the first time navigating Tokyo's labyrinthine subway on your own. But if you want to really give a place the opportunity to work its spell on you, the second time around is where the sweet spot lies.
It can be easy, particularly today in our world gone mad with speed, to get caught up in the idea of having "done" a place. You've "done" Seoul; you had that 20-hour layover there nine years ago, so why waste precious time and money returning when the rest of the world beckons with deliciously new and unfamiliar fingers? Because that's precisely when travel becomes richer, deeper, and more fulfilling.
On journey No. 2, you've got a far clearer idea of what you want to see and do, having already done your first-hand research. You can confidently return to your favourite haunts, ignore those that disappointed and, having most likely ticked off the overcrowded tourist sites on your initial visit, stray off the beaten path and begin to develop a real relationship with place. After spending more than six months in India five years ago, I returned a couple of years later to visit the friends I'd made during that first stint, to eat at my favourite pani purijoint, to discover the ways in which the city had changed – for good and for ill – and relish all the ways it hadn't.
A second visit to a destination is also an excellent opportunity for a do-over. Time really does heal all wounds, and just because you hated a place the first time around certainly doesn't mean you will the second. This year, for example, I gave Barcelona a second chance. I detested the place when I first visited in 2006 due to a mixture of terrible accommodation choices, drinking my body weight in sangria, and falling prey to wandering hands and petty theft at a nightclub. This time however, with a slightly more mature lens on life, I was able to appreciate the city's astounding architecture, world-class dining scene and unparalleled energy, and fell completely in love. I was able to not only right the wrongs of my travels past, but also to understand all the ways in which I had grown since that ill-fated journey.
We evolve alongside the places we return to. They are living, breathing entities just like us, that move through different phases and versions of themselves over time. So while first trips might contain all the heady intoxication of a fling, second journeys are more akin to true love, going deeper, perhaps even weathering some storms, and ultimately gaining the most potent rewards.
The number four has always appealed to the Western sensibility. We use it all the time for finding order in the universe: four seasons, four compass points, four phases of the moon, four elements. Discovering that this seemingly delightful number is anathema to the Chinese was one of my first insights as an independent traveller.
I'd arrived in Hong Kong – my first journey beyond Europe – and was bemused to find lift buttons skipped from floor three to floor five in my backpacker's block on Nathan Road. I soon learned that four is the 13 of the Far East, only worse. In Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese the word "four" is a near homophone of the word "death". Airports in these countries are often missing Gate 4, and planes a row four. Hotels have no room 4 or 14 or 24 or 40. Those floors are missing in apartment blocks, and sometimes you can be on the 37th floor despite it being marked as the 50th.
The number four was my first realisation that not everyone in the world thinks like a European, quite a useful early lesson for anyone keen to travel without frustration or prejudice. Now I always look out for the missing four when I travel, and not just in the Far East. Its absence from some buildings in Vancouver or Sydney tells you something about immigration and investment.
Does this make sense? Of course not. You're still on the fourth floor even if your lift button says it's the fifth. But there's no point in arguing with other people's beliefs, or trying to rationalise them. I believe in just as many peculiar things myself. And over the years, having lived in China and travelled frequently in the Far East, I too have become a bit averse to the number four. Travel is hazardous enough without annoying the ancient gods of good fortune.
What I love most about the world, though, is that nothing is entirely clear cut. Stereotypes are made to be untangled. Just as you think you understand something, exceptions pop up to discombobulate you. In fact, the Chinese do sometimes order the world in fours: the four great classic books of ancient literature, the four revered plants of classical gardens and painting (orchid, plum blossoms, bamboo, chrysanthemum), the four famous Buddhist mountains.
One of the most pleasurable pastimes I've picked up in a lifetime of travel is mah-jong, with its four players, and tiles representing four winds, four seasons and several other foursomes. Never mind death: there's nothing more life-affirming than an evening of mah-jong with friends, as tiles click and tea flows, and you're waiting for that special number to complete your set.
A train stops in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India. Photo: Alamy
Epiphanies rarely arrive in real time. They're the sort of things you realise a long way after the fact, the moments you look back on after many years and think, there, that was the point, that was when everything changed.
And yet, mine happened in an instant. My world was forever altered, and I knew it immediately.
It happened on a train in northern India, one of those beautiful old rattlers that slog their way across the Rajasthani desert, this one somewhere between Jaipur and Jaisalmer. All day, the kaleidoscope of the sub-continent had been sliding by through grubby, dirt-streaked windows, the small towns, the big cities, the open spaces.
Inside, the train was brimming with life. In a second-class cabin on an Indian train you see this huge country distilled to its essence: the hustle, the generosity, the heat, the press, the fascination, the feeling that here you no longer belong to yourself, that you're part of something bigger and greater, something you have no control over, something that might turn out to be bad or good or somewhere in between and at some point you'll just find out.
I didn't know anyone on that train, and yet I knew the whole carriage. People had been taking turns sitting next to the foreigner. They'd quizzed me about cricket. They'd shared their food with me. A few had offered up relatives for marriage.
And some time that day, I'm not sure when, during one of those conversations, amid that chaos, everything changed.
It was my 25th birthday. This train trip was part of a larger journey, a quarter-life crisis. I'd quit my job back home. I'd broken up with my girlfriend of five years. I was out to find myself, as cheesy as that sounds. I wanted answers about me, and about the world. And if I didn't find them, I'd at least have fun looking.
And yet I did find them. I found them that day on that train. I realised on my 25th birthday that the foreignness of India wasn't bothering me anymore – it was thrilling me. Rather than drain my batteries, as the sub-continent had done for so many weeks, it was filling them. The people around me, the chaos, the uncertainty, the challenge: it was what I wanted, and what I loved.
My epiphany was that, from now on, this was what my life would be. This was what I'd do. I would travel the world. I would devote myself to this pursuit. I wouldn't think of travel as a break from life – I would think of it as life. I would live it.
And ever since that day, I have.
When a number makes you fear for your life you never forget that number. A few winters ago, out on a dogsledding expedition in the northern part of the world, the overnight temperature dropped to minus 33 degrees. We were camped beside a frozen lake within forested wilderness in tents that, despite what had been advertised, were unheated. And the double-layered sleeping bag I'd been supplied with was inexplicably damp. Beneath a nylon ceiling, where my formerly warm breath gathered as icy stalactites, I lay for hours on the edge of hypothermia talking myself through the long dark night.
Although " f---ing freezing" is a perfectly accurate description of the conditions, having an exact number to take away for future reference has been a gift. Ever since then, when planning cold climate adventures or being spontaneous in chilly places, minus 33 has allowed me to make informed decisions about what I'm prepared to put my body through.
Experiencing such an extreme temperature without the adequate gear, when my coldest night in a tent before that was about minus 3 degrees, was something I didn't ask for and wouldn't want to repeat but I quickly chalked it up to the inevitable pleasures and pains of adventurous travel. Rather than teaching us what we can handle in measured increments, as normally happens in everyday life, travelling often fast-tracks our understanding of personal potential (and limitations).
When on the road we don't usually have the same level of knowledge or control of our immediate environment that we do at home yet counterintuitively, it could be argued, a lot of people try new things and take bigger risks – by choice or inadvertently – when in someone else's backyard. Being on the move and in unfamiliar places seems to liberate many of us from our more cautious homebody selves and sometimes we feel infallible out there.
As a result, we tend to find ourselves in greater discomfort or in a state of over-exertion or being psychologically pushed beyond what we'd expected and, consequently, discover what we're truly capable of achieving. Or what we never want to do again for as long as we live.
Before minus 33 I would have baulked at hiking in minus 20 or road-tripping in sub-Arctic springtime or swimming with icebergs. Yet getting to know minus 33 so intimately filled me with absolute certainty I could do those things – and, in fact, have gone on to do them all. I've even camped out in a northern winter again and this time it got down to minus 44. But that was the temperature outside the canvas wall tent with a roaring woodstove inside because the number of times I make the same big mistake is one.
In the desert dawn, I woke to the sight of dingo prints surrounding my makeshift bed in the sand. For two weeks I'd been walking, and finally this night I'd lacked the energy or the need to pitch my tent, laying out my sleeping mat instead on the sands of a dry creek bed, turning myself into a curiosity for the area's roaming dingoes.
The dawn air ached with cold, but the sun was coming and, with it, another day of walking on the Larapinta Trail as Alice Springs and my finish drew near. At its end I would have walked 223 kilometres along the length of the West MacDonnell Ranges, the longest and perhaps finest journey on foot I've ever made.
It was one of those life-affirming trips where you rediscover your own strength, your sense of physical and emotional freedom, and belief in your self-sufficiency and the mateship of shared adventure.
For 16 days I would walk across this red desert country with one of my best friends. The day before setting out, I'd driven beside the route, burying food drops in bends in creek beds. When we began hiking from Mount Sonder the next morning, with 223 kilometres between us and the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, we were relying on nobody but each other.
At times we'd walk together, and at other times far apart, travelling meditatively across the West MacDonnells and through our own thoughts. The ingenuity of this desert trail meant that most days ended beside a waterhole, with a bone-chilling swim and a refill of our drinking supply for the next day.
Our tent sat alone in the red desert each night as stars flickered on like glow-worms and the world seemed to shrink to nothing more than this bulge of mountains across the centre of Australia. Most nights we might have been the only people on the planet.
Our journey took us across mountaintops, through the gorges that cut the ranges into slices, and over the desert plains that draped between them. Birds, lizards and wallabies watched us pass, while the ever-present but unseen dingoes hovered at the edge of our imagination. Occasionally we saw other people, but most days we didn't.
As the end neared, so too did an unexpected sense of dread. I never wanted to return to a city again; I wanted to keep walking forever. At the telegraph station, cars came and went, but after 223 unforgettable kilometres of walking, we simply wandered on, continuing into Alice Springs on foot. What were a few extra kilometres now?
Yesterday the wings of the plane I was on didn't snap off… the engine didn't fall out, and the pilot didn't have a heart attack at the controls. My flight wasn't cancelled, or delayed; in fact, we arrived at our destination 10 minutes ahead of time. But unless hell freezes over – and in these days of rising temperatures, that's unlikely – you won't catch me flying on Friday the 13th again.
I don't "do" 13. I come from a long line of superstition sufferers (I once drove my 92-year-old grandmother to a pharmacy… a minute into the 30-minute trip she said she'd forgotten her prescriptions but wouldn't let me turn back, it's bad luck to break a journey apparently) so I change my entire travel schedule to avoid 13. When you travel for a living – as I've done for 18 years – avoiding "13" is a constant battle.
Emergency exit rows on Australia's domestic airlines are often located at Row 13. I'll still squeeze my 185-centimetre frame into a middle seat in Row 32 beside a screaming baby if check-in staff offer it to me (the one time I took it, I missed my overseas connection). I used to invent elaborate stories as to why I couldn't shift, but these days I just tell the truth.
Thirteen follows me around, I swear: for how many times can hotels squeeze it into their number sequence? I've given up suites, even a penthouse … because some heartless soul put them on the 13th floor.
Maybe that's why I love travelling in the US. There they understand. Many hotels don't have 13th floors – 13 per cent of USA Today readers said they wouldn't consider staying on a 13th floor. According to American-owned Otis Elevators, 85 per cent of lifts don't even have a 13th floor button. It's not just America either: Lufthansa, Iberia, Ryanair and Air France don't have 13th rows. And The Daily Telegraph in Britain reports that airfares for July were cheapest by as much as 20 per cent on Friday the 13th (which was also the case in France, Austria and Sweden).
Apparently, there's even a name for my affliction: I'm a triskaidekaphobe. Next time I can tell airline staff and hotel receptionists what I have. Though it's not like the rest of you aren't a bit odd yourselves. British travel site, sunshine.co.uk, discovered 65 per cent of holiday-makers indulge in some sort of superstitious practice before boarding a plane.
The most common practice of all, they discovered, was touching the outside of the plane before boarding. What on earth is wrong with you?
Some of Easter Island's 887 moai can be seen at Anakena Beach. Photo: Alamy
Some trips can be planned in just a few hours. Others take a lifetime to organise. That was the case with my trip to Rapa Nui, the 24-kilometre long speck of land better known to us as Easter Island. From the moment that I first saw pictures of the island's remarkable statues, aged around six or so, I knew I wanted to see them for myself.
It wasn't until last year that I finally managed to get to the island. After decades of staring at their photos, standing in front of the actual statues – or moai, as they are known locally – was a disorienting experience. The sheer size of them – standing up to 14 metres high and weighing 60 or 70 tons – was staggering. So was the sheer number of them – 887 in total.
In photos, the moai seem to exist in lonely splendour. In fact, they have plenty of company. No fewer than 887 separate statues have been counted. Admittedly, some of them are in bad shape. Some are trapped by accumulated sediment, buried up to their necks. Some were never fully completed. Nonetheless, the construction of so many monolithic statues is an extraordinary accomplishment for any culture, but particularly for one working without sophisticated tools.
Only a few dozen of the moai are standing, and all of them have been re-erected using modern technology. Every single moai was knocked down in the late 18th century as part of a cataclysm that struck the island. Like much else about Rapa Nui society, why the moai were knocked down remains a mystery. So, for that matter, does the question of how they were originally erected, although there are plenty of competing theories.
What we do know is that, even today, lifting these massive stone statues is a challenge. The 15 moai standing on a rock platform at Ahu Tongariki, for instance, were lifted into position in the 1960s using a special crane shipped in by a Japanese company.
There are standing moai at a handful of other sites across the island, including a grouping on the lovely Anakena beach, a curve of white sand lapped by crystal-clear water. The island's largest collection of moai, however, is at the quarry, where some are standing, some lying, and some only half-completed.
It is estimated that it took teams of workmen around a year to carve each moai, although the largest statues would have taken longer. Perhaps the most poignant moai is the one known as El Gigante, which was never fully freed from the rock. Had it been completed, it would have stood more than 21 metres and weighed about 170 tons. They may have lived on a small island, but the people of Rapa Nui were not afraid to think big.
NUMBERS THAT ADD UP
(Hours) flying time of Singapore Airlines' new Singapore to Newark direct flight
(million) visitors to France, 2017's most-visited country
(km/hour) top operating speed of Japan's bullet trains
(euros) price of a gondola ride in Venice
Islands on the Great Barrier Reef
decks on Symphony of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship
(million) overseas trips taken by Australians in 2017
Rooms in the Sydney Hyatt Regency, Australia's largest hotel
UNESCO World Heritage List sites in Australia
(US dollars) price of a New York city subway ride
(metres) height of the world's tallest hotel, Dubai's Gevora Hotel
(million) flights worldwide in 2017