Off-duty, off-road

From war zones to playgrounds, rust belts to resorts, the ABC's legion of foreign correspondents has seen it all. But even reporters need a holiday. David Scott asks six to nominate their favourite destinations.

Austria

Tracy Bowden

WHEN the journey is purely for pleasure, I head for the hills or, more specifically, snow-covered mountains.

I've enjoyed ski holidays in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America but my favourite winter wonderland experiences have been in the Austrian Alps. For me, the combination of schnitzel, schnapps and skiing - probably best not in that order - is hard to beat.

My first trip to Austria was in the mid 1990s. Driving through the countryside towards the twin ski villages of Saalbach-Hinterglemm in the Austrian state of Salzburg, I was struck by the fact it really does look like those chocolate-box covers: Tyrolean-style timber chalets and cottages, with flowerboxes beneath the windows full of brightly coloured blooms; clear blue sky and snow-capped mountains all around. Ridiculously pretty.

I've stayed in the full range of accommodation styles over the years, from small pensions where the family's cows live under the house, to elaborate hotels where fellow guests (but not me) are clad in fur and dripping in gold.

Saalbach is a sentimental favourite but it's hard to beat the atmosphere and the skiing in Lech. It's a larger, more sophisticated resort with an excellent circuit of long, wide, beautifully groomed runs. Just down the road is St Anton, where you'll hear plenty of Australian accents.

A good appetite is an asset on a visit to Austria and the dining options go far beyond sausages and sauerkraut. Perched high up in the mountains, the alpine inns offer a vast range of fare, with staff clad in traditional clothing. My sustenance of choice at lunch-time is almost always the gulaschsuppe (goulash soup).

Advertisement

On sunny days, deckchairs are lined up on the snow; a band may be playing. At moments such as this, the office seems a long way away.

Back in town there are the cafes - konditorei - with a tempting selection of elaborate pastries and cakes. And fabulous ice-cream.

The Austrians know how to party, too. The apres-ski scene is lively. And if you happen to be there during the carnival season of Fasching - usually in early February - you'll witness all sorts of costume parades, masked balls, fireworks and general frivolity.

In Austria I've had the chance to compare my skiing style with the best in the business. At Kitzbuhel I hiked up a snowy slope, along with thousands of others, to watch the Austrian champion Hermann Maier compete in the famous downhill event, the Hahnenkamm.

After the competition, we made our way to the top of the course to take a look down. It was steep - they say 85 degrees in some places - and the surface like sheet ice. I'd make my way down pretty much any slope but not this one.

I've had some memorable moments off-piste watching deer wander past, just metres away, as I made tracks through untouched snow. Stopping for a picnic inside a tiny hut in a forest. And that muffled sound as big, fluffy snowflakes fall to the ground, laying a thick, white carpet.

I'm not opposed to the idea of lying on a deckchair reading a book but for me the combination of a different culture, different food, gorgeous views and my favourite sport is a fantastic way to relax and re-group.

Tracy Bowden is the ABC's North America correspondent.

Japan

Shane McLeod

GETTING away from things in Japan takes a fair bit of planning. A few helpful guidelines to keep in mind. First, try to travel on weekdays rather than weekends - Japan's notoriously workaholic salarymen and women don't get a lot of recreation time and they try to make efficient use of it. Second, get out of the city. And third, stay away from the trains.

I should clarify that: Japan's rail network is a wonderful thing to behold. It can get you to lots of places. The problem is, it gets lots of other people there, too. Car rental is one of the best alternatives and in combination with a train, it's positively heavenly.

Catch a train near your destination and there's likely to be a car rental place close by. It's an easy step to get away from it all.

This method worked well on a recent hiking trip on one of Japan's sacred mountains, Hakusan, in Ishikawa prefecture.

We caught a train to Kanazawa; then hired a car to reach the foot of the mountain. Then a day's hike through autumn leaves, passing squads of workmen who appeared to be granite-paving the pathway. We reached Muroto, a guest "hut", just below Hakusan's summit - with room to sleep up to 300. "You're the last guests for the season," the receptionist smiled.

The sun was going down as we quickly stashed our backpacks in the dormitory accommodation. The group of sixtysomethings we were sharing with were trooping out to get some photos of the sunset. We joined them.

Truly, it was a sight to behold, with clouds covering all but the peaks of the highest ranges.

Our hiking companions were making the most of it, snapping a few quick shots with their mobile phones and then emailing them to friends.

I took a couple of photos myself - of people taking photos of the sunset.

We were a long way from anywhere but never far from a mobile phone.

Shane McLeod is the ABC's North Asia correspondent.

China

Stephen McDonell

In huge parts of China the traditional architecture and landscape have been obliterated in the rush to develop economically. This means that some travellers are not going to find a place that matches the China of their imagination.

As a reporter, I like travelling to any part of China - to new coastal cities, to industrial rust belts, to rural areas. But for a while, I was beginning to despair that I wouldn't find anywhere genuinely breathtaking.

Then I went to Yunnan Province in the south-west. I'm now waiting for someone to ask me, "Where should I go?" I'm going to recommend they travel to Yunnan and nowhere else. (Hang on: perhaps I'll suggest a few days in Beijing to visit the Great Wall and the Summer Palace.)

Yunnan has mountain villages, tropical wetlands, Tibetan monasteries, big blue lakes and stone forests. Half of China's 55 recognised ethnic groups live here. There are matriarchal societies, Buddhist monks and drug-runners. It's diverse and beautiful but I'll give you a taste of just one place.

When I arrived in Lijiang in 2005 I remember thinking, "Yes, this is the China I wanted to see." The old town's winding, cobblestone streets (pictured) run beside the little creeks the town is built around. It's easy to imagine it hasn't changed for centuries.

There are cool little cafes and restaurants where you can look on to a running stream and read a book or, in my case, do some Chinese homework. At night, there is a group of classic old blokes who perform Tang Dynasty chamber music. The story goes that during the Cultural Revolution they had to bury their instruments. They're now teaching local kids to take their places in the orchestra.

Nearby is Tiger Leaping Gorge. The mind-blowingly big rock face is the most stunning place I've been in China. You can leave your bags in one of the many hotels in Lijiang and head here for a few days carrying a daypack. It takes two nights to walk through the gorge and there are guest houses on the way. You can ride a donkey all or part of the way.

Take a train to Xishuangbanna on the Laotian border; head to the ancient lakeside town of Dali, or go into the mountains to see Zhongdian, which the Chinese say is the original Shangri-la.

Stephen McDonell is the ABC's China correspondent.

Papua New Guinea

Steve Marshall

No matter how much it glistens, my wife and I are growing tired of the razor-wire-topped fence surrounding the ABC compound in Port Moresby. Jade suggests a weekend getaway, which for most people here involves an international flight. I had no idea we could head to the province next door to find what we were looking for.

Milne Bay is at the remote eastern tip of the mainland. The provincial capital, Alotau, is nestled in a secluded bay surrounded by idyllic islands.

These internal trips rarely go smoothly and I get "that feeling" when we board Air Niugini - to find someone else sitting in my seat. I soon have him removed. I'm told later he is the tourism minister returning home for the weekend.

Ninety minutes later, we're greeted by friendly Patty at the Driftwood resort on the outskirts of Alotau. The new digs are being promoted in glossy brochures. To our delight, the photos don't do it justice. Six bungalows, decorated in a boat-house theme, are perched on the water's edge, each with a deck suspended over the lapping tide.

We're soon enjoying a glass of white with some local lobster tails, prepared by the resort's eccentric French chef, Jean. He runs the restaurant, with a bar made out of the back half of an old yacht.

Driftwood's catchphrase is "explore the last untouched wildernesses in the Pacific" and Milne Bay is definitely raw and inspiring.

We explore a chain of pristine volcanic peaks, coral islands and reefs. One World War II bomber in the jungle is in such good condition it could have been part of the Air Niugini fleet.

Next day a Melburnian called Nick is behind the wheel of a classic Queensland trawler. "Mate," he says to us, "this is one of the last true fishing frontiers." My scepticism soon disappears when we hook a giant trevally.

Jean's eyes light up at our catch as he starts mumbling something about a tomato and cardamon dressing. Dinner is delicious.

Two days in Milne Bay is a great release from the confines of Port Moresby. For a combination of relaxation and excitement and its proximity to the capital, right now Milne Bay is our favourite holiday destination.

Steve Marshall is the ABC's Papua New Guineacorrespondent.

Yemen

Trevor Bormann

ONE visit to Yemen is about all most travellers can take in a lifetime. It has everything any adventurer would want - except for comfortable lodgings, decent food, electricity and safe transport.

What it has, however, are ornate, towering mud-brick houses clinging to breathtaking mountainsides. And the old city in the capital, Sana'a (pictured), is a World Heritage site.

The Yemenis are famous for their hospitality, as are most Arabs. But in the late 1990s, they were a little too friendly. As I travelled with my girlfriend, I heard about a new cottage industry that involved kidnapping foreign tourists. Dozens of travellers were taken. Tribal chiefs would extract ransom money from the government to pay for new projects for their villages and then set the hapless backpackers free.

No tourist was ever harmed, so to get kidnapped was part of the travel experience - free food and board for a week or so.

Just before we arrived, nine German bikers were kidnapped but they were soon released by villagers because they were too expensive to feed. A Frenchman was taken as well. Unfortunately for the locals, he was a keen jogger and his bare-chested morning runs were apparently so offensive to the women folk that village elders soon set him free as well.

I also heard of a Belgian traveller who was so impressed with his kidnapping experience that on release he wrote letters to the government and his abductors, thanking them for this insight in Yemeni life that he would have missed if he'd been passing through.

During a later work trip to Yemen, I met an American diplomat who told me the Polish ambassador had also been kidnapped and taken to a remote village for a couple of weeks.

"You are our guest," the chief had told his hostage. "Anything you want, we can get you."

The Polish ambassador requested his favourite drink, an obscure brand of whisky - no easy demand in this very dry Islamic country. But two days later, a bottle appeared.

"What else can we get you?" asked the chief.

Full of bravado and half full of whisky, the ambassador requested a woman for the night.

An offended village chief knew his guest had crossed the line but suggested the diplomat's wife could be kidnapped and brought into the hills to join them.

The ambassador graciously declined the offer.

Yemen has changed a lot of late. More recent, violent actions against tourists have given the better-mannered kidnappers a bad name. But my travels to this extraordinary place will always bring a smile.

Trevor Bormann, a former Middle East correspondent for ABC-TV, is now supervising producer of Foreign Correspondent.

Kyrgyzstan

Eric Campbell

It took Borat to put Kazakhstan on the map. Pity its poor neighbour, Kyrgyzstan. Nobody's even bothered to make fun of it. Tiny, impoverished and strategically unimportant, it's become little more than a bit player in a trivial pursuit question: "Name the five former Soviet republics ending in 'stan'."

That's the world's loss as much as Kyrgyzstan's. It really is everything its unread tourist brochures boast - the Switzerland of Central Asia. Except instead of boring Swiss bankers, it's full of nomads in funny hats.

Kyrgyzstan is dominated by the Tien Shan mountains, which border China. But the culture and appearance of the Kyrgyz people is closer to the Mongolians.

Before the Soviets came, everybody herded sheep across the mountains and slept in felt tents called yurts (pictured). Even now city dwellers take any chance to leave their crumbling concrete apartments for a few days or weeks camping in the mountains.

We hired an English-speaking guide in the capital, Bishkek, to take us on a three-day trek to the summer pastures. The steep, pine-and-cedar-covered mountains eventually gave way to sweeping green fields dotted with azure lakes. Our guide chose at random a group of nomads to stay with. Everyone's happy for the extra cash and conversation.

This is where the bucolic beauty and relaxed pace of it all lulled me. When the host asked if I ate sheep, I nodded happily, expecting lamb roasted on a spit. An hour later, after watching him slit a sheep's throat, his wife served up a plate of raw intestines daintily cut into snack-sized portions. My last reserves of politeness were needed to force it down without gagging. The nomads' politeness compelled them to refill the plate.

Kyrgyzstan is a unique and surprisingly easy destination. But if there's one phrase you need to learn in Kyrgyz, it's "I'm vegetarian".

Eric Campbell is a Sydney reporter for Foreign Correspondent on ABC-TV and a former ABC correspondent in Moscow and Beijing. He is also the author of Absurdistan, a memoir about working and living in dysfunctional countries.

Comments