A pigeon’s perspective

Elias Drakenberg is telling us how the world keeps shifting but as I gaze down on Stockholm from a giddy height it is the shifting tides within myself that I battle. I’m struck with vertigo, so not feeling too good despite being securely clipped to a narrow steel walkway encircling the roofs of the criminal courts (Svea Hovrätt) and the old parliament building on the island of Riddarholmen.

I feel I might fall, which is great pity as I have a unique pigeon’s eye view of the Swedish capital even though nausea threatens to swamp the serendipity of the moment. I steady myself with some deep breathing, relax my stranglehold on the handrail and focus intensely on the ancient shingles of a nearby rooftop. All this time Elias talksImage further about ever-shifting Stockholm.

Much like Venice, this marvellous city is built on many islands, 14 in total, and tectonically speaking is forever, subtly, on the move. Which is why, far below us, the precinct called Slussen must soon undergo extensive reconstruction.

Slussen is a complex concrete spiral network of roads and railway bridges that connect the city centre to the neighbouring island of Sodermalm. The roads and rail tracks are built over a lock that links the Baltic Sea with Lake Malaren. Elias points to a whirlpool swirling in the water beneath the railway bridge. “See where the water disappears beneath the city,” he says.

Re-engineering Slussen is a hot topic. So much so that Abba star Benny Andersson, a passionate opponent to the proposed scheme, recently insisted on the removal of the giant Abba “welcome to our hometown” poster at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, saying he didn’t want to be an advertisement “for a city that can’t see reason.”

I take another deep breath and we continue our tour, which sees us spend about 45 minutes on the rooftops of the city court and adjacent buildings. All participants wear a helmet and full-body harness and are clipped onto a steel wire throughout the walk.

Halfway through our walk we clamber from a roof into a tower, inside which we find a cosy room with marvellous views of Lake Malaren and Slussen. Elias says the room is a welcome break, with hot chocolate provided, when it’s snowing outside. The rooftop tour runs year-round, rain or shine, only ever being cancelled when it’s simply far too cold for comfort.

The second part of our aerial adventure sees us on a roof beside the lofty spires of adjacent Riddarholmen Church. Elias points out the towers in which Swedish royalty are buried. There are fabulous views in all directions and frequently we pause as Elias explains city history and points out landmark buildings that we can see in adjacent Gamla Stan (Old Town).

The final part of the walk involves traversing the topmost ridge of the courts building with no handholds. “You’re going to feel heroic at the end,” Elias says encouragingly. In truth, provided vertigo doesn’t win, this rooftop tour is the only chance of getting such a unique perspective on the city. I flunked the bravado test but time spent above the city is (forgive the pun) a high point of my Stockholm visit.

The Stockholm Rooftop Tour costs SEK525 per person

How Tahiti used to be …

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Pearl Resort, Manihi

Ask someone what they know about Tahiti and most likely they’ll say Bora Bora or possibly Papeete, maybe Moorea. I doubt you’ll hear mention of Manihi or Tikehau, two coral islands that are just as much part of French Polynesia and just as dreamily beautiful as Tahiti’s Society Islands.

These lesser-known atolls are in the Tuamotu archipelago and remain relatively ‘undiscovered’. This is where to go to see what Tahiti was like before it became such a famous destination.

To get there I fly north from Papeete for 90 minutes. On the map, Manihi is an almost infinitesimal speck in the immense ocean, so tiny that when the ATR42-500 banks sharply to start its descent I’m surprised the pilot has managed to find it. With a bump and subsequent bounce we’re down and speeding along a runway of crushed, impacted coral. The airport terminal is a palm-thatch hut beneath a motionless windsock.

Manihi palms 2The Tuamotu archipelago is the world’s largest atoll cluster, a collection of 78 ring-shaped coral islands, lagoons and reefs scattered across the ocean halfway between Tahiti’s Society Islands and the Marquesas archipelago to the north. Manihi’s layout is typical: several motu (sand islands) denote the fringes of an enormous azure lagoon. Beyond them, a thin white line on the surface of the water marks where the outer reef drops off into fathomless ocean.

Without access to a boat you don’t really go far on Manihi. But isn’t that the substance of any escape to a remote Pacific atoll? Nowhere else to go, with heaps of time in which to do nothing much at all?

I ride a bike for as far as I can along the motu on which both the air strip and the Manihi Pearl Resort are located. My ride takes me past isolated homes set within shady coconut groves but soon I reach the end of the road. A channel of water separates my slice of sandy heaven from the next.

While at the Pearl I sleep in an overwater bure cooled by breezes wafting off the lagoon. At dawn I slip with mask and snorkel into the lagoon and glide over coral gardens while occasionally being nibbled by curious resident fish. Reef sharks patrol out in deeper water.

Manihi Blue Nui Dive Centre offers drift diving through the Tairapa Pass, which is the lagoon’s sole access to the sea. And there are several dive sites along the outer reef. One popular plunge is called the Circus, presumably for all the clown fish seen there?

Captain Kanu

One morning I climb aboard Captain Kanu’s boat to motor the entire 28 kilometre length of Manihi’s brilliant lagoon, stopping along the way to dangle lines weighted with bait. Almost instantly we hook wide-mouthed, spotted creatures from the deep and some silvery fish that make Captain Kanu lick his lips. We stop at a beach for a swim and BBQ.

Captain Kanu shins up a nearby palm tree with the agility of a monkey, tosses down some coconuts, climbs down and then rips off the tough hairy coconut husks with his teeth! We devour grilled fish and succulent fresh fruit while sitting on golden sands beside Manihi’s limpid lagoon. Pacific island bliss doesn’t get better than this.

Stay Tuamotu: Of the four atolls that take tourists the most popular is Rangiroa, 175 km south west of Manihi. It’s the world’s second largest atoll, with some spectacular dives, four hotels and several homestays. Tikehau is close to Rangiroa and like Manihi has just one resort, as does Fakarava to the south east. The atolls also have a few family-run pensions.

More about the archipelago 

Danger down under

There’s long been the hoary old cliche of Australia as a treacherous travel destination. A place with more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else –  all thanks to its impressive roll call of threatening resident creatures plus dangerous ocean rips and a host of other potentially fatal possibilities.

Now add to that parade of formidable foes a stupendous listing of the country’s myriad poisonous plants, fungi and bacteria, in numbers so prolific they fill a 976-page tome.

Australia's Poisonous Plants, Fungi and CyanobacteriaPublished by the the CSIRO, Australia’s National science agency,  Australia’s Poisonous Plants, Fungi and Cyanobacteria (US$205) is “the first full-colour, comprehensive guide to the major natural threats to health in Australia affecting domestic and native animals and humans”.

The author is retired veterinarian toxicologist Ross McKenzie, who will now forever be known as Toxic Ross. He says more poisonous plants continue to be discovered.

This impressive publication will no doubt add even more ammunition to those who like to rave on about all the spiders, snakes, jellyfish and other wriggling, biting beasties lying in wait for unsuspecting visitors to the great southern land.

Such scaremongering does make for arresting copy along the lines of: “If the Great White don’t get ya, the Red Back will!”

Top-selling travel scribe Bill Bryson in his 2000 travelogue Down Under (published in the USA as In a Sunburned Countryconsistently milked the theme of dangerous nasties. Imagine his prose if he’d also had this immense toxic plant guide handy.

Want to know more?

Land of extremes

Soaring heat across Australia over the past week has me thinking about the hottest times I’ve experienced on my travels. Temperatures experienced in the Australian Outback certainly make my list but the high point of hotness for me is in the Empty Corner, the Rub’ al Khali, a sun-blasted quadrant of desert covering a quarter of a million square kilometres of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Deserts provide extremes of experience at both ends of the temperature scale

Awesomely inhospitable and practically uninhabited, a land of relentless excoriating heat, the Empty Corner is the sort of place where the indominatable explorer-author Wilfred Thesiger thrived. He traversed this most formidable land not once but several times more than 60 years ago, long before the advent of air-conditioned Landcruisers and ice-stuffed Eskies.

Thanks to the latter comforts I suffer none of the ordeals Thesiger overcame. And mine is but a brief venture into the Rub’ al Khali. Yet with the thermometer nudging 51C (123.8F), the blinding light and a horizon-swallowing expanse of sweltering landscape play havoc with my mind. My senses are sent reeling as soon as I swing open the car door and step out onto superheated dirt.

Sweat drips off my forehead and stings my eyes as I stand squinting in the glare and panting like a dog, all thought of further movement snuffed out on the spot. The fierce heat from the sun makes my skin smart and my head spin. I dare not remove my sunglasses. Even my tough Tilly hat wilts. More than a few moments of this would surely result in madness.

How did Thesiger cope? Was it any cooler in those far gone days when caravans regularly plied the frankincense route?

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Desert dawn – cooler & mysterious

I step back into the truck and slam the door. The blast from the aircon is an immediate shock, chilling my sweat. Involuntarily I shiver in my seat and stare through the windscreen.

How is it possible that a layer of glass is all that separates me from what, in my feverish imagination, was surely a brief taste of the fires of hell beyond?

Click here to hear Thesiger talk about his Arabian adventures

Read Thesiger’s seminal Arabian Sands

Meeting Jesus

Batavia Air’s motto is simple: “Trust us to fly”. Surely, I ask myself, this is the minimum requirement for any airline? And had I known Flying Jesus of Manado existed, I would most certainly have made a special prayer to him before heading to his hometown.

Keeping aloft is certainly my overriding expectation during my flight from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to Manado in northern Sulawesi. Praise be, we reach Sam Ratulangi International Airport safely and it’s only later, face-to-face with Manado’s pride and glory, that I recall my unwarranted fears and give silent thanks for a safe touch down.

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From where I stand, the white-robed Jesus of Manado appears flying through the air with hands raised in benediction above the city. The gigantic monument occupies a hill overlooking a plush residential estate built by the property tycoon Ciputra, who grew up in Manado and is now one of Indonesia’s richest men.

He certainly achieved his wish, to give something unique to a predominantly Christian city in an otherwise Muslim country.

The Manado Jesus is the largest statue of its kind in Asia. The inevitable comparison is with the Christ The Redeemer statue on Corcovado overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Manado hopes that one day its statue might be just as famous, but that’s debatable. Huge and astonishing it is, however the unusual aerial pose seems to fly in the face of intended religious gravitas. I simply can’t set aside thoughts of a 3D comic book hero.

My jaundiced appreciation is, of course, a minority point of view. The statue draws thousands of devoted visitors, as indicated by this fellow tourist (below) who practically begged me for the photo I took of him beside a tourist coach with Jesus reflected in the window behind. I was pleased to oblige for, in his eyes, any image of Jesus is one to be treasured.

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