Graffiato – Taupo’s Street Art Festival 26-28 Oct 2019

Eleven artists, ten walls, three days. This is the formula for Graffiato, the Taupo Street Art Festival held over New Zealand’s long weekend from 26-28 October 2019.


The festival has been running for nine years with 125 murals created in total, 85 of which still remain, making Taupo New Zealand’s street art capital, with the most comprehensive collection of contemporary murals in the country. The murals have become a tourist attraction and are incredibly diverse, from Maori legends and native wildlife to retro cartoons and geometric allusions.


“When Graffiato first started in 2011, artists were mostly from graffiti and street art backgrounds. These days it’s much more diverse with illustration, typography, tattooing, calligraphy and studio painting all represented on our walls,” says festival curator Ross Liew. You can read about this year’s artists here.

Graffiato street art by Beck Wheeler

Artist Beck Wheeler

I love how the council has been pro-active in facilitating this project to beautify their back alleys.  

“I walk around all day looking for dirty old walls,” says Alice Thompson, project coordinator of Town Centre Taupo, whose job it is to find grubby, unattractive walls and convince their owners to let them be transformed by one of the festival’s invited artists. At no cost to the building owner, the wall is prepped and the artist given creative licence to paint what they want. If the owner truly doesn’t like the result, the mural is painted over, which has only happened twice in the festival’s history.

Being able to watch the artists at work is pretty incredible. Some interact with the crowd as they paint while others like to work behind a barrier and do the big reveal when finished.

While the artists are unpaid, it is a fantastic showcase for their work. Thankfully very few of the murals have been vandalised, though some have not stood the test of time and are painted over. 

If you can’t make the festival it’s worth visiting at any time of year. Pick up the Graffiato Walking Map, which will lead you places you may not otherwise go, where you will find interesting independent stores and food outlets too.

Graffiato street art by Jeremy Shirley

Artist Jeremy Shirley

Many of the walls are in lane-ways behind shops, so frustratingly, some are blocked by parked cars and delivery vehicles, but that is the nature of street art.

It’s also great to learn the festival is being mindful of the environment and are aiming to be a zero-waste event by 2020.

Do you know of other street art festivals around the world?

More: For more details about the festival head to Love Taupo.

Disclaimer: I paid my own way to New Zealand and explored Taupo as a guest of Destination Great Lake Taupo.

Posted in festivals, New Zealand, Taupo, Tourism, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ethical and sustainable travel – let go of the guilt

Learning more about ethical and sustainable travel brings on bouts of guilt about past indiscretions, however unintentional. Riding in a timber seat on an elephant’s back in Thailand years ago springs to mind first.

It was part of a hosted trip and back then I didn’t realise how wrong it was – we were led to believe it was so much better for the elephant than logging. But I remember feeling awkward and mentally uncomfortable as the elephant lumbered somewhat despondently through the forest and decided I wouldn’t ride an elephant in that way again. Not long after on another trip to Thailand I did ride atop a rescued elephant at a sanctuary, sans saddle, as we took it to the river for a bath. This elephant appeared content, the mahout seemed kind and it was a joyous experience for me as the elephant wallowed happily in the water. But with more knowledge I now realise this was still unethical.

The second episode of guilt that still cuts deep happened in Papua New Guinea about 15 years ago. I was shocked by the level of rubbish lining the roadside – plastic bags of rubbish and disposable nappies mostly. When I asked an ex-pat why, he explained that traditionally most things the locals discarded decomposed or were eaten by wild pigs. No one had explained that plastics were different.

The next day I travelled though New Ireland province, having hitched a ride with locals on the back of a truck, the most common method of public transport along the route. In my backpack I had some delicious lady finger bananas in a plastic bag so they didn’t stain my clothes. After sharing them with those around me I put the skins back in the plastic bag to dispose of later. One of the locals motioned for me to give him the bag. I was reluctant, but in pidgin he seemed to indicate he was going to take care of the rubbish for me. He did. By hurling it over his shoulder onto the roadside as we bounced along. It was a heartbreaking moment, realisng the impact a lack of education about plastic would have on this and other island countries. But I was also angry I’d inadvertently contributed to the problem.

But recently I heard something that has prompted me to get over the angst for past indiscretions. “Reflect on old choices, but don’t crucify yourself over them,” says Sandra Vardanega, Worldwise Manager for Flight Centre Travel Group. “If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have made those choices.”  How right she is.

She was speaking at Travel Weekly‘s Travel DAZE Sustainability conference in Sydney presented by G Adventures. It was just one of many inspiring takeaways from a day of sobering facts and inspiring stories. Here are some more quotes that resonated with me.

“The reality is we can’t leave it (climate change) to anyone else, otherwise our grand kids will be f****d.” Darrell Wade, Intrepid Travel Co-founder and Group Chairman.

“Lack of awareness is key.” Ben Pearson, Head of Campaigns at World Animal Protection

“The only tourism future is a sustainable tourism future.” Chris Roberts, Tourism Industry Aeotearoa

“There are trade-offs. Tourism gives and takes.” Jennifer Bartlett, Tourism Development Advisor

“If you remove (an unethical) product you can no longer influence change.” Sandra Vardanega, Worldwise Manager for Flight Centre Travel Group

“Convenience is the biggest weight around our necks.” Costa Georgiadis, Television Presenter of Gardening Australia

“A little bit is better than nothing.” Tim Jones, Managing Director National Geographic and VP Trevel Expedition APAC & ME

“Ask yourself, ‘What can you do?’ Together we can do more.” Marcatan Gaughan, Founder

And tying it back to my ignorant past actions, Bob Brown, former Leader of the Australian Greens, says “Don’t get depressed. Get active!”

I’m pleased to report the elephant park mentioned at the beginning of this post has progressed and no longer offers elephant rides at all. And there are some inspiring initiatives happening in sustainable travel which I’ll share in another post.

Happy World Tourism Day!

Disclosure: I attended the Travel DAZE as a media guest of Travel Weekly.

Posted in Animals, Ethical travel, Sustainability, Tourism, Travel | Tagged | 4 Comments

Kakadu Bird Week 2019

Like me, most visitors to Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory probably don’t come purely for the bird life. But it’s impossible not to be awed by the park’s proliferation of feathered friends, from a tiny, brightly-plumed azure kingfisher spotted beside a billabong to the sheer mass of magpie geese silhouetted against a burnt orange sky at dusk (it’s estimated more than three million geese visit the park). With the range of habitats including grasslands, woodlands and wetlands the variety of birds is astounding.

The bird life is prolific at Mamukala Wetlands in Kakadu

Sixty species of water birds visit Mamukala Wetlands in Kakadu. Photo Briar Jensen

About one-third of Australia’s total bird species can be found in Kakadu; that’s around 280 different breeds, from itty-bitty rainbow bee eaters to giant jabirus. There are unusual Jesus birds, or comb-crested jacanas, with legs and feet seemingly absurdly out of proportion, that enable them to saunter over lily pads or appear to ‘walk on water’.

White bellied sea eagle at Yellow Waters, Kakadu

White-bellied sea eagle at Yellow Water, Kakadu. Photo Briar Jensen

There are birds of prey too, like the white-bellied sea eagle perching in trees around Yellow Water. With a wingspan of more than two metres, it’s Australia’s second-largest bird of prey.

I love the plumed whistling ducks, whose flanks include a contrasting tuft of askew-looking feathers, as though they’ve been borrowed from another bird and jammed randomly in place. They sleep standing on one leg with their heads tucked under their wings.

Plumed whistling ducks in Kakadu

Plumed whistling ducks in Kakadu. Photo Paul Arnold supplied by Kakadu Tourism

If you’re travelling through Kakadu, don’t underestimate the time you will spend bird watching. It can be endlessly fascinating. From a hide at Mamukala Wetlands you can watch magpie geese dive headfirst for bulbs leaving their bottoms bobbing in the air. At Anbangbang Billabong elegant white egrets prove mesmersing as they stalk through the still waters. And a cruise on Yellow Waters offers up more birds than you can count. Guides love the thrill of pointing out species you may never have seen before.

Magpie geese at Mamukala Wetlands.

Magpie geese search for water chestnuts at Mamukala Wetlands. Photo Briar Jensen

Even if you can’t make Bird Week, be prepared for birds to make a big impression on any trip to Kakadu.

Kakadu Bird Week 2019 runs from 28th September to 5th October. You can find out more here and download this year’s Bird Week Program here. There is a huge range of activities from bird photography workshops to guided bird watching walks, much of it free.

For more about the bird life you can read my story Flock to Kakadu, which ran in Escape a few years ago, and my blog post on a previous bird week. If you are heading to the national park here is my Quick Guide to Kakadu, also published in Escape.

Disclaimer: I visited Kakadu National Park as a guest of Tourism NT.

Posted in Adventure, adventure travel, Animals, Australia, bird watching, birds, Kakadu Bird Week, National Parks, Northern Territory | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

So you want to be a travel writer?

I love serendipity. As I was updating my talk ‘Introduction to Travel Writing’, which I give from time to time at libraries and writers’ groups, a blog post popped up in my emails from my colleague Lindy Alexander, at The Freelancer’s Year, entitled There has never been a better time to be a travel writer.

While I caution my workshop participants that it can be difficult to break into the freelance travel writing world, I believe well written, well targeted travel stories will find a paying market. Sure, the pay rates are not always great, and in many instances have gone down in recent years. Even Don George says in Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, “More people are making less money than ever before in the history of Travel Writing.” Which is why I find Lindy’s blog post so timely.

As she says in her post, “Over 10 per cent of all global economic activity in 2018 was generated by the travel and tourism industry.” She points to stats saying that travel and tourism is the second-fastest growing sector in the world. Consequently travel-related advertising is very strong – you only have to look at the weekend newspaper travel sections to see that. While other newspaper sections are shrinking or being culled, travel sections are growing. So pop over to The Freelancer’s Year and be motivated.

The Freelancer's Year

While you’re there, check out  her post What no one ever tells you about being a travel writer. She goes behind-the-scenes and talks to a variety of travel writers around the world, myself included, about the rigors of the job, and what goes on before, during and after the time spent travelling. Like most jobs, it’s not always as glamorous as it seems. But the rewards are enormous. We are incredibly privileged to be able to travel so widely and to be able to share that with our readers.

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Wonderful Western Sydney

Lately I’ve been touring Western Sydney, gathering stories for articles, and I’ve been blown away by the diversity of experiences and attractions available for every age group and type of visitor, from thrill seekers, to nature lovers and history buffs.

There are awesome activities for kids, like feeding wallabies at Featherdale Wildlife Park, farming fun at Tobruk, and obstacle challenges at Treetop Adventure Park in Cumberland State Forest. Swathes of bush make a natural playground in the many national parks and reserves, and the beautiful rivers make getting out on the water easy. As a major source of Sydney’s food, there are farm gate trails, farmers’ markets and pick your own fruit places, not to mention great dining on this fresh local produce. There’s new life being breathed into quiet country villages and the locals have amazing stores to tell if you take the time to chat.

The Hawkesbury River from Hawkins Lookout

Many attractions are less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Sydney, making them ideal for day trips, but there’s so much to do out west, it’s worth making a weekend of it or spend a whole week. For some ideas, here’s my story on a three-day sojourn to the Blue Mountains and my week-long wanderings around the Hawkesbury. If it’s waterfront dining you fancy, then you’ll love the venues in this story on riverside restaurants.

For more inspiration check out this short video produced by Destination NSW and presented by Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney, Stuart Ayres.


So next time you’re looking for something to do with the family, somewhere to impress guests, or just a quiet weekend away, head west!

Shields’ Orchard, Bilpin

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Toe-tapping retro fashion fun in the Blue Mountains

Love retro fashions? Like a bit of toe-tapping on the dance floor? Enjoy lingering with friends over delicious regional food and wine? Then you’ll love the Roaring 20s Festival. Held in Sydney’s Blue Mountains this year’s event takes place on 23rd Feb 2019, so get in quick and you can still join the fun.

Break out the retro gear

Hosted by the Hydro Majestic Hotel, dubbed the Blue Mountains original ‘party palace’, the day kicks off with the Majestic Charleston for Charity dance event followed by the Majestic Long lunch.

The Swing Katz in action

It only costs a gold coin donation (for the Blue Mtns Rural Fires Service) to join the Charleston shenanigans and it’s loads of fun! Don’t panic if you can’t dance, the gorgeous gals from the Sydney Swing Katz teach you on the day in a mass lesson and it’s as simple as step, tap, step, tap, shimmy and pose! After a few practice sessions you’ll be swinging your hips like you own the dance floor!

Join the Charleston for Charity

This is a family-friendly event and there are loads of prizes for the best-dressed, including children’s prizes, so take some inspiration from my images in this post and raid grandma’s wardrobe, rummage in the dress-up box or rush to your local op shop (it is a charity challenge after all!). It’s fabulous fun just watching the fashions at the event, the excitement is contagious and everyone is happy to be photographed, so take your camera.

Fun for the whole family

Of course 1920s fashion is not just flapper dresses and feather boas as I learnt at last year’s Long Lunch fashion parade featuring outfits from the Darnell Collection, now known as the Charlotte Smith Fashion Collection. Presented by Charlotte Smith and Rodger Leong, of the Powerhouse Museum, the parade featured local models and provided an intriguing and informative snapshot of Art Deco fashions.

Parade of 1920s fashions

The Majestic Long Lunch is held in the hotel’s magnificent ballroom and promotes regional food and wine. The shared feast includes enormous platters piled high with delicious produce and is presented by Lindy Milan and Plate Up Blue Mountains. Afterwards head to Cat’s Alley for a decadent cocktail like the ladies of yesteryear. Take a history tour of the hotel and learn about founder Mark Foy, the plight of guests arriving for the opening celebration and past famous guests.

Cat’s Alley

In keeping with the retro theme, why not take a leisurely tour with Blue Mountains Vintage Cadillacs. Feel the wind in your hair as you cruise in one of their three La Salle models from the 1920s.

Cahillac La Salle ‘Flora’

Following are some more images to inspire you…

A touch of elegance

Do you love dressing up for festivals? What dress-up festivals are your favourites? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear your stories.

More: Read about other things to do while you are at the festival in my article for Senior Traveller.

To book: To register for the Charleston for Charity click here. To book for the Majestic Long Lunch click here. Hope you have as awesome a time as I did!

Disclaimer: I travelled to the 2018 festival as a guest of The Escarpment Group.


Posted in Australia, Events, Fashion, festivals, Food & Wine, New South Wales, Sydney | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sydney’s QVB turns 120 – share your story to win

Since moving to Sydney 20-odd years ago I’ve come to love the elegant Queen Victoria Building, which occupies and entire city block. But like many of the shoppers and commuters that pass through her colonnaded walkways and underground passageways, I’ve taken her beauty for granted – not fully appreciating her heritage, history and architectural significance. All that changed when I took a history tour of the building, but more on that later.

QVB’s steel frame and barrel vaulted glass ceilings were regarded as innovative at the time.

Did you realise this old girl turned 120 in July 2018? Celebrations continue until mid-August with a Memory Lock installation inspired by the ‘love padlocks’ of the Pont des Arts footbridge in Paris. Designed by James Dive the 5m tall ironwork ‘keyhole’ installation is located under the QVB’s central dome.

Keyhole-shaped ‘Memory Lock’ installation at QVB

If you’ve had a memorable moment at the QVB you’re invited to share it by by writing it on a tag connected to a padlock and attaching it to the ‘keyhole’. Everyone who takes part goes in a draw to win a high tea for six at The Tea Room in QVB. See details here.

Memory padlocks at QVB

I visited the installation last week and was amazed at the number of padlocks already attached to the installation, which includes a 4.8m replica of the keepsake key gifted to the mayoress of Sydney, Francis Harris, at the building’s opening in 1898. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the original keepsake key is unknown.

Memory padlocks on ironwork keyhole at QVB.

The QVB has an amazing story, so it’s worth taking the history tour that is offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11.30am. For $15 the 45-minute tour is jam-packed with facts and anecdotes. Did you realise the QVB was built on the site of Sydney’s original livestock and produce markets? The markets were initially relocated in the basement of QVB and accessed via a lift that was big enough for a horse and cart.

Central dome at QVB in Sydney

Built in an economic recession the QVB design was considered by some as an outrageous extravagance. Once opened, it was lauded for its innovative construction, yet by 1959 was proposed for demolition in favour of a civic square and car park. Thankfully, the building was classified by the National Trust in 1974 and restoration was undertaken by Malaysian company Ipoh Garden who was granted a 99-year lease. For more history you can read my recent story in The Weekend Australian here.

Queen Victoria Building

Praised at its opening for innovative features like steel frame and barrel vaulted glass ceilings it is now regarded as an outstanding example of Victorian-Federation architecture. Many original features remain, such as stained glass windows, balustrades and tiles, which are highlighted during the history tour.

Some original tiles remain and have been replicated elsewhere.

Named Queen Victoria Markets Building when opened in 1898, the statue of Queen Victoria at the Druitt Street entrance didn’t materialise until 1986. Originally located outside Leinster House, the seat of Irish Parliament in Dublin, it was removed after Irish independence and languished in storage until it was tracked down during the QVB’s 1986 restoration, upon which it was gifted by Ireland to the City of Sydney and unveiled on 20th December 1987.

Queen Victoria Statue outside the QVB originally sat outside Irish Parliament in Dublin until 1948.

I’ve always adored the tiny black wrought-iron staircase on the top level that spirals towards what looks like a Hobbit-sized door near the roof. So I was thrilled to learn it is original and leads to the void between the inner stained glass dome and outer copper dome.

Spiral staircase in the QVB.

While restoration has preserved the sophistication and elegance of the original building, sympathetic concessions to practicality have added modern architectural features that are equally eye-catching, like the reflective escalators.

I love the clean lines and symmetry of the modern escalators.

Once construction for the new tram line is completed it will be possible to admire QVB’s George Street facade once again and the tram itself should offer a wonderful view of the building as it glides by.

York St entrance of QVB, Sydney

So next time you visit the QVB take a few moments to admire the patterned floor tiles, the intricate stained-glass windows and the allegorical statues above the George and Kent Street entrances.  Make an effort to immortalise your memory of QVB by adding it to the lock installation before 19th August 2018 and you could be sipping high tea ensconced in her lavish interiors.


Disclaimer: I undertook the QVB history tour at my own expense.

Posted in Attractions, Australia, New South Wales, Sydney, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments