Tragic White Island Eruption

It’s tragic to hear that New Zealand’s White Island, an active marine volcano, has erupted with little warning, killing at least five tourists, with more still missing. It’s devastating news and my heart goes out to all those involved.

White Island is a submerged stratovolcano (also known as a composite cone), with 70% of the cone underwater. The island is about 2km in diameter and up to 320m high. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano and a drawcard for tourists.

Known as Te Puia o Whakaari or simply Whakaari in Maori, meaning ‘to make visible’, White Island lies 48 km off the North Island’s Bay of Plenty on the east coast. It is the northern most point of the Taupo Volcanic Zone and Whakatane is the closest town.

White Island

White Island from the air. Image Briar Jensen

There is no doubt White Island is a volatile place. The volcano has been active for at least 150,000 years and according to records there has been continual activity and small eruptions since human settlement of New Zealand. Prior to yesterday’s eruption, the most recent was in 2000.

You can visit the island by helicopter or by boat, and I was privileged to do both earlier this year. I’ve always been fascinated by volcanoes and White Island has been on my radar for a long time. It was part of a trip taking in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, including the geothermal areas around Taupo and Rotorua, and the volcanic rift of Mount Tarawera.

White Island

Barren beauty of White Island. Image Briar Jensen

Why visit an active volcano? Firstly, because it’s allowed and secondly to witness the power of nature in its raw, rugged, desolate and hostile beauty. It’s the same allure that draws tourists to Mt Vesuvius, Mt Etna and Mt Kilauea.

Flying around the island in a helicopter was thrilling and offered a perspective of the topography not possible from sea level. Cliffs encircle a distinct crater, and within this a lake spews up clouds of steam and gas often visible from the mainland. Winds buffeted our helicopter as we landed and continued to pummel us on our tour.

Walking on White Island

Walking on White Island. Image Briar Jensen

Walking on the crater floor you are surrounded by runnelled cliffs in 50 shades of yellow crystallised sulphur. There are spurting fumaroles, sulphur vents, boiling pools and steaming streams. The large lake is acidic and the day I was there, swathed in swirling steam with a distinct sulphur dioxide smell.  It’s a barren habitat, with almost no vegetation, making it feel other-worldly.

White Island

Yellow sulphur deposits on White Island. Image Briar Jensen

Sulphur mining took place sporadically on the island between the 1880s and 1930s with 11 miners losing their lives in a landslide in 1914. Rusting remains of their equipment can be seen in the derelict factory. There are no marked paths on the island, because the surface of the crater is constantly changing. Guides know where it is safest to walk and visitors must follow them exactly.

Crater Lake White Island

Crater Lake, White Island. Image Briar Jensen

The island is monitored by GNS Science (formerly the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences) with webcams, a seismograph and microphone, along with regular visits to take measurements and samples. GNS assigns alert levels for volcanic activity from 0 (typical background surface activity) to 5 (destructive with major damage beyond volcano). The week before I visited there had been 183 small earthquakes recorded in a 24 hour period.

White Island

The stunning colours of White Island. Image Briar Jensen

I was aware I was taking a risk as this is an active volcano (and there are the usual indemnity forms to sign), but also thrilled New Zealand offered the opportunity to walk on an active volcano. I also felt reassured GNS monitoring would alert operators of serious increases in activity that could indicate an eruption.

On arrival at the island we were issued with compulsory hard hats and given gas masks to carry should we find the air quality a problem. I didn’t need to use the mask, but was glad to have it should the fumes have increased.

On the helicopter trip we were advised to run back to the aircraft should an eruption occur, or if it was too hazardous to fly, to run to a shipping container hidden behind a small hill. Arriving by boat we were advised to head back towards the ocean in the event of an eruption, keeping low and ensuring our masks were on. I doubted we would be able to outrun any eruption, but I assumed there would be warning signs, like rumblings or tremors, which would have alerted us to run towards the perimeter of the island. Tragically, this appears not to have been the case.

White Island

Walking towards the old mining factory, White Island. Image Briar Jensen

It is with sheer horror and disbelief that I watch this tragedy unfolding having walked there so recently.

My heart aches for everyone caught up on the island. It is devastating that a day spent in awe of nature should end in such tragic circumstances. My sincere condolences to everyone involved and affected by the dramatic event.



Posted in Adventure, adventure travel, New Zealand | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

WOW List 2020 – Flight Centre’s Top 50 Travel Experiences

People love lists. I certainly do. I’m a serial list-writer, from daily ‘to do’ lists to a travel packing master list years in the making. The travel community loves lists too. Just look at rise of the ‘listicle’ or list article in both print and online media, from ‘The best of’ to ‘The worst of’ lists encompassing everything from places to propose to quirkiest museums.

Travel Ideas WOW List 2020 Travel Ideas Magazine

This time of year sees travel companies put out their lists of places to visit in the coming 12 months, and last week I had the pleasure of attending a pre-launch lunch (at the stunning Quay Restaurant in Sydney) for Flight Centre Australia’s Travel Ideas magazine WOW List 2020, their recommended top 50 travel experiences for next year.

Several things make this list stand out. Firstly, it’s curated by Australians for the Australian market. Compilation of the list included consultation with Flight Centre’s in-house destination experts, some of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years. They also spoke with trusted suppliers, considered booking data and took into account internal inquiries for emerging destinations and Australian traveller trends.

Secondly, they have captured four experiences in stunningly evocative videos produced by Aussies and featuring their own passionate expert consultants, so they feel real and achievable as well as inspiring. If these clips don’t encourage you to get out and explore the world, whatever your budget, I don’t know what will.

My favourite clip (below) is Wonder at the the northern lights in the Yukon, with Canada expert consultant Isabella Modra. Seeing the Northern Lights (or Southern Lights for that matter) is one of my travel goals, but there is always the chance they will not appear while you are in the region, which is why I love this video so much.

It’s made me more determined to get to the Yukon, even if the ephemeral lights don’t make an appearance. That’s because Luke Wheatly, head of creative content at Flight Centre, has conveyed the beauty of the destination as a whole, with stunning photography of boots crunching on ice, 4WDs crashing through frozen streams, aerial shots of mountains and glaciers, close-ups of shaggy mountain goats, snowy Arctic fox and stalking lynx. Only at the very end of the video, after we’re already sold on the destination, do we see the northern lights, like (green) icing on the (white) cake of the Yukon.

I spoke about this with Luke after watching the video at lunch. He too was nervous that the northern lights might not appear during their short four-day visit. Consequently, he was excited and relieved when they did appear two out of the four nights, although on their second showing they were not able to set up their camera equipment quickly enough before they disappeared, and despite waiting until 3am, they did not reappear.

Northern Lights Yukon Nothern Lights, Yukon

My second favourite clip is of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef at Heron Island. I visited there many years ago and look forward to going back. You can snorkel straight off the shore over the reef where where rays pulsate through the water and turtles skim the coral.

Other videos cover Switzerland by scenic rail and France on a Viking river cruise.

If you don’t have time to watch them all in full, then do watch this Highlight Trailer and grab yourself a copy of Travel Ideas magazine from you nearest Flight Centre store or read it online here. Whether you’re interested in glamping in the Kimberley, hiking in Peru, sailing in Turkey or going on a pub crawl in London, you’re sure to be inspired by these ideas. I certainly am!

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Flight Centre, though as a freelance travel writer I have written for the magazine on occasion, though not for this edition. I attended a lunch hosted by Flight Centre for the launch of this campaign.

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Give A Crap on World Toilet Day 2019

As some of you know, I enjoy funny dunny signs. And as today is United Nations World Toilet Day I thought I’d share a few more. I recently came across these in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. I’m not sure if it is a weather-related thing – as in it’s so hot up there you drink a lot and are always desperate to go to the toilet, but several toilet signs involved crossed legs.

Crossed-leg toilet sign

Trendy crossed-legged toilet signs at the Riley Hotel in Cairns

I loved these signs below, found on the colourful mosaic-tiled public toilets in Rex Smeal Park, Port Douglas, though I was in too much of a rush to admire the design until I’d used them, having arrived feeling just like the depicted lady! After walking part of Four Mile Beach we thought we’d just walk to the top of the hill for the view, but kept going …and going, along Flagstaff Hill Walking Track, which was a bit further than we realised. Worth it for the views though.

Imagine if you felt like this but there was nowhere for you to go to the toilet. (Cue anxious sweating and abdominal cramps.) Horrible thought isn’t it? Did you know that 673 million people still have to defecate in the open? And three billion lack basic hand washing facilities? Shocking, and something we just don’t think about often enough.

Hence World Toilet Day on the 19th November is about inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis.

According to a WHO/UNICEF joint monitoring program 4.2 billion people live without safely managed sanitation. Untreated human waste in the environment spreads diseases. WHO says “Inadequate sanitation is estimated to cause 432,000 diarrhoeal deaths every year and is a major factor in diseases such as intestinal worms, trachoma and schistosomiasis.” They also estimate 297,000 children under five die each year from diarrhoea because of unsafe drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene.

Then there are the issues of safety and dignity for women. Toileting outside in the dark can leave women and girls vulnerable to sexual assault. And many girls have to miss school when they menstruate because of lack of facilities.

For more statistics and information you can see this fact sheet. And for inspiring and heart-breaking stories about what a difference sanitation makes, check out World Toilet Day themes. There you’ll also find links to organisations that are aiming to provide toilets for all by 2030. Apart from donating to these organisations, there’s one more easy thing you can do right now to make a difference.

toilet paper

Who gives a crap toilet paper

Buy your toilet paper from Australian company Who Gives A Crap. Order online and they deliver. It’s that simple. And 50% of profits go to building toilets and improving sanitation in developing countries. How good is that? Since they started in 2013 they have donated $700,000 for that purpose. Well done guys!!!

I love their irreverent marketing, like their name for a start! Their toilet paper rolls, made without trees, come wrapped in paper, not plastic, with cheeky sayings like ‘Do more ones and twos’, ‘Good for your bum – Great for the world’, and ‘Give yourself a pat on the bum’.

toilet rollI bought my first carton recently and the packaging gives me a smile every time I visit the loo. The rolls seem to last for ages too. Sure, the 100% recycled paper without inks, dyes or scents looks like it might not be very soft, but I assure you it is, though I can’t verify it is as ‘soft as unicorn kisses and as strong as 1000 ponies’ as their website puts it. But if you have a very sensitive bum, try their 100% forest friendly bamboo paper, which is apparently like ‘wiping with clouds’. Told you they had a sense of humour, which is what you need for dealing with a global problem as undignified as having no place to poop safely or in private.

When you book your travel, go with companies that have a social conscience and give back to the places and people they visit, like World Expeditions, Intrepid, G Adventures and Abercrombie & Kent among others.

I’ll finish with a couple more funny dunny signs I saw in Seisia in Cape York. Mango trees are so prolific up there the locals get sick of eating mangoes. Can you believe that?!

So make World Toilet Day 2019 the day you make a difference and prove that you do give a crap about basic hygiene for everyone.

Disclaimer: I visited Cape York at my own expense and have no affiliation with Who Gives a Crap or the travel companies listed.

Posted in Ethical travel, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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