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Asia, Central America, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia, Uncategorized

May the Fourth


It’s that wonderful day of the year where (us) sci-fi nerds from around the globe (and through the decades now as well!) get to celebrate the infamous May the Fourth! For those who are unaware, which would be scarce these days, “May the force be with you” is a famous line from a famous movie made by a famous director just over 40 years old, the Star Wars saga. Bit of a contentious issue with the Disney Corporation taking over the franchise a few years ago these beloved films have had some extremely exotic locations used to film some of the gorgeous scenery used in the movie.

To celebrate May the Fourth! in style we thought we would take a look back at some of the extraordinary places used for the iconic films, some of the ones that we have visited personally and some of the lesser known locations that are DEFINITELY worth a visit (or five).

Tikal, Guatemala

Going back to the very beginning, the star Maya ruins within Guatemala was used for the very first film and while all of the Mayan sites in Central America have their own individual unique selling points, Tikal was the capital of a civilisation plus a hub location for culture and commerce due to its locale within Guatemala. The Tikal National Park covers over 500 square kilometres and includes thousands of buildings buried under thick jungle, the main complex is made up of 4 main temples that rise steeply up to 44 meters high. To view the famous shot just climb Tikal IV (the only monument you can climb) to get a view of the other 3 temples- instantly recognisable if you’re a fan.

If you want to go spend time at this amazing ruin we’d suggest the Tikal & Semuc Champey Experience 6D/5N with Bamba Experience from AUD540 per person.

Phang Nga, Thailand

Probably best known for the James Bond Island (Koh Ping-gan), Phang Nga is the coastal province on the Western coast of Thailand, bordered by the Andaman Sea and a must-see for those who are visiting the country. Although the cameo appearance is small in the movies it is the background for the homeland of one of the most beloved characters- Chewbacca- and who needs more of an excuse to cruise around the beautiful Thai Isles. Just be aware that the monsoon season hits from mid-October to mid-April so a lot of establishments will shut for the wet period.

How about exploring the area on a Thai Islands Explorer 10D/9N, from AUD1230 per person

Reynisfjara, Iceland

Also known as Black Sand Beach, just south of the city of Vik on the very bottom of the island of Iceland, this area is well known to tourists for not only it’s black pebbled shore but also the striking basalt sea stacks against the cliff (similar to the Giants Causeway in Ireland). In typical Icelandic fashion the area is full of tales and wonder, keep an eye out for the trolls in the water turned to stone by the sun and for the fans this is location of the planet of Eadu used in the most recent Rogue One movie. As Iceland is now more and more accessible to the public we’d recommend heading there sooner rather then later to experience this unspoilt natural beauty.

To visit the trolls down South how about a short trip like the Iceland South Coast Adventure 2D/1N for AUD1105 per person

Guilin, China 

Considered the pearl of China, Guilin is a small prefecture in Southern China, tons of amazing things to see in the region makes its a top place for tourists to visit. Used to fill out Chewie’s home planet, there are lots to keep the wookies occupied here, plus the region is part of 72-hour visa free program- if you’re transiting through China and need somewhere to spend a few days then this may be the ultimate dream location. Amidst karst limestone landscapes, ethnic mountain villages and sprawling terraced rice fields, “East or west, Guilin scenery is the best” truly epitomises this picture perfect postcard location.

For those who want the full China experience how about trying the 8 Day Backpacking tour of China, Hong Kong to Chendgu from AUD759 per person.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

All the way to the very end of the Star Wars saga, the infamous desert of Wadi Rum has been used as the background of lots of famous movies but has also been used in the recent Rogue One movie. Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, is a dramatic desert landscape full of twisting rock formations and spectacular sandstone mountains also occupied with wild Bedouin tribes and their camels. A highlight of any tour in Jordan includes spending a night in Bedouin camp watching the stars wheeling overhead in the midst of this extraordinary landscape.


To get the full experience of the region how about trying the Jordan Highlights Discovery 7D/6N from AUD1085 per person

Ask us about any of the above tours for up to date prices and availability.


South America, Uncategorized

Happy Like a Little Kid – Travels in South America – The End of the World

Volcano near Puerto Varas, Patagonia, Chile

Ushuaia, Patagonia – southernmost city in the world. Next stop, generally Antarctica. Chile and Argentina have carved up the wilds of Patagonia between the two countries, and there are smaller settlements further south – none of which you’re likely to want to visit however.

Getting here doesn’t happen by accident, you need to really want to get to Ushuaia. In my case, it was an 18 hour bus journey from El Calafate (Argentina) through a decent chunk of Chile, and back into Argentina. During this, you and your bus board a ferry for a short hop across the legendary Magellan Strait.

That’s a lot of bus, but they’re comfortable, and the journey is broken up by the various crossings and a bus change at Rio Gallegos, so not bad on the high quality busses.



The Bar at the end of The World…. or at least at the southernmost train station





The Beagle Canal. Named for Darwin’s ship, not because it’s a suitable place for aqua dog racing. Whoops….


The scenery on the journey varies hugely, and most of it is pretty stunning.



Ushuaia, as viewed from the sea. Many visitors join Antarctic expeditions here, and there is an international airport for those that don’t want to bus!

Church in Ushuaia – note that the weathervane is a whale, reflecting the importance of wind and whaling, arguably over worship.

The extreme southern latitude makes for gorgeous long evenings if the sun is out. IF 🙂 Taken after 10pm, on a November day that registered around 24 deg C.




The Terra Del Fuego (Land of Fire) national park protects the fragile ecosystem at the bottom of the world, and anyone who has visited the South Island of New Zealand will be struck by the similarities. And not just because it’s usually bloody windy and cold.

The trees, even the grasses, are often exactly the same species as found in southern NZ, and much of the wildlife too – penguins, seals, birds and sea lions. Terra del Fuego was named for the fires that were kept burning by the native tribes, and spotted by early European explorers. (The Selk’nam and Yaghan groups)

These semi -nomadic people would carefully carry fire with them to new campsites. Inside the national park, a visitors centre gives a good insight as to their lifestyle, before western introduced diseases and lifestyle changes wiped out the populations. A small part of the park is open to tourism for camping and hiking, but most visitors stay one night at most inside the park. A decent visit is easily done as a day trip from Ushuaia.

Europeans used this area primarily for whaling and sealing in the earliest days, and this distinctly seafaring city has a real air of frontier to it. Like Australia, much of the early population stems from a penal colony. A population of around 60,000 means there is decent infrastructure and nightlife, mostly centred around the Dublin Pub.

There’s a golf course, and even a couple of rugby clubs – my guide to the national park tried to get me a game with a local club, but then a German suggested morning beers. Let’s face it, I know where my strengths are at this stage of my life….

The Pan American Highway terminates here, and it is a great place to meet incredible people, who have just completed, or are about to embark on, some pretty amazing adventures.


South America, Uncategorized

Happy Like a Little Kid – Travels in South America – Ica and Huacachina Xmas

Hola amigos, and Feliz Navidad 🙂

Ica dunes, Peru

Christmas for me was spent this year at the very unique desert oasis of Huacachina, near Ica, in Peru.

Huacachina (wok-a-cheena) has a permanent population of around 96, but is always swollen with tourists who’ve sought out this off the beaten path little piece of paradise. It’s only about 5 kms from Ica, which is a decent sized city, but the feeling of isolation makes it seem much further.

This is serious desert, sand dunes stretching to the horizon, and even Ica has major dunes right near downtown, and in the suburbs. In Huacachina there is a bright green ring of vegetation around a spring surrounded by dunes, and in turn surrounded by a small ring of restaurants, tourist companies, and accommodation.


There’s not much to do- explore the dunes, or visit nearby Nazca.  (The tourist flights over the famous lines can be booked from here) But it has a charm that used to draw the Peruvian elite from Lima in the early part of the 20thC. The waters and accompanying mud are said to have healing qualities, although most visitors now are content to rent a paddle boat or go for a wade.

Although most of us pay around $20 AUD for two hours at sunset of dune buggy riding, with the options of sand boarding, or tobogganing down dunes. And it is pretty damn fun 🙂


This video (below) shows sunset on Xmas eve for me. No reindeer or snow in sight, but still a very enjoyable time. Ecocamp gets a massive thumbs up for their facilities and hospitality – definitely my pick for the options that surround the oasis. Great pool, with swim up bar and restaurant. I’d show you photos, but my spectacular stack whilst sandboarding didn’t agree with my camera…. Hope you all enjoyed Xmas as much as I did – around the Ecocamp pool, eating, drinking, and getting ridiculously sunburnt. Also got to share traditional Peruvian chicken Xmas dinners with the staff. Makes missing friends and family that little bit easier 🙂  See you after New Years, keep smiling, Joe.



South America, Uncategorized

Happy like a little kid – travels in South America – Patagonia

Patagonia sunrise

Patagonia sunrise


About four days into this trip, my first to South America, a beautiful young German backpacker asked me what was so funny.

I was standing on the deck of a cargo ferry, gently heading south through the Patagonian fjords, and I realised I had a big stupid grin on my face. The sun was out, but the wind was fierce, and most of the other passengers were cosy in one of the lounges inside. I had on a layer of merino, and another of Goretex, and yeah, it was still a little brisk.

“Um, nothing. I mean…. I’m just happy. Like, look at this.” I nodded to the vista of calm seas leading to dense green islands, with the snow-capped Andes poking up from behind them. We both stared at the view for a couple of minutes, and an albatross chose that moment to seemingly hover next to us. Neither of us reached for our cameras, and I noticed Marina had the same stupid grin that I had.

“I feel ‘little kid happy’, you know? So simple, so happy, but no real reason. Just genuinely so happy to be here, doing nothing.” She nodded, and she understood. We had the best weather in two years apparently, dolphins, sea lions and bird life made regular appearances, the crew were great, and our fellow travellers were lovely. It would have been nice if the orcas reported in the area showed up, but I guess they were busy elsewhere, the little monochrome bastards.

To make the ferry sailing I had raced through Santiago, Pucon and Puerto Varas. Volcanoes, lakes, and super comfy busses all blur into a bit of jetlag and a new found appreciation for stray dogs. Chile has the best looked after strays, and the hostel I stayed at in Santiago told me how the barrio (neighbourhood) had all chipped in to get surgery for one of the dogs – he had the cone of shame on after his surgery, so they put out special water containers for him, so that he could still drink.  Aside from cute strays, there is a stack of outdoor activities down this coast, rafting, trekking, even a volcano hike where you put on an oxygen mask and enter the crater after using crampons and ice picks to get there. (Pucon)

We were on board the MV Evangelista, travelling from Puerto Montt, to Puerto Natales, both in Chile. She is a 120m long ferry, (Evangelista, not Marina) that can carry up to 200 passengers, but the priority is cargo. The trip is roughly four days, depending on tides and weather, with just one stop – if that – scheduled. The remote outpost of Puerto Eden relies on Evangelista to supply everything the town needs, except for seafood. That, they load on to the ferry when she is moored off the coast.

A small armada descends on us at dusk, and the crew rapidly transfer seafood on, and a huge range of other goods off. Two policemen have just finished a posting of  several months, and they proceeded to celebrate by completely ignoring the no alcohol rule on board the boat. I can’t blame them, and they may not have been the only ones who smuggled booze on board 🙂

One extremely happy looking gentleman puttered away from us with nothing but a massive grin and a boxed 50 inch flat screen TV that was half the length of his boat. I’m guessing movie night is every night in Puerto Eden. I reckon he was little kid happy at that moment too. Maybe even little kid on Christmas morning happy.

There were around 100 travellers on board, mostly Europeans, Antipodeans, or Brazilians. We had daily talks from Percy, the on board naturalist. I think that’s the term. He didn’t get nude, but he did tell us about the flora, fauna, history etc. Percy, whatever he is on, deserves a raise. Each talk was done in perfect Spanish, then in perfect English. He would clarify in Portuguese for the Brazilians, and make fun of the Germans. In German.

Those talks were the only daylight hours I spent inside, except for meals. For once jetlag was a good thing, I would wake up at 5am, and be out on deck pre-sunrise. The cold doesn’t bother me, one of the few good things about being raised in Invercargill, so I became somewhat famous for always being on deck. And I mean always. I got sunburnt on cold days, and was in shorts and a t-shirt on sunny days, one particularly lovely afternoon even getting around in bare feet, much to the horror of the mostly middle aged Europeans.

As I’m trying to escape the fact that I turn 40 on this trip, (today in fact in NZ/Aust, tomorrow in Peru) I hung out with the two beautiful Germans, a lovely couple from France/Morocco, and Mederic, an impossibly tall and good looking French lad who had hitchhiked and camped his way south down the west coast. FROM ALASKA. I really wanted to hate him, but he was too goddamn nice.

When he asked how I was traveling, I was literally embarrassed to tell him how easy I was doing it. “Well, there’s this company called Bamba Experience, and they book everything for me. Yeah, in English. No, I don’t speak Spanish. Everything gets emailed to me as I go. No, actually all the busses have been great, they only book the good ones. Hitchhike? Why the hell would I do that? Camp? I have friends who are, but I’ll be sleeping in a real bed thanks very much.”

After four beautiful days of scenery, conversations, wildlife, and really, really, cold wind, we docked at Puerto Natales. The town itself is mostly used as a base to tackle Torres Del Paine, a stunning national park. The most famous trek is the ‘W’ but you can always try for the big “O” if you’re feeling frisky. Both can be accomplished on your own, but it’s always more fun with company. Ahem.

In fact, as of 2016, you are now required to book in advance, even if camping, to ensure that each part of the circuit doesn’t get overcrowded. There are some pretty lux refugios (hostels) in the park, some of which greet you with a cocktail, and have hot tubs. I’m guessing Mederic camped, and probably carried humanitarian aid supplies and three elderly people on his back too.

I had decided to skip a trek in the park, which I will admit I regret, but the weather turned to shit, so, winning. Instead I bussed through to El Calafate, a lake side town in the Argentine part of Patagonia. The big, and I do mean BIG, attraction here is Perito Moreno glacier. I’ve trekked on glaciers before, I grew up in the South Island, so I’m sure it can’t be that impressi……. wow.

This is a monster, and you get right up close on walkways built beside the glacier at the edge of  the lake. It’s almost constantly calving chunks of ice into the water below. It really is amazingly beautiful, and yes, you can trek on it. Perito Moreno was an explorer who mapped a lot of Patagonia, and helped draw up the complicated boundaries between Chile and Argentina. There are streets, a town, an airport and a glacier named after him. These things are not necessarily close to the others, so if you fly into Perito Moreno airport, you’re still over 4ookm away from the glacier –  a very common mistake. Fly into El Calafate – one of many reasons to use a travel agent!! There’s also a great bird sanctuary near the lake in El Calafate, Laguna Nimez, with a 3km loop where you can see flamingos, hawks, ducks and other things with wings and long names. The far side has gates where you can walk out onto the shore of the lake. Unmanned, two way gates. Entrance through the front is around $13 AUD.

The border procedures are pretty easy, if slow. KEEP THE PAPER THEY GIVE YOU AT THE BORDER. Sounds obvious, but a lot of people hadn’t, which is maybe why it was a bit slow. Toilets are basic or non-existent, so as always in Latin America, carry some loo paper with you. Paperwork is important sometimes.

Right, it’s beer o’clock, or in this case Champagne o’clock, as Vanessa and the lovely crew I work with at V Travel surprised me with a bottle when I arrived in Cusco yesterday. This may be the first time Veuve Clicquot has been opened in a hostel. And since that gave away it was my birthday, Melina, Melissa and the rest of the amazing staff here at Milhouse have been looking after me ridiculously well. Milhouse has two hostels in Buenos Aires (more about that in another post, which will need to be HEAVILY edited) and a gorgeous old monastery in the centre of Cusco which is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in.

Keep smiling 🙂