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The destination dilemma, solved

28 Nov

I choose my travel destinations in the same way a wino selects a bottle of red: I browse options available, seek informed reviews, develop a shortlist to compare types, values and prices, and then proceed with the option that best suites my taste at the time.

It's time to get back to the drawing board to plan for your trip of a lifetime!

Considering the current high value of the Australian dollar and frequent flight sales by budget airlines, we have access to more holiday destinations than ever before. Seasoned backpackers and first-time tour goers alike are taking advantage of this opportunity as if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime scenario because, really, it might be the best chance many of us get to tick off some big items on our bucket lists. In times like this, how do you approach and plan for travel?

Do you indulge in fancy accommodation and premium dining experiences rather than backpacking?

Do you take longer holidays and spend more time getting to intimately know the places you visit?

Do you check out as many places as you possibly can via an organised tour because it might be the only time you’ll ever venture abroad?

Do you buy more nic nacs and gifts for family?

Several different factors contributed to my recent decision to book flights to Bhutan for the upcoming Christmas break. I initially considered the country because I was craving a taste of Asia again but wanted to avoid known tourist hot spots; Bhutan has a reputation for being the country with the least tourists on the planet!

The concept of holidaying in Bhutan was strengthened when I was reminded that the country has no traffic lights, has banned advertising billboards and measures growth of its economy in line with Gross National Happiness. Yes, yes, yes!

The deciding factor was the realisation that Bhutan will now cost me around half as much as it would have five years ago. That’s right, as a result of the current favourable exchange rate, it will cost me almost 50 percent less than when I have considered the holiday in the past. I know this because travellers can only access the country by paying a daily tariff communicated in US dollars – it includes all accommodation, transport, entry to sights and even meals – enabling me to fairly accurately calculate the total costs relative to time and exchange rates. For me the current exchange savings translate into spending twice the time getting to know the last shangri-la, Bhutan.

I later realised that this decision means I will be going to the Himalayas during winter. Rather than purchasing a fine red wine, I think I’ve grabbed a chilled bottle of bubbly straight off the ice. I’ll toast to that!

By Marissa Toohey


Experience and protect the whale’s echo

19 Nov

Whales are amongst the most intelligent and fascinating creatures on Earth. Just consider the way a pod of whales passing near a coast summons the attention of hundreds of people – boats, kayakers and swimmers all surrender their activities in anticipation of catching a glimpse of these magnificent creatures breaching the surface. I’m one of few people who have also experienced the echo of a whale from under the surface while diving at Byron Bay recently and I was in awe. Like millions of people across the world, I had been dreaming and hoping to encounter a whale in the open water for many years.

I was thrilled to get my opportunity to dive in the presence of a pod of whales but was also saddened by the realisation that the chances of it ever happening again were incredibly slim. These thoughts culminated during the week when I met Captain Paul Watson who is preparing to lead the Sea Shepherds through their most daring campaign ever: Operation Divine Wind, aiming to stop Japanese whaling in the Antarctic region for good.

Watch The Captain’s talk about the upcoming Divine Wind anti-whaling campaign which I enjoyed during the week. Video by Sea Shepherds Brisbane.

Last year the Sea Shepherds obstructed the course of Japanese ships so severely that they only achieved 17 percent of their kill quota and were forced to turn around and go back home. This made whaling completely economically unviable for Japan. Despite this serious outcome last year, the Japanese Government has still committed to go ahead whaling over the next few months and The Captain said they have even dedicated almost $30 million just to stop the Sea Shepherds. To make matters worse, the Australian Government continues to let these ships refuel in our territory and has rejected all requests by the Sea Shepherds for a boat to standby incase of an emergency. Considering the hostility demonstrated by Japanese ships last year and the fact that the majority of Sea Shepherds crew members will be Australian and New Zealand volunteers, it is disappointing that the actions of our leaders don’t reflect the population’s love for these animals.

The recent announcements that two species of rhinos became extinct – one in Africa and the other in Vietnam – highlighted the fact that the world needs to act faster to protect its animals. If whaling continues in the way that poaching has, the next generation of children will never hear the spectacular echo of a whale.

Please watch the above video of The Captain’s talk in Brisbane during the week and see why the Sea Shepherds are a cause worth busting your bubble for.

By Marissa Toohey

I’ve seen how a simple investment in development pays dividends forever

23 Oct

In Vietnam I saw that individual cash donations provided bricks and mortar to build homes for people in need, which protected them from typhoons and severe illnesses like malaria, and even improved their education and livelihoods through stability.

I’ve seen firsthand how simple contributions play a part in creating better lives and futures for marginalised households.

Here is a short video that inspires me and demonstrates how you can also do something as simple as investing in a single girl to produce positive impacts for families, communities, women and even the world: it’s called The Girl Effect.

By Marissa Toohey

Supporters to join Habitat for Humanity to observe United Nations World Habitat Day, Monday 4th October

29 Sep

SUPPORTERS TO JOIN HABITAT FOR HUMANITY TO OBSERVE UNITED NATIONS WORLD HABITAT DAY,  MONDAY 4TH OCTOBER In recognition of World Habitat Day, Habitat for Humanity International will raise awareness of the need for improved shelter and the “better life” benefits that follow – improved health, education, safety and economic opportunities.

Research shows that housing directly impacts children:

Research shows that housing has positive impacts on the lives of children. I took this photograph at a Habitat build in My Tho at the Mekong Delta.

  • Children in poverty housing have increased risk of viral or bacterial infections (such as diarrhoea) and a greater chance of suffering mental health and behavioural problems.
  • Children of homeowners are more likely to stay in school (by a nearly 10 percent increase).
  • Children who live in poverty housing have lower educational attainment and a greater likelihood of being impoverished and unemployed as adults.

In the Asia Pacific Region, Habitat for Humanity International will host building, advocacy and fundraising activities to recognize World Habitat Day in over a dozen countries. More details can be found here.

The United Nations has designated the first Monday of October as World Habitat Day, a call to people around the world to join together to exchange ideas and advocate for the need and importance of safe and secure housing.

One billion people, one-sixth of the world’s population, live in deplorable conditions in dilapidated slums and shanty-towns. By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 2 billion.

About Habitat for Humanity Vietnam

Habitat for Humanity Vietnam (HFHV) operates as a part of Habitat for Humanity International, building simple, decent and affordable homes and water and sanitation facilities in partnership with Vietnamese families in need. HFHV started in January 2001 and is currently implementing projects inVinh Phuc, Hai Duong, Quang Nam, Tien Giang, Dong Nai and Kien Giang provinces.To date, HFHV has served over 7,400 households or nearly 34,000 people in Vietnam. For more information, to make a donation or to volunteer, please visit

Moreton Island wild dolphin feeding experience

16 Jul

MORETON ISLAND WILD DOLPHIN FEEDING EXPERIENCE  Dolphins are one of the most adored creatures on Earth and people travel from far and wide just to get close to them. Moreton Island near Brisbane is one of those special locations in Australia where people can pay to hand feed dolphins in the wild. For me, a truly devout admirer of the species, it was a bitter sweet experience.

The family of dolphins have been visiting Tangalooma Island Resort for decades. Three generations frequent the resort nightly, familiar with the routine of feeding at 6pm. Resort staff have watched them grow up and have names for every one of them.

But disappointment consumed me when a noisy flock of over 150 people raced towards the water to take part in the feeding experience during the weekend. The noise, pushing and shoving, and sneaky people jumping the fence to join the queue was too much for me, which made me feel for the seemingly dependent pod in the shallows of the water.

Only a handful of people were actually allowed into the water at a time and fish were rationed to one per person. The rules were firmly announced: no touching the dolphins. But it still felt like the dolphins were controlled for a show, rather than wild creatures as they should be.

Dolphins arrived early and people swum out to meet them.

Another disappointing aspect was the lack of management before and after the show. A number of dolphins arrived at the resort over an hour and a half before the feed was due to begin, swimming into shallow water in anticipation for food. People continued fishing off the pier despite the presence of dolphins below, and others swum right out to meet the wild pod, which is illegal in Australian waters (you are supposed to keep a distance away). Staff were nowhere in sight to manage the behaviours of their guests.

But the experience was still magical and I believe it must be effective in educating tourists from around the world. Getting up close to a dolphin, where you can see their playful eyes and powerful dorsal fins, is really inspiring – even if it was only for one minute. I only wish it was managed by researchers (not for profit) and restricted to fewer people.

The inexcusable act

9 Jul

THE INEXCUSABLE ACT  I’m sitting on a coach bound for Australia’s Capital city, Canberra, (which, alone, is enough to dampen many people’s moods) but then the inexcusable happens: one of my fellow passengers farts.

I’m not referring to one of those loud-and-out-there farts that boys in primary school deal just to get a laugh out of the girls in class. This particular fart was of the silent and violent variety. The type that people allow to slip out slowly and quietly, completely aware that the unsuspecting people around them are about to fall victim to that bowl of spicy chorizo pasta from last night.

It turns me off my snacks, I can’t concentrate on my reading and I can’t do a thing to stop it because the windows can’t be opened. I am convinced the air conditioner has caused the smell to drift through the entire bus and it is now trapped lingering around my seat. I wonder if the old woman besides me thinks that I have let this one rip?

Maybe it was the lovely old lady who farted and she just can’t help it because of health reasons. It could have been the innocent looking starlet in front of me. She’s not as innocent as she appears. I’ve got it … It’s the bus driver! I bet he just loves watching the change of expressions as his putrid odour makes its way down the length of the vehicle.

It’s just so cruel. In fact, it should be punishable.

I refer to Australian national transport operator Greyhound Australia’s terms and conditions for passengers travelling on coaches. I clearly identify sections restricting drug and alcohol consumption and minimum clothing standards. But no section on carrying harmful gases. There should be a special clause on farting. After all, it is a huge disruption to comfort of passengers travelling and, in some instances, its even a health risk!

Next time I travel overland, I think I’ll opt for car rental.

By Marissa Toohey

World Cup adventure highlights great Aussie fear

11 Jun

WORLD CUP ADVENTURE HIGHLIGHTS GREAT AUSSIE FEAR  Adrenalin seekers are flocking to South Africa’s famous Shark Alley during the World Cup to experience the frightening glare of a great white shark. Local scuba diving operators have reported that cage diving bookings have doubled for June, which allows adventurous individuals to get within inches of a shark’s toothy grin. But the sentiment regarding sharks in Australia is not as adventurous and most Australians remain very fearful of sharks and their habitats.

A simple, logical evaluation of the number of people that swim at Australian beaches versus the number of shark attacks per year suggests the likelihood of being attacked is remarkably low. In addition, most shark attacks are not fatal and there are many types of shark species that are proven to be non-threatening to human beings. So why do so many people fear and sometimes avoid Aussie waters?

The curator of the Australian Shark Attack File, John West, told the Sydney Morning Herald there was hysteria surrounding sharks when a reported great white shark attack at Sydney’s Northern Beaches turned out to be a minor incident involving a docile wobbegong shark in February.

“Whenever there is a shark attack, at first, it’s always a white pointer,” Mr West told the paper. “The fear of sharks is amazing.”

Original media reports of the attack were framed as “life-threatening” despite photographic evidence of a very minor bite mark on the victim’s leg. Similar reports have been generated across the country because reporters get excited to embellish shark incidents and transform them into dramatic sagas.

Did any journalists consider an original angle for the story? I would be more interested to read about the wobbegong’s distress from losing four teeth to the man’s leg. He was probably thinking, “When will these people learn to leave me alone?”

Whether intended or not, the media instills fear in Australians by promoting tormenting shark stories at every opportunity. What’s equally alarming is that fear of the actual ocean is increasing because attitudes are developing concerning other underwater species. For example, fear of sting rays was sparked by reports of the tragic death of Australian icon and adventurer Steve Irwin in 2006.

Author of Shark, David Owen, says present fears of sharks are still strongly related to the 1970’s Jaws phenomenon. Does a thirty five-year-old movie threaten the great Australian right to spend summer days at the beach? Or will Australian media recognise their role to play in reducing the effects for the future?

By Marissa Toohey

Article about shark diving at Forster in NSW, Australia, is coming soon!

Heavy backpacks and the symbol of happiness

6 Jun

HEAVY BACKPACKS AND THE SYMBOL OF HAPPINESS  Most people associate backpacks with pain and difficulties but, to me, backpacks symbolise the things that make me happiest: travel, adventures and clothes! For that reason, I almost always wear a large smile as I carry my backpack and I always receive smiles in return.

Yesterday morning I was browsing a shop in Sydney Central train station when I turned around and accidentally whacked a girl with my massive backpack as she was walking behind me. I really belted her, so I felt terrible, but she smiled, apologised to me (I don’t even know why) and then initiated a friendly conversation by asking where I was traveling to. I’m sure if the same incident had occurred while wearing my usual gym bag she would have hissed, cursed and considered whacking me back.

I like hoisting a large bag over my shoulder that weighs more than a young child. Yes, it’s painfully heavy but I enjoy the great encounters and meetings that occur when people sympathise or become curious about my battle-with-the-bag.

I’m less than 160cm tall, average weight, fit but not particularly strong, and my backpack looks like it was designed for a tall man with broad shoulders. It towers a foot above my head and consumes my entire body. The straps nestle neatly around my hips and the pockets cling to the contours of my waist so it hugs the whole back half of my body, as if we are intimately spooning.

It might look silly but I love my bag. It’s not only a necessary part of my travel hobby, it’s a symbol of the happy moments it creates, both for me and others. I will keep that in mind during the hard times ahead in South East Asia.

By Marissa Toohey

Campbell’s explosive headlines received with shrugs

21 May

CAMPBELL’S EXPLOSIVE HEADLINES RECEIVED WITH SHRUGS  The announcement that NSW transport minister David Campbell has been living a double life splashed into the news overnight with explosive headlines but was received by underwhelming shrugs of shoulders. The 16-year rule of the NSW ALP government has been plagued with so many personal scandals – John Della Bosca, Matt Brown and now Campbell – that people are not surprised by drama anymore, and many are beginning to respond with sympathy.

Watching the state government is like watching a midday soap opera, except the characters are much less attractive in this story, or a real-life version of Survivor, where alliances and Chinese Whispers run rampant amongst the tribe. But no one’s got immunity in this game.

With our personal lives more public than ever and the capacity for technology to retain information forever, via Google, Facebook and Twitter archives, the number of scandalous tales in the government are set to rise in the near future. Sexting and emotional tweets that are published while people are young and none-the-wiser will undoubtedly haunt future generations of leaders.

The public are always going to be interested in stories that question the integrity of the government, whether personal or professional, and individuals that venture into public positions will continue facing repercussions for personal indiscretions. But with our entire lives recorded and personal information available online, soon to include medical histories as well, will it be possible to find a suitable leader that has never uploaded a tipsy photo onto Facebook or engaged in sexting in fifteen years? Will we sympathise because many of us have published something we are not proud of as well? Will the treatment of personal issues in the media cause tomorrow’s great leaders to follow alternative career paths? Or is the recent indifferent reaction to Campbell’s story an indication that people will eventually become desensitised to this type of news?

As stories about Keneally’s team continue to be revealed, I just hope next time they spare us from imagining any kind of sex life of an overweight, middle-aged and unattractive man.

By Marissa Toohey

This post doesn’t conform with my usual subject areas, but nonetheless it’s one that people across the world can relate to.

3 bands I'd fly across the world for

21 Apr

3 BANDS I’D FLY ACROSS THE WORLD FOR   There’s nothing like seeing a band when they’re comfortable and performing in front of their oldest and most loyal fans. There’s an extra special connection between an artist and their home crowd that everyone else misses out on and the connection is so electrifying, it’s sometimes worth flying across the world to experience.

When I talk about flying across the world for a band, I’m not referring to getting tickets to see an old band that announces a “come back” concert, consisting of “have-beens” attempting to revive their prime years by donning latex and a grin despite serious resistence from fragile old bodies (yes, there was a subtle reference to Axl in there). I’d rather remember those types of bands fondly, recalling when they could actually perform. I’m referring to bands that are still reported as being amazing, youthful and can perform their greatest acts.

I wouldn’t hesitate to invest in a round-the-world ticket to catch a glimpse of the following bands in their home countries.

1. Muse at London in England. Imagine experiencing singer Matt Bellamy’s vocal range in full cry, performing the greatest Muse album, Absolution, in front of his own home crowd. Absolution includes songs Time is Running Out, Hysteria and Sing for Absolution.The band previously performed Absolution at the 2004 Glastonbury Festival in England and told MTV the concert was “the best gig of our lives”. I wonder if they can do it even bigger and better…

2. Rammstein at Berlin in Germany. Rammstein is one “hot” band! Even if you are not a fan of Rammstein’s heavy music, you have to appreciate the band’s daring costumes and complex pyrotechnics. The German band has achieved global notoriety for its over-the-top stage performances which often include fire balls and glitterbursts and even the singer, Till Lindemann, spends entire songs on fire!

3. No Doubt at Anaheim in California. This will not surprise those who know me well but, for everyone else, I couldn’t help but include my favourite band ever. You might contest how I put No Doubt into a category of bands that are still in their prime but, in my eyes, they’ve still got it baby! I’d love to see Gwen and the boys perform Tragic Kingdom and revive the great scar era of the 90s.

Who would you fly across the world for?

By Marissa Toohey

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