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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Space tourism: an interview with an astronaut

What’s the view like from space?

The first time you look out the window once you’re in space, I think the reaction of every astronaut is about the same: first there’s this huge gasp. It goes “Aw, wow!”. You just can’t believe what you’re looking at.

Even though I had seen many pictures of the Earth taken from space – and I had seen the huge IMAX movies with images of Earth – when I saw it with my own eyes, I just gasped.

I was amazed at the blackness of space. It’s a darker, richer colour than I’d ever seen before.

And there, right up against the blackness of space, you have the beautiful blue Earth and the thin layer of atmosphere that’s protecting us. It looks quite infinite when you’re down on the surface, but from above, looking back at the Earth, our atmosphere appears a paper-thin layer. You sense how fragile this planet really is.

 

What are the best views of Earth from space?

I always loved passing over Egypt. To see the Nile River – this bright green pathway cutting through the centre of Egypt – was just spectacular. You see the blue water of the Mediterranean and the brown desert areas. This contrast between brown, green and bright blue was just breathtaking and, because I had visited there on Earth, it was extra special for me to see from space.

Another favourite view that we all had – I think almost all the astronauts on board the shuttle agreed – is passing over the Kennedy Space Center. Every time we would pass over there we’d have our noses to the window, pressed up against the glass, and we’d be looking down saying: “Oh there’s our launch pad. There’s our landing strip.”

I remember on my first mission, we had launched, and it was a little more than an hour after we’d been in space. I happened to look out the window and I saw Tampa Bay coming up. Just a few seconds later we passed right over the Kennedy Space Center.

As I looked back up at the launch pad, I saw 39A there right, where we had lifted off from an hour and a half earlier. I thought: “I have just been around planet Earth one time and my family is probably stuck in traffic waiting to get back to their hotel after watching the launch.”

That really put it all in perspective for me – where I was and what I was doing.

What’s the in-flight food and entertainment like on a spacecraft?

The food is not good, but it’s not horrible. It’s OK. I tell people I would never go to a restaurant that serves space food. It’s all freeze-dried, so it’ll stay preserved in that state for a number of years; we don’t have refrigerators and freezers up in space.

I think the most popular entertainment for astronauts is looking out the window – and I do this on a commercial airplane flight too. I love sitting near the window and just watching the Earth go by.

The big difference for us in space, instead of on an airplane, is that when you see a city go by the window, it’ll take a few minutes. Up in space we’ll see countries and continents go by in that same time.We’ll look out at the planet and see features like the top of Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon rainforest.

I got to see so many incredible sights – it was always an amazing opportunity to see our planet, to see places and things that I had only read about in books earlier.

Do you think space is the future of travel?

Space tourism is definitely coming and we’re very, very close to it. I think it’s going to be an exciting adventure for everybody who participates. Once we send those first people up there’s going to be such a buzz about going into space. I think there’s going to be a long line of people who want to get in on that.

The more people that can get up to space to look back at planet Earth, I think the better off we’re all going to be. As soon as I had reached orbit and I’m looking out the window, one of the first thoughts I had was: “Boy, I wish my mother could see this, my wife could see it, my brothers and sisters, my friends.”

I wanted everybody to see the perspective that I just had. And I say that, if anybody looked out the window just for 10–15 seconds, that would be all it would take to change you forever and how you view planet Earth.

We all have our essential items for travelling – what’s in an astronaut’s suitcase?

You know NASA packs everything for us, so we don’t have to do much thinking. They pack all of our food, all of our clothes, cameras. Everything we could possibly need up there, NASA provides.

Do you love or hate flying on normal airliners?

I still enjoy travelling on airplanes and flying over continents. I love looking out the window and seeing sights down below. I love flying with a map, so I can try to figure out where we are all the time too. But I do find it a little slow.

Once you’ve flown on the space shuttle at 18,000mph – and you can orbit the Earth in a mere 90 minutes – sometimes I get a little impatient as it takes multiple hours to cross the Atlantic.

Has being launched in a spaceship ruined rollercoasters for you?

I have to admit that space travel – and my training at NASA – has totally ruined going to an adventure park or theme park. And rollercoasters in particular. I can get on the scariest rollercoaster, you’ll strap me in and it’s like: “Been there done that.”

If you could go anywhere on Earth, where would you go?

I think at the top of my list would be the Outback. When I passed over it on the shuttle and looked out the window, I could swear I was flying over Mars. It had the same red-orange soil there. It just looked awesome down there, and so unique, so I’ve always been fascinated to see it.

6 reasons your next trip should be to Durban, South Africa

1. Durban is probably South Africa’s coolest city

“Durbs” has a rep for being cooler than Cape Town and Jo’burg, and the city has an enviable list of hip places to stay and eat. First up is a fabulous boutique hotel, The Concierge Bungalows, with its attached Freedom Café built out of a shipping container. Then there’s Distillery 031, knocking out locally flavoured spirits (African Rosehip gin anyone?) and the Unity Bar and Brasserie, which brews its own Cowbell Pilsner and grills a mean steak.

Last but not least, make a trip to the Artisanal Bakery in Glenwood, Durban’s answer toNew York City‘s Williamsburg or London‘s Dalston. The locals here know their sourdough from their focaccia.

2. There’s great surf to be had

Unlike the frigid waters around Cape Town, Durban’s coastline is lapped by the warm currents of the Indian Ocean allowing you to swim or surf without a wetsuit. The best breaks are found at South Beach, where Saffa surfers congregate in the morning before grabbing chicken and tijps (chips) at local institution Afro’s Chicken.

South Beach is just one of many surfing hotspots along the city’s revamped “Golden Mile”. For families, Addington Beach is the best place for some gentle body boarding. If you’re a total “kook” (beginner), book a surf lesson with Ocean Ventures.

3. There’s something here for history buffs

Get your historical bearings at Francis Farewell Square, dominated by Durban’s Neo-Baroque City Hall. This is where the swampy trading post of Port Natal was established in 1824 on land ceded by Zulu King Shaka. In 1899, Winston Churchill took to the steps of City Hall to tell tales of his escape from a Boer War POW Camp (a plaque marks the spot).

Across the park, littered with the statues of bewhiskered Victorians, is the Old Court House where a 24-year-old Mohandas Gandhi practised law and caused some consternation by refusing to remove his turban.

A few blocks north, the Kwa Muhle Museum details the indignities of apartheid experienced in the city.

 

4. The Indian Quarter is a gourmand’s delight

Home to the largest concentration of Indians outside of India, Durban sometimes resembles a mini Mumbai with its sari shops and spice merchants. Aside from the atmospheric appeal of the Indian Quarter, with its mosques and Art Deco architecture, the real highlight is the food.

As well as tasty samosas stuffed with sweet potato and chutney, don’t miss Durban’s most famous dish, bunny chow – a hollowed-out loaf of white bread stuffed with curry stew (mutton or chicken rather than rabbit). You’ll find it at any hole-in-the wall curry wallah, but one of the best is served at the Oriental in the Workshop Shopping Centre. Wash it down with the bright pink rose-flavoured milkshake Bombay Crush.

5. The city’s townships are a joy to explore

Durban’s townships are as much a part of the city experience as golden sand and bunny chow. Pootling around in a tourist hire car is probably not the best move, however, so it’s worth booking a guided tour with Street Scene. Their township itinerary takes in two areas – Inanda and KwaMashu –  and includes a traditional barbecue lunch or shisha nyama (the Zulu version of the South African braai).

To sample some township nightlife head to Max’s Lifestyle in Umlazi where the sound systems crank out Kwaito House and stripped-down Durban speciality “gqom”.

6. You can find a touch of luxury

To escape traffic-clogged, downtown Durban head to Umhlanga Rocks, which resembles a kind of Malibu or Hamptons by the Indian Ocean. The grande dame of the scene here is theOyster Box hotel, a 5-star Colonial-style retreat with swishing paddle fans, towering palms and black and white chequerboard floors facing some prime beachfront.

Trips for travellers who want to learn something new

Cook up a storm in Chiang Mai

Blessed with some of the world’s best street food, you could be forgiven for coming to Chiang Mai and spending your entire trip indulging in everything from the spiciest tom yum soup to searching for the perfect pad thai. But chances are you’re going to want to learn how to make these delicious dishes yourself. Thankfully, Chiang Mai has several options for curious cooks looking to pick up new culinary skills, with schools dotted through town.

Based on the edge of the city, teachers from Thai Farm Cooking School (thaifarmcooking.net) will collect you from your guest house, take you shopping in local markets and teach you about spices, rice and flavours. You’ll then decamp to its organic farm base, where you’ll learn to cook six dishes. After cooking up a storm, pupils and teachers sit down together to taste everyone’s creations.

Become a gaucho in Argentinian Patagonia

Forget childhood riding classes on sleepy farmsteads. Hopping on a horse in Argentina’s spectacular Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi in Patagonia means scaling mountains and splashing through rivers, all while learning how to round up cattle on vast ranches.

23km north of Bariloche, Cabalgatas Carol Jones (caroljones.com.ar) is the ideal place for first-timers and seasoned riders. The eponymous Carol Jones runs half-day, whole-day and multi-day trips around her ranch and beyond, teaching you how to control your steed and bring cattle to heel as well as giving consummate lessons on the area’s wildlife and history. She’s eminently qualified, too – her grandfather, Jarrod Jones, was a Texan pioneer who came to the area in 1889.

Sharpen your photography on a Kenyan safari

For many people, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime trip that’ll see your camera called into service constantly. But those who want to get incredible shots of big game need an expert guide and plenty of time in one of the continent’s richest reserves.

Paul Goldstein, Exodus Travel’s resident safari photographer (exodus.co.uk), leads six-day trips in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, where visitors will learn how to capture leopards, cheetahs, lions and black rhino perfectly. Drives start before daybreak and can last all day, but the rewards are plentiful. Few travel experiences can match standing in the back of an open-sided 4×4 taking pictures as a pride of lion pads across the open plain or a herd of elephants stops for a drink at a waterhole as the sun comes up.

Get to grips with yoga in Bali

Stretching out on a yoga mat is a surefire way to feel healthy and blissed out on your travels. The pretty town of Ubud, deep in the heart of Bali, is arguably the best place on the planet to get your fix and perfect moves you only practise once a month at the local gym.

The Yoga Barn (theyogabarn.com), set on the edge of town and overlooking green paddy fields and swaying palms, has 15 classes a day to choose from, as well as offering regular, multi-day retreats and multi-class passes for those staying longer term. The three large, open-sided studios have views to die for, while the in-house café is the perfect place to prolong that chilled vibe once class is over.

Become a kendo master in Japan

The Japanese martial art of kendo, literally ‘sword way’, sees hardened participants don armour and take each other on using bamboo swords. Its techniques are similar to those used by ancient samurai warriors, making the modern sport a gateway into the history of this fascinating country.

Atlas Japan Tour (atlas-japantour.com) runs a special class for visitors in the northern town of Nonoichi, taught by locals every other Saturday. They’ll give you a crash course in the sport’s past, as well as teaching you how to safely take on and beat your opponents. Fear not, all kit is supplied and you don’t need to be a hardened swordsman to take part either.

Dive into wild swimming in the English Lakes

The mountains of England’s Lake District have long been a magnet for walkers. But there’s a quiet revolution going on, with visitors wading out into the waters of Buttermere, Wast Water and the area’s other stunning lakes for a refreshing dip instead of taking a long hike.

For those who’ve never swum outside the confines of an indoor pool, Swim The Lakes (swimthelakes.co.uk) has a half-day ‘introduction to open water swimming’ course, suitable for complete beginners through to hardened triathletes. Experienced guides will take you into the cooling depths of Windermere and tell you about technique and how to build stamina, all while getting a frog’s eye view of this beautiful corner of the British Isles.

Where to find family adventure in the wintry Canadian Rockies

The best downhill skiing in the Canadian Rockies

Many Canadians start skiing as soon as they can walk. As a result, the Rocky Mountain area has plenty of facilities for children on its slopes. For a full-on downhill experience, the local national parks (Banff and Jasper) are particularly well-endowed offering four major ski resorts with several others perched temptingly on the periphery.

Top of the pile in more ways than one is Banff’s Sunshine Villagewedged high up on the Continental Divide and famed for its heavy snowfalls and ski-in hotel. Next comes diminutive Mt Norquay, an under-the-radar day-use area located just outside Banff town.

However, the prize for the most family-friendly ski resort in the Rockies has to go to Lake Louise. Named for the robin-egg blue lake that enamours hikers and honeymooners in the summer, Lake Louise is the second-largest ski area in Canada (after Whistler) and offers an impressive web of 145 varied runs including lots of beginner terrain. Adding to its kudos are a tube park, bags of ski schools, guided wildlife tours (on snowshoes), and the finest snow-encrusted mountain views you could ever wish to see. In the unlikely event that your kids get bored or knackered, stick them on the Lake Louise gondola, a spectacular 14-minute cable-car ride worthy of a National Geographic documentary. If they’re really young, there’s a reputable childcare facility at the mountain base that offers kinderski classes for three- to four-year-olds. The resort’s only real drawback is that, despite its size, it gets pretty busy (read: long lift lines), especially at weekends. Crowd-haters might want to head to smaller, quieter Nakiska in Kananaskis Country just outside the national park, a favourite among in-the-know families from the nearby city of Calgary.

Cross-country skiing in Canmore and beyond

People with kids often dismiss cross-country skiing as too difficult, the lofty preserve of ridiculously fit Norwegian Olympians with hearts the size of elephants. But, while it might not have the rollercoaster appeal of downhill, cross-country skiing has a long Canadian heritage and it’s the only effective way to explore the Rockies’ rugged trails in winter.

A good initiation to the sport’s energy-efficient push-and-glide technique is the Canmore Nordic Centre. Nestled in the crock of the mountains to the west of town, this huge trail centre was originally developed for the 1988 Winter Olympics. In summer it’s one of the most comprehensive mountain-bike parks in western Canada, with over 65km of trails. In winter, many of the trails are specially groomed for cross-country. With its well-mapped network of terrain graded for different skill levels and anchored by a warm clubhouse that plies refreshments and offers equipment rental and lessons, this is one of the safest, family-friendly ski resources in Canada. The national Olympic team regularly use it for training.

With your confidence cemented at Canmore, the whole cornucopia of the Rockies is at your disposal. The real beauty of cross-country skiing is that it allows you to venture out and explore less crowded corners such as Yoho National Park in BC or the Great Divide trail at Lake Louise. Think of it as a faster, more fitness-enhancing version of hiking. Kids with their low centre of gravity and innate sense of balance will master it as readily as adults.

Skating

Skating is a national obsession in Canada and one of the most sociable ways for families to keep warm. Forget traditional rinks. Indoor skating is considered anathema in the Rocky Mountains, where ponds and lakes etched against a backdrop of heavenly scenery regularly freeze over for months at a time. You’ll never want to skate inside again once you’ve experienced the beauty of the world’s most spectacular ice rink, aka Lake Louise, framed by an amphitheatre of glacier-covered mountains.

Further north in Jasper, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge sweeps a large floodlit area for skating on Lac Beauvert, as well as another Zamboni-cleared oval on nearby Mildred Lake. Enterprising locals set up benches for sunny relaxation, while spontaneous hockey games erupt and free hot chocolate reinvigorates shivering youngsters.

Fat-biking

Fat-bikes are sturdy off-road bicycles with over-sized, low-pressure tires that are ideal for riding through snow. They’re perfect for Jasper National Park, Banff’s wilder, steelier northern neighbour. Jasper is revered by insiders for its extensive network of multipurpose trails. In contrast to stricter US parks, cyclists experience few limitations here and, over the years, the park has developed some of the most varied and technically challenging bike rides in North America. These trails have recently experienced a winter renaissance thanks to the relatively new sport of fat-biking. Jasper has plenty of fat-bike options from easy ambles through the Athabasca Valley to bracing workouts that will stretch, challenge and entertain teenagers and young adults. Numerous local operators rent bikes.

Ice walks

In winter, many of the Rockies’ iconic waterfalls freeze solid. Equipped with rappels and ice axes, fearless climbers can be seen tackling the slippery behemoths with breath-taking agility. Those with more modest ambitions (and who may have kids to entertain) can study the trippy ice formations, including ice caves, on a guided ice walk while observing the climbers vicariously. Wildlife sightings, an oft-forgotten winter attraction in the Rockies, will keep children happy along the way. Excursions to Banff’s Grotto Canyon and Jasper’s Maligne Canyon are organized by local tour operators. Warm boots and cleats are provided.

Hit the hot springs

Up here, the ultimate post-adventure winter indulgence is a hot bath, preferably taken in a steaming outdoor pool where you can still feel part of your frosty surroundings. The Canadian Rockies has three hot springs, two of which remain open during the winter. First is the family pool at Banff Upper Hot Springs, which sits at the base of the Sulphur Mountain and looks out at the giant geology lesson that is Mt Rundle. Quieter and less famous is Radium Hot Springs in BC, where, unlike Banff, the pools are odourless. Radium’s westerly location also provides a good excuse to explore the snowy wilderness of Kootenay National Park.