I know what you’re thinking! This is going to be about a trip to Disneyland. Well, in a word, no! Although I have been to Magic Mountain in Disneyland, this is about an environmentally sensitive power station in Wales that’s built inside a mountain.
Before going to Llandberis, I’d never been to Wales, let alone heard of Electric Mountain. The drive there in my tiny rental car was challenging to say the least as that morning it had started to snow in the English Midlands and continued throughout the day. Although no stranger to driving in the snow, it’s usually been in a 4WD or with chains on. Driving the smallest, cheapest front wheel drive rental I could find through an unfamiliar landscape and foreign country is an experience not to be missed, especially in England, where nobody seems to be used to driving in the snow and the entire road system seems to shut down at the first hint of a snowflake.
Consequently, the four and a half hour drive, turned into a seven hour white knuckle ride and at one point it was snowing so hard I could barely see out the window. It was a great relief to finally reach the hotel without having skidded on ice or become lost in the Welsh Highlands.
Waking up the next day, it was amazing to see the snow-capped countryside through which I’d unknowingly driven in the dark. There were mountains, a lake and a wonderful town filled with slate roofed houses. Nearby, I was told there was a hydro electric power station called Electric Mountain. Whilst the landscape was scarred from centuries of slate mining, there was no power station to be seen. Deciding to go on a tour of the mysterious (and somewhat invisible) power station, there was nothing more than an information building to suggest it existed. However, once the introductory video started, it began to come clear, the entire power station was built into the mountain, not on the top, nor on the side. An enormous cavern was dug out and the entire station was built inside the mountain.
Similar to other hydro electric stations I’ve seen, this is one which works by releasing water from an upper holding dam to produce electricity in peak times of demand and then pumps the water back up during off peak times. Not a sustainable form of energy, but a really clever one. Add to this the fact that they can bring the power station generators online in twelve seconds, rather than hours for a standard plant, then you have one amazing feat of engineering.
Apart from the insanely brilliant idea of hiding the power station in the mountain, the other environmental sensitive aspects of the design include venting the water uphill to slow its speed, before it enters the lake. This ensures that there’s no visible output of water, as well as protecting the integrity of the lake and the fish that live inside. They also built a tunnel for the fish to go through so they can leave the dammed lake and head back upstream to spawn.
Inside the mountain itself, the enormous cavern houses the power generators into which the water rushes, to spin the turbines at 500rpm and produce electricity. The ability to rapidly switch on or off means continuity of power supply across the UK.
From an educational point of view, this is a wonderful day trip if you’re in Wales. It’s an opportunity for students to see how innovation, industry and environmental concerns can all be effectively managed without a detrimental effect. With a power crisis looming in Australia, it might be worth building a couple of these and a nuclear plant for good measure to provide clean and reliable sources of energy.
I’ve always wanted to go to Vienna, attracted by the music, the architecture, the history and of course the gigantic pretzels. Recently, I had that chance and took a slow train from Zürich to Vienna. The almost 8 hour ride in itself was an interesting one, traveling along the Swiss countryside, through the tiny country of Lichtenstein and over the snow capped Austrian alps.
Going in winter other than the cold, it was dark by 4pm, which was another thing to get used to. It would feel so late, but not even be close to dinner time. This completely messes with your desire to eat!
In Vienna, I started my day with a bus ride around the city centre, just to get a bit of a handle on the layout before adventuring out into the city. What caught my attention right away was the stunning architecture and the prolific number of buildings of the same period. In many old cities, you get a few really amazing historic buildings. However, in Vienna, it’s absolutely covered in them. There’s nothing more stunning than seeing street after street of amazingly designed buildings and churches that have been well-maintained over centuries.
These classic stylings are contrasted with gritty punk style graffiti plastered over the underpasses and bridges around town as well as the stunning modern high rises bathed in glass. After a lap around town, I found myself at the Opera House. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go to the opera, but that’s definitely on my to do list for next time around. From the Opera House, my next stop was the Schönbrunn Palace. The moment I walked through the gates, I was stunned! This was the most impressive palace I’d ever seen.
The Schönbrunn Palace was built in the 17th Century and was designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and became the imperial palace for the Austrian kings who also had a successive reign as Holy Roman Emperor until the position and title was dissolved in 1806. Whilst I won’t go into all the historic details of the Holy Roman Empire and its emperors, needless to say, it was often a poison challis at odds and in conflict with the Pope and all his cronies. Such an important position however, require an important house and Schönbrunn is certainly a house suitable for an emperor. It was even nice enough for Napoleon in which to take up residence for a little bit when he was invading all of Europe. Had he stayed and not tried to invade Russia, the world might be very different today.
From the later Middle Ages, right through till the beginning of WWI, Austria was a military power house and one of the strongest central powers in Europe. However, it wasn’t just the military power for which Vienna was a hub. Due to the wealth that came with empire and trade, the Austrian emperors used a significant amount of this wealth to promote the arts. Mozart was a favourite of Empress Maria Theresa who discovered his talent and helped to promote it by putting him on a retainer. However, as you can see from the architecture throughout Vienna, art, design and culture have been a vitally important part of life in the city.
Inside the Palace itself, the walls, ceilings and floors are designed and painted in the most intricate and bold way. No doubt much of it was to impress guests coming to the Palace for functions, but regardless of the motives, it’s left an amazing legacy for the world. Without such patronage, countless musicians and artists would never have been able to follow their dreams. Instead they would have had to get boring awful jobs sweeping muck off the pavement, as flushing toilets had yet to be invented.
Since you weren’t allowed to take photos, you just have to go there yourself to see how stunning this Palace really is. The high ceilings, the grandeur of the dining rooms and bedrooms and the sheer scale of the structure is mind blowing. However, the room in which Mozart played his first concert is quite humble in comparison.
Outside the Palace, the gardens are extensive and you could spend a whole day just walking up and down the immaculately kept grounds. There’s even a zoo next door and some amazing greenhouses with exotic tropical and desert plants and wildlife.
Even though the Schönbrunn is the grandest of the palaces in Vienna, it’s actually just one of many. Although quite impractical as houses these days, various other palaces have been turned into museums and galleries which house some of the most stunning artworks I’ve ever seen. The Belvedere Palace (which is closer to the centre of Vienna) has an amazing art collection, including works by Klimt and Van Gogh. No matter how I describe these works, it will never do justice to actually seeing them yourself. This is really the key point to any place which has cultural experiences different from your own. Without going there and experiencing it for yourself, you can never truly understand the history, the lives that were lived and the amazing talent that artists, designers and musicians brought to the culture of a nation that has out lasted centuries of turmoil, war and everything else that goes with the human condition.
For me, I only scratched the surface of what Vienna had to offer, but if you want a truly unique and amazing experience of history, art and music, then Vienna is the place to go. It’s worth doing a bit of reading up beforehand to give you a greater picture and context of how and why Austria became such an important central power in Europe, but well worth the time as once you have this context, everything else makes far more sense.
It’s not often that I write about history, however, having studied mediæval history at uni, many aspects of it really didn’t make sense until I went and visited some of the places where these events occurred. Half of what goes on in Game of Thrones, was just daily life for many people throughout this period. At one point, the Pope was concerned about the level of violence throughout Europe. To deal with this issue, he made a decree that on a certain day nobody was to carry a weapon, therefore the world would have a break from violence and be made safer. Sadly, only the honest people followed this edict and were horribly slaughtered as a result.
From the age of the Vikings to the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, we covered a lot of ground at uni and there are so many places left to go to be able to put the pieces together. However, as I was in Wales, it was time to get a greater understanding of the expansion of the Normans and Edward I’s conquest of Wales. This conquest brought Wales under the control of the English monarch in 1283 and despite skirmishes and uprisings, its remained as part of the United Kingdom to this day. To establish and maintain his power base in Wales, Edward built a series of castles to fend off the Welsh princes. The scale of one of these castles is hard to understand until you’re actually there.
Despite Cardiff being the capital of Wales today, with its own amazing castle, for Edward I, due to a Roman legend about a foreign king coming and falling in love with a Welsh princess and ruling the land, it was important to build his capital in Cænarvon the centre upon which the legend was based, which helped him gain, or appear to gain, legitimacy in his kingship.
All of Edward’s castles were designed by the architect James of St. George. James was a Savoyard (from modern Italy), and he incorporated elements in his design from Europe and the Middle East.
The fact that he built so many so quickly is amazing. I spent the morning climbing up and down the various towers, which I’m sure at one point were all linked together. However, due to the castle being in ruins, not everything remains intact. The time and energy required to get up and down the dizzying spiral staircases is surprising. If you could imagine trying to do that in full armour whilst being attacked by someone with a sword, you start to appreciate not living in mediæval times, add to that the Black Death and infant mortality and a six hour wait in a modern hospital waiting room doesn’t seem so bad.
What’s really important however, about going to a place such as Cænarvon Castle, walking through the dark halls, peering out from the battlements and standing on the towers looking out over the surrounding township and the sea, is that you start to gain a real understanding of history. Through technology, we can now travel places without leaving the classroom, which is good in some ways, but the virtual world can never replace the real world experience of going somewhere. You can’t feel the icy wind on your cheeks, smell the dank odour of the dungeons and be amazed at the sheer enormity of the structure, as you walk through the gates. All of this is lost in the virtual experience.
Although taking your class overseas to tour the various castles, monasteries and cathedrals of Europe may be a more challenging task than switching on a virtual world, the difference this will make is enormous. At the very least for your own teaching, travel far and wide to as many places as you can to see and experience sites such as Cænarvon Castle. This will have a huge impact on your ability to better understand and teach that part of history.
It’s always awesome when you get to go to a conference that’s in a great part of the world. If possible, take a day either side of the conference to explore and enjoy the area.
Recently, I had the chance to go to Queenstown, New Zealand, the adventure capital of the world! It’s an amazing town set upon a picturesque lake and surrounded by jagged mountains. It was the end of the ski season, so despite it being fun to ski slush sometimes, it wasn’t what I was looking to do whilst out here. My mission was to take a day off and explore!
As an entrepreneur, you often get so caught up in juggling all the aspects of your business, you don’t take time to rest and recover. After two massive months, a relaxing day of drinking coffee and adventures was exactly what was needed ready for the conference the next day.
Wandering around the town in the morning, I found so many outlets and options from which to choose. For no particular reason, I walked into one place and started exploring some brochures. I saw one with a helicopter on it! Despite the significant amount of flying I’ve done over the years, including time spent learning to fly, I’d never been in a helicopter before. However, today was going to be the day and there was a great looking package deal that combined flying, a jet boat and a luge ride. This sounded just like my sort of thing. Turns out… it totally was!
First up was the jet boat along the lake and into the Shotover River. The water in the glacial lake was stunningly clear, clean and crisp. The whole way along you could see the bottom come closer and drop further away from you as you sped along. Best not to look at the bottom, as you realise how little water there is below. I’m still amazed by the fact that these boats can operate in three inches of water! Literally skimming along the surface of the water! The best part of the ride was hitting rapids and spinning around 360 deg in a massively tight turn. I was only slightly soaked as the water swamped back into the boat from behind me.
After some thrillingly close calls with trees at the edge of the river, buoys in the water and an angry duck, we cruised back. Getting dropped off at a different jetty near the airport, I was met by Peter who drove me up to the heliport.
For me, this was the most exciting part of the day. My first time in a helicopter! I didn’t know what to expect. As the rotor spun up and accelerated the whole aircraft started to shake. After a call to air traffic control, the pilot revved the engine and with a slight jolt, we lifted off. It was the most unusual feeling as the ground just slipped away, becoming increasingly distant as we crossed the runway of the main airport.
We were quickly whipping along at 100 knots. The view was amazing. I can only imagine how awesome it would have been inside that navy helicopter we saw flying down inside the Shoalhaven Gorge, as where I was there right at that moment was spectacular. About fifteen minutes later, we were at the top of one of the snow capped peaks in the Remarkables. It was at 5000ft with a clear view back down to Queenstown in one direction and Cardrona in the other.
Being back in the snow was a wonderful feeling. It’s been far too long (since January) that I’ve been in the snow and I’ve definitely missed it. Scooping up a handful, I squeezed the icy ball in my hand and threw it off into the distance. After a bunch of obligatory photos, we were back on the chopper and flew past the Remarkables ski resort on the way back.
I managed to fly in the front of the chopper on the way back and it was even better than I’d expected. It was a thrill I hadn’t experienced since the days of learning to fly in a fixed wing plane, thankfully without the engine cutting out on final approach!
The next part of the adventure was a gondola ride to the top of Queenstown, followed by riding the luge! I’d met an American girl by the name of Bree on the ride over from the heliport who was doing the same things as I was and we headed up the gondola and rode the luge around which was lots of fun. As with any adventure, you never know who you’re going to meet along the way!
The luge was basically a downhill go-cart track. Catching a chairlift to the top, you then rode these unpowered carts down this cool, windy track. It was amazing fun and a great way to end the day’s adventures! I couldn’t think of a better place to be coming to a conference than Queenstown NZ!
As your world can sometimes become a blur of different hotel rooms and conference spaces when you’re constantly rushing around and managing different aspects of life and business, it’s important to find opportunities to enjoy your time in amazing locations. Even if it’s just for a few hours or a day, get out there and find yourself an adventure. Business can come and go and will always be there. However, at the end of the day these are the most important things in life and form the memories and experiences we cherish forever.
Whilst a lot of what I like to talk about is constantly pushing limits, trying new things and taking risks, after a recent experience I thought it’s worth dialling things back for a moment and looking at limits with a bit of context around it.
Whenever we feel pushed outside of our comfort zone, we have a choice. Push back and confront the challenge, or step back and say ‘no that’s not for me.’ More often than not, I’ll push back in a big way and take the challenge. However, it’s important to also be considering the risks that are involved in making such decisions.
I was recently in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the USA. This is a wonderful country town about 100km from Yellowstone National Park. The town is surrounded by massive steep mountains, most notably Rendezvous Mountain, where Jackson Hole ski resort is. To say this is steep terrain is an understatement. This is one of the steepest mountains I’ve ever skied. As my experience in super steep terrain was limited, I took some ski lessons to work on this.
Jackson Hole Ski Resort
It was a great and valuable time spent developing my skills in unfamiliar and often extreme terrain. Riding up the Tram, the cable car to the top of the mountain, you get a sense of just how gnarly the slopes are as you glide over the top of them. We’d been practising skiing down a lot of black and double black diamond runs, which were, intense, challenging and exhilarating all at once. Whilst I can’t say that I was entirely comfortable with any of these runs, they pushed my limits in a good way. However, there was one run, where I knew I’d reached my limit.
Travelling to the top of the mountain with the ski instructor, we left our skis and walked over to the top of a run called Corbet's Couloir. This is a legendary run amongst extreme skiers and I was about to find out why! The entrance itself was roped off, closed by ski patrol for whatever reason that morning. However, walking around to the side we could see the drop in. A tiny cornice forms at the top of the run and to get in, it’s literally a jump from the cornice into a massively steep chute hemmed by the rocky outcrops that form the peak of Rendezvous Mountain.
If you were to ski this and jump in, from there, given the steepness below, as soon as you land, you’d suddenly accelerate and would have to make two critical turns to avoid the walls and another rocky outcrop before running down into the slightly wider chute below. If you stuffed the landing, you’re gone. If you’re going too fast, you’re gone. If you lose balance, you’re gone. If you catch an edge, you’re gone. You get the picture!
Gauging the entry and the sheer insanity of it sent a nauseating feeling through me. I felt unsteady on my feet and took another step back from the rope. Now I’ve skied some crazy things over the years. I’ve booted off cornices, skied steep and deep powder and even taken on the Lake Chutes double black extreme run in Breckenridge, CO. But this was something completely different, the feeling was different, the feeling was dark.
Breckenridge's Lake Chutes
In that moment, I realised something really important. This wasn’t my run. This was no longer pushing my comfort zone. This was just massive injury or death written all over it. Other than saying the feeling was dark, it’s hard to describe it any other way. Whereas every other place we went to, I felt pushed and challenged. I didn’t feel foreboding. No matter how intangible this may sound, it’s an extremely important measure of what’s reasonable to push boundaries, versus what’s unreasonable and pure insanity. Whilst everyone’s scale of this may vary, understanding your limits is very important in terms of managing risk and not getting yourself killed.
Even though you don’t want to be confronted by situations like this, or experience these sorts of feelings all the time, it’s worth experiencing something like this occasionally, as a healthy reminder that we can push the boundaries of ourselves and those around us, but we also have limits and understanding those limits can help us improve our own management of risk and remind us that we’ve already achieved an extremely high level to even be up at the top of the mountain. Rather than jump off a cliff to get back down, I was much happier to ski down another double black run and live to ski another day.
As a teacher you work hard throughout the year, but as with all hard work, there’s a payoff and for me, it’s the summer holidays! Having seven clear weeks to do whatever you like is something that many people never get to do until retirement. For me, that’s way too far away to even think of and I don’t want to save up all the fun and adventures for when I’m not physically able to do them. Bit pointless and a bit too industrial revolution style for me!
However, back to the annual pay off! Now if you’re doing teaching just for the holidays, perhaps you need to find another profession. What I’m talking about is not just getting away from work. For me, this break is a great opportunity to travel, discover the world, experience new things and ultimately learn something new.
Unfortunately, too many people waste all this time doing virtually nothing! I’ve never really understood this. Sure, I could spend a week at the beach, relaxing, sunbaking and going for swims and this could be extremely refreshing, but if I did this for seven weeks, I’d be bored and I’d be thinking I’m wasting opportunities. Even with a week of hanging around, that leaves six weeks for something new, exciting, challenging and meaningful.
A few different things I’ve done in this time over the years have included a TV & Radio presenting course, being an extra in a feature film, playing a corpse in a short student film and being a cook for a snowboarding program. This last one was a great opportunity to travel to the US, challenge myself to improve my culinary skills, live at altitude for an extended period and push the boundaries with my snow skiing. Next year, I plan to travel overseas to do an intensive language course to try and learn a new language in a really short period of time.
None of these experiences have been the stock standard ‘holiday’ experience. They’ve challenged me in different ways, opened my eyes to new possibilities and other cultures, enhanced my world view and ultimately helped me to improve my teaching. Every year I get more professional development value from this extended break than I have ever gained from any conference, workshop or the dreaded first day back PD sessions. This time is important for your professional development as a teacher and what you learn yourself can have a marked impact on the way to teach.
This year, if you don’t have any plans, it’s time to make some. If you say it’s too late, then you’re just not trying hard enough. The first time I went to Japan, I booked it all the day before. By 9:45pm the next evening I was off to discover a new culture! Be bold, be adventurous and do something completely different. Nobody wants to hear about how you sat at home for over a month and did chores. That’s boring, so don’t be boring! There are plenty of accountants and lawyers who have already monopolised that talent, so do something people might be interesting in hearing about. Do something totally left field that others wouldn’t expect!
Normal people never change the world and as a teacher, you have the power and influence to change a generation. However, without understanding and experiencing a wide range of things in your own life, you will never truly be well placed to effectively shape the lives of others. Get out there! You have the time, you have the opportunity so this year find something new and exciting to do and have a wonderful and memorable summer break!
Located on the tropical coastline of far north Queensland, the Daintree Rainforest is an extraordinary location teeming with unique flora and fauna. Unfortunately, two days were no where near enough time to explore this World Heritage listed location. However, having had a glimpse of the beauty and diversity of the area, I'm ready to head back for another trip.
Before I do that though, here is just a short insight into the extraordinary landscape that makes up far north Queensland. A trip away from the cold of the south coast in the middle of winter, is always a pleasant change. Flying into Cairns, I was hit by the airport shock, the feeling when you land somewhere, get off the plane, and find yourself in a totally different climate to where you were a couple of hours ago. It was a warm and humid evening, a drastic change from the sub-zero temperatures in which I'd been camping the previous week.
View Of Daintree National Park From Walu Wugirriga Lookout
I went straight from the airport to the hotel after both of my flights were delayed and crashed in bed after what was a very long week. The next morning however, I woke up early and headed to the Tjapukai Cultural Centre, owned and operated by the local aboriginal people. It was a fascinating insight into how the rainforest tribes lived, as well as a journey through their dreamtime creation story. This was interspersed with boomerang throwing, spear throwing, a look at bush foods and medicines as well as some traditional aboriginal dancers.
While aboriginal history is not a new experience for me, there were some interesting differences between what I've learnt about the tribes and traditions of the south coast of New South Wales, versus the cultural traditions of the tribes of the tropics. Of course, there were massive variations in diet and cultural mythology, due to the extremes of the wet and dry seasons. It was interesting to find out that these are the only tribes who used the three and four pronged boomerangs, which I had never seen before.
Tjapukai Cultural Center
It often amazes me how little we know about our own countries and it's not until we start to explore in more depth and detail that we find out how diverse the experiences are of others who are living in the same country.
After the conclusion of the cultural tour, I caught the Skyrail, which is a gondola that takes you high above the rainforest canopy. There are two stops along the way, where you can get out and walk through some of the rainforest. There are some amazing ancient trees dating back over 500 years dotted through this area, tree ferns and palms everywhere and enormous basket ferns perched high up in the trees. The diversity of species here is astounding, far too many for me to even comprehend.
The boardwalk leads you to several vantage points, enabling you to look out over Barron Falls, which is a massive rock face at the top of the gorge through which a trickle of a river runs, as it's been dammed above the formation. I can imagine though, that when it floods, these falls would return to their former glory and it would be one huge raging torrent through the gorge.
Continuing on my historic journey, I ended up in tiny town called Kuranda, where I boarded the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Apart from the fact that they need to apply some grease to the wheels of the train to stop the ear piercing sound they made going around bends, it was another amazing journey. Built to service the local mines and transport goods to and from Cairns, this railway is a feat of engineering genius, as it negotiates its way along the side of astoundingly steep terrain, crosses massive gullies and tunnels through the mountains. Except for using dynamite to loosen the rocks, all of the tunnels were dug out by hand. As the journey progresses, you're provided with an historic narration of the building and early uses of the railway. The most amazing part of it however, is where the rail line is suspended not far off the cliffs as you roll by a beautiful waterfall dropping hundreds of metres from the top to the river below.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Stunning Waterfall, Cairns
Finishing the day, I ended it with a giant leap back into the future. Standing on one of the beaches and looking up into the sky, the international space station glided directly overhead. It was nothing more than a bright shining light in the night sky, but seeing that makes you realise how far we've come in a very short space of time.
I always find it exciting exploring new places, but being able to explore new places in your own backyard is even more interesting. From the ancient aboriginal world to the stunning rainforests, this was truly a unique experience and I've learned more about cultural heritage and rainforests in two days, then I had in years of reading books.
The next time you get an opportunity to travel around this great country, if you want to really appreciate some of the history and natural beauty of our nation, then far North Queensland is well worth a visit.
In one of my random adventures in Japan, I found myself at the oldest and most significant Buddhist temple in the county. Zenkō-ji Temple is in Nagano, the capital of the province with the same name and host to the 1998 Winter Olympics. I'd actually had no intention of going there. It just happened to be part of another tour and so along I went, once again not really knowing what I was going to see and experience.
To be honest, not being Buddhist, I'd never heard of the Zenkō-ji Temple before, yet here I was standing before the most magnificent collection of temples. Whilst the Zenkō-ji Temple is the main temple and the original one on the site, built in the 7th Century, 642AD, many other temples have sprung up around it over the years. Deities that can help you with everything from still births to final school exams all have their own place of residence and their own loyal collection of monks and priests. It's just a matter of finding the right temple to go to and the right deity to pray to depending on your circumstances.
Progressing up toward the main Temple, you come to the Niomon Gate which is guarded by two massive statues that represent the beginning and end of life. It's a grand and commanding statement before you even reach the Temple itself. When you get there, out the front there's a massive incense burner that continuously swirls with smoke. Before entering, you need to cleanse yourself with the smoke so you can enter the Temple in a purer state, free of evil spirits and with a nice hickory fragrance. The front entrance is adorned with the back to front swastika, a symbol used by the Buddhists hundreds of years before the Nazis pinched it for themselves. (Just as a side note, a quick search of the Temple did not reveal any hidden Nazi gold.)
It does however, have a massive statue of the Buddha. However, nobody has seen this for centuries, since 654 AD to be exact, so it may or may not be there. Consequently, this poses a great philosophical question. If a statue exists inside a concealed chamber where nobody can see it, does it really exist? Hmmmm… perplexing indeed!
The story behind this mysterious statue dates back to when the Temple was first established. The monk who had the statue of the Buddha commissioned, realised that the image of the Buddha was too pure for the eyes of humans and must therefore be concealed within the Temple and so that's what they did.
However, there's still a connection which can be had to the original Buddha and this requires you to walk in total darkness through a passageway under the Temple, all the time whilst trying to find a brass handle which connects directly to the Buddha. It’s said that if you discover the handle and move it back and forth, your life will change forever. Walking in complete darkness is always a surreal experience. You lose all perception of depth, time and surroundings and it was just that, total and utter darkness. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
I brailed my way along the right hand side of the tunnel. I'd been told to stick to the right. I'm still wondering what would have happened if I'd gone left. Maybe something cool such as what happened in Big Trouble In Little China, but then again, I'm mixing my Asian cultures here and nobody dresses as if they're from the 80s.
It felt as if I'd been in there forever, when suddenly, the wall felt different, it was metallic… It was the lever!!! I cranked the lever several times, just to make sure it was life-changing. With my task of connecting with the Buddha done, I kept feeling my way through the darkness till I popped out to find myself almost exactly where I'd started.
This truly is an amazing place to visit. It doesn't matter if you believe in Buddhism or not. It's a remarkable and stunning site steeped in an amazing history and well worth exploring.
The monks had a replica of the original statue created, although recreating something from a statue that nobody’s ever seen before is one of the more remarkable feats of this order of monks. Having not seen the replica of the unseen statue, I can really comment on how good a job they did with it. However, if you want to see it for yourself, once every six years they bring out the replica Buddha and this becomes a focal point for pilgrims and tourists alike. All in all an amazing and fulfilling experience no matter how you look at it.
Australia is big, really, really big and most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, many of us never get to see our own unique wonders that form critical parts of our nation’s history. In all the years about education and hiking around the countryside, other than being stuck in Darwin airport due to a broken plane, I’ve never actually gone into the city. Other than the extreme heat, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Setting out with a friend in April, we flew to Darwin and the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hit by the unbelievable humidity of our nation’s frontier to Southeast Asia. Darwin itself, is more like a big country town than a city. It has a bizarre charm to it. Stinking hot, very red and surrounded by waters in which you can’t swim for fear of being stung by deadly box jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles. If this is your first port of call in our country, “Welcome to Australia!”
Other than avoiding the water, there are some interesting things to do around town. We started out at one of the old World War II sites, which were massive fuel tunnels, built underneath the city. During WWII, Darwin was bombed 64 times by the Japanese. The first attack happened on 19th Feb 1942. 188 Japanese planes struck Darwin, an important Allied naval port. Darwin harbour was full of Allied ships and this was the biggest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.
Fuel Tunnels Info
The fuel tunnels were built to protect the Allied fuel sources as all of the tanks which were above ground had been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Japanese. Walking through these massive concrete chasms built deep into the ground, you get a sense of how critical thinking changes during times of war.
The second historic site we went to later that day was the Darwin Military Museum, which is on the original site of the old army outpost. Here there’s a fascinating, interactive display which runs you through the bombing of Darwin and the experience of those stationed there to defend our shores. There are films, personal accounts, maps, photos, artefacts and lots of military equipment, all of which present a very different picture of the Australian experience of War during WWII.
An amazing piece of military engineering you can see is one of the original massive 9.2" guns. This was an anti-ship gun which they built to protect the harbour against naval vessels. However, by the time they built it, they only fired it to test it out and the war was over. Walking inside the bunker and around the gun, then seeing the projective it fired, you can imagine how loud it would have been when fired.
Most of the focus of our studies of WWII tends to be on Australians in Europe or in PNG. However, this was happening on our own shores. You don’t realise how close we came to being over-run in recent history. Unfortunately, the experience of Darwin and its efforts to fight off the Japanese often only rates a couple of lines in a text book and this is something we need to seriously address.
Taking a school group here is a valuable and eye-opening experience to the fact that War was on our door-step, not in some far off land in Europe or the Middle East, it was here and it was real! There’s so much more to the history of Darwin than we often think and visiting these sites on our Northern frontier, is a great way to give your students a real understanding of just how critical this city was to protecting our nation from invasion.
For more on the history of the bombing of Darwin & the WWII experience:
Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Fuel Tunnels
The moment I stepped onto the plane, behind me was a group of students from a regional high school. I know the one, because I applied for a job there a number of years ago. I didn't take it up, because I was offered another job at exactly the same time. One was going to be classroom based, the other outdoors. Needless to say, I took the outdoor one.
Other than that random pointless segway about jobs, seeing a school group boarding the plane got me thinking about overseas travel with school groups. I’ll talk risks at another time as this is a whole topic on its own. Instead, as the headline says, I'm going to talk about Japan. It's the second time I've been and it's an amazingly different country from our own. Despite the fact that lots of people in Australia eat sushi rolls, this is a far cry from the reality of the wonderful world of Japan.
Breathtaking View Of The Mountain In Niseko
I hate to admit that I studied Japanese at school and now the only two things I can say are thank you and thank you very much. It's a challenging language, but once you're immersed in its culture, things start to gel together. The only exposure I'd had to Japanese culture when I was at school was when we had an exchange teacher come and stay. I remember the warm welcome I gave him, saying hello my name is David in Japanese and then asking him if he liked eating whale. Hopefully, the group I saw on the plane were slightly more sensitive than that when they met their hosts. Although they’d probably ask if we eat kangaroo and crocodile, which for me would be a yes to both!
Amazing Castle In Matsumoto. It's Over 400 Years Old!
Japan itself is an astounding, at times contradictory, contrast of cultures. From the modern, glittering, fast pace of Tokyo to the small rural villages where subsistence farming remains a major part of society, this is a wonderful country. From an educational point of view Japan is a great choice of destination, especially for Western students. Steeped in centuries of history way beyond our own, the dramatic difference in culture and outlook in life makes this a valuable experience for any school group.
The way in which the Japanese live is so different and the amount of bowing is phenomenal. Their temples, their castles, their language, their TV!!! Their food and way of life is just fascinating and will be a real change of pace for any Western school group heading over.
Scrumptious Japanese Food
If you're thinking of an overseas opportunity for your school, Japan is a 9 hour flight from Australia and only 1-2 hour time difference, so your group can hit the ground running as soon as they arrive. I won't go into a list of attractions and things to do in Japan. You can discover those and map them to your own curriculum yourself, as there are so many options from which to choose. The main underlying reason for heading to Japan for a school however, is the dramatic cultural differences.
There are so many overseas trips going out now, but some of them you have to wonder the value. Are you truly experiencing a different outlook on the world with them or is it just tourism? A trip to Japan however, is mind blowing. The dramatic cultural shift can't simply be described. You must experience it for yourself! Admittedly, I'm glad I wasn't there with a group of students, but the educational value of a visit would be immense.