Revealing the Beauty of Taiwan

It was the morning of my fifth day of an eight-day tour for USTOA tour operator member Ritz Tours and the tour was set to leave Kaohsiung in southeastern Taiwan. I remember getting on the bus with mixed expectations: I was extremely satisfied with what I had seen of the coast line from Taipei to Kaohsiung, but the cynic in me didn’t expect to see much variety in the sights scheduled for Taiwan’s southern and eastern coasts. However, not too far into our drive that day, these notions were squashed with our arrival at the Kenting National Park.

There was a change in both the climate and the topography of the land outside. The highway we were on crept closer to the ocean, and we got our first glimpse of the picture-perfect turquoise waters of southern Taiwan. The dense forested mountains outside the bus transformed into porous, jagged rock leftover from volcanoes long ago. We were now in the tropical region of Taiwan, and the evidence was all around: the swaying palms, the whitewash of the beach, and the horizon melting under the sun in the distance.

Kenting National Forest Recreation Area

Kenting National Park is gorgeous and has a very diverse ecology. Two of the areas I thoroughly enjoyed within the park were the Eluanbi Lighthouse and the Kenting National Forest Recreational Area. The lighthouse was beautiful, but what I really enjoyed were the elevated walking trails which ran alongside the rocky shore. The Forest Recreational Area is a sanctuary for multiple species of birds and butterflies, and the biodiversity of plant life attracts millions. One big contributor to the park’s popularity in recent years is Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s choice to use some of the park’s scenery for a couple scenes in the hit film The Life of Pi.


We left Kenting National Park and went north via Highway 11, the splendid stretch of highway which runs along the unspoiled coasts of eastern Taiwan. It’s sparsely populated out east and the abundant beauty really made me feel nostalgic for road trips, camping, or surfing trips on the USA’s west coast. Those interested in geology, or nature in general, will want to stop at Hsiao Yeliu, a coastal park with very unique and mysterious rock formations. Here, thousands of years of wind and salt water have created the earth’s breaching crust to smooth and contort in very odd ways. Walking out on the rocks is encouraged, and doing so will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a Salvador Dali landscape.
The bridge to Sansiantai

Another memorable stop we made not far from Hsiao Yeliu was the Platform of the Three Mortals (Sansiantai), where an arched bridge stretches out onto a small coral island. The three hulking rock masses on the island have links to Chinese mythology, but what I found more enjoyable was the unique bridge and a nearby beach comprised of varying size of round stones. One of the last scheduled stops on our west coast itinerary had to be altered due to typhoon flooding, and unfortunately our options at the famous Taroko Gorge were limited. Nevertheless, we made the most of the opportunity to take a small hike over a suspension bridge and up through a tunnel to visit the Eternal Spring Shine, which was built in dedication to 450 workers who lost their lives creating road tunnels through the mountainous park.

A suspension bridge near the Eternal Spring Shrine

On my last day in Taiwan I got the pleasure of visiting the former gold mining town of Jiufen, located in the extreme northeast. Jiufen Old Street is one of the main attractions, and is one raucous bazaar of a street. On both sides of the narrow lane there are cooks and salesman touting the nourishing properties of their vegetable dumplings or the potency of their green tea. After exiting the mayhem, my group rehabilitated at one of the local teahouses. We were served a light lunch which was followed by a tea ceremony, a tranquil end to my incredible journey.

Sampling green tea in Jiufen

As I was at the airport getting ready to leave I wondered why it had taken me so long to visit Taiwan. I came to the conclusion that it just kept getting pushed back on the list behind other destinations. To be honest though, it’s simply because I didn’t know enough about the island, ignorant to the diversity of attractions and activities. Of course now my opinion has changed drastically. I already want to go back and take part in some secluded hiking, or stay in some of the quaint surfer townships that scream relaxation. I want to dine on stinky tofu and freshly grilled octopus. It may be a small island, but it is a beautiful one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Taiwan, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.

Taiwan: Hospitality Needs No Language

by Kelley Ferro

When thinking of a story to share about my experience with USTOA in Taiwan, my first trip ever to Asia, there’s so much I could say. I could tell you about the overwhelming smell of stinky tofu, (which I did try, on camera…), the flashing lights, sounds and energy of the Shilin Night Markets–my favorite spot in Taipei. Or I could tell you about the first time I bit into a dumpling meticulously crafted by the world renowned Din Tai Fung at Taipei 101. Or maybe I could talk about joining in the groups of men and women practicing Tai Chi at 5am in the grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. There are so many stories to tell because the real, the in-your-face Taiwanese culture bombarded my senses in all the best ways. But the story I that I’m going to tell you is a very simple one. I’m going to tell you about eating lunch with Taiwanese family in the countryside.

Our last day of our Ritz Tours excursion throughout Taiwan was a Sunday. Hours before our flights back home, we were invited to have lunch with nationally known calligrapher and his family at his home about 30 minutes outside of Taipei. We cruised along the highways of the pristine capital city, which I had felt comfortable in since it was so reminiscent of New York City, onto smaller roads through smaller villages and finally bumping onto ruddy, dirt roads twisting and turning around farms and creeks. Our car came to a halt in front of large, angular white house next to a sprawling lotus pond.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

We were here. I had no idea where here was but I didn’t have much time to think before I was being bowed too and welcomed in broken English by our host, San. A stocky man, we followed him into the front room of his house with a low round table and about eight place settings. We were a group of four: my cameraman Justin, our driver, and our guide, Lily. Who else was coming to lunch?

As it turned out, San invited a crowd of family and friends to join us in what was going to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. One by one, we met San’s family: his younger son who spoke English well, his older son who worked at Eva Airlines, his uncle who didn’t say a word, his wife who had been cooking this feast for two days, and his best friend who lived down the street. Smiling and nodding, his wife excitedly told us in Mandarin to sit down and start eating. San raised his glass and welcomed us, and we all toasted with a resounding hymn of “Gan bey,” which I later learned meant bottoms up. And the multi-course, multi-hour meal had begun.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

I can’t even tell you what was in the feast spread before us, but I dove into plate after plate of meats, chicken, seafood rolls, whole fish, and lots of rice, chopsticks first. San told me that his wife was cooking in a traditional style of her ancestors in China–the flavors and spices were very traditional. I don’t think I could ever recreate any of it but, wow, was it delicious.  After, several toasts later, and a lotus pod dessert, San decided that he needed to up the entertainment.

image3b Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

Without saying a word, he walked over to his keyboard and started singing a Taiwanese song–which his friend eagerly joined in. Being serenaded at luncheon feast in the middle of Taiwan’s countryside–I don’t think it could get any more local.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

The long lunch continued with more songs, more toasts and more chatter. As we all grew more comfortable with each other, I was able to communicate with his wife in spite of our limited mutual language. She eagerly showed me photos her daughter, which I deciphered studied fashion in Japan. We walked out and took a tour of their garden and admired their massive floating lotus pond–unlike anything I had ever seen. 


San said that beer made him an even better calligrapher and he proved it by giving us a tutorial in calligraphy. I got a one-on-one lesson, which I was told was very rare. With just black ink on the tip of a long haired brush, San flicked his wrist effortlessly to create beautiful swoops and slashes of the characters. He was a poet, and he made up several poems on the spot. Calligraphy is part art, part storytelling and watching him create these fans and scrolls was captivating. He had an impressive background–he had studied calligraphy all his life and now had become one of the most preeminent calligraphers in Taiwan. He told his it takes at least 50 years to really hone the craft–I can believe it as my attempts looked like child’s handwriting next to his beautiful characters. He even showed us his pottery studio in garage, where he molded, carved and fired beautiful, and expensive, vases.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

Not only did San and his family open up their home to us, he opened up his life and shared his life story. Being able to be in his home and experience his family dynamic, hear their stories and be part of their Sunday taught me more about Taiwan and it’s people than any pretty view or impressive site ever could. These are the types of moments that really affect your perspective and this unbridled generosity was so humbling. They lined up as we left and waved us off, as we bumped down the road away from them. For a moment in time, we were a part of their family and I’ll carry a little bit of that experience with me forever. Hospitality needs no language.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in TaiwanKelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.






Touring Taiwan’s West Coast

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Prior to heading to Taiwan I asked several friends of mine, most of which are well-traveled, what they thought of their time spent on this beautiful island and in most cases they all replied with the same thing: they wished they had seen more than just Taipei and its surrounding areas. They marveled at the Taipei 101 building, sampled some world famous dumplings from Din Tai Fung, and soaked up the history on display at Taipei’s finest museums…but that was all. They talked of how they could see the gorgeous coast and the mountainous terrain while flying in, but regretted not getting to see it up close. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love a good dumpling, but when I got my tour itinerary from USTOA tour operator member Ritz Tours that included phrases like “pristine lakes”, “secluded temples” and “misty mountains”, I was thrilled.

The west coast of Taiwan is scenic and full of lush, green mountains occasionally decorated with reflective rice fields or orchards bearing fruit. We made stops at several impressive religious sights: The Wenwu Temple – filled with devotees lighting incense and worshippers throwing buei (moon blocks) in order to ascertain the gods’ advice, Xuanzang Temple – which houses the remains of the famous Chinese Buddhist monk who’s journeys inspired the novel Journey To The West, and the massive Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery – which serves as the headquarters for the Fo Guang Shan, an international Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic order with architecture that is a little extravagant but so beautiful you’ll be in awe for hours.

In stark contrast to the peace and serenity of the temples, the city of Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second largest) was a bustling hub of activity. We entered the city close to dusk, and after stops at the lovely Lotus Pond, which was surrounded by temples and pagodas, we followed the pulsating path of neon directly to the famous Liuhe Night Market.  Over 100 different food vendors at the Liuhe Night Market make it a great place to try one of Taiwan’s well-known street-eats like the famous (or infamous depending on the diner) stinky tofu that has an aroma sure to stop you midstride. On the less pungent end of the culinary spectrum you can find a plethora of fried meats or vegetables, as well as the ubiquitous pork-belly bao bun and if you’re looking for something sweet the mango-ice dessert is a must.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast


As stimulating and exciting as the big, bright cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung are, the true highlight of the first leg of my Taiwanese tour was the tranquil Sun Moon Lake, located southeast of Taichung. As our bus headed deeper and deeper into the forest the temperature dropped, and soon the bus surrounded by a stagnant fog. The driver slowly crept around one final curve of the road and we saw our first glimpse of the lake. It was such a striking scene it prompted several tour members (myself included) to grab their cameras.

Sun Moon Lake Pagoda

We made several stops around the Sun Moon Lake area. The most overwhelming was the towering Tsen Pagoda. We reached the pagoda as a light drizzle started to come down; I entered the base of the pagoda and looked up through the hollow cavity and was mesmerized by two Escher –esque corkscrew staircases which led to the top. To make things even more surreal there was a huge bell that was occasionally struck, causing an echo throughout the entire structure. I made my way toward the top and popped my head out of a window to catch a fleeting glimpse of the mist lifting off of the lake. It was a beautiful sight that will leave an impression on my mind for a long time.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

When we boarded the bus again, our guide, Lenny, told us about our hotel, the award winning, Fleur de Chine Hotel. Lenny informed us of the natural hot springs, which you could enjoy in the hotel’s spa. Or, if you wanted a little more privacy Lenny told us that the hotel also gives guests the option to fill a smaller tub in their own room with the natural hot spring water. I opted to try both and even though the larger public spa was nice, my tub (which was surrounded by a wall of glass) combined with several cups of locally grown Oolong tea was enough enticement to make me want to lock myself in my room for a week straight. Nonetheless, everyone on the bus looked a little rejuvenated that next morning.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

I thoroughly enjoyed the start of my tour of Taiwan. Ritz Tours did an incredible job scheduling an itinerary that showed me some of the most intriguing aspects of travel in Taiwan. This was only the west coast portion of the tour and it was off to an incredible start. I had been able to explore both cities and countryside alike, talk with locals to better understand Taiwan’s culture, and eaten my weight in pork belly bao buns…life was good.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Taiwan, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.

Northern Territory: On The Big Sky Life

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

I told Goway Travel and the Tourism Northern Territory crew that I am as brave as they come; I’m willing to stare two-pronged danger in the face, go toe-to-toe with crocodilian terrors, and dance with thorny mayhem – so long as it’s behind three inches of safety glass. That’s how I ended up at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, shoulder to shoulder with owner Rex Neindorf’s fantastic collection of slithering, slinking Outback wonders. Less a zoo and more an educational outpost, the Reptile Centre is an excellent introduction to the fauna of the Northern Territory, and an opportunity to debunk some of the myths surrounding Australia’s misunderstood animals – though I never did get comfortable enough to give Terry the saltwater crocodile a kiss on the lips. Rex, who has been performing reptile shows in Alice Springs since 1997, even allowed me to tag along on a reptile call-out, where he rescued a western brown snake from a local lady’s living room, and spared here toes a bite from one of the country’s most venomous snakes.

Alice Springs Reptile Centre

Alice Springs Reptile Centre

With the Reptile Centre serving as the perfect primer, we set off into the Outback, the landscape cast in muted tones due to an uncharacteristic rain that lent the scene an air of mystery. We ripped along the Stuart Highway for a few hundred kilometers – if there is a longer, straighter road anyplace on this earth, I have never seen it – glimpsing kangaroos and camels through the rain streaked glass. We arrived at the Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge at Kings Creek Station for a posh Outback dinner capped by Port and marshmallows around the fire, and weighed the pros and cons of staying up all night telling stories by the fire against retiring to our glamping digs in order to get an early start at Watarrka National Park. The compromise included drinking wine by the fire until after midnight, then rising to shine just a little after 5am – a win-win situation all the way around.

Dinner at Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge

Dinner at Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge

The sun decided to join us shortly after 7am the next morning, when we were standing on the rim of the massive Kings Canyon, at the heart of the national park. It’s easy to feel small in a place this big; the canyon walls tower more than 100 meters above the valley floor, concealing a lush forest that’s home to more than 600 species of plants and animals. Our outstanding guide added plenty of color to the experience by regaling us with Outback lore, tales of the local Luritja people, and true-ish stories of the drop bears that may or may not haunt the valley. I didn’t personally come across a drop bear, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real.

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

I did come across a bit of bonafide Outback adventure on a quad bike at Kings Creek Station, setting a new personal speed record while zipping over dusty dunes of falu red. I won’t tell you how fast I went – trust me, it was super fast – but I will tell you that I tore into our Outback campfire cookout with reckless abandon; a lamb shank never has tasted so good. Camp was made in the crook of a giant rock – complete with cave, rife for exploring – and was hosted by a pair of cattlemen from the Station, whom captured our attention with tales of life lived in the wild. I dare anyone to visit this place for more than a few hours and not consider breaking free of the husk of the everyday to live free under the big skies of the Northern Territory.

Northern Territory

Under the big skies of the Northern Territory

For highlights of Flash Parker’s tour through Australia’s Northern Territory, click here.

Flash Parker is an AFAR Ambassador, photographer, travel writer and author from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, Canadian Living, USA Today, Get Lost Magazine, GQ Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more. Follow Flash Parker on TwitterFacebookInstagram or on his website.


USTOA Declares September Travel Together Now! Month

Travel Together Now Header

On September 1, 2014, the United States Tour Operators Association kicks off its first-ever, month long promotion that brings together on one website deep travel deals from the country’s leading providers of independent and escorted group travel. Delivering a versatile, one stop shop for consumers, Travel Together Now! Month showcases special pricing, premium offers, and value-added incentives on peak and off-peak travel itineraries spanning all seven continents.

“Our members’ business patterns tell us that September is when travelers like to book their bucket-list journeys, so we brought all the deals together in September to give them easy access,” said USTOA President and CEO Terry Dale. “It’s the first time USTOA has ever orchestrated such an extensive promotion, and we’re certain travelers will find their perfect trip among the array of offers.”

Throughout the month of September, consumers can visit to find more than 50 different travel offers to a myriad of destinations including some of the most sought-after locales in the world.  From complimentary upgrades and bonus air credits, to savings of up to $2,000 per couple, Travel Together Now! offer highlights include:

NOTE: deals can be booked between September 1-30, 2014. All travel details restrictions, and booking instructions can be found at

  • Africa: Save $1,000 per couple ($500 for solo travelers) on seven Alexander+Roberts small group safaris to East and Southern Africa including Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe when you pay-in-full at time of booking. Available on scheduled departures through April 2016.
  • Antarctica: Quark Expeditions is offering up to 25% savings on a cabin plus an $800 air credit on holiday voyages including the “Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent” December 5 – December 16, 2014 or December 20 – December 30, 2014, and “Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica: Explorers & Kings” November 14 – December 3, 2014.
  • Asia:  Save $500 per person on International Expeditions’ 16-day Myanmar tour departing October 29 or December 3, 2014.
  • Australia/South Pacific: Receive up to $1000 per couple vacation credit on select 2015 air-inclusive South Pacific vacations with Monograms, a Globus family of brands.
  • Europe: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is offering up to $2,000 per couple saving on 2015 European, all-inclusive luxury boutique river cruises when paid-in-full at time of booking.
  • North America/Caribbean: Free roundtrip air to Cuba on select 2014 and 2015 departure dates on Latour’s (an ISRAMWORLD Company) 9-day “Hello Cuba,” “Shalom Cuba,” and “LGBT Cuba” People to People Exchange programs.
  • South America: Receive free roundtrip air to the Galapagos from NYC or Miami with the booking of Lindblad Expeditions’ 10-day “Galápagos aboard National Geographic Endeavour” and the 16-day “Galápagos aboard National Geographic Endeavour + Peru’s Land of the Inca.” Available for travel through December 31, 2014.

Travel Together Now! Month is a paramount piece of the association’s recently launched campaign, Travel Together introducing a thoughtfully curated collection of experiential videos and blog posts exposing travelers to “live like a local” moments that delve deeply into immersive cultural experiences in featured destinations across the globe.

Travel Together is all about sharing experiences – whether it’s with a travel companion or making a connection with the native people of the location visited,” added Dale. “Our mission is to share with all travelers the rich experiences, local expertise, and insider access that our tour operator members deliver to more than 6.5 million travelers each year.”

Travel Together videos can be found at, as well as Consumers can follow the adventures on Twitter by using #traveltogether.


Tour South Africa Like a Local

Members of the United States Tour Operators Association know the best way to experience a destination is through the local people. While in South Africa with Swain Destinations, Kelley Ferro, travel expert, video journalist and contributor to, had the opportunity to visit, meet and interact with locals and gain real insight in the South African life today.

More on how to tour South Africa like a local:

Get Off the Tour Bus

by Nina Dietzel, AFAR Ambassador

AFAR’s co-founder Joe Diaz likes to boil ‘traveling like a local’ down to “Get off the tour bus and sit at someone’s kitchen table”. On our first day in South Africa with Collette, that’s just what we did. We got off the bus and visited Alina Mlotshwa’s home in Soweto to have lunch. Read the full post here.

Being Hugged by South Africa: Behind the Scenes of our Swain Destinations Tour

by Kelley Ferro

Our 20-seat plane skipped and bounced down the dirt runway and I had to blink a few times to realize that I was looking out the window at the African bush. Just 20 hours ago, I was waving goodbye to glittering Manhattan and now I was on a charter flight over the rolling plains of the Sabi Sands. Our pilot joked that he usually saw lions on this airstrip as he touched down. This was Africa and here it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are coming from, you all just dive right in. Read the full post here.

A Local Perspective in South Africa

by Nina Dietzel, AFAR Ambassador

To me, South Africa is one of the most fascinating countries to visit. It is furiously multi-cultural; a young democracy struggling to grow up fast to meet the country’s many challenges.

When I was invited to join Collette’s tour back in April, I was overjoyed, and at the same time I was a little hesitant to accept my assignment. The charge was to ‘travel like a local’ and I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish that in a group, dashing from highlight to highlight across South Africa. Read the full post here.

Northern Territory: The Nature of Expectation

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

Expectation has a way of bringing travel into perspective. But when expectation is paired with long-distance travel – in the case of my trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, a 14-hour jaunt book-ended by a pair of 4-hour flights – expectation also can shape the way you think about place and space.

Flipping through the pages of the remarkable itinerary prepared for me by the folks at USTOA, Tourism Northern Territory, and Goway Travel, I began comparing the unseen Australia to my own Canadian homeland, if for no other reason than to ground my trip on experience I already understood; I’m big on wide open spaces, the sort of which both Canada and Australia boast in spades. I’m comfortable in the Wild, in places where bison outnumber people, and was excited about arriving in the Outback, where I expected camels and kangaroos to outnumber man five-to-one. I like to think of myself as the rugged frontier type, always game for an adventure, and couldn’t wait to exchange knowing glances with the Paul Hogan-esque wardens of the Outback. Sure, my knowledge of Australia begins and ends with Crocodile Dundee, bushranger Ned Kelly, and poet Banjo Paterson, but there are worse icons to idolize. I was promised camel rides up and over desert dunes; campfires and cookouts under starry skies; and a glimpse at the Australia rarely seen. In short, I was set to experience the NT the way locals see it, and I’d have ample opportunity to compare the Oz in my head to the Oz in my heart, though I promised myself, under no circumstance whatsoever, would I at any point on this trip discuss shrimp on the barbie, dingos and babies, or the abomination that was Mick Dundee in LA. As my plane bumped across the tarmac at the Alice Springs airfield, I scrawled this promise across a page in my notebook, and underlined it twice in red ink. I polished off the last of my James Boag Lager, and set forth for adventure.

“… so I took a nasty bite from that big bugger, and that’s when I decided to give up spearfishing down south, and move to the Northern Territory for a look at the quiet life,” Laurie said, as he spirited me away from the airport and off into the NT’s red sand. I’d amused Laurie by trying to get into the driver’s seat when he picked me up – “you’re not driving my bloody car, I just had it washed,” he said with a smile – and we’d become fast friends. At first I thought someone from Goway Travel was putting me on; Laurie was so hyper-Outback that I thought he might have been a hired hand. But after twenty minutes together, I realized he was just a genuine bloke with a story to tell. “Mate,” he said, as he dropped me off at the gates of the Camel Cup, “you call me if you need a ride anyplace – even if you need a lift all the way up to Darwin, ‘cuz I got some family up there – or if you just feel like shooting the breeze. You’ve got my number.” And with that Laurie was off like a shot, no doubt to spend his day boxing kangaroos and wrangling venomous snakes.

And there I was, on the doorstep of my first great Outback experience. With abandon I stepped through the gates at Blatherskite Park and into a world of camels, sand, and costumes. I arrived in time for the Ms Camel Cup pageant, and was gobsmacked by peacocking ladies in full flight. The young and young at heart loaded their partners into antediluvian rickshaws for a zip around the dusty track, while something called the Honeymoon Handicap captured the attention of the 5,000 folks in attendance. Would-be husbands raced their snorting camels half way around the track, where they popped off, hoisted their future wives aboard the beasts, and continued on toward the finish line. All this before one of the “proper” races had been run. My first impression of the Northern Territory is certainly one I’ll never forget.

Ah, but those races! Gallant riders atop ornery steeds – some significantly more ornery than others – spiriting around the track in the pursuit of glory. At one point I was convinced I saw Santa Claus, mounted atop a yellow camel, being chased by a viking riding a brown camel. The moment was singularly captivating, difficult to express in words or images. You really had to be there. I realized in that moment that this was exactly what this trip was all about; the being, the experiencing, and the doing.

Be there I was, indeed; I can’t remember another trip where I felt so wrapped up in the moment. Goway Travel and Tourism Northern Territory thrust me in the center of the action. I was more than a spectator; had I told my guide I wanted to race, I probably would have been given my own camel (for the record, I didn’t ask, for fear of a positive response). I spent an incredible afternoon watching these massive “ships of the desert” sail across the Outback, marveled at the skill of some riders, and giggled at the utter terror strewn across the faces of others. I was caught firmly in the grip of even-toed ungulate madness, and toasted my good fortune alongside other revelers at the Lasseters tent, where post-race conversations ranged from “did you see that,” to “I can’t believe when…” The guests in the tent, probably more than a hundred strong, seemed to be split evenly between foreigners and visiting Aussies, each of us grinning slyly like we were in on some precious Outback secret. In more than one way, we were.

I couldn’t have wished for a better way to kick-start my adventures Down Under. The Goway Travel operators and Tourism Northern Territory had promised a truly unique Aussie experience – one that was “fully customizable.” Instead of itineraries carved from granite, my outfitters worked with me on making sure I got the most out of my time in Australia; they asked what sort of things I wanted to see and experience in the Outback, filling in the gaps with their fantastic local knowledge. That’s how I wound up deep in Thai bliss at Hanumans, Alice Springs’ finest upscale dining option, and toasting NT craft brews under the outdoor heaters at Monte’s, the social center of the town (as far as I could tell). Half a day with Goway Travel and Tourism Northern Territory and I had already sipped handcrafted suds, made fast friends with the local folk, and witnessed Santa Claus fall off a camel – the holy trinity of experiential travel. I expected this trip to be good, but should have listened carefully when they told me to expect the adventure of a lifetime. To think, the first day had barely come and gone.

For highlights of Flash Parker’s tour through Australia’s Northern Territory, click here.

Flash Parker is an AFAR Ambassador, photographer, travel writer and author from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, Canadian Living, USA Today, Get Lost Magazine, GQ Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more. Follow Flash Parker on Twitter, FacebookInstagram or on his website.

Northern Territory: A Land Before Time

by Kelley Ferro

Never have I been anywhere that has more “sky.” I know what you are going to say— “every place has the same amount of sky” but trust me, when you are standing in the desert of the Northern Territory, you might rethink that statement.

As I stepped onto the tarmac in the Northern Territory, I felt like I had just stepped onto a different planet. The Earth was glaringly red, sharp mountains jutted out of the expanse of desert, the trees looked like they had withstood millenniums and the sun was so bright it hurt my eyes. This place felt like it had seen the dawn of time—it felt ancient and primal. However the people of the Northern Territory could not have been more vibrant, youthful and fresh.

Kirsten, our Northern Territory guide, welcoming us at the airport.

Kirsten, our Northern Territory guide, welcoming us at the airport.

I was met at the gate with the biggest smiles and that warm, welcoming feeling continued throughout the trip. The Northern Territory Aussies were just happy to have us there. Everyone seemed so healthy and full of life and very much in tune with the natural surroundings. I was blown away by the nonchalance of Rex the Reptile Hunter, who cracked jokes while catching a lethal Western Brown Snake slithering by our feet. I listened to stories from the trio of brothers at Earth Sanctuary who knew just about everything about the sustainable living in the Outback. And I can’t leave out Mark, our cameleer and owner of the Camel Farm, whom I swear was having conversations with these leggy creatures as we rode across the plains into the sunset. This dry Outback sustained so much life and much of it was not in human form.

One of the three brothers that run Earth Sanctuary.

One of the three brothers that run Earth Sanctuary.

I had ridden a camel on a previous USTOA adventure in Egypt, so I assumed that I knew basically all that what was need to know about camels. They make funny, Chewbacca-like* sounds, they look at you as if they are unimpressed and they are really, really tall—much taller than any horse. But it wasn’t until I was plopped in the middle of Australia, in the expanse of beautiful Outback that is the Northern Territory, that I realized camels are SO much more.

Wally & I, ready for our jaunt into the desert.

Wally & I, ready for our jaunt into the desert.

Camels are not native to Australia, they were introduced in 19th century to help build up central Australia as their hardy nature makes them perfect for the harsh desert climate. When they were no longer needed, they were let go and these dromedaries flourished. At one point there were over one million feral camels across Australia. (Disclaimer: I learned all of this while watching Australia’s new hit movie, Tracks, on the plane. Tracks details the solo journey of one woman and four camels across the unforgiving outback and it’s a very good watch). All this feral camel information came in handy when I was 4 wheeling through the remote Kings Canyon. Our guide casually told us to watch out for wild camels as he sped off. I was expecting lizards or maybe a bird, but it’s not every day that you are dodging camels while racing through the Outback on a quad!

Though feral, these camels that we stumbled upon were so cute!

Though feral, these camels that we stumbled upon were so cute!

Besides being important in developing the Northern Territory, camels are also loved for sport. Alice Springs hosts an annual Camel Cup, where the fastest camels come to race for the grand prize. I once thought that these lumbering beasts could only chew their cud sideways and amble on their bony legs. I was wrong. These beasts can move! When they were speeding around the track, they were quite a dramatic spectacle. In addition to the races, there’s plenty of camel related entertainment for everyone. From the dancing camel mascot, to the human rickshaw races (we came in dead last) to the food-filled fairground atmosphere. Aussies come from far and wide to attend this camel fueled day. And the icing on the cake? While donning my most American get up, I was honored to be crowned Miss Camel Cup by Australia’s famous Big Brother star, Tahan.

Holding my winnings as Miss Camel Cup!

Holding my winnings as Miss Camel Cup!

I held a python, I took a photo of the horned lizard up close, I smiled face to face with a crocodile, and I fell asleep to the lullaby of the dingos outside of my tent, but I can’t deny that my favorite Northern Territory experience did indeed involve the camels. At the Uluru Camel Farm, I learned that each camel has his or her own personality. The owner, Mark, explained that some are mischievous while others just want to play, some are stubborn and some require humans to earn their love. The baby of the farm was named Milkshake. Unlike her fellow brethren that were caught in the wild and trained to take guests on tours, Milkshake was born on the farm and hand-reared by the cameleers. She thought she was a human and she had no qualms about getting friendly with all humans around her. She also seemed to be a bit of clotheshorse (see below).

Milkshake really liked to nibble my jacket and shoes.

Milkshake really liked to nibble my jacket and shoes.

Mark led us on a camel ride at sunset and these slow moving vehicles made me turn into a lower gear and breathe in the intricacies of Outback life. Sitting on top of Wally, a recently caught and trained camel, I realized how life out here was so synchronistic. Every plant, animal and human had to work together to survive in the stunning but severe landscape of the Outback. And as Wally and I ambled into the sunset, I felt like I was a part of that balance for just a brief moment in time.

Kelley_NT_7_a Kelley_NT_7_b

*Little known fact: Did you know that the voice of Chewbacca in “Star Wars” was actually made by a camel? 

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.










Northern Territory Preview

Kelley Ferro, travel expert, video journalist and contributor to just finished traveling in Australia’s Northern Territory with Goway Travel for our Travel Together campaign. Full videos of Kelley’s travels are coming soon, but in the meantime, enjoy a preview of her time in Australia’s Outback:

My first 4-wheeling experience was quite thrilling- especially when we were told "go as fast as you want but watch out for feral camels." Um ok...

My first 4-wheeling experience was quite thrilling- especially when we were told “go as fast as you want but watch out for feral camels.” Um ok…

Learning about the Aboriginal stories at Uluru (Ayers Rock) on an early morn in the Outback.

Learning about the Aboriginal stories at Uluru (Ayers Rock) on an early morn in the Outback.

Meet Wally, my ride to dinner. Not the fastest or most comfortable ride of my life but it was definitely the most memorable!

Meet Wally, my ride to dinner. Not the fastest or most comfortable ride of my life but it was definitely the most memorable!

Her name is "Milkshake" & she us a diva. She kept eating my shoes & nuzzling me to pet her. Who needs a dog when you can have a pet camel!

Her name is “Milkshake” & she us a diva. She kept eating my shoes & nuzzling me to pet her. Who needs a dog when you can have a pet camel!

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

Touring South Africa with Swain Destinations

Kelley Ferro, travel expert, video journalist and contributor to, turns her perceptions of tours upside down while in South Africa. USTOA Members like Swain Destinations provide flexibility, access to hot spots and lesser known hidden gems, and insider knowledge of the best places to sip regional wine, see the best sunset, meet locals and explore natural wildlife… resulting in a customized trip perfectly tailored to meet travelers wants and needs.

For more up close and personal looks at the people and experiences of South Africa, check out these specialized videos from Kelley Ferro on wildlifeluxury travelfood and touring like a local.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.