Travel blogger, interrupted: Michael Turtle on staying put and his journey into books

Michael Turtle is a travel writer who can't travel. He has a book coming out for readers who can't go to the places described in it.

"It's a bit weird that I am writing about places that people aren't going to visit," he said.

At the moment, the furthest he wanders is to the nearest World Heritage Site, which happens to be a mere hop and a step from home: the Sydney Opera House.

Under the regulations of lockdown, he is allowed to exercise and he does that routinely every morning.

He used to live in Canberra but upped sticks and wandered the world, becoming a blogger and a successful travel writer with a new book on the way.

His base now is in Sydney. Every day, he rises in his home in Kings Cross at about the time the sun rises over arguably the world's most magnificent harbour.

He walks down the well-worn steps to the water of Woolloomooloo, looking out at the grand wharf of apartments in which Russell Crowe is reputed to have once lived.

And then, there it is: the Opera House and beyond it, the other icon, the Harbour Bridge. If he varies the routine to later in the day, he gets the sunset.

"The sun sets behind the Harbour Bridge with this beautiful orange glow," he says.

He is a man who notices detail and enjoys a view.

Or views, really: a hundred of them, gathered in Great World Wonders.

It is not a guide - we don't travel with tomes the weight of a brick. It is a coffee table book for home. It is a book to fire the excitement.

The market for travel books has been changed by the pandemic.

Australians have been travelling, at least until the latest flare-up, according to Melissa Kayser, publisher at Hardie Grant Explore.

"It's all domestic now. We have a number of travel guides and road-trip guides and these have been flying off the shelves," she said.

Ultimate Road Trips: Australia was selling 50 to 100 copies a week, she said. There has also been heightened interest in travel books featuring Indigenous culture.

"We've had an excellent year in terms of Australian travel," she said, "because people who would otherwise go overseas have considered experiencing their own back yards."

But that focus on domestic travel guides hasn't altered our need for dreams of far-away places. It may even be that we need the reminder of the exotic more in our confined world.

Turtle offers that romance on the page.

The joy of his collection is not just the usual suspects like Venice, the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China and, yes, the Sydney Opera House, but less well-known places, some of them industrial.

Fray Bentos in Uruguay, for example, may go on your bucket list (as well as on your plate if you remember the corned beef which fed generations of civilians and armies of soldiers - its name still lives on in the brand on supermarket shelves).

The town is on the Uruguay River, opposite Argentina. According to the book, its "dilapidated wooden dock juts out from the coastline".

There are "rows of brick buildings with saw-tooth roofs of corrugated iron".

Turtle's book tells the story of the town turned into a slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant.

Grim as it must have been when it was in operation until 1979, it now fascinates as a tourist destination, protected from development by the Uruguayan government.

"Visually it makes sense for visitors, beginning at the wide green pastures where cows would graze, through holding pens, slaughter yards, processing sheds, and through to the enormous concrete building used for cold storage next to the river where boats would be loaded."

When industries closed, governments all over the world often saw tourism as a lifeline (though it wasn't usually enough to secure the return of a vibrant economy).

The resulting industrial complexes-cum-museums are fascinating. Take the Volklingen Ironworks in Germany, established in 1873 and closed in 1986, and now open to the public.

"Visitors can see every stage of the pig-iron production process, from the sintering shed, through the burden shed, up to the coking plant," Turtle writes.

"There are more than six kilometres of paths to follow, a maze that offers detours up metal staircases, past gondolas (not Venetian ones but huge cranes) hanging from rails, along tracks surrounded by weeds, and to platforms with views across the terrain of hardware."

I don't know about you but it sounds much more interesting than the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China or, yes, the Sydney Opera House (let alone the endless wearisome corridors of the Louvre).

The author says that leisure travel tends to be for one of two reasons: some travel just to get away from home and some travel to actively see and experience a different place.

He feels that the latter are his readers.

"For the people who travel to be somewhere different, you can do that by reading," he says.

Not quite, of course - but if you are interested in other parts of the world, the information - the vivid pictures and words - take you some of the way.

"If you can't do it by jumping on a plane at the moment, you can read about it," the author says, offering a sales pitch, of course, but also a truth.

He dreams of Vietnam and Thailand when the great take-off resumes. They are countries he says he loves "and where I first started travelling as a backpacker".

But everyone has their own "bucket list" of places and experiences to tick off before we die.

(The term "bucket list", by the way, apparently derives from the idea of kicking the bucket. Research reveals that the screenwriter Justin Zackham coined it in the film The Bucket List about a character who has a list of things to do before he kicked the bucket. So now you know.)

READ MORE:

Turtle's book is a good bucket list.

It contains his favourite World Heritage Sites, those very different destinations designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as special for all humanity.

UNESCO defines them as "places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa's Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America."

The wonder of the list (both Turtle's and UNESCO's) is the variety. There are magnificent mansions and natural wonders - the Taj Mahal and Kakadu National Park - the ancient and the modern - the Pyramids of Giza and a mining town in Croatia.

One of the joys is to see places in an unfamiliar light. We know Syria these days as a place of appalling atrocity - but who wouldn't want to know more about the beauty of the civilisation which thrived there.

The writer quotes Mark Twain on the Syrian capital: "Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on Earth and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies."

And that was in 1869!

Turtle invites us into the great mosque in Isfahan in Iran: "Come inside, stand in the central open-air space, and all you will see are the gorgeous coloured tiles on archways covering each of the four sides, as though you are in a forest of mosaics."

Or the ancient city of Petra, hidden in the red desert of Jordan (and made famous by Indiana Jones). Turtle's search was less breathless than Harrison Ford's but still exciting: "The narrow pathway winds its way between two steep red-rock walls, a beautiful natural formation with the promise of a spectacular manmade jewel at the end, getting closer at each turn, the anticipation builds."

But in our current locked-down world, isn't this like taunting a starving prisoner by offering food from outside the cell?

The author thinks the readers are still there, maybe with an increased thirst for travel books as vicarious pleasure.

After all, the point of a bucket list is that it is never finished. There will always be sites unseen and places unvisited.

Turtle had worked for the ABC for eight years, two of those in Canberra, and then Channel 7 but decided to make the jump in 2011.

At the age of 30, he had what he calls a "quarter life crisis" (though his arithmetic is clearly awry if he imagines a 120-year lifespan).

"It was something I had been thinking about for a long time but had pushed to the back of my mind for a few years.

"I wouldn't say there was a particular trigger but I did come to a rather sudden questioning about what I was doing with my life."

Initially he went to Indonesia, China and Thailand, and then to the United States and down to South America before going over to Europe.

He started blogging and then writing and now the passion is a way of making a living.

At a few days short of 41, he hasn't quite settled down - but he does not foresee an endless life of relentless travel, always living out of a backpack.

"I don't imagine I will keep travelling the way I have for the last ten years. The pandemic has been a circuit-breaker."

It's given him a time of reflection. He can choose the projects he wants to pursue - like writing the book.

But already he's half thinking of his next travel destination - probably to south-east Asia where he started his journeys.

And out on the morning walk past the Sydney World Heritage Site. There are worse views - and jobs.

  • Great World Wonders, by Michael Turtle, is published by Hardie Grant Travel ($45).
This story The travel writer who can't travel first appeared on The Canberra Times.