Head to head: Renault Megane RS265 Cup v Ford Focus ST

Renault Megane RS265. Ford Focus ST.
Shanghai night field

Renault Megane RS256 Cup, from $42,640 plus on-road costs. 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol; 195kW/360Nm; six-speed manual; 8.2L/100km; FWD.

Ford Focus ST, from $38,290 plus on-road costs. 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol; 184kW/340Nm; six-speed manual; 7.4L/100km; FWD.Value

Renault: The French brand puts its focus (pardon the pun) on performance with the Megane. Equipment highlights include Brembo brakes, 18-inch alloy wheels and limited slip differential. Convenience items are limited to rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control, auto wipers, four-speaker stereo system and Bluetooth with audio streaming.

Ford: Not only is the ST $4350 cheaper, it also gets plenty of creature comforts including keyless entry and ignition, Bi-xenon headlights, a reversing camera and the SYNC system that includes a five-inch touchscreen and satellite navigation.

Winner: FordInside

Renault: A no-nonsense interior with nothing flashy, just a small mono-colour display at the top of the dash and some faux carbon-fibre trim. The seats (which aren’t the sporty Recaros of the more expensive Trophy models) have good support but are firm. Small item storage is limited. The radio controls are only slightly less counter-intuitive than the old model.

Ford: The opposite of the Megane with countless buttons for the SYNC infotainment system, airconditioning and other controls. But once you get used to the controls everything is logically laid out and easy to use. There are also three small dials above the SYNC screen for oil pressure and temperature and turbo boost pressure for a sporty feel. The Recaro seats are a bit tight for larger bodies but do provide good support.

Winner: FordEngine

Renault: Wins the battle of power and torque but at the expense of higher fuel consumption; but if you’re buying a hot hatch, fuel economy might not be your top priority. For reasons known only to Renault the “Sport” mode button is hidden on the side of the dash and not clearly marked. Once you find it though, you unleash the full potency of this brilliantly flexible and responsive engine. It’s also quicker 0-100km/h (6.6 seconds v 7.0 seconds) than the ST.

Ford: It’s hard to believe this is the same Ecoboost engine Ford uses as a fuel economy hero in the Falcon, because in the ST it feels like it was built purely for performance. Although it is out-gunned by the Megane it has more than enough grunt for a hot hatch. Also wins points because, while optomised for premium unleaded, it can run on regular petrol; something the Renault can’t do.

Winner: RenaultHow it drives

Renault: Has the firm ride you expect in a hot hatch but the suspension is well resolved so it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. The steering is a touch light for a hot hatch but it is very direct and responsive. Where the Megane really excels is in the twists and turns. The RS has so much grip in the bends it feels like it is on rails. Brakes bite hard too.

Ford: Ride is slightly more comfortable than the Megane but still firm. Steering is nicely weighted and so quick to respond it can take you by surprise (in a good way). But while still a fun car to drive it lacks the on-the-limit performance of the Megane, especially when cornering.

Winner: RenaultPracticality

Renault: A big benefit of a hot hatch is the practicality that comes from being based on a hatchback. But the Megane RS256 is only available in the three-door model. That makes access to the tight rear seats difficult. But it does have a larger boot than the Focus (347-litres v 316L).

Ford: Although rear space is a bit short on leg and headroom compared to some other hatchbacks, the rear doors (the ST is only available as a five-door hatch) make access easier. The standard sat nav and reversing camera also makes life easier on a daily basis.

Winner: FordVerdict

Renault: If performance is your main criteria then the Megane RS265 is the pick. What it lacks is the practicality that you really want in a hot hatch.

Ford: Still a quick car, slightly more comfortable and bigger. It ticks all the major boxes for a hot hatch. Plus it gets more gear for less money.

Winner: Ford

For more car reviews, video and news download the free Drive app. It updates every Friday with seven pages of fresh content from the Drive team.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

Guilty by suspicion

Torn apart … Scott Guy’s widow, Kylee (at left), and sister, Anna, on their way to Palmerston North Court in April, 2011. “She doesn’t want this to be the one moment in her life that affects the next 30 years” … Anna Guy.
Shanghai night field

When Scott Guy was brutally murdered on his New Zealand farm, many pointed the finger of blame at his brother-in-law. Susan Chenery details the case that shocked a quiet rural community – and transfixed a nation.

Quaint streets are lined with fastidiously maintained flower boxes. With its resolute neatness, the town of Feilding, located on New Zealand’s lower North Island, is a study in civic pride. Signs exhort its residents never to drop litter lest it lose its status as the nation’s Most Beautiful Town, an award it has won 14 times and looks like it’s planning on keeping.

Sitting on a fertile plain, Feilding is a cow town, a hub for the surrounding farming district. It is a polite community that doesn’t require traffic lights. Running out from its centre is a long, straight country road. It was on Aorangi Road that the district lost its bucolic innocence.

On July 8, 2010, Scott Guy, 32, rose in the wintry pre-dawn. He made himself a coffee, went online to check Facebook, the news and the weather. At 4.40am, he headed out in his ute to milk the cows. In the pitch dark of the country, he found the gates to his driveway closed and got out to open them; momentarily, he was silhouetted in the car lights. His killer stepped out of the darkness.

When neighbour David Berry found his body next to the ute with its engine still running just after 7am, Guy had been shot in the face, hands and arms at almost point-blank range. The shots not only ripped through the jaw, mouth and eye of Scott Guy, but through the heart of his surviving family.

“Not my baby, not my Scottie!” wailed his devastated mother, Jo, in the disbelieving confusion of the hours that followed the appalling discovery. For the Guy family, that shattered morning was the start of a journey that would only become more painful and surreal as it hurtled towards a foreign terrain of unimagined grief, shifting truths, altered perceptions and betrayal.

“We’d think things couldn’t get any worse,” says Jo now, “and then, suddenly, [the situation] would flip – and flip again. It was like being tossed around in a washing machine.”

The police quickly ascertained that the murder of Scott Guy was “intensely personal”. Those driveway gates were only ever closed when stock was being moved. He had been ambushed. But they could find no reason for his brutal end. There was no evidence of any criminal activity in Guy’s life – or of a spurned lover. “Scottie was very likeable,” says Jo. “He had a lot of friends; he wasn’t the sort to tick people off.”

Says his sister Anna, now 31, “Scott just had to walk into a room and everybody loved him. He was very outgoing and could make everyone laugh.”

Three chocolate Labrador puppies from a litter of eight disappeared from Scott’s yard the night he died, leading his father, Bryan, to think he’d disturbed a burglar. “The police very quickly said that wasn’t the case,” he says, “but that was always my theory [at the beginning].” The puppies were never found.

Photographs of Scott Guy show a handsome, muscular, blue-eyed boy who was full of life. In television footage of national stunt-riding competitions, he can be seen riding a Palomino through flaming jumps. He left behind a two-year-old son, Hunter, and a beautiful wife, Kylee, who was seven months pregnant. A thousand people attended his funeral at Feilding’s St John’s Anglican Church on July 16, 2010, the winter trees stark against the blue hills.

Suddenly, the Guy family, used to the gentle, unchanging rhythms of life on a dairy farm, found itself blinking in the glare of a huge murder investigation. The seemingly inexplicable murder of a farm boy resonated deeply in this agricultural community. And the media soon discovered something else: they might just be country people, but the photogenic Guy family had charisma.

“We were grief-stricken, trying to understand what was going on and organising a funeral,” says Jo. “Then we had the media knocking on the door all the time. Hundreds of people came into the house. I counted 70 one day and remember thinking, ‘Who are these people?’ ”

As events unfolded, the saga started to resemble, noted one journalist, “reality TV without the prizes”. Bryan modelled a dignity and fortitude in extremis that captivated the nation. On one occasion, he came straight from viewing his dead child’s body to make a television appeal. Holding his weeping wife, he told the country, “You’ve got to hug your kids, your husband, your wife, your girlfriend.”

The Guy family has been farming its 250-hectare property, Byreburn, since the 1920s. It is exceptionally close-knit, with all four of Jo and Bryan’s four children – Nikki, Scott, Anna and Callum – either living on the property or very close by at the time of the tragedy.

As a girl, Anna, an attractive blonde, was a natural performer who appeared regularly in school plays and musicals. Her boyfriend, from the age of 15, was local boy Ewen Macdonald, whose father owns a hunting store in Feilding. Few people knew that she battled bulimia during her teenage years. “I was very sick, so I think I isolated myself from my friends and Ewen was that constant person there, so I relied on him a lot,” she tells me. He was, she says, “solid and stable and always knew what he wanted to be – a dairy farmer”.

Macdonald was drawn to the golden family. He loved the reassuring rhythms of its home life, with church and roast lunch on Sundays. From the age of 18, he worked tirelessly on the farm alongside Bryan, whom he adored. He was known in the district to be obsessed with farming.

In November 2001, when she was just 20, Anna married Ewen and had four children in quick succession: Finn when she was 22, Jack at 23, Lucy at 25 and then Wade at 27. “I just threw myself into it,” she says. “The kids were my life. I didn’t sleep a lot for a few years.”

Nevertheless, Ewen Macdonald expected her to keep their house tidy at all times and for the children to be bathed and in their pyjamas when he came in from work. “I knew he was quite controlling,” she tells me, “but I’m not quite the type to do what someone tells me to do, so we clashed a little bit there. He did it in a roundabout way. He’d make little digs when he came home, like, ‘What have you been doing all day? The place is a tip.’ He didn’t drink. He didn’t have any friends; his friends were my girlfriends’ husbands.”

New Zealand’s 60 Minutes journalist Sarah Hall interviewed the family one month after Scott Guy’s death when their grief was still very raw. “I remember thinking, ‘Why is this woman married to him [Macdonald]?’ ” says Hall. “Anna is so charismatic, vivacious and joyful: he was very quiet and reserved. He clearly didn’t want us to be there or to go on camera. He just watched us. He was a kind of periphery figure. It struck me that something wasn’t right. Anna says now, looking back, he didn’t want to go and see [Scott’s] body when everybody else was going and she had to force him to be a pallbearer at the funeral. Afterwards, I got into the car and said to my producer and cameraman, ‘The brother-in-law did it.’ ”

At one point during the 60 Minutes program, Anna tearfully says to camera: “[Whoever did this] how can they sleep at night?” Scott’s wife, Kylee, terrified by the fact that her husband’s murderer was still at large, fled to her family at Hawkes Bay, leaving empty the brand new dream house she and Scott had built together on the property. She has never returned.

“It was the why and the who,” recalls Hall. “I remember Anna saying to me, ‘Are one of us going to be next?’ ” No one knew that the prime suspect was among them, eating at their table or sleeping in one of their beds.

Back in 2002, Scott, disenchanted with the early-morning milking, had left the farm and spent a year working as a jackaroo in the Australian outback. Returning to New Zealand a year later, he went to Hawkes Bay and worked on a beef farm for about nine months; he and Kylee met at a rodeo. “From the moment we met, we just couldn’t be apart,” she later told the jury at the trial of her husband’s alleged murderer. “I just loved him to bits and he loved me. He was one in a million.”

When the job on the beef farm finished, his father talked him into coming home. “He still didn’t want to milk the cows, so we said he could run the cropping and the young stock, rearing the calves,” says Bryan. Macdonald would manage the staff and day-to-day management of the dairy shed. “We thought that if we separated the roles enough, then he and Ewen could be their own bosses in their own areas.”

Friction among farming families is commonplace; the countryside is full of the disgruntled descendants of those who have lost the battles for the family property. Those who do not inherit are doomed to work for those who do.

Bryan Guy tried to deal with the fraught business of succession as fairly as he could. As part of the process of preparing to hand it over to the next generation, four years ago he and Jo bought the lovely, light-filled wooden house in town where we meet. They had sold the homestead on the farm to Anna and Ewen for an interest-free $250,000 loan. This was much less than it was worth and the move infuriated Scott. “They were helping Anna and Ewen when we were struggling,” Kylee later told the court. (Scott and Kylee were living in a rented cottage on the property.)

Bryan organised for both couples – Scott and Kylee, Anna and Ewen – to each purchase a 10 per cent share of the business (the farm and dairy). He and Jo would retain 80 per cent of the shareholding. “We said to the kids that there was an opportunity to be involved in the farm if they wanted it, and that if we all worked together, we would be able to have a better business than each of us working separately,” Bryan tells me. “We were aware that there could be possible tensions and went to quite a bit of trouble to make sure everybody talked about what the issues were.

“We got a facilitator in to help us go through people’s expectations for the future. We also talked about exit clauses so that if one party wasn’t happy, the opportunity was there to exit from the business. We hadn’t decided on future share purchases at the time of Scott’s death but, at some stage, Scott and Kylee and Anna and Ewen would likely buy another 10 per cent each, leaving Jo and me with 60 per cent.”

Bryan structured the trust funds in such a way that if either of his children divorced, their former spouses would have no claim on the farm.

Scott’s sudden return after a long absence caused simmering tensions to surface. “Ewen couldn’t stand Kylee,” says Hall. “He thought she was a princess.” Ewen complained to Anna that he worked far harder than Scott, that it wasn’t a fair partnership.

Anna remembers stressful exchanges with her husband. “He’d say, ‘First Scott’s on the farm, then he’s not, then he wants a house and then he wants this and he wants that.’ I told him to talk to Scottie or Dad. He’d say, “It’s your dad’s farm, he can run it how he wants to. It’s not my place to say.’ Ewen was such a perfectionist and Scottie was so laid-back and cruisy that it got on his nerves.”

One night at a concert, after he’d had too much to drink, Scott told his sister, Nikki, that Ewen was “the worst thing that ever happened to our family; the farm would be better if he wasn’t there”.

In June 2008, Scott informed his family at a gathering that, as the oldest son, he should inherit the farm when Bryan died. His siblings were shocked by his outburst and blamed Kylee for it. His father wasted no time in telling him that this wasn’t going to happen: each of them had to work, make a contribution to the business, in order to have a share in the farm. After all, he, Bryan, had had to earn his share when he entered a 50:50 partnership with his own father. Nothing was ever going to be “just inherited”.

Scott Guy’s assertion that night, the Crown would later tell the court, had been his “death warrant”. Says Jo now, sadly, “I thought we’d sorted it all out.”

Ewen rarely spoke at the family meetings. Four months later, in October, the old home belonging to Scott and Kylee that was being moved off the property to make way for their new one was torched in the night and burned to the ground. In January 2009, their new one was vandalised. Doors, windows and water pipes were shattered and the walls in every room punctured. Painted on the walls were the words, “FUKEN BITCH SLAPPR”. The strength and ferocity of the attack was horrifying.

Soon after, a hunting lodge on a neighbouring farm was burned to the ground. In September 2009, Ewen “went crook” at Scott at a family meal at the Elm Cafe in Palmerston North, saying he was sick of him not pulling his weight. Scott felt that Ewen was “taking over the farm”, according to his younger brother, Callum.

After this, says Anna, Ewen changed. He took a silk tree and hydrangea clippings to Scott and Kylee for their garden, helped them with some landscaping and made a montage of photos for them. “All of a sudden he became quite nice and was doing things with Scott and Kylee and doing heaps up at the school with Jack and Finn and I thought, ‘Okay, he’s obviously realised he can’t just sulk and not talk about things,’ ” says Anna.

“A lot of our arguments were about communication. I’d say, ‘You have to talk to me,’ and he would just go quiet. It was kind of a love-hate relationship. We were more like flatmates, really.”

In June 2010, Scott and Ewen went to a conference in Invercargill, at the bottom of the South Island. They shared a motel room, ate pizza together and came back excited for the future of the farm. But their visions for the future were very different. Scott wanted to subdivide the land and create a recreational lake for wave-boarding. Ewen, on the other hand, was interested in farming technology that would increase production and save costs.

That same month, Anna and Ewen went on holiday to Fiji. “It was good, we had fun,” she remembers. “Now I look back and think I didn’t know the real person I was there with.”

On July 8, 2010, the day that Scott Guy died, Ewen Macdonald, who was in charge of staffing, had rostered Scott on to oversee the early-morning milking, a chore his brother-in-law hated. That night, the family were due to attend a dinner because the farm had been awarded two milk-quality awards. Scott had excitedly bought new clothes: it was a rare night out for a young father. Ewen said he wouldn’t go, but didn’t say why.

In the months after the tragedy, Anna became wrapped up in her children and her heartbroken parents. “Mum was a mess for about six months,” she says. With hundreds of cows to milk every day and without Scott to help, Ewen worked even harder on the farm. Nobody noticed anything different about him. “I ate with the kids and we just lived separate lives,” says Anna. “We didn’t spend any time together, not even to eat a meal or watch a movie.”

On April 7, 2011, nine months after his death, Ewen Macdonald was arrested and charged with the murder of Scott Guy. With all leads exhausted, the police were confident that if they could identify the property vandals, they would have their murderer.

And Callum Boe, a young farm hand at Byreburn, had made a confession. At night, when Anna was sleeping, he and Macdonald had gone out on “missions”. They were the deer poachers who’d shot two $20,000 trophy stags on a nearby farm. They’d slaughtered 19 calves using a hammer on another neighbour’s farm. They’d gone onto another neighbour’s property and emptied a milk vat of 16,000 litres of milk, worth tens of thousands of dollars. But Boe had been elsewhere in the early hours of the morning of July 8.

For five hours, Macdonald denied all involvement with the animal slaughters and property vandalism – before finally admitting his guilt to police. “He couldn’t believe that Callum Boe dobbed him in,” says Anna. The police interview footage shows him sweating, spluttering, asking for water. Finally, he says pitifully, “I’m not going home tonight, am I?” He hasn’t been home since.He denied the murder, however, saying, “I am not that psycho”, and continues to deny it.

Ewen Macdonald had been a part of the Guy family for 10 years. When he was arrested for the murder of their son and brother, its members were left reeling in disbelief. Six days after her husband’s arrest for the murder of her brother, Anna Guy consented to an interview with Sarah Hall. “She was absolutely shocked to the core,” says Hall. “She was scared she was going to break down in the interview. She just couldn’t believe that it could be possible. It wasn’t just the murder charge; by now, Ewen had admitted his involvement in the other charges [the property vandalism and animal slaughter].”

Anna was falling apart. Torn between the vestiges of love and revulsion she felt for the man she’d married, she was making herself sick. Had she really spent the past 10 years sleeping with a murderer? “I thought the police must have got it wrong,” she tells me. “I could understand you might do damage to property; if you’re really angry, you probably could do that. But actually hurting anyone or killing someone, that was just too extreme. I didn’t marry that person. I didn’t know that type of person. I wouldn’t have thought I’d choose that type of person. You have history, you’ve had children. I kind of felt physically sick about it the whole time. I blamed myself for a while.

“The thing I can’t understand is that he never raised a hand to the kids or me. I never saw him treat animals badly or hit them or yell at them. It was very hard to understand. He promised he hadn’t killed Scott. But the trust was gone.”

She had to tell her children that their father had been taken accused of the murder of their uncle. Finn, her oldest child, was just seven.

Anna, who is not divorced but has changed her surname back to Guy, was left without a provider when Ewen went to prison and had to sell the homestead back to her parents. Then, 13 shell-shocked months later, the family faced the most publicised trial the country has ever seen. “They were good-looking white people,” said Ewen’s high-profile barrister, Greg King, by way of explanation in a TV interview. It was a Shakespearean storyline: a seemingly mild, gentle pillar of the community, on the board of the school trustees, on trial for the murder of his brother-in-law.

The Guy family’s lives were dissected in minute detail for a public who fed off every morsel. Their business became New Zealand’s business. “We couldn’t get over at the trial how [the media interest] took on a life of its own,” says Bryan. “It was like being in somebody else’s movie. There were never going to be any winners, no matter what happened at the trial. It was not going to bring Scott back.”

At the trial, the defence presented evidence that, in the days before his death, Scott had been concerned enough about a white sedan on the other side of the river to call the police. A neighbour said a rough-looking person stinking of alcohol had turned up at his house wanting to know if Scott Guy lived there. He’d felt sufficiently alarmed not to pass on the correct address.

As well, a cigarette had been found at the scene of the crime of the same type – Winfield Gold – that had been stolen in a burglary four days earlier by a man who – when arrested later – was also in possession of semi-automatic shotguns, methamphetamine and other assorted drugs. The man’s only alibi for the possible murder of Scott Guy was a meth addict who’d once threatened to kill police.

Then there was Simon Asplin, a farm worker who held a long-standing grudge against Scott dating back to their school days and who’d lost his tractor-driving job on the farm when Scott returned after his hiatus in Australia. “He’s pissed a lot of people off,” testified Asplin.

It was a cliffhanger trial. Macdonald had, says Sarah Hall, “the best defence lawyer in the country by far, and he did an incredibly good job”. Greg King’s ringing rhetoric was beamed into New Zealand homes every night to riveted viewers. “The summing up was so good,” says Hall, “that the prosecutor went and shook his hand at the end of it. It was a Shakespearean tour de force. The jury was captivated.” (King was later found dead beside his car in Wellington on November 3 in a suspected suicide.)

The prosecution’s evidence, on the other hand, was largely circumstantial. The gun was never found and a boot print at the scene could not conclusively be proven to be Macdonald’s.

Knowing he’d have to face the media straight after the trial, Bryan had written three statements: one for a guilty verdict, another for a not-guilty verdict and a third for no verdict. He and Anna had decided that whatever the jury came back with, they would accept it. Anna could barely breathe.

On July 3, 2012, Macdonald was acquitted of the murder of his wife’s brother. The jury believed there was room for reasonable doubt. Emotionless throughout the trial, Macdonald burst into tears as Kylee ran from the court, shouting, “He killed my husband.”

In September, Macdonald was sentenced to five years for arson and vandalism, 17 months of which he had already served. Kylee is now working with the Sensible Sentencing Trust to have the case re-examined. The police have told the family that there are, currently, no other suspects, but will reopen the case if new evidence comes to light.

There has been a verdict, but no sense of closure for the Guy family. “Anna genuinely doesn’t know whether Ewen did it or not,” says Hall, who has become her close friend. “She has been through hell. But what she is saying is that she doesn’t want this to be the one moment in her life that affects the next 30 years.”

“Until you go through adversity, you don’t know how you’ll cope,” says Bryan, whom Sarah Hall and her producer have affectionately dubbed the Dalai Lama of Feilding. “One of the things we didn’t want to be is angry and bitter. We read books about how your emotional state affects your physical health. We don’t want to be getting crook. To keep healthy, we’ve got to keep in a good state of mind. Anna has to get on with life. If she holds that resentment in her heart, it will destroy her and the kids. It’s a pretty big incentive.”

Says Anna: “I hate feeling cross or sad or angry or anything like that. I don’t want to live like that. I want my children to have a happy childhood.” She now believes Ewen to be “a bit of an unusual personality. He definitely wanted to be a great farmer, but it just turned into this huge competition. I don’t think Scott even knew he was in the competition. Once you’re in it, you’re kind of stuck in it and that’s all you think about. He was so tired, he was kind of just spiralling out of control. [Ewen] was making out that he could cope and I thought he could – but obviously he couldn’t.”

Incredibly, during all of this, a star was born. Anna was so compelling on TV that offers to work in media are coming her way, and she is working on local radio. There will almost certainly be an interesting second act for the homebody housewife from Feilding.

Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events – www.facebook上海夜网m/GoodWeekendMagazine

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

No barrier to beauty

Endeavour to do it … Lizard Island’s vast beauty is worth discovering. The resort’s pavilion balcony is a perfect spot from which to soak up reef views.
Shanghai night field

Louise Southerden finds Lizard Island an ideal base from which to explore the Great Barrier Reef’s northern waters.

Flying north of Cairns, the reefs below look like jigsaw pieces scattered on a turquoise tablecloth. Or a map of another world, in miniature, made up of coral continents and lagoon oceans. There are islands, too, uninhabited and hemmed on their southern edges by breakers of lace generated by the prevailing winds.

It’s a short drive from the gravel airstrip to Lizard Island Resort, where the other new guests and I check in while reclining on cushioned benches, sipping champagne and snacking on fruit, chocolate dipping sauce and smoked salmon rolls. It could be a dream (perhaps I’ve fallen asleep at my desk, mid-deadline) until a seagull swoops in, grabs one of my salmon rolls, devours it whole and wakes me up.

“Shoo!” says general manager Robyn Pontynen, who has just wandered over to welcome us. It’s a quintessential Lizard Island moment, reminding us of the resort’s main natural attraction: it’s on an island that’s a national park surrounded by a marine park on the Great Barrier Reef.

I’m staying in one of the Anchor Bay suites, which seem modest, they could be mistaken for semi-detached beach houses from the outside. Inside, they’re all style, space and sea colours. Large glass doors open to a wide timber verandah and a day bed with cushions candy-striped in turquoises and deep-sea blues. Beyond is a sandy track to the beach. There are thoughtful touches, too: a jar of chef-baked biscuits, calming music, an aromatherapy oil burner and a nightly turn-down service that includes a cup of jasmine, lavender and rose-petal T2 tea.

Of course, being an island resort, there’s a spa, a pool and excellent meals. But it’s the great outdoors, and the numerous ways to enjoy it, that proves irresistible. There is twilight snorkeling, sunset cruises, night dives, star-gazing sessions and six motorised dinghies guests can use to explore the island’s 24 beaches (gourmet picnic hampers to take with you are included in your room rate).

On my first morning, the sea is too rough to take a dinghy out, so I join a half-day snorkelling trip to Mermaid Cove and see giant clams, butterfly fish and blue sea stars draped over staghorn coral. Later, I see many of the same creatures on a low-tide reef walk as our guide leads us carefully through a maze of coral, keeping to the sandy bits – much as Captain James Cook did in his ship, the Endeavour, in 1770. It was Cook who named Lizard Island after the monitor lizards he saw when he brought Endeavour into one of the island’s protected coves for repairs (it had struck a reef offshore).

The island’s highest point now bears his name; on climbing Cook’s Look, 359 metres above sea level, he saw an answer to the riddle of coral that had trapped his ship. It’s a steep, 2½-hour walk to the summit, but there are less strenuous walks; it’s a pleasant change to be on a tropical island you can’t circumnavigate in five minutes.

Back at the resort, the guests I encounter seem supremely friendly and relaxed, perhaps because Lizard Island Resort is small (there are only 40 suites and villas), unpretentious (it’s less luxury resort, more tranquil retreat) and relatively isolated, which makes you feel as if you are somewhere special.

The island’s specialness isn’t lost on its other occupant, either, Lizard Island Research Station, which offers tours twice a week for resort guests.

One of the world’s leading coral reef research stations, it was set up in 1973 to provide a counterpoint to research being gathered at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef (at Heron Island Research Station, for instance). In those days, researchers stayed in tents, says Dr Lyle Vail, who shows me around. He and his wife, Dr Anne Hoggett, both marine biologists, have lived at the research station for more than 20 years – even raising their son here, who is also a marine biologist – first as researchers, now managing the 350 students and scientists who visit from around the world every year.

What makes the research station so highly regarded is the island’s location: at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, 27 kilometres from the mainland and 19 kilometres (less than an hour by boat) from the outer reefs on the edge of the continental shelf and world-famous dive and snorkelling spots such as the Cod Hole.

To make it even more inviting, the research station’s state-of-the-art facilities were upgraded with the completion of a seven-year, $4.75 million refurbishment last year.

A new solar array has already reduced CO2 emissions from power generation by about 65 per cent – which is apt, given that the research station exists to study coral reefs, which are increasingly being degraded by ocean acidification and a steadily warming ocean caused by rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

With the Australian Museum estimating that 10 per cent of the world’s reef systems are damaged beyond repair and another 70 per cent are threatened, Lizard Island looks like being a special place for a long time – both in providing data to inform decisions about how our oceans are managed, and as a place to enjoy the increasingly rare wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Lizard Island is 240 kilometres north of Cairns and 27 kilometres off the coast of Queensland. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly daily to Cairns. Hinterland Aviation flies from Cairns to Lizard Island (1hr); return flights cost $590 and can be arranged by Lizard Island Resort. Phone 1300 863 248, see lizardisland上海夜网m.au.

Staying there Lizard Island Resort has rooms and suites from $1444 a night, including all meals, wine, cocktails and gourmet picnic hampers. There’s a “stay for five, pay for four nights” special for stays until March 31.

More information queenslandholidays上海夜网m.au; australianmuseum上海夜网.au/Lizard-Island-Research-Station.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

Drawn to conclusions

Lance Richardson surveys the Nazca Desert’s geoglyphs.
Shanghai night field

Driving south from Lima is like letting the eye drift into the blank margin of a page filled with newsprint. There is hastily assembled clutter, an information overload – then nothing. The city falls away, crumbling to sand. A roiling fog begins its optical trickery, and you start to wonder what would happen if you got lost out there.

The stark coastline south of Lima is one of the driest places on the planet. In fact, Peru is a geographic yin and yang: on one side is the Amazon, where everything is wet; on the other side is a coastal desert, where wetness is a distant mirage. These opposites are divided by the Andes mountain range.

As I drive into the desert on my way to a small airfield, it occurs to me that deserts have a monopoly on strange sites around the world. The Northern Territory has Uluru, for instance. Namibia has Deadvlei, a white salt pan with petrified camel thorn trees that look like Giacometti sculptures. Black Rock Desert in Nevada hosts the annual Burning Man festival, where thousands of Americans set fire to wooden effigies and dance in outlandish costumes or their underpants. Nothing nurtures the surreal like extreme climates.

In 1927, a Peruvian archaeologist named Toribio Mejia Xesspe went wandering in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. He stumbled on a site so strange, it has fascinated visitors since it came to prominence in the 1940s. Seen from ground level, the Nazca Lines are a series of shallow trenches scratched into the gravel of the Pampa Colorada (Red Plain). Seen from the air, they resolve into fantastical shapes of extraordinary geometrical precision. Scientists and writers have argued for decades over how they were made by the Nazca people, who faded into history about 600AD. More outlandish theories involve hot-air balloons or, in the debunked hypothesis of author Erich von Daniken, ancient astronauts from outer space: the lines and figures could have been “built according to instruction from aircraft”, he claims.

My aircraft is an Aerodiana light plane. Instruction: do not eat before you attempt to view the Nazca Lines. After reaching the desert airfield, I clear a security checkpoint and sit behind the cockpit. We take off over a vast plain that resembles lumpy, dimpled custard and my imagination goes into autopilot: is that an old Inca road or power lines? Is that dark patch man-made, or the shadow of clouds? Is this rising sickness, or a psychological trick? It continues this way for nearly 40 minutes as we fly over ridges and crenulated plains. And then suddenly, the pilot points out the window at an enormous spider. The Nazca Lines could more accurately be described as the Nazca Menagerie.

Over 50 kilometres of land is a condor, humming bird, whale, parrot, monkey, and a heron 300 metres long. There are also pyramids, hands and a human figure, “the astronaut”.

Circling above this giant sketchpad, it’s understandable that writers such as von Daniken jumped to intergalactic conclusions. How extraordinary that we rely on a modern invention, planes, to see something so ancient. American scientists recently recreated the lines, proving they were possible without alien help. The real mystery is not how the Nazca made them, but why.

Whether constellation maps or an appeal to the gods for water, be assured: doodling in the margins takes on a whole new meaning in Peru.

FAST FACTS

Getting there LAN has a fare to Lima from Sydney for about $2110 low-season return including tax. Fly to Santiago (about 16hr including transit time in Auckland), then non-stop to Lima (3hr 55min). 1800 558 129, lan上海夜网m. Melbourne passengers pay about $2200 and fly to and from Auckland to connect.

Staying there A convenient base for viewing the Nazca Lines is Paracas. Libertador Paracas offers comfortable suites right on the ocean starting from $US260 ($246) a night. Libertador Paracas offers aerial viewings of the Nazca Lines five times a day, including transport to and from Pisco Airport. The cost is $US250 a person. See libertador上海夜网m.pe/en.

Flying there Viewings of the Nazca Lines can be booked from Pisco Airport directly with Alas Peruanas. The cost is $US130 a person. See alasperuanas上海夜网m.

More information See peru.travel.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of PromPeru, LAN Airlines, and Condor Travel.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

Quaint but far from cheesy

Brian Johnston discovers the town of Edam combines Golden Age riches with smartphone modernity.
Shanghai night field

I gaze out of the window as the bus heads beyond Amsterdam and reflect that certain things are a given in the Netherlands. Many of them are charming: polished door knockers, plump waitresses, bowls of tulips on window sills. Others aren’t really what I look for in a holiday, such as chilly North Sea winds and light rain, as modest and apologetic as the Dutch themselves.

It’s raining now, big drops slinking down the bus windows. But how can I mind? There’s something wonderful about scudding northern clouds reflected in water. These views are Dutch landscape paintings come to life, and they are constantly changing. Arriving in Volendam, the light is Rembrandt grey and so are the waterbirds. Yachts scud along on the Ijsselmeer and, unexpectedly, the sun creeps out.

I’m only 30 minutes from Amsterdam and intend to walk between Volendam and Edam. They were rich little fishing and trading towns during the 17th century’s Golden Age. Now they’re destinations for day-tripping, sailing and bird-watching urbanites. Volendam’s main street is a hoarder’s delight of wooden tulips, clogs and postcards, but yachts and fishing boats give it a raffish air. Its alleys are a quiet jumble of mediaeval houses with tidy picket fences and window boxes of geraniums.

I sit for a while, keeping an eye on seagulls as I snack on smoked eel. Then I set off on the two-kilometre walk north along the edge of Ijsselmeer to Edam. As with everywhere else in the Netherlands, it’s flat the whole way, though the wind makes me pant as it buffets me along dyke-top footpaths.

Volendam draws the crowds, while Edam – with its more famous name – appears mysteriously peaceful. I find a pretty little town of fine houses and narrow canals, with an interesting history and delightful air of somnolence: the sort of place where retirees prune roses and tut-tut in the bakery over the follies of the world beyond.

Edam was founded in the 12th century by fishermen and farmers. A Gothic wooden building from the 1530s on the Eilandsgracht is the oldest surviving building, but most date from the 17th century, when Edam got rich on ship-building and trade with the Baltic, and started building in stone. The original shipyard is still there, and now restores historic ships.

Wandering Edam’s little squares is a pleasant pastime, and in the Great Church I admire a rich collection of stained glass and a humongous organ. The compact Edams Museum is informative and has a “floating” cellar that rises with the changing water levels of this damp land.

The chief attraction is really the Wednesday cheese market, which I’ve missed by two days. No doubt that’s when the tourists come to town, to see the yellow-skin cheese wheels laid out on the cobblestones by men in traditional white costumes and straw hats.

It’s a quaint tradition in keeping with the doll-size houses, bicycles and herring sandwiches, of which the Dutch are inordinately fond. I’m not fooled, though: up the road, gargantuan engineering projects keep the sea at bay and the Dutch live lives as modern as you can get.

And, yes, they ride bicycles, but they’ve perfected the technique of answering their mobiles as they cycle.

It’s another given in this delightful country: windswept Dutchmen pedalling like acrobats as they juggle mobiles and iPods, smug in the knowledge that they combine the best of tradition and modernity.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14½hr) with connections to Amsterdam (7hr 20min). Return economy fare from $1750 from Melbourne and $1766 from Sydney, low season, including taxes. Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates上海夜网m/au.

Staying there

– L’Auberge Damhotel in the middle of Edam has a eccentric, baroque atmosphere and friendly staff. Phone +31 299 371 766, see en.damhotel.nl.

– The Dylan Amsterdam has boutique comfort in a 17th-century building overlooking an elegant Amsterdam canal. Phone 1800 665 433, see slh上海夜网m.

Eating there

– Tasty, simple home cooking can be enjoyed at informal De Beurs Eten en Drinken in Edam. Phone +31 299 316 471, see debeursetenendrinken.nl.

– D’Vijff Vlieghen in Amsterdam serves New Dutch cuisine in a house straight out of the Netherlands’ Golden Age. Phone +31 020 530 4060, see thefiveflies上海夜网m.

More information iamsterdam上海夜网m.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.