ROCKY MOUNTAIN REFLECTIONS

Travellers do a lot of waiting around and I try to use delays to reflect on my wanderings - where I've been, where I'm going to, how lucky I am to be able to roam.

At the height of a Perth summer I found myself in the below-zero winter bliss of Vail, Colorado. The pretty Bavarian-style village is base camp for the biggest ski resort in America and after two days on the slopes I was glad to ramble through the town with a couple of colleagues. Street vendors were selling hot pretzels and popcorn to the ravenous in need of apres-ski snacks. A neon- clad gang of Aussies tripped on down the street, saluting Australia Day.

We turned off the main drag and the east coast journalists were drawn into a shop that sold clothes too warm to ever need in Perth and I found myself alone, with nothing for company but a statue of Einstein which was sprawled on a bench. Frozen in bronze, its face bore a look of contemplation. And I too was lost in thought, in that snowy street, cobbled and quiet. The trees still wore baubles. Christmas in January!

I closed in on one, capturing the scene obliquely. And it seemed like a memory turned solid - flashy, distorted and out of proportion - a reflection in an orb.

NU-AGE GUY

Young Nu mixes work with pleasure at the top of Chopstick Mountain / Picture: Niall McIlroy

Having to make a crust is one of the inevitabilities of life. I get to travel as part of my occupation, recording what I see in words and pictures.

But 10-year-old Nu provides an unusual service for visitors to the Khao Takiab temple on Chopstick Mountain near the Thai resort town of Hua Hin. When school's out, he leaves his mum, who sells postcards at the pagoda, and spends his days protecting temple visitors from the mischievous macaques that inhabit surrounding trees.

His weapon of choice may seem primitive to the Xbox war game- obsessed Western child but Nu wields his slingshot with far more skill and probably has more fun.

He'd select a stone from the pouch that hung at his waist and draw the elastic sling back in one fluid motion. Then he'd lower the sling with a smirk, satisfied he didn't even have to fire to disperse the horde.

For half an hour he clung to me, intrigued by my own firing of the camera as I shot the temple and the craggy coast. Then I turned my sights on Nu, a willing, grinning target who posed with his sling aimed at the temple. Thank goodness for my kneecaps that he didn't return the favour.

HOUSE OF HUES

The colourful paintwork on a family home on Chew Jetty in Penang / Picture: Niall McIlroy

Nothing catches my eye like colour and in the Malacca Straits island of Penang, vividly hued Peranakan buildings contrast against the gunmetal grey tropical sky and the white of the colonial town hall.

The descendants of wealthy Chinese merchant traders, the Peranakan spoke their own dialect and lived an ostentatious colonial lifestyle. They have slowly been reabsorbed back into the Chinese community but there are still reminders of their extravagant lives, particularly in the gaudy green Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

But it's an unexpected find that comes to mind when I think of the many hues of Penang. My guide Wong led me along a wharf through the heart of the Chew Jetty community where, soothed by the sea breeze, we strolled the narrow walkway between stilted homes more than a century old. In one, children sat in front of a TV, heads on hands, elbows on knees like kids the world over. In a small shop, an old man slouched against a sack of rice, snoring noisily with each breath.

These descendants of traders from South-Eastern China all share the surname Chew, worship a sky god and have, at the end of the wharf, views of the Straits that developers would kill for. They are another little wonder in multifarious Malaysia.

CALMING CONFLUENCE

A riverboat takes the wide corner at the heart of Koblenz / Picture: Niall McIlroy

A highlight of 2012 was a six-day rail journey across Europe from Zurich to London with Railbookers which organises bespoke train trips with accommodation.

The first day was a special treat; the train left Zurich and passed through the grassy pastures of northern Switzerland and I watched as the landscape changed from low forested rangelands to a blanket of vineyards studded with angular- roofed towns. The train emerged into the Rhine River Gorge where a half-timbered village clung to the banks and stripes of vines swept up the ridge to ruined fortresses.

I alighted in the central city of Koblenz with a few hours of late autumn daylight to enjoy and traced the leafy streets back to the Rhine.

I followed the river north to the wide peninsula of Deutsches Eck which was settled by the Teutonic Knights in 1216. And there, where the Rhine meets the Moselle, itself one of Europe's grand waterways, I sat in the shade cast by the bronze of Kaiser Wilhelm I on horseback and watched a riverboat turn one of the world's most beautiful corners.

This shot was taken in 2012 but the stories from my European trip won't appear until the new year. And just as the two rivers meet, so too this year runs fluid into the next. Happy 2013, wherever your travels take you.

The West Australian

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