China 2017

Kashgar

A bread seller in the old city of Kashgar

WESTERN CHINA: ALONG THE SILK ROAD

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

In September 2017 20 NEAF members retraced the ancient Silk Road across China from Xi'an in the Chinese heartland to Kashgar in far western China.

This trip is an examination of the ancient and modern faces of a mighty nation whose time has come again. Just as we marvelled at beautiful Buddhist frescoes pained over 1500 years ago, we also marvelled at modern engineering feats as China relentlessly builds awe-inspiring freeways through mountainous terrain or sparklingly new cities where only 10 years ago was farmland. This juxtaposition of the old and new is what makes this tour so interesting: while we enjoy the remains of China's previous four great periods - the Han, Tang, Song and Ming dynasties - we are also acutely aware that we are eye-witnesses to China's fifth great age which will undoubtedly be remembered for centuries, if not millennia, to come. So too was the modern relevance of the Silk Road along which we travelled. As we moved to the west, we constantly saw reference to the Chinese President Xi Jinping's pet project: the one belt, one road initiative. Again, harking back to the age old link between the east and west, the modern world is remaking and rethinking this link albeit with bullet trains and four lane highways. In short this tour is an eye-opener and while we enjoyed the best of what ancient China has to offer - from Great Walls to terracotta armies - we also came to understand and appreciate modern China: a nation that means so much for us here in Australia.

An archive of the itinerary is available: please select here

Iran 2017

Yazd

Margaret (second from left) and Marilyn (second from right) with locals at the old city of Yazd.

IRAN: IN DEPTH

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

In April/May 2017 21 NEAF members travelled to Iran to explore this extraordinary country so often misrepresented in the western press.

This tour began in Tehran, Iran's capital: a busy, often smoggy city but with some fantastic museums to help us prepare for the trip ahead. Leaving Tehran we headed to the Caspian Sea and the very different world of Iranian Azerbaijan. Here rice paddies dominate the landscape framed by wooded mountains to the west and the Caspian to the east. Next, making Tabriz our base, we explored this unvisited but important city and journeyed out to Maragheh: home to a Mongol Period observatory and some fine Seljuk Period tower tombs. From Tabriz we then travelled to Zanjan visiting the incomparable Mausoleum of Oljeitu along the way. This towering edifice dates to the Mongol Period and demonstrates the 'Persianization' of the conquering Mongols superbly. From Zanjan we travelled up into the Zagros Mountains on a beautiful Spring day to visit one of my favourite sites, Takht-e Soleiman, once the home of one of the four imperial fires of the Zoroastrian religion.

Returning to Tehran we flew to Shiraz to complete the triangle of Shiraz-Yazd-Isfahan. We were now back on the tourist route - but with good reason as some of Iran's most famous sites and cities are in this area: Sassanian Bishapur and Firuzabad, Achaemenid Persepolis and Pasargadae, Timurid Yazd, Safavid Isfahan and some very early mosque complexes at Fahraj and Na'in. In between we wandered the bazaars in Shiraz and Isfahan, explored Yazd's old city and even got to see some of the sand dunes that typify Iran's desert regions.

By the time we returned to Tehran we felt we had seen a lot of what this amazing country and its friendly, cosmopolitan people have to offer.

An archive of the itinerary is available: please select here

Morocco 2016

Morocco

Across the Sahara Desert (but not too far!).

MOROCCO

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

In October 2016 21 NEAF members travelled to Morocco to explore the land of a thousand kasbahs, the Atlas Mountains and the legendary cities of Fes and Marrakesh.

Morocco can easily be divided into two zones: the area north of the Atlas where the majority of the population have traditionally dwelled, and the areas to the south of the Atlas on the fringes of the Sahara Desert and the home of the Touareg peoples. In the north are the royal cities of Rabat, Meknes, Fes and Marrakesh where, at various times, Morocco's ruling families have established their capitals. This has left a rich architectural legacy spanning from the ninth century CE to the present day in the cities, as well as the hustle and bustle of markets in places like Fes along with quiet residential gardens and agricultural vistas. Across the Atlas, date palms dominate, as do the wonderfully exotic mudbrick kasbahs that dot the fertile river valleys in an otherwise forbidding environment.

The group, over 20 days, were able to gain an appreciation of both these faces of Morocco, along with time in the modern entrepot of Casablanca and delightful Essaouira whose ramparts hold back the mighty Atlantic. Along the way we enjoyed a variety of foods (some good, some not so, with the ubiquitous tagine never far away), saw some splendid historical monuments including the Roman period Volubilis and a wide range of people, both Berber and Arab. The variety present in Morocco has to be seen and we hope the group came away with a great impression of what this marvellous country in north-western Africa has to offer.

An archive of the itinerary is available: please select here

Iran 2016

Firuzabad

Pick the locals (at the Sassanian palace of Feruzabad, Iran).

IRAN: IN DEPTH

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

In April/May 2016 21 NEAF members explored the highways and byways of Iran: from the little-visited north to the sensational sights of Persepolis and Isfahan in the south.

Iran is a delightful country to visit, notwithstanding the common comment from friends before departure: "is it safe?', or "Why would you want to go there?". In fact Iran is very safe (well, apart from crossing the street as the traffic in Iran has to be seen to be believed) and for those who visit the country there are stunning landscapes, fantastic archaeological sites, and a fascinating modern culture and cuisine (even if you do get a bit overloaded with rice and kebabs).

This tour took us from the rice paddies along the Azerbaijan border (yes, who would have thought Iran would have rice paddies!), past the Mongol capital at Tabriz and deep into the Zagros Mountains to visit the Zoroastrian complex at Takht-i Suleiman. These places we had virtually to ourselves as they are seldom on the regular tourist trail. However, we also needed to see the highlights of Iran: Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd and Isfahan. While fellow travellers were more conspicuous at these places, tourist numbers are still low and at no time do you feel you are on the 'tourist treadmill' as you may experience elsewhere.

In the north we were cold but in the south the desert lived up to its reputation and the weather markedly warmed - but it is all relative. In Yazd the group talked to the locals who said “what lovely weather we’re having”. When our people replied, “But it’s so hot!”, the locals replied, “You call this hot?”!

To repeat, Iran is a safe travel destination and the one common comment from the group was, "it's so different to what I expected". NEAF has been taking tours to Iran for over 20 years now - all without incident. Like the 2016 tour, a trip to Iran settles misconceptions and introduces you to a cosmopolitan nation with a deep and fascinating history.

An archive of the itinerary is available: please select here

Western China 2015

Aidkah Mosque

The Aidkah Mosque in Kashgar, China

WESTERN CHINA: ALONG THE SILK ROAD

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

In May 2015 17 NEAF members retraced the ancient Silk Road across China from Xi'an in the Chinese heartland to Kashgar in far western China.

The Silk Road in China is a defined path linking oasis towns separated by inhospitable desert. On our journey we appreciated that it was not only goods, but also ideas, that flowed along this 'road'. By way of example we saw many monumental and superbly decorated Buddhist caves - at Maijishan, Binglingsi, Bezeklik and the incomparable Mogao Grottos - all a legacy of the introduction of Buddhism from far-off India. At Xi'an we marvelled at the archaeological wonder of the Terracotta Warriors and in Urumqi we saw the famously well-preserved Taklimakan mummies while at any number of museums we were struck by the range and diversity of artefacts produced by China's long history. Although concentrating on the ancient, we also could not avoid modern China: including travelling across the Gobi Desert in a high-speed train at over 200km/hr. This juxtaposition of a long and fascinating ancient history with the nascent rebirth of China made this trip a delight for the senses in more ways than one.

An archive of the itinerary is available: please select here

Turkey & Iran 2014

Nush-i Jan, Iran

The walls of the fort at Nush-i Jan, Iran

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ALEXANDER

Tour Leader: John Tidmarsh

During late September and early October 2014 twenty NEAF members traced part of the route traversed by Alexander the Great through Turkey and Iran during his great eastern conquests between 334 – 323 BCE.

In Turkey we explored many of the cities conquered by Alexander (often only after a prolonged siege) including Sardis, Miletos, Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassos, home to the renowned Mausoleum) as well as mighty Ephesos and exquisite Priene, where Alexander dedicated a temple to Athena at his own expense. We visited the Pamphylian cities of Side and Aspendos which rose to prominence under the rule of Alexander’s successors, and climbed high into the mountains of Pisidia to the wonderfully picturesque remains of Termessos, whose impregnable citadel defied even the Macedonian king.

We then flew to Iran and entered the world of the formidable Persian empire destroyed by Alexander. We visited the great palaces of Persepolis and Pasargadae, the awe-inspiring Achaemenid royal burial ground of Naqsh-i Rustam, the wonderfully preserved Median fortress of Nush-i Jan( whose columned hall finds close parallels in the audience halls of Persepolis) and the ancient Achaemenid summer capital of Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana) where Alexander arranged for the execution of his old general Parmenio and mourned his closest companion, Hephaisteion. We also explored the vast city of Bishapur, capital of the great Sasanian king Shapur I who attempted to emulate the conquests of his Persian ancestors, as well as Isfahan (‘Pearl of Islam’) among whose earliest inhabitants were those Jews from Babylon freed by the Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid empire.

Although much of his route through these two countries was not travelled by us, this tour served to emphasise once again what a remarkable general and leader of men Alexander must have been.


Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan 2014

Samarkand

Group members behind Registan Square, Samarkand

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

NEAF and Academy Travel's May 2014 tour Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: A Journey through Central Asia has successfully concluded with 16 NEAF members enjoying warm but fine spring weather throughout Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The tour focussed on the major sites in these countries including the living Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as the ruined metropolis of Merv. In between times we walked in the footsteps of both Alexander the Great and Tamerlane (Emir Timur), visited ancient Bronze Age settlements in the Kyzylkum (Red Sand) Desert, Parthian capitals (Nisa) and desert fortresses built to protect the agricultural centres based around the Amu Darya River (ancient Oxus). Both countries were central to the ancient Silk Road and, for a brief time in the early fifteenth century, were the centre of an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the western borders of China.

Travel in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is not easy as the tourist trade is in its infancy but our group handled the rigours with aplomb, not even complaining (too much) about having to wheel their suitcases the 1.5km across no-mans land between the Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan borders!


Mexico 2012

San Lorenzo Stone of the Sun

San Lorenzo: Stone of the Sun

Tour Leader: Ben Churcher

NEAF's 2012 Mexico tour was a repeat of its successful 2004 tour - and like in 2004, the recent trip was a great success for the 13 participants who joined Ben Churcher in visiting some of the great sites of Mesoamerica. This comprehensive tour visited areas once dominated by the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, the Teotihuacanos, the Mayans and the Aztecs giving all participants the opportunity to explore the varied cultures of ancient Mexico.

An archive of the itinerary is available. click here

An archive of the tour gazetteer is available. click here


Syria and Jordan 2010

A scene from the covered market at Aleppo: the world

A scene from the covered market at Aleppo: the world's largest.

Tour Leader: Dr John Tidmarsh

For thousands of years, Syria and Jordan controlled the inland caravan routes along which goods were transported from the Orient to the Mediterranean. From the Nabataeans in their stronghold at the ‘rose-red city’ of Petra to the merchants in the bustling markets of Aleppo, the region has a rich and fascinating history, having been inhabited over time by several civilisations, each of which has left its individual mark.

To view full details of the itinerary. click here


Tunisia and Libya 2010

A view of the theatre at Leptis Magna. Photo by David Gunn, Wikipedia Commons

A view of the theatre at Leptis Magna. Photo by David Gunn, Wikipedia Commons

Tour Leader Dr. Stephen Bourke and a group of NEAF travellers have just returned from visiting the homeland of Hannibal and along the way saw some haunting desertscapes and oases, pre-Carthaginian stone-age remains, Graeco-Roman and Byzantine-Christian city ruins, Islamic medinas and villages, Medieval fortresses and a fascinating mosaic of vibrant cultures – past and present.

An archive of the itinerary is available. click here


Iran 2009

persepolis 2009

The group at Persepolis

NEAF's 2009 tour to Iran has just returned after a very successful visit to one of the world's great travel destinations. Contrary to popular worries, the group encountered no political issues during their visit but, instead, were able to freely enjoy the many delights Iran has to offer. Whether it is the spectatular scenery along the Zagros Mountains, the many and varied ancient sites, the gardens of Shiraz or the incomparible Maydan of Isfahan; Iran has something for everyone. Our guide Mahmoud worked overtime to ensure that we were fully informed about both ancient and modern Iran and he made sure we tasted the regional foods of Iran from Quince stew high in the Zagros to 'lamb-burgers' in Isfahan. Iran is a country that always leaves one with indeliable memories and we encourage people to visit this ancient and cosmopolitan country so that the negative image built by governments and media can be moderated by the reality of travelling in a safe, friendly and fascinating country.

Ben Churcher (tour leader)

To view an archive of the itinerary. click here

Following the tour, the tour leader, Ben Churcher, compiled a site gazetteer listing, in chronological order, the sites and places visited during the tour. If you would like to read this to get an idea of what the tour involved, please click here


Syria & Jordan 2009

The group wander through Palmyra

The group wander through Palmyra

In April 2009, 21 travellers accompanied John Tidmarsh for a three week journey through Jordan and Syria. This is now the fifth time that NEAF has run a tour to the Levant and the popularity of this region (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) for NEAF tourists shows no sign of waning.

On this tour visits to the legendary cities of Damascus and Aleppo, to the spectacular remains of Petra and Palmyra, and to the awe-inspiring Crusader castles of Crac des Chevaliers, Kerak, and Shobak were combined with overnight stays and rambles in the wild and beautiful (and, inexplicably, often neglected) Jordanian nature reserves of Dana and Ajloun.
To view the archived tour brochure. click here


Oman 2008

The Imposing Nakhl fort

The imposing Nakhl fort

This was the first time that NEAF had run a tour to Oman (“Oman: Travels in Old Arabia”) and, in view of the country’s wonderful natural attractions and excellent tourist facilities, it is unlikely to be the last.

In November, 10 NEAF members travelled with John Tidmarsh, the tour leader, through the length of Oman from the Musandam peninsula (‘the fiords of Arabia’) in its northern tip on the Straits of Hormuz to the lush, tropical frankincense country of Dhofar on its southern border with Yemen.

In this 15-day tour we travelled through some of the most stunning natural scenery and picturesque villages in Arabia. With its pristine sandy beaches, spectacular mountain ranges and desert vistas, its vast palm groves and hidden oases whose waters remain absolutely translucent, and its traditional mudbrick villages with their imposing tribal forts and cool palm-roofed souqs, Oman stands in total contrast to the great trading cities of Egypt and the Levant (Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, Cairo) and represents an environment and way of life which would still be familiar to Bertram Thomas, Wilfred Thesiger, and those other great Arabian explorer-adventurers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

To view the archived tour brochure, click here.


Syria 2008

We visited the Australian excavations at Jebel Khalid on the upper Euphrates.

Australian excavations at Jebel Khalid on the upper Euphrates.

This was the 4th time that NEAF has run a tour to Syria, and this year's version: "Syria: A Levantine Wonder", went very well - as always in Syria. The tour is certainly one of historical extremes. From the magnificent early sites along the Euphrates and Mediterranean coast to the jostle of the Aleppo souk, Syria encompasses both the ancient and the modern - and links them together in a unique way.

17 NEAF members completed the trip in April and May 2008. The tour travelled across the length and breadth of Syria visiting well-known, and not so well-known sites: even the cancellation of our visit to Lebanon, on short notice, was dealt with in the flexible spirit that travel demands.

Following the tour, the tour leader, Ben Churcher, compiled a site gazetteer listing, in chronological order, the sites and places visited during the tour. If you would like to read this to get an idea of what the tour involved, please click here.

To view the archived tour brochure, click here.