Mark

The Conclusion – 368 Days comes to an end

So, with our flights back to New Zealand on Wednesday 25 July so ends this journey of 368 days. New Zealand the ‘land of the long white cloud’ was true to form as we flew into Auckland – we were greeted with an overcast day but with the sun trying to sneak out. Reports from Christchurch are that it’s somewhat cooler down there. One leg to go as I write this – we have our flight to Christchurch due to go in a little over an hour. With that we will be home – well almost home – we can’t move back into our house until Friday but we will be in the same city.

The last year has presented us with so much – we have met some wonderful people, experienced some amazing things, been and seen some amazing sights, and at time we were able to share and enjoy our journey with family members. But as they say all good things must come to an end – this journey atleast. We have loved all that we have done – we started off this time last year in Houston in the heat before working our way over to Florida, then down to Costa Rica, Panama and then through South America for 3 months which included visiting the Galapagos and Easter Islands. From South America we headed to Africa and were so fortunate with our safari experiences in Tanzania and Kenya. We then spent some more time exploring some of the southern African countries before heading to the heat and sand of Dubai where we linked up with Maddi. We traded sand for snow as we headed up to Scandinavia and Iceland with Maddi for the month of December. With Maddi heading back home we headed back to Africa – this time to the top, exploring Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Israel and Turkey. It was then time to head into Europe where we had the luxury of 4.5 months to see some of the countryside. We moved from Spain to Switzerland through to Germany, Holland and then the Czech Republic. We then explored more of ‘central Europe (as we were asked to refer to it) and then on up into Poland.

Through that period we got to share some of our experiences with Taylor, and we got exposed to volunteering as English teachers and loving it. The teaching took us to places we hadn’t expected to get to and we met some wonderful people through these experiences. With teaching behind us we headed to Croatia and then onto Italy and a bit of a catch up with Mary and Jock before tackling our first Workaway experience ‘in the boot of Italy’ where we spent time with Antonio and his mum on a vege farm – another priceless experience for us. Volunteering done we headed to through to Greece – our year away rapidly running out on us. Greece then saw us head to Singapore and then over the Pacific to link up with Sam and Mike in Hawaii. Last leg took us home view the Sunshine Coast and what a nice way to end our journey that was.

We’re looking forward to heading home but already thinking about what and where we would like to head to next but first things first we need to get home and get back into the routines of normal living. I’ve lost some things along the way this year – some weight which was a bonus, my temper a few times at hauling bags over the rough roads of Europe, some jewellery including my wedding ring of all things, but not my love for Carol and her motivation and drive that has seen us achieve so much together. I have had the best travel partner and travel planner a guy could ask for us and I already look forward to our next adventures together. We called this past year ‘a journey’ as opposed to the ‘holiday’ that a lot of people have called it. Travelling as we have was hard at times but equally rewarding, and so if any of what I have written about the places we have seen and the things we have experienced is of benefit to you, take it and go and see the world – we totally recommend it.

This is the Carmar Travelling blog signing off for now – feel free to contact us at any stage if we can assist you with your ‘journey’.

Mark and Carol Jones – 25 July 2018

Caloundra and the Sunshine Coast

Friday saw us up and away early again – Carol and I had to get away from the hotel at 5.30am to get out to the airport and get ourselves checked in for the flight to Brisbane via Sydney (Sam and Mike didn’t have to be at the airport until @ 7am so we headed off without them). We boarded our flight with Jetstar and pulled away from the gate on time at 8.30am and bid Hawaii farewell. The haul across to Australia took around 9.5 hours and was actually running ahead of time. Our flight was via Sydney but the irony of the situation is that the flight actually flew right over Brisbane before heading down the coast for the last leg. We had a wait of around 4 hours in Sydney but finally boarded that next leg and arrived in Brisbane on time and found our way out to the shuttle that was going to run us up to Caloundra. With pick ups and drop off’s we finally pulled up outside of Lyn’s apartment at 10.30pm and had to wake her up to let us in. We were relieved to have arrived and enjoyed a nice catch up with Linnie. The haul from Hawaii including crossing back over the International Dateline meant that when we arrived in Caloundra is was now Saturday night and we’d been on the go for something like 22 hours – so we were happy to finally hit the sack and get some much-needed sleep.

On Sunday we enjoyed a nice casual start to the day and Linnie took us down and around the waterfront to a really nice café on the beachfront at King’s Beach where we settled in for a really nice breakfast. Linnie lives a block away from the beach in a nice apartment building in the central waterfront area of Caloundra so a really nice spot. After brunch we checked out the beach area and then wandered back up to the Sunday markets in downtown Caloundra. That afternoon Linnie took us around to Damian’s – her son, so we could have dinner with him and his family – Kim and the kids Jacob and Libby. Damian who’s a champion jockey had been in the wars and had his face bandaged up but had prepared us a really nice roast – we were very grateful for the lovely lamb we enjoyed. On Monday Linnie showed us up in the Hinterland that surrounds the Sunshine Coast area. We headed up into the hills to a really quaint area call Montville before heading back down the hill to a spot called Palmwood where we went to Rick’s Garage which was one of Linnie’s favourite spots. Rick’s is well known for its great burgers and we sat down and ordered some lunch. Rick’s do a monster burger which weighs in at 1.1 kg’s – crazy and safe to say I didn’t consider it. That said when our burgers did turn up we were still rewarded with lovely big burgers (Carol only managed to get through half of her’s and brought the balance home for breakfast). I have to say I came away from Rick’s very content and happy with all that we had had – and would totally recommend it if you are in the area. From there we drove back out to the coast area and worked our way back south to Caloundra via the towns / cities of Maroochydore and Mooloolaba – there are some really nice spots along the coast. We found our way back to Linnie’s and settled in for a nice relaxed evening.

On Tuesday we headed off early and made our way up to Noosa Heads. I’d been on a bus-trip to the Sunshine Coast the best part of 30 years ago and was keen to have a bit of a look at Noosa so Linnie  got us into a park in Noosa Heads and we headed off and explored the shops and enjoyed a coffee reviver. We then headed across the beach and all I can say is stunning – the sun was shining, it was warm and this was reflected by the number of people in swimming. We had a nice walk along the beach boardwalk and then went back to the car to get our picnic bits and pieces – and my togs. We found a nice spot along the beach path and whilst the ladies sunned themselves I took a dip in the water. I’d have to say it wasn’t as warm as Hawaiian waters, but it was still very nice and easy to adjust to. I enjoyed my dip and then we sat back and enjoyed a nice picnic with a great view – very happy to have been in this area (temperature was something like 24 degrees so really pleasant and comfortable – not too hot, but certainly warm enough. Having enjoyed ourselves Linnie then took us back to Caloundra via the coast road. I’m not sure we if call them suburbs, towns or cities, but the coastal strip between Noosa and Caloundra is back to back of homes, hotels, businesses, cafes etc. You seamlessly pass from one to the other – from Coolum, to Maroochydore, to Mooloolaba and then onto Caloundra – very nice area. We were very fortunately to even see a large whale swimming just off the coast – apparently they migrate at this time of year.

We stopped in to see Damian, Kim and the kids to say goodbye to them before getting back to Linnie’s and filling the basket with drinks and nibbles and heading the 200 odd metres down the road to the beach where we parked up to see the sunset – what a nice way to end a really nice day, I’d have to say I have really enjoyed my time in the Sunshine Coast – as the name suggests there is plenty of sun and at this time of year it appears to present a very pleasant option for those wanting to ‘warm up’. We took in the sunset and listened to the noise of the beds up in the roosting tree before heading back and Linnie cooked us a lovely meal – good times all round. All too soon our time with Linnie has drawn to a close – Wednesday morning saw us up at 4am to get a shuttle and back down to Brisbane for our connecting flights back to New Zealand – the journey really is coming to an end – today!

Hawaii – via the Philippines

Sunday morning saw us up early to get a taxi out to the airport in Singapore for the last big leg of our journey – over to Hawaii where we were to meet up with Sam and Mike. Our taxi roared along the road and had us out at the airport in no time and so we checked in and found ourselves sitting on board the plane waiting for something like an hour before it pushed off – Singapore Airport is crazy busy and has 4 main terminals and flights backing up to get onto the runways. We were finally away and the trip over to Manilla in the Philippines took us the best part of 4 hours. The Philippines seemed to materialise out of the water, but a lot of this island country looked to have ‘wet feet’ and be water-logged. We weren’t sure but wondered if a lot of it was rice paddies? I had a window seat and was rewarded with good views of the main island and then Manilla itself. From the air the city looked like a bit of a mix – simple buildings and some fancier homes here and there. It was warm as we disembarked the plane and we had a wait in the airport of about 2.5 hours before we re-boarded another Philippines Air craft – this one was a bit bigger than which we had come from Singapore in, and we were rewarded with TV screens and food – nice. We settled in for the long haul over to Hawaii – a flight of around 10 hours. We tried to sleep but ended up watching a few movies instead – a treat we hadn’t had for a wee while.

Oahu

We landed in Honolulu at around 9.45am – the irony of which was it was still Sunday morning – we gained the best part of a day flying over the International Dateline. The sun was shining and it was warm as we headed off the plane. First impressions of the airport were that the airport was getting pretty dated – we had to board a bus to head round to the customs screening area and soon we were we through that process and then waiting for our bags to come out – the belt was loaded with boxes that passengers had loaded onto the flight and these seemed to come through before the bags for some reason (the look of the airport was dating, and I thought we would be surrounded by palm trees but that wasn’t quite the experience). We were staying at a hotel near the airport and we called them and waited for the courtesy shuttle to arrive which turned up after maybe a 30 min wait and we were driven around the road. We were too early to enter our room so we just relaxed outside around the pool and enjoyed a nice dip to cool off – the day was warm. Once we were able to get into our room we just relaxed some more – feeling a bit lagged from the long flight. Later in the day we headed out for a walk locally and then headed back to the hotel and picked up some dinner at the restaurant and parked up outside in the cooler evening temperatures and enjoyed.

On the Monday morning we had an easy start to the day and caught up with some emails (I even managed to get a couple of job applications away – we really are coming to the end of this journey). We then walked round the road and caught a bus into Waikiki – the ride taking the best part of an hour, but we got to see some of the area along the way. Waikiki presented itself as I had hoped – palm trees everywhere, nice surroundings, and then the beach – the downside if there was a downside was the sheer number of people / tourists about. We had a wander round some of the retail area and past the swag of restaurants and cafes. We headed out to the beach and dipped our feet into the surf and wandered up the beach. The day was hot and the sand and paths were very hot to walk on. We spotted a group of people down by the waters edge taking in something and so we headed over for a look and spotted the large turtle they were there watching – the turtle was just hanging out in the surf line – very cool. We wandered back along the road and found our way to the large shopping mall – Ala Moana and had a look around – keen to locate a supermarket. We found the Foodtown and dove on in and brought some nice bits and pieces for dinner which we took back to the hotel to enjoy (bus ride was longer going back due to traffic) – very nice, but a little expensive as everything cost by weight – pounds not grams, and you also get caught out by the tax issue – tax is added to all prices.

On the Tuesday we enjoyed another easy start to the day before transiting over to the apartment we would be sharing with Sam and Mike for the next few days. The apartment was in the area of Pearl Harbour – right across from Pearl Harbour as it turned out, so we took a taxi over and got ourselves settled in. We then caught a bus back through to Waikiki and tracked down the Tourist office so we could tee up some details for our Maui trip. We did some more looking around the shops and wandered back up the road to the Ala Moana mall and then through to a nearby Walmart – so we could see what all the noise is about when it comes to shopping at Walmart – it was like a big Warehouse with a supermarket included. We caught a bus back up towards Pearl Harbour and got online to book rental cars for the coming days on the main island and also for over on Maui. Being close to Pearl Harbour we were treated to views of all the naval ships that anchor here – increased at the moment as the RIMPAC Naval exercises are on with 26 Pacific countries participating in the naval war games (New Zealand Navy included – RIMPAC is a bi-annual exercise staged between Hawaii and the Californian coast). Add to this the Naval bulger rung out in the morning and then again in the evening.

Wednesday morning saw us up and away early – we headed off and caught a bus through to the Airport and waited for Sam and Mike to arrive. We got to the airport earlier than expected and had a bit of a wait for them to arrive as their flight was a little late in but they soon came out through the gate and it was great to see and catch up with them both – we had the next 9 days to enjoy together. With them collected we headed over to pick up the rental car we had booked and found our way out of the airport and back to the apartment and got them settled in and gave them some time to refresh and relax. Carol and I headed over to the Pearl Harbour Visitor Centre to sort out what the details were relating to visiting there – which we had planned for a couple of days’ time. We then headed back and collected Sam and Mike and headed off to some of the local malls and had a nice lunch out and a good look around the shops, before heading back to the apartment and settling in for the evening.

On Thursday morning we got up and away to head off and explore the North Shore of Oahu. First stop heading away from Pearl Harbour was the Dole Pineapple Plantation where we took part in a tour of the complex including the Plantation train that takes you out and around some of the Dole complex and shows you some of the fields of pineapples growing. It was really interesting to learn how the pineapple’s grow – with the top of the pineapple being established to root and then planted and taking around 18 months to fruit and then it fruits again 12 months later and then is done. The Dole Plantation is the big pineapple producer and they were responsible for something like 90% of the worlds canned pineapple. Dole was quite the businessman and saw the future was in the canned industry and established this and when he saw he needed more land, he brought a nearby island and cleared it of cactus and planted the whole island out in pineapples – such was the demand worldwide. One of the must do’s when you visit here is to sample the pineapple ice-cream so we sat down and enjoyed that – but you didn’t need too much. We also watched a pineapple cutting demonstration and we all learnt something around what to look for in a good pineapple and also that we should soak the cut pieces in water once cut so as to reduce the acidity in the pineapple.

So now skilled up in all things pineapple we headed on up the road and soon came out at the North Shore coast. We were told to keep our eyes out – if there were loads of cars on the side of the road by the beach and people crossing the road, chances were there would be turtles on the beach and sure enough it didn’t take long for us to back up in the traffic. We pulled over and sure enough we found something like 5 turtles surfing in the waves right up on the water’s edge – very cool. We took this in and then we headed on up the road to a popular beach area called Waimea Beach. The area was very busy and we ended up having to pay to park in a nearby paddock and walk across the road to the beach. The sand was burning hot so I had to fast track it down to the water’s edge. We all jumped in for a swim – I may have jumped in a little too quick as I soon realised I still had the car keys in my pockets and so I had to rush to get back out and dry the key, hoping I hadn’t done too much damage to it (and thankful that I hadn’t lost them in the sea – very lucky). Keys up on the beach drying off I dove back in – the water dropped away quickly but was lovely and warm so we all enjoyed a nice dip before heading back to the car and as luck would have it, the key unlocked the car so all looked to be okay – I breathed a sly of relief. We sat down and enjoyed a picnic before heading on up the road and up around the top of the coast. We stop at a spot where there was a wood carver that had some amazing pieces of work – he and his sons produced carved pieces that went world-wide – very clever when you saw that most just came from one piece of wood. We’d been told to stop at Giovanni’s Food-truck for shrimps and soon located the spot – easy to find with all the vehicles parked up and the que ordering. We pulled in and got in the que and ordered a couple of dishes of shrimp between us – everyone seemed to enjoy them.

From there we headed on around the top and down the eastern side of the island as the weather started to pack in and rain. We cut across the island lower down and went through a couple of tunnels before coming out in Honolulu where we turned back up the road to the apartment. The weather improved and it got hot again as we arrived back at the apartment so we decided to head down to the pool for a swim. I slipped my phone into my pocket thinking I would take some photo’s but got too excited down at the pool and went and jumped in the pool with my phone in my pocket. Unlike the car key I wasn’t so lucky and the phone didn’t survive – not the best way to finish what had been a really good day for us all.

On the Friday morning Carol, Mike and I got up early and headed on over the road to the Pearl Harbour Visitor Centre. We lined up to enter by 7am and found a que of around 100 m’s already formed. We managed to get into the ticket counter and secured tickets for the Arizona Memorial at 7.30am so good timing. For a start we all entered an auditorium and watched a moving movie on the Pearl Harbour attack that run for around 15 mins before we all boarded a navy launch that took us out into the harbour to see the memorial. Currently you are unable to enter onto the Arizona Memorial proper as it has sustained structural damage and they are concerned it could collapse down onto the Arizona below. It was disappointing not to be able to enter the memorial as just going alongside it in the boat didn’t give the experience I was expecting but its understandable that they need to protect this site. The boat docked and we headed on around the waterfront area where there was a load of info and plaques with supporting stories from this torrid time in history. We then boarded and explored the US submarine Bowfin which was in active service during WW2. It was amazing looking around and seeing the conditions which the crew had to survive and live on, when out at sea – it was very tight. We had a good look around and read up on the submarines stories before catching a shuttle over the harbour to Ford Island where you go to explore the USS Missouri – the mighty battleship – the last active battleship.

It’s quite a sight measuring in at something line 3 football fields in length. We took part in a tour with one of the guides who detailed some of the specifications of the ship – armour plating that was something like 21 inches thick – amazing to think what weight that would be. The cannons – all 9 of them were 16-inch cannons – some of the biggest any ship had. The Missouri could fire its guns and hit targets something like 23 miles away – I think it was able to fire 27 shells in the time it would take for the first to hit its target 23 miles away – a load of fire-power. The Missouri is famous for being the flag ship where the Japanese surrender was signed bringing WW2 to a close in 1945. They have the spot where MacArthur sat for the signing, and they have the declaration sheets preserved here – which includes the signature of the NZ representative that was at the signing. We went through the ship and explored its interior – I think the ship had a crew of something like 3500 people – pretty amazing when you look at the area within the ship. We explored the ship and then got back on the bus and headed around the road to the Pacific Aviation Museum where you are rewarded with a really nice selection of aircraft and helicopters – ranging from some that were involved in the Pearl Harbour / W2 conflict, through to the more modern jet fighters. There was a load to take in but time was getting on and we were aware we should get back to Sam so we could get her out. We’d already spent seven hours exploring all that Pearl Harbour had to offer and feel we could have easily spent a few hours exploring more to truly take in all that the wider Pearl sight has to offer. We’d enjoyed all that we had seen – and had learnt a lot about this period in history.

With sore feet we headed on back across the road and caught up with Sam who’d enjoyed a nice morning around the pool. We had a bite to eat and headed on out – this time taking in the bottom eastern corner of the island so as to have driven right around the island. The roads are a lot busier around Oahu than I’d expected – I think I read that Honolulu is the US’s 11th largest city – interesting stat, and there are cars everywhere. Outside of the Oahu most of the roading is single lane, and near the beaches the traffic just backs up – they drive in ‘island time’. We completed the eastern loop of the island coming back into Waikiki and headed up to the Ala Moana shopping complex to park and walk back into town – a bit further than the kids were expecting I think (and considering the steps we had built up at Pearl Harbour). We showed them the beach area and then found our way to the Cheesecake Factory where Sam had wanted to go for dinner. We all sat down to very generous meals and were thankful for the walk back up to the mall. The evening as I think all evenings on Oahu are, was warm and very pleasant – a nice time of day. We had a bit of a look around the shops before making our way back to the apartment – tired bodies in tack.

Maui

On the Saturday morning we were up and away to get the car back to the airport rental drop off (I seemed to take a wrong turn and took quite a detour but we got to the airport in the end). With car dropped off we got the shuttle around to Terminal 3 where one of the small regional operators flies from. I wasn’t sure what size plane to expect to get us over to Maui but had thought it would be bigger than the Cessna Caravan which we took (such as we flew into safari in, in Kenya). We waited to be boarded and then climbed onto the small plane and buckled in (the US Airforce have a base as part of the wider airfield here and so I had seen some cool flying machines this week – new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, F-15’s and this morning I enjoyed seeing a B-1B Bomber taking off – very cool). Sam was pretty anxious and gripped the seats hard the whole flight. The flight with Captain Bill over to Maui took us around 45 mins and we passed an island along the way. We landed at one of Maui’s smaller airfields only to find no rental car counter present and had to wait for the rental firm to come back and pick us up so we had a bit of a wait taking in the local views (and the odd plane coming and going). We finally got the rental car sorted, got all the bags into the boot – another good achievement, and we were off. We found a shopping complex locally that Sam wanted to have a look around so we left them to shop whilst Carol and I had a wander along the waterfront village taking in some of the shops – there were a number of very nice art galleries and Carol even got to help one artist with a piece he was working on instore (one gallery had a display of Anthony Hopkins work – didn’t realise he was a painter).

We all met up again and then headed on down the coast – the western side of Maui to the area of Kihei where we soon managed to locate our apartment. We had trouble getting in – the code details we were given didn’t work, but the caretaker soon fixed us up and we got ourselves in. The apartment was very nice – 2 bedrooms and a nice big open lounge area so very comfortable. We were right by the beach – across the road from the beach, and the complex had a pool so very comfortable. It was my birthday so Carol had brought me some bubbles and we all sat down that evening with chips and nibbles and drinks and had a really nice time just chatting away – nice way to spend my birthday – thanks. On the Sunday we had an easy start to the day and Carol and I headed across the road to the beach and had a good wander around the area – the water was lovely and warm. We checked out the local area which was primarily full of condo’s – I think that’s what you call them. It’s very popular to let them out – the complex we were staying in seemed to operate like that. I had a dip in the water and we then spent time just relaxing and enjoying the surroundings. That afternoon we all headed back up the coast to the busy area of Ka’anapali which was full of high rises and fancy hotels. We had been told to check out the beach area in front of the Sheraton so we found a park and went out to the beach here – which was crowded. Carol, Sam and Mike all jumped in for a dip whilst I just watched all that was happening around us.

I think they called the area Black Rock as there was a large rock on the point that loads of people were clambering up to jump into the water from. With everyone refreshed we found our way up to the Hyatt where we were booked into a traditional Lu’au for my birthday celebration. The Lu’au consisted of a traditional island show with music, dancing and the story of the Polynesian Islands – New Zealand had a presence within the main show. We all enjoyed a really nice buffet meal as the sun started to go down and then the show kicked into gear. The main highlight for us was the fire-dancers – they were pretty amazing with what they did – still not sure how they spun those fire sticks as fast as they did – very impressive. The show went for around 3 hours, and with an open bar on offer, I think everyone had enjoyed themselves (Mike and I wore our new Hawaiian shirts for good measure, and the girls were presented with fresh lae on arrival at the Lu’au. We made our way out and I managed to find our way back down the island to the apartment – having all enjoyed a really nice day.

On the Monday we headed off to do a zipline excursion that Sam and Mike had booked. We had to work our way up into the hills of Maui – went up a couple of very narrow windy roads, but we eventually located the operator and went out and completed a series of ziplines. We had some fun soaring along and having survived that we headed down to the coast on the northern side where one of the zipline guides had recommended we go – Hookipa I think it was called. We’d been told to try a seafood restaurant in the area but couldn’t get a park so we located the beach area and were rewarded with the sight of a couple of dozen large turtles sunning themselves down on the beach – this was obviously a very popular spot for them. It was pretty special to see the turtles coming and going as locals headed out surfing in the area – the bay was also very popular with windsurfers as the wind whipped in for them around the point. Up in the car park we stopped at Dave’s Dog’s food-truck and picked up hotdogs before heading on back around the coastline down to Kihei. We got back to the apartment and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon relaxing – I had a swim in the sea whilst the others took a dip in the pool. Sam and Mike cooked up dinner for us so very nice.

On Tuesday morning we had to be up and away early – today’s excursion was a snorkelling excursion. We only had to travel about 15 mins back up the road to the harbour at Maalaea where we found our boat and crew that would be taking us out. We motored out of the inner harbour and headed across the open water to Molokini Crater where we joined a load of other tour boats. We tied up to an anchor and the crew took us through the process of getting in the water and snorkelling. The crater is a nature reserve and is the home / nesting spot of the Frigate bird. I’m not that confident snorkelling but got myself kitted up and got myself in the water and I was rewarded with some great sights below. The range of fish that were swimming around the coral below was better than expected – we saw a great range of them. Sam and Mike also enjoyed – this was the first time Mike had snorkelled so nice experience for him. Carol was in her element and we all hopped back on the boat excited with what we had seen. The team pulled up anchor and then treated us to an early lunch on the boat as we motored back over to the main island to an area of coastline towards the south of the island. The coastline down this part of the island is busy with lovely hotel complexes and busy with people and boats. The crew were trying to find a nice settled piece of water for us to tie up in and finally located such a spot and we all got back into the water where this time we were rewarded with swimming with turtles – how special is that. I saw maybe 3-4 large turtles whereas Carol was swimming with and touching turtles – that said I was pretty happy with myself for snorkelling as I had today – it felt a bit better than it had previously so that was good. We ended up spending about 6 hours out on the water and enjoyed the experience – we were very lucky to have seen all that we had. We headed back to the apartment and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon including a dip in the pool.

Back to Oahu

Wednesday saw us up and away very early – we had to get back up the coast above Ka’anapali to the airport, dropping the rental off on the way. We managed to sort and were at the airport in plenty of time. The Cessna soon came into sight and we boarded the plane for the 40 min hop back to Honolulu and the main airport (was rewarded as we came into land with the sight of a couple of Airforce fighters getting ready to take off). We were staying in central Honolulu for a couple more nights so we headed to the hotel in a taxi and were able to get into our rooms early. We dropped our bags and then got all day bus passes and headed back to Ala Moana mall – Sam still had some serious shopping she wanted to complete. We left them to it whilst we had a wander but then came back together for lunch at a sushi-train – pretty cool experience. After lunch the girls went off to get their nails done whilst Mike and I found the bookshop and had a good look around – filling in the time nicely. We left Sam and Mike to carry on shopping and Carol and I headed back to the hotel – we were staying in rooms up on the 22nd floor and were rewarded with amazing views out over the port area.

Carol and I then headed to explore the surrounding area and took in the Royal Palace – Iolani which we wandered around the outside of and then across the road to the King Kamehameha Stature – he was the first king of Hawaii I think and he daughter took over from him and was very popular – there are several statures of her around the city. We then made our way out towards the port area just as a large container ship was heading up the channel. We had a good look around the Aloha Tower Marketplace and the history of this area (one of the King’s loved this area and spent a lot of time at one of the bars in the area – conducting his business as needed, but also drinking with the likes of Mark Twain and other notable celebrities of the day). We enjoyed our wander and headed to the supermarket to pick up a couple of bits for dinner. We linked up with Sam and Mike who’d had a big afternoon shopping – Mike had done more shopping than Sam apparently, but was happy with her efforts.

On Friday morning we had to be up and out the door early to get back over to the North Shore for a diving with the shark’s excursion. Mike arranged an Uber which promptly picked us up around 6.15am and we were off (we’d been told the trip could take us 90 min’s so we needed to get away early). Not sure what the panic was about as we had a really good run and pulled up in Hale’iwa harbour soon after 7am. With time to kill we headed off to get a hot drink and then wandered back to meet the crew of the boat taking us out to the sharks. We boarded the boat – I think there were 14 of us in total going out. The crew motored out of the harbour and out into the open waters about 3 miles where we tied up to the shark cage which they leave anchored there. Carol, Sam, Mike and I and 3 other tourists took the fish plunge and we were soon rewarded with close up views of some large Galapagos Sharks – maybe 6-8 foot in length I’m picking. We spent 20 mins in the water / in the cage and in addition to the sharks we also had some large Rainbow fish swimming around studying us. We climbed back out of the cage all pretty impressed with ourselves for what we had just done. The 2nd group then hopped in the water for 20 mins before we pulled away and headed back into the harbour – a very special experience for all concerned.

We then had to catch a bus back to Waikiki and I inadvertently put us on the slow bus which proceeded to take us right around the whole so instead of taking us and hour or so to head back, the bus took 2.5 hours, but we did see the island of Oahu again. We finally pulled up at the Ala Moana mall and headed off on another bus to Waikiki – grateful to finally be there. We headed on over to the main beach area and found ourselves a bite to eat down by the beach – very nice. We then all hopped in for a swim so we could say we’d swum in Waikiki – the water was very warm and we all enjoyed ourselves. We hiked up the beach in the heat of the day and then made our way back to the hotel on a bus. That evening we all set out for dinner locally – we started with drinks and nibbles at a Mexican bar in Chinatown before having mains at a Korean restaurant in Chinatown as well. We all enjoyed a really nice evening knowing that this was our last night together – tomorrow we all had to head off – in separate directions. We sat down over dinner and reflected on our time together in Hawaii and all agreed that we’d had a great time and enjoyed some great experiences together. The climate was lovely – more overcast than I’d expected, but the water was always warm. We’d had a great time in the water – be it the sea or the pool. Yep, I drown my phone so that was a downer but Sam picked me up a prepaid phone for my birthday and got me connected again. We’d learnt so much at Pearl Harbour and reflected on what happened back in 1941 – where we were staying in Pearl Harbour you could imagine the Japanese raiders coming up the harbour destroying at will. At the end of the day Carol and I were very grateful for Sam and Mike coming all this way to share some time with us in this beautiful part of the world.

Singapore

Thursday saw us up and away early to get the train out to Athens Airport – the ride took around 50 mins as there was something like 16 stops on the way but we finally pulled up at the airport and made our way through to get booked onto our Scoot flight to Singapore (Scoot is the budget airline of Singapore Air). We boarded the plane and were due to leave Athens at 11.30am but ended up stuck at the gate for the best part of another hour – they missed their slot to depart or something silly. The haul across to Singapore took the better part of 11 hours and saw us land in Singapore just after 4am on what was now Friday morning. We got through customs and collected our bags and then arranged a shuttle into our hotel in central Singapore. We arrived at the hotel (situated in the Indian Quarter) at something like 5.30am and crashed for a couple of hours and then got up to have some breakfast. The hotel or hostel was a bit different – our room was actually just a cubicle and consisted of just the bed within the space of the 4 walls – very tight and there was no space to store our bags so they ended up going on the foot of our bed. Still tired and a bit oppressed with the heat we decided a bit more rest was in order and it wasn’t until early afternoon that we decided to brave it and head out for a look around. We headed out to one of the large shopping malls and took in some sights around the area before coming back to an Asian food-hall where we selected a couple of dishes for dinner. As expected it was warm and muggy but I wasn’t melting like I had previously when in Singapore.

On the Saturday we had an easy start to the day – we got up and had breakfast and had a good chat to an Australian couple that were visiting – they shared their Singapore experiences with us. We then rested up some more and I tackled the balance of some training I needed to complete to get my TEFL qualification – good to get that behind me – and to pass. After lunch we headed out again – we took the Metro and headed on down to the Marina Bay Sands complex – very impressive. We’d seen the building here previously but hadn’t entered so this time the train / metro station was actually within the wider building complex and fed out into a large, and very fancy shopping mall with a load of high end shops. The complex also feeds out towards Marina Bay and offers you good views of the Merlion and the surrounding cool architecture – like the Esplanade Theatre on the Bay complex (which when lit up at night look very cool). We found our way into the Marina Bays complex and at the advice of the Australian couple we had spoken to earlier in the day, we headed up the middle tower to the top level to where there is a bar and the famous infinity swimming pool, which had a load of people ‘up at the edge’ something like 57 stories up. You had to order something from the bar to enter the area so we ordered a couple of juices and a bowl of fries and let’s just say they were the most expensive bowl of fries and juices I have had to date – I think it cost us $38 Singapore dollars for the two drinks and chips – crazy, but this is what you do and need to expect in a place like this – it was very fancy (and probably one of those places that if you have to ask how much then you should reconsider being there).

You’re obviously rewarded with amazing views from the top of the Marina Sands – out in all directions. The Bay of Singapore (not sure if that’s the correct name) was laden with ships waiting to dock – some of them heading back out to sea. Down below the Sands complex you have the wonderful Gardens by the Bay complex and our vantage point provided us a great overview of this area. The skyline had cranes here and there and so there is obviously ongoing development happening – Singapore seems to be one of these places that is always developing or redeveloping. We headed on down and went on through into the Garden by the Bay Park. Within the park and the pieces that this area is well known for are the striking Supertrees Grove – these man-made trees stand up to 16 stories high and several are connected by an aerial skywalk that you have to pay to experience. The trees are well known for being lit up at night and putting on a light show. The park which is set out on an area of over 100 hectares of reclaimed land has little pockets of sculptures here and there and also has the large architecturally designed Twin Conservatories – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest – both of which you have to pay to enter (general park entrance is free). We didn’t pay to visit the domes – another thing we will need to do when we revisit this city. We instead worked our way through the park – past the Children’s Garden that was full of young kids having fun in the water, and then past the wonderful smells which is Satay by the Bay – or the parks food-court. We headed up to the neck of the park to an area which I think is called the Marina Barrage and this area was full of families and people picnicking and enjoying the area – very nice spot.

When we went up to the Marina Sands bar the barman told us about the fireworks display due out in the bay that evening so we started making our way back up towards this area and were treated to an Airforce fly-over – first the choppers flew past dragging a very large flag of Singapore, and then we had the F15 fighter planes zoom through and flick their afterburners – what a cool sight and sound. Then some more Airforce choppers and planes flew through before one of the fighters did another fast run over the city – a pleasure for me to view. All this was part of the dress rehearsal for Singapore’s National Day which is in mid-August. They have a big celebration involving the military forces and then across the bay in the Marina Bay Function Arena they had a huge crowd of performers and audience practicing for the big night with song and dance (wind wasn’t blowing the right way for us to hear it all clearly, but we certainly could hear the cheering from the audience). It was getting dark by this stage and periodically there were fireworks that went off and then towards the end of the rehearsal we were treated to a great fireworks display both over the bay area and firing out from the Function Arena itself – a good treat for us and something that I think they practice every weekend for the month leading up to the actual National Day celebration – good timing for us. With the fireworks over we headed back down into the park to view the Supertrees sound and light show – each evening they play music (Opera tonight) and the trees ‘dance’ to the music with their lights. The show was cut short for us and many of the other people sitting there taking it all in as the threatening weather that had loomed most of the afternoon finally opened up and the rain came down.

We made our way back through to the Marina Bays complex and located the metro station and headed back up to the Indian Quarter where we had a bite to eat before heading back to the hostel. We’d been very lucky with our day getting to take in the celebration shop as we had, and whilst we hadn’t had that much of a look around, I think we ticked off what of Singapore we wanted to experience this time. We like this city – it has a clean and mainly sharp look to it and it doesn’t really seem to age that much. If you can manage the heat and humidity there is a lot that this city offers you and we know we will head back for another Singapore experience at some stage – I still haven’t savoured the Chilly Crab which I wanted to savour so we need to tick that one off still.

Greece – Patras

With the rain still pouring we had to get from the ferry ticket office down to the ferry dock so we could board so we braved the weather and headed off through the puddles. The terminal was crazy busy with trucks and cars looking to board (I think one of the ferries could carry something like 1500 people and 200 cars / trucks) the ferry to cross into Greece – obviously the 17-hour ferry ride is shorter than trying to drive around the Adriatic and down through to Greece, but a trail we would be keen to do next trip. We got ourselves onboard the ferry – we didn’t opt for a sleep cabin so we were going to rough it in the main lounge and so with the other passengers boarding there was jostling for sofa spots to be able to park up on for the evening ahead – we managed to wedge ourselves between a couple of groups. We were on board the boat at 7.20pm for a planned 9pm departure but it was getting on for 9.30pm before we cleared the dock. The weather started to clear and so I went up on deck to see the last lights of Brindisi – and Italy for that matter, fade away behind us. The large Sailor’s Monument stayed visible and lit up for some time. As we cleared the harbour and headed out into the Adriatic the swell picked up – a result of the weather system that was going through. We rocked and rolled a little, but for the most part the ferry just ploughed on through, through the night, across towards Greece.

Before we knew it we were into Thursday – we knew it as we really didn’t get much if any sleep overnight on the ferry. First stop on Greece soil was the port of Igmusus where we docked around 4.30am with the first light of day fighting its way up from the horizon. A load of people and vehicles disembarked here – and a fresh batch boarded, but by 6am we had cast off and were heading on down the Greek coastline. Being in near the coast and not out on the opens of the Adriatic anymore, the swells dropped and it was very flat sailing so very pleasant. We put our heads down and got maybe 40 winks but were awake in plenty of time to enjoy the coastal views as we worked our way along the Greek coast ahead of us docking at the port of Patras (interestingly, a ‘fast ferry’ docked at Igmusus as we were leaving and then passed us ahead of docking at Patras – it really was fast). Patras is a port city and for many like us, a gateway into Greece. We disembarked the ferry and expected some form of customs to go through but there was nothing to speak of and before we knew it we were heading up the streets looking for our hotel in Patras. It wasn’t too much of a surprise that the roads were just as crazy here in Greece and motorbike helmets seemed an after-thought as most riders of bikes and scooters roared around without them – crazy. We had a bit of a walk but soon found where we were staying which was down town in the retail area – a nice place. We checked in and relaxed before heading out for a bit of a walk around which saw us end up down at the waterfront for dinner. The area around where we were staying was busy with people enjoying the shops and surrounding cafes and bars. We headed back to the hotel and caught up on some much-needed sleep.

Friday dawned sunny and warm so we headed out to explore a little – main thing to see in Patras is the historic Castle of Patras that dates back to the 6th century. To get their we opted for the steps – all 193 of them up but it was a good workout for us. The castle ruins were for the most part nicely preserved with nice gardens around them and were free to visit. You were able to climb up in what remains of the castle and this with the fact that the castle sits atop a hill overlooking Patras (its actually called Mount Panachaikon – but resembled more of a hill to us), provides you with a great outlook over the city and harbour. The castle had a long history – all the warring factions that passed through the area had taken the castle at some time or another. The castle and Patras for that matter were for a time governed by Venice – I think the term was they were ‘gifted’ to Venice. And then the French stepped in and around 1828 and handed the area – and the castle, over to Greece – an interesting history. We saw ferries coming and going and other vessels plying the sea around this area. We headed up and sorted out bus tickets for the next day and headed back to relax before doing some more exploring of the city again later in the day as the temperatures started to drop – it was warm.

Greece – Athens

Saturday morning saw us up early to get some breakfast and then get ourselves down to the bus terminal – not too far with the bags. We then boarded a bus through to Athens – our trip was half on the bus and then we had to transfer over to a train – the total trip taking a little over 3 hours. We followed the sea channels for a good part of it and enjoyed the views we were provided from both the bus and then from the train. We pulled into the main train station and then set about locating where we were staying. Didn’t look that far on the phone map so we set off on foot, but the day was very warm and so we had to make a couple of stops along the way. The hike – and it was a hike, was longer and harder than expected as most was up a continual incline, but finally we found our hotel and were relieved to get checked in to be able to freshen up – fresh shirt required. Revived we then headed off down the road into town on a bus and found the Acropolis and brought tickets to take in the sites surrounding this. It was getting on in the afternoon and the sun was hot, but we headed on in and up and around the Acropolis and enjoyed a good couple of hours taking in this amazing site. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel located on a rocky outcrop / hill in the middle of Athens. The wider Acropolis site consists of several significant structures. The centre piece of the Acropolis is the Parthenon Temple that sits on the top-level part of the hill. The Parthenon was built between 447 – 432 BC and it’s a testament to how it was designed and built that for the most part it, so much of it still stands today for us to observe.

On the top level of the hill there are several smaller temples that you can view, and then on the base of the hill you have a couple of large open theatres – the Dionysus was built in the 4th century BC and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus that was built in the 2nd century AD and could seat 5000 people. There were tourists everywhere taking in the sights as were we. The wider Acropolis site is open until 8pm in the evening and it was getting on for 8pm when we left the park. One of the supporting sights that we didn’t get to was the Acropolis Museum – a fairly new building which has been architecturally designed and looks very smart and is supposedly well worth a look to educate on all the history surrounding the Acropolis and Greece for that matter (one we will need to come back to). We found our way back over and waited for a bus and then found a nice little souvlaki shop just near the hotel so we sat down to a very welcomed cold beer and a bite to eat before heading back and retiring for the day.

On the Sunday we got up and away early to try and take in as much as we could before it heated up too much. We got the metro down town and headed back to the wider Acropolis site and explored as much as we could. First stop was to Hadrian’s Library which was built by the ruler in the 2nd century AD. There’s not too much left of the wider structure today but still a lot of sculptures and history which details what the area / building did look like (not too sure how they know all this???). We then explored the Roman Agora which had an interesting structure as part of it which was a clock tower that they used water to tell the time. It was actually called the Tower of the Winds and it had a water clock, sundial and weather vane and dated back to the 1st century BC. Each side of the tower had a relief that depicted the wind blowing in that direction. This was well preserved and had a load of information and artefacts on display. From there we moved to the Ancient Agora which is quite a stunning site at the base of the Acropolis hill with fine views up to the Parthenon and the other temples. The Ancient Agora was the heart of ancient Athens and they had models set up that depicted how all the buildings in this wider area would have looked back in the day – it would have been amazing. The Agora housed political, commercial, administrative and social buildings and activities, and was also the cultural and religious centre of Athens, along with being the seat of justice. Whilst for the most part all that is now left is ruins, there are still loads of remains of large columns and sculptures, and a couple of key temples – one which is now well preserved was the Temple of Athena (I think we have that right), which looked a bit like a smaller version of the Parthenon. The other key building in the Agora, was the large library – this building was something like 100 m’s long and was made up of all these columns, and it is amazing how preserved it is these days. The building now houses a large artefact collection and it was truly amazing how old some of the pieces on display were. They had some items which they claimed dated back to 10000 BC – amazing.

Having taken in some amazing pieces of history we mixed it up in the afternoon and headed back into the central part of Athens to where we had seen there was a car museum – the Hellenic Car Museum I think it was called. The museum was part of a 5-level building development which had been full of shops around the museum but with the financial recession that hit Greece, all the shops had closed just leaving the museum on the top 3-levels (the person at the museum did say they hoped many of the shops were to reopen in the coming year as the financial situation was improving in Greece).  We had a really good look around the collection which was owned by a Greek businessman who was also a car racer. He’d brought together a really nice collection of old classics and I really liked what was on offer. So having taken in classics of another type we headed back down town and then walked through to the National Gardens and the striking Zappeion Hall which is a very neat looking semi-circular structure with plenty of columns thrown in for good measure. We then headed across the road to the Olympic Stadium – the old one, thinking our tickets got us entry into it, but alas it didn’t, so we just had a look from the outside before heading back up the road on foot. We were tired and thirsty by the time we made it back to the souvlaki shop and enjoyed another wrap and cold beer (they don’t call then souvlaki but Gyro I think – still pretty tasty and good value).

Santorini

On the Monday morning we had to be up early to get a taxi just after 5.30am so we could get across to the port area of Piraeus to catch the fast ferry to Santorini. We had thought it was only a couple of hours to Santorini – no, it’s a 5-6 hour ferry ride (Santorini is actually around 200 km’s below Athens as it turns out). We settled in and the ferry pulled away from the dock at 7am and headed out into what I’m going to call the ‘Bay of Greece’ – I can’t recall the name of the waterway. On our way across to Santorini the ferry docked and disembarked and then reloaded with people and vehicles at the islands of Paros and Mykonos. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to island get aways in this area – there are islands everywhere in the bay – Santorini, Paros, Mykonos and co are part of the Cyclades chain, and then to the east you have the Dodecanes chain and then to the south you have the big island of Crete (the 5th largest of the Mediterranean Islands). We finally docked at Santorini just before 1pm and that was when the fun began as there was the mass exodus from the ferry (maybe 800-1000 passengers, cars and bikes) and an equal number of people clambering to get back on the ferry to leave the island. The ferry docks at the port of Athinios which is at the base of the hill (obviously), and the roads leading down and out of the port are lined with shuttle vans, buses and taxies – quite the sight. Fortunately we had a shuttle arranged and we managed to find our guy amongst the 100 odd shuttle drivers who were holding up boards. We got to the van and then slowly wound our way back up the hill out of the port (the cliffs around the island soar up something like 300 m’s on the port / western side of the island and then drop away to sea level for much of the eastern side of the island – the island having been formed from a volcanic eruption).

We were staying in the beachside town of Kamari which is on the eastern side of the island and the shuttle had to go up and across and down into the town – a ride of maybe 30 mins considering the traffic. The shuttle dropped us at our hotel which was a really nice spot, so we dropped our bags and headed off for a walk in the heat and sun to check out the quaint town that is Kamari. We walked down the road to the beach – only maybe 5 mins from our hotel and had a good wander around. The beach was another of those spots where you had to pay to use a lot of the beach – if you wined and dined at one of the beach front restaurants they tended to let you use the beach and loungers for free it appeared. Down to the end of the beach was the public area and some keen people were jumping from the cliff into the water – was pretty cool to watch. We had ourselves a bite to eat and explored some of what was on offer locally – essentially a really nice beach front area, and then headed back to the hotel for the comforts of the hotel swimming pool to cool down.

On the Tuesday we headed off early – we’d hired a car for the day in order to try and get around the island and take in all the key sights. The island is only something like 70 sq. km’s in area but the roads wind up and around and are generally fairly narrow. Every other vehicle on the road appeared to be a quad bike ridden by tourists – these are a popular option to rent out and roam the island (that and scooters and the small cars like we had hired). We headed up and over the hill and made our way into Fira – the main city / town of Santorini. The town is a collection of white washed buildings – well most of the buildings on Santorini are white washed and this is part of what makes the island famous (those pictures of white buildings with blue roofs). The town was a maze of narrow winding streets with loads of vendors and cafes, and also some amazing vantage points to look out over what I think is called Athinios Bay. Down below us there were two large cruise liners moored out in the bay and a third came in soon after. From there we headed up to the top of the island and the little town of Oia which is famous for it’s sunset shots of the searing white and blue buildings. There were loads of people / tourists in the area – a swag of tour buses so it took some work to get a park but we finally did and then set off along the narrow streets and pathways to explore the down and take in the amazing views. The area really was stunning and to see it on sunset would be another experience again, but we were told it’s crazy busy at that time of day – as if it wasn’t busy enough when we were there. The town also has a number of windmills which are an interesting sight as well. They also use donkeys in the area to take tourists town to the waters edge and then back up the hill – poor donkeys.

We had a good look around and then worked our way down and along the eastern side of the island and found a nice beach area near the airport where we settled in for a swim (Avis Beach I think it was called). It was a really nice spot to swim but inadvertently I managed to somehow lose my wedding ring here so I will remember for this place for other reasons – grrrrr. From there we headed on around to the beach front town of Perissa on the south eastern corner of the island. This was again a beachfront area controlled by the waterfront cafes and bars, so if you dined you could use the loungers and sun umbrellas in return. We sat down and had a bite to eat and then we headed on around to the bottom / south side of the island to an area called Red Beach where the surrounding cliff faces are an interesting red volcanic colour. Moored in the bay here were a load of yachts and launches – one of which was a stunningly big ketch that looked very impressive in the late day sun. The sun was getting low so we headed to the bottom western side of the island to the Lighthouse that is out past Mesa Pigadia. We got to the area about 30 mins before sunset and the area was already full of cars with people heading out for the same experience as we were after. We got ourselves a spot up on the hillside below the lighthouse and took in the sun setting out over the bay – a very nice experience and a good way to end the day. With the sun down we headed back to the car and had a drive of maybe 30 mins back over to Kamari where we dropped the car back (it was cheaper to hire a car for the day than for one of us to do an organised tour of the island) and made our way back to the hotel – having really enjoyed all of what we had seen – and we only covered something like 100 km’s in the process.

Back to Athens

All too soon our time on Santorini drew to a close and Wednesday morning saw us having to leave the island, so we had an easy start to the morning before heading back to the port. This meant tackling the winding road back down to the port – along with all the other traffic. There were another three large cruise ships in the bay – so another large influx of tourists to the island albeit only for the day. One thing that really amazed us was the daily influx onto and off the island – there are loads of ferries that come and go, the cruise ship traffic and then there are all the flights that come into the airport – this island really is a very busy spot that inflates and deflates people wise on a daily basis. Our ferry docked around 12.45pm and then we had to join the swarm to get onto the ferry as the new visitors disembarked. Onboard the ferry we soon pulled away from the dock around 1pm – no mucking around. The ferry made the same stops heading back – at Paros and Mykonos to drop off and pick up passengers. The ferry then pulled into the port in Athens around 6.15pm and we then set about making our way to the metro station and riding the train into the central part of town. Finding our stop we then had a walk up the street to the hotel we were staying at for the night. The place wasn’t anything to speak of but it was comfortable and it was only for the one night.

We seemed to be staying in the likes of the Indian part of Greece as there were loads of fruit stands and other shops in the area. We dropped our bags and headed up the street to find the metro station we needed the next morning and the found a place to enjoy another gyro and beer combo – not a bad way to end the evening. We made our way back to the hotel and settled in for what was left of the evening – we had an early start the following day. So with that our time in wider Europe was over – tomorrow we head to Asia albeit briefly. We only had something like 7-8 days in Greece and so we will need to come back to explore some more as we know there is much more to see. This place will remain etched in our memories for the history that exists here – the Acropolis and co. It’s interesting that most of the old part of Athens – the Agora and co were all covered over through the years as the cities developed and it was only in the later part of the 1800’s that excavation work began to rediscover the ruins of Athens – pretty amazing really (we’re not sure where the dirt came from to cover up the ruins?). We were impressed with what we saw but know we want to see more so till next time it’s goodbye to Greece and as noted, Europe. We’ve had something like 4.5 months in Europe and have experienced a load in that time but there is so much more to see and do – so we have some plans and time will tell if we can achieve them.

Work Away Experience – Francavilla Fontana / Puglia Region

Monday was a challenge for us and just worked out to be one of those days that you really don’t want too often when you are travelling. We had to be up and away early from the hotel in Sorrento to catch a train up to Naples before 7am. We got onto the train and then got ourselves royally screwed up with what train station we needed to get back off at in Naples. We got ourselves a bit confused and figured we were at the wrong station to catch the next train over to Taranto. We asked a guy on the platform who looked official and he said we should come with him back up the line and he would sort things for us so we did – follow him that is. We headed back out and up a couple of stops and then he said we had to switch over and come back in so we did that and it was then when we came to a busy stop with the train crowded with people that he reached into my pocket to try and get my wallet. Fortunately I managed to catch him so we got ourselves off the train but as a result we had subsequently missed the train to Taranto we were supposed to catch. We finally got ourselves back to the Central Station only to find that this was the station we were at in the first place – just didn’t back ourselves. We went and saw the ticket station to see if they would honour our tickets but they wouldn’t so we had to buy another ticket but instead of a direct train we now needed to take a train and a bus – longer ride ahead of us.

Eventually we found ourselves in the city of Taranto which is in the heel of Italy. Taranto is a bit of an industrial coastal city and not too much to look at – and apparently it has no wi-fi as we arrived and were trying to make contact with our Work Away host as we were running late to meet him but we were told repeatedly that the area around the bus / train station had no wi-fi – hard to believe. In Taranto we were told we were to catch a bus to Brindisi and get off at Francavilla Fontana. We waited for the bus – the departure time ticked around so we asked at the office counter again and were told that it was a train we were supposed to catch and that we had just missed it – really. So after much haggling we finally managed to agree with a taxi driver to get a ride and he ran us down the road to the Francavilla station where fortunately we met our host Antonio who was waiting patiently for us.

Antonio’s organic vege farm was about 15 min’s out of town in the countryside and is set on 12 hectares. His farm is a mix of vegetable cropping and olive trees. Antonio introduced us to his Momma and we were shown to a room in their home. We got ourselves changed and Antonio took us out and around the farm for a bit of a look around before we settled into a couple of hours work with him before heading back to the house for some dinner. We spent seven days on the farm with Antonio doing all that we could to assist him with getting the fields prepared and planted for the next crop. The days were long – we were up and about at 6 – 6.30am each morning and worked out in the field until around 1.30pm when we would stop for lunch back at the house that Momma prepared each day. We would then take a welcomed siesta before heading back out later in the afternoon for another couple of hours before coming back in for a late dinner. Our work on the farm varied from clearing the paddock of stones so that irrigation could be laid and then crops sown. We ran some new irrigation lines with Antonio and planted out something like 1500 tomato plants that he had as seedlings. The farm has pigs and birds as well as 3 friendly dogs, so we would pick some greens for the pigs each afternoon and do some chores around the place. We harvested and shelled dried beans – I can’t remember how many trays of beans we shelled but there were loads. A heavy thunder storm hit one afternoon and left the farm very sodden so we spent a couple of days in the shed working on shelling those beans before the paddocks were dry enough to get back on and layout a load of compost around the plants to boast their growth.

Whilst we were staying on the farm we took the opportunity to visit a couple of nearby towns with Antonio – a highlight was visiting the little town of Grottaglic where we found some wonderful pottery. One of the shops we really liked was one that specialised in amazing lamp shades – if we’d had the money and the means to get a couple of pieces home we would have brought up big here. Back on the farm the days were generally very hot – good for building the suntan but you had to watch the sunburn. The farm takes a load of work and Antonio is reliant on Work Away volunteers coming to assist him. We felt guilty that we were unable to stay on for longer but we figured 7 days wasn’t a bad innings from us. On the Monday morning although we were leaving that afternoon we got out and worked for 5 hours in the paddock before coming in and having a quick lunch with Antonio and his mum before it was time to head away. The Work Away experience was a good one for us and one that we want to do more of. It was a bit of an eye opener in the form of how much work and assistance Antonio needed on the farm and we were amazed every day by Momma and all that she did to run things around the place – making all the meals and keeping things in trim. Our diet this week was primarily pasta, chickpeas and lentils with a nice farba bean soup thrown in for good measure. Antonio and his mum were wonderful hosts – if we had been able to speak Italian would have been a benefit as Antonio’s English was very limited so google translate had to be used a few times. We felt sad to be leaving but our time in Italy was drawing to a close and we needed to more on one more time.

Brindisi – our last leg in Italy

Antonio kindly dropped us up the road to the train station at Francavilla Fontana where we only had a short wait for our train through to Brindisi. The train was small and the ride out to the eastern coastal city of Brindisi only took around 40 mins. We got off at the central station and then walked up through the cobbled streets – cobbled streets will be one of the things I remember about Italy, especially when it comes to dragging heavy suitcases along them. We found our way through the streets and located where we should be staying but we didn’t have wi-fi to contact the host so we ended up going down a block to the waterfront and had a drink and worked through getting a message to the host that we were here. Finally we caught up with her and were shown to our apartment – a nice little room with a balcony that looked out over the harbour and waterfront of Brindisi. We settled in and then headed out for a walk. Brindisi is a nice little port city – the harbour looks to be at the heart of the city, but I understand there is also an industrial area on the outskirts of the city and not too long ago it was criticised for how much pollution it developed – we didn’t see any evidence of that.

We walked up the road and soon located the Castello Svevo – an old castle that dated back many centuries and was now the Italian Navy HQ locally (Brindisi had a large naval presence including and aircraft carrier). We headed up and along through town thinking we could loop around the river but got to a point and figured we’d best turn round. The city looks to have something of a refugee resettlement area – there was an old navy building acting as some sort of base for refugees that we passed. We headed back up towards where we were staying and heading down to the waterfront that was loaded with watercraft of all shapes and sizes. The waterfront promenade area looked to have been recently refurbished and it was a really nice area to ‘hang out’. Across the harbour there is a large stature that was erected by Mussolini as a memorial to the sailor’s and we figured we would go and explore it the following day. On the Tuesday we had an easy start to the day, relaxing on our comfortable surroundings. The day was grey and damp off and on but we headed up to the Info Office to check out options for getting that ferry to Greece. We were keen to try and see where the ferry terminal was so walked about the harbour area to where the large cruise ships come in and were surprised at the huge private superyacht that was tied up here – very impressive vessel. We then worked our way back up through town through the narrow streets and located the Duomo or main Cathedral – another impressive building. One thing this trip has shown us is just how impressive the architecture of cathedrals and churches around the world are – we have been nothing but amazed and I have really enjoyed just studying their architecture and form.

That evening we enjoyed getting out again – along the waterfront and up past the yachts again and in through town where the shops were just closing for the evening. Along the promenade there are some ruins that date back to the BC period – the Stature of Virgil which used to be 2 columns but was now only one with the other broken down. On the Wednesday we had the day to kill before we were due to get to the port to get the ferry that evening. We had to get out of the apartment so we just casually explored the city again – yet again wandering the waterfront and checking out the new superyachts that had docked overnight (2 new arrivals moored right on the promenade outside the city most expensive hotel). The weather was off and on but improved to the sunshine we had become accustomed to later in the day. We sat and watched a group of older guys head out in rowing skiffs and they proceeded to do some training races up and down the harbour. From this side of the harbour you also got a good view of the naval ships that were docked here. We worked our way around the harbour and over to the other side and then along as far as the big Sailors – Monumento al Marinaio is its Italian name. I’m pretty sure the structure stood 35 m’s high and is guarded with a couple of large guns on each flank. Atop the stature is a woman looking out to the sea – it’s all down in brick and was presented to the city by Mussolini back in 1935 I think it was (interesting face that Brindisi was in fact the capital of Italy back in 1943-44).

We took a water taxi back over the harbour (cheap and easy way of getting back across) and looked for somewhere to eat, but it was too early for the Italian eateries at 5pm – most don’t open until 7pm or so (siesta is a big thing in this area and the shops close around 1.30pm for a few hours before re-opening around 4-5pm). Back in town we found another old piece of history to explore – we located a church whose name I don’t recall – but the church dated back to the 11th century and was unique in it’s design, being built around 8 columns that supported what would have been a dome roof but was now a wooden roof – more amazing history and engineering. So with hunger setting in we headed back to catch up with our apartment host who had kindly offered us a lift around to the ferry terminal (turns out it was further around than we realised). Just as we were about to leave the skies opened up and the weather turned foul – what sort of send off from Italy was that? Our host took us around to the terminal in the driving rain and told us we shouldn’t go – that we should stay another day, that the crossing would be rough, but we were booked, plus she had no rooms for the night, so we braved it and bid her thank you and farewell and promised her we would update once we arrive in Greece.

And so with that our time in Italy drew to a close. Italy was a land of contrasts for us – from the canals and waterways of Venice, to the serene settings of Florence, Sienna and the Tuscan countryside, to the playground that is the Amalfi coast, the history that Rome offered, and then the realities of how hard some Italians have to work and how they survive with so little from our Work Away farm-stay experience. I’ll remember Italy for it’s horrible cobbled narrow roads, it’s crazy drivers, it’s churches, history and pasta. We loved the climate which for the most part was warm – often too warm but we’re not complaining. My one compliant is that I had this perception that Italy was going to be one supercar after another – I expected to see Lambo’s and Ferrari’s on a regular frequency – but I didn’t. I think I noted already that in the five weeks we had in Italy, I noted 4 supercars – as such – not the frequency I was expecting and hoping for. Instead the car of choice were small compact cars with the Fiat 500 being a popular local choice. We saw loads but know that there is so much more that Italy has to offer – one of the reasons that Mary and Jock keep coming back to this place. Having them as ‘local guides’ all be it for a short portion of our trip was great and we really enjoyed our time with them. Bon Jon O Italy – we look forward to visiting you again and exploring you and your people some more.

Naples

On the Wednesday morning we had to say goodbye to Rome as we had to make our way to Naples. We headed back across to the bus terminal and promptly got ourselves onto our bus – the trip to Naples taking about 2.5 hours. We arrived to the hussle and bustle that is Naples – we’d heard people say you either love Naples or leave it – time would tell. We had a bit of a hike along the busy bumpy cobbled streets to find the apartment we were staying in. The roads around here are crazy – road rules don’t seem to apply and cars and bikes whizz around. To compound matters, pedestrian crossings are the exception to the rule so we had to take our life into our own hands when it came to crossing the road. Add to this the city is hot and dirty – first impressions weren’t great. Tired, hot and frustrated we finally located the apartment and promptly took 5 to relax and catch our breathe. We then braved it and headed out to have a look around the city and to sort out options for getting over to Sorrento in a couple of days’ time. We made our way down to the port and sorted out where we had to get tickets and catch the Sorrento ferry from. The harbour was busy with a big cruise ship in, as well as ferries coming and going – nice hive of activity to take in. From the port we headed back into town and found a gem of a building – the Galleria Umberto, which has this amazing curved glass roof to it – really impressive building and a highlight for us. The streets around this area – the Toledo, were busy with cafes and bars, and fancy shops, and loads of people. We had a good hike up and around the main perimeter of the inner city and finally made our way back to the apartment to collapse.

Thursday morning dawned wet so we just had an easy start to the day thinking the weather would improve for us. The rain really didn’t let up so we decided we should brave it and head out – there’s a good spot you can hike up to – the Castel Sant Elmo I think it is, that is supposed to reward you with great views out over Naples so that was the plan, but the weather was against us so we hiked up to the National Museum only to find a long que out in the rain, and we decided we weren’t that keen to join it so we trudged back to the apartment and took shelter. We headed out again later in the day and went and found the Duomo – or main Naples Cathedral. It was a striking building inside with painted walls and ceilings and there was a special room and collection off to the side which honours Saint Geronimo – I think he was slain as a martyr back in 305 and they have crafted an amazing collection of silver statures and reliefs in his honour – the largest such collection of ‘religious silver-ware’ in Europe I believe. Finding the Duomo was another gem – Naples offers a couple here and here but really we simply didn’t manage to get out and around to truly do justice to this city. Yes it’s messy and noisy, but there again you get rewarded with sights like the Duomo and Galleria – you will just need to visit and judge for yourself.

Sorrento

On the Friday morning we headed out to tackle those horrible streets of Naples and fortunately the Metro station soon materialised for us. We got a ride down towards the port and hopped off for the last walk over to the ferry terminal. Ferries are coming and going all the time and the harbour had another huge ocean liner in port so plenty to take in whilst we waited to board our boat. The ferries are called fast ferries and I was excited as we were supposed to be riding on a hydro-foil – I don’t think our ferry matched either description, but we did have a comfortable ride of around 45 min’s over to the lovely port of Sorrento – across the Golfo di Napoli bay. We dis-embarked with all the other tourists and then had some fun working out how we were supposed to get up the hill to the main town area and then through to our hotel (the road up out of the port is a real zig-zag affair). Eventually we hopped on a local bus and made our way up to the train station where we rode a couple of stops to the area of Piano where we were staying. Carol’s phone worked wonders and led us down some narrow winding little streets but we soon found the tranquil Secret Garden Hotel where we were booked. We checked in having survived the long hike up the stairs to the hotel reception and then headed out to check the location locally. A short walk down the road and you find yourself looking out over the bay of Sorrento and what a view it is.

You’re up on the cliffs overlooking the ocean below – to get down to the beach you navigate a winding narrow road of cut-backs. Cars and scooters and even trucks navigate with frequency. The beaches along the main shoreline look to be controlled by someone and so with the exception of the public beach which is right down the end, the main part of the beaches require you to buy a lounger and umbrella to enter / swim at them. We opted to head down to the end of the beach and had a nice swim and then sat back and watched the local shipyard launching a boat back into the water. The shipyard was pretty unique in that it was set back into a cave in the cliff face – very cool. We headed back up the zig-zag road to our hotel and freshened up before heading out for a sunset dinner at the restaurant that sits atop the cliff. We had a stunning sunset, with a fantastic outlook, and the food wasn’t too bad either – very nice evening for us to remember. On the Saturday we took things easy and actually spend a good portion of the day up on the roof of the hotel just enjoying the heat, relaxing and catching up on some reading. We did wander down and catch a train back into central Sorrento which was good. We had a wander round the shops and narrow streets – loads of the cafes had TV’s on showing the World Cup Football match – lots of people were taking it in and enjoying it. We caught the train back up to Piano and took in another stunning sunset down on the cliff-top.

On the Sunday we were up and away early for a day boat excursion down the Amalfi Coast. We got collected in a van and drove down past the main Sorrento port to a bay further around where it appears that a swag of Amalfi Coast excursions depart from. We boarded a very nice boat along with about 10 other passengers so a nice size group and we soon did the intro’s and struck up conversations. The run around the Amalfi Coast was stunning – and that undersells it. Our boat captain was called Alio I’m pretty sure and he did a great job explaining some of the points of interest along the coast. We drove through some areas of small rocky islands and then pulled up at an island that was once owned by the famous Russian Ballerina – Rudolf someone a rather. Alio reckoned that the current owners were made an offer of 250 Million Euro for the island which they promptly turned down – amazing. We jumped in and had a swim – I stepped up and plunged in first. We motored onto the town of Amalfi where we had a couple of hours to explore so Carol and I headed off up into the town and up the hill and found a café for some lunch. The town was crowded with tourists like ourselves – very popular spot. From there we got back on the boat and started motoring back up along the coast and made a couple of stops for swims along the way. The area is loaded with magnificent watercraft – yachts and motor-launches so I was having a great time taking it all in. We then stopped at the Amalfi Coast town of Positano which I think is well known for its colourful ceramics.

We had an hour or more to explore this little coastal town and then we headed back up the coast but not before Alio made one more stop at a sea cave where Carol and a few of the others jumped in to have a look. The day was drawing on and it was after 6pm when Alio brought the boat back into port – the trip was pretty expensive by our standards but we felt that the trip duration was very generous – we had been away for 8-9 hours. We said good-bye to the nice groups of people we had met on the boat and got the shuttle back up to the hotel. We’d had a long day and so we headed up to the roof to set the sunset and got talking to another Kiwi couple that were staying at the hotel. We traded stories about what we had been doing and what the other couple were embarking on (they were travelling for 3 months doing some cycle tours and the like) – was a really nice way to finish what had been a great day in a great part of Italy. Sorrento is certainly a place we are keen to head back to – the climate and landscape are stunning, the area is abundant with citrus trees, peach, nectarines and apricots

Florence and Sienna

Our trip to Florence required us to change trains at one of the stations en-route so it took around 2 hours for us to arrive in Florence at the busy main station – just as the weather packed in. We hiked up the road as the thunder clapped and took refuse in a café just as the rain started. We waited for the worst of it to pass and then hiked further up the road to find the guest house we were staying in. We dropped our bags and headed across the road to the supermarket and picked up some key supplies – chips and beer, and settled in after what had been another good, but long day. On the Tuesday we headed off early – we had a big day ahead of us taking in all the key sights of Florence. The weather had cleared which was a bonus. The streets of Florence are narrow and busy – with people, cars and scooters – a hive of activity. We made our way down to the train station and bus depot and arranged tickets for us to get across to Sienna the following day. From the bus terminal it was a short walk through to the Medici Chapel and then through to the amazing Piazza Duomo. The Duomo is a huge cathedral – we didn’t pay to enter as there was another big que to do so but looking around the exterior of this big building you get a good impression. The Duomo is covered in statures and artistry – very impressive. Not far from there you come to Neptune’s Fountain – which at our time of visiting, was under restoration and covered up so that was a shame.

From the Duomo we walked our way through a couple more piazza’s and found our way through to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge – the one that you see in the photos of Florence. The bridge has what look like a series of little houses dotted across both sides of the bridge – these were all occupied by jewellery merchants who look to specialise in gold goods and other lovely bits. Across the bridge you have views up to the Pitti Palace, so we then walked up and along the river promenade and hiked up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangioio which is a lovely platform up the hill that looks out and across the city of Florence below – a great vantage-point for the you. We absorbed the views and then went up to a church up and above the Piazzale before we headed back down and across the river (Fiume). We walked up to the Basilica of Santa Croce and then we made our way back through to Piazza della Signoria which is where all the tourists are queued up to visit the Uffizi Gallery and or to go in and see Michelangelo’s David sculpture. These would have been great things for us to view but the cost and que were off-putting, so ones for us to come back and do. Fortunately, you can walk up and through some of the streets and you can then see the copy of Michelangelo’s David – there for all the public to see – all be it a replica built in 1911 I believe (you can view this at the Accademia).

There’s loads to see around every corner in Florence – down little streets, and around all the piazza’s. We knew we hadn’t seen all that was on offer, but it was getting on in the afternoon, so we had another good look around the Duomo before heading back up to our accommodation. Up the road we passed by the Fortress da Basso – a large fortification that obviously protected the city / town, back in the day. We rewarded ourselves with a cold beer and chips when we made it back to the apartment – having enjoyed our day and the sights (in brief) of Florence. On the Wednesday morning we were up and away back down to the bus station – a decent hike with our heavy bags over those crazy little streets – I was pleased to finally make the bus terminal. We got our bus to Sienna and the bus probably only took around one hour to hit the outskirts of Sienna and then the best part of 30 mins to work its way around the bus-stops, to the one where we wanted to get off – and Mary and Jock were waiting to greet us. We dragged our bags back to where they had their car parked – because a lot of Sienna is built around a hill, the elevations vary around the town, so to assist people like us there are a series of escalators around the town to help you go up – and down as needed. With bags stored in the car we headed back into the old town of Sienna to have a look – with Mary and Jock acting as our guides.

The Old Town has gates to enter – as we have seen elsewhere (the town of Sienna has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1995). The main street through the old part of town is a decent width and has a load of narrow streets leading off each side. All paths are cobbled and to our surprise there are cars and motorbikes that can assess most of the streets / lanes. We hiked up and entered the Piazza Duomo and were rewarded with another stunning cathedral – the sculptures and stonework around the entrance, and whole Duomo are amazing pieces of work. We didn’t pay to enter the Duomo but I’m sure it would be something stunning to look around inside. From the Duomo we then explored Il Campo Square – Piazza Del Campo. The Piazza is the heart of the city, as well as being where the famous Palio horse race takes place on 2nd July and 16th August each year. Sienna is made up of nine zones and each zone has a horse / horses that represent them in the races. Each zone has its own colours / emblem, and proudly promote their horse / riders, around their zone. On race day, something like 400,000 people cram into the middle of the Piazza as the horses roar around the narrow 4 sides. They lay sand down over the piazza surface for the horses – I’ve seen pictures of it but being there would be quite the experience I’m sure.

We found ourselves a bite to eat locally and then discovered some fountains that Mary and Jock hadn’t seen before. Having had a good look around we made our way back across town to the carpark – thankfully via the escalators. We made it back to the car and made our way back out of Sienna. We were staying at a nice little hotel about 15 mins out of Sienna – call the Castle. We settled into our accommodation and then we all met up and had a couple of drinks and nibbles before calling it a night.

On the Thursday morning we were up and away early to explore the Tuscan region. First stop for us was a Benedictine Monastery – I think it’s proper name was Abbazia Di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The setting was up in the hills, with the monastery hidden down in amongst the trees. The setting was very peaceful – the monastery is run by a group of monks that live there. We had a look around the chapels – there was some amazing artwork around the enclosed square that told the story of the history of the following (can’t remember the biblical term I should be using). From there we hiked back up the hill and then wound our way around some of the a-typical Tuscan countryside till we came to the hill top village / small town of Montepulciano. Mary and Jock had visited here before and had a favourite restaurant that they took us to for a lovely lunch. Montepulciano is in essence a narrow cobbled street that winds it’s way up and around the hill with lovely little shops and homes scattered around. I think Montepulciano was famous for being part of the Medici ‘dynasty’. Up towards the top of the hill you have the town square – or Piazza Grande and the area around here offered stunning views down and over the Tuscan countryside below. The area is well known for its wine producing and I read that the have a competition each August where competitors roll an 80kg wine barrel through town – down through the town I’m assuming. The restaurant we went to for lunch was well known for its cuts of meat and Carol and I salivated as we watched the chef cutting these big T-Bone steaks for customers – alas, we settled for pasta.

From Montepulciano we headed back town and next stopped at the little village of Pienza which is famous for its smelly cheese, and yes, you can smell it. Not sure what the process is that they use, but Mary, Jock and Carol were loving it – me not so much (I’m just not that into cheese). We had a look around and Carol brought some cheese and then we headed back to our hotel, but not before we took in some of the classic Tuscan countryside – the scenes that you expect to see with the sunflower paddocks, the golden harvest and the pencil Cypress trees – it really is quite stunning. We enjoyed a couple of stops on the way back to take in some great vantage points before getting back to the hotel and rewarding ourselves with a cold drink, and a good catch up with Mary and Jock. On the Friday morning we were up and away early – Mary and Jock were heading south and dropped us back into the village near the hotel and we waited for a bus back into Sienna. We found our way back into town – we got dropped at the main station and had to find our way to the bus depot and after some initial confusion we finally found the bus stop that we take us there. From there we had a bit of a walk back up the main promenade through Sienna – along those cobbled streets, but it wasn’t too bad.

We located where we were staying and were soon shown in and took the opportunity to relax a little before we headed off out and about Sienna (our room was on the 4th floor so after that climb with the bags I needed a rest). The day was hot but we needed to sort out tickets to get us through to Rome so we headed back up to the train and bus station to explore our options. We secured tickets and then picked up some bits to have a picnic lunch – with a view of Sienna – nice. After dinner that evening (and once it was a bit cooler) we took the opportunity to explore some more and went up and around the Duomo and the Il Campo again. It was Friday night and there were loads of people out (as you would expect), filling the bars and cafes. We had a good look around and felt we had done pretty good justice to Sienna – a very nice spot to visit. The pace (and size) is less than Florence so for us we liked that – Florence does offer more, but what Sienna offers is different and should be explored. That plus Sienna is really the gateway to Tuscany so you’re going to love the drive through this area.

Rome

On the Saturday morning we were up and had breakfast at the apartment before heading back down that cobbled main street one last time to the bus depot. We boarded a bus to Rome – the ride took us around 3 hours and then we had to get a Metro across to the area of Rome we were staying in – near the main railway station. Rome was very warm, but we managed to cover those last few blocks on foot and found our guest house and settled in. We’d timed things into Rome to coincide with the Roma Pride Parade and only had to walk up the street a block and we had a great vantage point for the parade. There were a load of floats and I can’t estimate how many people in the march, but there were loads. The parade took some time to pass by our spot. We saw some interesting sights and it was great to see people enjoying themselves. With the parade passed we made our way across town in search of the Trevi Fountains – as you do when in Rome. We passed some sights on the way (we timed it right to see the changing the guard at the Presidential Palace) and then managed to find the fountains – well the crowd first but then the fountains behind. It seems that it doesn’t matter what time of day you try and see the fountains, there are always a load of people about. We managed to get some pictures – and took in the sight before heading back up the street and finding a nice bite to eat. From there it wasn’t long until we caught our first glimpse of the Colosseum – breath-taking. We enjoyed a good initial look around as the evening closed in on us, before heading on back up through town and making our way back to our apartment. A long hot day, but Rome was serving up loads already.

On the Sunday morning we were up and away early and made the 30 min walk down the road to join the que waiting to enter the Colosseum. We arrived at 8am and were about 80 m’s back in the que – we didn’t have the express tickets and weren’t sure how long it would take to get in. The gates don’t open until 8.30am and we were really pleased that it only took us maybe 15 mins to get in, get our tickets and be inside the Colosseum – along with all the other tourists (many of whom were in the express lane). We spent around 1.5 hours looking around inside the Colosseum – amazing to stop and think about the age of this building / structure, the fact that so much of it is ‘still in tack’ and then to think about what took place within the Colosseum. Standing there within the structure you got a sense of what it would have been like – to both have been viewing, and on the receiving end and fighting for your life. From the Colosseum we then moved next-door to the Forum and Palatino Ruins and spent a good couple of hours in the heat exploring this massive site. There was almost too much to take in here and I have to say I got to a point where I’d had enough and ‘took a time out’ whilst Carol pushed on and explored some more. I think if you had the time you would spread it out – Colosseum one day, the Forum / Palatino sight the next day maybe – to do them both justice. We decided to then head back to the comfort of our room to refresh and took the opportunity to sit in the air-conditioned environment and watch Gladiator – just to reinforce things. That evening – with it a little cooler we headed back out and about to explore some more – a good time of day to take in the sights of Rome.

On the Monday we made the call to get up and away early and we were out on the pavement again just after 6.15am. Despite the hour of the day there were still people about and loads of traffic. We had a Vatican tour booked today and took the long way round walking to get there, but it meant we followed along the river through flows through the heart of Rome (I think it’s called the Tevere). We saw some amazing bridges spanning the waterway and really enjoyed ‘our detour’. The Vatican soon came into sight, and with that, the crowds all heading for the same thing (I think by this stage we had already walked for 1.5 hours). We were booked in on an ‘early’ 8.30am Vatican site tour and managed to find our tour party just after 8am. The crowds were crazy and our guide didn’t do us any favours and entered us into the wrong que – we were part of a que that probably snaked a good 2-300 m’s to enter the ticket area. It wasn’t until we’d been in the que for a good 30 mins that she realised and moved us across – grrrr (and this was the Express Que – hate to think how long the standard que takes to get through). Our tour was to include the Vatican Art Museum, the Sistine Chapel and the main Vatican Cathedral – St Peter’s Basilica. We thought we had a good 3-4 hours to move through these sites but our guide kept us moving from one to the other (tickets aren’t cheap so you really do want to take your time in order to feel like you are getting your morning’s worth).

The Art Museum was amazing and I think you could easily spend a day along trying to take in all of the rooms and halls that the museum has, and the amazing pieces of work on display. There were several long hallways that we went through and the ceilings in these were just amazing. The colours, the details, and time that must have been put into these pieces of work. From the Art Museum you get filed into the Sistine Chapel – not quite what I’d expected, but stunning neither the less. The chapel (it doesn’t exactly have the feel of a chapel, mind you everyone is looking up at the ceiling and around the walls at all that is on display) was packed – we were told by the guide that if we visited Rome in January / February that it would be a quieter time to look at the sights and a lot colder. You are limited to how long you have in the chapel and it doesn’t take too long to get a sore neck from all the looking up. We then entered St Peter’s Basilica – I think this is the largest cathedral in the world measuring something like 140 m’s in length inside the main part of the cathedral. The interior of the cathedral is striking and there was lots to take in. We jostled with all the people doing the same as us and then after a good look around we made our way outside – back into the heat of the day. Before leaving the Vatican we stopped at the Vatican Post Office and fired off a postcard to Mum – its not everyday the Pope sends a postcard home (alas, we didn’t get to see the Pope whilst exploring his home). The Vatican tour was better than I had expected – there was much more to take in than I’d thought, and you really do need to take your time to take it all in – something we felt we probably didn’t do justice to as the tour did move us along, so we will be back to explore at hopefully a more leisurely pace one day (there are lovely gardens around the Vatican ‘complex’ with a series of statures and sculptures but we simply didn’t have the time to explore these, so would like to do so in the future).

After filing out of the Vatican – past the huge que now waiting to enter, we made our way back up and over the river and then Piazza del Popolo – a big town square area. We then started heading back towards the hotel but not before we located and climbed the famous Spanish Steps – no I don’t know the history around this one, but I do recall it was a good climb up – something like 132 steps. You’re rewarded with a nice view back over the city and across to the Vatican from the top of the steps. By the time we finally made it back to the hotel we had certainly covered some steps for the day, so we just collapsed in our air-conditioned comfort and called it a day.

On the Tuesday we were out and about even earlier – we were on the footpaths walking by 5.30am today. The temperature is a bit better and a lot of people do the same thing – get out early to try and avoid some of the crowds and the heat. First stop this morning was back to Trevi Fountain hoping it would be a bit quieter for a nicer look around and photo’s. Whilst the fountain was definitely quieter, we were surprised that there were already a good couple of dozen people there doing the same as us. From there we headed over to the Pantheon – we were of the understanding that this site was open 24/7 or atleast opened early in the morning, but no, at our time of arrival around 6.30am it was snuggly closed up and doesn’t open until 8.30am so we headed on through and found the really nice Piazza Navona – another large town square (rectangle actually), with striking statures at each end – very nice. We’d been told to find the ‘Key-hole Lookout’ where you can look through the key-hole of a door and it frames the Vatican in the background. After some hunting around and hiking up the hill to the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, we found the unassuming door / gate and had a look. Unfortunately the gardeners were working on the other side of the door and had a ladder in the way blocking the view, but yes, the key-hole does frame the Vatican (apparently it is quiet something to get the perfect picture from here – but not happening for us today).

We had a wander round the nice gardens and were rewarded with good views out over the city from our high vantage point. We then hiked back down and along the river and made our way back to the Pantheon – which was by now well and truly open and busy with tourists. We had a nice look around inside and got plenty of photo’s. There are a load of historic sights scattered across Rome and by the end of 4 days our map was looking a little worse for wear with all the use it had seen. We took in some more sights and then made our way back up towards the Piazza del Popolo to find a motor-bike shop for Taylor and pick up a piece he was after. From there we had another long walk through the heat to get back across town to our apartment – we certainly covered some k’s in Rome. We passed some nice shops on our way back and if money were no object we would have enjoyed a nice bit of shopping, but there again, we didn’t have the bag space for anything either. Later that evening we headed out again and took one last look around Rome – we had been really pleasantly surprised by our time in this city. Yes it is a big city, but the heart of the city with all the historic sights seems very manageable so. At the time of year we visited Rome was very warm and likely to only get warmer so you need to be prepared for that. There are people (tourists) everywhere – you aren’t likely to experience much ‘quiet time’ in Rome so you need to be prepared for that fact as well. Romans like to smoke, the streets are busy with cars, motor-bikes and tour buses, and in parts the city is quite dirty, but around the key sights, things are pretty good. There is a strong-armed presence (army) out and about all the key sights protecting things. Summing up – we liked Rome and we will be back – one day.

Bologna

We rose on the Friday morning and enjoyed another lovely breakfast from our host before bidding him and his momma goodbye (the guesthouse used to be the grandmother’s home, and our host renovated it upon her passing – very nice spot). We caught a bus back to the main Mestre train station and got our tickets through to Bologna and had a short wait for the train to arrive. The train ride took around 1.75 hours and we arrived into the heat of Bologna around the middle of the day. We hiked up the road to our hotel – managing to locate it without too much difficulty. We rested up for a couple of hours and then headed out to explore and find the Information Centre so I could get some details on the Lamborghini and Ferrari Museums. The news wasn’t all good – Saturday was a Bank Holiday for the area and as such only Ferrari World would be the only one open and getting out to the family owned Lambo museum was proving difficult but we would see how we got on with achieving that, as this was one of the primary reasons for visiting Bologna – gateway to Supercar nirvana with Lambo and Ferrari production being in the area as well as Maserati, Pagani and Ducati – what a place. Add to that we had the excitement of meeting up with Mary and Jock who were also staying in Bologna. We located the Neptune Fountain and soon located them – having not seen them for over a year as they had headed away on their annual Italy trip and were away when we headed off in July at the start of our journey.

Was great to see them again and we wandered around some of the narrow streets that feed off the Piazza Maggiore and Quadrilatero District and found a nice bar and sat down to catch up over a couple of good spritzers and beers – the way to do it locally. From drinks we moved on and found some dinner and some more drinks and had a really nice evening catching up – them about our travels and for us, finding out about this area and their time in Italy. It was dark and getting on by the time we parted company, but we managed to find our way back to the hotel and collapsed having enjoyed the day. We’d agreed to head out early on the Saturday morning to meet up with Mary and Jock again, and they took us around some of the local sights of significance (we visited one of the cathedrals and had a good look around – the history here was amazing). The Piazza square was a hive of activity as they were getting ready for some Bank Holiday commerations – the local Army and Police were all decked out getting ready to do marches and parades (we noted a stronger Army presence in Bologna with a lot of armed personnel on duty around key sights). We spent the morning with them before Carol and I hiked up to the central train station and got ourselves on a train out to Moderna – we were heading off to the Ferrari Museum.

The train ride was only around 20 mins and then we had to get the Ferrari bus out to Maranello (if you are a Ferrari fan you are in for a treat as there is the factory museum that we visited out at Maranello, plus a second Ferrari museum in Moderna built around the former home of Enzo Ferrari – it has a special yellow scalloped roof covering the collection – one for us to come back to). The bus ride took around 30 mins and as we entered Maranello we could see the scale of Ferrari’s operations locally – very impressive. Off to the side you have the Ferrari Museum – which is ably supported by a number of Supercar driving experiences. Before entering the museum, we popped into one of the main drive experience sights and had a nice look around the cars you could drive – one of which was a nice green Lambo Huracan convertible – and they had an amazing model and book shop – there was diecast as far as I could see – if only I had the morning and limited baggage rates I could have bought up big time.

We entered the museum (which was expensive by our standards, but one to do – I think with the bus fare from the train station it equated to around 70E’s for the two of us to visit) and enjoyed a couple of hours taking in all that the museum had on offer. The collection on display wasn’t as large as anticipated, and I was surprised that they didn’t have a couple of very key Ferrari models on display (likes of the new 488 Italiano and the 250 GTO which in-particular was the one Ferrari I wanted to see) but alas, maybe the display rotation worked against us today. That said, I did enjoy the story and the displays that were offered. I would have liked longer to soak it all up but we soon had to move on and get the bus back to Moderna to connect with train. One nice touch at the museum is that they have a nice garden path that is lined with some model plugs of past Ferrari’s so that was interesting to look at – and a nice setting for them. We got the Ferrari bus back to the Moderna train station and had a little time to kill before our train so we hiked up the road to have a look at the central cathedral. We hiked back to the station and soon caught our train back to Bologna. We got back to our hotel and then freshened up to again head out and catch up with Mary and Jock – found ourselves a nice place to eat and relax – loads of people were out and about in the evening heat enjoying themselves. We found a place for gelato near where they were staying and parted company there and dually got ourselves a bit lost walking back to the hotel – took a wrong turn and what should have been a 30 min walk was more like an hour, but it freshened us up.

On Sunday we were up and away early – Mary and Jock offered to take us out to the Lambo factory museum in Sant Agata (they had a rental car) so we hiked up to meet them and put some GPS coordinates in and were off out of Bologna. Sant Agata is a quiet little spot maybe 20 mins out of Bologna and looks like Lamborghini have a very strong presence there – I think the car factory was established here around 1962. It wasn’t long until all the buildings were labelled Lambo so we were in the right area. We found the museum and having read some reviews on Trip Advisor I was little unsure as to what to expect as some comments were critical of the small collection and that you would struggle to kill and hour looking around, but we decided we would judge for ourselves. I’d have to say I was like a ‘pig in mud’ as we entered the door – even before we entered the door. This was a place I had dreamed of coming to and here I was – I was going to soak it up. Entry was somewhat cheaper than Ferrari at @ 30E’s for the two of us. Trip Advisor talked about there only being something like 25 cars on display, but for me it took me a good 2 hours to get around them all, and all the supporting info and details. The camera had a busy time clicking off at a regular frequency – this place was dynamite. This museum is linked to the Lambo factory and for a fee you can do a factory tour where you get to see the Aventador production line – out of our price range today so one for us to come back to. I loved all that was on offer here – the main range of cars was very well displayed – not all that Lambo have produced, but a really good cross section.

They had a section upstairs of Lambo’s that have been in movies – likes of The Italian Job, Transformers, Batman etc. and movie clips playing to support this – there was loads to take in and view. I got to see the Miura up close and study it’s lines – I think Carol could see the excitement on me. All too soon a couple of hours had come and gone and I was lagging behind the others, so we headed off having really been impressed with the museum and made our way back to Bologna. Some friends of Mary and Jock’s from Central were arriving in Bologna today on their way south, so we met up with them – two younger couples, and had a drink and a catch up. They had to push on further south so said their goodbyes and the four of us headed off to find somewhere to eat and reflect on what had been a good day – pretty sure Mary, Jock and Carol were all impressed with the museum, and Carol in particular surprised me with her pick of the cars – she went for the futuristic Veneno supercar. We said goodbye to Mary and Jock at this point but would be catching up with them later in the week in Sienna. We hiked back to our hotel – didn’t get lost tonight, and settled in.

On the Monday, Carol and I were up and away early – we stored our bags with the hotel and headed up to the bus station and after some confusion, we worked out the bus we needed to take to head out to the family run Lamborghini Museum. Ferruccio’s son Tonino has established a museum to honour his father in a facility about 15 min’s out of Bologna – not at Sant Agata. We arrived there just before 10am on the Monday morning expecting a whole lot of hussle and bustle but there was no one about and we wondered if the place was actually open. Fortunately an employee turned up right on 10am and welcomed us in – for our visit here we were the only ones in the museum – quite and unusual and unexpected experience. The museum is different to the factory museum – as we would find out. The ‘newest’ of cars on display is a very nice Diablo from 1990 – this being the last car that Ferruccio was involved with / saw before his death in the early 1990’s. I had to ask where all the newer models were – which I’d expected we would see but was told they only wanted to display the models their father had a part in – understandable. Ferruccio started out making tractors after WW2 from army surplus materials and managed to make a good living from his tractor business – in fact he was very successful with his tractors. Add to that he had some other business interests – early air-conditioning or heaters – some such thing – needless to say, he made some good money and rewarded himself with some nice sports cars.

The Ferrari 250 GTE at the centre of the famous story is proudly on display in the museum – Ferruccio brought the car and was disappointed with the clutch and went to see Enzo Ferrari about it – but Enzo dismissed him and told him to go back to building tractors. In his fury, Ferruccio decided he would create better cars than Enzo, and well, I think you know where my money is on that one – I have always loved all thinks Lambo. The museum houses a good collection of the tractors the firm made, as well as a helicopter it developed – was seen as ‘ahead of its time’ and didn’t go any further. A large Lambo powered offshore powerboat takes up a large area – the Lambo powered boats ruled the waters for a long time and probably still do (I haven’t keep up with that aspect which is a surprise). The cars on display were great – I got to see an Islero which is the model I really wanted to see as I would love to own one – assuming of course I cannot purchase a Miura. I was a little annoyed that three key display cars – Ferruccio’s Miura, a one of a kind Jota and the 350 GTV prototype that started it all, were roped off so you couldn’t get good pictures of them, but I understand the significance of each. It was great to see reference made of Bob Wallace, a Kiwi engineer who spent a load of years from it’s formation with Lambo as an engineer and test driver – he was heavily involved in the mechanics of all the early Lambo’s (I’d asked about Bob’s involvement at the Lambo factory museum but the young fella was unsure of who I was referring to so after researching Google he came back to me and apologised).

Also on display were some nice pieces of sculpture – out front there was a wire framed Veneno, and inside you had a buck of a 350 GT and a really nice piece which was a bull that morphed into the Aventador and vice versa – there were details shared about each of the names and the relation to the bulls that the cars are named after – another reason I love this brand. Having spent a quiet two hours looking around it was soon time to get a bus back to Bologna where we hiked up to our hotel and collected our bags. We headed back in the heat up to the train station and got ourselves tickets for the next train through to Florence.

Italy – Trieste and so much more

Last time I updated, and I know I’ve fallen behind, we were awaiting a bus in Rijeka to take us over to Italy, and the coastal city of Trieste. We boarded the bus around midday and wound our way up the coast a little before cutting back up and over the hill. On the other side of the hill we entered Slovenia and had to do a border control going into Slovenia – but not out when we crossed over into Italy – not sure why that was. Looked like traffic moved freely between the countries – we followed a tractor hauling hay out of Slovenia over into Italy. Once across the Italian border we wound our way downhill towards the coast and the coastal town / city of Trieste – probably Italy’s eastern most town /city. The bus dropped us off at the central station (bus took us around 2.5 hours) that doubles as the train station as well and we had a short walk up the road to find the guest house that we were staying in. Our host showed us in and we dropped our bags and headed off to explore the town some more. We walked up along the harbour / waterfront towards the large Piazza Unita d’Italia – it’s considered one of the world’s largest and most beautiful squares. As fate would have it on this Sunday in Trieste, there was a classic car show on in the square so how lucky was I. We had a good look around the machinery – mix of classic Italian Alfa’s and Fiats and some American muscle cars – alas there were no Ferrari or Lambo’s on display.

The square is home to the Government Palace and Town Hall and several others which in Italian I could not understand. We had a wander round and decided that with the heat of the day that we should find sanctuary in bar which to our pleasure, served a bowl of potato chips up with our drinks (Carol decided to go for an Apero Spritz and has developed quite a liking for them). We enjoyed a refreshing drink, and a munch and carried on through the old part of town where they had some weekend markets set up – lots of cheese and meat vendors. The markets were along the canal that runs back up into the town and it had a load of small fishing boats parked up – very nice. At the head of the canal there is another cathedral – I think it may have been called the San Antonio – but I could have that wrong. The city has a series of religions it recognises and the cathedrals and synagogues to go with that. We found our way back up towards our apartment and located a supermarket to get some supplies and parked up back in our room for some dinner. On the Monday morning we headed back down town towards the square where the local Info office was located. We picked up some info on the ‘must do’s’ locally and then braved the heat to head out and have a good look around. We had a bit of a look around the marina area – the Adriatic looking stunning as it does. There was a nice old classic motor-yacht moored up and a large ferry came into the ferry port which we were in the area – ferries ply the Adriatic on a regular frequency.

We then headed back into the heart of town and up – up to the San Giusto Castle and Cathedral. Our hike was rewarded with a great view out over the city – in the distance we could make out the Miramare Castle that sits on a point at the end of the Coast Road. The castle is believed to have been built between 1471 and 1630 – long build project. The castle was the heart of the city back in the day but it was built with no defence functions in mind – it served to control the city. If you are keen you can do a tour of the castle – looks like there is lots of history that you can study up on (we opted not to enter). The San Giusto Cathedral that sits next door dates back from the 14th century and we went inside to have a look – another find cathedral to add to the list of those we have visited. Heading back down the hill you come to the amphitheatre which dates back to the Roman period in the area (the history of Trieste dates back to the Roman and Medieval ages, with the modern city history dating back to @ 1740). We rewarded our efforts with a cold beer and a spritzer and again, a bowl of chips was presented with the drinks – could get to liking this. We wandered back through some of the streets, taking in what the shops had to offer and the sights along the way.

On the Tuesday morning we hung around the apartment as late as we could before taking the short walk back over to the train station where we got tickets for the train through to Venice. Trieste had provided a nice intro to Italy – it had a bit of everything and being by the sea again was a real bonus for us – we needed more time to take in some of the other key sights such as the castles – the likes of the Miramare and also the Duino atop the hill, and also the Victory Lighthouse which we didn’t get it.

Venice

The train from Trieste through to Venice took us around 2 hours. We weren’t staying out on the island itself and disembarked the trained on the second to last stop at the greater Venice suburb of Mestre. From there we struggled onto a bus with our bags and then had a bit of a walk to finally find the guest house we were staying in – we ended up parking up at a bar we had passed a couple of times whilst searching, ordered drinks and were rewarded with snackage again, and used their wi-fi to contact the guesthouse with a plea of ‘help, we are a bit lost’. We were just finishing our drinks when our host turned up – quest house was pretty much next door and down a back driveway so we were very close. We settled in there – nice place and headed up the road to the Info office with the directions of our host. We found a supermarket and picked up something for dinner and headed back to our room. After dinner and as it had cooled down (there was a rain storm go through just as we got settled into the apartment proper) we headed off up the road again for another look – there was a nice plaza like area with some lovely shops, and loads of people out and about eating gelato and enjoying the evening (there was an interesting bell tower at the start of the plaza that you can enter at various times). We went with the trend and got ourselves some nice smooth gelato and enjoyed our look around – in the cool of the evening – very nice. Having had a nice look around locally we headed back to the apartment to call it a night.

On the Wednesday morning we were up and enjoyed a very nice breakfast put on by our host and then we headed up the road to the bus depot and got a busy bus up and onto Venice island proper. I was quite surprised at the expanse of the waterway – the bridge linking the island to the mainland must have been a good 5 k’s or so – well it felt like that. Along with all the hordes of visitors to the island we got off at the bus station and got tickets for the water taxi which we then rode all the way down the Grand Canal out to Lido and then back up the San Marco or St Mark’s Square. The canal ride was great – the canal is a lively stretch of water with water taxi – metro and private all running along, gondola’s all over the place, and boats ferrying stock and equipment all around the canal – after all this area is serviced by the water and not by road. There were even water Police and the water ambulance – things I guess I hadn’t thought of, but all makes perfect sense when you are in the area and on the canal. Getting off at St Mark’s Square you join the sea of tourists – and I don’t even think it’s peak season yet, but there was a cruise liner moored along the island so a good number of visitors would have come off that. The square is quite the sight and has at one end the imposing Basilica di San Marco with it’s gold domes and stunning exterior. All around the square there are griffons and statures everywhere. We didn’t enter the Basilica – the crowd was crazy and we didn’t fancy standing in the sun waiting.

Having had a look around the square which has an array of very high-end shops and eateries, we headed off on the Lonely Planet self-guided walking tour of Venice. Ahead of us we had something like 7 k’s of winding in and out and up and down through the canals and narrow streets, taking in all the sights along the way. We headed out (following some well-placed arrows) to the Ponte dell’Accademia and the Gallerie dell’Academia, and saw some lovely boutiques and art work and pieces along the way – including a shop that used stuffed wild animals for art. There was an amazing looking boar sitting with reading glasses reading a magazine, a deer head looking at itself in the mirror, a turtle with saggy boobs and so much more – very different and enjoyable. We wandered and enjoyed these streets and then crossed over one of the Grand Canal bridges to the other side and walked our way up to the point on that side where you have the striking Santa Maria Della Salute – a striking cathedral that was octagonal in shape inside – we had a good look at this striking building. We parked up on the point and watched some of the activity on and around the mouth of the Grand Canal – there were large car ferries running further along the channel here. We walked around the southern side of the island and then worked our way back in through the narrow streets, taking in cathedrals along the way – some of which had stunning painted ceilings – breath-taking (on the southern side of the island you have all the fish mongers selling their catches). We then crossed back over the Grand Canal at the Rialto – the bridge you often see pictured in the Venice advertisements.

Back over on the main part of the island again, we completed the self-guided walk and then forged our way back across through the narrow busy streets, to St Mark’s Square and found somewhere for a bite to eat. Our walk around the island had taken a good 6 hours with stopping and starting so we were getting a little tired by the end of it. We parked up and waited for it to get dark – the days are long here and dusk doesn’t set in until around 9pm at this time of year. Carol wanted to see Venice by night, with the lights on etc, but there weren’t that many for us to see. We got a water taxi back up to the main bus station – a ride of around 40 min’s and then got a bus straight away back over to Mestre – I think by the time we got back to the apartment it was something like 10.30pm but the neighbouring plaza with it’s eateries was still loud and alive with people wining and dining and enjoying their evening.

On the Thursday morning we had an easier start to the day and didn’t cross back over to the main island until around midday, where we then purchased one day taxi tickets and proceeded to get a water taxi over to the island of Murano. On the way across you pass an island by itself – I think it is called Isola di San Michele and it appeared to be a cemetery – out in the main Laguna Veneta channel – makes sense that you would have a cemetery island in a place like this. Murano Island is famous for it’s glassworks and glass products and it was just stunning. We are constantly amazed at our clever some people are. Little shops lined the canals that run through the island, all selling and amazing range of glass products. We enjoyed our time looking through them all – several shops were for glass artists who had made some stunning glass pieces. You can watch the glass blowing at several spots – for a fee of course. We parked up along the canal and paddled our feet in the water as we had a bite to eat and relaxed. Taking centre stage in the little town square is a striking glass sculpture by one of the local artists.

Having been thoroughly impressed (the island just had a nice pace to it – quieter than the mainland), we then caught a water-taxi over to the neighbouring island of Burano which in turn is famous for it’s lace work and lace products. This island was again stunning – there houses that line the inner channels that flow into the island are of varying colours, so it’s a really nice colourful spot to visit. And yes the lace products are very nice as well. The island seems to have its own version of the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ as the Church Tower was at a real angle – looked to be sinking back into the island. We had a good look around and wandered the island before getting another water-taxi all the way back over towards Lido before crossing the main channel and lining up to come back up the Grand Canal. On our way back over, a large cruise ship was heading back out to the sea, taking its passengers onto another stunning spot. There were yachts and launches aplenty on the water, coming in at the end of the day, and also heading out – plenty for me to view and enjoy. The water taxi took us a good 45 min’s or more to work its way back up to St Mark’s Square where we hopped off.

It was getting on for dusk and we scouted out a gondola ride – we’d talked to one operator the day previous and he said if you wait till after 7pm you can ride up the channels for an hour for 100E so we expected that was what we would get, but our ride was only 30 mins at best – should have hunted out the other operator I suppose. The gondolas appear to work on a tariff basis so as not to undercut one another, but as they say, when in Venice, a gondola ride is the one thing you have to do. We got the water taxi back up to the train station and secured tickets for the next day before crossing back over the Ponte di Calatrava walk bridge to get a bus back over to Mestre. Getting back up to Mestre we stopped at one of the local eateries just by our apartment and had a late dinner and reflected on the great day that we had had. Yes Venice is expensive, but the main island and then the outer island offer the visitor so much to experience so it really is one of those places you need to come to for yourself and to experience.

Croatian Adventure

When I last updated it was Friday night and we were standing on a platform in the Krakow Central Train Station waiting for the Vienna Night Train to pull in. Train arrived on the platform @ 10pm and we got ourselves some seats and settled in. It was a funny ride as we crossed 3 countries getting from Poland to Vienna – the train stopped for a time at the Polish / Slovakian border and then it parked up again at the Slovakian / Austrian border – as a result you had different train conductors coming through the train in middle of the night waking you to check your tickets – grrrr.  Sleep came and went but it wasn’t too bad. The sun was up as we crossed into Austria and we pulled into the Vienna Central Station @7am. The train station was a bit like de je vue as we’d been through here 3 weeks prior before heading up to Poland. We found our way through the station and had to get a couple of subway lines over to the International Bus Terminal. We had a wait of about 3 hours for our bus through to Zagreb so we wandered up the road to a Wild Bean Café for a cuppa and free wi-fi – as you do. As we wandered up the road and then as the bus pulled out of Vienna we were reminded that the city has a really nice mix of architecture – you have the old of course but then there are some really nice modern buildings and then a mix of new and old combined – very clever.

Zagreb

The bus up to Zagreb took us around 5.5 hours and on the way it crossed through Slovenia, so we had to disembark for the border out of Slovenia and then into Croatia – first stamp in the passport since arriving in Spain. We pulled into Zagreb – the capital city of Croatia with a population of around 800,000. The main part of the city is just that – another city – you have to get down into the Old Town to see most of the history and old buildings (the city is divided into Upper and Lower sides). We pulled our bags about 30 min’s up the road from the bus station – following alongside the main train tracks – central train station. Along the way we passed the large stature / monument to King Tomislav – noted as Croatia’s first king, crowned in 925 – he is credited with establishing the state of Croatia. We managed to locate our apartment – was an old building under a big tarp and scaffold – the host said they had been renovating the building for 6 months, so not a lot of natural light coming in. That aside we were shown to our room and dropped our bags and at our hosts direction, headed off to find the Old Town of Zagreb. Certainly the area we were staying in was stacked with characteristic old buildings – lots with ornate sculptures on their faces etc. We headed up town – found a nice park area where there was a local festival being held. We then made our way through to Ban Jelacic Square – the main town square and very much a central point for the city with all the tram / bus connections starting / finishing here, and all the fancy shops, cafes and bars fill the surrounding square. In the middle of the square is as large stature of Jelacic that was erected in the square back in 1866. The stature was commissioned to celebrate Jelacic’s defence of the city from the Hungarian uprising of 1848. Interestingly the stature was removed by communist authorities in 1947 and was only re-established in the square in 1990 following the collapse of communism in Croatia.

Just off the square you have the imposing cathedral with it’s twin towers called the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – big title, but this is one of the cities defining landmarks. The current structure dates from the 19th century but has its foundations dating back as far as 1094. The cathedral has a fortified type wall around it which was established by the Ottoman reign in the 1500’s. The cathedral was badly damaged by a huge earthquake in 1880 and was re-styled thereafter in fitting with the period design. You then walk up Kalciceva promenade which is fill of cafes, bars and restaurants – this is the area you come to eat in town. Off the promenade you can find a series of steps (something like 300) that take you up the hill to a place called the Priests Tower (built in the 13th century) which provides a nice lookout back down over the city of Zagreb. We then wound our way down a couple of streets – there are lots of large churches up in the hill in this part of town, and late Saturday afternoon seemed a popular time for weddings – I think we passed three. We then found St Mark’s Church which is characterised by roof tiles that display the coat of arms of Croatia and Zagreb – they look very impressive. These were installed back in the 19th century, but the roof looked shiny and new. In St Mark’s Square there was a group of classic cars lined up – as fate would have it there was a classic car rally going through the city – so we had a good look.

On our way back down the steps there were a number of good spots to stop and take in the skyline view of Zagreb. We made our way back down to Kalciceva which was full of people enjoying the warm evening, and we made our way back across to the square. On the way back to the apartment we stopped and did a shop for the next couple of days and headed back to put our feet up. After not looking to offer too much, the city of Zagreb had surprised and wasn’t too bad.

The Adriatic Coast

On the Sunday morning we were up and away – back up towards the bus station where we were to pick up a rental car for the following week. The morning was warm and today it seemed further up the road than the previous day, but we finally made it to the rental car place, and after a very drawn our rental process, we were given the keys to our Renault for the following week. Because we didn’t opt for the full insurance cover on then rental, we were given strict instructions on where we could and couldn’t go and every mark on the car was reviewed – any ‘new’ damage that we caused in the coming week we would be responsible for (full insurance cover is needed to cover you for any damage, but also allows you to take the rental on a ferry to any of the islands, and also allows you to go ‘over the border’ into Bosnia, and Montenegro etc.). Cautiously we made our way out of Zagreb and set a course to take us west – out to the Adriatic (Croatia occupies the largest part of the eastern coast of the Adriatic). You’re not long out of Zagreb before you hit a toll gate – the country is full of them, and if you want to take the shortest point from A-B you get on the main highway and pay. We did a stint on the toll road and then turned off and went inland on a minor road – it was windy but picturesque. We had to join the toll road again for a short stint but then we turned off and headed up hill. At the summit we were rewarded with a striking view of the Adriatic below us – stunning. We dropped down into the coastal town of Senj – a small fishing village which looked to be very popular with motorcyclists who we assume ‘take a ride’ from Zadar up the coast – at high speed at the weekend and enjoy the winding sweeping road – great road for them and as we would experience, a lot of them went roaring past us as we headed south.

We took the coastal road all the way down – it was stunning – the colour, the view, the islands, the surroundings – we were both glowing with the experience and felt so relaxed as we wound our way south. The coastal road to Zadar was @ 130 k’s so we just took our time and took it all in. Along the way there are bays and coves and across the water there is a flotilla of islands – Croatia has something like 1200 islands in its group with 47 of the inhabited. At the bottom of one of the main inlets you turn off – inland to join the main highway if you want to, but we were staying on the coast and turned back over the hill and bypassed the city of Zadar. We carried on down the coast until we came to the little bay of Rogoznica. Along the way we passed some stunning marinas – I was aghast at all the superyachts I was seeing – my how the other half live. Carol had booked us an apartment in Rogoznica as this was where our Czech friend Jaroslav has his yacht berthed and we were planning to link up with him. We followed the directions to where we thought the apartment was but to no avail, so we parked up at a little bar overlooking the water that had free wi-fi and ordered a drink and messaged our hosts with an SOS. Fortunately, we had time to finish our drinks before they turned up and they had us follow them around the bay and up the hill – totally different address to what we had been given. We got up to the apartment and it was all we could ask for – it had a balcony that looked out over the bay so we were very happy.

On the Monday morning we had an easy start to the day enjoying the view from the balcony as we had our breakfast. We headed down the hill and around to the marina to see if we could spot Jaroslav’s boat (Jaroslav was one of the students from the Czech Republic English course and he told us all about his paradise down in Croatia, so we linked in with him and planned to meet him in the area – he comes down from his home in the Czech Republic for a week each month to sail in the area). The marina was paradise for me – there was so much for me to take in and enjoy – my how the other half seem to live. We walked about the marina and parked up on the point and just watched yachts and powerboats coming and going from the bay – the water was clear, warm and inviting. Not having had any luck locating Jaroslav’s yacht we asked at the marina office and they soon directed us out to another pier and there it was – a lovely 41-foot sloop – very styli. Also moored in the marina were a couple of lovely large superyachts – one was owned by a Russian mafia guy we were told. I was like a pig in water with all I was seeing today – that plus it was lovely and warm, so we walked back around the apartment – making sure to pick up some supplies on the way that we then enjoyed back on the balcony of the apartment – we a view to die for.

On the Tuesday we headed up and over the hill to the neighbouring bay of Primiston – this bay has a massive secluded marina as well, but we were unable to get in to look around it – unlike Rogoznica which was open and inviting to wander around. We parked up and walked down into the bay just as a local fishing boat was unloading it’s catch. We stood and watched as a load of sardines or suchlike were unloaded from the boat, put on ice and then loaded onto pallets on the back of a truck to be shipped off – they had a real production line going on. We wandered around the waterfront and brought some nice fruit at the local stands. This bay also looked to be popular with the motorcyclists who were stopped here for their coffees. At the head of the bay there is a hill with a church atop it so we climbed up and through the narrow-cobbled street to the top of the hill and the church. The church dated back to 1440 I think it was and it sat above the town with views out over the Adriatic – it had a lovely cemetery – would be a lovely resting spot. We headed back out of the bay and back to Rogoznica and had word that Jaroslav had arrived, so we went and met up with him. He was busy settling back into the boat – and was tired as it’s a 10-hour drive from his home to the bay so we wandered back into town and got some lunch that we went back and enjoyed on the yacht. Jaroslav was having an issue with the bow thruster on the front of his yacht so wasn’t able to take us out into the bay so we parked up on the back of the yacht and just enjoyed the rolling of the water whilst he had a snooze.

That evening we all walked about the bay to a lovely restaurant and Jaroslav hosted us to a lovely meal and a couple of drinks – he seemed to be well known in the area and had a great relationship with the local restaurateurs. Very content we wandered back around the bay – it was a lovely mild evening as I’m sure it is most evenings. We slept on the yacht that night – took a bit of getting use – the rolling nature and the noise of the sea but still a great experience. It rained overnight so we woke to a damp start but it wasn’t long before it started to warm up. Jaroslav insisted on us having breakfast, so we headed off to the marina store and he brought some supplies and we went back to the yacht and had a lovely feed before we had to say farewell to him – and ‘push off’ as one might say. We were sad to be leaving such a lovely spot – it was easy to see what Jaroslav referred to this area as ‘his piece of paradise’. He’s worked hard and was now being able to enjoy some of the fruits of his labours. We headed out of the bay and continued to work out way down the coastline – next stop the city of Split.

Split, Omis and Dubrovnik

Spilt was only a further 50 – 60 k’s down the coast and was a large city set on the coast. After a bit of a hick up with GPS coordinates we made our way towards town and found a car park lot – which we would then have to find our way back to later. Split left us with mixed views – the old town is lovely and historic – there are large gated arches that you enter through and a load of history in the area. Having worked your way through the old town you soon make your way out of the walled city and out to the waterfront promenade – which in itself is lovely. The promenade is full of cafes and bars, loads of people and loads of tour operators hoping you will sign up for a boat excursion of some sort. There are loads of ferries that come into the harbour here – for transiting to and from the nearby islands, and even over to Italy I’m pretty sure. Outside of the old town and the waterfront area we found Split to be a bit sterile with high apartment blocks and buildings of limited character, all crammed in. We had a good look around but decided it really wasn’t for us and were happy to get back to the car (which we located easily enough again) and head out of down.

Heading down the coast a bit further we stopped at a little bay that had a couple of large private superyachts at anchor – one looked to be having some work down on it. The waters along this coast line are so clear and lovely – it really is a wonderful area. We were staying the next couple of nights in an area called Omis which ended up only being a couple more bays around the road so we pulled in there and found the really nice apartment that we were staying in. Our host Maria was very nice – there was a nice bottle of wine on the table for us, and not long after we had settled in – and she’d finished her jobs, she knocked on the door with bottle of Cherry Schnapps in hand and joined us out on the deck for a couple of glasses and a chat about the area, the coastline, and her and her family – very nice, and the schnapps wasn’t half bad either. The weather looked to be on the turn, but it was still very hot so we headed over the road and onto the beach and I had a dip in the Adriatic – very nice. The clouds darkened up and then the heavens opened up with thunder and lightning and then the rain came just as we ran back across the road (laying in the water watching the storm forming and lightning flashes across the way was pretty cool). We dried off and settled in for the evening.

On the Thursday morning we got up and away early as we planned to reach Dubrovnik for a look around today. The day was striking again, and we had two options – head inland and take the main highway or stick to the coast and enjoy the scenery – all be it the longer option – we stuck with the coast. The road south was around 180 k’s but with the winding road it took us something like 3.5 hours but the scenery on the way south more than made up for it. Add to that we actually got to cross into Bosnia – all 9 k’s of coastline that they have on the Adriatic. The Bosnian stretch consisted of two border stops – in and out, and one main coastal town that was full of hotels trying to capture a view of the water for their guests. Back on the other side of the border we had the last stretch down to Dubrovnik – this was a stunning piece of road to drive and very enjoyable. Coming into Dubrovnik you cross a large impressive bridge that underneath had 5 cruise ships parked up in the harbour (Port Gruz) – a very popular spot for the cruise ships it appears. To try and minimise parking costs today we had read of an area in the Lonely Planet or such like that said you could park on the side of the road for free and get a bus back into the old part of the town – which we did.

Like Split, Dubrovnik was crowded with people – maybe more today but there again, the city is smaller than Split so made things a bit tighter. The old walled city of Dubrovnik is something else and was really worthwhile visiting. I think coming in the area / old town from the water (on a boat / yacht) would be another experience again – and would truly accentuate the walled protections around the old town. Dubrovnik’s history dates back to the 5th century AD and was an important maritime port for seafarers coming from Greece to Venice. The old town was essentially a walled fortress, and the walls are considered one of the best-preserved fortification systems in Europe. The walls stretch almost 2 k’s around the old part of Dubrovnik. Inside the walls you have narrow cobbled streets – the main promenades are lined with cafes and souvenir shops. There are churches and cathedrals to explore, and a labyrinth of streets to work your way around. We sat for a while out at the point and watched the tour boats, and private boats coming and going, as well as the tourist submarines – it was a great spot to stop and have some lunch. We hiked around the inner wall as much as we could and were really impressed with all that we took in. We only had half a day in the area and were disappointed not to have more time as there is so much more you can and should take in – one example being the cable car you can take up to the top of Mount Srdj – we didn’t take it but I’m sure the view from the top would be something else.

It was interesting to note there was signs of damage on buildings from the Homeland War that took place in the early 1990’s – hopefully not too much was damaged locally, but you could see evidence of bullets and maybe bomb blasts in some areas. Really impressed with the little bit we had seen it was time to head back to the car and head north back up to Omis. We passed back through the border control without any question and enjoyed the winding ride back up the road. As we pulled back into Omis we parked up and headed off to have a bit of a look around the town we were staying near. Omis is a nice coastal town – it has a channel running back up and through the town and looks like the likes of some fishing boats come and go from the area. We watched some locals doing some rock climbing on a nearby rock face – Carol was itching at the bit to have a go herself. It was getting dark by this stage so we pushed on the last bit up the road to our apartment and called it a day – and a good day it had been.

Plitvice

On the Friday morning we were up and away early, and with regret we had to leave the coastline behind and head inland – our destination today being the Plitvice Lakes and National Park. We worked our way inland and got to see some of the interior of Croatia, and at a couple of points we were only something like 20 km’s from the Bosnian border. We passed nice lakes and quiet little villages and after something like 4 hours we found ourselves in a lovely wooden area – the Plitvice National Park. This is a very popular tourist spot and there were tour buses and people everywhere, but we parked up in the carpark and set off on foot to discover the lakes. Entry into the park was a little expensive, but we ended up spending something like 4 hours hiking around the area, taking in all that we could. At the both ends of the lakes are a series of waterfalls – we took in the big northern fall and then then walked our way along the paths past numerous lakes and caves. Part of your park entry covered a ride on the lake ferry and also a shuttle bus and by the time we got down to the ferry dock there was a wait of something like 30-minute wait to get on a ferry and across the next lake (they had to put on a couple of extra ferries to cope with the crowd).

On the other side of the lake we hiked up and around – there were numerous smaller lakes with sunken trees lying in there – the water for the wonderful and clear. On the southern end of the trail we found another set of big waterfalls and took in what they have to offer. We hiked back around the lake and linked up with the shuttle ride before hiking the last bit back to the main gate and the car park – big day. Carol had booked us into a nearby guesthouse – very nearby as it turns out so nice and handy. We pulled up to the place and had a surprised host come out – we were a day early so after a bit or rushing around by her, we were shown to our room and settled in for the evening, just as the heavens opened up and we were treated to another heavy thunder, lightning and rain storm – changeable weather at this time of year – going from hot to wet in no time at all.

Rijeka

On the Saturday morning we were up and away early to get the car back up to Zagreb. The rains had finally cleared and on the plus side the car had a good wash overnight. The run back up to Zagreb took us about 2 ¼ hours – we’d allowed plenty of time to get back and get the car dropped off. We had some fun locating the correct road to drop the car but finally got that sorted, and had the car dropped back off without any issues being flagged. We had a few hours to kill before we were due to get a bus across to Rijeka, so we found a nice café, with wi-fi on offer and parked up for a long cuppa. We got a bus to Rijeka at 3pm and it worked its way out of Zagreb and then up and over some hilly landscape – we passed through a series of long tunnels (I reckoned some of the road / countryside may have been used as a setting for one of the recent Fast and Furious movies). The bus ride took us around 3 hours and finally wound its way back down out of the hills so that we could see the sea again, and had us dropped off in Rijeka in the sunshine by 6pm.

Rijeka is a nice coastal city – pretty sure it is city size. We hiked back up town with our bags to our hostel and hiked up the stairs. We didn’t have the best check in experience – the ‘stand in guy’ was wasted and struggled to get through the process to get us a key. After a bit of an exercise we finally had a room and a key and were able to drop our bags off. We headed off out to take in some of the sights – one of the first to strike us just near the hostel was the Leaning Tower at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – not sure what was holding the tower up but it had a good lean going on. We walked back up town – there’s a nice open promenade that doesn’t allow traffic so makes exploring the city nice and easy. Back up near the bus station there was another large church that looked very impressive from the outside – there was a wedding going on so we didn’t go any further. We cycled around the back of the church and up through town a bit more before dropping down to have a look around the harbour and marina area. In the marina there were several very nice superyachts, so I studied them up at length. Having had a really nice look around the harbour we had worked up an appetite and found a nice waterfront place to eat.

One of the superyacht captains came in and parked himself down so we were having a bit of a chat to him – his ‘boss’ owned two of the superyachts moored in the harbour and he was in charge of the smaller of the two. Sounded like a pretty cool lifestyle that he led – said he had a place in Monte Carlo that he leases out for a ridiculous amount during the grand prix weekend. He was drinking the good stuff and eating the best dishes on offer – but he was alone We enjoyed our chat with him and continued on our way back through the city to our hostel – taking in sights along the way. Come Sunday morning we had to pull our bags back along the main promenade back to the bus station to await our but out of Croatia – next stop Italy. We’d have to say we loved our time in Croatia – the coastline was to die for but the interior had loads on offer as well. One week didn’t do it justice so this is a spot to come back to in the future. I suggest you come and have a look.

Poland – Warsaw

Our bus up from Vienna to Warsaw was another long overnight trek. Sleep was limited – this bus was very crammed / seats were small, and it was full so not a lot of opportunity to get comfortable but we slept as we could. The bus dropped us off on the north side of Warsaw (bus took approx. 9.5 hours) and with the help of the young guy that was sitting in front of us that we had talked to on the trip, he assisted us with getting downtown on the subway. We finally got into the large central station and had to get from the subway over to the main building so we could store our bags for the day. We finally worked through that process and then headed off on foot to get to the Angloville Walking Tour meeting point in the Old Town. Carol kept telling me it wasn’t too far but we just seemed to go on and on and time was tight, so the pace was on to try and get to the meeting point on time or close to it (I think we were maybe 10 mins late but they didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to get underway). With our local guide (I think his name was Karol) we headed off on a 2 hour walk around the old town of Warsaw and learnt some history along the way. On our walk we took in some of the old cathedrals in the area, theatres, the large Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski), the large Presidential Palace with its guards out the front, and the many statures that are dotted around this city.

I think it’s really important to remember that this city was all but destroyed during WW2 with over 80% of the city either flattened or badly damaged. After the war a huge rebuild took place, with Poland now under the Communist regime. Where they could that have tried to ‘rebuild’ a lot of the historical buildings as to how they were pre the war, and this has been nicely achieved in the Old Town area. Around the central station area, it has been developed as the business area of Warsaw and there are several quite striking skyscrapers that fill this space – one in-particular is call the Sail I think it was and it had a neat wave shape to it – very clever. Taking pride of place in the middle of Warsaw in what I guess is the Town Square, is the striking Palace of Culture and Science building – to me it looked a bit like the Empire State building, and it was a Communist gift to Poland from Russia in 1955 – to look at it you wouldn’t think it necessarily dated back to that time – it’s quite the landmark. Back to the Old Town tour, we took in the view from the platform overlooking the gardens and river – the Vistula. There was a nice old town square surrounded by old buildings of varying colours, but generally of the same height – some looked more stable than others. We enjoyed a nice lunch at a local café with the group and then Carol and I headed back through town to the central train station. On the way we walked back through the Saski Gardens where there is The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The day was very warm and we felt like we had covered some ground again today, but we weren’t there yet. We made it back to the train station and picked up our bags and after a frustrating time of being passed from one info desk to the next, we were finally directed as to what bus-line we needed to get on to get out to the apartment we were staying in. We headed across the road and waited for a bus and boarded what we thought was the correct bus, only to find that it was heading in the wrong direction for us so we rode it to the end and then got back on the return bus. We finally made our stop – was further across Warsaw than we had realised as we rode for maybe 15 mins from the city centre. We got off and picked up some supplies at the local corner store and then hiked the last 15 mins with our bags – finally we found the apartment we were staying in – or rather a room within the apartment. It wasn’t ideal, but if it was comfortable so we settled in for the evening.

The apartment host greeted us on the Sunday morning with breakfast, so we tucked into that and then had to get ourselves back down the road to get the bus back into town – we needed to make our way to the Angloville meeting place in central Warsaw – right under that striking building I like so off we went. Managed to ourselves and our bags on the bus – travelling with 2 large bags on a bus isn’t always easy, but we managed to get on and get a spot with them so we weren’t taking up too much space. Carol had been worried about the time and so we were in town in plenty of time and just parked up ahead of the Angloville bus arriving. We were sitting down in the sun when an older guy came along and he asked us for directions for the airport bus. We explained we weren’t local and weren’t sure and he stopped and spoke to us for a good 20 mins about his travels and what he was doing – nice way to meet someone. Next stop – Angloville Warsaw.

Angloville – Warsaw

Our coordinator for this course was a young woman from Scotland called Kathryn. We had met her the previous day on the tour, along with a few of the other coordinators, but met the rest of the team at the assembly point – recognising a few faces from our Czech Republic Angloville course. Not too many of the students took the option of riding out on the bus and drove themselves, so I hoped on the bus and had a good chat to one of the volunteers – James, who was travelling through these parts from the UK and had done a few similar courses. Our destination for this course was approx. 2 hours out of Warsaw near the small village of Sterdyn. The Palace Ossolinskich – that’s what the place was called, was actually an old palace dating back to the 1500’s I think it was. The castle looked to have been left in ruins in the years past the war, and in the 1990’s it passed into private ownership and was turned into a hotel after a very extensive restoration. The Palace spread out over some lovely grounds and consisted of several key buildings – the main ‘house’ (palace) and then to the sides in a semi-circle some boarding rooms, and then a separate conference building out the back – that was where we were based. The weather was warm (in the high 20’s) and the setting was great so we looked forward to the week ahead.

For the course this week we have a nice balance – 21 volunteers and 21 students. The volunteers came from all over – UK, Scotland, USA and Canada, South Africa – we were the only Kiwi’s on this course. We all enjoyed a fun week – the setting was great and provided good opportunities to walk into the nearby village (Sterdyn) and tracks around the grounds when we had one on one sessions with our students. I was paired with a guy Marcin who I would mentor for the week – Marcin was a very clever man who was on the course with his wife Yolanta. Together they run a business coaching business and Marcin is also developing some sort of software solution for gaming machines. All the students had interesting backgrounds and it is great to get to meet them and work with them over the course of the week. On the Thursday your mentees that you have been working with, present in front of the group – this was too much for 2 of the students who opted out, but it’s great to see the progress that these people make with their speech and confidence over the course of the week. It seems that you no sooner start these courses and then the week is up and in addition to the students you need to say goodbye to all the volunteer friendships you have formed over the week – the program is great for meeting a big range of people – young and old, many of whom are travelling just like ourselves (in the case of some of the younger ones, they are drifting a little or birding time till they head off on studies). With goodbyes exchanged we were back on the bus early Friday afternoon and heading back into Warsaw.

If anyone is interested in having a look at Angloville as a volunteer opportunity, go to www.angloville.com

Warsaw – Part Two

The bus back into the city took @ 2.5 hours and had us back in the central part of town around 4.30pm so it was very busy with people finishing work / heading out and about. On our way back in from the Palace we went through a small town and there was a funeral taking place / funeral procession. I noted that all the cemeteries I had seen were nicely decorated with colourful flowers – mostly artificial but the cemeteries looked bright and inviting. There seems to be a lot of roading improvement taking place at the moment across Poland and we struck some roadworks on our way back, that slowed our progress for maybe 20 km’s – but it was a nice day so a good easy ride back into Warsaw. Arriving back into the central part of town, we said our goodbyes to the remaining students and the volunteers (several of whom we would see again on our next course) and Carol and I made our way across to find a bus-stop. Carol had booked us into a hostel, so we found our way over to the bus station and going the correct way this time, we rode the bus a few stops – little did we know the bus route had been changed and we were dropped further away than planned, so a good hike / drag with the bags later we finally found the hostel. To compound matters the lift wasn’t working and we had to lug bags up 3 flights of stairs – not catching a break today. Fest Hostel was basic and comfortable, but our host was fantastic (oversight I know but I don’t recall his name) – he went out of his way to tell us about easy things to do near the hostel and some of the history of the area. He owned the hostel and looked to be doing a good job out of it – I think the hostel had capacity for 22 beds.

Our Hostel host suggested we head down to the river to check out the fountains up the road and on the way to go via the University roof-top gardens, so we dropped our bags and headed out. The gardens were a real surprise – the top of the Uni buildings have been turned into a nice green space and there were people up there making the most of the late day sun. We worked our way down to the river (the Vistula) and found this newly developed waterfront area to be alive with people – out walking, many enjoying the cafes and bars along the rivers edge, and many just taking in the sights. We hiked up the riverfront boulevard and crossed over to check out Multimedia Fountain Park – a really nice area with several different fountain pools, and on Friday and Saturday evenings the fountains light up and play some museum. They also have a large screen available in the area for showing outdoor movies. There were loads of people about enjoying the park setting – the sun was getting low by the time we headed back along the waterfront back towards the hostel. There’s a new museum (I think it was a science museum?) that pops out over the boulevard to the water’s edge – we didn’t enter due to the time, but it looked interesting. It was also really good to see that developers were busy building new apartments where they had saved the old façade and were building inside it – quite a lot of development was underway in the city (a couple of the Angloville students worked for property development companies). We stopped just down from the hostel in a nice garden area and had a well deserved cold beer and a bite to eat before heading back and climbing the stairs once more to the hostel.

Gdansk

On the Saturday we got up to the breakfast our hostel host had provided and had a good natter to him about what we were doing – what he was doing etc. Well fed we packed up and then headed off to get a couple of subways out to the Flixbus terminal – where we had been dropped into Warsaw a little over a week earlier. From there we had a short wait and then boarded our Flixbus up to Gdansk in the north of Poland on the Baltic. The bus took us around 4.5 hours – again we stuck some major road works which I think we followed at a slower pace for atleast 50 km’s. We got off the bus in central Gdansk and headed off for a bite to eat. The info office at the train station had been closed so we had quite a job to find out what direction we needed to go in / what bus to take to get out to our Guest House which was on the outskirts of the city. We finally sorted bus details and managed to connect with a bus and headed up the road. We had a bit of a walk with our bags up the road but finally found our quaint guesthouse, and again, very friendly guest. We checked in, dropped our bags and went for a walk up the road to find a bag of chips, a tomato and some fruit – and beers – easy tea this evening (we had eaten very well on Angloville and needed to ease up this week). Our guesthouse had a nice canal and walkway running alongside it, so it made for a nice walk. When we got back we headed up the hill behind the house and were surprised to see a young deer in close to the house (we saw him a few more times during our stay).

We enjoyed a nice breakfast prepared by our host on Sunday and then made our way back into the central part of Gdansk. We found the local Info office and armed with some info we headed off to explore the older part of town – where all the history exists and the River Moltawa flows through and out to the Baltic. Gdansk is a ‘seafaring’’ town – I think we can describe it as such and was largely supported in the past by the shipping / trading, ship building and fishing industries that were established here. I’m pretty sure the history of Gdansk dates back to the medieval times with the city having upwards of 1000 years of history (pretty sure this area was previously a German territory up to the early 1900’s?). To enter the old town you go through one of several gates – Upland Gate and the Gate to Long Street date back to the 14th and 17th centuries I’m pretty sure. The old town is dotted with magnificent cathedrals and churches – the largest of which is St Mary’s Basilica. This large cathedral had construction start in 1343 and it wasn’t completed until 1502. Then you have all these narrow-cobbled streets / lanes that date from the Renaissance period. We were surprised by how narrow most of the buildings were, so to compensate most were 4 stories high. There’s the large Long Market that is considered one of the most beautiful market places in the world – today in the heat of Gdansk it was busy with tourists like us exploring what the area had to offer and being entertained by a number of buskers, or sampling food, drink and ice cream at the huge range of providers that operate in the area.

In the market place there is a famous statue of Neptune – this was erected in the 17th century and has flowed with water during the autumn to spring since 1633 (winter is just too harsh up here for the water to flow). The large Town Hall of the Main City was first erected back in the 13th century but was subsequently damaged by fire – I think the current structure as you see it, dates back to the 17th century so loads of history. The one landmark Gdansk is famous for is The Crane. The Crane sits on the waters edge (the Motlawa) and dates back to the 1444 I think. It stands 4 stories high and was driven by men who walked around / pushed the big wheel – the crane (which was the largest in Europe) could lift loads of 2 tonnes up to 27 m’s up and 11 m’s out so this was the place to come to get your ship loaded / unloaded back in the day. It was a lovely warm afternoon so the waterway was busy with small boats coming and going and novelty paddle and power boats were very popular – there was loads for us to take in. We walked up and around the river to the drawbridge which rises on the hour to let the bigger water vessels in and out of the river / canal. We sat and watched it rise – it stayed up for 30 mins so when it did lower there was a good group of people waiting to get back across. The north of Poland is known for its Amber so there were many jewellery stores trying to interest you in lovely pieces of work – some small, many big and chunky.

Gdansk has the unenviable history of being the place where WW2 broke out back on 1 Sept 1939. The Germany’s had placed one of their battleships in the harbour back in the day, an in the early hours of 1 Sept it started bombarding the city area. We made our way to the World War 2 Museum – its an interesting building of unique architectural design. The museum itself is 3 levels below ground (the aboveground levels are for offices etc). We headed down and it didn’t take long to be absorbed by all the history here – Poland really were in the thick of WW2 and suffered horrendously at the hands of the Germany’s and those countries that supported the Nazi regime – and then Russia. I’m not going to go into detail but to say that we spent nearly 3 hours in the museum and hadn’t taken in all the detail but felt we needed to leave – the museum’s atmosphere added to the sombreness of the local suffering and this was reinforced by all the pictures and displays. We decided after this visit that we didn’t need to visit another concentration camp as we had planned as we really had seen more than we wanted to and were struggling to comprehend how and why this had taken place as it had – history has a lot to answer for. It was nearly 8pm by the time we exited the museum (closing time on Sunday’s) and with the sun getting low we walked back along the water and across town to the bus stop. We didn’t have to wait too long for the bus and headed back to the guesthouse to find something humourist to watch – we felt we needed to ‘lighten the mood’.

On the Monday morning we were up and away early – first the bus into the central station and then a train up the coast to the neighbouring city of Sopot (they call Gdansk the Tri-City as it includes the neighbouring cities of Gdynia / Sopot and Elblag). The train north only took around 30 min’s and we got off and had an enjoyable walk up the main street through Sopot. The street – Monte Cassino (which is closed off to vehicles) is a promenade lined with cafes, bars, and specialty stores. One of the more unusual landmarks is the Crooked House – looks like something out of a Dr Seuss story, and with good reason it serves as one of the cities main landmarks / icons. The promenade then opens out into a town square and then onto the pier. The pier is supposedly the longest wooden pier in Europe at over 511 m’s but when walking out on it, it didn’t seem or feel that long. I think the pier dates back to the 1820’s. Now it has a nice restaurant set up for dinners, as well as a nice settled marina. Be warned that you do have to pay for the experience of walking on the pier and your ticket is a one-time only – it doesn’t allow you to re-enter later in the day – I felt it a bit of a rip off.

I was really surprised to find swans by the dozen habituating in this area – it was the Baltic and therefore salt water so that surprised me. Standing proudly along the beach waterfront are a number of hotels – the most significant being the Grand Hotel – considered to be one of Poland’s finest hotels. You could walk out the main entrance right onto the sand and into the water – lovely. We had a dip in the water – it was fresh, but it was good to be able to say we’d been in the Baltic. We parked up in the sun on the beach – the breeze was a bit cool, so a lot of bathers had little windbreaks set up around them to maximise their bathing experience. We had a nice walk around the town to see what it had to offer – there was quite a lot of redevelopment happening so some areas were unavailable to us (something to do with 100-year anniversary of Poland I think). Having enjoyed our day in the sun near the water we headed back up to the train station and got our connections back to Gdansk and onto the guesthouse.

On the Tuesday morning we headed off early – via taxi, out to Gdansk Airport to pick up our rental car. We’d arranged a car for the next 3 days to take us from the top to bottom on Poland, so away we go.

Hel – Ostroda – Lublin – Rzeszow

Having collected our rental car from the airport, and with the GPS set in English we headed north – up to the northern peninsula area called Hel – approx. a 2-hour drive from Gdansk. The area up north was lovely – the peninsula is characterised by running out in a narrow neck before getting to the headland where the settlement of Hel is established. Pretty sure this was a German territory but then in the early 1920’s a lot of Polish fisherman moved up here and soon outnumbered the Germans and it became a Polish territory (I think this northern area was always in a bit of a tug of war between Poland, Germany and maybe even Russia). The neck road is pretty unique – it stretches out maybe 30 km’s and is very narrow – so much so that the land spanning the Baltic on the north and the lagoon / bay to the south is only about 100 m’s across. We headed up to Hel and were really taken by the lovely beach – made sure to dip our feet in the water, and we were really impressed by how clean the harbour waters were – often with boats coming and going these areas have a lot of smear on the surface, but here in Hel you could see into the harbour a metre or so – good to see. We had a look around the nice old harbour area – still a number of fishing boats that go out from here. The ‘village’ had a collection of small shops, cafes and homes – had a nice feel to it. The headland is also home to a strong Polish military base – a couple of helicopters buzzed overhead whist we were in the area. We made sure to stop and have a bite to eat by the water and then to check out the beach on the Baltic side and I was amazed by how white and clean the sand was – and again the water was brilliantly clear – it was almost as if we were on a Pacific Island – very nice.

We headed back out of the area and then pushed on south of Gdansk. We again struck some major roadworks that gave the GPS a headache and had us turn off when we didn’t need to turn off. I think today we followed a major roading project for maybe 80 km’s or more. After around 3.5 hours of driving we pulled off to a lovely little town called Ostroda – which sits nicely on a lake. Looks like the town is supported by a large railway workshops that seem to be very active. We hadn’t booked accommodation prior to stopping here – which was a bit of a first for us, so once we managed to get connected with wi-fi we sorted out an address an plugged it into the GPS. The address took us across town and up to a large monastery building – looks like it was in the process of being converted into accommodation / hotel. Carol secured a room for a good price and we dropped our bags and headed back into the centre of town to go and explore the lake front and all that this area had to offer. We had a really nice walk around the lake – there were some nice gardens, cafes, homes, and entertainment complexes dotted around the lake (sports complex included). After a nice walk we parked up at a café and had a bite to eat and a cold drink as we watched the sun go down over the lake bringing this day to a close. We found our way back up the hill to the hotel and settled in.

On Wednesday morning we had breakfast at the hotel and headed back down to the lake for one more walk around, before heading off to get further south. Our destination today was the large city of Lublin (population of around 450,000 I think). The run to Lublin was longer than anticipated and it took us @ 6.5 hours to enter the heart of Lublin. On the way south we followed the mother of all roading developments – the government, with help from the EU (who look to have supported Poland with a number of projects) were building what looked like a new North to South highway. I think we followed along side the roadworks for 200 km’s or more today – certainly affected the flow of the trip. Anyway, we got into Lublin and set about locating our apartment for the night. It was called the Old House, and when we finally found it, it was with good reason that it was called old – looked like it was going to fall down. It was one of those places that check in was between 5.30 – 6.30pm so we had an hour to kill. A strong thunder storm hit so we took shelter waiting for the rain to ease off. Within 45 min’s it was all over. We parked up waiting for our host but he didn’t turn up so we headed over to the big shopping centre in search of wi-fi so we could contact him / look at other accommodation options. On the off chance we drove back round to the old house and were lucky to find the owner there. He was a bit funny about the timing thing and said we should have checked our emails for details – bit difficult when you don’t have wi-fi, but after some back and forth he offered us a room at one of his other apartments (for the same price) so we took him up on the offer and followed him up the road into town. Apartment was a marked improvement on what our night in the ‘Old House’ looked to offer us, so we settled in and enjoyed.

On Thursday we headed back up town to explore the old town of Lublin. This was another area decked in history, dating back to the 6th century we believe. Standing out over the city atop the low hill is the Lublin Castle which is now a museum. The Castle dates back to the 13th century and is the oldest preserved landmark of brick architecture in Lublin. After walking down from the castle you can enter one of several gates that gained you entry into the Old Town of Lublin. Here you are treated to a patchwork of narrow cobbled streets, again lined with magnificent old buildings from the period – many of which have been or are being restored. The old town is full of cafes and bars with outdoor dining being the norm at this time of year. We had a good look around and then exited through one of the gates and headed up to the town square with it monuments, sculptures and fountains. We sat and watched people coming and going – it was a nice area to take in some of what this city has to offer. We made our way back up and through another of the gates and crossed back over the Old Town and made our way back to the car. After a cuppa and a bite to eat it was getting on for mid-afternoon before we headed out of Lublin. Next stop – last stop for our roadie before getting to Krakow was the city of Rzeszow which was @ 170 km’s south of Lublin. Didn’t think it would take us too long to head south, but the road today, despite being the main highway was single lane for all but the last 15 km’s or so. There were no passing lanes and with more road works thrown in for good measure, our trek north took us a good 3 hours. We finally found our place in Rzeszow and instead of exploring what this town had to offer, we parked up at the hotel restaurant with a cold beer and ordered some dinner. Tired, we settled in for the night, resigned to the fact that we wouldn’t explore this area further, as we needed to get on the road early in the morning and head for Krakow to drop the car back.

Krakow

On Friday we were up and away – I’d assumed the final leg through to Krakow to only be around 90-min’s, but we soon found the road signs telling us we had 180 km’s to haul. The car was due back at 10am, and by the time we were on the outskirts of Rzeszow it was already 8.30am – emmm. Fortunately for us today the road was a multi-lane highway with a speed limit if 140 k’s. In the interests of time I put my foot down and we headed off. We had a good run and were just coming into Krakow on 10am – not too bad. We had to stop for fuel to fill it up and then headed off to find the rental car return point at the Central Train station – should be easy enough – wrong! We had to get across town – well to the heart of town, so traffic was busy, but I finally located the Central Station, but emm, where’s the car park??? Nothing was jumping out at us, so we headed up and around the road. I saw the buses going into the depot and stopped by a taxi driver to ask for directions. He pointed up into the depot so off we went only to be flagged down by the hi-viz guy who spoke no English. We tried to explain we were looking for the car park – he just thrust a piece of laminate in front of us that explained we had now been caught on CTV footage entering a restricted area – that would be an 85 zolty fine thanks. Carol argued the point with them – taxi guy pointed us in, was an honest mistake etc – but no, they weren’t budging and neither were we whilst they blocked the car. Carol said for them to get the Police there so after a way of maybe 30 min’s, 3 Police Officers turn up and put us through the drill for maybe 45 min’s – long and the short of it was they then charged us 100 zolty for our error – a costly wrong turn. By the time we finally got away from the bus depot and back out into the sunlight it was now getting on for 1pm. We finally located the carpark upstairs, and grumpy at ourselves for our mistake, got our bags, dropped the keys, and got out of there.

Thankfully for us the hostel we were staying at was a short walk from the main train station so we set off and it only took us maybe 10 mins to find the hostel. Unfortunately for us the lift wasn’t working and we were up 5 levels – I can’t get a break with stairs and bags – so breathless, I made it to the hostel and we collapsed into our room for a breather. A bit frustrated by our intro to Krakow, we headed across the road to the park to regroup. Looks like the city of Krakow was protected by a large wall around the city back in the day – I want to say it dates back to the Roman period in this part of Europe, but I’m not sure. The wall was removed – I think by the Austrian’s back in the 1800’s for some reason, and so now you have a lovely garden like pathway that encompasses the Old Town of Krakow – I think they call it the ‘Planty’ due to its park-like nature. We enjoyed a nice walk right round the Old Town and came to Wawal Castle and had a look around – it was getting on for dusk so we just scanned things as we knew we would likely be heading back around these areas the next day as part of the Angloville tour we were looking to join. We carried on round the park and made our way back to the hostel. We made ourselves some dinner and got talking with a young Chinese guy who was traveling by himself – he was on for a chat re where to go and places to see locally, so we shared what we knew and had to date.

On the Saturday morning it was only a short walk across to the Old Town entrance for us to link up with the new group of Angloville volunteers we would be spending the coming week with. We located Arvin our Coordinator and met up with @ 10 volunteers and our walking tour guide. Our guide started by taking up back out to the edge of the Old Town to the Barbican – an old fort like structure that obviously stood as a defensive point back in the day. We then headed across the road to a national monument – well 2 actually. One was an old monument representing the warrior that claimed Krakow back in the day, and the other was a memorial that was established to remember WW2 (interestingly, unlike Warsaw that was decimated in WW2 with bombing, Krakow was left largely untouched – I think it was due to the fact that Germany were looking to establish Krakow as the local capital of Poland ‘once they won the war’). We then crossed back towards the old town and entered it properly – through the St Florian’s Gate – as you should, and as the scores of tourist that were about, were doing also. We headed into the old part of town and in particular to the large Market Square. This area is huge and standing proudly in the square is St Mary’s Church. The unique thing about the church is that high up in the steeple, on the hour every hour, there is a trumpeter that plays / performs (we would catch ‘his performance’ albeit he only plays for a couple of min’s, later that evening). Another story about the church is that it has 2 towers, but one is taller than the other. I think the story was that ‘back in the day’ the 2 royal brothers didn’t like each other, and one had the other killed so that he could have the taller of the towers – or something along those lines.

The market is full of cafes, restaurants, bars, and as you would expect, market stands. In addition to this there are a number of statues, and also areas for open air performances. The old town also has a large ‘fleet’ of horse and carriages – very styli, and all of which are driven by pretty young women – part of the appeal no doubt. We checked out the majority of the historical sights on our walk around and then explored the castle – Wawal Castle that sits up on a rise, overlooking the lovely Vistula River (the longest river in Poland). With Wawal Castle, there were more interesting stories – supposedly one the Kings back in the day wasn’t too good on local governance and was all about claiming more empires. I think it was the Bishop or such like spoke out about him and told him he needed to do more for his country – long and the short of it is that King had the Bishop killed, but then the country turned on the King and kicked him out and the remains of the bishop were brought back to the chapel in the castle cathedral to be buried. The castle is a mix of buildings – obviously the castle was built over a period and has been added to in different styles reflecting those periods. Part of the castle has a large gold covered crown – I’m not sure how it hasn’t been picked at over the years. The castle is the Royal Palace of Poland and is the burial place of Polish Kings. After a good wander round we all went off for a nice lunch and a good chat, before Carol and I made our way back across Market Square and back to the hostel for a break.

That evening we headed out again and this time made out bee-line down to the river and had a great time wandering along the river which was alive with people enjoying the lovely warm evening, sitting on the river bank chatting and drinking, some were on the river for cruises, and some were parked up on boats along the river that act as bars. We hiked along and over the bridge and had a look at the fancy Krakow Congress Centre building before heading back along the river bank. Down below the castle is the castle dragon – supposedly back in the day the castle was threatened by a large dragon that lived in a cave below the castle. Many a battle took place with the dragon – I guess the castle defeated the dragon in the end, but in tribute, the castle immortalised the dragon in a fire breathing sculpture that spurts out flames for the passer-by’s every 5 min’s or so (best viewed on dusk / the evening for effect). We had a great time taking in things and then headed back up and through the town – which was buzzing with people drinking and dining. We headed back to the hostel and settled in feeling better about Krakow and putting the initial car-park incident behind us – as this city has much more to offer. On the Sunday morning we were up and about and only had a short walk back up the road with our bags to rendezvous at the meeting point for the Angloville bus – we were heading out of town for another week of teaching.

Angloville – Krakow Edition

As noted, on the Sunday morning we just had a short walk back up the road and around the corner to the 2 monuments we had visited the day prior. We hooked up with Arvin and the Polish Coordinator – Agnieszka and dropped our bags and made a beeline for the train station in order to get tickets for the next leg of our journey, out of Poland at the end of the coming week. With train tickets to Vienna purchased for the following Friday night, we headed back to the meeting place and met some of the students and the remaining volunteers – recognising a few faces from our previous Angloville course. We hopped on the bus and headed off – in a southly direction. Our trip took us the best part of 2 hours and ended in us arriving in a village up in the hills of southern Poland called Bachladowka (I think I have that spelling right) at a very nice hotel complex. The outlook was great – we were up in the hills in open rolling country with the Polish mountains filling our horizons (I think the mountain range was the Tatra Mountains). We settled in for a bite to eat and then started the English immersion proper with the afternoon’s icebreaker session. Part of the process involves you mentoring a student and I was fortunate to be teamed up / selected by Janak to work with over the coming week. Interestily Jan had attended Angloville a number of times already – so asking him why he keeps coming back was an easy conversation starter as we started working together (his response was two-fold – he wanted to learn, and he liked the experience of meeting the other people). Our venue was well placed to provide nice opportunities to get outside to walk with the students, and for Carol and I to stretch our legs in free time.

Unlike the other Angloville courses we have attended, this course was very heavily weighted with volunteers – I think there were 18 volunteers and only 13 students (supposedly some students dropped out and as volunteers generally had to travel to the opportunity, they kept us all on). I found this a bit disruptive as it meant there were too many volunteers to involve in all the exercises, so free time was dished out on a regular basis (allowed Carol to make some good progress on her TEFL assessments – me not so much). Near the hotel there was a different looking church that had a large cross on it that stood out against the trees and wooded area surrounding it. I’m pretty sure the church dated back to the mid-1930’s and was significant as Pope John Paul the 2nd (pretty sure that is right) came from this area so he is immortalised at the church (I didn’t end up going in, but Carol did, and she said it was very impressive for all the caved wood that was present – rafters, pews, surrounds etc). The week started off hot, but by the Tuesday afternoon the clouds had rolled in and the weather packed up and rain settled in. Carol and I managed a good walk most days, but the students were less inclined to get out for a walk. The hotel had a nice swimming pool so Carol and I made a point of using the pool early each morning before breakfast – good to get some exercise in.

The climax of the students training is to give a 5-8 min presentation on the Thursday afternoon, so I worked with Jan on this through the week and he did a great job presenting on his love for the mountains and skiing, with the other students all doing a great job with their presentations as well. Thursday night is all about relaxing (that said, Jan and some of the other students made the most of the week and ‘entertained’ each night – and looked the worse for it as the week went on). Following dinner we all had a couple of drinks and they put on some music – no YMCA this week to enjoy unfortunately. Carol and I didn’t stick at it too late – some of the team were a little tired come Friday morning. Come Friday the weather was on the mend – just as it was time to leave this lovely place (its uncanny how the weather works like that sometimes). With the exception of one student, all the others made their own way back to their respective homes in and around Krakow. We all said our goodbyes and then we were off again back to Krakow. This was our last stint at English immersion – for now, and by in large we came away from the week very pleased that we had been able to help out in some small way. If you are interested in English immersion as a volunteer, have a look at www.angloville.com

The bus back into Krakow took us around 2.5 hours – it was Friday afternoon so traffic was heavier as you’d expect. We clambered off the bus near the train station and the volunteer goodbyes started. Always takes a while to get around everyone – we’d met some really interesting people this week – Melody and Cliff, a couple maybe our age that were nomadic travellers and had been for around 2.5 years. Then there was Jean who herself was a nomadic traveller but she also told English online so she was interesting to talk to – Carol was keen to learn and get some ideas from her. All the volunteers have a story and its always great and amazing to learn what others are doing – and how they are doing it. Goodbyes completed most of the volunteers headed directly to the train station as a good number of them were all heading together up to Warsaw to do the next Angloville course. Carol and I opted to park up in a café and relax for a while before heading down the road to the train station and neighbouring shopping mall. With big bags in tow we did some window shopping around the mall before parking up at the train station having found our platform – next stop would be the night train to Vienna, and the next leg of our journey.

Vienna – Austria

We were up and away on the Wednesday morning – back along the main street with our bags to get to the Central Train Station to get a train back up to Bratislava. We enjoyed the ride up to Bratislava and were amazed again at all the farming activity that takes places in the countryside – tractors were busy working the paddocks – livestock were the exception to the rule – the farming looks to all be about crops. We arrived back into Bratislava after around 2.5 hours and only had a wait of @ 30 mins before the train to Vienna pulled in and departed. The ride to Vienna was short – the distance between Bratislava and Vienna is only something like 50-60 k’s so the train only took a little over 1 hour. We headed out of the massive central train station in Vienna and up the road to get some lunch before heading off to find our hostel which was conveniently placed near the train station. We had booked a double mixed bunkroom (4 bunks) and were very surprised by how tight the room was – we were given a small little bunk cubical each – we decided to bunk down on one and store our bags on the other as there was no storage room to speak of in the room and there was another couple already in residence so it was going to be very cosy. The hostel offered good kitchen facilities so that was the trade-off. We headed out for a walk down the street from us to get some supplies and then cooked up some dinner before heading out again on dusk to explore some more. We walked up the street and down a side street noticed a big church lit up so we headed down to have a look at that and then found a really nice town square around a whole lot of apartments – there were people / families out enjoying the evening, playing basketball and table tennis and having fun – really nice facility. A quick walk back up the road and we settled into our little bunk for the night.

Thursday dawned damp and wet so we had to pull out our rain coats for the first time in a few weeks and rugged up and headed out to explore the city proper. We went up the street from the hostel and found the entrance to the Belvedere Castle – a striking building with magnificent grounds – even on this gloomy day. I can’t remember the detail around this castle but it obviously dated back several hundred years and it was massive – they like their castles / palaces to be big. We explored the facility and then entered the old part of Vienna. Standing proudly in the centre of the city is St Stephens Cathedral – another strikingly big cathedral. This is a lot of restoration work being carried out on the cathedral – by a comparatively small team, so could be quite a big project for them. All around the old town you have buildings of history to take in – large opera houses and theatres, art galleries / museums, churches and cathedrals. We explored at will enjoying all that the city had to offer. We worked our way out to another large cathedral which is located next to the Parliament buildings. There was a lot of restoration work taking place on the Parliament building but you could see that it was adorned lavishly with figurines / statures, columns and gold. Heading back across the road you enter some gardens that then lead you to the Vienna Palace – I think it is called the Hofburg Palace – home to the Habsburg family. This facility was huge and had many different buildings over a large area. In one part they have the magnificent Spanish horses that perform in an indoor arena, there is theatre, museum and conference facilities on site (there was an Auto Symposium happening at the time of our visit so there were a few car displays to check out). The palace was the ‘winter’ palace for the royal family back in the day.

Heading across the road you have 2 identical buildings positioned opposite each other across the Therestein Plaza – one building was the National History Museum and the other was the National Art Gallery I think. We had taken in so much today and thankfully the weather started to improve as the day went on so a little weary we hiked back up the road and found the hostel and settled in with some dinner. Vienna is pretty expensive – we went to a café during the day for a cuppa and it cost something like 5E for a cup of tea so that equates to something like $9 NZ dollars. On Friday the weather had cleared and we were up and away today to find Schonbrunn Palace – the royal families ‘summer home’ (I think the family / line of royalty were known as the Habsburg family). We had to get out of the hostel and stored our bags at the train station and took a couple of lines out to the palace. I think we spent something like 5 hours out at the palace – there was so much to take in – wonderful gardens, historic buildings, a zoo if you are keen and then the main palace features – the palace itself, but also the Gloriette which is another striking feature that is positioned up on a rise up and opposite the palace – from the palace you would look out and up to see the Gloriette. Today they have a café operating out of it, and with it being such a lovely day there were people everywhere parked up on the hillside just enjoying the sun and the day, and the view back down onto the palace. The palace grounds have a series of wonderful fountains and statures of different themes.

I think the palace was built back in the early 1700’s and there were some wonderful etchings of the landscaping plan – the architects back in the day look to have been given a lot of scope to create something wonderful. There is a large maze in one part of the gardens that you can pay to enter to get lost, an Orangery garden – the Royal family wanted exotic plants and fruits to be grown on site as well as the exotic animals they kept in the zoo. They have a large Imperial Carriage museum – we didn’t enter but looked like they have a number of fantastic old carriages restored and on display that the royal family would have used back in the day, as well as a collection of royal garments. Having been very impressed we got the train back into the old part of town and headed off in search of a fridge magnet memento. Took us a while but we got there in the end and found a few more sights to look at along the way. We headed back to the hostel where we were able to use the kitchen and common room to relax, so we made a bite to eat and relaxed before heading out later in the evening to get the late-night bus through to Warsaw (departing 11.20pm). With this our time in Vienna was being brought to a close. We were very impressed with all the historic buildings we had seen and explored (I think there are more castles / palaces here than we had seen to date) and were pleased that we had made the effort to visit this city – it is a shame that we didn’t have more time to not just explore Vienna more, but to see Austria properly, because if Vienna was anything to go by, Austria looked to offer plenty that we would like to see and do – hopefully next time.

Budapest – Hungry

On the Sunday we were up and away from the hotel early as we needed to get a couple of different buses up to Bratislava’s central railway station – which is on the north side of the city. We managed to drag our bags on and off the buses and got to the station and managed to get tickets on the next train through to Budapest. We only had to wait around 30 mins and our train pulled in and we loaded on board and got ourselves some seats – checking to make sure they weren’t already booked so as to avoid having to get up and down. We enjoyed the train ride south out of Slovakia and then into Hungry – we’ve been surprised by how green the landscape is and how much agricultural working of the land was taking place. The train took around 2.5 hours to get into the central station in Budapest – a big old grand station. We were staying centrally so we opted to hike up the road (10 blocks) with our bags and after some confusion, we managed to locate our hotel and got ourselves settled in before heading on out to explore the city. Budapest had been celebrating spring for a month and today marked the final day of their Spring celebrations, so there were loads of tents and stalls in the inner city and swags of people everywhere. We had a good look around some of the inner city and down to the river (the Danube), and enjoyed a bite to eat. On our way back to our hotel we passed the famous Dohany Street Synagogue – the largest synagogue in Europe (2nd largest in the world) which was opened in 1859. You can do a tour of the synagogue and there appeared to be a steady stream of tourists taking that option – we decided not to and headed on up the road and settled into our hotel.

On the Monday morning we were up and away early to join one of the cities free walking tours. We needed to get down town to the area where the markets were all set up only to find then all being dismantled (the ‘market place’ is erected and de-constructed a couple of times a year for festivals). We opted to go on the Communist tour to try and get some insight, and soon learnt that there are 2 clear sides to Budapest – on what I think is the north side of the city with the main business area and cathedrals etc, this is call Pest, and then split by the Danube, the other side of the city is called Buda – combine and of course you have Budapest. The walk was @ 2.5 hours, during which we took in many historical sights including the large St Stephen’s Basilica – the largest cathedral in Budapest. Our tour wound its way around this interesting city and concluded by the enormous Parliament buildings which just seem to go on and on – much like some of the palaces we have seen. Turns out the building is only the 3rd largest parliament building in the world – I will need to do some research on numbers one and two. I’m not sure exactly when the building was erected but it was supposedly constructed on the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of Hungry. At this point with the tour behind us we just sat down for a while to take it all in. The Parliament Building sits overlooking the Danube River which has a steady flow of barges, ferries and even an aquatic tour bus plying it’s waters on a regular basis.

Along the waterfront there is a memorial sculpture to commemorate the spot where 60 local Jews were executed – shot to fall back into the river, by the Hungarian Nazi’s in the later stages of the World War 2. The memorial is called the Shoes by the Danube – a very moving place. We pushed on and crossed over the famous Chain Bridge with its striking Lions standing guard at either end. The bridge was the first to be constructed over the Danube – sorry, but I can’t recall the date, but it was many 100’s of years ago. Pretty sure the German’s bombed the bridge in their retreat out of the area in the late stages of WW2 so the Allies were unable to chase them, so obviously some repair work has been completed on the bridge. The centrepiece on the Buda side of the city is of course, Buda Castle – you can’t miss it as it is certainly the land mark. Like the Parliament Building, the Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The castle consists of a number of key buildings within the main castle complex, including the Royal Palace. We were looking to head up and have a wander around the castle by way of taking the funicular car up the hill, but as fate would have it, it was out of action today, so we opted instead to just wander along the waterfront area at the foot of the castle and take in as much as we could (we didn’t really get to experience it, but places like the castle and parliament building are all lit up at night and make for another spectacle).

We were keen to see if we were able to get a river boat from Budapest through to Vienna or Bratislava but despite our interest, it looks like these services no longer run. We’d done a fair bit of walking and the day was getting on so we found a nice quiet side street café and got a bit to eat and a couple of cold beers. The weather had been very hot but decided to change tacks and we had a solid thunder storm and then heavy rain. We had to judge our timing but didn’t get too wet on our way back to the hotel. On the Tuesday we were up and away again and this time we headed away from the Danube and headed back up into the heart of Pest to the Heroes Square. This place really needs to be seen for yourself – it was very impressive with its large centre stature and the accompanying quarter semi-circle arches laden with statues of past Hungarian kings and chiefs and heroes. It is one of the most ancient squares in this city, with the statues being erected to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar Conquest. The centre statue / column stands 36 m’s high and has a depiction of the archangel Gabriel on it’s top, holding the apostolic double cross and Hungarian Holy Crown.

The gates stand at the entrance to the large City Park which in addition to some lovely gardens and trials, has the Vajdahunyad Castle and also the huge Szechenyi Thermal Baths and Swimming Pool. We stuck our head in to have a look at the pools – this place was full with people (and it isn’t peak season) and consists of a load of different pools and bathing experiences – one to come back to do (the city has a number these large bath / swimming complexes and has an abundance of thermal water to heat the pools). The castle sits on its own lake and was built in the 19th century and houses a couple of different museums. We enjoyed all that this area offered – a great facility and it was nice to see so many people enjoying the day in this area. We headed back to the hotel for a quick refresh and then headed back down town to link up with an evening free walking city tour. The tour guide gave us some more insight into the city and talked about the ‘2 sides of town’ – Buda and Pest and explained that with the case of Pest, you should announce the T as and H so it should sound like Budapesh – don’t mis-pronounce this or you will get ‘the look’.

The city was formed in the late 800’s by the Romans before the Ottomans took it over. Ice cream is very popular as is smoking – your hard placed to find anywhere smoke free in this big city (I think the population is @ 1.8 million approx.) Our walk explained some more parts of the city and then worked its way across to the Liberty Bridge and the large central markets (which operate in the mornings). We enjoyed the tour and learnt some more but there is still so much more that this city offers – we had only scratched the service and will need to come back to do it justice. We hiked back up to the hotel and tired and weary collapsed into bed – we’d done some good walking today. The following morning we would be on the move again, bringing to an end all too quickly our time in this city. I’m not sure if it is the river running through the city that compelled us to like it, or the combination of all the historical structures scattered across the city. There is loads to take in and you really need to ensure you have the time to see it all, to enjoy it – we enjoyed all that we saw.

Bratislava

Eva from the course was kind enough to give us a lift south, across the border to her home of Bratislava in Slovakia – another country we hadn’t anticipated visiting. The weather was great and whilst the roads were busy here and there the motorways were flowing and it took us around 2 hours to get to the area in Bratislava where we were staying. We thanked Eva for the lift and sent her off on her way – she was looking forward to getting back to her family after a week away. It doesn’t seem to matter when you look up, but the sky over Bratislava, and the Czech Republic for that matter seems to always be full of criss-crossing vapour trails from all the aircraft that transit across this part of the world (with the weather being as fine and clear as it had been, maybe it was all the more better for these sights). We got settled into our room and then got a bus up the road to a large shopping mall to have a wander round and to pick up some supplies at the supermarket. Being Friday evening there were loads of people about – the mall included bars, restaurants and a movie theatre. We had some trouble locating the correct bus stop to get back to the hotel and ended up walking up the road to the next stop, but it was a nice evening and the walk did us good.

On the Saturday morning we got up and away and got the bus up into town to explore the old part of the city. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and is unique in that it is located on 3 international borders – Slovakia, Austria, and Hungry, and is only @ 50 km’s from Vienna the Austrian capital. Slovakia only has a population of @ 5.5 million and Bratislava is home to around 450,000 so a nice size city for us to explore. Little did we know that the weekend we were in Bratislava they were celebrating their National Day / weekend, with it being 25 years since their independence in 1993. We wandered around the older part of town and found a town square and were entertained by some local performances – there were re-enactments with people dressed up in period dress, on horses, fighting with swords, sticks and sabres. There was singing and dancing – we were very fortunate to get this insight into some of the history and culture of this country. We joined a walking tour and learnt a lot about the history of some of the significant buildings and cathedrals around this lovely part of the city. The city is split by the magnificent Danube River which stretches its way through a number of European countries. A striking feature crossing the Danube is what they call the UFO Bridge (its actually called the SNP Bridge) – named so as at one end at the top of the structure holding up the bridge there is a revolving glass building that looks very much like a UFO – 95 m’s up and supposedly on a clear day it allows you to see up to 100 km’s away.

Standing on the hill overlooking the Danube and Bratislava is Bratislava Castle which was originally the Royal residence. Pretty sure the castle dates back to the 15th century – it’s a striking complex with wonderful buildings and grounds and gardens that sprawl out over a large area. There is restoration work taking place in parts but there is still so much to see and take in, and the castle wall offers great views down onto the Danube with it’s ferries and barges steadily steaming along, and also out over this city. Around the city there is a nice collection of sculptures that are randomly positioned – the elegantly dressed man, the man popping up out of the drain hole, a soldier leaning over a park bench, and one of Hans Christian Anderson surrounded with figures – it’s fun to discover these as you explore the city. One of the main cathedrals in the city is the Cathedral of St Martin. This one is famous for having a large gold crown atop the cathedral tower – I think they said the crown weighs something like 350kg’s? The crown serves as a reminder of the Hungarian kings who were crowned her in the past – noting of course that in the past, this area (Slovakia) was part of the then Hungarian empire – Bratislava was actually the capital of the Kingdom of Hungry from 1536 – 1783. Another key feature in the old part of town is the Bratislava Promenade – a wide street that today is lined with cafes, fancy hotels, nice shops, and a long fountain.

The city was rich with musical history with many of the great composers having lived in the city at one time or another – Mozart, Beethoven and more, so there is a lovely Opera house and theatre. After stopping for a bite to eat and a cold drink we made our way back to St Martins Cathedral and took in part of a free classic performance that was happening that evening. The cathedral was full and many of us were shoulder to shoulder standing so we stayed for a few pieces from the orchestra and singers and then made our way out and back to get a bus to the hotel. We’d had a big day – it had been very hot (high 20’s) and we had done plenty of walking, but we were very lucky to have timed things as we did and to take in the sights and sounds that we enjoyed on this day in Bratislava.

The Czech Republic – Prague, Brno and Angloville English Immersion

The overnight bus from Frankfurt to Prague wasn’t too bad and pulled into Prague around 7.30am Saturday morning. We managed to locate the apartment where we were staying and dropped our bags and headed off to explore the city. We headed into the Old Town Square (St Mark’s) and found the Info office and got loaded up with some ideas. We stopped for a bite to eat and to do some study of our options and decided we would buy the local Hop On bus ticket for 24 hours. We rode the bus around the city and it dropped us at the top of the hill for a tour of Prague Castle. The Castle is the largest castle complex by area in the world and sits atop the hill overlooking the city of Prague. The castle was first established back in the 9th century and has been added to and revamped over the centuries since. Since the Czech Republic was formed back in 1918, it has been the home of the President (Czechoslovakia was formed back in 1918 and included the lands that are now Slovakia, and then the split happened and the Czech Republic was formed in 1993 – pretty sure that is how it goes).  We spent a couple of hours with a guide learning about the castle and its history – this is a special place that one should visit for themselves.

We walked down the bottom of the hill (you can climb a load of steps up to the castle if you are keen) to connect back up with the Hop On bus and rode it round to the river – the Vitava, and we did a one-hour river cruise up part of the river – under a few bridges, but not as far up as Charles Bridge which is considered the oldest and most important in the city. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny so we relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Getting back off the boat we walked back up into town and decided to take the second Hop On route that is offered in Prague. There is a lot of history to take in here – they call Prague the city of 100 spires and it’s easy to see why as there are churches and cathedrals dotted at regularity across this old city. Back in the Old Town Square taking pride of place is the old Town Hall that has a large clock tower and astronomical clock – this dates back from @ 1865. We rode one of the Hop On buses back around to the railway station stop and sorted out some train tickets to get us through to Brno. Our apartment was but a short walk from the station so that was nice and handy.

On the Friday morning we were up and away from the apartment early and headed back into town and did one final loop on the Hop On bus before proceeding to explore the city on foot. We hiked around town and up along the river so we could cross over Charles Bridge. This bridge is the oldest in the city and was built in the late 1300’s. The bridge is ‘guarded’ by towers at both ends and between 1683 and 1938, 30 saintly statures were erected on the pillars of the bridge – again, it’s a sight you need to see for yourself. A very popular treat in the Czech Republic is the Trdlo which is a bit like an open cream-horn case that is then filled with whipped cream or ice cream with toppings and flavourings of your choice – everyone it seems tries the Trdlo and whilst that may alter a little by design and price, the concept and enjoyment is still the same – very nice. The city is well serviced by a good tram system and it seemed that pretty much every other car on the road was a Skoda – to my enjoyment, as we were after all in the home of Skoda (Skoda also manufacture the trams that run around Prague and other Czech cities).

We hiked along back through town just as the weather started to pack in with thunder and lighting, and then the rain came. We collected our bags from the apartment and then headed quickly back around the corner to the train station to get our late afternoon connection through to Brno. Our time in this city was all too short – there is so much history everywhere you look – its one for the historians. Carol loved it and we would really need to come back to say that we had seen Prague in it’s fullest as we only whizzed around the main sites with the time we had available.

Brno

I’d have to say the process at the main train station in Prague was very confusing – their timetable only updated with platform details maybe 20 mins before the train was supposed to depart, so we enlisted the help of a chap who worked out which platform we needed to be on and pointed us in the right direction – there are some friendly folk around.  We had an open train ticket and so we didn’t have reserved seats and we found ourselves being bumped from one seat to another by passengers telling us we ‘were in their seat” – needless to say I found this very frustrating. To make matters worse our train then sustained ‘technical issues’ – maybe relating to the plump of rain that had gone through and gradually our train got more and more delayed en-route. Train finally arrived into Brno about and hour and a quarter late so we flagged a taxi and got a ride up the road to our hotel – which as it turns out wasn’t in the main part of Brno. We dropped our bags and sought the advice of the hotel staff for somewhere to eat and hiked up the road to a pub and relaxed with a nice meal.

On the Saturday our main thing was to meet up with the team of volunteers that we would be doing Angloville with over the coming week. The organisers arranged a city tour for us so we managed to get a metro line back into town and found our way through to the meeting point in one of the town squares, for our tour, and met some of the other volunteers. As expected the volunteers came from all over – Canada, America, England and Scotland, and gods on New Zealand (we met Simon, a young guy who also comes from Christchurch and was travelling for an extended period). Our Angloville Coordinator was Shaun – an Englishman who had been doing this work for almost a year now in the Czech Republic. We had a local guide whose name I don’t recall, and he took us on a walk round of the main parts of the old town of Brno (Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic with around 400,000 in habitants with the city spread out and around some low hills – this is wine country). The main points highlighted to us on our walk were the Old Town Hall which has an interesting statement – in the entranceway is a large Gothic portal with a crooked turret – legion has it that the council promised the sculptor that they would pay him handsomely for his work but they didn’t so he produced the centre piece of the town hall with the crooked turret as a statement of their crookedness towards him.

Brno is also famous as having the first theatre in Europe to be illuminated by Edison’s lightbulb back in 1882. One to spot when you see St James Church is to find the little man positioned over one of the southern windows of the church tower sticking out his naked buttocks to the passers-by below. After a good wander round, our guide suggested to the group that if they weren’t doing anything that evening that they should come down to the town square to see the local Brno Komets playing in the Czech Ice Hockey play-offs – they were setting up a big screen and there were loads of bars and cafes around to support this (we learnt latter that the local team went down 3-1 in the first game). We enjoyed a nice lunch with the volunteers group – an introduction to some Czech food – duck and dumplings (we were told to expect a lot of meat and potato this week).

After a big lunch we needed to do some walking to wear off some of that excess weight so we hiked up and around the large Spilberk Castle that sits atop the hill, protecting Brno. The castle dates from the 13th century and was rebuilt as a Baroque fortress in the 17th century. For a long time is served as a prison and was known as ‘Jail of Nations’ – the most notorious during the Habsburg Monarchy. The castle has lovely gardens surroundings it and it is a lovely place to come and explore, but then also to relax – there were loads of people out and about sitting in the sun enjoying the day and the venue. We walked back into town and hopped on a tram only to find it wasn’t quite the right line, but after a bit of a walk we got ourselves ‘back on track’ both literally and figuratively. We got back to the hotel and settled in for the evening.

Angloville – Czech Republic

On the Sunday morning we didn’t need to be down-town at the central station until late morning so we got a tram in and connected up with a couple of the other volunteers and headed out to find a hot drink. Late morning we loaded onto a bus with some of the students (many of the students opted to make their own way to the course) and headed around an hour south of Brno towards the border with Slovakia. Our destination and home for the coming week was the Hotel Buchlov which is in the hills a few k’s from the town of Buchlovic, and it sits at the foot of the hill that has Buchlov Castle taking pride of place looking out over the valley. The castle dates back to the 13th century and later in the week it was open for us to have a bit of a wander around (there’s an interesting tree growing in the castle compound – an ‘upside down tree’ and story goes that someone was accused of a crime – they planted the tree and said if the tree doesn’t bloom within a year I am guilty, if it does I am innocent – it bloomed and he was freed). The weather was lovely and Carol was loving the setting – up in the hills, with the woods nearby, so things were looking up for the week ahead. The afternoon was spent settling in and going through and orientation of how the week ahead would play out, before we did our first work with the students – with plenty of eating thrown in for good measure. Angloville is very similar in structure to the Diverbo courses – a lot of one on one conversations, so group work and activities, and some other coaching sessions.

Our students this week were a mix of those from the Czech Republic and also Slovakia, with many of them being business owners or holding down senior roles within their organisations – all very clever people, whose English levels did vary – we would have to work hard this week. The format of the immersion training allows you to get out and about with the students as the weather allowed to walk around – with the exception of the Monday that was grey and cool, the rest of the week were warm and hot. Opportunities were taken with the students to explore some of the nearby sites – I hiked up the hill to the Chapel of St Barbara which was built for the castle I’m guessing. The current chapel dated back to 1673 – so older than NZ – the original chapel dated back to the middle ages. One Of our main tasks for us this week was to mentor one of the students and prepare them to give a presentation at the end of the course – on a topic of their choice. My student was Jan and he lived and worked in the Czech Republic. We met daily to pull together content and to ready him to deliver his spiel to the group – it was a good experience to do this.

On the Wednesday we took a field trip into the nearby town of Buchlovic and visited the Chateau Buchlovic. I think it was built at the start of the 1700’s and was built in an Italian style – story has it that the Czech nobleman married an Italian woman, and so as to ensure she wouldn’t be homesick, he had that chateau constructed in a style to ‘remind her of home’ (Venetian influences everywhere). The chateau consisted of 2 main semi-circular buildings with a large courtyard in the middle and were surrounded by acres of wonderful gardens – a lovely way to spend the afternoon. On the Thursday, Jan and I went with Carol and her mentee Pavel to a nearby village (over the hill from Buchlovic) and visited the Basilica of Velehrad – a striking cathedral with a lot of history – Carol thought it to be the most decorative of cathedrals we have visited. The cathedral was the site of an historic mass back in 1990 when the then Pope (John Paul?) gave mass to over 300,000 – when you see the size of the village / town, you would question how they got 300,000 in and near the cathedral. Pavel lived / grew up in this part of the country and was a great ‘tour guide’ and took Carol around a number of local spots.

Each evening featured ‘entertainment hour’ and on the Wednesday evening I offered to run a session – I presented a piece on NZ and the role of the Haka and then had the group watch and perform their own haka – a lot of fun and the attendees seemed to enjoy the experience. With presentations behind them, Thursday evening was a chance to blow off some steam and relax. On the Friday we had some last one on one work to do with the students and following a ‘farewell lunch’ it was time to say our goodbyes and depart. We’d had another great week doing the immersion and had enjoyed our experience – the local Czech and Slovak people seem very generous – Pavel taking Carol out and about, gifts for some of the mentors for their help with the mentees, buying drinks at dinner etc. We were fortunate, one of the Slovak students kindly offered us a ride, so instead of heading back up to Brno to head away, we headed south with her to Slovakia – for a look.

Last Day on tour with Taylor

Today we headed out of Stuttgart as mentioned having managed to get his heavy Lego parcel on it’s way. We had the bulk of the day to enjoy so I managed to talk the others into going to the Sinsheim Auto and Technik Museum which is just off the main motorway through to Frankfurt. It took us around an hour to get up the road and this place was amazing – if you are going to visit here you really need to allow a whole day (you should note that there is a second Sinsheim museum with another range of equipment on display, around 20 km’s away). As you arrive at the museum you can’t help but notice the array of aircraft up on static display – the Concorde and a Russian Concorski take centre stage. The museum covers a large area and has 2 main showrooms along with the rooftop static displays of the aircraft which you can climb up into (the Concorde and Concorski were very narrow and steep to walk up through but well worthwhile). The main showrooms have a great display of military machinery – tanks, cannons and aircraft from WW2, farm machinery – tractors and bulldozers and then an amazing collection of cars and motorbikes. There were some special cars on display and needless to say I had a big smile and was certainly in my happy place.

We spend something like 4 hours at the museum and I really feel that wasn’t enough as I know there were bits we didn’t see, but we had to push on and get back up to Frankfurt and out to the airport for Taylor. We thought the trip back up to Frankfurt would take around and hour and a half but with very heavy traffic it took us around 2.5 hours and put us behind schedule a bit but we managed to get Taylor out to the airport before 7pm and got him checked in. He had some time left so we got him some dinner and then it was time for him to head through security. Hugs and well wishes were shared and then he was gone – it had been great having these past 12 days travelling with him and they really did go all too quickly. Was great to see the smile on his face from time to time – and the frown when I made him be in selfies with us. With Taylor through security, Carol and I parked up in the airport as we had a few hours to kill before getting an overnight bus to Prague @ 11.30pm. Getting on the bus signified the end of our German adventure. We had a great time with the English immersion, and then a fantastic time tripping around with Taylor. Germany really surprised me – the roads were great, cities and people for the most part were nice, and there was loads of history, and above all else, maybe some of the best car museums in the world – well so far anyway.

Legoland Germany 

1523266746827

1523450426630

The Concorski at Simsheim Auto and Technik Museum

1523441299773

Stuttgart and Legoland

Today was all about Taylor – we were off to Legoland. Legoland Germany is about 75 mins west of Munich, on the road through to Stuttgart. I’m not sure what area this park covers, but it was pretty big by virtue of the carpark that we found ourselves in – along with masses of other people visiting today (park opens at 10am I think, and as it was already around 11am when we arrived, there was a steady stream of people – families, strolling in). We’d brought tickets online so entry was straight forward so we headed for the rides. Carol wasn’t up for the rides so I had a go at all of them with Taylor – most were okay but one ride – I think it was called the Bionic was a bit too much for me. Taylor opted for the highest level and we go heaved up, and around and to the sides and up and over – it was like a rollercoaster attached to a big arm. We were both laughing – well maybe I was shouting, but all in all the rides were a lot of fun and it was great to see Taylor having such a fun time.

After the rides we explored the miniature world (Miniland) – this is fantastic and very clever. They had models of Venice, Berlin, Hamburg Harbour which was very clever with all it’s ships, the Netherlands with windmills, Switzerland, the Disney Castle – Neuschwanstein, a collection of the biggest buildings in the world and much more. Some of the models had required many hundreds of thousands of blocks. We then took in the Star Wars display – I think the big Imperial Star-ship had consisted of @ 500,000 blocks? Legoland had a big merchandise store so Taylor went to town and brought himself an out of line Star Wars set that he was after – Millennium Falcon model. The set weighed over 14 kilo’s so we didn’t carry it round for too long. We spend around 6 hours at the park and all enjoyed the experience. Leaving the park, we had a drive of @ 1.5 hours through to Stuttgart – there was a lot of roadworks and the traffic was heavy so it was a slower ride. We found our hotel and hiked up the road for some dinner before calling it quits after what had been an exciting and full on day.

On the Tuesday we took a train a couple of stops to go and see the Porsche Museum. We knew we must have been in the right area as we passed all these Porsche related warehouses and buildings – every other car was a Porsche. Outside the museum, on the round about there is a monument to Porsche – it has 3 Porsches through their development displayed up on the strip stretching up into the air. The Porsche Museum building in itself was another attractive piece of architecture, with the museum spread out on 2 main upper levels, so food and merchandise available on the ground floor. The museum displays were great and to cap my day off, Dario Franchitti, former Indy Car multiple champion, and former team mate of our own Scott Dixon, was in the museum filming segments for his TV show so I managed to sneak a selfie and a quick word with him – very cool. Having taken in all that the museum had to offer we headed back into the central part of Stuttgart and had a bite to eat in the park opposite the Opera House (we really didn’t get an opportunity – this visit, to take in the sights of the old part of town and its history).

After lunch Carol headed off for a haircut and Taylor and I got a train out to the Mercedes Museum and spent the afternoon working our way through all that it had to offer. Again, another striking building with the museum set on something like 9 levels and you wind your way down and through all that history of Mercedes and Daimler Benz – there was almost too much to take in and we rushed somewhat in order to get back to Carol on time. Having had a good fix of car museums today, we got a train back into the middle of town, met up with Carol and headed back out towards our hotel. The weather started to change – thunder and rain, and so we stopped for a bite to eat thinking it would pass, but then got caught when trying to make a run for it back to the hotel – but wasn’t too bad.

On the Wednesday morning before heading on out of Stuttgart we had to find a DHL to get Taylor’s Lego parcel sent back home. Was a bit of a process but we finally found it and 100E later the parcel was away and he was told it should arrive in 2 weeks in NZ. With that we pushed off from Stuttgart having had another good time in a new German city.

Munich

Having left Berlin, we had another solid trek in front of us today to get through to Munich. The roads were busy and we pushed the speed up at one stage and rode in the inside left lane for a time, but with the increased speed, the fuel consumption soon went down – these cars that are always in the left lane must spend a lot of money on fuel. We got into Munich around 3pm and found our hotel. With bags dropped off we found the local metro connection and took the underground into the middle of Munich. It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, it was warm and sunny and Munich was alive with people – loads of people. The central metro brings you out in the old town square so there are loads of cafes and bars and people were generally just enjoying themselves. Taking pride of place in the town square (Marienplatz) is the old town hall that dates back something like 450 years. Nearby you have various cathedrals – seemed like around every corner there was something to be seen – a lot of history. Having had a bit of a taster of the inner city we got the subway back out to the area we were staying in and found a local place for a bite to eat before calling it a day.

On the Sunday Carol headed away early to get a train into the central station and then another train south of Munich around an hour, for her to go and visit one of the students Stefanie from the Englischhausen course who had invited her to come and visit her on her sisters farm (in Badendorf) – Carol jumped at the opportunity to get out and see some of the countryside and had a great day. Taylor and I meanwhile headed off to the BMW Museum. It was only a couple of stops on the subway and as you exit the subway terminal at this point you are there – this is a fantastic set up. On the one side of the road you have BMW Welt which is effectively an interactive BMW showroom for aspiring buyers – all the new cars and brands are there (Mini and Rolls Royce included), as well as a nice collection of motor-bikes which Taylor enjoyed. The Welt is in a nice architecturally designed building, the surroundings are great – why wouldn’t you want to buy a BMW when you are here. Then on the second floor there is an overbridge that links you across the busy road to the BMW Museum. We probably spent an hour in the Welt and then had the museum to tackle. Around half way round we had to stop for some refreshments before carrying on and completing all that the museum had to offer.

The displays in the main halls were great – cars, bikes, racing cars and even aircraft engines which was what BMW first produced. Then there is a large spiral side to the building that you work your way up and it had a really interesting display on the world population growth, pollution and demands and this led to alternative modes of transport – electric, autonomous and then off course the work that BMW is doing in this field. The main building dates back to 1971 but to look at it from the outside you might think it was something from the past 10 years. The museum had a great gift shop as well you might imagine, and again, had I the money, I would have returned laden with bits and pieces, but alas. The museum admission was 10E and I think it was really good value – Taylor and I spent maybe 4 hours between the museum and the Welt – there was that much to take in and enjoy. With a big smile on my face we left BMW and moved next door to the Olympic Park. Munich hosted the Olympics back in 1972 (they were shrouded with the terrorist event that struck them) but the stadiums from the Olympics still stand proudly today, looking very futuristic even by today’s standards (I was really impressed by the design and the materials that had been used to form the stadiums), and are still used for sporting events regularly. Taylor and I had a good wander around this sweeping area – there were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine and it was really nice to see. There was a man-made lake near one of the stadiums and it was alive with people in paddle boats and the like. We found a nice beer park to have a drink before pushing on back to the subway and back to the hotel where we found Carol with a big smile on her face from all that she had seen and done today.

To our surprise Taylor suggested we take the subway back into the heart of town to get a bite to eat so off we went – it was a really nice evening as had been the day – sunny and warm. We found ourselves a nice place to eat and enjoyed a really nice dinner – on Taylor I might add. We then headed back to the hotel on the subway – we were becoming very accustomed to riding the subway locally and it was actually pretty good value (someone said to us when I said about going to the museum, don’t drive as you will have to pay for parking and the subway will take you wherever you want to go). We got back to the hotel and got ourselves ready as the following day we would be off again. Our time in Munich was all too short – I think there is a lot more that this city has to offer, but I was very grateful for the BMW experience that we enjoyed – it’s one of the key tourist activities in this fine city. The city seemed to have a really good feel – felt maybe more affluent than Berlin and other parts of Germany – if all the BMW’s and Porsches were anything to go by. It also felt very modern – one to come back to when we can.

Berlin

Wednesday was all about driving – we had to haul from Amsterdam east to Berlin – a drive of something like 650 km’s so it was going to be a big day. We left Amsterdam around 9.45am and were driving up the main boulevard in Berlin, in the streaming sunlight before 5pm (in fact the day got warmer the further east we pushed and was in the low 20’s when we arrived in Berlin). We found ourselves a park and headed out to explore the Brandenburg Gate and the Russian Memorial – both are striking fixtures you should see. I think the Gate dated back to the Roman period in this area and was a series of columns that form a gate-like entrance to this part of the city. I think the Gate acted as a dividing point between East and West Germany after the war until Germany was unified in 1989 – and the wall came down. We found an Info office and loaded up with maps and advice on places to go and things to see and found our way to the apartment we were staying in – as fate would have it we were staying up on the third floor with no lift, so it was a hard haul up the stairs, but we made it and settled in for the evening.

On the Thursday we got a train into the main part of town and had a look around some shops before heading off on a walking tour to take in the main sites – we started near the big TV Tower – I can’t recall just how high it is, but it’s a bit like the Auckland Sky-tower for us and serves as a really good landmark to reference from as needed. We then took in the Brandenburg Gate and got some of the history, the Jewish Memorial which was an interesting installation, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, site of Hitler’s Bunker and much more. The walk took us around 3.5 hours so it was pretty in-depth. The weather packed in towards the end of the tour so we got a little wet but managed to skirt the worst of it. There is so much history in this city – I found it really interesting to see what was erected as part of the Nazi regime and what was in place prior. Berlin had a reputation as leading the way during the avant-garde period of the 1920’s with its music, art and literature. Then you had Hitler come to power and the direction of this city and the country for that matter changed. Having had a decent hike around town, we headed back on the metro to our apartment and called it a day.

On the Friday we made the decision to visit a nearby Concentration Camp – Sachsenhausen which was within a 30-minute ride on the metro from the heart of Berlin, so very close to Berlin to my surprise. The camp was based in the town of Oranienburg on the outskirts – the town pretty much served to service the camp and what it required – the local military housed themselves in the town etc. The camp visit was a very sombre experience for us – to make matters worse, although the sun was shining, there was a distinct cold wind that followed us the whole time we were in the camp. The Oranienburg Camp was established in the centre of the town in 1933 – pretty much as soon as Hitler really camp to power he started having camps established to ‘reform’ those that didn’t support the Nazi ideals – I think that sums it up. Then in 1936 the enlarged Sachsenhausen camp was erected on the outskirts of the town. This camp served as the model upon which to base all other concentration camps. It is believed that more than 200000 people were imprisoned in the camp – not all Jews, but anyone ‘who wasn’t a believer’, so local German non-believers were also sent to camps like this, but certainly it sounded like the worse treatment was endured by the likes of Jews, and the Polish. It’s not known how many people were killed here but its fair to say that tens of thousands were either executed here (shot, or gassed or used as medical guinea-pigs) or died of starvation and through the conditions that were kept in.

The camp was finally liberated by Soviet and Polish troops in 1945 who discovered around 3000 prisoners still being held here. After the war, the Soviets used the camp for maintaining political prisoners of war and despite the war being over, it is thought that something like 12000 further prisoners died in the camp during the Soviet era of 1945 – 1950. By the start of the 1960’s the Soviet’s had moved out and the site then became a National Memorial and then opened as a museum in the early 1990’s to serve as a reminder of the dark times of Germany’s history. Not too much of the original camp has been maintained, but the site clearly shows where the barracks and the like were and some buildings have been maintained / restored to show the types of cramped confines prisoners were forced to endure while held captive here. Emm, all pretty sombre as I said, but I think it was good to see this first hand and to understand some of what took place in these sorts of camps during this unfortunate period.

We spent around 3.5 hours at the camp before getting a metro back into central Berlin. We opted to head out to see the Berlin Wall exhibit – one length of the wall has been retained as an exhibit and memorial and nearby is the Topography of Terrors Museum which portrays the formation of the SS and Gestapo, what their ideals were, and then some of what they went on to do. There was loads of information to take in here, lots of pictures and stories and you really needed to take your time to appreciate it and take it all in, albeit that not all of what you see and read is of a nice nature – but it happened. Pretty hard to comprehend what the thinking was back in this time but the museum and other memorials throughout Germany serve to remind and reflect upon this era and to acknowledge what happened in the hope that it won’t happen again. Feeling the needed for some light humour to pick us all up, we headed back on the metro to our apartment and sat down with some dinner to watch a funny movie and laugh a little – good medicine.

On the Saturday we had to get up and get on the move again, but first stop before leaving Berlin was to find the Berlin Classic Remise car collection – such as we found in Dusseldorf. And find it we did, and just like the Dusseldorf collection, this one was fantastic – a great old railway building that has been restored to store a great collection of cars, bikes and a bit more. I lapped it up looking around all that this site had to offer – it was perfect and they had a great range of Lamborghini’s to view. Like the other Remise site, cars are for sale or being stored, or are in one of the workshops for maintenance and restoration. With a big smile on my face it was time to move on and depart Berlin. I’d have to say I was really pleasantly surprised by Berlin – I liked what I saw – there is a nice mix of the history of this land, but then also reflection on it’s period through the Nazi regime and then where it has moved to today. The vibe around Berlin felt good and knowing that we hardly scratched the surface of what this city has to offer, I think we could easily come back to see much more.

The Netherlands and Amsterdam

Pushing on from Dusseldorf we hit the motorway and despite me ‘cruising’ along at over 130 k’s I found myself in the middle or outside ‘slow-lane’ most of the time as cars whiz by on the inside left lane – or ‘fast lane’. It took us a couple of hours or more driving west for the GPS to indicate we were now in the Netherlands (there is no border crossing or anything of significance to say ‘farewell from Germany and hello from the Netherlands’). We found a quiet little town to pull off at to stop for a break and a bite to eat – I think the locals were thinking ‘who are these crazy people sitting outside in the cold picnicking’ (it was pretty cool today). Having topped up with some food we pushed on for another couple of hours and finally hit the outer areas around Amsterdam (I think we drove @ 430 km’s). Carol had booked us a nice place to stay in a town call Huizen which was a lovely canal area on the edge of a large lake – with Amsterdam at the other end of the lake / canal system (around 20 min’s away). We found our hotel and checked in – Taylor was up for a rest so Carol and I headed out for a good walk and look around locally. The complex where we were staying (it was part of a chain in the Netherlands and Germany, and the owner named the business after his dog) was lovely – we were right by the water so there was boats and yachts moored here and even though it was cold, there was the odd boat out on the lake. We had a chat to a local guy who was walking his dog – he gave us some history of the area and wished us well for our visit. We managed to revive Taylor and headed out that evening for a nice bite to eat at one of the eateries the complex offered.

Monday was damp and wet so after a good breakfast we got packed up and headed north – to see the North Sea in fact. We headed to an area called Bergen by the Sea – a lovely little seaside town nestled on the North Sea. Despite the weather (grey, damp and cool) we headed out onto the beach (along with scores of other people making the most of the Easter holiday) and dipped out hands into the water – been to the North Sea – tick. We warmed up with a good brew at a local café before heading off – next stop the medieval town of Haarlem where we were searching for tulips for Carol. Looks like the weather was just a bit too cool and against us as despite expectations, the tulips largely were still not in bloom – a pity. We saw a few windmills like you associate with the Netherlands, but not in the volume or size I had expected. Disappointed by the weather (now steady rain) we headed into Amsterdam to see what the city was all about. I found a car parking building but again, word to the wise, parking in central Amsterdam costs an arm and a leg – pattern forming here (2E per 19 mins – seemed a crazy amount).

We found a Hop On Hop Off office and brought ourselves tickets to get us around the city and its sights – we started with one of the canal rides (whereas most city Hop On’s offer you 2 bus rides and maybe one canal, Amsterdam was the opposite and offered 2 canal rides and the one bus route –  logical when you think about it). Canal ride was good and showed us a number of key points of interest – the circuit took around 1.5 hours. The boats are long and low so they can sneak under the bridges (I’m pretty sure the tour guide said that Amsterdam has something like 250 bridges – second only to Venice that had maybe 400 – 500) and most boats have a pull-back roof for open air cruising when the weather is suitable – not today. After getting off the boat we did a circuit of the city on the bus – this took maybe 90 mins as well and showed us some more of the inner-city.

We were getting tired and hungry so we headed off on foot and found a place for dinner – Taylor and I ordered the whole chicken to share and were surprised when this large roast chicken came out sitting bum down on a spike, feet still attached – it looked the part and tasted great. Amsterdam is the city of cyclists – the streets are supposedly set up to accommodate both cyclist and pedestrians but you really have to keep an eye out as to where you are walking as the cyclists whip by you or ring their bell to get you out of their way. Most don’t wear helmets and the bike of choice seems to be an older style bike, many of which have baskets on the front. Add to this the city has loads of people that whiz round on motor-scooters and most of them use the cycle lane which I think was wrong, and none wear helmets – seemed a dangerous combo both for then and for us as pedestrians – as we had to dodge them as well. Despite the sidewalks being busy they still zoomed along – I wasn’t sure if there was any ‘recommended’ speed limit for them? Well fed, we headed back to the car, and worked our way out of Amsterdam back to Huizen – Helga the GPS played up a couple of times and froze and sent us off on a tangent but we finally made it back and called it quits.

On the Tuesday we needed to transfer to accommodation in Amsterdam proper and managed to work our way across town and locate the area we were staying in. We were too early to check in but sorted parking with the hotel and headed out and about. We found a small café around the corner and stopped for a late breakfast before getting tram tickets and the tram into the heart of town. We hopped on the second canal Hop On ride and did a loop of the city that took @ 90 mins. Having completed the Hop On loops we headed into the Red-light district – as everyone does when in Amsterdam. To say it was eye opening was an understatement – and it was only early afternoon, with half of the ‘booths’ closed up – night time in this area would be another experience again. We went and found the famous Gasson Diamond factory / museum and had a tour of the facility and the process explained of how they source and shape the diamonds – the 4 C’s I think it was referred to – cut, clarity, colour and carat.

We found a shop that explained cannabis consumption in the Netherlands, or rather Amsterdam to us – it was a ‘safe environment’ to sit and smoke, but they didn’t sell. ‘Advice’ was given on how to purchase and how to sample, and well you can put the rest together if you want to (the ‘brownie’ was discouraged for first time users as the effects stay in the system longer – vaping was a means of sampling but the effect / high doesn’t last as long or stay in the system as long). Having had an interesting day in and around Amsterdam, we decided enough was enough and headed back by tram to our hotel and got checked in and settled in for the night. I think on reflection that Amsterdam is probably not the place your son wants to explore with the parents – well the Red-light area anyway. Both Carol and I felt we may have stifled Taylor’s experience here so maybe he will come back with his mates some time in the future. At the very least we gave him a taster of what to expect. That said, there is a load more to Amsterdam than the Red-light district – I would have liked to have visited the likes of the Maritime Museum, so who knows, we might be back sometime?

Our German Adventures with Taylor

On the Saturday morning we up and away from the hotel before 6am – we got a shuttle bus from the hotel to the main terminal and then hiked what seemed liked several hundred metres along the arrivals lounge to find Lounge D where Taylor would be arriving (the terminal had 4 main arrival lounges). Taylor’s flight landed a little after 6.30am and he finally arrived to us @ 7.15am – it was great to see him after so long. After a quick catch-up we caught a taxi back into town to the rental car office to get us underway. The rental car guy was good – spoke good English and adjusted the GPS in the Focus wagon we would be driving to English and we loaded up and got underway. A couple of things for us to remember whilst on the road in Germany – we would be driving on the right / wrong side of the road and large stretches of German roads have no speed limit so we would have to be alert to any cars zooming up in our rear-view mirror. After being on the motorway for around an hour we stopped at a little ‘truck stop’ like diner and had some breakfast before pushing on for the Nurburg-Ring which I was very excited to find and see. We knew we must be in the right area as a steady stream of fancy cars passed us or were parked up along the road. The Nurburg-Ring is a big complex – it’s the largest / longest race track in the world, so you see the track well before you get to the main track complex.

The day was sunny and bright as we found the main track facilities – they have a large admin area where you can book track excursions, and have a museum and theatre and loads of merchandise stores – the official Nurburg-Ring shop and various auto brand shops – it was great and if only I had  an unlimited supply of money I could have picked up some very nice merchandise on this day. We had a great look around all that this area had to offer, and as fate would have it, today was a track day so a number of local enthusiasts were roaring around the track in their cars and fancy motor-bikes – I was in car heaven as well you might imagine (I think it was  something like 25E for one lap of the circuit which might take you 10-15 min’s). Just sitting out in the car parking area would have been enough on an experience today, as fancy sports cars were coming and going so we spent maybe an hour and a half taking in what the Ring had to offered – it was great. The track is up in the hills and there is a lot of forested area so as we pulled away we wound our way out past the track and started heading for Cologne our first stop. The run from Frankfurt to the Nurburg-Ring took maybe 2.5 hours and then we had another stint of maybe 90 mins to reach Cologne which we did early afternoon – and too early to check into the hotel, so despite Taylor being tired, we dragged him out to go and see the city centre.

Cologne is situated on the Rhine River and it flows through the city ‘cutting it in half’. The day was good so we headed in following the directions of the GPS that we had nick-named Helga, and it wasn’t long before we were stuck in traffic – obviously a few people had come to Cologne for Easter. As we got into the heart of town we were stuck good and proper – not realising we should have looked for a park some way back and then walked the balance into town. We persisted and after something like 30 min’s of not much progress we finally found our way into a parking building and we were off (word to the wise, car parking in the centre of Cologne is very pricey). One of the main spots, if not the main tourist spot in Cologne is the cathedral which takes centre stage in down-town, with the Rhine running along only a couple of hundred metres away. The Cathedral presents a good challenge – you can climb to the observation area up in the spier – you only need to tackle something like 540 steps up a narrow spiral stair case that offered very few places to pass if there was someone slow in front of you, or someone trying to come back down, and very few places to stop to rest – once you were underway you just had to keep going. We made it up to the main area (a little over 400 steps) which was enough for Taylor and so Carol and I pushed on for the remaining steps and were rewarded with great views out over the city of Cologne.

After enjoying a breather and the views we then had to head down and you’d think it would be easier heading down but with the crammed confines of the narrow spiral passage it was just a case of one step after the other – seemed to take longer to go down than to go up? After a bit of a look around the central city, Taylor was worn out so we made our way back to the car and paid a crazy amount for a couple of hours parking before making our way back through town to the hotel. Taylor soon crashed whilst Carol and I headed to a great supermarket complex near the hotel to get some supplies for the coming days – it was a supermarket, bottle-store, deli / restaurant and Warehouse / K-Mart all in one – very handy. Sunday dawned damp and grey unfortunately (we were going from one extreme to the other with the weather it seemed) so we packed up and checked out of the hotel and made our way back into town with the idea of doing a river cruise on the Rhine. We’d been given some advice on cruises by the Tourist Info office the day prior and were sure we had our timing right, but looked like we gotten the wrong advise and timetable as none of the cruise sailings was going to work for us so rather than waiting, we walked over the main Rhine Bridge that was weighted down with ‘padlocks of love’ and then decided to head out of Cologne and move on.

I’d done some goggling on car places in Germany and found that there was a car place in Dusseldorf called the Classic Remise so we programmed the address in and within 30 min’s of leaving Cologne we were pulling into the car park at this interesting complex. The Class Remise site in Dusseldorf is based in a restored train siding yard – the main building consisted of 2 semi-circular siding yards with the whole complex then covered over and what would have been a large turntable in the centre where in the day the trains would have come into the area to be turned around and re-positioned for their next trip. I was in car heaven – this facility houses classic cars and motor-bikes for sale and also stores collector’s classic cars. The cars for sale were out on the main floor area whereas the cars being stored with tucked away in a 2-level parking area that wrapped around the complex – you effectively ended up with a 360-degrees of cars, bikes an even a couple of old plans. Add to this the complex had a number of garages where they restored and repaired vehicles and there was a large workshop and showroom for a sports car maker that used the site as an agent (Donkvort). It was a case of if it was classic, this place pretty much had it – Lambo, Ferrari, Maserati, BMW, Rolls – I could go on but I would bore you. There was a load of merchandise available as well – miniatures such as I like to collect, and also some nice clothing. There was a large café restaurant in the middle – can you image a better way to spend a Saturday morning than to come here for brunch and a look around. Aware that I needed to keep the doses of car museums in check we spent a bit over and hour wander around this amazing complex before hitting the road again. And wouldn’t you know it – they have a Classic Remise branch in Berlin – we might have to add that to the list as well.

Germany – Frankfurt and Diverbo Englischhausen Volunteering

As mentioned, on the Friday morning we had an early start to get from Martin’s apartment out to the bus transit point in Bern. It was 3am and cold outside and as we stood on the roadside we found ourselves wondering whether or not the taxi would turn up as planned – as the streets in Martin’s neighbourhood were empty at this hour. Thankfully the taxi did turn up so we loaded up and it drove us maybe 10 min’s across town and dropped us at this bus transit point that was just a stop off the main road – there was no one about and the weather threatened to start snowing, but thankfully we only had to wait @ 15 min’s for the bus to turn up and once we managed to secure a seat on the bus we were away. I’m not sure where the bus had originated from but the bus was fairly full by the time we got on in Bern and a lot of I’ll call them inconsiderate passengers were hogging double seats instead of making room. The ride up to Frankfurt was a fairly long one at @ 8 hours and on the way it stopped at a number of cities. We arrived into Frankfurt at 11.30am and headed for a bakery café in the station for a cuppa and bite to eat – they appear to love their pastries in Europe. We were staying near the train station in an apartment and had to kill some time before we could check in but eventually we got settled in and had a quiet afternoon having a bit of a walk around the town area.

Saturday dawned a nice fine day albeit still cool. We had a quiet morning and then headed out to explore the city some more. Running through the heart of Frankfurt is the Main River so we walked over a bridge and then up along the side of the river. There were loads of people out and about enjoying themselves – we were really surprised just how liberal they appear to be in Germany as pretty much every other person was carrying and drinking alcohol – on the streets. There was a steady stream of barges that transit up and down the river – they are low to the water – in order to sneak under the low bridges that span the Main. There are loads of bridges that cross the river and on one of them there were loads of padlocks of love that had been attached – would have weighed the bridge down somewhat, but it seemed the think to do and there were stands on the bridge where you could get your padlock engraved. We walked back through town and then needed to get along to our volunteering ‘meet and greet’. On the map it didn’t look like it would be far to walk, but we underestimated on the time and distance and were a little late arriving but it wasn’t to matter, as we weren’t the last. We enjoyed a nice meal and were briefed on the plan for the following day and coming week with our Englischhausen students, before heading back towards our apartment – another descent walk for us – all good.

Sunday was a quiet start as we didn’t need to meet up with the Englischhausen team at the central train station (just around the corner for us) until just before midday so we took it easy and then headed away to meet up. It wasn’t look before we started to meet the students and boarded the bus and got into conversation mode. Our English immersion was being held at a nice country hotel near the old village of Laubach – this would be our home away from home for the coming week. The bus took a little over an hour to wind its way out of Frankfurt and through the countryside – giving us our first impression of the interior of Germany. We were given most of Sunday afternoon to relax and settle in around the hotel before coming together later in the afternoon for an orientation about the week ahead. Our group of German students was something like 21 strong and I think we had 22 volunteers on the program so quite a big group. Our MC for the course was Sam that we had worked with in Spain so that was good and he was supported by Suzanna who was the programme director for Germany. The plan for the week ahead was the same as Spain – lots of one on one talking and coaching sessions with the students and as of Monday all that kicked in. The weather was very up and down – spring was coming late to Germany. As the opportunity arose and the students were keen, we were able to get out and about the surrounding forested area for walks and talks. The village of Laubach was nearby and only @ 15 mins walk if you had a student that was keen to get going.

By Wednesday my health wasn’t improving so I finally gave in and arranged with Suzanna to head into the village to see a Doctor – the young hotel owner took me in and took care of the translation for me with the Doctor. She diagnosed influenza and prescribed some bits and after forking out a descent amount of money we were on our way back to the hotel. Sam arranged a field trip on the Wednesday so with it grey and cool outside we rugged up and all walked into the village of Laubach for a tour with a guide of the local Schoss Castle. I’m not so sure I would call it a castle as opposed to a big stately home but it was still impressive and a duke or descendant of a duke still lived in the castle. The guide entertained us with stories of the history and traditions – I can’t recall how old the castle was but it dated hundreds of years – I believe the estate had the largest private library in Germany – it had a book of significance that the family traded off to the council a few years ago to get a new roof – such was the importance of the book. The castle had its own church in which former kings and queens were married and buried. Lots of history to absorb and a nice way to spend a couple of hours with the group.

On the Thursday the course was starting to wind down and I was starting to feel a bit better so I was out walking with students at every opportunity I could get. I gave a presentation to the group on New Zealand and that seemed to go down well – they were taken by the images of NZ and the haka video. Friday saw the end of the course and time to say goodbyes, and wouldn’t you know it, the sun came out and it was a lovely day. A number of the students were driving to various parts of Germany to get home and the balance of us were heading back on the bus to Frankfurt. Hugs were exchanged with everyone and contact details exchanged and we were away again having really enjoyed our second stint at English immersion. Friday happened to be Easter Friday so the roads were a lot quieter and the bus was back in Frankfurt in less than an hour. With the shops all closed the city was looking much quieter but the café at the central railway station with all the good baked goods was open so we sat down with a few of the group who had time to kill before their connections, and had a cuppa and final catch up. We then got a train out to the airport – took maybe 20 min’s and then we got a free hotel courtesy bus that dropped us right outside the hotel we booked at the airport, as the following morning we would be up and away early to meet Taylor at the arrivals lounge for the next leg of our travels. The weather was nice and mild so we had a wander around the hotel area – Frankfurt Airport is a major complex with 2 main terminals and some very large hotel and business park complexes. The hotel we were staying in had a kitchen for quests so we constructed a bite to eat and had an early night as we would be on the go for the following couple of weeks with Taylor.

Switzerland

Monday was an early start – 3.30am to get a taxi out to the airport for a flight at 6.45am to Geneva. The morning dawned pouring with rain and despite our arranging with the hotel for a taxi to pick us up at 4am, no taxi arrived so we walked up the street in the pouring rain to flag a taxi down. We got out to the airport only to find that the airline didn’t start check in until 5am so we had a bit of a wait but eventually we had our tickets, made it through the security checks and got on board the flight to Geneva. The flight was only @ 1.45 mins and it looked like the day in Geneva was drier than what we had left in Barcelona but certainly cooler – we were heading back to winter by the feel of things. We would have liked more time to check out the city of Geneva but we had to work our way through the airport and onto the adjoining train network and were able to board a train that took us straight up to Bern the Swiss capital where we’d arranged to spend a few days with Martin from the Egypt tour. The train ride was a great way to take in some Swiss countryside and took around 2.5 hours to get us up to Bern. From there we had to transition to the local light-rail platform and a quick one stop ride up the line to the suburb where Martin lives. His directions worked to a tee and we were just coming off the train when we found him hiking up to meet us and get us settled into his apartment before he headed back off to work. I was feeling pretty crook by this stage and just spent the afternoon resting up whilst Carol headed down the street to find some bits and pieces for dinner – least we could do to repay Martin’s hospitality. We enjoyed a nice dinner and a good catch up and discussed some local options for the following day.

To our surprise we woke on Tuesday morning to find a solid blanket of snow had fallen over night – nice powder. We waited for the day to warm up and then later in the morning we headed out – getting a tram back into town. Our experience of transport (trains, buses etc.) in Switzerland was that it is pretty expensive – the Swizz use a different currency as they aren’t part of the EU and the francs we had seemed to depart our wallets pretty rapidly. We arrived in town and started exploring the old town of Bern which is a UNESCO world heritage site – parts of the city date back to the 13th century and it’s a great place to explore with its narrow-cobbled streets and an interesting array of shops. We took in the likes of the large parliament building and the Gothic Cathedral. The Aare River winds its way through Bern so there is an array of bridges that join the city. We had a good look around and then met up with Martin for a nice meal in town (Carol and Martin went for the local fondue option which is very popular in Switzerland – too much cheese for my liking) before getting a train back to his place (the central train station is like a city on its own with eateries and convenience stores and a couple of great book shops – you don’t need to go into the city if you don’t want to).

On the Wednesday we were up and away early to get a train into the central station and then up more into the mountain areas visiting the lovely Swiss towns of Thun (within 30 mins of Bern) and Interlaken. Thun is at the head of the Aare River that at Thun flows out into a lake called the Thun. Interlaken sits at the opposite end of the lake and you can either take a ferry along the lake (takes @ 2.5 hours) or you can go by bus or train – we went up to Interlaken on the bus and back by train (takes @ 45 min’s). The day was lovely but cool as we were right up at the foot of the Swiss Alps – in fact nearby there is the mountain with a ski lodge – Schilthorn Piz Gloria that was the setting for another famous James Bond scene and where they now have an interactive James Bond experience – unfortunately we were unable to make it this time round. Around Interlaken there is a load of parapenting that takes place and the air seemed to be full of people parapenting down into the local park in Interlaken – would be quite the think with all the mountains around you. Thun more so than Interlaken are old medieval towns and this shows with the buildings and history that is around these areas (Interlaken appeared to be very much a tourist destination with loads of fancy hotels in the town). In Thun we visited the large cathedral and then walked around Schloss Castle that sits atop the hill overlooking the town. The area was lovely as you had the river flowing out into the lake – there were a number of tourist boats that operate on the lake and they had an interesting old covered bridge that with a series of dykes on it that appeared to control the flow of water through the area – considering it was hundreds of years old, it was very clever and still very much operational.

Having had a great day in a lovely part of Switzerland we made our way back down to Bern and out to Martin’s. We had an early night as the following morning we had to be up before 3am to get along the road to a bus transit stop to get a connection up to Frankfurt – the things you do when travelling. Our time in Switzerland was all too short – it was great to catch up with Martin and enjoy his hospitality and for him to share some of what Bern has to offer. Carol and I both agreed that we would love to come back to Switzerland in the spring or summer when we have more time to truly take in all that this lovely part of the world has to offer. It’s an expensive place – I think Martin himself said the cost of living in Switzerland is high, but its all proportional with what they are paid in wages etc. Transport around town was expensive but if you have the likes of the metro card you can get discounted travel so that is what we would do when coming back – here’s to next time.

Barcelona

Arriving back into Madrid, Carol and I had to get across the town to the main bus station to get tickets through to Barcelona. We had hoped to get a bus @ 10.30pm but ended up waiting for the late bus which pulled out of the terminal at midnight. The idea of taking an overnight bus is to skip on accommodation costs so you try and grab some kip as you can but it’s generally very broken as the bus stops here and there along the way. Saturday dawned fine in Barcelona which was a real plus for us after the rain of the previous week and we pulled into the main station in Barcelona @ 7.15am and headed out with our bags in search of our hotel. We stopped for a bite to eat along the way and eventually found our hotel having already taken in some sights along the way. We were allowed into our room earlier than expected so we dropped our bags and freshened up and headed back out to find an info site for some local info. We found a really good local market with loads of fresh meat and produce stands – looked like the place to buy but the volume of people about. We then headed down to find the water and had a great look around the large marina area – I was wrapped with all the large superyachts that were at anchor in the inner harbour. There were loads of people about and lots to take in and view. We stopped to take in the Christopher Columbus monument and then having spent the day looking around we headed back to the hotel and Carol prepared some dinner for us.

Fed and refreshed we headed out to see the local fountain show up the road at the Font Magica de Montjuic – on Friday and Saturday evenings the large fountain at the base of the National Art Museum puts on sound and light show with the fountains – it’s obviously a very popular tourist spot to visit on these nights if the crowd was any indication. We enjoyed the show and then hiked up all the steps to have a look at the entrance to the National Art Museum and then we hiked down and started to make our way back to the hotel. I managed to take a wrong turn on the way back so our return journey was longer than planned but it was a pleasant evening for a walk, and we eventually found the hotel. Sunday dawned bright and warm so after a bite to eat we headed out to find the central plaza area around the big cathedral where we joined a free walking tour. We’d been told we could enter the cathedral to have a look before the tour started so we headed off to do so but were turned back – we’d have to make do with exploring the cathedral from the exterior – pretty sure this was one of Gaudi’s key pieces.

The free walking tour was very good and took us around a number of key sights in the old part of Barcelona – we learnt some history along the way. The architecture in Barcelona needs to be seen by yourself – I can’t remember all the detail about how ‘old’ the history is here but it dates back as evidenced by the architecture on display. Also quite visual locally was the political situation that exists around Catalonia’s quest for independence – you had pro and anti-supporters and flags being displayed / carried all around the city. We’re not sure just how independence would work locally, but on our tour we learnt a lot about the history of the area and came away with a better understanding as to why they were seeking this. After the walk we made our way back down to the waterfront and parked up to have a break and watch the boats coming and going enjoy all the people that were out and about making the most of this lovely day. It was here that we then had our first brush with a robbery – a couple of well dressed guys approached us whilst we sat and were asking us if we spoke English as they were after directions. This was all a distraction as their colleague snug up behind us whilst we were distracted and picked up / snatched my back pack that I had put down between Carol and I. Fortunately I heard a noise and turned around in the nick of time and stood up and chased after the guy who promptly dropped the bag and then just melted back into the crowd – very opportunist. His colleagues promptly snug off as well – we were very lucky today and the incident served as a real wake up call.

We regrouped after that incident and had a bit more of a look around before we headed off to the Maritime Museum – we found out that its free to visit the museum on Sunday’s after 3pm so we spent a good couple of hours looking around all that the museum had to offer. The museum is based in the remains of the old ship building yards that dated back to something like the 1200’s – a great building back in the day and it was great to see how the building had now been preserved in part with the museum and associated conference facility. The main boats / ships built by the Spanish were called galley’s I’m pretty sure and they were long boats that were propelled by sail but with an army of rowers – most of whom were prisoners – it was a tough live-style. The museum has restored and old galley and it was great to explore its size and style. The museum was great and well worth a visit if you are in the city – especially on a Sunday afternoon (museum is open until 8pm). We’d had another big day so we wandered back up the streets and made it back to the hotel and prepared some dinner and then gave Maddi a call back in NZ to wish her a happy birthday – from the other side of the world.

I woke Monday to a refreshed bout of the bot that I had been battling with since Maddi left us back in early January (some of the Spaniard’s on the course got crook so it was doing the rounds). We headed out firstly to try and get the tablet fixed as it was playing up on us and then we found a bus to take us up the hill to the Park Guell – or as it appears to be more commonly known, the Gaudi Park. Guell was a large landowner who owned a large piece of land up on the hillside suburbs of Barcelona back in the early 1900’s. Guell approached Gaudi to design and develop a stylish residential living complex with the park area being the centre piece to the development. The park became a UNESCO cultural heritage site back in 1984 and it’s easy to see why – the park is a mix of Gaudi’s playful architecture and wonderfully landscaped gardens. It’s very much one of the tourist ‘must sees’ when in Barcelona and the crowds that were present on this day just reinforced this. We had a great look around taking in the views and the sights back over Barcelona that our elevated viewing platform offered.

Having enjoyed our time in the park we then caught a bus back down the hill and went in search of another of Gaudi’s credited works – the Sagrada Famila Cathedral – it’s hard not to miss this one but I was surprised how the cathedral does sit within quite a built up downtown area. The cathedral is famous for having not been finished – the work on the cathedral is ongoing and some info we read suggests that the cathedral will be completed – this time round, but 2026. It would be nice to see the cathedral without all the cranes and cladding that shroud it but nevertheless you do get a good impression of just how striking this cathedral is. Construction started on the current Sagrada around 1880 and over the years with Gaudi’s influence the building has been changed and constantly added to, giving it that unfinished project appearance. It would be interesting to come back after 2026 to see if they have indeed ‘finished’ the cathedral. We didn’t agree with all the bits and pieces being added onto the cathedral façade – some ‘add on’s’ appear to hide or distract from other features – I’m sure they have some plan. As you might expect, the area around the cathedral was alive with tourists and groups. We didn’t pay to enter the cathedral but were told it is money well spent – next time hopefully.

From the cathedral we trudged our way back up town to the hotel and had an early night as we had an early start the next money to leave Spain and move on – this time to Switzerland. We’d had approx. 3.5 weeks in Spain and with the exception of the miserable weather that we experienced for long chunks of our visit, this country has so much to offer – loads of history, some great scenery and countryside, good people up for a good time and so much more. We know that our time in Spain meant we were only just scratching the surface of that this great country has to offer, so if not already on the list of must see places, it should be added so you can judge all that it offers for yourself.

The Sagrada Famila – Barcelona

WIN_20180320_03_43_02_Pro

WIN_20180320_03_46_50_Pro

WIN_20180320_03_49_10_Pro

Volunteering in Spain – Pueblo Ingles Diverbo

On the Friday morning we needed to be up and away early to join the ‘volunteer-bus’ so we headed down the street and flagged a taxi and she whisked us across Madrid to our meeting point – pretty sure we wouldn’t have found it if we had tried to walk, and if we had walked, emm, we would have needed a good couple of hours to do so. It was at this point we got to meet up with the volunteers again, all of whom had travelled from all corners of the world – the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK and more. And of course we got to meet some of the students that were attending the course. The rules are that once on the bus you can only talk in English for the next week, so here we go – let’s see how this goes for us. The bus trip from Madrid out to the area of La Alberca took @ 4.5 hours and on the way we made a rest stop at opposite an old town whose name I cannot remember, but the significant thing about the town was the defensive wall that wrapped the whole town – obviously dating back many centuries. Arriving at our hotel near La Alberca we were greeted with heavy rain – I thought the saying was the ‘rain falls mainly on the plains in Spain’ – well we were up in the hills and it was pouring and it would continue to do so pretty much the whole time we had here.

Our accommodation was villa like and was very comfortable – albeit you did get wet running between your room and the meeting room where all the English emersion activities took place. This was a great experience – Carol and I really didn’t know what to expect from the week but we threw ourselves in boots and all. Besides conducting one on one talk sessions with each of the students you were asked to participate in group discussions, team exercises, role playing and theatre – I’ve never worn a wig so much in one week – surprised myself. The days were long but being Spain they kick off late – breakfast was 9-10am and then you would work with students from 10-2pm when you would all go for lunch. Alcohol flowed pretty freely at lunch – well the wine anyway, and so lunch took @ 1.5 hours and then you had free time to rest until 5pm when we would meet up again for a team exercise and then more student interactions through to 8pm. Between 8-9pm some of the volunteers gave presentations and then those selected for theatre would perform. Our MC Sam did a great job of pulling something from nothing in an hour or two with the chosen group. Come 9pm we sat down to dinner (some of us wanted to go to bed by this stage) and again the wine flowed freely. Dinner would wrap up @ 10.15pm and then you were ‘encouraged’ to participate in the evenings activities – board game, pub quiz, disco / party, sing along, and much more – you name it, we did it. An early evening would wrap up @ 11.30pm but some nights the activities went very late – party night broke up @ 3am? We’d long snuck off to bed but there were some tired ones around the room the following day.

Carol celebrated her birthday during this week so the group made the day special for her and there were plenty of birthday toasts at both lunch and dinner – I think she had a good day. The one on one sessions allowed us when weather permitted (between showers) to get outside and have a walk around the hotel complex – I think they called it the castle as there was a large castle like hotel at the top of the hill that we all went to on the last night for dinner to wrap up the course. The area around the hotel and La Alberca besides being very wet, was heavily wooded and there were some small farm lets on the trails. On the Tuesday we all walked into the town of La Alberca – walk of @ 30 mins from the hotel and Sam treated us to some of the local history of this medieval town and some of its traditions. The surrounding area is famous / well known for the pork / ham that it rears and the town has a bounty of deli’s with legs of well dried ham hanging – Iberian Ham being the speciality. The Iberian pigs are fed on acorns and the ham they then produce is very rich – once the pig is killed and the ham cut, the ham is wrapped in salt for 2 months to draw out the moisture. Then the ham is hung for anywhere from 12-36 months to dry before it is cut. These legs of ham aren’t like the Xmas Ham we are use to back home – the meat is a darker red and the price – a leg will set you back @ 300E for a cheap leg and upwards of 500-600E for a good leg (apparently one sold online recently to the States for something like 1100E) – big money.

We were treated to a demonstration of how to slice the ham – razor thin slices are the order of the day and Carol showed a nature knack for this. What’s ham without wine so then the wine pouch came out and a few of the group gave that a go – Carol was a champ at that as well. The town of La Alberca was made up of very old buildings and narrow cobbled roads / alleyways. The town predates Christopher Columbus, and the Templars had a strong presence locally. Many of the house doorways are marked with the Templar mark. Each year the local village has a ‘running of the bulls’ – considering the narrow streets it would be quite the spectacle. The local cathedral was packed with history as well – the whole town / village was a real ‘step back in time’. This area would be good to come back to in the spring or summer with the weather fine – another place added to the list.

Friday came around quicker than anticipated – we’d spent 8 days with this group of students and volunteers and many ongoing friendships and Facebook contacts were formed over this week. The last morning consisted of a couple of team exercises and then a graduation ceremony – Carol and I were awarded with certificates stating we had volunteered for a week. After a nice lunch, and more wine it was time to ‘get back on the bus’. Not everyone was travelling on the bus so the customary farewells were exchanged and we were then ushered onto the bus to head back to Madrid. On the way back to Madrid we stopped opposite the walled town again and the weather showed all extremes – sun to a snow shower. We made it back into Madrid @ 6.15pm and another round of farewells was exchanged with the remaining students and volunteers. I’m pretty sure I speak for Carol but we would totally recommend getting involved in this sort of experience – the ‘work’ side of things was really interesting and you got to meet a great group of people from all over – students and volunteers – you are fed and watered well and you get to see places you may not otherwise get to – got to be a win win. Carol and I have this all to do again within a week in Germany so will update on that experience soon.

Spain – Madrid

Wednesday dawned bright and sunny (just as we had to leave) and we were soon met by our BlaBla host Jose who pleasingly had a nice large VW van so plenty of room for us and our bags. We settled in and headed off. Jose travels this stretch regularly he told us and so he just put his foot down and covered the k’s for us. About 2 hours up the road we stopped at some small spot to pick up another passenger but it wasn’t long before we were into the outer suburbs of Madrid – the 530 km trip only took us @ 4.5 hours so we were into downtown Madrid by early afternoon. We tried to find some info out at the train station re connections to Barcelona but without too much success and so after a cuppa we hiked up the hill to find our AirBnB address. Our accommodation was in a multi-story apartment and so bags had to be lugged up several flights of steps so after a shower and a freshen up we headed out to have a look around some of Madrid’s main sights.

Our accommodation was centrally located and an easy walk to the Royal Palace / Palacio Real, which is a strikingly large building – I’m not sure of the history / age of the building as we didn’t do a tour through it, but the palace has plenty of presence. There is a large square courtyard just inside the palace gates and this area is surrounded by arches – as you’d expect there were loads of tourists milling around, taking pictures etc. From the Palace we headed uptown and found the Plaza Mayor area – an old medieval square that can be entered by gates in each of the main corners – again it was quite the sight. There were a lot of people in the local plaza areas so we had a bit of a look around the local shops and headed back towards our accommodation. Near where we were staying there were several comic book shops so we went and had a look – felt bit like ‘Big Bang Theory’ being in one of these places.

On the Thursday we needed to attend a volunteer ‘meet and greet’ for the English emersion course we were heading off for so in the morning we headed out early and hiked across town to the Prado National Art Museum. Carol was particularly interested in having a look at the display of local works by Goya so headed in for a look. Reality is you need atleast a day to do this place justice – that or a pass that lets you come back on multiple days so you can see actually work your way around all the works – there was just so much to see and to take in. We spent 3 hours in the museum – moving at a clip, and still felt we hadn’t seen half the works on display. Our advice would be to take your time here if you can. From the museum we walked back towards the central part of town, and on some narrow little street we found the address for the meeting point and were greeted by the others attending the volunteering course for the following week. We were treated to a lovely lunch and then and introduction to flamingo music, singing and dancing. All set for the coming day we headed back to the apartment and then that evening we headed out for a further look around. We’d been told it was National Women’s Day and with that there was to be a strike and some marches, and sure enough when we hit the main street we found it to be closed off to cars and just lined with people.

We made our way along the street and across the Plaza de Espana to the Templo De Debod monument that sits up on a bit of a rise looking out over the city of Madrid, providing great views. The Templo is set in a large pond and are a series of old Roman like arches that have been preserved – under the ‘mood-lighting’ they look quite striking. We then headed back up town through the hoards of people and made it back to the apartment in order to get ready for the following day. Madrid is a big busy city – much like many cities you will see and visit but there is a lot of history to be seen here and loads of museums to visit – if you have the time to do so, so make sure you plan well when heading this way.

Spain Continued

Granada

Our means of travelling from Malaga to Granada was going to be something new for us today as we were taking a BlaBla car. We’d been put onto this idea of travelling but someone we were on tour with I think – people that are driving their vehicles from place to place, ‘advertise’ on the BlaBla site that they have 2 seats, 4 seats etc and the time they are travelling and their price. Works out generally to be slightly cheaper than a bus, but somewhat quicker. With our 2 big bags we’d been worried we were going to get a small car but our guy turned up in a nice Audi station wagon, loaded us in along with one other guy, and away we went. The run up to Granada only took around 1.5 hours and unfortunately it rained heavily the who way. We got dropped at the main bus terminal in Granada and opted to get a taxi to our hotel. The taxi wound around some tight narrow cobbled lanes and dropped us off at a non-descript hotel so we scampered through the door to keep dry.

We tried to enter the place but the front door was locked – we hung around thinking we would have to wait till someone else was going in, and thankfully a couple of guests heard us knocking at the door and came down. They told us the hotel reception was about 4 blocks away – they notify by text but without data we never got the message. So we dropped our bags inside and headed up and around the road to find the reception – bit of a process if you ask me. We finally managed to get a key and get ourselves into the hotel and our room proper – more stairs to navigate with the bags – grrrrrr. We dropped our bags and decided to head back out to a tapas bar to relax, have a bite to eat, and take advantage of the wi-fi. We’d been told that if you order beer at a tapas bar, the tapas will often be provided free – that was the case with our first beer only. I’m not too sure about the whole tapas style – yes there are some nice options, but sometimes you just want a little more. Refreshed we headed back out in the rain and had a brief wander round before heading back to the hotel to dry off.

Saturday dawned wet yet again, so we had an easy start to the morning before wrapping up and heading out to explore. We hiked up and around the area that is known as Albaicin – there are cobbled lanes that wind their way up into the hill with houses and cafes butting up to one another, only broken by the occasion town square. We found our way up and around and then back down into the main area of town to visit the large Cathedral Iglesia del Sagrario – they built their cathedrals super large in Spain. The cathedral is the final resting place of King Ferdinand 5th of Aragon, and Queen Isabella of Castile – the Catholic Monarchs, whose wish it was to be buried here. The cathedral was built in the 16th century and looks to have stood the test of time. The nearby Elvira Lane runs pretty much parallel with the main road, and is full of quaint craft shops, cafes and bars, and is a good place to take your time exploring. Granada has a good mix of quaint arts and craft stores and all the big-name labels stores and loads of cafes and restaurants. We sourced out where we needed to go the following day and worked our way back towards the hotel for a bite to eat – the weather had been off and on all day – some sunshine would have been nice. Granada has a good selection of bakery’s so I picked up something nice to have with a cuppa – they like their pastries here. Granada was also the first place that we have really seen the hams being hung as they do – not just a couple of hams, but in some cases, cafes and butchery deli’s have a couple of dozen hams hanging in the ceilings – quite the sight.

Granada is famous for being the last Muslim stronghold in Spain and was known as the ‘Damascus of Moorish Spain’. As a result the city still has what is left of some mosques from the period. Granada is very much a tourist spot with the key point of interest being the Alhambra Palace and Generalife gardens complex that take up a hillside overlooking Granada (it is known locally as the ‘Red Castle’). It’s not a simple case of rocking up an entering Alhambra – you need to buy your tickets online, for a certain time that you can enter – tickets sell out well in advance so you need to have done your homework to get into this complex. Fortunately for me, Carol as always had taken care of that for us and we were booked in for mid- afternoon the following day. Sunday didn’t dawn any drier for us and having visited the local Info site the previous afternoon whilst in the heart of town, we learnt that there was a free walking tour on Sunday kicking off at 10am so we headed out early to join in. I’m not sure if it was the weather that deferred things, but there was no 10am tour to be found so we parked up in a café for a cuppa and bite to eat and passed a couple of hours waiting for the midday tour to begin. As we sat it and I watched people moving about it was clear that the necessary fashion items in Granada at this time of year are a good coat, an umbrella, and styli gumboots for the women. In addition to the fashion, smoking was to the fore, especially amongst women (maybe they were tourists).

This one did exist but the majority of those joining the tour were Spanish speaking so the tour guide said he would provide a ‘bi-lingual’ commentary for us. We set off and the guide took us up and through the Albaicin area again, stopping and explaining key landmarks along the way. He got very passionate in Spanish telling stories and then remembered he needed to give us the detail in English as well but felt like we only got 20% of the Spanish explanation. The tour ended up down at the large cathedral with a good explanation of the history of it, but I’d have to say I didn’t really enjoy it. The weather started to clear just as we set off up to the entrance of the Alhambra complex – the walk from town up into the complex gates takes maybe 20 min’s and then you have this large complex to explore. We had to be at the palace entrance at 4.30pm so we had around 90 mins to explore all that this complex had to offer. We started off at the bottom end where you have the Alcazaba military fortifications – from the top here you can look out over all of Granada pretty much. We then walked up and through some lovely garden areas to the top end of the complex where you have the Generalife – I think it was a recreational building for the Nasrid Sultans and was also used for agriculture as you can see from all the gardens and water features that are dotted around this building.

We walked back down and queued up to enter the palace at 4.30pm – along with a load of others (they regulate the numbers into the palace every 30 min’s. The Nasrid Palaces – yes plural, were made up of many open rooms and there was loads of lovely water features and ponds and then gardens around the area. Each palace differed in accordance with what each sultan ordered to have built. The main complex closes at 6pm, so after exploring the palace we looked around some lovely gardens and had hoped to visit the cathedral on site but we were too late in the day for that. We used up as much time as we could and exited the complex right on 6pm with the gates closing. We could have easily spent a couple more hours looking around as we were rushing to see all that we did. Alhambra dates back to the early 1200’s and was developed over the years by the following Nasrid Sultans that ruled here. The complex became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.

We headed back into town and were keen to how a bite to eat at a tapas bar that we had recommended to us by someone in a hostel in Malaga – Los Diamantes supposedly serve tapas with every beer ordered – the more beers you order, the better the tapas are. To our surprise, the place was shut on Sunday night – missed opportunity. So we walked up the street a bit more – Navas Lane is well known for being door to door cafes and restaurants, so we found a nice place and enjoyed a nice meal and a bottle of wine – nice way to wind up the day. Heading back down the lanes to our hotel we passed a smaller cathedral on the way – I can’t recall its name, but we popped inside to have a look and a service was just beginning so we sat for maybe 30 min’s and took it in – we really enjoyed the atmosphere that was present here. It was a short walk from the cathedral back to the hotel as it was time to call it a day.

Seville

Monday was yet another wet start to the day. Today we needed to travel across to Seville and needed to get across town to our designated BlaBla ride pick up point (a petrol station just by the motorway out of town). We pulled the bags along through the damp and had some time to spare so stopped at a shopping centre opposite the pick-up point and got a cuppa to warm up. We’d assumed with the type of car noted that we were going to be the only riders today – no, there were 2 others heading with our driver host through to Seville. Our driver pulled up just after midday and we got our bags in, but then it was a squeeze for us to get the other bags and ourselves into the car, but we did and we were away. The young woman driving had get foot down at times and the trek to Seville took around 2.5 hours. We got dropped near a bus-stop and waited for the next bus but it was just too busy to contemplate hopping on with our big bags so we started off down the road pulling the bags the couple of k’s to the old part of Seville – thank goodness for the maps on Carol’s phone again. It took us around 45 mins to get down the road and into the narrow-cobbled lanes of the old town, but we finally found our hostel and checked in. We’d opted for the cheaper option of a mixed dorm on the off chance that they wouldn’t be busy but as it turned out, our room was full.

We found a bunk each and made up our bed and then headed out to explore the surrounding area. The hostel was just down the road for the stunning Cathedral Y Giralda – another stunning cathedral which was built and added onto over a number of periods. The main focal point is the citadel tower, which I think we were told, was the tallest tower in the world when built. I understand also there was a local building rule in Seville that no structure could be built taller than the tower – it is only in the last couple of years that a new high-rise building has been erected that is taller than the tower. The streets around the cathedral area are very nice – there is some great architecture to be viewed, and a nice array of shops and dining options. We had a good look around and found a supermarket to get some supplies before heading back to the hostel to cook some dinner. Carol and I settled in @ 10.30pm and then were awakened by our room-mates arriving in at @ midnight and then 12.30pm – light was on and off – err, talk about broken sleep. Feeling somewhat worse for wear we got up on the Tuesday morning and joined one of the local free walking tours around Seville.

The tour picked up groups of people at a few different points before getting underway properly. Our guide took us back round the cathedral and explained some of the history of the building to us – how it was ‘added to’ over different architectural periods (Renaissance, Boroc), and the rule relating to the tower being the highest point in the city (the tower dates back to the 14th century). We had a look round the exterior of the castle, local Jewish quarter, and then headed across to the university building that supposedly back in the day was the site of a cigar factory – upon which the opera Carmen is based. On the other side of the uni we visited our last spot – the Plaza Espana which was a large semi-circular structure with a large pond and fountain taking centre stage and an amazing array of tiling. All the regions of Spain were represented at this sight with a tile that reflected the region. We headed back to the hostel and had a bit to eat and wrapped up as it was raining again by this point and went off to explore some more. The first thing we looked for was the Metropol Parasol – an interesting structure that looks like a large cloud cluster supported on some columns. Our trek then took us up to Alameda de Hercules – which today is like a large town square but back in the Roman days was possibly and avenue into the city with large Hercules statures standing at both ends. From there we went up and crossed the river and walking back down we found this large disused area that intrigued us. It looked like it was all purpose built and looked very nice but now was abandoned and overgrown.

There were no signs to clarify for us so when we got back to the hostel we googled and found that this area was the site of the Seville World Expo in 1992 and looks like after the Expo they just walked away and forgot about the area??? Walking back towards the old part of town we passed the large Bull Fighting Ring (Plaza Toros Maestranza) where they have fights in the season – not too many places are still supporting this practice. Somewhat wet and tired from our longer than planned hike we headed back to the hostel. Our evening was no better than the previous with our ‘room-mates’ coming and going at all hours. Tired we rose on the Wednesday morning to get our bags out and to hike across the old part of town to the central bus terminal where we were to be collected for our BlaBla ride to Madrid.

Spain

When I last signed off we were on a supposed fast ferry in Tangier waiting to be whisked across the waters to Spain. All the fast ferry offices advertise that they make the crossing (14 km’s) in 35 mins – well our ferry finally pushed away from Tangier @ 9.30am and it took around an hour and 10 mins to make the crossing. Once we got out into the open of the straight there was a bit of wind and the chop came up so maybe that slowed the ferry down but nevertheless it was a good crossing and there was a flow of shipping moving in and out of the channel as we crossed – navigating these waters requires some skill and good comm’s with the ships in the area. We pulled into the quaint little port of Tarifa and disembarked and were surprised with how easy the immigration process was getting into Europe – this would be our first and only passport entry stamp in Europe now until we are stamped exiting Europe in the months ahead. The ferry company offer a free bus shuttle from the small port town of Tarifa up the coast around 25 km’s to the busy port city of Algeciras.

Algeciras

Algeciras is situated on the south of the Iberian Peninsula on the Bay of Algeciras, opposite the Rock of Gibraltar. The city is a busy shipping hub – the outer harbour had a steady flow of ships coming and going and sitting at anchor waiting their turn. The city has history dating back to the first century AD and earlier, as the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Goths and Moors all settled in this area at one time or another. We were dropped off at the ferry terminal and had to make our way out of the port area and then basically across and up the road a little way to find our hotel (we had a room upstairs with no lift so more dragging bags upstairs for me). The weather packed in so we unpacked the rain coats for the first time in a while and headed out to explore the older parts of the city. Our first intro to Spain was discovering we had gained an hour crossing from Morocco to Spain (not sure how that works when they are opposite one another) and that Spain had siesta hour and as a result, most of the shops were all closed (we headed out @ 2.30pm Spain time). We located the local Info sight thinking that would be a good place to start, but the Spanish lady ‘no speaka the English’ so we picked up and maps and pushed on. We found the local bus station and arranged some tickets for the next couple of legs and then headed out in search of a bite to eat. We found a busy café and with a menu in Spanish only, we took a punt on what we were ordering – turned out to be something like a panini. To back that up, in the southern part of Spain, it would seem that not many people spoke English so we had some challenges ahead of us. By this stage the shops were starting to reopen for the afternoon – most would stay open till 8pm or maybe later. To compound matters further we found out that the Andalucía region which covers this large chunk of southern Spain were to celebrate their Bank Holiday in a couple of days’ time so we’d need to be prepared for that. We did some more exploring of some of the older areas taking in the old architecture and the cathedrals. We headed out and about again later that evening to explore further.

Gibraltar

The following day we headed away early and got and early bus around the peninsula to La Linea so we could cross into Gibraltar. The La Linea terminal is well placed and is a very common means of getting ‘into Gibraltar’ from Spain (bus only took maybe 50 mins with stops). The first thing you are greeted with are the immigration gates to get into Gibraltar – there were people and cars all streaming through so we joined in the masses to walk through. The entry process was all pretty straight forward but did consist 2 check points but once through there, you were in! The main entry into Gibraltar is along Winston Churchill Ave and within a 100 m’s of the immigration gates you have Gibraltar International Airport on your left. There’s a real novelty to the airport in Gibraltar and we timed it just right as a flight was coming in. The unique thing is that the Ave or main road crosses the runway and so as flights are coming and going that road / thoroughfare gets closed off with gates – traffic, both vehicles and pedestrians back up waiting for the gates to open again so that ‘business can resume to usual’. The EasyJet flight came whizzing in and then taxied back to the terminal and the gates were re-opened, returning things to normal again. I read that the Gibraltar Airport / landing was rated both the 4th most scenic in the world and 5th most risky (just to cross winds I think).

Gates opened, we ‘walked across the runway’ as you do in Gibraltar. In front of you filling the landscape is the rock of course – with this visit today we ticked off yet another Bond movie location. The rock can’t be ignored – it stretches the length of the peninsula (around 5km’s from the gates) and rises up to @ 420 m’s high. There easiest way to ‘see the rock’ is to either take a guided tour, or to ride the cable car to the top and explore from there – it’s a National Park / reserve so you have to pay a fee to enter the area. We opted to do our own thing and set off on foot into town, which is within a kilometre of the gates. The first area you come to is Casemates Square which is full of trendy little shops and cafes, as well as a famous crystal glass factory, which we visited for a demo and had a chat to the local guy or was very welcoming – and on the plus side, pretty much everyone was speaking English for us. By this stage we were getting hungry and treated ourselves to a proper English brunch – Carol enjoyed her first bacon in some time. Whilst enjoying out bacon and eggs we talked to an English couple that came in – they were on holiday, and like us had crossed over from Spain as so many do. They were saying that the Pom’s cross into Gibraltar to buy cigarettes – no duty I think, but someone we later spoke to said that the price of a packet had certainly risen (used to be you could buy a packed for less than a pound, now that sold for $2.65 pound). The couple had ordered cod and chips (Gibraltar is famous for its fish and chips) and it didn’t take long to see why – their plates came out with fillets that were probably 30 cm’s in length if not longer.

Having enjoyed our brunch we headed on up Main Street which is full of nice shops – which looked to be very popular with the tourist numbers that were in town with us. Just on the other side of the shopping area is the cable car base – the weather can affect it running, and it seemed that cars only go up as the numbers demand. We had a good look around and walked on for the head of the peninsula. On the way you pass the large British Naval presence and the port area was full of ships being repaired (for that matter, the whole bay was laden with ships coming and going or at anchor, so loads for me to take in). Heading up the road we caught up with an older woman who was out walking and we walked on with her – she shared lots of info about Gibraltar and how she had been here years ago, went away but came back something like 30 years ago to retire and settle. The weather was a bit off and on, and as we got out to the peninsula it was much more open, and so very windy. Along the way we had to walk through a couple of tunnels that are vehicle / pedestrian friendly. The head of the peninsula is called Europa Point and you have an interesting mix here – you have the large light-house as you might expect, but you also have a large mosque that was built there in the late 1990’s and the local University have a large complex right out on the point. Europa Point is one on the southernmost points of Europe and has good views over to Morocco an beyond – on a good day (today was cloudy).

There is a memorial on the point for the former Polish Prime Minister who died in an air crash in the area in 1943. Taking pride of place and standing guard over the peninsula and bay is the Harding’s Battery – an upper large cannon that was installed in the area in the 1800’s and was operated until around WW1 when more up to date defences were put in place. The cannon barrel was removed and ‘dropped into the sea’ and the rest of the defences were covered with dirt. It wasn’t until the University started developing land in the area around 10 years ago that they ‘rediscovered’ the battery and set about restoring it to its period appearance. There was a small museum under the battery outlining some of the local history and we learnt that the British secured Gibraltar in the early 1700’s and it was a pivotal / strategic spot for the British battles with the French and Spanish (the area off to the east of the rock was the sight of Nelson’s triumphant naval battle where he lost his life). The point was a great spot to stop and watch all the ships coming and going in and out of the Mediterranean. We made our way up and around the base of the rock and back into the town (the streets / lanes on and around Main Street are cobbled and narrow). Passing back under the cable car we turned into towards the rock and headed up to the start of the park and the Moors castle. I hate to think how many steps there were but it was a good workout for us up into this area. We were rewarded with a great viewing point. The face of the rock is peppered with holes – they almost look like windows and they are as such, as they were holes for the cannons that the British put into the rock to defend it.

Having done our fair share of walking we rewarded ourselves with some traditional English fish and chips for dinner. Roy’s Fish and Chips were recommended by more than one local so we sat down and had a beer and a really nice meal. Full and content we headed back across the runway – no planes coming in this time so it was an easy walk out across and out the gates just as the sun started to set. We crossed back out of the gates and we was the case when we entered, there were a load of people and vehicles crossing back out into Spain at the end of the day. We got back to the bus terminal in La Linea just in time to catch the bus back to Algeciras having had a fantastic day in Gibraltar. We both really liked the atmosphere and feel of this small country and yes, I have to admit it was nice to have people talking in English, albeit only for a day. I’d recommend a trip to Gibraltar to anyone heading to the south of Spain – it was vibrant and had a lot of development, along with a nice feel, nice shops and good accommodation option, although we had heard it is quite expensive. Not sure of the population but it obviously swells daily with the numbers crossing in and out to work and visit from Spain.

Malaga

Having enjoyed our previous day, we were up and away early on Wednesday as it was Bank Holiday in the region and bus services were limited. Today we were heading to Malaga and only had the option of 2 buses to get up there. The schedule said the ride up and along the coast would take around 3 hours but with it being a holiday, there weren’t many stops and traffic was good and we were in Malaga in a little over 2 hours. Along the coast between Algeciras and Malaga there is resort after resort trying to take advantage of the ocean views and most if not all seem to have a golf course for their guests – never seen such a high concentration of golf courses before. Upon arrival in Malaga we checked in with the bus companies and also train station to explore options to get us up to Granada – train station info office in particular was far from helpful and if anything, rude in their manner with us. We headed out of the station and tried to work out where we were in relation to our accommodation. The map on Carol’s phones suggested it was a couple of k’s away and with the weather looking a little unpredictable we opted to get a cab up the hill. Cab wound its way up into the hills above the harbour and dropped us at a lovely hostel that Carol had found. We were greeted by some lovely staff who went out of their way to welcome us and to make our stay as comfortable as possible. It wasn’t long before the weather packed up and the rain came down again – what happened to the ‘rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains’??? Our hosts got us settled in, and with biscuits and hot drinks readily available, we took advantage to catch up on some bits on line.

Later in the afternoon we decided we had to make the effort to get out and about and so despite the rain we trudged up the hill around the hostel and saw some lovely homes and great vistas out over the city and harbour – albeit through the mist. Somewhat damper we headed back to the hostel and showered and Carol took advantage of the kitchen facilities and cooked us a lovely meal. Unfortunately Thursday didn’t dawn any drier and it was still deeming down as after a lovely breakfast that the team supplied for us we parked up for the morning on line and reading (Carol was busy trying to secure accommodation for upcoming visit from Taylor). Around 2pm the weather cleared enough for us to head out for a good walk. Up the hill from the hostel is the imposing Castle of Gibralfaro – it sits up on the hill taking pride of place over Malaga and was obviously strategically positioned to defend Malaga back in the day. You have to pay to enter the castle proper so we had a look around from the outside instead and then headed down the winding path that drops you down into to the base of the castle where there is the Alcazaba archaeological display. I forget how back the history goes here, but there were some ancient ruins which I think were from the Roman times in the area.

From there we had a look around the magnificent cathedral that stands out on the skyline, and then we headed down and through an area of town before dropping out by the inner harbour. There was a good-sized cruise ship at berth right in the inner harbour, as well as a large ferry that runs back and forth to Morocco I think. There was a large swell – I guess as a result of the front that had passed through, and the waves were washing up onto the promenade that runs around the inner harbour. It’s a nice area with nice shops and loads of waterfront cafes, and there were some nice yachts and launches moored here. The swell was so strong that a number of the yachts at berth here were smashing back onto the concrete pier and doing quite a bit of damage to the yachts. The point of the harbour has a light house as you’d expect and on the eastern side there is a nice beach area but today despite the sun now being out, was still cool with a steady breeze. We started back up the hill towards the castle and stopped part way up at a nice bar to have a beer and take in the view below us. Also prominent in town is a large bull fighting ring – Malaga is one of the few cities that still host live bull fights – a number of areas in Spain have banned the practice of killing the bull. The trek back up the hill rewarded us with good views out to see and the shipping action that was coming and going. We got back to the hostel and I headed back down the hill in the opposite direction in search of a supermarket for dinner – my options were limited and made it most of the way back into town, but picked up a couple of things and headed back up the hill – another good walking day for us.

Friday dawned very wet again, so we enjoyed our breakfast with the hostel team and then faced facts that we would have to head out in it to get down town to move on to Granada. We decided a taxi was the best option for us – despite our angst with taking taxi’s but we got picked up and dropped down at the train station. I’d have liked more time in Malaga – I note there is a very classy car museum and I had plans to walk to it but the weather put paid to that idea. Malaga is also the birthplace of Picasso, so I’m sure Carol would have enjoyed having a look there – maybe next time.

Marrakech to Tangier – and beyond

As noted the G-Adventure tour to Morocco had concluded but we still had some time to kill in Morocco. We didn’t have to check out of the hotel till midday so a group of us headed out to some local gardens that were recommended. The fashion designer YSL came to Morocco in the early 1980’s I think it was and in conjunction with his partner, saved these gardens that were going to wreck and ruin. The Jardin Majorelle gardens are a very popular attraction (pays to get there early as the ques certainly build as the day goes on) and even more so at the moment as they have opened a museum to honour YSL locally and whilst we didn’t go to the museum, a number of the others in the group did and they raved about what was on display. As part of the wider site there was an YSL Gallery and Boutique shop – art work in the gallery was of posters he painted each year, whereas the items in the boutique were very fancy garments, bags and cushions and the like – with a price tag to match. Carol and I explored the gardens and really enjoyed that and we also took in the Berber Museum that YSL developed on site to honour the local Berber race. The museum was really interesting – had some bits and pieces that were quite old and had a really interesting display of the jewellery and head-dresses that they wear (and make themselves out of various materials – silver, stone, beads etc.).

We walked back to the hotel to collect our bags and say good-bye to the remaining tour party – everyone was going off in their own directions – some staying a couple more nights locally and others heading home. We caught up for one last coffee with the Argentine girls and then said good-bye to them – they had a direct flight to Buenos Aires to catch. We still had some time to kill so we walked up to another of the local parks and parked up in the sun for a couple of hours. We walked back to the hotel to collect our bags and then we hiked up the road to the train station to catch the overnight train to Tangier. We’d paid for a sleeper car and I’d naively assumed it would be something like the trains in Egypt where we had a car to ourselves – no, tonight we would be getting cosy with 2 strangers – with our big bags the cabin was full and I’d have to say it was another up and down night but we managed to arrive in Tangier just after 6am on Sunday morning. It was still dark out so we parked up at the train station for a half hour and then trudged out of the station and down towards the waterfront to walk along to our accommodation which was in the Old Medina.

It was a good walk – for the hour of day, we were surprised just how many people we out and about exercising – some on the beach, loads along the promenade. Probably took us best part of 45 mins to get up to the medina entrance where we were then faced with the challenge of finding the hotel in amongst all the tiny lanes. Carol stared as always and we found our way to the hotel and were able to drop our bags off. We headed back out as we needed to secure ferry tickets for the following day over to Spain. There appear to be 3 ferry companies that operate a cross channel service – they all advertise a ‘fast ferry ride of 35 mins’ so we arranged to go over the following morning at 9am. A trap for young players – watch what currency you are paying in – we didn’t have much Moroccan dirham left so wanted to pay in Euro – each place seems to have its own conversion rate which always goes in their favour. Tickets arranged (for more than we should have paid) we headed back along the waterfront and into town – we wanted to get a cuppa and maybe a bite to eat but Sunday morning in Tangier was proving to be pretty quiet and most places don’t open until late morning – if at all. Managed to find a coffee lounge – frequently by men only inside it seemed so we got a couple of drinks and a pastry and sat outside.

Refreshed for now, we headed back towards the hotel – I suggested we go through the Medina for a look and promptly managed to get us lost – but again, Carol and her phone to the rescue and she soon had us heading in the right direction. We were able to get into our room now so appreciated a hot shower and some wi-fi. We soon headed out again – down to the other end of commercial area to a mall where we got a bite to eat for a late lunch. Once again we headed back out to the waterfront and promenade area where there were loads of people everywhere – people playing soccer on the beach, people taking horse / pony rides, small kids riding in back remote-control cars, people making the most of late Sunday afternoon – a real hive of activity. The weather wasn’t as warm as we had hoped (not as warm as the day when we came through Tangier on the tour) so whilst we had plans to take a dip we thought better of it. We took our time walking back along the beach – there’s a big new marina development and promenade shops / restaurants all being developed in time for the ‘summer rush’ – we’ll just have to come back to have another look won’t we, as it looks like it will be very flash and an asset locally. We headed back to the hotel – without getting lost and headed up onto the roof where they had a nice area – and watched the last of the sun pass us by. I think we sat and watched a couple of movies and lost track of time so hunkered down as we had to be up and away the following morning.

We were up and about early on Monday morning – breakfast didn’t start till 8am so we had a quick bite to eat and headed out the door as we needed to walk through the medina and down to the ferry terminal. We made it in plenty of time and as it turned out for us the ferry didn’t appear to be in any hurry to leave – was scheduled for 9am but that came and went (we’d been allowed to board the boat @ 8.45am) and I think it was after 9.30am before the lines were finally cast off. But hey, it was a fast ferry so we’d be in Spain in not time – right.

I’ll update on that next leg soon but being on the ferry meant we were heading not just out of Morocco but saying good-bye to Africa – we’d ended up having around 3.5 months in various parts of Africa and had really liked what we’d experienced. Morocco for me was a highlight – I was really impressed with the contrasts that Morocco offers the traveller – there’s the beach and coastal towns / cities which I really liked, the deserts of the Sahara, mountains and snow in the Atlas ranges, and I was really surprised by how much green space this country had – there was agriculture everywhere which was really good to see. I have to admit I had expected Morocco to be something of a ‘dust bowl’ but instead it did a good job of bowling me over. We met some great people on the tour – people in Morocco in general were pretty chill and not as pushy as we had experienced elsewhere – that said it was still very unfortunate to see the number of people begging, but I’d have to say they were less than other countries we had experienced. I meant to mention the national flag – it has a red background with a green 5-pointed star in the middle – the green and 5 points of the star reflects the 5 values of the Muslim faith and the red represents the blood spilt to protect this land – nice meaning. Drinking isn’t allowed in most parts of the country – there are only a few bars here and there so that was a bit of a change, and interestingly the numbers of smokers was a lot less than we had seen elsewhere – that said a big city like Marrakech had plenty of smokers, but a fair percentage of them would have been tourists – taking advantage of cheap cigarettes. All in all a really good experience so thank you Morocco – next stop Spain and Europe!

G Adventure Tour – Morocco – Week Two

On Sunday we were up and away for the second half of our Moroccan tour. Today we stopped in the city of Ouarzazate – the film capital of Morocco. There are a couple of film studies here and the town seems to focus on what the film industry has done and can do – there were a couple of film museums and the like. Locally they have filmed parts for Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Mission Impossible and more. The city had a very new and modern feel to it – lot of the buildings looked to be quite recent – maybe a bit more money around. Whilst in the city we visited a Herbalist who demonstrated some local products made from plants and oils. Was really interesting and a number of the team brought bits and pieces to take away. I had to laugh as we saw a couple of trucks today loaded to the hilt – one with hay that somehow was balanced well beyond the truck, and the other was just laden with mattresses – they seem to have some different rules around how much you can carry. Having stopped for lunch we pushed on and drove on a road known as the ‘Road of a 1000 Kasbahs’ – they dotted the countryside for miles – some in good condition having been restored to live in – others being left to fall apart with time.

Our resting point today was the town of Ait Ben Haddau – famous for it’s Kasbah sitting atop the hill overlooking the town – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. That afternoon we headed into the medina at the foot of the Kasbah – its known as the ‘abandoned Kasbah’ as everyone moved out and away from the old Kasbah at the top of the hill and built newer Kasbah’s around the base of the hill. We were taken into the Kasbah of a local family for tea and then a tour through their home – they had been preserving an old Kasbah with 4 towers. They had some great old door locks – the keys looked like toothbrushes and were really effective – you’d have to see them to understand what I mean. The area has been used as a prop for several films and it was a great place to explore and climb up to. Hiking back down to the hotel with the sun setting, a group of us shared in an excursion to do a tajine cooking class and to cook our dinner. The process was fun and I went to town filling my tajine full of whatever I could put in there – the results were great and all of us ate really well this evening. The secret is in the spices that you mix / combine together into the tajine so we made a note for future reference.

On Monday morning following breakfast we were off again – today we were heading up into the High Atlas Mountains. The road was windy, there was plenty of snow about, but the day was blue and the sun was shining for the most part so made for some good sights. We passed through this town called Ourika where they were having their weekly markets – it was crazy – not sure how the bus made it through without collecting someone or something. There were people everywhere, donkeys and horses, cars and motorbikes – the place was alive and you basically had to carve a path through the market. Finally breaking clear of Ourika’s markets we pushed on up a very narrow windy road to the town of Imlil that sat up in the High Atlas Mountains. Just as we arrived the weather started to pack in – we had a hike of around and hour ahead of us to climb up to the next village of Armed where we were staying. Mohamed had arranged a couple of mules to carry bags for those that needed them carried – their handlers are called muleteers and they worked the mules up the track with the bags loaded on. One of the team opted to get a taxi ride up the hill and one of the others got to ride one of the mules. The weather started to rain and it was cold so we were all very grateful to finally arrive at our accommodation – the Auberge Ifranc up in the mountains. It was cold outside but not much warmer inside the auberge so everyone had layers on and stayed close to try and keep warm. The girls in the group all played cards for some time that evening, whilst some of us sat back and read whilst trying to keep warm – there were layers worn to bad that night I can tell you.

We all rose early on the Tuesday morning – cold, but atleast the day had dawned bright so following a bite to eat we all headed back off down the hillside to re-join the bus. The hike was a bit slippery in places as the snow had frozen here and there but we were rewarded with some great views for photos. Back on the bus we headed out of the High Atlas Mountains and back down to some lesser altitude. Today we were heading west – as far west as we could to the coast but on the way we had to pass through Marrakech so we stopped for some supplies and refreshments as we then stopped another hour up the road to have a picnic of our own making – was very nice to snack on buns with ham and cheese and tomato. Having refuelled ourselves we pushed on and soon came to the area famous for its groves of Argan trees from which they produce the argan oil products. We stopped at one spot where some goats were ‘hanging out’ in the Argan trees – their ‘minders’ making sure everyone that took a picture paid them for the experience. Couple of the girls made a fuss of the goats and got to hold them. We then stopped at a coop that produces Argan Oil products – they showed us the process from opening the nuts, crushing and grinding them to extract the oils and then mixing the products. They make a local honey and also an almond argan butter – was like peanut butter – different colour but a great taste – the samples were appreciated.

Not much further down the road we finally broached the hills to find the Atlantic below us and the lovely city of Essaouira. I’d been looking forward to this and the city didn’t disappoint. It was so nice to see the sea again, and the city – an old fishing port for Morocco has a large citadel walk protecting the old part of the city – this area dates back to 17th century. The bus couldn’t take us right into the medina where we were staying so it was around a 10 min walk into to old city and into the heart of the medina to find our hotel. The hotel didn’t have any lifts and we were on the 2nd floor but managed to get bags up to the room. We dropped our gear and then met back up with Mohamed for an orientation walk around the old city. We walked into the main market areas and them up against the citadel wall before coming back out to the town square. At this point we all went off on our separate ways – Carol and I wanted to get some laundry done so we made our way back to the spot Mohamed had suggested and then linked up with Lyn and Jeff to walk across the medina to a bottle store to get some supplies for the coming days. Took some finding but managed to locate the bottle store and picked up a couple of things before heading back through the medina. We split off at this point and Carol and I headed down to the port area to see the local action with the fisherman finishing up their sales for the day. The sea gulls were swarming by the dozen looking for the tasty morsels being offered by the fisherman gutting fresh fish, and there were cats everywhere – the ‘locals’ all looked well fed. We timed it right to see the sun set and it was the best sunset we’d seen for some time – a great way to end the day.

Wednesday was effectively a free day for us to explore this coastal town and so after breakfast we all met to go visit a local silverware coop where they explained the processes they followed locally to make Berber patterned silverware – some of the team had another shop. The coop offered positions for young people most of whom were deaf, and trained them up for 3 years. After this visit we all went our own ways for the rest of the day having agreed we would all meet for dinner that night. Carol wanted to do some computer work to arrange accommodation for coming legs of our travels and so I headed off for a good walk – I walked the length of the main beach promenade where at the far end the quad bike and camel ride tours were departing from – was asked along the way of I wanted an excursion. On my way along the beach I stopped to watch a couple of games of soccer being played – one was on the beach and the goal posts were just little mounts of sand shaped up. The other was on an asphalt service and a lot of the players were wearing like a special type of sandal. The games were 6 a side and these guys all showed some crazy ball skills. Didn’t seem to matter where you were there were kids of groups playing with a ball of some description – building up their skills.

On the way back up the beach I strolled through the waves – water was fresh but refreshing. A couple of people were out surfing, and others were skim boarding in the shallows. I had a great time and then explored the harbour area in full – walked around the breakwater and watched the fishing boats coming back in, through the swells. The boats were no sooner tied up and locals were clambering over them to see what their catch was like and to arrange what they wanted. One side of the harbour was for the fishing fleets – their boats and gear and the guys getting ready to go out again. A number of them had large crates that were lined with hooks and they were threating sandiness (or similar) onto the hooks – easily a 100-hooks to a line. I guess they must go out and drop the lines over the tide maybe??? I walked to the head of the harbour on the other side and along the fortified wall – the place was alive with people and it was great to just take it all in. There were fishing boats being repaired – not a lot of H&S precautions in the area – but it was interesting to see the techniques they were using. The fish market itself was something else. There were loads of stands along both sides of the dock with an array of fish on offer – some specialised in shellfish, some selling small fish for bait, others were shelling buckets of prawns, some had just fish, some both. There were a lot of stingrays for sale that had been caught, as well as both conga eel (a good metre long) and very colourful moray eel – all being offer for sale.

I’d been out and about for a few hours so headed back to find Carol and drag her out. I took her back to the fish market to have a good look – it really is a great sight to visit with all the people actions, and the gulls and cats all lurking around. From there we hit the beach and parked up in a good spot in the sun to just relax, have a bite to eat and sit and read and watch people moving up and along the beach. There was a steady stream of hawkers that wanted you to buy bits and pieces, and also the local bakeries have people that work on the beach trying to sell baked goods from trays they carry up and along the beach – nice idea. We really enjoyed watching the afternoon pass – the numbers hitting the water increased and we wondered if we shouldn’t have been doing the same – but didn’t. We headed back to the hotel in time to change and meet up for a drink before heading out for a group dinner at a place Mohamed recommended. A nice meal was enjoyed by all and Carol and I had a further wander round the medina before making our way back to the hotel for the night. The consensus was that we both loved Essaouira – known locally as the surf capital of Morocco.

On the Thursday morning we were up and away – this time heading back up the road to Marrakech – last stop of our tour – for 2 nights. Marrakech is known as the tourist capital of Morocco and it took us the best part of 3 hours to get back into the heart of the city. Marrakech is home to around 1.5 million, and so with that came the hustle and bustle – there were cars and motorbikes everywhere (motor scooters are very popular in Morocco and seems to depend on where you are as to whether helmets are preferred or not). We called at our hotel where was nicely equipped (best for last maybe) and dropped our bags and returned to the bus to head down to the medina area. Marrakech is formed in 2 parts – the old city which is essentially the medina and area within the citadel walls, which dates back to the 11 / 12th century, and the new city which the French developed from @ 1912 onwards. We found a spot for some lunch and had some time to explore part of the medina markets. This place is alive with street hawkers, fruit and vege stands, stands selling bits and pieces, henna artists who we were told can be quite aggressive. There were snake charmers – if they caught you taking a picture they were on you for money. There were monkeys being led round on chains for photos, and birds etc. On the amazing race I’d seen the market place in an episode where the local musician had a tassel on their hats that the swing around whilst they are making music – everyone comes at a price though.  Unfortunate the area also had a lot of people begging – we’d seen this in areas of Morocco – in Essaouira for example we were surprised that those that were begging all appeared to be older folk. In Marrakech there were young and old looking for something.

That afternoon we got taken on a tour of the old city with a local guide – he took us through a couple of the local quarters and then to the old prime minister’s home. The PM’s home (I can’t recall when it dated back to) was a large sprawling place that was divided up into area as back in the day the PM had 4 wives and 24 concubines all living under this one big roof. The house and gardens were beautiful and a welcome escape from the noise of the nearby medina. After the PM’s house we explored some parts of the medina – I’m really surprised that they let motorbikes / scooters travel through the narrow-cobbled paths / alleyways of the medina – but they are a constant as are the people. The tour concluded in the main market place and Mohamed pointed out a good area in the medina to explore for shopping – we decided we would do so the following day and so with Lorna and Gordon we headed out of the medina looking for our way back to the hotel. A very popular means of travel in the medina area is horse and carriage – there would have been best part of 100 carriages in the area – all looking for a job so with Carol and Lorna negotiating a rate we climbed on board and worked our way through the traffic, down town to our hotel. Back at the hotel we picked up some chips and a cold beer and headed up to the roof to see the sun set on another day. We headed out for a bite to eat with a couple of the couples from the tour group and then called it a night.

Friday was a last full day of tour – and wouldn’t you know it, we had a free day to explore Marrakech. We had to arrange train tickets up to Tangier where we had decided to go back to after the tour, so headed up to the station with Jeff who also need to arrange train tickets. We hiked up town a bit more with him and then parted ways and Carol and I headed back up towards the medina. On the way we stopped to explore the sculpture gardens where there were some interesting pieces, and then found some local gardens which we spent some time in looking round. They had a large environmental display in place so we studied that before heading up to the large mosque opposite the medina markets. Like all the other mosques we have seen in Morocco, this one was no different being of a rectangular form with a large rectangle column minaret – no domes to be seen on any of the mosques. We then braved it an entered deep into the medina – the lanes and alleys just seem to go on and on. Mohamed said you should come back out to the main square to avoid being lost so we did so, retracing all our steps in the process. The markets have everything you could need – you just need plenty of money and patience to shop. Many in the tour group brought up large in all the medina markets – our budget only stretches to a magnet, so we got that and left it at that. We headed out of the medina and back up the road to the local shopping mall for a bit of a look before staggering back to the hotel.

We had drinks up on the roof-top – the weather was packing in so wasn’t as warm as we would like but we saw it through. Being the last night on tour we then all headed out for one last group dinner – Mohamed again directed us to a place of his choice and we settled in for a nice meal. Jeff in the tour group had a significant birthday the day prior that he kept low key but Carol and I were aware so Carol arranged through Mohamed that Jeff be surprised with a cake at dinner – and surprised he was – Carol shines at sorting this sort of thing. It was a fairly loud time around the table and last catch ups were had as a number of the group had to depart early in the morning (3.30am) so we all made the most of it before – hugging and saying goodbye to those leaving early. Most of us headed back to the hotel – some of the team headed on for a drink in the local sky-bar.

Saturday morning dawned damp and grey – the tour had come to an end and so I guess with that the weather didn’t have to play ball either. We had breakfast and caught up with the remaining tour group before heading off to do our own thing. Mohamed said his good-byes and he was off – he had a 5-hour trip ahead of him to get home to his family. And so with that our time with G-Adventures in Morocco drew to a close – although we weren’t leaving Morocco just yet. We still had a bit more time in this fine country so I will finalise with a note on that in the next update.

G Adventure Tour – Morocco – Week One

The airport in Istanbul is large and can be confusing – we thought we were flying with Turkish Airlines so queued up only to finally get to the counter and be told we were at the wrong counter – we needed to check in at Counter area G – opposite end of departure terminal (we were at Counter A). We trudged down the terminal and finally found a counter for Royal Air Maroc and got booked in and then through the screening process or processes. We found our gate and managed to get a good seat near the windows to take in all the activity as we waited for our flight. We pulled out of Istanbul just after 7.30pm and the flight to Casablanca was @ 4.5 hours but there were time differences I hadn’t factored so we landed in Casablanca @ 9pm local time. Royal Maroc wasn’t anything flash to fly on – they try to cram too many people onboard and it’s crazy what some people think will pass as carry-on luggage. No video screen to enjoy on this long flight so it presented a good opportunity for me to catch up on some of the blog. Weren’t impressed with the main airport in Casablanca – the customs process was okay but we waited and waited for our bags to arrive on the belt – was something like an hour from the time we landed till we finally had our bags. Then you had to go through another screening process to exit and there was a large que so more waiting. Getting frustrated we found an ATM for some dollars and headed to the train depot to catch the last train at 10.30pm – cheap option for us to get into downtown Casablanca. The airport is only @ 30 km’s from Casablanca but the train took better part of an hour to cover that. We arrived at train station and it wasn’t long before we had a taxi driver upon us so we went with him and he found our hotel – which it turns out wasn’t a hotel but a room in an apartment building.

It was getting on for midnight but fortunately the doorman let us in but he spoke no English so we then had to work through process of setting the bill with him for the one night’s accommodation (local currency in Morocco is the Dirham but they also seem keen on the Euro). By the time we got to bed it would have been something like 2.30am Turkey time so we’d had a long day so we were grateful to crash for a few hours. In the morning we had to get ourselves across town to another hotel where the G Adventure tour was kicking off from so that went smoothly and we dropped our bags off into a nice room and then headed out to explore some of Casablanca. We were staying in the older part of town but not too far from the water so we set out in the hustle and bustle that is Casablanca (there are something like 5 million living in the city and the people to car ratio seemed pretty high). The car of choice in Morocco appears to be a balance between Dacia and Renault which are manufactured locally, and there’s a load of older VW Golfs in varying states of disrepair on the roads. On our way to the water we found Rick’s Café – famous from the movie Casablanca – we got a photo outside. Filling the skyline on the waterfront is the very impressive Hassan 2 Mosque – it’s a striking building and unlike all the mosques we had experienced to date, this mosque had a flatter regular roof – no domes. The main minaret is a large rectangular column that stretched up high in the front centre of the main building. We were told the mosque is the third largest in the world? The tiling and mosaic work around the building is something else and something that you really need to see with your own eyes. You can enter the mosque with a guided tour but when we visited it was pray time so we just explored the exterior.

We sat and just took in all the activity that was happening in and around the mosque and then wandered down the road to find a bite to eat before we walked back to the hotel via the waterfront area, the local medina markets, and then stopped at the supermarket to get some supplies for the week ahead. That evening we met out tour guide Mohamed and the group that were travelling through Morocco with us – there were 14 of us on tour with 3 other Kiwi’s in the tour (young woman from Hastings, Nelson and Christchurch). The balance of the travellers was mostly Canadian with 2 other women from Argentina that were travelling together – we would have 2 weeks to get to meet everyone onboard. Mohamed took us through the plan for the week and then we went out for a group dinner – first opportunity to experience Moroccan tajine and couscous.

On the Sunday morning the tour started proper and we pulled out of Casablanca and headed north to Tangiers, which excited me as this was another sight from a James Bond movie. The trip up to Tangiers took around 4.5 hours and we pulled in around midday. Tangiers looks to be a pretty cool city – its right on the Mediterranean coast and it’s only 14 km’s over to Spain from here so loads of ferries run back and forth, and on a good clear day you can see the Rock of Gibraltar. I think Mohamed said the city is home to around 1 million and over 50% of them are aged less than 25 years old. We all had lunch at a café opposite the beach so a great spot to watch the local activity – boats coming and going, people and horses on the beach. After lunch we met our guide and were taken around some of the older parts of Tangiers before entering into the local Medina. The medina was another maze of narrow cobbled streets with homes crammed in and markets and shops popping up everywhere. We were told the area dates back 3000 years and has had some more recent notoriety – Barbara Hutton the famous heiress lived her last years in the medina here and the Rolling Stones frequented a small café where they hung out to smoke and write music. It was unfortunate the tour wasn’t staying in Tangiers so Carol and I decided we’d best come back here post the tour for a couple more days to do it justice.

Leaving Tangier we had to work our way up into the hills to our destination of Chefchaouen – known as the Blue City. The drive from Tangier was less than 100 k’s but with the winding, climbing bumpy road it took the best part of 2.5 hours before we finally made it to our hotel. Dropping our bags off we were then off for a quick orientation walk right on dusk. One of the main spots to view here is the Spanish Mosque that overlooks the city so Mohamed took us through the maze of the local market / medina and showed us the path to follow the next day. We all had a good look around parts of the medina with all its blue painted walls and homes, got hassled by plenty of street hawkers, and then made it back to the town square. Some of the group headed off or dinner but still full from lunch, we opted to just walk back to the hotel and call it a night. Interestingly, Mohamed told us that Chefchaouen is the marijuana capital of Morocco – a lot of crop is grown illegally up in the hills and a lot of people do very well out of this trade.

On the Monday morning we got organised earlier as the forecast was for the weather to pack in later in the day (we’d gone from sun shining and temps in the high teens if not higher down in Tangier, which then dropped to single digits in the altitude of Chefchaouen), so we headed off and worked our way back up through the market and found the pathway to the mosque. The climb was a good one up the hill – there was a steady flow of tourists coming and going. We had to laugh when a group of young Asian women passed us heading back down the hill – one of them was dressed in a short dress wearing heals – not the best footwear for the rough path by any means. We made it up to the mosque which as promised provided a great view out over the city below. Whilst it was a grey day, the blues in the buildings still stood out. We soaked it up as we caught our breathe and then headed back down the hill and up to the other side of the hill where there was like a citadel wall enclosing the city perimeter. We explored up and around this area and then worked our way back through the markets and houses to the hotel to rest up. That afternoon we headed out again and had a look around the city below the hotel and then over to the far side of the citadel where we found a local produce market in full swing. We explored the shops and lanes that make up this area and found somewhere for a local bite to eat before heading back to the hotel to get ready for the following day.

Tuesday morning we left Chefchaouen early and headed further south through the Rift Mountains and Mid-Atlas Mountains. The area is full of agriculture / horticulture and we were really surprised by just how lush and green the landscape was – there were olives, beans, oranges and the likes all over the place. The farmland was being worked by a load of people – most were working it by hand and with the aid of mules / donkeys – a few lucky ones had tractors. Our main stop today was at the Volubilis Roman ruins – this was a site occupied by the Romans from 25BC – 285AD. In around 1915 they rediscovered this area and started to excavate it. The area back in the day covered something like 42 hectares, with 16 hectares uncovered to date. The area has a temple to Jupiter and Juno and houses for Hercules and Venus. Volubilis was the old capital of Mauretania which was then split to form Algeria to the east and Morocco to the west.  We only had @ an hour to try and take in all that this site offered – our local guide rushed us through it so it was disappointing not to have more free time to take in all that the site offered.

From there we drove a couple more hours to the city of M’Hiya where we were welcomed by a local women’s coop who did lunch for us. There was plenty of food brought out – the main dish was a savoury chicken dish that was very nice and just what I needed, after a mix of food over the previous days. Following a look around the coop we then had a short drive (45 min’s) to the big city of Fes which is very much a tourist city. Fes has a lot of history with its massive medina and is home to @ 1.5 million making it the 3rd largest city in Morocco.  We checked into our hotel and then got taken down to the old part of the Medina to have a look and do some shopping. The medina has to be seen to be believed – the narrow-cobbled alleys are lined with shops – they are all keen for you to buy from them and most have a different sales pitch. We were exploring the area with the Argentine ladies who were keen to do some shopping so it was very much a stop start affair. We must have been in the medina for a good couple of hours but had only just scratched the surface of what this area has to offer – supposedly the medina has a maze of over 9500 alleyways which seems hard to believe. We finally made our way back to the medina gate and flagged down a taxi to get back to the hotel. We’d stopped to buy some food and drink for the following days and just had a quiet evening, as I managed to stuff up the TV looking for an English TV channel.

On the Wednesday we were met early in the morning by our local guide that took us around and into the medina area proper. First stop was the Royal Palace with its striking doors – we weren’t allowed in but got a sense for what the place looked like. We then had a walk round the Jewish quarter and then entered back into the narrow streets of the Medina to visit the various quarters it has – the metal working area, the teaching area where there is the oldest university in the world dating back to the 9th century – dedicated to studying the Koran (the Medina dates back to the 8th century I think it was said). We then went to the Dye area and to the Weaving quarter where we were hosted to a display of the weaving process and to how they blend the materials – the scarfs, rugs and junipers are made from a wool, cotton, silk blend. The idea of visiting here was to get some sales for the local team – most of the group purchased scarfs for the sand trek that was to come. Last stop was to the leather quarter where we climbed up to the roof-top of the leather shop to look down on the tannery dying baths below. There was a load of guys in the baths dying the leather pelts a range of colours – looked like they were crushing grapes – I’d seen this area on the Amazing Race. As we entered the shop they gave us all a bunch of Mint – I wasn’t sure why but it became apparent as the smell from the dye baths takes some getting used to – you needed to sniff the mint to recover from time to time.

The team then got sucked into all of what the leather shop had to offer – there were jackets, belts, wallets, shoes, bags and the like. A couple of the team made purchases – some quite significant whereas we just had a good look around and wished we had more money to actually do some shopping with. Throughout the Medina it was nothing unusual to see a donkey, mule of horse being walked through the area loaded up with bits and pieces for one of the stores. It would have been very easy to have gotten lost in this area. We found a local place in the medina for lunch and after everyone had eaten well we managed to find our way back out of the medina – it was getting a bit claustrophobic with the walls all closed in around you. That afternoon we visited a local Pottery Coop – it was really good to see these craft people at work – the guy on the potting wheel made it look so easy to whip up a perfect tajine dish. The Coop had plenty of bits and pieces for sale and their hope was we would all buy up large but we found their pricing quite high – but that said, the pieces we saw were stunning. Again, Carol would love to be able to come back to this area to shop up big time – coming from her that is something. We headed back to the hotel and reflected on all that we had seen today.

On Thursday morning we had to be up and away early as today was our longest day on the road – we had to head south to the Sahara so we boarded the bus and headed off. For a start we had to work our way up higher into the Atlas Mountains and soon came to the town of Ifranc up in the hills – it’s known as the Switzerland of Morocco as we were now in the snow and the houses were of similar design to what you would see up in the Swiss Alps. Seemed hard to believe there was so much snow about but Ifranc is very popular in the summer as it is a cooler area – only getting to @ 30 degrees, whereas winter is all about the snow for those that are keen. A little further up the road we stopped to see the Barbary Monkeys playing by the roadside – as expected there were some ‘locals’ there selling bags of nuts for us to feed the monkeys – just trying to make a buck. We pushed on and stopped at a town called Midelt for some lunch before the last big haul east towards the Algerian border (something like 50 k’s away) and the city of Merzouga which sits on the edge of the Sahara. We drove on another 30 mins or so before heading in to the Sahara proper. Appearing like a mirage we finally pulled up at our accommodation for the night – the Auberge Yasmina. This place was like a Saharan fortress – sitting in the sand dunes, camels around, all the works. We had a team dinner and then called it quits for the night.

Friday was mostly a free day for us around the auberge so Carol and I headed out early to hike up the big sand dune about a kilometre from the auberge. It wasn’t long before we had memories of our dune climbing efforts in Namibia – you get a good work out from these climbs and this dune was no different. It was hard going but the view from the top as we sat on the crest of the dune was well worth the effort. We headed back down and took it easy till mid-afternoon when we all came together for our camel trek. We all got partnered up with a camel and 2 trains of us headed off – one of 8 camels with Carol taking the lead, and the other with 6 camels. We trekked up and around the base of the dunes for around an hour and a quarter and I’d have to say I was very glad when our Sahara campsite finally materialised and the camels sat back down for us to hop off – or should that be stagger off. A group of us headed off to scale the nearby sand dune – as if one dune wasn’t enough today. Again the review of the hard work was a great view out over the Sahara from the top and then you get to run down the dune. Camp tonight was a Berber camp – we sat around on mats to have our dinner and then had the option of sleeping in Berber tents or under the stars. After dinner the local Berber guides and Mohamed got out their drums and played some local music and everyone gathered round the campfire and enjoyed the evening. We took the sleeping under the stars option – it was a cool night but it was good to wake early and see the sky ablaze with stars.

Saturday morning we were up early – the idea being to be up and away on our camels to see the new day dawn and the sun rise up over the Sahara. The camel trek back to the auberge took about and hour and a quarter again and we got to see the first rays of light over the dunes. Again I was very grateful when the auberge came into view and the camels finally kneeled down for us to dismount – was a great experience but I don’t think I’d be cut out for too much more camel trekking. Back at the auberge we showered and had breakfast before hopping back on the bus and heading off. Outside the town of Erfoud we stopped at a fossil furniture factory – nearby they quarry the rock – the rock dating back 380 – 450 million years supposedly. The rocks in the area are loaded with fossils and when they cut the rock into slices it reveals the fossil form. They then soak the slabs of rock in potassium chlorinate which eats into the rock to expose the fossil. The factory has carved loads of the stone into different forms – Carol had her eye on a table that she really liked and was keen to put it on the shopping list.

Further up the road we stopped at a large irrigation system that dated back to the 17th century – the wells were dug by Sudanese slaves. We stopped in the town of Tinghir where we were staying, to explore the local horticultural patches with a local guide before heading for our last stop – Todra Gorge. The gorge is an imposing sight with the rock faces reaching up 160 m’s on either side of the road. We walked through the gorge and were surprised to see that some developer had built a couple of hotels at the base of the gorge on one side – a few years ago following heavy rains, the visitors couldn’t get across to the hotel as the river had risen, and then to make matters worse, some rocks above dislodged and came down onto the hotels causing damage – the developer then just closed the doors and walked away from them – bit extreme I thought. Heading back to Tinghir we visited a Berber Carpet coop where the carpets are handcrafted by a group of local women. The local guy showed us through the process and pulled out all these lovely rugs ahead of the sales pitch. A couple of the group brought really nice pieces, and again, Carol noted some more bits for her follow up shopping trip. That night we sat with most of the group and had dinner in the hotel before calling it an evening.

With that we were half way through our tour – with loads more to come.

Istanbul

We’d done a few overnight buses already so we thought this one would be similar and be equipped with a toilet and the likes but no, it was just a seat and a video screen that played movies only in Turkish. Again to my surprise the bus driver was smoking on the bus with every opportunity he could. The bus had to stop every couple of hours for toilets and the like so it was a pretty disrupted evening but I think I finally managed to get as few hours of sleep around 1.30am. We seemed to strike the outer suburbs of Istanbul @ 6.30am but it took a further 2 hours and a couple of suburban depot stops before we made it to the Central Istanbul Bus Depot at 8.30am. A young fella waiting near the bus seized the opportunity as we got off and asked us if we needed a taxi – which we did so we followed him along thinking he was going to take us, but no, he was just the finder and walked us out to another taxi driver, and then put his hand out for a finder’s fee – I guess this is how it works round here but got my back up and even more so when he started telling me how much I needed to give him. I gave him $5 lira and told him that was that. We headed off in the taxi and the roads around were very busy. The driver said it was on the meter but I couldn’t see the meter for the life of me. I was starting to wonder how much this ride was going to cost – we didn’t go far but with all the traffic backed up it took us maybe 30 mins to get near the area we needed to be. Driver pulled up and reckoned the hotel was just around the corner and then proceeded to tell us the taxi fare was $150 lira. I argued that this couldn’t be right but we had no meter to reference so I begrudgingly dug the money out of wallet and got us out of there.

The driver’s directions of ‘just around the corner’ were somewhat off – we went around a few corners before Carol’s GPS brought us to the Tom Square Hotel info@tomsquareboutiquehotel.com . We were met by our hosts – I asked about the taxi and he told us a fare from the station would generally be $40 – 50 liras so we got ripped off big time. Tired and frustrated by what had happened, we were thankful that the hotel let us into our room early so we sat down and made a cuppa and got ourselves together to head out and about. The Tom Square Hotel was a quaint little place – I think it had something like 7 rooms and we were up on the 2nd floor. Our hosts provided us with maps and directions of the key points in the Old City where we were staying and so we headed off. The streets around the Old City are narrow and cobbled with little to no sidewalks so you have to watch where you are walking. The directions we were given worked a charm and we were soon down in the area of the Blue Mosque. On the way we stopped and checked out Gallipoli tour options and finally settled on one that we booked for a couple of days’ time.

We visited the nearby Blue Mosque – its free to enter – you just need to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag as you enter and the woman are supplied with scarfs and local skirts that they need to wear to enter (although, it appeared not everyone was wearing them). The mosque was built in the early 1600’s and I think I heard it said that it was the largest structure of its type at the time. From the exterior the mosque stands out with its 6 large minaret towers which stretch up over 70 m’s high. The structure of these mosques seems to be to support the main dome on top of a series of smaller domes – I think the main dome here is something like 43 m’s high with a diameter of nearly 24 m’s and sits atop almost 30 ‘sub-domes’ which are supported by a series of columns. It is said that the main pray hall can accommodate upwards of 10000 worshippers – this is a big space. The mosque was an amazing building – you get inside these mosques and are just taken by the light and colours that adorn the interiors.

The Old City around the Blue Mosque has been set up with information plaques and the like at all the key points of interest so we walked through the area and studied up the history. I think the large town square area would have been a type of hippodrome where the chariots would have pulled up back in the Roman times. The points of interest include an old obelisk and column from I can’t remember how far back – there was plenty to view and study. There were loads of people about enjoying the weather as this area provided loads of places to sit in the sun under some trees etc. We found a place and had a bite to eat and then got caught by one of the carpet sellers – ‘come back to my shop and have a look at my carpets’ so on this occasion we did – but we also made it very clear we weren’t buying. I think over the course of the next 2 days we must have been approached by a dozen ‘carpet sellers’.

We then walked down through the hussle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar – this area just seemed to go on forever – and there were shops for everyone here (the shops seemed to be grouped in themes – the fabric quarter, the spice quarter, the silverware quarter etc.). Carol loved the look of the Turkish Delight and after a bit of looking, settled on a shop and brought some for later. We finally broke through the other side and found ourselves down by the waterfront. We headed up onto the Galata Bridge which spans the Golden Horn – I think this is an arm off the Bosphorus Sea. We were surprised by the number of people (mostly if not all men) that were fishing. They were using these long rods with multiple hooks on them and appeared to be mainly catching sardines. The harbour was alive with ferries coming and going from all sides of Istanbul (the city is spread over 3 islands that are separated by 3 stretches of water – the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn). I think it was pretty cool that a city was so split by all this water. Istanbul is also separated by the continental plates – on the eastern side of Istanbul you have the Asian plate, and on the west the European, so the wider area of Istanbul is a diverse mix of cultures. We enjoyed sometime taking in the activities down on the waterfront which was alive with people and noise, and then made our way back to the hotel. I wasn’t back in the room for long before I conked out for the night – it had been a long day.

Wednesday was our wedding anniversary and as if our hotel hosts must have known, they plied us with a breakfast fit for kings that would set us up for the day ahead. The day was fine and sunny so we headed out and across to the waterfront along the Marmara side. We followed it right up to where it merges with the Bosphorus Sea. The harbour was a hive of activity with a very regular flow of large ships heading in and up the Bosphorus with the likely destination of into the Black Sea – which the Bosphorus feeds into. We again found a big group of guys taking whatever vantage points they could to fish – they were lined up shoulder to shoulder casting out – sometimes getting tangled up with one another. Their rods have multiple lures on them so it wasn’t uncommon to view someone hauling in 3-4 fish at a time. As we walked we were surprised by how many cats and dogs there are roaming. The dogs seemed to have ear tags and we were told that this meant that they were ‘controlled’. There were local people putting out food for them – some focusing on the cats and others leaving bits out for the dogs. The dogs weren’t small dogs – they were all bigger dogs which surprised me. We were also surprised to see quite a few jellyfish in the water here and there.

The Old City of Istanbul was obviously surrounded like a citadel back in the day with a high fortified wall. Much of the wall is still in place – preserved from the period and it encloses the area around the Royal Palace and Hagia Sophia. We walked up to the area where the vehicle ferries were coming and going from and parked up to take it all in. From there we walked in and around the Topkapi (Royal) Palace. The palace is set in lovely grounds and you have to pay an admission price to enter the palace and associated museum proper so we just explored the surrounding area. From there we entered the Hagia Sophia Mosque to take in all that it offers. Unlike the Blue Mosque you pay an admission fee to enter here but it was well worth it as there was much history. The Sophia was commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1st in 532 AD (it was previously built on this site in timber twice, and burnt down twice from the period of @ 450 AD to 530 AD). The Sophia is known as a patriarchal basilica and it was converted into a mosque with the Muslim movement in the 1450’s. Like the Blue Mosque, the Sophia is a complex series of minor domes supporting the main dome. There is so much history and remnants from the period. There were a series of Christian mosaics installed pre-the Muslim conversion and these still stand in place – some date back to the 11th century BC. The chief Ottoman architect of the day back in the 1500’s set about bringing the Sophia back to it’s former glory and there were historic pieces installed into the mosque from Greek and Roman ruins – there was a large set of steel glad doors installed in one of the entrances that were believed to date back to the 2nd century BC along with some ceramics from that period. There is a lot of restoration work ongoing in the mosque and during our visit there was a large portion blocked off with scaffolding but there was still plenty to absorb. The old marble floors on the 2nd floor surround balcony had a definite slope and warn-ness to them, as did many of the steps.

Having taking in as much as we could we headed back towards our hotel and into the seafood restaurant area called the Kumkapi. The area was lined with seafood restaurants and we finally succumbed to one matre’de who fussed over us so we headed in and settled in for a lovely meal of whole Sea Bream and bits and pieces and washed it down with a bottle of wine – a special meal to remember a special day. Tired and full we fortunately didn’t have far to get back to our hotel – only a couple of blocks so it was back to the room to end another day.

Thursday was all about heading to Gallipoli. We’d arranged a tour on the pretext that it provided breakfast and lunch with a pick up from 7am. At 6.15am we had a knock on our door from our host to say the shuttle was on it’s way and we had 15 min’s – emm, not quite the plan, but we got up and headed out. The day was a bit grey and it wasn’t long before the drizzle settled in. The shuttle had a number of pick ups to complete and then headed out of Istanbul – which takes a while – the traffic was heavy so we just settled in. A couple of hours up the road the driver pulled into a truck stop for a break – we assumed for breakfast, but no, he was just the carrier and we were told they didn’t offer that service. The shuttle had no guide on board so we were just a bit confused by what we had actually signed up for. As we left the rest spot the weather really started to pack in with very heavy rain as we crossed over onto the Gallipoli Peninsula. Carol and I were looking at one another wondering how this was going to go but as we arrived into the port town of Ecebat the rain stopped and the sun finally came out as if on que. In Ecebat we were met by the tour company who then showed us to some lunch and a guide then joined us for taking us to the key local sites. The tour operator back in Istanbul told us we would have 6-7 hours in the Gallipoli area to take it all in but between our local guide and the shuttle driver they seemed pretty keen to just get us around the sites and away again.

The town of Ecebat itself looked like a nice spot right on the waterfront – the ferries come and go from here over to the town of Canakkale on the other side of the Dardanelles Channel. Some of the group that were in the shuttle van with us including a Kiwi woman from Blenheim departed to head across on the ferry to go down and visit Troy. Along the waterfront in Ecebat they have a large memorial set up as a tribute to those that fought and died in the conflict locally – there is a large life-sized model of the trenches with soldiers all cast in bronze. We headed off with our guide and driver and it wasn’t long till we were at the spot where the ANZAC’s had come ashore in 1915. It’s not till you are in the area that you realise just how small a location it was. Our Guide explained his understanding of how the conflict unfolded from 25 April onwards. He explained that the first soldiers came ashore with the goal of taking the high ground but the terrain and defences got the better of them and they were unable to advance as much as have been hoped or expected – then the fighting just settled in at very close quarters. We heard of the role of Ataturk in this conflict – he was the Turkish ‘man on the spot’ and finally led his men to victory locally – but at a very great cost.

We visited a number of the cemeteries in the area and wandered around reflecting on all that had occurred. We stopped at the spot where the ANZAC Day commerations take place at ANZAC Cove and then visited a couple of key sites with their associated cemeteries – Lone Pine the site of the main Australian battle and Chunuk Bairand the New Zealand key site and memorial. From down at ANZAC Cove where you look up at Chunuk Bairand it really didn’t appear to be that far, but back in the day, this was an enormous struggle over this piece of land. It was a very sombre experience for us – we were thankful to have the sun shining on us. Before we knew it, our guide was whisking us away back to Ecebat – we’d only have 3 hours in the area but supposedly it was his schedule – more feedback for the operator that sold us this excursion. There’s a large museum up in the hillside that I would have liked to have visited but our guide said we didn’t have time – we had to get back to connect with the team coming back across from the Troy tour so that was disappointing as there was definitely more to take in than we were able to.

Back on the bus we headed back to Istanbul – the trek down in the weather took @ 5 hours – with a different driver on board we were back into Istanbul within about 4.5 hours and back to our hotel somewhat early that planned at @ 9.30pm (had been told we wouldn’t be back till 11pm). We were very pleased we made the trek to this area but felt that the tour we took and paid for wasn’t good value – we had contemplated hiring a car and driving ourselves but without a guide to show you the key sites and explain the information, I think you would be pretty lost. Interestingly the actual town of Gallipoli is about 40 k’s back up the road from Ecebat and wasn’t an area involved in the conflict – the conflict was all down on the Gallipoli Peninsula – in and around the Ecebat area.

On the Friday morning our hosts set us up well for the day with a wonderful breakfast before we headed out for one last look around Istanbul. The day was nice and sunny so we made our way up and across town – taking in one of the areas that was lined with shoe stores and little buildings making the shoes. We then went through the Bazaar again before crossing over the Galata Bridge and past the hoards that were fishing, over to the northern side of Istanbul. I was keen for us to walk up the waterfront on the Bosphorus side up as far as the Dolmabahce Palace but this stretch of waterfront is under a major redevelopment and you couldn’t get up close to the water bar a couple of spots – where there were waterfront cafes and the like. We made it up to the Palace but didn’t enter the main ground which you had to pay an admission for. We headed back towards the Golden Horn and crossed over the styli Golden Horn Metro Bridge – established for the Metro Train to run across, with pedestrian’s crossing underneath. We then worked our way up to the Aqueduct of Valens – a double levelled aqueduct that crosses over the main road and would have been a primary water track back in the day. The aqueduct was built back in the 4th century and then the Ottomans repaired it. I think there was something like 90 arches plus in this structure. We parked up there for a breather before pushing on back to the hotel having covered a few steps today.

We had a shuttle pick up scheduled for 4pm to get us out to the airport so we got ourselves back to the hotel to cover off a couple of last minute things on line and then headed off down the street. The shuttle was late picking us up and then we got bogged down in rush hour traffic so the drive to the airport took almost an hour and a half but we’d allowed plenty of time. From here we were heading off to Morocco but we were very happy with the excursion into Turkey that we had made, albeit we really didn’t have enough time to do this country justice. There is so much more you can see and do here so it’s going back on the list of places to revisit – if we can (plus we still need to try for that balloon flight). We’d been really pleasantly surprised by Istanbul – we liked what we saw, and felt it was a really nice ‘big city’ with loads to take in – I really liked the waterfront aspect of this city. Turkey on the whole seemed a lot cleaner than likes of Jordan and Egypt, but still have loads of smokers. There were loads of cats and dogs but on the whole most seemed in better shape than we had seen. Our hosts at Tom Square Hotel were great and we would recommend this as a location to anyone travelling here. And then there was the Turkish Delight – so many flavours and varieties to choose from – Carol loved it. We’d have to give Turkey a big tick and encourage you to come and explore if for yourself.

Next Stop – Cappadocia

On the Saturday morning we had to be up and away to get down to the Central Bus Station to get our connection south to Goreme in the Cappadocia valley. I was heartened by the fact that the bus was off on time and we headed south – the day was bit grey and as we headed south I was surprised by how much snow was around (we were subsequently told that it had snowed around 10 days prior and this was the remnants). As we headed south the farm land increased as well but I don’t think on the whole drive we saw any stock to mention. I was surprised for the wrong reasons that the bus driver smoked on the bus – seems that the locals just can’t get enough of the smoke fix – it’s a constant (I guess with a packet costing @ $3.60 NZ they are cheap for them to smoke a load of). Every time the bus would stop to pick someone up – a cigarette is lit up. Anyway, the bus and final shuttle to Goreme took 5 hours so it was @ 2.30pm by the time we were dropped off in the middle of Goreme – surrounded by the amazing fairy chimney columns. Carol had found us a place in the town called Jasmine House – it’s run by a local guy and his Kiwi partner Lisa. Unfortunately Lisa was back in NZ at the time that we visited, but Deniz made sure to look after us throughout our stay in this amazing place.

Through Deniz we booked to do a balloon flight the following morning – all the flights go off at around 6.30 / 7am, so we also booked a tour of the Cappadocia Valley for the balance of the day – it was to kick off at 9.45am. With plans in place for the following day we headed up town to have a look around. Goreme is a tourist town in the heart of the Cappadocia Valley – it’s primary role is to cater to the tourist traffic that comes to this part of the world – mostly to take a balloon flight over the chimney’s – just as we had planned. We had a good walk around the town and went up to a point above the town called Sunset Point which provides you with a fantastic view out over the town and valley below. As far as the eye can see there are fairy chimney’s and I found it amazing that in the town many of them are being lived in – as homes, businesses and hotels. As the lights come on for the evening the chimneys are quite a sight all lit up. We found ourselves a place for some dinner and then wandered back to Jasmine House, excited about the following day.

On our arrival back, Deniz broke the news that the balloon flights had been cancelled for the following day – the wind was forecast to get up and the powers to be made the call early to cancel flights. Emm, not to worry, we had Deniz book us in for a flight on the Monday morning. On the plus side – we didn’t have an early start after all. We rose on Sunday morning and looked outside – weather seemed to be alright, but wasn’t till we were out in the open that we felt the wind – that had been forecast. Deniz fed us up with a great breakfast and we then headed off on our Green Tour of the Cappadocia Valley key sites. We had a full-on day travelling around a range of historic sites and met some nice people on the tour with us. After a quick stop above Goreme at another vantage point we travelled to Derinkuyu – The Underground City. I’m pretty sure if was the Christians that lived in the area from something like 2nd century, and in order to protect themselves from attack, they created an underground city to hide in and counterattack as needed.

The Christians of the area (something liked 5000 inhabitants) lived in the city and below the city as needed up to around the 11th century. Now the underground city has been preserved for tourists to visit. Back in the day there was something like 11 levels – now the facility lets you travel down to the 7th level (around 60 m’s underground). I’m thinking they must have been pretty short back in the day as some of the paths and tunnels were very narrow and low – I was crouched over to move through them but it was well worth the effort (underground city was re-opened to tourists in 1964). We then headed to the town of Ihlara and after lunch at a local restaurant we travelled down to the canyon floor and hiked several k’s alongside the river to take in the churches and caves that were carved into the rocks by the early Christian monks. Was good to get out in the fresh air. Last main site to visit was the Selime Cathedral which is the largest rock-cut monastery in the region. There was so main nooks and crannies to explore in this large multi chimney formation. On the way back to Goreme we stopped at a spot called Pigeon Valley – the ancient inhabitants of the region, built pigeon houses and the pigeons flock here daily for the tourists to view – only problem for us it was right on dark by the time we arrived so all the pigeons were tucked up for the night. It was almost 6.30pm and dark by the time we got back into Goreme so we picked up a couple of snacks and headed back to the hotel for a hot cuppa tea and to check on plans for the following day.

We’d checked the forecast and we were hopeful but as we arrived we were told again that the balloon flights had been cancelled for a second day – very disappointing as this was a key reason for coming to Turkey. The following morning we woke to a still and sunny day – emm, why were the flights cancelled as this looked like perfect weather. Deniz said to us that a lot of the operators locally are very frustrated with what I guess is the equivalent of our Civil Aviation – they review the forecasts and make the call to cancel the balloon flights – even though most operators would think the conditions to be suitable – something they will have to work out locally. Disappointed we headed out nevertheless and walked up the valley to the Open-Air Museum site where temples, tombs and cathedrals were built into the chimney back in the 11th century so a load of history here. There was a lot of period artwork to view and a large restoration project is ongoing in the area. We heard when on the tour that the chimneys were formed locally something like 300 million years ago in a volcanic area. The volcanos then erupted and the spilled volcanic ash settled on the rock formations in the valley, forming the chimney’s. With it being such a nice day we took the scenic route back into town and went off road and down into the floor of the valley an followed a track in and around the chimney’s. There was a bit of snow still around and it was a bit sloshy here and here but it was a good walk in the sun.

We headed back to the hotel where we had left our bags and got ready to head back into town. We’d brought tickets for the overnight bus from Goreme to Istanbul and with this not departing till 8.15pm we headed into town and dropped our bags at the depot and then went and had a nice meal to set us up for the night ahead.

Turkey – first stop, Ankara

The drive out of Amman to the airport took us approx. 45 mins and after some rigmarole with me having a small pair of binoculars in my back pack, we finally cleared customs and were set to leave Jordan. Trouble is Turkey wasn’t ready to have us yet and our flight got delayed twice – finally leaving Amman 2 hours behind schedule – not much in the way of explanation given for the delay. We arrived in Ankara only to find we had gained an hour so instead of it being @ 7.30pm it was now actually 8.30pm. Clearing customs was straight forward and once we finally found an ATM we made our way outside to get a shuttle back into Ankara. Expecting to have to pay someone we boarded the bus and rode and rode some more – trip into Ankara took approx. 45 mins and passed some really nice buildings that were all lit up – first impressions were that Ankara and surrounding area was quite a modern feeling city. Shuttle bus arrived into Central Ankara Bus Depot @ 9.45pm and disembarked without having to pay anything – not sure if we missed a process here but we were happy to move on quickly. We flagged a taxi to get us to our hotel which we finally made a bit after 10pm. Our plan had been to see a bit of Ankara today but with the delays arriving that obviously wasn’t to be. We hadn’t eaten with all the delays and nothing was served on the flight so we headed out for a bit of a walk and soon found a roadside bakery vendor and got some tea and pastries to tied us over. We headed back to the hotel and sat in the foyer with a local guy whose English was okay – he tried to explain some local places for us – the hotel team plied us with hot tea so it was a nice way to end the evening. Our accommodation wasn’t much – pretty tight little room but we would only be there for the evening and the wi-fi was good so that was a plus.

We got up Friday morning and went down and fuelled up with our complimentary breakfast before heading out. Our main objective today was to visit the Anitkabir – The Ataturk Mausoleum – it’s the most visited site locally I think. On our way down the street we bumped into some young travellers we saw at the hotel – 2 young women and a young guy – all Geology students from St Petersburg who were visiting Turkey to see some key sites of interest – for them. They seemed to know their way down town and showed us the way. We said our good-byes as they were heading north, hoping to hitch a ride to Istanbul so we headed south across town to our destination – was a good walk – the weather whilst cool was good for walking. I have to admit to not knowing a lot about Ataturk and his role in the formation of Turkey, but it seems everyone in Turkey idolises this man and what he achieved. As a tribute to him, they have created the most amazing mausoleum so that locals and visitors alike can come and pay their respects and learn of his struggle and what he achieved for Turkey. The mausoleum sits up on top of a hill call Rasattepe – this was a favourite spot of Ataturk as it offered a perfect vista out over the city of Ankara – his home. Ataturk came to fame as a great leader in WW1 and was instrumental in the Turkish defence at Gallipoli. After the war and then battles with Greece to take back lands that were previously part of the Ottoman empire, Ataturk set about creating independence for Turkey (prior to this it was called the Ottoman Empire or such like) and this was achieved by him in 1923. He then became Turkey’s first president – a position he held until his death in 1938. His body was preserved for 15 years and in 1953 the Mausoleum was opened with much fanfare and nationality.

The facility consists of the Peace Park and the Monumental Block – this is where the mausoleum sits. Around the mausoleum there is a large courtyard surrounded with pillars and this is where the Ataturk and War of Independence Museum’s reside. The whole place is guarded with soldiers from the Turkish forces – they stand guard over his tomb which can be viewed in the main mausoleum and there is a changing of the guard (and sentry’s) every 3 hours – a lot of tradition here, and an unusual march to go with it. In one of the corners of the courtyard there is Ataturk’s personal car from the 1930’s – a 1932 Lincoln that was fully restored about 12 months ago – and what a job they have done with this – it was striking. There is so much to take in at this site – we spent several hours trying to read up and learn all that we could – there was a constant flow of tourists in and out of the site. To enter the area of the mausoleum you have to walk up a long-paved pathway which is lined with 24 stone lions. Around the area the gardens are all impeccable – I struggled to understand which if any leaders in our time we would make / create such a facility for, to remember them (maybe Donald things he would be worthy of such a mausoleum).

Having been seriously educated on who Ataturk was, and all that he created in his time, we wandered out of the park, pondering all that we had seen and taken in. We headed on down to the central train station to see about transport options south to Cappadocia and were directed from one side of the station to the other and then back again. The station is a large facility that must date back many years – a lot of work is underway currently to restore and update the wider facility. We were given advice to get a bus south and so we found our way to the right counter and purchased tickets for the following morning. A little tired and hungry we headed back up town and found our way towards our hotel. The neighbourhood was alive with the local markets so we found a little café just next door to the hotel and had some local fare – a good way to wind up the day.

Amman Revisited

Having made our plans to head to Turkey out of Amman, today was all about crossing back over the border from Israel to Amman. Whilst in Nazareth we found there was a direct bus service running daily that crossed the northern border post and then on into Amman, but Jihad had told us it was better and more cost effective to cross back over through the gate / border post you had gone through when entering Israel, so we took his advice and had headed back to Jerusalem on the bus to get our border shuttle. We’d assumed the border shuttle was going to run us right out to the border post but no, it just dropped us on the main road and we then had to get a taxi for a quick 5 min drive up to the gate – we were lucky there were cabs at the main road but it’s obviously a fairly regular occurrence. Getting through customs on the Israel side was straight forward and we then had to wait 30 min’s or so for the shuttle bus to fill up sufficiently to take the 10 min drive ‘over the border’. Arriving at the Jordan border post we then had trouble getting back in – the customs guy reckoned we were given bad advice about what gate to re-enter through and as a result they required us to obtain a ‘re-entry visa’ – I reckon it’s just a way for them to generate revenue as the visas had to be obtained on line so Carol had to find a spot in the customs hall with strong enough wi-fi to hook up to apply for the visa. The visas cost us $100 US dollars each, so it wasn’t a cheap exercise coming back to Jordan. The process of sorting this took around an hour – then the customs guy was on his lunch break and we had to wait for him, but finally we were through and out, and in a cab to Amman.

The taxi ride into Amman was a good hair-raising ride again – our driver seemed to be all over the road as are most drivers locally – how he didn’t hit another car, or be hit once we reached the busy downtown area of Amman I don’t know. The temperature at the border was a very pleasant 21 degrees – this unfortunately dropped to a grey and drab 12 degrees by the time we reached our hotel. We worked out way through the busy streets of Amman and finally arrived at our hotel – which was down in the Old City again near the Roman Theatre. Had to carry bags upstairs to the reception at which point the guy took pity on us and only made us move up one more flight of stairs. Accommodation was nothing flash but it was a bit of a step up on the local Party Hotel. We weren’t up for much so we headed out and around the area again to stretch our legs and caught a bite to eat before heading back to retire for the night. It should be noted that the old city area is very noisy and the insulation in the old hotels is lacking so you get rocked to sleep at night by the sound of all the cars out on the road and then woken in the morning by the 5.30 and 7.30am calls to pray.

On the Wednesday morning we had an easy start – I was looking for some downtime today to catch up on overdue blog entries but before that we had a walk round and headed up the hill to the Citadel of Amman. This is a really impressive site sitting atop the Old City with 360 degree views out over Amman. The citadel offered many great viewing points to soak up Amman and on the plus side the sun had come out so with that it started to warm up finally, so shorts and tee shirt were the order of the day. Main features of the citadel are a central temple complex and the Temple of Hercules ruins. Its believed that this area has been inhabited since the 4th millennium BC and you had the Greeks and Romans here early on before the Byzantine period and then the Islamic period. Filling the visa to the north is the National flag pole – supposedly the largest in the world with a height of 126 m’s and a flag measuring 60 m’s long by 30 m’s high – you therefore can’t miss it. There’s a lot to take in here – theirs an archaeology museum on site but we didn’t call in to have a look. We found our way back down hill and parked up at the hotel for a good portion of the afternoon before heading into town for one last meal at the fabulous falafel restaurant. I reckon one of these restaurants could do pretty well at home if you could get your pricing right – Carol and I eat well for equivalent of $12 NZ so really not too bad. With full bellies we opted for a bit of a walk on the way back to the hotel and wandered around the Roman Theatre which is all led up at night so a good way to end the day.

Thursday was travel day for us so we were up and checked out of the hotel but left our bags with them whilst we had a wander – thinking was we would be parked up at airport and then a plane for balance of the day so best have a stretch. We headed up and around the theatre area again – was good to see the place so active with people parked up and wandering everywhere, kids skating and playing ball – and the sun was shining for good measure. The hotel reckoned we’d best allow ourselves plenty of time to head to the airport so we took their advice and headed off. Hotel arranged a local driver and I had a good chat with him as we made our way out of Amman towards the airport – next stop Turkey, so I’ll draw this update to a close. Amman probably wasn’t what we had expected in so far as being a ‘modern city’ but there again, there are parts of Amman that are nice – we just happened to be domiciled in the Old City for the most part so if we were to come back we might venture out a bit in order to get away from some of the hussle and bustle but that could be easier said that done. Doesn’t seem to matter where you go there are cars, people, noise and cigarette smoke. On the plus size they do a mean falafel meal and food probably on the whole wasn’t too expensive – they like their sweets – lollies and pastries so there are a lot of places that cater just for that. Come and find out for yourself.

Israel

The team at the party hotel had arranged for their driver friend to get us our to the border for our crossing to Jordan. The drive out of town to the King Hussain border post took the best part of an hour. The post is to the north of the Dead Sea so is well below sea level again at this point as evidenced by the landscape around you. Customs on the Jordan side was an interesting process – they take your passport and hold it till there are sufficient numbers to run the shuttle across the border (I think we waited around an hour before getting the nod). You pay to leave Jordan, then you pay for the shuttle between border posts – they just seem to be looking for ways to get you to pay. The shuttle across the border into Israel only takes @ 10 min’s – landscape is one of a real ‘no man’s land’. I was surprised with how easy the entry process into Israel was – but then we had another wait of around 45 mins before they ran the shuttle from the border into Jerusalem. The shuttle into Jerusalem was a bit of a laugh – there was a couple of older local Palestinians that hopped on the bus – the husband hopped off for a smoke and the shuttle left without him. Wasn’t till one of the other passengers flagged this to the wife that she started having an animated discussion with the shuttle driver. As it turns out he got a taxi up the road and got ahead of us and we picked him up maybe 5 min’s later. Not sure if it’s the Palestinian trait, but they are very loud when they get talking – you couldn’t help but hear the couple behind us – albeit we couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

We made our way into Jerusalem and the shuttle dropped us off near the Old City. Carol had a look on line before we left and we’d decided we would need to get a taxi round the road to the hotel as didn’t look to be a straight route, but as we were to find out later that afternoon, the hotel was a straight hike of maybe 10-15 min’s directly up from where the shuttle dropped us. It was too early to check in so we headed out to explore the Old City of Jerusalem. I didn’t know much about this area, but the Old City is just that – up to mid-1800’s this was Jerusalem – within the walls – was after 1850’s that the Jews started to expand out from the walls of the city. As noted it was an easy 10-15 min walk back down the hill from our hotel to be at the Damascus Gate – our entry point (for today) into the Old City of Jerusalem. Inside the old city is a mass of narrow cobbled streets with stall holders lining most and some areas of the Old City set aside for homes / private dwellings – we were told approx. 45000 live in the Old City with 26000 of that number being Muslim. We found a local bakery and sat down to have cake and tea before pushing on through the mass of streets. There were people, noise and colour, and smoke everywhere. To our surprise there are motorbikes and the occasional car traversing within the walls – seemed narrow enough for walking let alone driving.

The Old City is split into 4 main quadrants – the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters. We made our way through the city to the Western Wall or as it is more commonly called, the Wailing Wall. The wall is considered the most scared and most important Jewish site in the world. Thousands of people visit this spot every day – in conjunction with the local Jews that come here to pray. When the Muslims took over the Old City they ‘kicked the Jews out’ and put a big wall around the area with their mosque – as a result the Jewish people could no longer go to their scared place (Temple Mount) to pray as it was now blocked by a wall, so they have gone to the wall and still do since @ 700 AD I think it was, to face it to pray, as this was the closest they could get to their previous holy spot. Men and woman are separated at the wall and men must have their head covered to approach they wall – they provide you with the little Jewish hat to put on (can’t recall the proper name). Both Carol and I went to the wall and touched it to pay our respects. Lots of people place notes / prays on little slips of paper and slip them into the cracks within the wall – the walls were lined with them. All around the Old City there was a strong security presence – heavily armed Police and Army and at the likes of the Western Wall there was a thorough security screening. On this particular afternoon it turns out the Vice President of the US was in town and his wife was ‘shopping in the Old City’ so the armed presence was a little greater than normal maybe. Feeling humbled by our visit to the Old City we made our way out and back up to the hotel to retire for the day.

On Wednesday morning we headed out again to the Old City to explore some more of it. First stop this morning was to go to the Muslim quarter and the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosques. The mosques were built atop Temple Mount around the late 600 AD period when the Muslim’s took over the Old City. The area where the mosques are used to be part of the Jewish area so they got pushed out and the Muslims knocked down their temples in order to build their mosques and then walled the area up so the Jews could not get back in as noted above. The Dome of the Rock mosque is built over a rock thought to be the place where according to religion, on the mount God created Earth. We were unable to enter the mosques – only Muslims may do so (this site is considered the 3rd most important Muslim site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia). We were subsequently told that you cannot enter the area of the mosques if you have any ‘religious item’ on you that isn’t Muslim. The mosques are striking buildings – the Rock Dome has lovely tiling and mosaics and is capped with a copper gold doom roof which is visible right across the Old City – stands out as a beacon.

From the mosques we made our way across the Old City to the western side and to the Jaffa Gate in order to take part in a free walking tour of the Old City – what better way to find out the facts. Our tour took a little over 2 hours and took in each of the quarters as well as the significant sites. The Old City is stacked full of history – some of which dates back to 1000 BC. Temples were put up and then another religion or culture would take over the Old City and would tear down what was in place in order to build and create their own structures pertinent to their faith, believes and Gods. Another factor is that Israel as it exists today was only formed after WW2 in 1948 I think. This land was set aside to give the Jewish a place to live after the atrocities they suffered during WW2. Unfortunately for Israel, Jordan which is Israel’s biggest border country is pro Muslim. I think the story goes along the lines of the Palestinian’s that were settled in the land that was then given to the Jews to be known as Israel, were pushed back to the border with Jordan – this formed the West Bank. Jerusalem sits just beyond the West Bank but for whatever reason Jordan had control of the West Bank and Jerusalem up until around 1967. In that time, Jordan went through the Old City and destroyed all the Jewish buildings and temples – not sure what it achieved but that was what happened. As a result the Jewish quarter within the Old City and wider Jerusalem had to be rebuilt from 1967 onwards so their homes and area appear much newer when compared to the older parts of the city.

First stop on the walk was to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – this is considered to be the most holy of Christian sites in all the world. Just inside the church is a large slab of stone – this is believed to have been the spot with Jesus lay and took his last breath. Thousands flock to this church to pay homage to their religion – to touch and kiss the stone and say a pray. Inside the church which really has to be seen, there are a number of temples but central to this is the temple in the middle which is considered to have been the resting spot of Jesus – his tomb being placed here. After the church the walk took in the Western Wall where our guide explained the history of the area and how the Muslims took it over from the Jews leaving them just the wall to face to pray. We walked through the Armenian quarter and then the newer Jewish Quarter – I think it was in this area that when they were rebuilding they discovered a wide section of the old wall – the wall was some crazy thickness like around 3 m’s and stood over 8 m’s high – would have been a very imposing sight for any wannabe invaders. Talking about the wall, just goes to show the clout some people have – the Kaiser of Germany wanted to visit the Old City in 1899 and had a large carriage and entourage he wanted to be able to bring through the gates into the city, so the local mayor of the time ordered that a section of the wall by the Jaffa Gate be removed so they could open it up and create a road into the Old City – as a result you can’t walk right round the top of the Citadel (I think they should have left it in take regardless of who was visiting).  The walk was a really good way of obtaining a good insight into the history of the Old City and is well worth the hike. After the walk we found a café for a bit to eat and a wi-fi catch up before heading back out into the Old City to explore some more – there’s just so much to see.

On Thursday morning we arranged for a taxi to take us over to Bethlehem – Carol had talked to the driver the previous day and supposedly agreed a sharp price but wasn’t till he had us in the car that he upped the price so instead of going onto Hebron as well we opted just to see Bethlehem with the taxi driver. The drive to Bethlehem from Jerusalem is less than 30 min’s – it’s almost as if Bethlehem were an outer suburb but it is in face in the West Bank and so with that there are various security points and detours that need to be taken – it is very difficult for an Israeli to enter the West Bank as this is Palestinian held land – an example is that Israeli rental car firms won’t let you drive into the West Bank – you have to go around it – as did our taxi driver this morning. Our main stop in Bethlehem was to visit the Church of Nativity where it is believed Jesus was born – you can go down into the church where they have a temple that they believe to be the site. The church is and has been undergoing major renovations for the last 5-6 years – they appear to still have a lot of work to do as inside the church there is a lot of scaffolding in place as experts work on repairing the painting and tiling around the church – a team were hard at work repairing the artwork on the main foyer columns. There was a lot to take in at the church as you would well imagine with its age so we had a good look around and then headed back into Jerusalem and headed back into the Old City for a bit more looking around (we wanted to gather so info and went to the Christian Tourist Office who were very helpful). The weather packed in so we headed for a bite to eat and some shelter before heading out into it again. We crossed out of the Old City through a nice shopping arcade area in search of rental cars to drive to Nazareth.

The working week in Israel is Sun – Thursday in line with Muslim faith and so all the rental car firms told us we would have to pick up car on Friday or wait till Sunday – not ideal but we finally made arrangements through Hertz that we would pick up on the Sunday in Nazareth – seemed the best fit. As a result of that we would now have to get ourselves up to Nazareth on a bus so that would be Friday’s job to sort. So on the Friday morning we headed out again this time in search of the Central Bus Station. We’d been told to get a taxi or take the train but the day was okay so with map in hand we headed out on foot. The bus station is located in the Jewish area which as noted was relatively new and rebuilt so it was quite a nice area with good shops and cafes and a crazy busy market place – it was after all the weekend for the locals and seemed that the market was well supported by them (we were surprised by how many people ‘helped themselves’ to samples as they walked along from stand to stand – with so many people in place I guess it would be hard to stop this happening – we were thinking you could eat quite well if so inclined).

On the matter of people, we were both quite surprised by how dour the local people seem to be – appreciate we can’t tar all Israeli’s by the same brush but in Jerusalem especially we found them to be quite rude, very pushy, abrupt, very grumpy looking and arrogant – they would just ignore you if you tried to ask a question – in one case we handed over a large note to pay for something and it seemed like it was the worst thing we could do by the look of the young woman serving us. Maybe it has something to do with how much they smoke or maybe in Jerusalem they are just always living on edge??? With all the religion locally you have the Muslim pray playing out on speakers all over town 4 times a day and then you have the Greek Orthodox with their funny hair style and a range of hats that they wear – it’s all here for you. The most popular means of transport outside of cars (of which the main car in Jerusalem seemed to be Skoda so I was impressed) and large motor bike scooters, is to use electric bikes – with Jerusalem being hilly they zoom around on these bikes. I hardly saw a standard bike being used – wondered if they were too lazy or just forward thinkers? To compound matters for us further locally, here in Jerusalem the Jewish recognise Saturday for religious reasons and so there is no public transport that runs on Saturday’s until after sunset. As a result of that we were unable to ‘leave’ Jerusalem until after 6.30pm on the Saturday night – we didn’t do our homework very well before arriving here to find all this out so be warned. Resigned to these arrangements, we managed to get tickets – with another grumpy Israeli exchange, and then headed back down town. The roading around Jerusalem is fairly pot-holed in places and with the rain had filled with water – it was just our timing that a cop car came up the road and drove through the pothole splashing us with water – I turned around and threw my arms up in the air but to no avail – we just have to write it off to our Jerusalem experience.

On the Saturday we left our bags with the hotel and headed out for one last explore of Jerusalem as we had the bulk of the day to kill. The weather was cool and grey but it wasn’t raining so we headed out. Instead of going into the Old City we walked the perimeter of it today. On the way we visited the area known the Mount of Olives. This sits to the east side of the Old City and is dominated by a large Jewish cemetery across the hill side. In addition to this we visited the Mary Magdalene temple and tomb which is thought to be the resting place of Mary, mother of Jesus. We also went in and viewed the Gethsemane Basilica of Agony – another striking place of religion. We walked around the south side of the Old City and were surprised to find some old ruins / temple down in the hill side – I think it was called the Tomb of Absolom. We took in all the sites around the Old City and then made our way back in through the Jaffa gate in order to visit the Tower of David Museum. The Castle or Tower of David fortification is believed to date back something like 3000 years and has been taken over by all the religions over the centuries. Each one would add to it and built it up – first the Romans have a go at remodelling, then around 11th century the Crusade arrived and added to the fortifications and then the Turks took over and topped it all off – it’s quite a striking castle / fortification to explore – built into the Old City. The museum was great for great for outlining the history of all the periods in Jerusalem’s time – you had the first and second temple periods (this was the time of King David who slayed Goliath), the Roman and Byzantine periods, the Muslim’s then arrived, then the Crusade had a go before the Ottoman settled in for the longest period before being pushed out by the Turks in the 17th century?

That evening we made our way over to the Central Bus Station and once it opened at 6pm we had a wait of @ 30 min’s for our bus to Nazareth. We expected the bus to take us maybe 3 hours but we made good time as there were only 6 of us on the entire bus and we were into Nazareth @ 8.30pm. From there it was a bit of a hike up the narrow streets and hills (some of which were pretty steep especially when dragging our bags) to find our hostel – SimSim. The hostel was pretty basic but they offered you a hot water bottle which turned out to be a welcome surprise. On Monday morning we headed out and collected our rental car and then proceeded to head east to the area around the Sea of Galilee. On the way you pass through the city of Tiberius which we had seen from the Umm Qay lookout point in Jordan. You wind your way down the hill through Tiberius until you find the water and then you follow it around depending on the way you want to go. For us we headed up the north west side of the sea – unfortunately the weather whilst fine was very hazy and so the view out over the sea wasn’t great – you couldn’t make out the other side. There is a load of historic religious sites all around the sea so we worked our way up and stop at them all between Tiberius and Capernaum – a small town towards the top of the lake on the western side. They all have significance but I didn’t take enough note so I will have to do some more homework on the places we stopped. What I do recall is that we found a nice place to eat near the water’s edge – it was a buffet restaurant that was obviously popular with the tour buses as there were a load of groups in for lunch.

Having refreshed with lunch we headed up the hill to the Mount of Beatitudes – the temple here is on the spot where Jesus is believed to have delivered the sermon on the mount. The church here was another stunning building – we have been so impressed by the architecture and materials used in these buildings. The day had improved – the view out over the sea was still limited but this spot up on the hill offered a great vantage point and on a clear day I’m sure you could see across to Jordan. We soaked it up and then made our way back towards Nazareth. The traffic coming back into Nazareth was heavy but with Carol’s navigation we found our way back without any problems. We got ourselves a park near the hostel and then headed back down town for a bit of a walk. On Tuesday morning we headed away early and this time we went west in order to hit the Mediterranean and that we did in the cities of Haifa and Acre. From Nazareth it was a drive of @ an hour over to the port city of Haifa. We worked our way through the city and hit the beach – just what we wanted. We may not have dipped our feet in the water but we certainly touched it. The day started to improve and for the first time in a week or more I managed to take my hoodie off – I think to the surprise of the locals who were all wrapped up. We enjoyed a nice walked up the waterfront – just out to sea was lined with ships waiting to come into port and there was something like 4 naval ships that went out into the Mediterranean including as submarine. I could have parked up here happily all day watching the activity out in the water. There were loads of locals out fishing, the sun came out, we have the water beside us – what more could we ask for.

There were loads of cats around – many of them homeless strays I’m picking – there were some locals that were doing what they could to look after them but all along the coastline there were cats. Having had a good waterside fix we headed up hill to find the Terraces of the Baha’i Faith, also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa. What a spot this is – theses garden terraces sit high up in the hillside of Haifa and offer an amazing view out over the city and the Mediterranean below. The garden terraces are impeccable and sit up and around the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel in Haifa (the Baha’i faith was explained to us – something along the lines of their faith was about making humanity better and recognising a mix of religions – or something along those lines). The shrine is only open till midday so we were unable to visit it but from above it looked to be another amazing structure. This really was a spectacular outlook and one you need to take in if visiting Israel. An interesting observation, but outside of a security presence at the Bab site, the security presence outside of Jerusalem was much lighter.

We made our way down again and headed north approx. 30 min’s to the old coastal city of Acre. This area was conquered by the Crusade in the early 1100’s and formed an important fortified city during the Crusade conflict. As a result, the old city has a great fortress out on the corner point of the bay that is now a world heritage site. The fortress was first built by the Romans and Canaanites and after the Crusade period was taken over by the Turks before they got the boot by the British – Napoleon is even involved in the history of this site. A number of locals live within the old city fortress – parts of it have only been unearthed as homes were developed in the area. There are market places and cafes all through the area. With the sun shining it was a really nice spot to visit. Feeling refreshed by a day near the water we headed back towards Nazareth. Traffic was again heavy – probably a case of when is it not. We made it into town and parked up and then headed back to the central part of Nazareth to visit the Basilica.

The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is a modern Catholic church built over the remains of Byzantine and Crusader churches. It incorporates the cave in which the Virgin Mary received the news from Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus. The site has been a pilgrimage destination since earliest times and remains an important stop for Holy Land pilgrims today. The cathedral here was another stunning example – inside there is a shrine with the tomb of Mary. One aspect we really liked was that all around the cathedral and the ground of the Basilica there was large mosaic pieces which has been donated to the basilica from nations all over the world – we found the piece from Australia and think we may have seen the piece from NZ). We spent until dark having a look around this site – to the top side there is the Cathedral of Joseph which was another nice building and had a whole lot of history down below. This is the spot that all the tourist to Nazareth come to and they were still coming in after dark (site closes at 6pm). We made our way back up the narrow streets and made some dinner to warm us up for the evening ahead.

On the Wednesday morning we were up and away early – we needed to drop the rental car back and then get a short distance up the street to a bus stop where if we had it right the bus to Jerusalem would pick us up from. We thought the bus was due around 8.45am but was well after 9am before it finally arrived but we were on board and headed back up the road to Jerusalem. Heading out of Nazareth is a challenge with its narrow winding streets – thankfully the bus driver was alert as a quad bike came roaring up and around a bend on the wrong side and it was only the actions of both drivers that avoided collision. Quad bike driver was taking a moment to get his breathe back before he roared on again. Driving in Israel isn’t the norm – drivers are all in a hurry and just pull out on you at will – you need to have your wits about you. We pulled into Jerusalem Central Station – next stop the shuttle back to the border to cross back over to Amman – that will be my next post.

Amman

As already noted we had an extra stay here in Amman after the end of the G Adventure tour. Carol and I headed downtown from the nice hotel we were in, to the Old Town where its nosey, busy with people and cars constantly, and messy – yep, that pretty much sums it up – albeit there are some nice historic sites in the area to view as well. We were staying at a cheap hotel downtown – wasn’t till we got there that we understood why it was deemed cheaper – the ‘Party House’ as they liked to refer to it was undergoing renovations. Emm, maybe they were planned but there didn’t look to be much renovating action underway. To compound matters the lift was knocked out of action by a storm earlier in the week so it was 5 floors of stairs to drag the bags up – emm, was a bit stuffed by the time we finally got to our room. The room was very basic – as was the hotel – not very clean, but it was a bed and it was central to everything so a bit of a trade-off. The hotel staff were very friendly and tried to go out of their way for us. The hotel was situated right across the road from the Roman Theatre, and sat at the base of the hill below the Citadel of Amman so atleast it had a nice outlook from the roof.

We’d arranged to head out to meet Fiona and Steve for the afternoon – we heard that the Royal Car Museum was worth checking out so I was excited to have a look. And a good afternoon it was – the former King Hussain and the current King of Jordan are / have been big car buffs and the former King built up a great collection that his son has added to. I spent a good couple of hours in my happy place just looking around at all that the museum had to offer. A lot of the vehicles were ‘gifts’ to the royal family – one of the perks I guess. There were some standouts in the collection – a couple of nice Lambo examples and a nice older Aston, an big Mercedes and ….. I could keep going on. Martin joined us at the museum for the look around, and to my relief all the others looked to have enjoyed their look around almost as much as me. Having had a good car fix we headed over the road to the local shopping mall and went and got a bite to eat and had a look around. It was at this point that we bid farewell to our Aussie friends from the tour Fiona and Steve who were heading back home to Melbourne later than evening. We headed back downtown and left Martin to wander off some more – he was out and about looking for street art.

On Sunday we arranged for a driver to take Carol and I and Martin north of Amman to 3 significant sites. We met up with Moab who was a friend of Jihad from G Adventures. After battling our way out of town (Amman has something like 1 million vehicles on the road – a crazy number and the roading doesn’t look well equipped to cope), the first site we visited was called Umm Qay – it was right at the northern end of Jordan, with Syria the next valley over and Israel just off to our left on the other side of the Sea of Galilee which we could clearly see from the viewing point. Umm Qay or Gadara as it is also known is a huge site of ruins. It was first a Greek site and then they got booted out by the Romans – influences from both are visible around this site. The site is full of limestone and basalt structures and forms. There was an old pathway that would have been lined with columns back in the day. Most have fallen by the wayside but those that could be resurrected, have been. Moab only reckoned we would need @ 40 min’s at this site but we were well over an hour before we made our way back to him. The site is slowly being restored – they have a massive amount of work ahead of them though. The site has a key lookout that shows you clearly where Syria is, the Sea of Galilee below you and the Israeli city of Tiberius just off the western shores of the Sea. Beyond you have Lebanon above Israel. The Umm Qay site dates back to the 2nd century I think and was badly damaged by an earthquake in the 8th century.

The land to the north of Amman suddenly becomes greener – this is where most of the countries produce and crops are grown. Unfortunately the countryside is littered with rubbish – this country could benefit from a decent rubbish collection scheme I reckon. I think we must have put Moab behind his expected schedule as he opted for what he thought was a shortcut to our next stop – not that it appeared much of a shortcut in the end as he had to keep stopping to ask for directions. We finally arrived at Ajlum Castle which is an amazing site considering its age. It is still in largely very good condition. The castle sits atop the hill which would have provided it a great outlook back in the day. Ajlum Castle is famous for being the best example of an Islamic military castle and was built around 1184 AD. The castle was a significant site during the Crusade conflict and its entrance was categorised by a large 16 m drawbridge that sat over a 12 m deep moat – would have made it pretty difficult to enter back in the day. We were able to have a good look around this site – it was really pleasing to see how good a job had and is being done locally to preserve this site – it was in really good condition ‘for it’s age’. Nearby there is an area of olive trees which if Moab is to be believed, were planting something like 1600 years ago – and they are still alive and growing – they were pretty neat to look at.

 

 

From there we headed down hill and Moab stopped at a popular spot for kebab sammies – a welcome arrival for us. We then had a short drive to our main spot – Jerash. Again, like Umm Qay, this site is huge. We spent over 2 hours trying to take in all that this site had to offer. Again this site started out as a Greek site in the early AD period but they then got booted out by the Romans who proceeded to stamp their own mark on the buildings here. Jerash was an old trading town and the citadel basically encased the town. The site has temples for Zeus and Artemis taking pride of place up high in the citadel and has a central amphitheatre that lines up the north / south corridors of the citadel. The amphitheatre was surrounded by columns – fortunately this area has been pretty well preserved and makes quite a sight. One of the features I liked was the stadium area with a large oval like track – it was called the ‘hippodrome’ – I wondered if it was where that had chariot races? I could imagine them roaring around the circuit on their chariots with the crowd cheering them on from the stands. At the far end of the site was a theatre with a large stage and semi-circular banked sitting. There was a large Asian group visiting this site when I was there and some of the ladies took it in turn to sing for the acoustics that the theatre offers. Jerash was again one of those sites that in order to do it justice you could spend a whole day exploring – it had so many nooks and crannies and information boards to study.

On the way back into Amman we’d asked Moab about some authentic food and so he took us to the Habebar bakery and shouted us each a plate of Kanfe which is a cheese based sweet. This place is famous for this dish and people que on a daily basis to get their fix of it. Moab said he would come to the bakery on average 3 times a week just to have Kanfe. I didn’t think I would like it being a sweet cheese-based dish but it was really nice and well balanced. Moab also showed us to the Hashem Café which is famous in Amman for being the place that the King goes to for his falafel – we made a date with Martin to meet him there the following evening. Saying goodbye to Moab downtown, Martin left us to wander off to look for more street art. I managed to get Carol and I lost trying to head back to the hotel – we had a good walk round town and having headed in completely in the wrong direction I had to resort to asking for directions to get us heading in the right direction – we finally found our way back to the party hotel and climbed the stairs to retire for the evening.

On the Monday morning we ventured to the roof-top to have our breakfast and then I spent a moment with the hotel team to get my bearings sorted before we headed out to the Museum of Jordan. The museum currently has a display of the Dead Sea scrolls so we spent some time looking them over. There was also a find of a copper scroll that was secured with the other significant scrolls. When discovered in the 1950’s??? they had to develop a tool to cut the copper scroll into 5cm wide strips rather than attempting to un-roll it. Once fully pulled apart the scroll was found to be 2.3 m’s long. The detail on the scroll supposedly made reference to some large deposit of treasure but this had not been taken seriously – sounded a bit like a case for Indiana Jones. Upstairs in the museum they had a display called 1001 Inventions – if you took this all in you were left to think that the Middle East was responsible or had a hand in all inventions and developments through history. It was very good and had a lot of information to ponder. That evening as promised we met Martin down town for dinner – the Hashem Falafel place was great – very filling and only cost equivalent of $22 to feed the 3 of us. After wandering round the main area to try and find a good coffee and desert place we finally found one albeit it was very popular with the local for shikar pipe – was surprising how many local women enjoy it. Martin wandered back with us to arrange a tour and taxi for the following day and it was at that point we said good-bye to him with the hope that we will on him in Switzerland before our travels are over. On the Tuesday morning we’d arranged a shuttle to get us over to the border for us to cross into Israel – our next leg so I will leave things here for now and update on that shortly.

 

G-Adventure Tour – Jordan Leg

As noted when last updated we were parked up at the Nuweiba Ferry terminal waiting for word that we could board and sail up the Sinai Coast to Jordan. We had a wait of around an hour at the terminal and then got the word that we could board the ferry. We then had another wait of about an hour and a half on the ferry before the lines were finally cast off and we headed away from Egypt. The day was fine but up on top of the ferry it was fresh as we steamed up the Red Sea. The trip up to our port in Jordan, Aqaba took best part of 3 hours. We then had the customs process to get through – I think in the end we finally headed away from the Aqaba terminal about 2 hours after having docked – it was a slow process and one of the group misplaced her fit-bit so that took some searching and explaining with the local authorities. It was here we met our Jordan guide, Jihad (he did explain how he got his name – I think Jihad means hard or difficult so his birth must have been a bit of work for his mum and as a result, she called him Jihad). Jihad subsequently explained to us that we were the last G Adventure tour to arrive in Aqaba by ferry – they are going to stop sending groups on the ferries as they perceive there to be a security risk that they can’t control. We weren’t aware of anything but felt lucky to have been able to arrive on the ferry – I enjoyed the ride, it was smooth sailing and you got to explore the coastline (I did get too close to the horn as we were coming into port and it blasted above me making my ears ring).

Aqaba is an interestingly positioned spot – it’s Jordan’s only coastline and stretches 23 km’s back down the Red Sea. To the south of Jordan you have Saudi Arabia, to the North you have Syria, and then just across the Red Sea you have Israel bordering Syria – Israel have a large city right on the border with Egypt – 5 countries all around you, at this top tip of the Red Sea. Aqaba is Jordan’s only port city and as such is a main trading hub. The city is comparatively new with borders being changed over the years – I think Jihad said Aqaba was really only developed after the early 1980’s so it had the feel of a new city. Jordan has a population of around 11-12 million with something like 3-4 million being made up of refugees and migrants especially from Egypt – they come to Jordan and get paid well and will do the work local Jordanians don’t want to do. Jordan appears to have more wealth that the likes of Egypt – atleast if the cars being driven around are anything to go by. Jordan has two main industries – fertiliser and cement exports – all of which go out of Aqaba. Interestingly Jihad explained that Jordan’s is the second poorest of the Middle Eastern countries when it comes to natural resources – they don’t have much oil, and only have the sand to make cement and deposits of fertiliser. Of more concern is the fact that Jordan don’t have any good water supplies – the Jordan River which you would think flows through Jordan actually flows through Israel now so that is cut off to them. There is concern that they have estimated Jordan’s water supply will run out in 100 years so all efforts are being made to find a solution – or else Jihad said they would have to go to war to win back some water – I guess from Israel.

We checked into our hotel and then after an overview from Jihad of the week ahead, the group all headed out for dinner at a local seafood restaurant – very nice. It was Sunday night but this is the start of the working week here in Jordan so all the shops were still open so after dinner, at Jihad’s advice we all went off to get some supplies for the days ahead. On Monday morning as we boarded the bus we were met by Abdulla from the Jordanian Tourist Police (they are everywhere in Jordan – a branch of the Police Force I think) who would be travelling with us all week (he just sat at the front of the bus, took smoke breaks as often as he could, drunk loads of coffee, and tried to look good for the ladies in the group). We boarded the bus and it took us for a bit of a drive around Aqaba and stopped at the local market for some of the team to buy scarfs – making sure they were the right colour of black and white for Palestine or red and white for Jordan (scarfs would be needed for when we got out into the desert, and for some sites). Our bus headed inland from Aqaba for our destination of Wadi Rum – the desert area of Jordan. Quite a few films are shot in this arid landscape – The Martian, some Star Wars movies and the like. We arrived at a local Bedouin camp where they put on some lunch for us. We had an opportunity to have a look around and stretch our legs in the mounts near the camp – Carol was away laughing scaling up the hill.  After lunch the local Bedouin loaded us into some 4*4’s for a 2-hour Wadi Rum excursion. The 4*4’s were nothing special – old Hilux, Mitsi and Isuzu utes with seating in the back tray. We headed out into the hills in amongst the sand and had some fun. We stopped at one spot and some of us climbed the sand dune – quite the workout and reminded Carol and I of our time in in Namibia climbing the dunes. The hard work was rewarded with a great view at the top and then the fun run downhill again. We explored a spot with some local rock art – I can’t recall how old it was but it was stencilled into the rock face – depictions of animals from the area.

Most of the group headed off on a couple of extra excursions – some more 4*4 driving to see the sunset and camel rides for those that were keen. Carol and I headed back to our camp for the night with Fiona and Steve. The Bedouin camp was tucked into the bottom of a hillside and was well out of the sun by the time we arrived so we went out for a bit of a walk to find some sun and to see if we could collect some firewood for the campfire – which we did. The Bedouin hosts cooked us a really nice authentic meal – they use a technique much like the hangi where they cook the food in a container in the ground with hot coals on top. They had cooked chicken and lamb and it was very nice – we all ate too much. After dinner we got local tea – served black with sage flavouring (in summer they serve it with mint but in the winter they prefer sage). We parked up around the campfire – Carol had brought mash-mellows and they went down a treat with the group. We retired to our tent – Bedouin sleeping quarters, while a few of them parked up around the fire till the early hours of the morning – pretty sure I heard some still up after 1am. It’s winter time in Jordan and out in the desert area the temperature drops to around zero and climbs to mid-teens during the day. The tents were supplied with heavy blankets – they were needed. It was an early start on Tuesday as quite a few of the group were heading off to do a balloon excursion that meant they had to leave camp by 6am. A couple of the girls headed off on camels to see the sunrise so Carol and I decided to head out and start walking back. The morning was cool but lovely and clear and we walked for maybe 40 min’s before the truck from the camp arrived to collect us. We then picked up the camel girls about 5 min’s up the track and were treated to views of the balloon off in the distance.

We went back to the Bedouin camp where we had lunch at the day prior and had breakfast and waited for the others to arrive back from the balloon. The arrived back and were all buzzing from the experience so sounded like it was quite the thing to do. Once everyone was fed we boarded the bus and headed off to find Little Petra – a valley just around from Big Petra as you might expect. On the way we used the Kings Road (the main road / highway up through Jordan is call the Hussein Highway after the royal family) which stretches cross-wise over part of Jordan across the hills. Supposedly back in the day the road covered 3000 km’s and linked 3 kingdoms in the old Jordan. Little Petra is made up of sandstone and limestone formations and was a great taster for what we had install for us the following day. We walked up in through this small valley lined on both sides with sandstone / limestone with temples, tombs and houses from the period. They knew what they were doing back in the day when it came to collecting water – they had a series of large water wells up through the valley aligned to housing areas. From there we headed back to Wadi Musa which is the town that supports Petra. We found our hotel and had some free time to explore locally before we met up for a team dinner that night.

Wednesday was an early start as we were exploring Petra today (its known locally as the ‘Rose City’ – not too sure why) and Jihad wanted to get us there early before the masses (I think he said they average 4000 visitors to Petra a day in the peak season – we were in winter but there were still a lot of people going through). We were up and left the hotel at 6am to travel across town to the Petra entrance – looks like the town has been built out from the ruins of Petra to service the tourist business. Today was to be about walking – from the entrance to the main sites within Petra is a walk of about 6km’s each way. From there we had the option of taking some extra trails of which Carol and I did the 2 main ones so we were getting a bit tired and sore by the end of the day from climbing up all the steps and terrain that Petra presents. They have a really nice set up at the entrance with a museum and cafes and the likes – and tourist shops as you would expect. You then walk in about a kilometre and a half before you get to the start of the canyon. The canyon is a 2 km stretch which opens out at the end to reveal the Treasury in all its glory – a fantastic reward for your walk thus far. Supposedly the Treasury has stood up so well over the years due to its positioning for favourable weather and the overhang at the top of the structure. Whilst the Treasury is the main focal point in Petra (apparently a lot of the tour groups – Asian especially, will only walk in as far as the Treasury to say they have seen Petra) there is so much more to see. From the Treasury you walk on into the valley around 2-3 km’s and you are rewarded with more monuments than you can recall – you get to see the Pharaoh’s Castle, the triumphal arch, the amphitheatre, and tomb sites all through the valley. All I could think about was the Indiana Jones movie – The Last Crusade, that was shot in part here at Petra, and supposedly brought this area to the attention of tourism as tourist numbers into the area swelled after the release of the movie.

Carol and I did the hike up to the Monastery – high up above Petra – Jihad said it was 850 steps but it was path and then steps so a good hike up and down. If that wasn’t enough we then did the climb up to the viewing platform above and opposite the Treasury – you get to sit with your legs tangling over the edge as you look down and soak up the Treasury below you. In the end we hiked back out of Petra having spent over 9 hours walking and exploring all that the area has to offer – it really is a sight that has to be seen by your own eyes (Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is really well maintained / set up). Petra was carved out of the rock by the local Nabeteans and the descendants from this race still live in the area – Nabetean Bedouin. The King of Jordan built a new town above Petra in the 1980s to rehouse the Nabeteans who were living in the valley of Petra (I think I heard them say that this site has really only been preserved as an historic site in the past 30 years so, with Jordan only getting series about it’s preservation from 1994 onwards, so not very long at all). He offered them homes cost free, no rates, nothing – so most took up the offer but some still live in the valley and ply their business through the ruins – souvenirs, horse and donkey rides – I think this detracts from the experience somewhat but it is their way of making a living. Carol had such a smile on her face all day today – she just loved being in amongst the hills, scaling up tracks, taking in the history and the sights. Jihad told us that they estimate there to be 100,000 ruins in the valley of Petra but they have only identified 25,000 or so to date. It was a big day for us but what a day.

We headed back to the hotel and cleaned up and them a group of us went out for an authentic Jordanian meal – mansaf which is chicken or lamb which is served with rice and yogurt and eaten in flatbreads – fingers are the order the day when eating this but I might have resorted to a fork a few times. We all went back to the hotel very full. On Thursday morning we were up and away again by 8am – we travelled back over part of the Kings Road and stopped briefly to view Shawbak Castle which was significant from the Crusade period. One of the locals living here had established the ‘smallest hotel’ in the world – he’d decked out an old VW Beetle with a bed for those that wanted a different experience – very cool so we stopped for pictures. He himself lived in a house that he’d dug back into the hillside – a bit like a cave. A further 2 hours up the road we stopped at the site of Karak Castle to explore it. The castle sits high above a town and dates back also to the Crusade period. Karak and Shawbak Castles were built by the same king in the late 1000 – 1100’s AD and were used extensively during the Crusade conflict – Richard the Lion Heart and the like. Richard and his team were defeated by a Kurdish leader and so he then took over the castle and ‘extended it’, building up on top of the existing castle The Karak Castle is considered the best example left from the Crusade period. The castle was up high and it was pretty cool and draftee walking around it so we were pleased to head down around an hour to the spot on the Dead Sea where we were going.

This is a really interesting spot – both Israel and Jordan have large salt operations running on the sea producing tonnes of salt annually. Trouble is the Dead Sea is receding at an alarming rate – I think they said that the sea had lost 1/3rd it’s size since 1984 – due to the likes of global warming, but I think the salt operations must also be an impact, and it’s receding on average by 1 metre each year. As a result the Dead Sea is now sitting at 420 m’s below sea level – at the waters edge. The roading and facilities around the sea are at 400 – 410 m’s below sea level. Work is now underway in conjunction with Israel to try and address the decreasing sea level and there are plans to run a pipeline from the Red Sea across land the 200 odd kilometres to the Dead Sea – desalinating the water on the way so it’s still salty enough for the Dead Sea. Pretty sure the figures were that for every litre of water there is something like 300 gm’s of salt – this is what supposedly makes it so buoyant. Enough facts – we pulled into a nice hotel area along the Dead Sea and we headed down to the waters edge for a swim. The sun was out – temps had gone from @ 8 degrees at top of the hill to early 20’s at the water. Sure enough the water is very buoyant – you float and frolic around in it. You don’t stick you head under and doesn’t pay to get too much water on your face – doesn’t taste great for one thing, and stinks if you have any scratches or abrasions, but it does feel pretty good after you’ve had a dip and washed off. Part of the experience is getting an all over mud pack – there are a couple of keen chaps that will laver you up – they seemed to especially like the ladies in bikini’s – they appeared to have good job satisfaction. You let the mud bake on you for 10-15 min’s and then you go back in the water to wash off – quite cleansing.

Having had a good dip and enjoyed some sun, the group headed back to the bus and we worked our way up the hill to the town of Madaba where we were staying for the night. This was to be Jihad’s last night on tour with us so we all went out locally to a restaurant and had a nice meal. Friday dawned wet and cool so we wrapped up and got the bus to a couple of local sites. First we went to the St George Greek Orthodox Church which is famous for it’s biblical mosaics which date back to the 5th century AD. A large earthquake badly damaged the church in the 8th century and there is only 30% of the mosaic still left but it’s amazing to think this dates back so far and has worn so well over all this period. The current church was built around and over the old ruins and what was left of the mosaic flooring. Madaba is considered something of a melting pot of religion and has a strong Christian faith with around 40% of residents being Christian. They live in harmony here with Muslims and other faiths, with the city having a population of around half a million (Madaba also has the distinction of being Jordan’s dirtiest city – and it’s easy to see why with all the rubbish blowing around once the wind picked up). We were given a presentation on the history of the church and mosaics. As we left the church it started to pour with rain so it was a mad dash up the road back to the bus.

From there we drove back up to the top of the hill to the Mt Nebo site which is a famous biblical site as it is believed this is the resting place of Moses. The Mt Nebo Visitor Centre only opened around 12 months ago. The sites temple is built around ruins and historical mosaics that date back to 500 AD. Interestingly a team from Italy have been behind the restoration and recovery of the mosaics at this site. There are large panels that they have uplifted from the floor and placed around the walls for future protection. We had a good look around the site and all the history here and then boarded the bus one last time for the short trip up to Amman. Jihad reckoned that Amman is known as the ‘white city’ due to all the limestone construction used here, and that Amman was a wonderfully modern city. Not sure how many cities Jihad had been too but it didn’t have too much of a modern feel to it. Yes loads of the buildings are cast in limestone which on a grey wet day probably gives them a drabber look than they should. The population locally is upwards of 4 million and it’s a large sprawling city with housing built up around the hills of Amman. The traffic is manic and chaotic and for the first time in a week we had the familiar sound of cars tooting at one another – all the time. Jihad raved about a local falafel shop so on the way to the hotel he stopped the bus and we all brought falafel sammies. We then headed to our hotel which was in a newer part of town and was nice and very well equipped. It was at this point we bid Jihad good-bye as he was heading off to help a colleague out with his tour party. As a group we all headed out that evening for a meal down town. They were all talking about eating in Rainbow St which is famous locally for it’s cafes and so the taxi dropped us there – in advertently the café we were dining at was a further 15 min walk down and around the hills but we found it eventually. Carol and I headed off after dinner with Fiona and Steve to try and find a coffee bar. They seemed to be few and far between but we got directed to one place upstairs. We walked in and you were hit with a haze of smoke from shikar pipe and cigarettes and the audience was all guys playing cards but they welcomed us in and gave us tea to drink. We didn’t hang around too long and soon made our way back to the hotel.

Saturday morning was all about farewelling the tour group – everyone was heading off in their own directions today – some were travelling on some more like ourselves, whilst many were heading back to their homes. We had breakfast, exchanged email address, and said our goodbyes and then Carol and I headed off to our new accommodation in Amman in the Old Town where we were to stay for the following 3 nights. Martin from the tour group was also hanging out for a further 3 days in Amman so we all travelled downtown together. I’ll update on that section next, but in summing up Jordan it was quite a land of contrasts. We’d started off in the nice newer city of Aqaba down by the Red Sea and then worked our way inland to the dry and arid Wadi Rum area before getting to the historic sites of Petra. From there we got to go and frolic in the Dead Sea before coming to an end in the hussle and bussle that is Amman. Like Egypt, smoking is very popular here in Jordan – I think a packet equates to @ $4 NZ. Shikar pipe is very popular as is coffee drinking. The armed presence in Jordan was very strong – there were armed Tourist Police everywhere and we had our guy with the tour for the most part – not that he did much. Pita bread and humus is a staple as is falafel so by the end of a couple of weeks I was looking for a bit of a food change but not sure if will come anytime too soon. Would we come back to Jordan? Parts we might – Petra was a standout but maybe there are other places we should head to next – maybe you will just need to come yourself and make up your own might about this place.

G-Adventure Tour – Egypt Leg

Our flight to Cairo was via Istanbul – we were flying Turkish Airlines. Stockholm to Istanbul was approx. 3.5 hours plus we gained back a couple of hours with the time difference so by the time we were parked up at the gate waiting to board in Istanbul it was already dark. Istanbul Airport looked to be a busy place with planes coming and going – the Turkish Airlines staff were average at best – we were looking for some info on our gate so approached the desk only to be told to look at a board – emm, good one. Flight onwards to Cairo was okay – only a bit over 2 hours but as flights go, it must have had the most inflight announcement interruptions I can recall – Carol and I were each trying to watch a movie that we hooked into as soon as we were seated and I’m sure the announcements added another 30 min’s to the experience – that said we were lucky to have a movie as we didn’t have on the first leg. We landed in Cairo @ 9.20pm and I don’t know if Turkish Airlines hadn’t paid their landing fees, or the pilot didn’t know where he was going, but we taxied around Cairo Airport for 30 min’s before we hooked up to our gate to disembark – talk about frustrating. If you are visiting Egypt you need to purchase a visa – which we found out after we finally got to front of the immigration line – costs you $25 US each to enter.

Finally got through and got our bags but couldn’t find the expected shuttle so we arranged a taxi into town – fare of $220 Egyptian Pounds sounded a lot but only equated to something like $22 NZ dollars and considering the ride it was well worth it. The ride from the airport to our hotel in Cairo was nothing short of entertaining and hair-raising. Not sure what the traffic rules are here but there were loads of vehicles on the road and they were all in a hurry. Lane changing is constant – no indicating, just pulling over. You’re lucky if a motorbike has it’s lights on and helmet wearing doesn’t seem to be in vogue. Tooting of car horns is a constant – they have a tooting guideline – I think it was something like 1 toot to say you are passing, 2 toots to say bad move, and 3 toots if you liked the look of someone on the sidewalk, and you don’t want to get lights flashed at you from behind. They seemed to have it all sorted but it was pretty manic for a by-stander holding on for grim-life in the back seat. Pedestrians were thrown into the mix crossing the road at crazy times in amongst all the traffic. It was rare to not see a car dented and scratched. We crossed the Nile and finally arrived at our hotel for the night – ride had taken a little over an hour so it was getting on for 11pm by the time we got checked in. We met our tour guide Adde – our Egyptologist who would guide us through this country over the next 10 days or so.

Friday dawned and we started to meet the group we would be travelling with over breakfast. We then headed out to the Egyptian Museum – talk about history. The museum houses over 10,000 pieces not to mention a load of mummies. It is famous for its display and collection of Tutankhamun including the gold-plated tomb he was discovered in – I think his burial tomb was one within 4 tombs – was bit like you’d open one to then have to open another, and then another, and then you found the one with him in – each tomb smaller than the next (their version of ‘pass the parcel’). We spent some time with Adde telling us the detail of certain bits and pieces and then we had some free time to explore but to be realistic you could spend a whole day in the museum trying to take it all in. From the museum we headed towards the Pyramids stopping for falafel and shawarma sandwiches and the like on the way. Before we knew it, we were at the pyramids – I’d really expected we would have to drive some distance out of Cairo, out into the desert somewhere but no, the Pyramids are right on the edge of Cairo. The main site here has 3 pyramids and 6 smaller ones – the smaller ones were in mixed stages of decay. This is a site you really need to see with your own eyes – I personally thought the pyramids were going to be taller whereas the others in the group all felt they were taller than expected. Its not till you are up close to them you see that the surface area of the pyramids is no longer smooth – they were plastered / rendered as such back in the day but after all these years out in the desert with the heat and the wind and the sand a lot of the surface area has been sandblasted away – naturally. That said they are a sight to behold and some of the group took the added excursion of entering the great pyramid which is the largest (the second pyramid looks the same height but was actually built on higher ground by the son of the builder of the first – so he didn’t disrespect his father by building something tbigger).

Carol and I had a good look around the pyramid – probably took us 20 min’s to walk around – I forget how many football pitches the surface area covers (the great pyramid stands 148 m’s high but has lost the top couple of m’s unfortunately). All around the pyramid site you have hawkers selling bits and pieces and locals offering horse and camel rides. You’re not supposed to climb the pyramids but doesn’t stop some from looking for the perfect picture. The site is run by the government but looks like that aren’t putting any money into the site and there is very little control in place – the place was dirty with rubbish all over the place and things just need a good tidy up (Adde was quite negative about the state of affairs here). We went up to a viewing area – along with all the other bus loads and there you have locals trying to suggest the right spot for photos – you can take pics so that it looks like you are holding the pyramid etc. – all that added touch comes at a price of course. Down below the 2nd pyramid is the site of the Sphinx – again I was thinking it would be bigger but that said it is still a striking sight. Adde gave some overview about the Sphinx and then we had time to explore and photograph at will. In front of the sphinx there is a burial chamber where they prepared the mummies for entombing – I think Adde said the process takes something like 70 days. I think everyone came away from the sight buzzing. An exciting project in the area is the construction of the new Cairo Museum right on the edge of the Pyramid site – it will be the largest museum in the world and it looks it from the construction that is taking place. Pretty sure it’s been financed by UNESCO as no local money to cover it. Adde said that the main collection from the old museum in down will be moved out to the new museum and then the bits and pieces in the basement of the old museum will go on display there.

On the way back into Cairo we stopped at a papyrus studio where they showed the process of making the papyrus (ancient Egyptian paper) – and offered any of the pieces on display for sale – not sure anyone brought anything. From there we were dropped at the train station where we had a wait of a couple of hours for our overnight train to Aswan. Train pulled in @ 8pm and we boarded and found our cabins and were served some dinner. Would like to say the rocking motion of the train put me to sleep but I’d have to say it was a bit of a rough night – I found the bed pretty uncomfortable, cold and it was very noisy (old trains and tracks in Egypt). That said the team on the train looked after us and it was something around 8.30am on the Saturday morning when we pulled into Aswan – at the southern end of Egypt. The sun was shining and the pace of life locally seemed a little less manic compared to Cairo. We found out way to our hotel where we were staying and checked in and cleaned ourselves up. Most of the group went off on an additional excursion to see the Philae Temple but Carol and I decided to head out and have a look around the waterfront (Aswan is on the shores of the Nile River) and the local souk market – everyone wanted us to buy from them. We brought a couple of bits and pieces to eat – had an argument with one stall holder over what we were charged and walked away a few pounds lighter. That afternoon the group took a boat down and across the Nile to Elephantine Island where we were hosted by a local Nubian family for lunch and what a lunch it was – everyone came away full and content. Our host then showed us around the island where there was a great spot to view the Nile in all it’s grandeur as the sun was starting to get low. That evening a number of the group headed out for dinner whilst Carol and I explored the souk a bit more.

On the Sunday all of the tour group took the option of the added excursion to the Abu Simbel site – this meant being up and away at 4.30am in the morning – yes, an early start. The drive to the site took 3.5 hours and had us there around 8am. Down below Aswan the Nile was dammed to generate power for the country. Before Lake Nasser was formed and the valley flooded, historical sites were moved including the Abu Simbel sight. Ramses 2nd was the longest serving Pharaoh in Egypt back in the 13th century BC. He built this temple Abu Simbel for himself and a second temple for his favourite wife next door. In the 1960’s the site was totally removed from it’s original site and repositioned about the lake level so you now have this stunning temple sitting just above and looking out over the lake – its quite the sight and was well worth the long drive and early start. The story of how they relocated the site is also a marvel of engineering and local skill. At the site you can walk through the temples which have been well preserved. On the way back to Aswan we stopped at a local Perfume store where they produce the oils and essences that go into most mainstream perfume brands. They showed us the process and tabbed everyone with the different fragrancies in the hope we would buy – most of the group including Carol brought one or other oil to take away. We got back to the hotel and headed out for a walk to check out Aswan and to get a bite to eat. We both really liked Aswan – it was quite a big city with something like 1.5 million living locally, but with the river running through, it had a bit of a majestic feel to it.

On the Monday we had breakfast in the hotel and then packed up and met in the foyer. From there we headed over the road to the river where we found our crew that were going to take us up the river. Today was all about sailing the Nile on feluccas (we had 2 boats for the group of 16 on the tour). Feluccas are traditional Egyptian sailing vessels and we parked up on the boat as it tacked its way up the Nile. We sailed up towards the Aswan Bridge where our ‘support boat’ arrived and we had lunch onboard before setting off again. The wind got up and tacking up the river was proving a little difficult for the crew so we pulled into the river banks – maybe 10-15 km’s up river from Aswan and made camp. We’d no sooner pulled up to the bank and the local kids appeared with their bits and pieces for sale – trying to make a few dollars. The sky was ablaze with stars – was quite the sight. We enjoyed dinner on the support boat and then settled down early to sleep on board. It was cold onboard but the crew gave us blankets and the slight swell of the Nile rocked us to sleep – for some of the night. We rose early the next morning and after some breakfast the support boat steamed us up and over the Nile a short distance to where a small coach greeted us. We were travelling up to Luxor today and stopped on the way at the Kom ombo Temple and Crocodile Museum. The temple was another great example from the period and it was interesting to learn how the Egyptians of the period revered the crocodile. I think they saw the crocodile as their protector / a warrior. The museum had something like 19 mummified croc’s dating back from the period that had been persevered – pretty amazing.

We continued on up the road a couple of hours and arrived at Luxor – a busier city that straddles both sides of the Nile. Having checked into our accommodation we were picked up and taken to the massive Karnak Temple. This temple is famous for all the columns it has and has a special place for me as it also was used as a site for the filming of the ‘Spy Who Loved Me’ Bond movie back in the mid-1970’s – I remember the scene of Bond trying to evade Jaws in the temple. The site is famous for the massive obelisk that stand here – one is something like 97 feet tall and weighs 323 tons- how they stood it up is beyond me. Recently they discovered that the temple has a pathway / road that links across town to the Luxor Temple and work is underway to restore this – it’s lined on the Luxor side with statues – the path is a distance of maybe 4-5 km’s. One aspect that we didn’t enjoy is that these sites have ‘locals’ that are always trying to take you to spots for the ‘ideal picture’ or to see this and that, in return for some money – I guess it’s their existence. From the temple we headed back to the hotel and Carol and I went out for a walk down town with Fiona from the tour group. We took her through the souk area and then got ‘invited’ to some gallery hall to view local crafts. We managed to get away without buying anything and made our way back safely to the hotel. Around town is hectic with cars and motorbikes and a lot of local vendors do horse and carriage ride and are always looking for you to ‘take a lift’.

On the Wednesday we were up and away early to get over the Nile and through to the area known as the Valley of the Kings. On the way we stopped first at the site called the Colossi of Memnon where they are a couple of mammoth statures of an ancient pharaoh sitting in front of what use to be an ancient temple which unfortunately time and the elements has taken from us. The Valley of the Kings is an amazing site note far out of Luxor where they have unearthed something like 62 burial sites of Kings and Pharaohs from the period. The most famous of these here is the Tomb of Tutankhamen and it’s not because it was the biggest but because it was found to be the ‘most complete’. Apparently when they were building a tomb some years after Tut had died and been buried there, some rock slid down over the entrance to his tomb thereby burying it but also protecting it from pillage in the years to come once the area was rediscovered in modern times. We went down into 3 different tombs today and explored some of the wider area – some of the group did the added excursion of paying to go down into Tutt’s tomb which from all accounts was pretty cool but a subsequent replica that we were to see later in the day was just as good. From the Valley of the Kings we headed around to the other side of the hill to the Valley of the Queens or as it is known locally, the Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple. This one was probably my favourite as it was just striking from the base of the valley looking back up at it. It consists of 3 terraced levels and the structure is built into the hillside opposite the Valley of the Kings – guarding its entrance. The temple was built for the pharaoh Hatshepsut – she ruled for 21 years back in the 15th century BC. The top level of this temple was lined, or rather would have been lined with striking statues all lined up – many of which have been removed or destroyed with time – this was really a nice site to visit.

From there we stopped on the way back out of the valley to go and see the House of Carter – Carter being the explorer who is credited with discovering the tomb of Tutankhamen. His expeditions were fancied by a Sir / Lord back in Britain and he had this house built for Carter whilst he was in the area discovering. In return, the Sir got co-credit for any of the discovered sites. Interestingly and you would have thought they would know better, but a number of those involved in the discovery and opening of Tutt’s tomb died soon after – they failed to ‘air’ the tomb properly and those that entered sucked up all this bad air (including Carter’s partner the Sir who was there for the opening – he died maybe 3 weeks later?). Also at this site they have a replica tomb set up of the site of Tutankhamen so we were able to go and have a look at that to get an idea of how the actual tomb was adorned. From there we stopped in Luxor and had lunch with a local family that G Adventures support in the area and the then we headed down to the water and got a water taxi back across the Nile to the hotel. Most of the group headed upstairs to the pool to relax whilst Carol and I headed down the road to go and visit the Luxor Temple – another striking site with its columns and obelisks and statures. Interestingly a mosque has been built back into the site so in our view detracts a little from the area as you are walking along the corridor or columns and look up to find windows in the side of the mosque building.

Tombed out for one day we headed back to the hotel where we had to wait around before going to the Luxor Railway Station to catch the night train back to Cairo. My train experience was no better than the previous one and it anything worse but we rattled and rolled our way through the night and pulled into Cairo at around 9.15am. It would have been nice to have been able to find a hotel room to clean up and rest for a while but we were straight off the train and on bus to go and visit the large Citadel of Saladin. The citadel is a massive structure and protects the large mosque built by Mohammed in the early 1800’s to a Turkish style. We visited inside the mosque – my first time in a mosque so it’s shoes off and you need to be covered up to enter but they seemed pretty relaxed by the looks of some of the other visitors. The outlook from the mosque and citadel out over Cairo was great – albeit the skyline was a bit consumed with haze or smog. From there we headed into town and went into the Central Bazaar where there is something line 3000 ‘shops and stands’ all trading. Took some getting around and I know we didn’t see it all, but would be pretty easy to get lost in amongst here. Every stall holder was out to get your business and they all had catch lines to try and pull you in. Carol loved the bartering side of things and helped out our friends from the tour Fiona and Steve to get a few bits and pieces – Carol was enjoying spending their money for them.

Friday morning was another early start – we were up and away from our hotel in Cairo at 5.15am to get to the airport for us to fly down and over to the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula. We flew down and landed at a place called Sharm el Sheikh which is a bit of a resort town on the edge of the Red Sea – looked nice with its hotel resorts and golf course. We then took a bus about 3 hours up and around the peninsula to the small town of Nuweiba where we were staying at a nice little beach front hotel called the Nakhil Inn Hotel – a nice way to wind down our Egyptian leg. Stepping out of the hotel onto the sand with the Red Sea at our doorsteps was a bit of a dream – it was very nice and the weather came to the party as well so it was nice and warm and it wasn’t long before everyone had their togs on and was in the water – everyone bar Steve and Fiona our Australian friends who were still finding it a bit cool – told Steve he just needed to man up a bit. Our hosts at the hotel offered snorkelling – there’s a lively reef not far off shore and so most of us tried to go out and have a look at that – my snorkelling skills aren’t the best so I only got to the start of the reef.

Half the group had opted for an excursion to climb Mt Sinai and so they had to set off at something like 10.30pm on the Friday night to get to the site to then climb and be in position for the sunrise. Carol and I opted out and enjoyed a nice relaxing start to our Saturday – enjoying breakfast outside with a view to die for, and talking with the other couples about their respective travel experiences – the good the bad and the ugly. The day was spent just relaxing, swimming, and Carol and I headed out for a good walk with Fiona and Steve to check out some more of the neighbourhood. There was an army base nearby and they got a bit excited with Fiona when she went up to the fence to wave at them. That evening the hotel put on a local barbeque for us and we all sat around the fire enjoying the evening – we headed off for bed when some of the younger ones started singing.

Sunday saw us depart Egypt and with that say goodbye to our guide Adde. Mid-morning we headed into Nuweiba to the ferry terminal where we were told we might have a bit of a wait. There’s a ferry service daily between Jordan and Egypt (Nuweiba) but no one seemed to know what the timetable was. We all bid our farewells to Adde and a local Port Authority guy directed us through the process of waiting for the boat. This provided a good opportunity to reflect on the past 10 days and what Egypt had to offer – plenty was the view. There was / is so much history in Egypt – its really quite hard to get your head around it at times – just how far back some of our history goes and the fact that we still have so many sights to see and experience from this period – and what sights they are – from temples and statures, to the pyramids and mummies.

Egypt was a bit of a mix for me – in some ways they don’t seem to have moved on from their past and developed – the cities are big and nosey and messy – there’s rubbish and litter everywhere including along the Nile which was disappointing to see. The people are a mix – a lot of men wear traditional gown, a lot don’t. A lot of men wear scarfs – you just have to watch your colour as colour reflects country and the like and so you wouldn’t wear Israeli colours around in Egypt. Most woman are in burkas or wearing a head scarf. Were people friendly – some, but not overly – maybe they put it down to the language? Cars are a thrown back to the 1970’s – around Aswan and Luxor the taxi of choice was a Peugeot station wagon – some were in better order than others but I saw some really nice examples of these cars – maybe this was the home of Peugeot outside of France? There was a strong armed presence – on the day we toured Cairo downtown we had an armed guard with us. Not sure how much he would be able to do if something went wrong but supposedly this was something that G Adventures required. Too many people smoke in Egypt and for that matter in the Middle East – seems that every other person smokes and unlike home, they smoke in cafes as they are serving you food, that smoke indoors and outdoors – you really can’t get away from it but when cigarettes are so cheap, why wouldn’t you – I think a packet equated to $3.50 NZ which locally they felt was too much when considering what the average income is.

Anyway, we have certainly seen some sights and had some nice downtime on the beach and swam in the Red Sea, but it’s time to head on over to Jordan – update is coming.

Stockholm

The streets of Helsinki were pretty quiet on New Years morning as we made out way from the apartment down town to the train station. True to forecast it snowed overnight but by the time we were out on the street it was starting to turn to slush. We pulled our bags along and rushed to get the next connection out to the airport – a ride of around 40 mins on the train. We got ourselves checked in at the airport and it was then a case of waiting for the flight. Funny thing is that there’s an hours’ time difference between Finland and Sweden so according to schedule we were going to land in Stockholm 5 mins before we left Helsinki. Plane wasn’t running to schedule, but with the flight only being approx. 55 mins we ended up in Stockholm around 1.45pm. It took a while to get our bags but once we had them we headed off to catch the local Airport Bus – we brought return tickets (there is a train option as well that runs regularly in and out from town). Stockholm was very damp and grey, the bus ride takes approx. 45 mins from the airport into town, so we arrived at the main bus station and opted to walk our bags up to our hotel – supposedly it was about a kilometre uptown.  Checked in we warmed up and then decided to head out to see if the local Info Office would be open, which it wasn’t – there wasn’t too much open on New Year’s Day in Stockholm at all – all the retail shops appeared to be closed up. We found ourselves a nice restaurant and had an early dinner – I think we had dinner, and continued to have a walk around but were back to the hotel by something like 6.30pm.

On the Tuesday morning we were up early and headed down to the Info Office to get some advice on the local sights and how best to get around them. As is the case with a lot of Scandinavian services, they tend to push the ‘self-help’ option but one lady did point us in the direction of the tram to head out to the Vasa Museum. We got tram tickets but it wasn’t too far at all – in reality everything is within walking distance in Stockholm, as it was in Helsinki. The Vasa Museum is located right near the waterfront which isn’t too hard in Stockholm with so much of the city being built around the water. The museum is a tribute to the massive battleship the Swedish King commissioned back in 1628. The Vasa was to be the flagship of the Swedish navy with its double decks of cannons but on it’s very first sail the top-heavy ship listed over with the breeze and the cannon ports took in water which over-balanced the ship causing it to flood and sink – all this was with a 1000 m’s of the dock where she had just cast off. Something like 30 – 50 lives were lost in the sinking – they can’t be sure of the exact number. Back in the late 1950’s a local historian was sure that the Vasa must still lay somewhere close in the inner harbour and made it his quest to discover it, which he did. Over the following 3 years the old ship was slowly raised to the surface, breaking free in late 1961, and a massive restoration took place thereafter – some say the largest restoration every undertaken. As a result of all their efforts they have managed to restore the Vasa to within 98% original – a massive undertaken, and as a result of that you can go and view this massive ship as she pretty much would have been back in the day (they haven’t finished the Vasa back to it’s painted and gold leaf finish, but all the statures and key features are back in place). The Vasa is a one of a kind display and gives an amazing insight into ships from the 17th century. I found it really interesting that supposedly the boatwrights of the day didn’t work from a design or plan, but ‘created’ the ship from the frame up, and also they had artists go out and draw the Oak trees in the forests so they could then work out what frames they could cut from what trees – it was also illegal for anyone to cut down an Oak – first time you were warmed, third time you would be hung it stated.

Not sure the Vasa display did much for Maddi, but Carol and I could have easily have spent another could of hours looking around – as it was we were in the museum for 2 hours (they had a good piece covering how and what they had to do to preserve the wreck, and then what conditions they need in the museum to preserve the Vasa ongoing – very interesting and clever). After the Vasa it was Maddi’s turn for some fun, so her and I headed down the road to the local ABBA Museum whilst Carol headed back into town to get her hair cut. The ABBA Museum was much better than I had expected and the two of us spent the best part of 2 hours looking around the history of the group – it was really interesting to learn that they all had musical success in their own right before coming together as a group. The museum provided ample opportunity for you to do karaoke and dance and sing with an interactive ABBA – even film a video with them. Maddi wasn’t too keen on me embarrassing her so we gave the roll-play a miss. Hard to believe that this band only made hits for @ 8 – 10 years with the last album being released 36 odd years ago (1981). Having revived myself of my ABBA memories and just how good the blond one from band looked (yep, had a crush on her back in the 70’s), Maddi and I walked back into town to the hotel – took us about 40 mins but we got to see some more of Stockholm in the process. We caught up with Carol and then we all headed out for a bite to eat – I had come down with a good dose of man-flu and wasn’t feeling flash so it was an early night all round.

On the Wednesday morning, having stocked up with a good breakfast in the hotel (the girls ate and I pretty much watched) we headed downtown to the Royal Palace and the Gamla Stan area – it’s effectively an island – which there are many of in Stockholm but as expected the Royal Palace takes pride of place here. The area was great – there were little narrow cobbled streets with houses / buildings dating back to the 1700’s. We had a great look up and down most streets – there are obviously a lot of private homes here, but also a lot of the buildings operate as cafes and speciality stores and a lot of tourist / souvenir shops. We had a good look around all the history here and then walked back across the river to the Stadshuset – Stockholm City Hall – a striking local landmark. From there we walked back into town and sorted out what time the airport bus would be running the following day etc. We really like the downtown retail area – there are a couple of walking streets that are just lined with the shops so it’s really easy to get around and easy to get your bearings from these streets. We had a cuppa to warm up in town and then Maddi headed back to the hotel whilst Carol and I explored some-more. One of the cool features is that they have some tunnels that run under some of the streets that are up in the hills so the tunnels are a really good means of covering a few blocks – on the flat.

We were all a little sad today as it marked out last day of travels with Maddi – tomorrow she needed to start her trek back to NZ and Carol and I were heading back to some hopefully warmer weather with the tour we were booked on in Egypt and Jordan. To mark the occasion Maddi took us out for dinner that night and we had one last look around town before calling it quits on Stockholm. The following morning we were up early to get Maddi down the road to the bus station to get her shuttle out to the airport. The streets were quiet at 5.30am and it didn’t seem to take us that long and before we knew it Maddi’s was on the bus and waving goodbye to us. She had to be checked in @ 7am to get her first flight to Copenhagen whereas Carol and I weren’t flying until after 11.30am so we walked back up the hill feeling sorry not to have Maddi with us still. We had ourselves some breakfast and made some calls back home before making the trek again back down the hill to the bus station. We caught the bus and headed out to the airport which in itself marked the end of our Scandinavian adventure and 4-5 weeks with Maddi. I think as I have said several times already, we would be keen to come back in spring / summer to see ‘the other side’ of Scandinavia – the green look. There’s so much to this part of the world that 4-5 weeks jumping from country to country really doesn’t do it justice, but we know we have been very fortunate to experience all that we have.

Our Finnish Leg – Rovaniemi, Kemi and Helsinki

We rose early on Xmas Eve – our accommodation in Haparanda included breakfast for us so we were there for when they started service and then arranged a cab to get us across the border to the Kemi Airport where we had arranged to collect a rental car. We were supposed to collect car in Kemi at 10am but forgot about the time difference between Sweden and Finland – we were jumping forward an hour so ended up crossing the border bit later than planned. I’m not sure if it was fact we were taking a taxi ‘out of country’ or that it was Xmas Eve or maybe both, but the taxi driver stung us for something like $125 NZ dollars for a 15-min drive – Haparanda is right on the border with Finland and all you do is cross a bridge and you are then in the Finnish side of the town called Torino I think. Taxi only had to go something like 15 – 20 k’s and I just sat there watching the meter tick over at a crazy regularity. Anyway, somewhat lighter in the pocket we arrived at Kemi Airport only to find it closed – everyone celebrates Xmas Day on 24 Dec in Scandinavia. There was a rental car parked up but was locked – as you’d expect, so fortunately for us the taxi driver made a call to Hertz and they had their guy drive out from Kemi to us – we were only left to freeze for 10 min’s or so but that was enough. There was a load of snow around and temp was hovering around -14 so we were all pleased to pile into the car once it was unlocked for us.

All cars in Scandinavia are fitted with studded tires at this time of year so despite the snow and ice on the road we had grip and traction. The road up to Rovaniemi was straight forward and very picturesque. Google said the drive should take around 1.45 hours but we took it easy and enjoyed the scenery. It was a clear (but crisp with the temp in the car stating it was now -18 outside) morning and with all the recent snow it was like we were driving to the North Pole. We’d been on the road for @ 2 hours when we approached Rovaniemi so Maddi navigated us to our accommodation – a small apartment / house complex called Villa Samma. We pulled up the drive to find the snow had been shovelled and the manager was there waiting to get us in and explain the main functions of the place. On the absolute plus side for Carol the lounge had a fire place but limited supply of wood – we could burn as much as we liked so long as we went out and bought a load, but there was enough for a taste and to give her a smile. The place was warm and well decked out in a very quaint way. The managers English was very limited as was out Finnish so the conversations and directions took a bit longer than planned but we finally managed to get them out the door and settled in. But not for too long – we soon wrapped up and headed off to find the Santa Claus Village – Rovaniemi is after all the home of Santa. The village complex is just that – a complex of different buildings just out of the main part of Rovaniemi – there’s a hotel, couple of Inn’s and restaurants, loads of tourist orientated shops, and Santa’s Post Office – and much more.

It was cold out – something like -14 but the spirits were high as we explored the winter wonderland and all that it had to offer. It was still a nice clear cold day so we had light till @ 3.00pm so we were quite fortunate – Santa must have arranged it. We had a look around all the shops and then queued to go and see Santa – hey we had come this far so would be wrong not to. Santa was a bit cheeky and told Carol ‘he’d be seeing her later’ – the visits to Santa’s den are all shown life on a podcast and you can buy the obligatory photo which we opted not to. We ventured back out into the cold – the reindeer were doing their last sleigh rides so we watched them and figured it was getting too cold to be out in the open too much longer (we didn’t have the nice thick suits we enjoyed up in Abisko). Got back to the car and were glad that it started – heading back into town the temp gauge registered -20 outside. We had hoped to get to a shop to get some supplies but hadn’t timed our run well – considering it was Xmas Day for them locally, all the main shops closed up at 3pm so we called into a petrol station and Maddi picked up a pizza and we got some bits and we headed back to the cottage to get the fire going and to cook some dinner. With food in our bellies it was Xmas Eve for us so we streamed a Xmas movie and then another and then another – before we knew it was getting on for 11.30pm so we called it quits.

I woke the following morning to a shot – well sounded like a shot but I didn’t think too much of it and got busy and phoned home to talked to everyone and wish them all a merry Xmas (had rung the kids the evening before so that it was Xmas morning their time, and rest of family Xmas evening as they were all gathering at Mary’s). Was nice to talk to everyone but it did reinforce the distance between us at this special time but Santa Carol had made a run during the night and filled up the stocking for Maddi and we had a couple of things under our tree to open. We all went back to bed for a little while before getting up proper for the day. We had plans to head back to Santa’s Village to finish looking around so I went out to warm the car up. Despite the fact it was snowing steadily the car started first time. I went around the car to sweep the snow and ice off it and got to the back window to find it had a hole in it and had all cracked out and broken. Rookie mistake – I opened the boot and the window panel shattered with glass falling everywhere. Emm, not what we had planned for Xmas Day – and I was left wondering about that shot sound I had heard earlier? We contacted the Villa manager who kindly came over and translated with Hertz for us. We were really surprised and pleased that they offered us a replacement car – albeit smaller, for us to pick up at the Rovaniemi office. So we wrapped up – covered Maddi in a blanket in the back and headed the 10 min’s into town to find the Hertz office. They had the replacement car there warming up for us so we climbed out of one and into the other and we were off.

We’d lost a good chunk of the day with the car disruptions so with the shops open today even though it was still technically Xmas we stopped and did a good shop and then headed back to the cottage. Carol had arranged for us to go and have Xmas dinner out at a local hotel so we headed up to the Lapland Hotel which was up in the trees just out of town – it was snowing steadily so quite the backdrop again. Although our Xmas Day was a bit low key and had the car disruptions, both Carol and I were very fortunate to have had Maddi’s company with on this day, to enjoy what may be our only ‘white Xmas’ and white it certainly was.

Tuesday dawned snowing and very cold again, so we had a good breakfast and wrapped up and headed back out to the Santa Village and checked out a few more things there like the snow mobile museum – probably not the girls’ thing but I enjoyed it. They have a couple of dog teams at the village so we went and had a look at them – tough dogs sitting out in the cold and ice, and then pulling sleds along when needed. It was very cold today hovering around -18 – -20 so we didn’t stick around at the village for too long – was just too cold to but there were still people everywhere (we were surprised by the large volumes of Asian tourists we have come upon right across Scandinavia – must be a popular option for them at this time of year). On the plus side, no car issues today – windscreens all in tack. On the Wednesday we had to get the rental car back down to Kemi but with our windscreen delays we arranged for an extra half day so that took the pressure off us today. We headed back into town for a bit of a walk around – was only -16 today so we had a look around the downtown Xmas displays and the like. We headed off from Rovaniemi around 11am so we had plenty of time and enjoyed the drive back down to Kemi. We ended up with plenty of time on our hands so we took the car and drove to the south side of Kemi to where the Polar Icebreaker Sampo is moored. We got there just as a load of tourists were boarding to go out on its daily sail. The boat goes out into the main channel and breaks up ice for all on board and those that are hearty enough can have a swim in the polar water – they are provided with thermal survival suits and it seems pretty popular – even at this time of year.

We headed back into Kemi and found our hotel so we could drop our bags off and then dropped the car to the central drop off point – had been grateful to have the use of the car in these parts and was surprised just how well they handle the weather and road conditions. We went for a bit of a walk around time and decided we needed something to eat so we arranged something warm and then stopped at the supermarket before heading back to our rooms and calling it an evening. On the Thursday morning we left Maddi to it and Carol and I headed out to explore some of Kemi. It had stopped snowing but it was very fresh out as we went and checked out the main Cathedral which we were unable to enter. Kemi is well known for the Ice Hotel attraction so we worked out where it was and headed off across town to find it. Problem is we got there about 3 weeks too early – they were still making the snow to then construct the Ice Hotel which was due to open @ 20 January. Emm, seemed more than cold enough but not to be. The hotel complex has a series of really nice little standalone apartments sitting right by the water front, and the Ice Hotel gets constructed around these and stands for the next 4- 5 months before being pushed apart with the thaw and it then recedes back out into the water to melt proper. We walked around what would be the marina area – it was currently under more than a foot of snow and the water was all iced up so all the yachts are up on hardstands for the winter months.

We went through the local Kemi Museum – was a load of history about how Finland had been involved in the war and also the large paper production that the country is famous for – there was some great film footage of them felling and milling the trees before they head off to the paper mill. Kemi was also noted as being a key sight for mining of Chromium. We soaked up all the local history and then headed around the rest of town and then back to meet up with Maddi. Later that evening we all went out and had a nice meal together and then headed back to make sure we were all packed up for the following day. On the Friday we rose to find it snowing quite heavily so we had breakfast and then wrapped up for the 10-min trudge through the snow over to the Central Train Station – not the best conditions for dragging our bags today. We were pleased to get inside and it wasn’t long before the train south to Oulu arrived. This leg of the trip took @ an hour and we then had to disembark the train to connect with the train through to Helsinki and had a wait of @ 30 mins. The train through to Helsinki was due to take @ 6 hours and have us into Helsinki soon after 5.30pm but for reasons unknown we ran late and didn’t get into the main station until nearly 6.30pm (this was despite the train running along at a 160 kmph for long stretches of the trip). Another surprise on the train was the number of passengers that brought their dogs on board with them. Helsinki station was a hive of activity and there was loads of hassle and bustle. We headed out of the station and walked up one of the main retail streets and managed to locate the apartment block we were staying at. Had some hassle getting into the building but some people across the road were very helpful and allowed us to make a call to get things sorted.

We dropped out bags and headed out into town proper – we were staying pretty central so was only something like a 10 min walk to be in middle of Helsinki. We had a good look around some shops with Maddi and got ourselves some dinner before trekking back to the apartment. On the plus side the temperature was about zero – the first positive temperatures we had experienced in a couple of weeks so welcome relief. We found the people of Helsinki and Finland in general to be interesting – some were very friendly and helpful, others were quite rude by their actions. Lots of people smoke in Helsinki, and there are a lot of people with dogs – besides riding in the trains, they are taken into shops with their owners as well – bit of an adjustment for me. On the Saturday morning we wrapped up and headed off to find the main Info site to get some advice. The Info offices are down behind the central station and over towards the harbour area. We got some details and some bearings and drew up a plan for the day ahead. We visited one of the main cathedrals – the large and striking Uspenski Cathedral – I was in awe of the columns of marble in the cathedral and wondered how they would have been moved – they were huge.

There was a large market place in full swing down by the waterfront area so we had a look around there. Like so many cities of late, it looks like the old waterfront area of Helsinki has been brought back to live and one such building in the area is the Old Market Hall which is full of food vendors plying their trade – it was a great old building and a great place to park up for a cuppa and cinnamon bun. They also have the local swimming baths nearby – there are hot pools and freshwater pools used year-round – it’s supposed to have a load of health benefits. We then headed back and went through the main Cathedral and pass the Royal Palace. Again, the buildings of all of such an age and it’s just so amazing to see them still standing in all their glory all these years on. We took in some lovely shops – the Stockmann shop was something like 8 stories of elegance with something for everyone. Maddi loaded herself up with a few more bits and pieces before we headed back over the other side of town and found the famous Rock Cathedral. This cathedral was built into and around a large piece of rock and was quite the setting – apparently the acoustics in the cathedral are something else. We called into the supermarket and got some bits for dinner and headed back. We were surprised that it was light till @ 3.30 – 4pm so made a difference.

On the Sunday morning – New Year’s Eve, we got up and headed into the Central Train Station to get some tickets for the following day out to the airport. We had a look at the local Parliament buildings and then went into the National Museum of Finland for a look at a couple of their displays. We’d heard about a park with a famous sculpture – the Sibelius Monument so we hiked on over to have a look at that. Maddi’s was shopped out so we headed back to the apartment and played some cards and relaxed for the afternoon. That evening being New Year’s Eve we headed down town to where there was a free concert and fireworks. We’d wrapped up and got a good spot before the masses started to build. There were a number of performers singing but none of it was in English but it warmed the crowd up. Midnight struck and the sky lit up with a good show of fireworks (fireworks look to be sold fairly widely across Scandinavia, year-round – all evening leading up to New Year’s the skyline was being lit up with people letting things off). The temperature was hovering around zero and there was snow in the forecast so as soon as the show was over we got pulled along in the masses all trying to head home and a good number heading for bars. The main fashion choices at this time of year in Helsinki appear to be fur lined jackets, fur hats and snow suits for the younger ones. We were pleased we’d headed out and made the effort locally – it’s not going to be often we can spend a New Year’s in a foreign city or place.

The following morning we would be up and away again – leaving Finland to cross back over to Stockholm to finish our Scandinavian leg. I think as we have said about all the Scandinavian countries, we would like to come back and see them in spring / summer – I think the contrast would be significant and it would show all of these places in a different light again. On the whole we really liked Finland and it was unfortunate we didn’t have more time to take in all the history that this country has to offer – we were thinking we’d need a good 3 months to do justice to Scandinavia – adding it to the list.

Abisko – Lulea and Haparanda Sweden

The following morning we had to pack up and pull our bags from the hotel in Tromso down to the bus stop near the main Info Site. Was only a 10 min walk but with our big bags and the weather it was still a challenge but we made it and it wasn’t long before the bus turned up. We had to catch a bus down to Narvik at which point we would then transfer to a train across the border to Abisko. The bus to Narvik took a little over 4 hours but we got to see some countryside along the way. Arriving in Narvik we then had to pull our bags through the snow about 500 m’s to the train station where we managed to get tickets for the next leg. It seems that no train stations in upper Scandinavia are manned – you have to do everything on a machine but we got tickets and were set. Narvik is at the tip of a fjord on the Norwegian side and it’s only 10 k’s over to the Swedish border. There was a large ski-field all lit up just above the town – loads of lighting so must cost a few dollars to run it we were thinking, but lit up ski-fields seem to be the norm in these here parts. The train through to Abisko arrived on time and we were off again – it’s a 1.5-hour ride through to Abisko. It was well and truly dark again by this stage so we weren’t able to see too much out the window bar more snow. The train pulled into our stop in Abisko a bit after 4.30pm and we piled out at a small station (I wasn’t sure how big or how small Abisko is – fact is it’s small), and into the cold.

We pulled our bags from the train station but thankfully only had to go about 200 m’s to find the Abisko Guest House where we were staying. Our host advised us that if we wanted something to eat our options locally were the food caravan next door or the supermarket but that both of which would be closing in the next couple of hours so we found our room and dropped our bags and headed out. Looks like the food caravan is a pretty popular option locally – well it pretty much is the only option unless you trek the 2 km’s up the road to the Abisko Hotel in the National Park. We picked up some supplies in the supermarket – they must like their lollies and chocolates locally as half the supermarket seemed to be set aide for sweets. The guest house provides snow clothing for guests so we got our big snowsuits and boots and were set. Carol and I headed out about 9.30pm that evening in search of the aurora again – Abisko is supposedly one of the best spots in the world to see the Northern Lights and sits on the shore of a big lake without any obtrusive town lights so we wrapped up and walked down to the lake (takes @ 15 mins at best). There were a number of people down at the lake in search of the same thing so we stood around for a good hour or so but to no avail. There were a couple of guys down by the lake and they were set up with some serious drone equipment. They had several and were using them to photograph the aurora for when it showed. Apparently you can see the aurora better through a camera shot whereas you may not be able to see it with the naked eye – not sure our camera equipment was quite up to that. We spent some time talking with the guys – they were spending a week trying to get some good footage. Carol and I decided enough was enough for one day and headed back up the hill to the apartment to catch up with Maddi.

The following day it was snowing steadily all day. We made enquires for Carol to go and visit the Ice Hotel that operates nearby in Kiruna but there were no excursions running that worked in with our schedule (disappointing as this one on Carol’s bucket-list to visit).  Instead we opted for the Aurora Barbeque and Night excursion. We met up in a little tee-pee like cooking tent at @ 7pm and were treated to some local cooking. The local indigenous people use the cooking tents for a couple of purposes – cooking obviously, socialising and also keeping warm. The tent had at it’s centre a big fire pit and had a big round pan over it – like an enlarged paella dish. The cook threw a big block of sliced reindeer meat on it along with some stir-fry veges and them a load of what looked like coconut cream. He stirred and simmered the mixture for probably 40 min’s – in the meantime they piled us with a local fruit drink made from the berries that grow all over the area – like a loganberry I think. It was warmed up and tasted to me like a hot raspberry drink. With dinner ready that served up some bowls for all of us. There were a group of 6 others from Hong Kong and Taiwan on the excursion. Reindeer meet is supposed to be very good for you – is very lean so I had no worries about having a 2nd and even a 3rd helping – they were small serving bowls after all. The weather hadn’t improved and it wasn’t looking promising for the aurora but we rugged up and headed out about 9pm on a sled pulled behind a snow-mobile. We worked our way our of the village and up into the national park well away from all the lights, but it was to no avail as the weather was still snowing and visibility was next to nothing. We waited a while in the cold, had a bit of a snow fight – girls ganging up on me as you’d expect, and then headed back into town – pretty disappointed but the excursion couldn’t guarantee we would see the aurora – we had one more night to try the next day.

On the Friday morning Carol and I got up and left Maddie to sleep. We put on our suits and headed out to walk up to the hotel and info area at the Abisko Turismo (just over 2 km walk each way). You follow a well-marked trail – even had lighted poles due to the time of the year. There’s a large hotel up at the National Park that includes an aurora viewing platform. The info centre was closed – due to time of the year and we were told that the likes of the ski-fields locally don’t open until February – seemed to be plenty of snow already so not sure why so late. It was snowing steadily so we appreciated the warmth of the hotel foyer as we had a look around and sought some info (wanted to check if any Ice Hotel tours running from this spot but we’d missed it for the day). We had a good look around and then we headed back out into the weather – fortunately with the snow to our backs. There were people out and about – some walking, some skiing. We headed back to the apartment to warm up and spent the afternoon relaxing before we wrapped up one last time to head down to the lake in search of the aurora. Maddi wasn’t keen – too cold for her, so Carol and I headed out and found we had the viewing area by the lake to ourselves. We parked up on a bench and took in the stars above us – it was a wonderfully clear night for a start but unfortunately there was limited solar activity and so no aurora to be seen. A real shame considering we had come specifically to this place for the aurora (and also the Ice Hotel) so we missed out on both fronts – we crossed fingers hoping we would have more luck when we got up Rovaniemi in Finland.

It was a great spot for looking at the stars but after about 90 min’s the cloud started to roll in again so we decided we’d given it a good go and headed back to the warmth of the apartment – disappointed. With the limited daylight hours this northern spot receives it was difficult to get a good impression of just how pretty and scenic the area was – again, would be interesting to be up here in the spring / summer to see how the landscape changes. Saturday morning dawned clear and calm and gave us a bit of a snapshot of the surrounding landscape – the lake, and the mountains, and plenty of crystal clear snow. We checked out and headed up to the train station around midday – an easy walk but it was still very cold (something like -10). We boarded the train from Narvik through to Kiruna and then we transferred to a train down to Lulea which is at the tip of the main channel / fjord that runs up between Sweden and Finland. The train arrived into Lulea around 6.15pm. We hadn’t been able to confirm how we were getting from Lulea up to Haparanda which sits on the border with Finland so we headed out of the train station to see if there was a bus option for us. My knowledge of the Swedish language let us down badly – we got to the bus depot and were excited to see there was a bus and it stated Haparanda and it stated 7.30pm – that was going to be earlier than planned. We had time for a bit to eat and found a restaurant by the bus station and arranged some food. The restaurant guy told us we were lucky as they were closing early as it was effectively there Xmas Eve locally – they celebrate Xmas on the 24th and 25th in Scandinavia.

We rushed through some food and headed back to the bus station and a bus pulled in noting Haparanada but turns out the board was stating arrivals – not departures and so we had to park up in the cold for another hour for the actual Lulea – Haparanda bus to arrive. It was something like -16 waiting at the bus depot so when we could get on the bus we were thankful for the warmth it offered. The bus pulled out around 9pm and we were pleased to be off on this last leg – been a long day. There was a lot of snow and ice around but the roads are kept clear by a number of big snow-ploughs – they zoom around pushing the snow up – we saw them going for it in Tromso as well. Not surprising with how much it snows up in these parts, but the guys operating them seemed to be happy in their work. We were talking to one of the bus drivers who was an Australian that had been living in Haparanda for about 18 months. He had a Swedish partner and they had a little one that was going to be celebrating their first Xmas so he was looking forward to getting the bus back to Haparanda that night and finished for a couple of days. He mentioned that they apply a lot of salt to the roads to try and de-ice them locally and that the salt then brings the reindeer out – they like to lick it so you have to be careful of them on the road – he said the bus hit 3 a couple of nights earlier.

The bus worked its way up to Haparanda and dropped us off at its stop at 11.30pm. From there we had to walk around a kilometre to our apartment – fortunately the evening was clear and it wasn’t snowing but the temperature was something like -13 – we were fine so long as we kept moving. We finally found the apartments we were staying in (key and instructions had been left out for us). As fate would have it our rooms were upstairs so we decided to leave one bag downstairs as we just needed to get in and crash for a few hours as the following day we were making the last push before Xmas to get up to Rovaniemi in Finland.

Norway – Oslo and Tromso

On the Wednesday morning we were up and on the move at the crazy hour of 3.30am – we had to hike up the hill with our bags for the bus shuttle at 4am to then connect with the Flyby Bus back out to the airport at 4.30am. The temperature had dropped overnight and the previous days snow had turned to ice so it was a bit slippery hiking up the hill. We weren’t alone for the one-hour bus ride – there were others as crazy as ourselves at this hour and the airport was actually a hive of activity. Checked in we managed to get a bit to eat and change some money over – all the Scandinavian currencies seem to be Krona but all are slightly different in value. Our plane departed @ 7.30am – we were flying Norwegian Airlines – the service on the plane wasn’t anything to write home about but they got us over to Oslo as planned – I think the flight was @ 3.5 hours. Again we had no customs check in to speak of upon arrival in Oslo and once we had our bags we proceeded to head out to catch the train into the Oslo Central Station – they run a good train service back and forth from the airport. Stepping out onto the train platform we got a blast of Oslo’s weather – it was pretty cold and well into the minuses. The train into central only takes approx. 25 min’s – train was busy so we had to stand with our bags but was all good (our bags being too big to place up in the overhead luggage racks). Oslo’s Central station is quite the place – people everywhere, lots of convenience stores plus the station has an adjoining food-court type mall, and joins the local shopping centre – very handy. The Oslo Tourist office was based here so we called on them for some tour options before getting a taxi off to our apartment.

As we left the central station it was snowing quite heavily and it was starting to really build up on the road. We’d called ahead to let the apartment guy know we were on our way and he said he’d be there to meet us but there was no sign of him as the taxi dropped us off. Fortunately some builders were working in the apartment building and let us into the foyer area to get some shelter from the snow. Apartment guy finally turned up after best part of 30 min’s and showed us to our apartment – which as fate would have it was up a couple of flights of stairs – so hard work dragging our bags upstairs. We were shown into the apartment and were welcomed by a lovely warmth – the heating had been on and it didn’t take us long to get toasty. The apartment guy spent some time with us telling us about the apartments history, location and places to see, and some Oslo customs. He was very helpful and set us up nicely with some directions on the map. We parked up for a while to warm up before rugging up and heading out into the snow. We’d been told there was a Christmas market or two in Oslo so we walked down a couple of blocks and were in the central part of Oslo. We had a good look around – it was mid afternoon but already very dark so the city was all lit up and there were Xmas lights and decorations everywhere. We found an Xmas market and had a look before working our way back to the apartment via the supermarket. It was quite a special sensation being out and about in the snow as we were – looked like it was a regular thing by the way the locals just got on with things – they were heading home from work, out exercising, and some were out walking their dogs (our apartment was overlooking a park which was obviously popular with the local dog owners as there was a steady stream of dogs in and out of the park as the evening wore on). Maddi looked after us by cooking us dinner and we kicked back and enjoyed our evening and made plans for the following day.

On the Thursday morning we rose and headed out to see some of Oslo’s sights proper. It had stopped snowing and as the day wore on the snow started to turn to a bit of slush. We found that the apartment was very centrally located and it wasn’t long till we were down in amongst the main shopping area (there is a main street just lined with branded shops). Carol and Maddi found the local Pandora store and sent me next door to a good bookshop – that wasn’t enough as they were still fussing over the Pandora’s they wanted even after I’d done a second visit to the bookshop. Jewellery purchases finalised we headed around the corner to the National Art Gallery which is free to view on Thursday’s so we soaked up some culture – not all of which I understood. From there we headed up the road to the Royal Palace and were lucky to see the Norwegian Queen head out from the Palace and get the ‘royal wave’ from her motorcade. We then saw the changing of the Royal Guard – most of whom looked to be very young as evidenced by their blemished faces. We were told that the Royalty locally are pretty relaxed compared to a lot of countries and that the Queen smokes like a chimney (was either the Queen of Norway or Queen of Denmark). Leaving the Palace which is at the head of the main shopping area, we headed back downtown to the main Oslo Xmas Market. There were stands everywhere selling food and drink to clothing and gifts. There was a large ice-skating ring and Ferris-wheel and attractions for everyone. Maddi brought a toffee apple and reckoned it was the first one she’d ever had – not sure how I missed that. We headed on down towards the harbour area where the ferries were coming and going and we moved along the waterfront to view the Akershus Fortress – obviously a very important fortification for Oslo over the years. In the winter the Fort is closed so you can only walk around the outside.

By this stage the day was wearing on and it was getting pretty cold so we headed off for a bite to eat. The apartment landlord had told us about some traditional Norwegian Xmas fare so we were keen to sample some and went off in search, but to no avail as the lady at the place we had been recommended to go to looked at us a bit funny and basically said what was on offer was on the menu (we were told that in Norway they have a traditional Pork Belly dish at Xmas, and also a dry Lamb dish where the lamb is dried for something like 2 months and then re-hydrated and then boiled for several hours). They also do a local fish dish based on Norwegian Shark but apparently the way it is prepared and tastes is a very acquired taste. Anyway, we found something warm to eat and then headed back out into it and made our way back to the apartment.

On the Friday Maddi decided she’d had enough culture and needed to do some serious shopping so we all headed down town and she headed off to the Oslo Mall whilst Carol and I headed out to see some more landmarks with it agreed we would meet up in 4 hours’ time – thinking that would give her plenty of time. Our first stop was the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet building – you’re able to walk up onto the roof of this architecturally designed building and it gives you a great viewing platform out over Oslo and the harbour area. Walking around the building you get to see inside – there were loads of costume designers busy at work, people making wigs, and seamstresses making costumes. From the roof-top you get to appreciate how much new development is underway locally in Oslo – there would easily have been 2 dozen large cranes dotted across the skyline with new buildings of all shapes and sizes being erected – the weather doesn’t slow up the progress. We were fortunate as the sun came out this morning – albeit briefly but we had a calm day for exploring. Carol and I made our way up to the City Hall as we had been told it was quite a landmark to view. From the outside the building doesn’t look very inviting but you walk in and find the main great hall floor area opens up to the top of the second floor and there were large murals and tapestries all over the 2 floors which were open for the public to walk round (building was opened in the mid-1930’s and was decorated with art and furnishings from some of Norway’s best). We then headed back down the road to the harbour area where there has been a load of redevelopment of the old buildings take place and it now homes shops, loads of apartments and plenty of different eateries – we passed Jamie Oliver’s, and there was even a luxury car sale indoors out towards the end of the wharf. Taking up most of the end of the wharf is the Museum of Modern Art. With canals running through the apartments and restaurants it really was a very nice facility and we were very impressed by it. The harbour area also houses the Nobel Prize Building – I think the building dated from early 1930’s and is presumably the site of the annual awards ceremony.

From here we made our way back to our rendezvous place with Maddi. She’d got her time wrong and had been hanging around for best part of 2 hours waiting, but still have plenty of shopping bags under her arms. One of the things that has surprised up about Oslo was the number of beggars on the streets. When in Copenhagen we were told there were next to no beggars as everyone is helped out as needed, and I guess Iceland was just too cold for them, but despite the cold of Oslo the streets all had beggars parked up here and there. Another observation was the number of electric cars that you see in and around Oslo – seems to be a popular option locally and I saw electric cars in all shapes and sizes. Observations noted, we then made our way back to the apartment and parked up earlier today.

On the Saturday morning we had to be parked up and out of the apartment by 10am so we arranged a cab (flagged a cab down) and got dropped down to the Central Train Station and stored our bags so we could head off for the bulk of the day as we didn’t have to be out to the airport till later that afternoon to fly north to Tromso. The snow had come in again as we headed out – we got train tickets and rode the train out to the famous Vigeland Sculpture Park. We’d been told that even with the snow it would give the sculpture park a different outlook. The city of Oslo gifted the park area (I think it was an area of something like 200 acres) to the famous sculptor Vigeland back in the 1920 / 30’s for him to set us his studio. Vigeland was a prolific sculptor and knocked out something like 250 large pieces between the mid 1920’s through to his death in the early 1940’s (he created them out of concrete mostly). His subject matter was the human form and the centre piece (don’t recall what it’s called) was a tower of human bodies interwoven and stretching up to a height of maybe 20 – 25 m’s. The park is lined with his work and is free to visit – in the winter you need to be hearty to do so with the cold but word had obviously got out as there were loads of others viewing the pieces of work on hand. It was snowing steadily as we made our way around the park and then we headed up the road to the local shopping area where there was a Xmas market taking place – mainly food stands. From there it was time for a bite to eat so we parked up at a nice restaurant for a while.

We noticed a big ski jump just up the hill and so we boarded another train and rode it up to the top of the line at Frognerseteren. The train made probably a dozen stops as it worked its way up to the top of the hill. About half way up the hill a load of people boarded all wrapped up in snow gear and carrying snow toboggans. They rode to the top of the hill and were then sliding there way back down again – looked like a load of fun. There were also a number of people with cross country skis – they were obviously riding to the top to then ski back down (there was a large ski field area just as you hopped off at the last stop). We didn’t spot any ski jumpers so we got back on the train and rode it back down – it was dark by this stage and we rode the train right into the Central Station. From there we only had a short wait to get one of the trains out to the airport. Our flight up to Tromso was just a regional flight so we only had to be at airport an hour or so prior but we’d given ourselves plenty of time.

Parked up at the airport our flight kept getting pushed back – the weather looked like it had turned for the worse and the snow ploughs were working overtime clearing the area around the airport gates so that the planes could come and go. We finally got on our flight something like 90 mins late but atleast we were on our way. The flight up to Tromso took something like 90 mins so it was after 10.30pm when the plane landed. The airport have a shuttle service that runs in and out but we’d missed the last of those for the evening so we managed to flag a taxi and we were off. Tromso is getting up pretty high on the Norwegian coast and well within the Arctic Circle, and actually sits on what is an island – if you have a look at a map there are a load of islands up in the northern end of Norway. The airport was on the far side of the island – the taxi driver said he could take the short cut of taking the tunnel that runs right under the island or take us across the island so we could see some of the landscape – albeit at 11pm at night – which is what we opted for. The weather was clear and very cold and taxi ride only took us something like 15 mins to get into downtown Tromso. We were staying at the City Living Hotel but reception was closed by this hour so we left Maddi with the bags in the warmth of the foyer and walked the 2 blocks up the street to a sister hotel to get keys and directions. Finally we were parked up in Tromso.

We arose Sunday morning to find it snowing steadily – unlike Oslo, Tromso had a very good base of snow – upwards of 6 inches. We’d been told Tromso has a population of over 70,000 – we didn’t see too many out early on a Sunday morning – I guess with most shops not opening till the early afternoon why hurry getting out in it. Being as high up in the Arctic Circle as we now were we’d been told to expect at best maybe 2-3 hours of light – not sunshine, but a dull light. I think it lighted up around 11am and was dark by 2pm. Carol and I made our way down the couple of blocks towards the harbour area and located the main Info Site. We needed to sort out our connection over to Sweden and the team were able to help us out with that. We also arranged to do a dog sled excursion for the following day. Tromso is a very old town / city, and has been an important northern harbour / gateway over the centuries. As a result there are some very old dwelling around the harbour area – some of the wooden homes we saw date back to the mid – late 1700’s. The Polar Museum buildings date from the early 1800’s. One of Tromso’s key landmarks is that it is home to the northern most wooden cathedral in Scandinavia. We were surprised by how many of the buildings locally were made from timber. It had obviously been snowing pretty heavily around town as we found some snowdrifts around some of the houses to be a good half metre deep. We had a chat to one local guy who was out trying to clear the snow from around his flat – he said it was a regular job at this time of year.

We found a coffee shop to warm up with some refreshments and then headed back to the unit to catch up with Maddi. That afternoon we had a walk round town with her – took in the local mall and some of the shops. Cruise ships come in and out of the port here on a regular frequency and one was in this evening. We headed back to the unit and parked up for the evening in an effort to warm up. The following morning we were up and out early and had to be down near the info site to meet our shuttle for the dog sledding excursion. There were 2 vans of us that headed out – well before it got light for the day. We headed out to the Tromso Golf Course – as you can image, the golf course at this time of year is a white wonderland and no good to the local golfers so the dog teams and reindeer take up residence for a few months. The ride out took about 50 min’s – the snow was a lot heavier inland but the shuttle guy reckoned the temperature would be a couple of degrees warmer – I think it was -15 or more when we got to the golf course. The team show you in and kit you out in a polar type suit, boots, gloves and hat.

Then you get introduced to the dog teams. Maddi and I went out together on a sled being pulled by 5 dogs. I was to drive so you’re given a few instructions – shown how to apply ‘the brake’ and then your away. The dogs are very hardy – and don’t need any encouragement to pull. There were 8 sleds heading out this morning and it was a case of follow the leader. Maddi and I were the last sled away. What a blast as the dogs pull you along over the snow – there was a pretty well beaten track to ride in but from time to time the dogs wanted to veer off into some deeper snow. They knew the routine and just happily pulled you along. Maddi was holding on but feeling the cold (had dropped to -18) whereas I was having a ball encouraging the team along. After about an hour you stop for a brief break and to change over drivers – Carol took over on our sled as Maddi didn’t want to drive so she rode on the sled that Carol had been a passenger on heading out. Underway again with me now as the passenger it was still a ball – I was trying to encourage Carol to stay off the brake and go for it but she was worried she wasn’t heavy enough to apply much brake but we managed fine. The dogs don’t stop to relieve themselves on the trail – they take a quick pulled squat as needed and then to refresh themselves they bite into the powdery snow for something to drink. All too soon we were back to our starting point – I was keen to go for more – it would have been really good to have just been by ourselves so the dogs could have just gone for it as their own pace as opposed to the pace being set up front – maybe another time. Maddi was freezing so she was happy to be back to the base to warm up. Before getting out of our snow suits we got up close and friendly with some reindeer – there was a team based out with the dogs for reindeer slay rides as well. Carol was talking to a couple of the local team – they bring their reindeer down to Tromso for the winter and head back up north when the snow starts to melt. The dogs can run locally until around April and or so long as it’s below 10 degrees – and there’s enough snow obviously.

Back into the changing room to warm up, the team then provided us all with a hot drink and some warm soup – just what we needed. The excursion said lunch was provided and considering the cost we had thought the soup was just going to be a starter but no, that was it – still it hit the spot. By this stage it was pitch black outside again and the stars were coming out so we were loaded back into the shuttle vans and run back into town. Carol and I bailed out on the opposite side of the harbour so we could go and view the Arctic Cathedral – it’s quite a stunning looking building that stands out near the waterfront. From there we walked back over the bridge that links the two sides – it was a 1 km walk up and over the bridge and just as we headed out the snow decided to come back in. We were moving so we were keeping warm and before long we were back into the town area proper. We decided to go and visited the Polar Museum – as noted it’s set up in some very old harbour buildings and was the base for Ronald Amundsen’s polar operations for many years. The museum was very interesting – it covered a lot about arctic exploration and also about those that were hardy enough to hunt for seal and polar bears up in the Arctic. The most famous of the hunters was a guy called Henri Rudi who spent many seasons up in the Arctic Islands hunting – in the end he was credited with shooting / trapping 713 polar bears – more than anyone else ever had. There was also the story of a local woman that spent 5 seasons hunting with her partner – she sounded a real character (both were recognised by the town of Tromso for all that they had brought to the area). There was a large area dedicated to Ronald Amundsen and the other key Arctic pioneers – was very interesting and I felt it was very good value.

We made our way back to the apartment and had a bite to eat and then about 9pm Carol and I headed out in our quest to see the aurora – Northern Lights. There’s a spot around a lake just up about the town so we headed up the hill to there – was around 3km’s and although it was cold it wasn’t snowing so was easy going. We were really surprised by how many people were out and about at this hour cross country skiing. We spoke with one guy and he said going out at 10pm at night was his thing and that he would ski for 1 – 1.5 hours. They were everywhere – cross country skiing is obviously the thing to do here in Tromso. We found the aurora viewing point but the weather just wasn’t clear enough – either that or there wasn’t any solar activity so we wandered around looking up for a time and then headed back to the unit getting back around 11pm.

The following morning we had a later start and left Maddi to it as we headed out in the weather to the Polaria Museum and Research Centre. The building is another architectural gem and looks like a stack of 5-6 books that are falling over onto one another. Inside the Polaria there were seals and penguins – we made it in time for the seal feeding. They had two types of seals – big Bearded seals (weighed over 300 kg) and the smaller Harbour seals (weighed @ 70 kg’s). We spent a good couple of hours having a look around all the exhibits and info about the area. They had a couple of films playing – one on the nearby island of Svalbard – looks like it would be a really interesting place to explore – in the summer as it’s half way from Tromso to the Arctic so really high up. The other film was on the aurora and was very good. We got ourselves a bite to eat before heading back out in the weather. It was now raining and the snow was starting to turn to slush so it was a case of watching your step as we moved back into town, but on the plus side drivers locally are very pedestrian friendly and tend to stop to give way to you so you can cross the road etc – doesn’t happen everywhere. We stopped at the local Glass Blowing Shop – it’s one of those landmark stops in Tromso and you walk in to the warmth of the glass ovens – the two guys working in there were just getting around in singlet and tee shirts where as we’re all rugged up. They blew some glass for us – they were doing a repair to a unique wine glass – was great to see the workmanship that goes into this art form – very clever.

We headed back to the apartment to catch up with Maddi and to have a bite to eat. The weather was against us tonight so we didn’t bother heading out to aurora spot – hopefully the coming nights in Abisko Sweden would be more kind to us. This was our last night in Norway – the following morning we had to be up and down the road to catch a bus through to Abisko. What we’d managed to see of Norway really impressed – both Carol and I were quite taken by Oslo and Tromso was quite the spot as well but we both agreed it would be such a different experience with a bit more daylight and some warmth – we’ll just have to come back sometime.

Iceland

Checked out of the hotel in Copenhagen we got a taxi out to the airport – he was good to drop us off at the right terminal as the airport is bigger than I had imagined. We had a bit of a moment checking in our bags as unbeknownst to us we were limited to 20kg each so a little creative manoeuvring by Carol had all 3 bags checked in at just under 20kg. We flew Icelandic Air over to Iceland – looks like most of the Scandinavian airlines are subsidiaries of SAS Airline and they all co-share on local routes. Flight over to Iceland was approx. 3.5 hours and with time differences it was 3.30pm as we landed and the sun was already going down over Iceland. You land at Keflavik Airport – the place looked iced / frosted over but they move aircraft in and out of here on a regular basis. There was no customs check to speak of but it was the best part of an hour from the time we exited the plane until we had our bags collected. We arranged to hop on the local Flyby Airport Bus shuttle – looks to be the most common way of getting in and out to Reykjavik the main city of Iceland. The buses run in and out all day every 20 min’s or so and our bus was full as we pulled away from the airport. The run into town takes you approx. an hour and then at the central terminal they disembark and then run you around town to a number of hotel stops. We were staying in an AirBnB but fortunately for us it was only something like 300 m’s down the road from one of the local hotel stops so we piled off and carefully made our way down the hill to the apartment – temperatures were well below zero and there was loads of ice on the footpaths but fortunately some grit had been spread to provide some grip.

We were staying in a nice small self-contained apartment and with a supermarket / minimarket a couple of hundred metres up the road we wrapped up again and headed out to get some snackage and supplies for the coming days. We rose on Sunday morning and wrapped up and headed out to find the local Tourist Info office so we could arrange an excursion. Like Denmark, shops open late in Iceland and at the weekend, well Sunday anyway, the main shopping mall and shops don’t open till 1pm. We found the tourist office and were thankful for the warmth the office provided after the frigid cold of the morning. We made some arrangements and asked for some info on places to go and things to see. Despite the cold (-7 without the wind-chill) we headed up the hill to the large central Cathedral – I think it was called Hallgrimskirkja and it’s quite the striking building. The top of the cathedral rises up in a stepped manner and you can ride the elevator up to the tower viewing platform, which is what Carol did. The cathedral is a real focal point and there was a load of tourist traffic coming and going despite the weather – which was getting colder. Photo’s taken and Carol returned from the tower, we headed down the hill to find the lake and Parliament Buildings. As you might expect the surrounding lake was frozen over and as there was others out on it we also headed out – not everyday you can say you’ve stood on a frozen lake.

One of the popular tourist attractions in Reykjavik is the Saga Viking Museum. Took us some finding but we located and went through the exhibits they had. The museum was developed down near the harbour area and like some of the other cities we have explored lately, Reykjavik has been renewing its old harbour area and supporting buildings – is looking really good. At time of our visit there was quite a bit of new development underway locally with a number of cranes dotting the skyline. It was time for a cuppa to warm up and around the waterfront area there are a number of nice cafes on offer. The local council offer a free shuttle bus from the styli looking Concert Hall (it has some amazing glass work at different angles and colours) up to the Perlan View Point so we connected with one and rode up the hill. The Perlan building looks to have been built around 4 large silos and then had a glass dome placed over the top. It was a stunning building from the inside and then the viewing platform provides the ideal vantage point to take in all that Reykjavik has to offer. They have a couple of tourist activities available in the building and you pay to go up to the viewing platform but we felt it was good value. Reykjavik and Iceland for that matter is alive with geothermal activity and I think that back in the day the Perlan facility was a ‘hot water storage’ location that then piped the water down town (I think they said the population of Iceland is something less than 350,000 and that something like 220,000 live in Reykjavik which surprised us as we thought the area was pretty big and population could have been higher). We took a short walk from the Perlan over to the local shopping mall which was now well and truly open. We had a bit of a look around – Maddi took the opportunity for a bit of shopping and then we headed off back to our apartment – I think it was maybe a 20 min walk from the mall but the day had warmed up to just below zero so it wasn’t too bad – sun was down and it was dark by this stage.

On the Monday we had to be up early for an excursion – we had booked to do the Golden Circle Day tour – one of the popular trips to encounter locally. We set off in the dark in order to have some sunlight when we arrived at the key sites. First stop was a small town not far out of Reykjavik called Hverageroi. The town sits over the main tectonic plates that separate Europe and North America and was the epicentre for a bad earthquake back in 2008 – bad by Icelandic standards. Quake was 6.3 I think but buckled and twisted things and opened up the land – but no fatalities so they were very fortunate. From there were moved on to look at the Faxi Waterfalls which acted as a precursor to the Gullfoss Waterfalls which we viewed next. There was loads of tourist traffic around and people rugged up so we headed out into it to the Gullfoss Falls viewing areas. Boy was it cold – the coldest I think I have ever been (I think it was -14 with a breeze). The falls were caked with ice and snow around them but the water still powers through and down the falls – quite the view and we agreed it would be really interesting to see the falls in the spring / summer when the water levels are greater – I think I read that these falls have a greater output than the Niagara Falls. We were grateful to get back on the bus to warm up and then headed back along the road to a local farming operation to view the local Artic horses – supposedly they are a bit sensitive when referred to as ponies. The farm also had some local sheep – all the animals were stored indoors at this time of year and Carol had a chat to the farmer’s wife about the viability of small farm operations out in these remote areas.

We headed back to our lunch stop at the Geyser Park where everyone had time to eat and then head over the road to take in the geyser show. The geyser’s here are credited with having the 2nd and 4th largest ‘spurts’ in the world. One of the geyser’s shots off like clockwork every 5-6 min’s so we got to see plenty of action and take plenty of photos. The carpark was packed with buses of all shapes and sizes – I took a particular interest in a couple of Mercedes tourist vans that had uber big snow tires fitted for a real polar experience. There were also some large coaches that were obviously fitted for heading out to the depths of Iceland at this time of year – they were 6 – 8 wheelers with big snow tires fitted. Our last stop ahead of the sun going down on us today was to the Pingvellir National Park which is built around the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. This is one of the few spots where one minute you can say you are in Europe and then a couple of paces later you are in America. Despite the cold we headed out for the walk between the rifts and down and around the frozen lake. There was a bit of slipping and sliding but we made it back to the warmth of the bus in one piece. The sun had gone down by this stage but it was an easy 45 min ride from the National Park back into Reykjavik and our driver dropped us off locally. We found a nice café and some nice muffins so were set for the evening.

On the Tuesday we had arranged to do the Blue Lagoon Hot-pools excursion. This was another early start – we had to get a 7.30 shuttle to connect with the 8am coach out to the pools but on the plus side we were at the pools for their opening at 9am. It was still dark when we arrived at the pools but we were fortunate to arrive so early as we got through the check-in process and in the pools relatively easily – the pools filled up as the day went on (you have to book a slot to visit the pools – they only let X number into the pools per hour but you can stay as long as you like). We were worried it was going to be some walk from the edge of the changing rooms to the pools themselves but it was only a 10-metre dash at best. The warmth of the pools was a welcome reward. The pool is one very large geothermal pool (there is a geothermal power plant right next door to the pool complex), and the water is a pretty constant 38 degrees so very pleasant. The pool offers complimentary mineral face masks so we all lined up and caked some gup on – ‘when in Rome’ type situation. The pool offered a wet bar and free sauna and steam rooms – we went into one steam room and I could hardly breath – just wasn’t use to it. We managed to last a good 3.5 hours in the pools but decided that was enough and dressed and exited in time for the 1pm shuttle bus back into Reykjavik. The bus did hotel drop off’s so we hopped off central to our apartment and found a nice place for a late lunch.

We had an early night as the following morning was going to be a crazy early start for us to get a shuttle bus and connection back to the airport for our flight to Oslo and next leg of our Scandinavian adventure. Our time in Iceland was too short – we would love to have been able to have seen more of the island but agreed you would need to be out here in spring / summer when the temperatures are warmer and the landscape goes from a white wonderland to green. We agreed that you would get such a different experience but we were very fortunate to have seen this place in the winter. Whilst it was very cold, so long as the wind didn’t come up the temperatures were actually very bearable – we felt we’d been pretty lucky with the weather but you do struggle with the limited daylight at this latitude which in Norway was only going to get less when we head up towards the Artic Circle.

Images from Roskilde Cathedral just outside of Copenhagen 

WIN_20171208_22_23_01_Pro

WIN_20171208_22_28_35_Pro

Images from the Viking Museum

Images from Frederiksborg Palace

WIN_20171209_01_16_49_Pro

WIN_20171209_01_22_07_Pro

WIN_20171209_01_31_34_Pro

Images from Kronborg Castle including looking out and across to Sweden

WIN_20171209_03_15_09_Pro

WIN_20171209_03_12_49_Pro

WIN_20171209_03_40_27_Pro

WIN_20171209_03_29_55_Pro

Denmark

Early Tuesday morning we were picked up from the Arabian Court and headed out to Dubai Airport (Emirates have their own terminal(s)) and checked through. It wasn’t too long until we were reunited with Maddi whose flight had arrived in @ 6.30am. After a much needed catch up we all then boarded our flight through to Copenhagen. With the airport being as big as it is the plane spends probably 10 min’s taxing to the main runway but wasn’t too long and we were off. Flight through to Copenhagen was something like 4.5 hours and you lose an hour or more with the time difference so we landed into Copenhagen around 1pm. We got through the airport process and got ourselves a taxi into town to where we were staying at the Ibsen Hotel. First thing I noticed was that almost all the local taxi fleet were new Mercedes sedans and wagons – we needed a wagon for all our bags. Airport to downtown Copenhagen took around 30 min’s – the day outside was cool and grey – I think it was 3 – 4 degrees only. We got into the Ibsen and dropped our bags and wrapped up and headed out for a quick walk and orientation (sun was down around 3 / 3.30pm). It was cold out but we headed out for a bit of a walk – looks like Copenhagen is a city of cyclists – they are everywhere and you have to be careful before walking out off the short-walk to cross the road – the city has dedicated cycle lanes and the cyclists don’t seem too interested in giving way to sill pedestrians.

We picked up a few bits and pieces – Maddi wanted a sim data card for her phone so we hunted round to sort that but got there in the end. Not far from the Ibsen there were a couple of great food markets – one selling fresh produce, the other was full of small eateries. We picked up some bits for our dinner and headed back to the hotel – Maddi was keen for an early night as she’d done some big hours in the air flying from AK – Melbourne – Dubai. The following morning we wrapped up and headed out into the brisk morning (I think it was 3 degrees but wind chill certainly made it feel something below zero). Maddi was keen to have a look at some shops so we headed out to fine a couple of the central city malls – but silly thing over here and looks to be Scandinavia as a whole is that the shops don’t open till 10am – they tend to be open to 6 or 8pm (some later). We stopped in at a café to kill some time before 10am and tried a nice Danish and then hit the shops. Didn’t take Maddi too long to be buying up bits and pieces – she was happy. Copenhagen has a really nice central shopping area – the main streets are lined with lovely stores and with it being Xmas the streets were lined with decorations and Xmas trees. There were a couple of Xmas markets so we checked them out and tried the local curry bratwurst sausage. We got our bearing around town and found the main Tourist Info office and made some plans for the coming days we had in the city. We found a nice place to get some lunch and then we took in the famous Tivoli Gardens – this is a large amusement park right in the middle of town and was created and gifted to the city by the founder of Carlsberg Beer back in the late 1800’s. The park is famous for its Xmas displays and rides. We entered the park just before the sun started to go down so it wasn’t long before the lights came on and really transformed this park into a magical place. We spent a good couple of hours wandering around taking it all in (the park takes up a large central city block). It was well and truly dark by the time we exited the park, and it was getting cold so we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel.

The following morning we headed out early to connect with the local Hop On bus to tour around Copenhagen. The tours run from 9.30am and we assumed there might be a few picks ups from that time so waited down the road from the Ibsen but this was stop 10 on the bus route and it took and hour for a bus to turn up – we were getting pretty cold by the time the bus finally turned up. The bus was warm so we soon thawed out as we tripped around the city. There’s a lot of water and waterways around central Copenhagen – you’d get a great perspective if you flew over the city in a helicopter I reckon. We did the rest of our initial loop and headed out again on the bus to see the rest of the loop that the bus completes. We passed the Royal Palace – Christianborg, and went out to see the Little Mermaid – I thought the stature was going to be a fair size but it’s actually quite small and sites just on the water’s edge. Once back to the start we hopped off – was pretty cold again but this stage – no snow but some rain and a steady wind that had a real chill to it. We found a nice place for a bite to eat and warmed up before heading out for the complimentary canal boat tour. This was a good way of getting a different perspective of this old city (Copenhagen and Denmark for that point have a load of history and date well back in time) and you can see this in all the amazing old buildings that are dotted around town. There’s a lot of new development that has taken place and is taking place and this all blends together well. Denmark appear to be very forward thinking and offer free health care and schooling – and Denmark was rated as having the happiest people in the world. They have good working hours and good employment arrangements – flipside of all that they offer is that they all pay higher taxes. The country wants / has set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025 and discourage motorcars so have huge tax on them – 180% so no wonder there are so many people cycling. That said, there were still a lot of nice cars around – the Mercedes taxis being a good example (plenty of Skoda’s driving around as well).

The canals are dotted with bridges everywhere so the canal boat had to slip under all of these on our tour – one of them was extremely low and tight – the boat rubbed up on the sides as we went through and we cleared the roof by inches only so this all gave another perspective. Hopping off the canal boat we headed back up through down and found the Round Tower – I can’t recall just how old the Tower was (it’s attached to a church I think) but pretty sure if was from the 1500’s. Instead of steps up the tour there is a smooth cobbled pathway that winds its way up – not sure how tall the tower was but seemed like we did a number of rotations working our way up the church. At the tower you are rewarded with an amazing view out over the city – it was bitterly cold up there and getting late in the day so we couldn’t see as far as you could on a clear day but it’s a great spot to get a good aerial perspective. There were a couple of galleries in the tour – one containing some artwork and the other containing some history on the tour. The two pieces of history that caught my eye were that a 12-year old boy felt down the inside of the tower in the late 1800’s and somehow survived. The other was a medal awarded to cyclists that competed in the Penny-farthing cycle race in the tower back in 1890 or around then – not biking down the tower but biking up the tower. The track up was pretty steep so to think that did this on Penny-farthing’s was quite something – they completed the race in @ 3 min’s. Having taken in a share of history today we called it time and headed back to the hotel.

The following day we had arranged to do a Grand Tour of Copenhagen – our tour guide picked us up before 8am and after picking up a load of people we headed out on the tour proper. Today we would take in some real history with the first stop being the Roskilde Cathedral – this is where all the Kings and Queens and royalty of Danish history are buried. The royalty uses the Cathedral for royal occasions – marriages and obviously funerals. There was so much history buried in the church. Kings and Queens and families from before the 1500’s were buried in ornate coffins in their own chapels – pretty amazing. One of the main characters was one of the monarchs King Christianson 4th – it looked to be quite the character and there was quite a story to go with him. A lot of the architecture around Denmark is credited back to what Christianson liked – he introduced the red brick look. There was another monarch in the early 1600’s I think it was that took the thorn at only 19 – he was pretty flamboyant and initiated a lot of the building work around Copenhagen. He liked to party and live life to the full and when he died he lift Copenhagen is financial ruin. The history we heard was that all of Scandinavia used to be Denmark back around 1100 years earlier. Then the countries of Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland were formed and eventually broke away from Denmark but Denmark was always the hub of Scandinavia. There was a load of history with Sweden – Sweden battled Denmark countless times in the 1500 – 1600’s and whilst Denmark eventually won, for some reason they were made to give up Sweden – the first of the Scandinavian countries to break away (in one of the famous battles, the waterway at it’s narrowest point between Denmark and Sweden is only 4km’s so when the waterway froze over the Swede’s just marched across the lake and attacked.

After the cathedral we headed to the Viking Ship Museum which sits on the edge of a fjord. The Vikings was big all over Scandinavia but appear to have ‘started out’ in Denmark. The site of the museum is famous for the Vikings sinking 5 large boats out in the fjord back in the day to prevent a neighbouring Viking clan invading them. Back in the 1960’s the government got busy and raised up the remains of the Viking boats and created the museum at the site in 1969 dedicated to restoring the boats and the history of the Vikings. The museum have created a number of replica long boats and in the summer you can actually head out on the water in one – you do the paddling and all. After the museum we worked out way up to the top of the Zealand peninsula – pretty sure that was the name of it (Copenhagen sits to the west of Zealand) to the town where the Frederiksborg Castle is. Along the way we passed some areas where Denmark is turning its hand to renewable energy – windfarms and solar-farms and an operation where they collect and burn suitable rubbish to general heat for the local water supply – they have loads of hot water so they are obviously burning a load of rubbish – safely. We enjoyed a nice lunch and then headed off toe explore the Castle. We only have something like 75 min’s so time was tight. Around the castle (they actually refer to it as a Royal Palace due to its grandeur) there was the traditional moot and you cross a couple of drawbridges before entering the Palace proper. The palace is the largest and most beautiful renaissance castle in Scandinavia. The interior was spectacular – there were amazing pieces of artwork and tapestries and everything was just at a massive scale. The palace covers several levels and you would loose count of how many rooms there were. With time tight we moved quickly through the palace and would love to come back in the spring / summer as the palace also has amazing gardens which we simply weren’t able to get to today.

After the palace we headed for our last stop of the day – Kronborg Castle which sits right at the top of the Zealand peninsula where you can see Sweden just a mere 4 k’s across the water. The King built this castle back in the 1500’s and came up with the idea of charging all the passing boats a fee / tax for entering through this point which is the main waterway into the Baltic Sea so it was a very important waterway and as a result the King was reaping it in with the money he was demanding. This tax lasted until the mid-1850’s when it was abolished. The castle was pretty impressive with it’s cannons facing out over the water – to tackle the Swede’s if they need to. Apparently the cannons (dating from the 1700’s are the oldest still firing cannons in the world – they fire them still monthly and or whenever the royal yacht is entering / exiting through the channel). Down in the basement of the castle there is a statue of Denmark’s most famous Viking (his name is lost from me at the moment) but as legend goes he sat down in the bowels of the castle protecting it and ready to jump to it if and when the castle came under attack. The castles other claim to fame is that Shakespeare spent time at the castle and rumour has it he wrote Hamlet at the castle so each year the castle hosts a famous Hamlet festival with famous actors queuing to be involved.

Having soaked up a load of local history today our driver herded us back into the bus and headed back into downtown Copenhagen. It surprised us that the drive back only took @ 45 mins to hit the outskirts of Copenhagen considering all the driving we had down during the day. Dropped back at the hotel we wrapped up again and headed into town to take in the Xmas markets one last time. We had a good last look around and headed back to the hotel as we had another early start in the morning – much to Maddi’s shock There’s a load more to Denmark than just Copenhagen and the peninsula so it’s obvious we will just have to head back at some stage to take in more of what this wonderful country has to offer – spring to autumn could be the ticket so it’s a bit warmer.

Some pictures from our Burj Khalifa excursion.

The Burj Khalifa by day

WIN_20171203_18_42_03_Pro

And by night

WIN_20171204_03_04_18_Pro

Panorama from Level 125WIN_20171203_20_38_12_Pro

Looking down on Level 124 Open Observation DeckWIN_20171203_20_19_06_Pro

Looking out at the Burj and the Fountains from just outside the Dubai Mall WIN_20171203_18_42_15_Pro

Looking out to the Arabian Gulf from the Observation DeckWIN_20171203_19_48_49_Pro

Looking back up from the bottomWIN_20171203_18_53_58_Pro

Selfie fun at the Burj

WIN_20171204_02_35_09_Pro

Dubai

Thursday night was spent in the air flying from Lusaka through to Dubai. Flight was around 6.5 hours but not much opportunity was taken to sleep – Emirates served and cleared up from dinner service and then proceeded to do brekkie service a couple of hours later so a few movies and programmes were taken in. We arrived into Dubai at @ 6am local time and were herded onto a bus into the terminal – this airport is so big it takes a good 10 min’s for the bus moving from the plane to the terminal gate. Getting through customs is all straight forward – one of the few places you don’t get asked to complete a declaration card nor did we see any checking take place. We had a shuttle arranged from the airport and early Friday morning didn’t present much traffic on the road (interestingly the working and school week in Dubai is Sunday – Thursday) so little did we realise it was in fact now their weekend. Our ride into the Arabian Courtyard didn’t take too long but it was obviously too early for check in (they offered us an early check in for and additional $150 or something) so we dropped our bags and had a chat to the hotel concierge and brought tickets for the local Dubai Hop On Hop Off bus. The Arabian Courtyard is right across the road from the old Dubai Museum and bus pick up point 4 so although we were tired we headed across the road and waited for the bus.

We brought a 48-hour ticket to ride and decided that we would do the 3 main routes around Dubai today to get a better perspective of the place. When we transited through Dubai on our way to Africa 9 weeks earlier the temperatures were crazy hot – it was 34 degrees when we hopped off the plane at 11.30pm that night, but we were now supposedly in Dubai’s winter – forgot we were back in the northern hemisphere, but to our relief the temperatures had dropped to a very mild and comfortable 25 – 27 degrees. Riding the bus around Dubai is a great way to take in all the visuals that this great city provides you with. Both Carol and I enjoy seeing great architecture and this city has great architecture in abundance. You’re not on the bus long before the skyline produces an array of forms and then the crown jewel visualises – the unable to miss (apart from really hazy days) Burj Khalifa reaching up into the sky as it does. To compliment the Burj you have the Dubai Mall complex and it’s supporting array of high rise offices and apartments – all dwarfed of course by the Burj itself. I’ll come back to the Burj soon, but after a bus change at the Dubai Mall stop you then hop onto the Green Route which takes you out to the previous shining light of Dubai the Burj Al Arab or as we like to refer to it ‘The Sail’ – this used to be the landmark that you associated with Dubai but it’s long been surpassed by the Khalifa. That said, the Sail is still a striking landmark and a remarkable achievement.

Talking about achievements that’s one of the things that we just can’t get over – the sheer rate of growth and development that is Dubai. If you turned back the clock 20 years, the landscape still only had a handful of skyscrapers but in the past 10 – 15 years things must have just exploded locally – they don’t muck around with their building projects over here and the growth is ongoing as evidenced by all the cranes that top the skyline (the main developer looks to be a firm called Emaar – their brand was on atleast half of the buildings around and we later heard he is the brother or related in some way to the Sheikh ruler of Dubai – but he / they must be real visionaries to develop at the pace that they are – and to the scale that they do). In fact Dubai have a new ‘super build’ underway – they’re building a new tower that will surpass the Burj Khalifa – why you would want to (the Burj is still the highest building in the world by some measure). Construction has started on the new Dubai Creek Needle which will reach an unbelievable height of 1000 m’s – crazy is what comes to mind, but it will only be another couple of years and this will be the new focal point of this city and the Burj will be bumped to No.2. Dubai are gearing up to host the World Expo 2020 and so Carol and I are thinking we will come back to this fine city in 2020 to take in this event and to review the revised skyline – assuming we are able to do so at the time. I’d forgotten we were right out on the edge of the Arabian Gulf and just after the Burj Al Arab / Sail stop you travel along the Dubai waterfront – which on this day was loaded with people (a lot of whom would have been tourist) but also families enjoying their weekend. There were a number of people in swimming – it looked really inviting with a line-up of cruise ships visible over at the Cruise Terminal (it’s peak cruise season and the terminal has 3 large ships in port on average each day).

We’d seen a load of UAE flags adorning buildings and cars and soon found out that on top of the tourist traffic it was the UAE’s National Day or in this case – weekend. The UAE were celebrating 46 years since the formation of the 7 UAE states (Abu Dhabi is the main state followed by Dubai, with the leader / Sheikh of Abu Dhabi being the President of the UAE and the Sheikh of Dubai is the Prime Minister of the UAE in addition to leader of Dubai) and it looked like the locals were really getting into it with all the flags, and decorations that were all around. At the end of the green bus loop we switched over to the blue line that takes you out to the southern end of Dubai where there is a large man-made marina surrounded by loads of skyscrapers – they call this area the ‘Tallest Block’ as it is the tallest stretch of skyscrapers in the world – that were all between 300 – 550 m’s high so you were stretching your neck to take this all in. Then you take in the Palm Jumeirah development where that have created a palm tree out into the sea and established a housing and entertainment complex that has to be seen. The housing in this area is all top end – again I think they set a world record for developing the largest housing block / apartment development in the world. At the apex of the palm is the Atlantis on the Palm entertainment and hotel complex – this is one of the buildings you see now in the Dubai promo pic’s – it’s quite something to view.

One of the features of the Atlantis complex is a big aquarium as you might expect, but in addition to high end hotel accommodation there are a load of high class eateries so we headed off for a bite to eat and settled on Gordon Ramsey’s Bread Street eatery. We ate outside and enjoyed fuelling up with some nice food before we set off for the bus again (no sign of Ramsey though). Getting back on the blue bus we rode back into the marina area and hopped off to take advantage of the complimentary canal boat ride. High above us there was a steady stream of skydivers jumping out to take in the sights, and as we motored out in the canal we passed the skydivers airbase – as one plane landed another would take off. My attention was distracted by the boat racing that was taking place just outside the harbour area in the Gulf – I checked later and think it was part of an Offshore Powerboat Championship round in Dubai. Time was getting on by the time we got back on the blue bus and we had to complete most of the last loop again. No daylight saving in the UAE and so the sun with it being ‘winter time’ set just after 6pm, casting the surroundings into a different light. Traffic was crazy busy and the buses started to run late and as a result our connection to get back to the red line to get back to the Arabian was missed / out of time so we had to get a taxi from one of the malls across town – not ideal and taxi stand must have seen us coming as they piled us into an exec cab – which we didn’t know about till later, and which came at a premium rate). Finally we made it back to the hotel and retired early – needing to catch up on some sleep.

On the Saturday morning we raised a bit later but headed out for the Hop On bus hoping to make the connection for the half day tour that they offered but the bus let us down and picked us up late thereby missing the needed connection – unfortunately. So we defaulted to plan B and hopped off at one of the stops for a complimentary Dhow ride down the Dubai Creek – not sure why they call it a creek when it is such a main and important waterway for Dubai. The dhow ride was good – you got to experience the skyline from the water and there was loads of activity on the water – water taxis running back and forth. Getting back on the bus we completed the red line loop which included headed out from the Dubai Mall area to another shopping area that they call Old City – nothing old about it as they have refurbished an area with some good-looking shops, plenty of places to eat, and lots of different sights to take in. We rode the bus back around to the museum stop where we took part in a complimentary walking of the Old Artist Corner – an old but newly redeveloped area that backs onto the creek / canal and is occupied by artists and cafes. We then headed through the museum – it’s split into 2 main areas with a refurbished fort and supporting displays up top before you go underground to explore the history of Dubai displays – it’s pretty interesting seeing pictures of how the city has grown and expanded. Museum took a while to go through and take in all the displays, so after we surfaced we just had to duck across the road to be back at the Arabian so we chilled out for about an hour before heading out again.

The Hop On bus company run a night bus experience so you can experience the skyline at night so we rode out to the southern end of Dubai taking in all the sights ‘by light’ – would thoroughly recommend this and as it’s still so nice and warm / mild it’s a very pleasant time to be out and about. Being Saturday evening, all the local supercars were out being driven around town – from the bus all you could hear was the whirl of a Ferrari or Lambo – I was enjoying it. There’s also a large portion of the main highway through Dubai that has all the car sales and here in Dubai they have some very attractive tax incentives – no tax to pay on a supercar so the place I need to come to in order to buy my Lambo – just won’t be able to get it back to NZ without paying a load of tax on it. All the supercar and luxury car brands were represented – I could have spent a day or more just going around the yards (but I didn’t). The tour brings you back to what’s call the Wafi Mall where they have the Souk Madinat and they host a pretty impressive laser light show. The Wafi Mall is themed on an Egyptian monument with replicas of all the famous Egyptian figures from history, so it’s quite the sight with all the laser lights playing over it. The night tour takes around 3 hours so from the Wafi Mall we had to find a taxi back to the Arabian but we were more skilled for it tonight and got into a standard Dubai cab which had a much more realistic fare. Back to the hotel we’d had a couple of fairly full on days but decided the following morning we would try for one more bus ride from our 48-hour tickets.

On the Sunday morning we were up and out early – normally this would have been the start of the local working and school week but with the National Day weekend a lot of people were still on holiday so things were still pretty busy again. We got the first red bus and rode to the Dubai Mall as today we were taking in the Burj Khalifa tour. Tours of the tower are at a premium so you have to make sure you book a slot – tour time in advance. We thought we had allowed ourselves plenty of time for be at the tour for 10.30am, but it starts with having to walk through and navigate your way out of the Dubai Mall and then next door into the labyrinth that leads you to the tower. You have to get your ticket checked and then go through down and around and then que for the lift – along with everyone else – entrance process probably took best part of 30 min’s. Now I wasn’t too sure about how I would go with the tower tour – did the AK Sky Tower a few years ago and didn’t like that and the Burj was something like 3 times higher. But the ride up in the lift is quick and painless – you hardly feel like you are moving and before you know it the doors open out onto the 125th floor viewing platform.

But I stepped out and felt fine – I felt really good to be honest. The view up at this height is something else – they say that on a clear day (and that doesn’t happen all that often as the deserts blow up the sand that then casts a haze over the city a lot of the time) you can see 95 km’s – they also reckon you can be seated at the base and see the sun go down and then ride the elevator up to see the sun go down a second time (Burj has one of the fastest lifts in the world – complex has something like 54 lifts in total with the fastest travelling 10 m’s per second so makes for a quick ride). On the day we were at the tower we noticed some window cleaners abseiling down the building to do the windows – I think I read that it takes the team something like 3 months to get all the windows done before they head back up to the top and start all over again. On our day up in the tower the surroundings were hazy but you still get a great view and from the viewing platform (there is a higher platform that goes to floor 140 or 148 if you buy a premium ticket) you look out over all the tops of all the big buildings below. You can see out into the Arabian Gulf – a large cruise ship came into the harbour whilst we were in the tower. Looking up the coast you can see The Sail but today it was in the haze of the distance and looked quite faint. The viewing area on the 125th floor is glass all around you can get a 360-degree view of Dubai. You then go downstairs to the 124th floor which has an outside viewing area – sitting down on the window sill at this height felt a bit un-nerving but what a view.

The viewing levels have large gift shops and there were hoards of tourists (lots of the cruise boats had excursion groups viewing whilst we were at the tower) buying up at large. We would have spent a good hour or more on the viewing levels before we rode back down in the elevator (had to que to get a ride back down for probably 15 mins). Back down at the entry level there is a load of info and displays outlining how the tower came about and the build process, noting that a build of this height was full of a lot of ‘firsts’ so was really interesting to read up on just how they tackled all of this. The tower or Burj from my perspective isn’t a bulky building (as I might have expected) – it has a nicely fanned out base (I think the base structure is modelled on the local desert orchid) and then the levels build upwards and in from there – kind of like a narrow cone. Wind buffering was a major design factor so it was really interesting to see how they tackled this aspect in the design – I was like a sandboy taking in all the details, facts and figures. When you look at all the other large skyscrapers around the Burj that are all of a similar design (similar but all have different features to offset from one another – and in some cases, out do one another) of large upright building blocks. The Burj (and the new Needle project) differ greatly in their design in how they go up and in and then up some more etc. Take my word for it, go and have a look for yourself – it’s well worth it (and if you could stay in the hotel would be another special experience – its suppose to be spectacular inside – with the building being a mix of hotel and private apartments / penthouses).

Back down at ground level again we ventured back into the Dubai Mall complex. This place is phenomenal – it’s the largest shopping mall in the world and as if that wasn’t enough they are currently going through major extensions. Currently the mall covers something like 50 football fields so if you wanted a good workout, just walk around the mall for a day. I think the mall was something like a 20-Billion-dollar development – that’s crazy money, and it snuggly sits at and fans out from the base of the Burj. The mall is multi-level and has a waterfall, a large indoor ice skating rink, largest flat screen in the world – these Dubaian’s like to be No 1 at whatever they are involved in, and of course one or two shops, many of which were very high end but the place was packed with people and they were buying up at will. When the mall extension is completed they locally expect the mall to attract 100 Million visitors a year – to a shopping mall. Part of our Burj tour included visiting the Dubai Aquarium which sits in the Dubai Mall. We didn’t expect too much from it, but the aquarium has a large tank that goes up a couple of stories and is something like 100 m’s long and it’s just packed with fish. You start your tour of the aquarium by walking through one of those clear tunnels that ran through the middle of the tank – we had sharks and rays swimming over the top of us – was really quite special. You then go up a couple of levels and you have a load of aquarium and wildlife displays to take in – took us an age to work our way through all that there was to see (we saw a couple of fish / sea-life that we had never seen anywhere else before).  We came out very happy and felt that the tour package we purchased was very worthwhile and money for value.

We spent some time looking around the mall before heading outside to the Dubai Fountains which sit at the base of the Burj and are modelled on the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas – except as you might expect for Dubai, these ones are bigger. We were outside just after 5pm and it looks like you have to get in early to get a good viewing spot ahead of the light show that starts at 6pm just after the sun has gone down. Fountain show was impressive but seemed to be over pretty quickly, so we fought our way back through the mall and got a cab back to the hotel, having had a really good day at the Burj complex.

Monday was to be our last whole day in Dubai so in the money we got out early and walked down the road from the Arabian a bit till we came to the water taxi port. We were able to board a water taxi to ride across the creek for $1 Dubai Dirham each. Looks like it’s a very popular means of getting around in Dubai – the water taxi. On the other side of the creek we first went through the Spice Market – all the store holders want you to come in and buy – is a little full on at times. We finally succumbed and went into one and brought some nuts and camel chocolate (tastes pretty good). From the Spice Market you wind around the streets till you come to the Gold Souk – souks are the names given to local market places – you have the Spice Souk, Gold Souk, Fabric Souk and so forth. The gold Souk was just one shop after another for several blocks that just sold jewellery – most of which was gold. Was all very impressive to look at – there were some really nice pieces and then some pieces you looked at and struggled to see how anyone could wear them they were so big. I don’t think the gold comes from Dubai – pretty sure that back in the day someone from Dubai brought in gold from the USA which they then made into jewellery and then on-sold – a lot to Indian but also all over the world – this place is famous for its gold trading.

We made it back through all the markets and back across the creek and early afternoon we were picked up for our Desert excursion. A driver collected us (and 2 other couples) in his nice Landcruiser – looks like most of the desert guides use the trusted up-spec Landcruiser out in the sand (ours had a roll-cage build into it). We headed out of town and wasn’t long before we started to see some sand. Along the way we passed a big hill where trucks were dropping loads of rubbish – our guide told us that call it Rubbish Hill – it is manmade from all the deposits from the local building sites – trucks come and go 24 hours a day tipping out the scrapings and rubbish from the building sites – the hill was getting pretty big and I was thinking they were soon need to start a new hill. Back to the excursion – all the tour vehicles pull up at an assembly point out in the low sands (the Dubai Conservation area) where they all lower the pressure in their tours before you then set off. We were in a group with about 6 other vehicles and it really was a case of follow the leader. They call it ‘dune bashing’ – Carol’s sisters Netty and Linnie had done this tour a couple of months earlier and it freaked them out a bit when their vehicle ‘beached’ atop of a dune – no such luck today – the bashing was all pretty lame and leisurely. After running through the dunes for maybe 30 mins all the vehicles park up for the sunset – we saw a couple of camels being ridden across the dunes, and earlier out in the dunes we saw Desert Gazelle and Desert Oryx – not much for them to survive on out here.

After watching a lovely sun-set we then moved on to a local Bedouin camp where we were able to go for a short camel ride – they are really strong and impressive. I trudged up a sand dune for a ride down on a snow board – bit of fun. We got pictures holding a fine-looking Falcon and then it was in a drink and some local food that had been prepared. There must have been a couple of hundred in at the camp whilst we were there and looks like that have things pretty well sorted. After a nice meal we were entertained by some belly dancing before it was time to get back to the vehicle and head back into town. The ride back into town took about an hour – we’d been told it might be 11pm before we were back, so we were thankful it was only 9.30pm as we had an early start the following morning – another 5am pick up to get out to the airport, but on the plus side we were be catching up with Maddi at Dubai Airport before the 3 of us fly onto our Scandinavian adventure – details to come.

Summing up Dubai, Carol and I really enjoyed our time here – I hadn’t expected to, but I loved this city – there was just so much to take in and see, and we agreed that we really hadn’t done justice to Dubai in a little over 4 days – we reckoned you could easily occupy yourself here for 10 days. We’re keen to come back and see some more – there’s just so much development happening locally that in a couple of years’ time the place will look different again – roll on 2020 and fingers crossed we can make it back then – or maybe sooner.

Lusaka

As noted in my last update it was time to move on from Livingstone ahead of us departing out to Dubai. We made the call to get a local bus from Livingstone up to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka where we would spend a couple of nights ahead of our Dubai connection. On the Tuesday morning we were up early and had a quick bite to eat at the Le Patino, and said goodbye to Adrian the night manager, and got a taxi down to the depot where you are swarmed by local guys who want to carry your bag for you for a few kwachas in payment – which for us didn’t make any sense as we were dropped at the bus door and just pushed our way through them and pulled bags from the boot and straight into the bus. We took a 7.30am departure to Lusaka and had been told it would take 6-7 hours all going well. After milling around at the bus depot waiting for 7.30am to approach we were called onto the bus and away. The countryside across the lower part of Zambia all looked pretty similar – low rolling country covered in bush / scrub. The production of charcoal is common place along the roadside – looks like locals go into the bush, chop down a tree and then make the charcoal from it and bag it up – it’s common to see locals biking along the road with long bags of charcoal piled up on the bike as they head into the nearest town to try and sell it.

At regular intervals along our journey today there were local villages that had roadside stalls set up to see local produce. It seemed like the bus-driver had his favourite stops – first one we pulled into the bus was swarmed upon by local ladies selling bag loads of local fruit. Next up the road it was time to pull in for the tomato stop and then finally there was another stop where bananas appear in their masses as the local ladies worked there way around the bus trying to get sales – and there were plenty on the bus that did buy up. As an aside it looked like the bus-driver and his team did alright as the fruit started to get loaded up beside him with each stop. Also for sale as the bus moved along there were some people selling fresh fish, and these big bush mushrooms. We had to stop near a weighbridge so some local sellers hopped on the bus trying to sell drinks, trays of eggs and even woven mats – riding buses in Africa is a constant eye opener. Another observation is the lack of seatbelt wearing – belts are only ever pulled across when approaching Police Checkpoints otherwise they really aren’t used.

It appears to us that there isn’t a lot of infrastructure put into maintaining or improving roads in Africa. Today we had a stretch of the main road of probably 50 k’s where the road was just pitted with large potholes – traffic moves from one side of the road to the other trying to ease through the bumps. You’d think someone would attempt to try and improve the road / reduce the potholes but there doesn’t appear to be any plans in place to do so – the buses and vehicles traverse this main highway every day putting up with the bumps as they don’t have any other options I guess. We finally hit the outskirts of Lusaka and worked our way into the heart of town to the bus terminal. This is where you are met by a hoard of taxi drivers all hoping they will get your job – they try and catch your eye and hook you in. I guess some of the drivers may have been waiting all day for a job. With our driver lined up, we got through the mass with our bags and headed to our accommodation – the Fish Eagle Backpackers – sounded flash.

The Fish Eagle Backpackers turned out to be a quirky but tired place that a local Zambian born pom called Kevin had developed out of his property. He had a few people staying / living there on a longer-term basis and a few rooms for short termers like us. Accommodation wasn’t anything to write home about but this reflected in what we were paying. The real value in the location were the people – Kevin seemed to attract a neat bunch of people around him – local Zambian’s and pom’s. Everyone seemed to be related to one another or connected somehow. Kevin was on wife No. 5 – Emma, a local Zambian woman some years his junior (Kevin was pushing mid 60’s). Kevin and Emma had something like 5 dogs – one of which was a big black lab cross so reminded us of our Baz back home (his name was Scoobie and he was a very docile fella but I’m sure if someone was trying to break in he was give them what for). Kevin had worked in hospitality for years and was obviously well regarded. We met a couple of regulars who were supposedly related to Emma – Neal was an Exec chef from Newcastle who worked around the world and was now involved with a local Lusaka woman also called Emma. Everyone had great stories – and it made for some fun sitting around the pool as it got dark listening to all they had to say.

Through one of the Emma’s we arranged a driver for the following day – he was related of course. We asked everyone what the main things to do in Lusaka were but really didn’t get much from anyone. Even the web didn’t offer a lot of ‘must do’s’ for Lusaka but between everyone’s input we came up with a plan and headed out the next morning with Nicholas. First stop today was a lodge on the outskirts of town called Lilayi Lodge. They have an orphan elephant base but we didn’t go through it. We’d been told we should see loads of wildlife as we drove into the lodge but it was pretty limited (spotted waterbuck, wildebeest and some guinea fowl, and on the way out we spotted gazelles, pumba, and giraffes). The lodge has a lovely setting and supposedly the wildlife like to graze and feed on the grounds around the lodge bungalows, but we were told by the receptionist that there was so much feed about on the grounds (600 hectares) at the moment that they were staying in the bush most of the time. We enjoyed a cuppa and a light bite to eat and soaked up the surroundings agreeing that it would be a lovely place to call upon and or stay at another time.

It was pleasing to see some significant farming being applied around the city – there were big centre pivots in operations and large fields of maize and sugar cane being developed. Heading away from Lilayi we called into a local garden centre and convention facility called Sandy’s Creations for a look around. We’d heard Mint Café on site was very nice to eat at and Carol was tempted for a moment but we decided to move on. We went through the local city museum – which was looking rather tired and lacking in substance. It did have a big section on Zambia’s battle for independence so we had a good read up on that. Nicholas showed us through town a little (one of the things that stands out in Lusaka is the street hawkers that stand in and work the main roads – they walk up and through traffic at intersections trying to sell whatever they are carrying – this ranged from steering wheel covers, window wipers, to clothing to gumboots, to fruit and vege – we even saw a guy trying to sell the small dog he was carrying) and past the President’s sprawling estate before dropping us back to Fish Eagle. We hadn’t been back there long before the bar livened up and the stories from the local’s started to flow so we settled in with a couple of beers and a bite to eat and had a fun evening listening in.

On the Thursday we had to fly to Dubai later that evening so we opted to just have a quiet one today and having packed and checked out of the lodge, we left our bags with them and walked up the road to a local shopping mall. The had a great hardware store like a Mega Mitre 10 called Builders Warehouse and it was great to have a look around (miss my regular trips to Bunnings, Mitre 10, Placemakers). We had a relaxing wander around the mall and had a bite to eat and a cuppa before we headed off next door to the local Lusaka University grounds. A group of young guys were kicking a ball around and it wasn’t long until their numbers swelled and a game was on so we sat and watched for a while (filling in time) before heading on through the grounds of the university which are quite nice. Back to the Lodge we had a last drink with the team there and Emma (Kevin’s wife) gave us a lift out to the airport and got us dropped off. They’re currently completing a significant extension and refurbishment of Lusaka Airport and going by the insides it needs it, and once finished it looks like it going to be quite flash and a real asset to Lusaka.

Checked in Carol and I reflected on our time in Lusaka – we both agreed that whilst it was good to see another city that we really didn’t get much from our time there and that maybe we should have stayed on another day or so in Livingstone (or elsewhere) but these are the lessons you learn along the way – anyone else going to Lusaka will need to judge for themselves.

Livingstone Revisited

Back from our road-trip and returning to Livingstone we settled back at the Le Patino B&B (http://www.lepatino.com ) where we knew we would have the comfort of the pool, comfortable room and a cooked breakfast each morning to get us going. Getting back later in the Sunday afternoon we still had time to get down the street to the supermarket to get some supplies – chips and cold beer were on the list. We’d made arrangements to head to Dubai via a flight out of Lusaka on 30 November so we arranged with the team at Le Patino to stay a further 9 nights with them before we would get the bus up to Lusaka and onwards from there. With that in mind we decided we needed to make the most of our time back in Livingstone and to get in touch with the team at Sunbird Lodge to see if we were able to assist them for a few days with some volunteering.

We used Monday to catch up on things back in Livingstone – we got caught by the same hawkers wanting us to buy from them, and caught up with the deaf lady that we buy the bananas from (our routine). On Tuesday we headed out for a decent walk down to the south end of town and went as far as the Livingstone Railway Train – this is a tourist train that runs each evening out to the waterfalls / bridge to take in the sunset – I think you get a nice meal on board etc. We checked out the Shoprite store at the south end of town – very flash to the one up in the main part of town – Carol even enjoyed her shopping experience which is saying something. We ran into Terrance – a street hawker that we had encountered in our first stint in Livingstone. There was a local sculpture working on a new piece by the soon to open Bus Terminal – he sculptured animals out of wire mesh and coated them in render – he was working on a new piece – a big rhino – very clever.

On Wednesday we managed to link up with Rabeccah from Sunbird Lodge and agreed we would be out to them the following morning at 8am to see how we could assist them locally. In the meantime our routine was to get out for a good morning walk, come back and catch up on some reading, and then hit the pool for a few lengths and some sun, before we contemplated whether we would head out for another walk before the sun set (on one of our evening walks we came upon the local town football team training and playing a friendly match so we stopped by to take in the action – in awe of the fact that they were running around in the late heat of the day, some in boots and some in bare feet, playing on a pitch that was essentially dirt, but they had the skills and looked to be enjoying themselves).

On Thursday we were up early and worked in with Peter to have some breakfast early before we headed out to Sunbird Lodge. Fed, we pushed off from Le Patino just after 7.15am to walked out to the lodge which took 50 min’s – I was almost worn out before we got to work. Rabeccah greeted us and showed us around the lodge – they get volunteers from all over the world – mostly in the 18 – 26 yr bracket so we were outside the norm and felt it at times. Some volunteers come for a week whilst some stay for 3-4 months helping out. I think the way it works with Sunbird is that the volunteers pay to get themselves to Livingstone and then pay to stay at the lodge a nominal fee whilst they help out locally. Our friend back at PGG Wrightson, Linda Cain had put us onto the team at Sunbird having completed a couple of volunteering stints with them over the last couple of years. We approached Rabeccah and there team on the basis that we couldn’t contribute financially but were happy to assist with some labouring for a few days as needed. Having looked around the lodge, Rabeccah introduced us to one of the local team Alberto who walked us around to the school that the lodge have been building / developing off the back of volunteer help for the past few years.

Rabeccah and her husband Kennedy run Dream Livingstone and are heavily involved in developing school projects locally with the proceeds and labour that the volunteers provide. The Dream Elementary School is there latest project – a school in the highlands area where they have approx. 120 kids enrolled ranging in age from 3 – 15 years of age. The aim is to get the kids into the school to get some basic skills underway before they can be moved on to a state school but the issue is cost as all schooling is ‘user pays’ so in a lot of cases, a lot of children here appear not to get any schooling and those that do, do so only at an elementary level and don’t move onto the state school system – a disappointing but understandable situation locally considering the average income and conditions that families are trying to live off.

Anyway, back to the school, we were first on site today (and each day for that matter) and Alberto handed us over to Wilson the site convenor and builder. To date Wilson and the volunteers have managed to get a small classroom built at the back of the site and an open-air assembly shelter and are now working on an L Shaped wing of approx. 5-6 classrooms with offices included and a larger toilet block. One wing of the new structure is all but complete and whilst we were there the school christened one of the classrooms for a presentation. The job for the next few days was to concentrate on making a block retaining wall around the front perimeter so that this could act as a garden area and steps up into the classrooms (a large concrete veranda was already in place and we were working up to this height). The volunteers had dug out the trench so whilst Wilson got to work on pegging out the lines, Carol and I got to work lugging blocks (concrete blocks that they had made and pressed on site) around to the veranda.

An Australian volunteer Doug pulled in around 8.30am and introduced himself – he had been working on site for 3 weeks but today was his last day as he was heading home on the Saturday and needed to get out on the town for a couple of nights before going.  The bulk of the volunteers drifted in between 9 – 9.30am – not the message we got but not our place to question. Three of the volunteers helped out with the school whilst we had around five helping on the construction side with us. The construction work is very labour intensive – you mix the concrete / mortar by hand, there are limited tools, your working on a sandy soft surface so once loaded up it was hard work pushing the wheelbarrow of blocks and sand along. Doug said to us to just pace ourselves – you do as little or as much as you want to – he was a heavy smoker so after every couple of wheelbarrows of blocks he would duck off for a smoke and break. I’d have to say that this side of things was very frustrating for me – we had been told that the volunteers generally worked from 8am to lunchtime – 12.30 / 1pm as it gets too hot otherwise.

I had this impression that we would all be going for it and trying to do as much as we can, but not sure if it is the younger generation or not, but the bulk of the volunteers were very stop start – easily distracted by the school kids that were poking around and short on stamina. I’m not saying we did much but we kept at it and plugged away as long as we could (I think if we were to volunteer with another group I would need some sort of structure in place – I really struggled with the ‘do as much or as little’ approach that applied) – all the while Wilson just kept on keeping on through it all (maybe he was just used to this and didn’t have any great expectations on anyone but I ended up questioning why some of them even turned up?). Blocks moved and mortar mixed it was time to get some blocks laid. Wilson got the foundation blocks positioned as needed before a couple of the guys helped out with laying blocks as well. Wasn’t too much science to it and not sure about the lines and angles, but if Wilson was happy we were happy. We kept the blocks up to the team and made sure there was enough mortar on hand. Being Doug’s last day he went off and brought a load of ice-blocks for the kids to say goodbye – looked a bit of a thankless task to me as the kids were lined up and had to wait for the ice-blocks to be passed around. The sneaky kids scoffed down their ice-blocks and them got back in the line for another go – there was no structure or control in place and I think at the end of it Doug was just over it and happy to say his goodbye and head off back to the lodge.

Being a working site on a working school has its challenges – the kids are back and forth and in and out and totally oblivious to the work you are trying to complete around them – I know I was pulling my hair out at times and wanting to pull up my old man pants and say a few words but when it’s tolerated by the other volunteers (who drop things to get involved), what can you do? I just kept telling myself this was only for a few days and to just keep my head day and keep myself busy. The day was hot and the work was heavy but by 12.30pm we had the front face of the retainer wall all complete and called it quits at that for the day. Carol and I staggered on back into town (with help of a bit of a taxi ride) and got a few supplies before trekking back up the hill to Le Patino. We got out of our dirty grimy clothes and headed down to the pool with a couple of cold beers which only just hit the sides and reflected on our efforts from the day and psyched ourselves up for doing it all again tomorrow.

On Friday we were up and out the door a bit earlier to be up to the school just on 8am. Today’s task was to block the other front face – which was a bit longer than our previous days efforts, but we had some training under our belt so all good. Carol and I got stuck into moving blocks around for the job at hand and shovelled a swag of barrowloads of sand for the cement / mortar. Looked like a number of the volunteers must have gone out on the town with Doug the previous night as no one turned up today until between 9.15 – 10am and of those that did a couple soon bailed out back to Sunbird. With frustrations rising I just tried to keep my head down and get the job done. To add to it a big electrical storm blew in and dropped a bit of rain but nothing too much. With the mortar running out we managed to get all the blocks laid by 1pm and a bit sorer for our efforts we staggered on back to Le Patino. We hadn’t long headed down to the pool for a dip when the storm blew over us again and this time it just let rip and poured down for maybe 30 min’s – we looked like we had been in the water when we hadn’t. I managed to arse up trying to get in out of the rain and slipped badly on the wet entrance tiles in front of a couple of the staff – more bruised echo to deal with. We went out for a walk later in the day and you could see the impact of the rain / downpour – the town has all these high gutters and we could see why after it rained. On the plus side the rain flushed all the rubbish out of the gutters (which are just a large dumping point) but not sure where the rubbish would have washed out to – hopefully not out to the Zambezi? That night we headed down the road for a bite to eat and were then grateful for hitting the sack with our tired and heavy bodies.

Saturday was just a quiet day – we got out for a good walk and just relaxed around the hotel for the day. On Sunday the wear and tear started to show on me and I was a bit slower moving about. We spent the morning phoning home and catching up with the family so that was really good for us. That afternoon we headed down towards the waterfall to the Royal Livingstone Hotel – I think this is the fanciest place in town and it didn’t take long to see why. The setting is spectacular – the hotel grounds flow down to the edge of the Zambezi River with the main flow of the waterfalls visible just across the water. To impress even more they had zebra grazing freely on the lawn area – all pretty surreal but lovely. We parked us down by the water at the cocktail bar and ordered a couple of nice cocktails. We then had a walk around the complex – got plenty of photos of the zebras and even some mongoose that were frequenting the complex. You could hear hippos across the river from us but they didn’t come any closer. We headed back to the cocktail bar ahead of the sunset and enjoyed another drink and a bite to eat and then marvelled at the sunset that formed in front of us – nothing should of spectacular. With the sun down, we caught a cab back to the Le Patino and called it a night – we had work the next day.

Monday morning dawned and we pulled ourselves out of bed early for breakfast. We said our goodbyes to Peter the night shift chef who we wouldn’t catch again (the 2 chefs alternate between day and night shift – week about). We headed off to the school and were on site by 8am to be greeted by Wilson (he was telling us he walks an hour each way to get to the worksite). Today’s job was going to be to render the blockwork – I hadn’t done any rendering before so was interested in the process. We got the sand loaded up for the mortar as the first volunteers pulled in. With render mixed Wilson gave some instruction and let us at it. There were probably too many volunteers on hand to occupy, and as a result it wasn’t long before a couple of them just sat back and started watching but Carol was in the rendering zone and seemed to really enjoy the process (we know what we will be doing when we get back to NZ – not sure what and where we will be rendering though). We supplied the main render layer and then Wilson came along and did the final skim layer – he made it all look so easy. With the rendering and clean up done we said our goodbyes to Wilson and wished him well with the project (gardens are due to go in next Monday which was disappointing as Carol would have really enjoyed getting involved in that).

We went and called in on Rabeccah and had a good talk about the volunteering process and the causes they support. She was keen to see if we could assist their cause moving forward so we left pondering a few options and will have to see what we can materialise. We said our goodbyes and thanked her for the opportunity – we were sorry not to have been able to have assisted more / for longer but we were happy (if not at times frustrated – well me anyway) with what we had done. We worked our way back into town and got our last supplies before heading up the hill to Le Patino one last time. The soak in the pool was very welcomed today as it was another hot afternoon in Livingstone. With the last of the beer and chips consumed we set about packing up our bags – properly for the pending trip up to Lusaka – but more on that leg to come.

We have enjoyed our time in Livingstone – it’s been a really nice spot to base ourselves as we did. We will leave here with many memories and a few ideas on what we would change locally, but we would recommend Livingstone to anyone planning on a trip to the area and we couldn’t speak higher of the team at Le Patino who have welcomed us and made us feel very much at home.

Botswana

Having enjoyed our time self-driving through Namibia it was now time to move next door to Botswana. We roused from our accommodation in Windhoek and headed out to the street to await our 8am shuttle that was taking us through to Maun in Botswana. We’d specifically arranged for an early bus so we could take in the countryside as we moved from Namibia through into Botswana. After waiting an hour for the shuttle and numerous attempts to contact both the bus operator and the Tourism Office who had arranged the shuttle, all of which came to nothing we called a cab to get us into town to the Tourism office to see what was what. We arrived to be welcomed by Selma and to be told that the bus had been cancelled and that we should have been made aware of that – emm, we were thinking a likely story as there had been no contact from the office at all whilst we were tripping around. Somewhat frustrated with this we were then told that the bus was now going at midday and would collect us from the office – not ideal but okay. To kill some time the office driver took us up to the botanical gardens which we walked and explored for 90 min’s. We headed back to the tourism office and were picked up by a shuttle bus at midday as planned – okay, things were looking up.

But no, the shuttle proceeded to take us and drop us at a depot point in Katutura where we were left on the side of the road whilst a swag of local guys debated whether to load the trailer that the shuttle was not going to tow, and then once loaded, debated about when they would tie the load down. Communication on what was happening was next to non-existent – it was just a frustrating waiting game. We then got told they were waiting for another couple of passengers – not sure why they would continue to hold the rest of the bus as they did, but had to remind myself we were in Africa and sometimes ‘Africa time’ rules. By this stage I was getting very frustrated but finally just after 2pm we were all crammed into the transit like shuttle van (which hardly looked road worthy – the fact that the starter motor had to be turned over 5-6 times each time the van stopped to restart should have been enough of an indicator) and we started to head off. But not for long – we had to head to a gas station where they parked up for a good 30 min’s to fill, check the air, top up on fuel, so finally at 3pm we headed out of Windhoek. Selma reassured me we would be in Maun by 7.30pm that evening but I knew from the get go with all our delays that it was going to be a very late night for us (my feedback to Selma and the Tourism office would reflect this).

Crammed into a tight little seat I was thankful that we were finally underway – better late than never – but not really believing that. Heading out of town we were quite surprised by how far out of Windhoek the main International Airport was – it would easily have been 50 – 60 k’s out if not more. It wasn’t long into the bus trip that the tunes started to be played and when I say played, I meant blared out of the speaker in the back of the van. An interesting mix of religious tunes that then morphed into local music – not much of which we were able to understand, nor were we able to moderate the volume. We assumed and decided to put up with it thinking it would die down in the evening hours to let passengers sleep (it turned out that the bus we had been put on was being operated by a Zimbabwe carrier and was going all the way from Windhoek to Harare – something like a 26-hour bus trip). The van was honking along – speed limit is 120 k’s and driver would have been doing all of that if not more and as a result had to stop every 3 hours or so to refuel. Around 6.45pm we hit the Namibia border and filed in to be stamped out of the country. We then had the customary walk of @ 500 m’s of ‘no-man’s’ land to get to the Botswana border post to be stamped in – all pretty straight forward and unlike entering Namibia, none of our bags were checked. The shuttle bus rolled through to the Botswana border to collect us as the last of the dusk fell well and truly below the horizon and we were off into the darkness – so much for seeing Botswana.

Driving in Botswana looks to have a few challenges – use of high beam at night is required and oncoming vehicles seem to leave it to the last moment to deem the lights. And then there is the stock – there are plenty of signs warning about this, but looks like it is very common for stock to be crazed on the roadside and wander out onto the road at night – I don’t know how many times the vehicle had to slow and or swerve to miss the cows that were out and about. Pretty dangerous arrangement I think and one you have to be aware of in daylight hours when driving, but all the more so after dark. The night rolled on as the k’s passed us by (I think Maun was something like 550 k’s ‘across the border’ into Botswana), but the music didn’t let us – if anything the music got louder and I understand the drivers were using it to help keep them awake, but were we the only ones in the bus going stir crazy with the noise – it seemed so, as the locals around us somehow managed to sleep. Finally we saw light at the end of the tunnel – Maun was only another 70 k’s to run.

We hit the outskirts of Maun @ 1am and it seemed a pretty big town at night (Maun is the tourist gateway to the Okavango Delta area, and has a population of @ 80,000 we were told). The shuttle bus didn’t seem to be slowing down and I was looking at Carol thinking it wouldn’t be long and we would have passed through Maun but eventually the bus pulled into a petrol station on the other side of town (Selma’s arrival estimate well and truly blown out of the water). We were expecting to have been met at the drop off point by a taxi or such like to run us to the hotel – all supposedly arranged by Selma and the team for us. Emm, 1.15am on a Friday morning in Maun was looking pretty quiet. Despite a heated discussion with the shuttle bus operators they claimed it wasn’t their responsibility and proceeded to drop us and our bags on the forecourt and headed off into the darkness – emm, my day just got better again – not. Pacing the forecourt and with the help of the service station attendant we finally managed to flag down a taxi around 1.30am. Driver looked half out of it and at a loss as to where our accommodation – the Old Bridge Backpackers was, but service station guy gave him the general direction and we headed off. We seemed to be driving ‘out of town’ for a while and wondering if we were ever going to find this place we were staying when at @ 2am we finally pulled up a bumpy dusty road to find the Old Bridge Backpackers.

We would have liked to have thought and had asked Selma and the office to contact the backpackers with our revised arrival time, but as you might expect at 2am in the morning the place was locked up with not much life. We made some noise (probably woke someone up in the process) and finally aroused the guard who begrudgingly showed us to a cabin. It was agreed we could sort details in the morning, so we finally settled down to get a few hours sleep, wanting to write off the day that had been (my frustration reached new peaks during the day, and I wrote and re-wrote in my mind the message I would email back to Selma and the Windhoek Tourism Office). We’d only booked a couple of nights at this lodge and had we arrived when we expected to that would have been fine so we could arrange the Delta excursion that we wanted to complete, but with our late arrival, we missed the boat both literally and figuratively (Delta trips start at 6am in the morning). So we surfaced and had a talk to the office and were told that the guard had placed us in the wrong room (we had crashed for the few hours that we did in a river front cabin that was self-contained whereas we were supposed to be in the cabins that used shared amenities), and were moved across accordingly. We ended up spending the day just soaking up the nice atmosphere that the Old Bridge Backpackers provides and liaising with Selma to get an extra night’s accommodation on them for the inconvenience of the shuttle arrangements, which they came to the party on (in reality this probably cost Selma an extra $60 so not a big expense considering the money we had spent and over-spent with them for the Namibia road trip). Locked in for another night we made arrangements for a Delta trip for early for the following morning and enjoyed some cold beers, nice food and a good walk around the area as the day quickly passed.

The following morning we were up with the roosters to meet our guide down by the river at 5.45am. With breakfast packed for us we motored up the Bona River just as the sun started to rise. It was pretty cold motoring up the river but would only be short lived as the sun would soon start to heat the day and us with it. We motored up the river with our guide KG (he had that on his hat) stopping to look at the various birdlife that was abundant at this time of day. After about 75 min’s boating we stopped at a community camp where the local guides (Pulla’s I think they were called) then put you into a dug-out canoe and paddle on out into the delta (the canoes are known as Mokoro locally and are no longer traditional timber dug-outs but fibreglass for tourist safety we were told). Our Pulla’s name was Dreamer – he looked no older than 20 but told us he was 35. Dreamer steered (I guess that’s the right terminology) us our into the delta pushing us along with a long pole that he pushed into to shallow water from side to side (we told him he could easily fit in working a gondola in Venice). We worked our way through reeds and lily pads – in some places the channels were clear and obvious and at other times they were only clear to Dreamer who stood at the rear of the canoe whilst we were at water level.

We spotted some more birdlife and plenty of fish but no wildlife to that point (I was of the impression that wildlife is everywhere out on the delta, but I think just as is the case when on safari, some days you will see animals and some days you won’t). After paddling for around 75 min’s Dreamer pulled up to an island – well he told us it was an island, where we hopped out for a walk round. The delta is made up on of a series of islands with waterways and wetlands funnelling in over a vast area – animals move from island to island or go around headlands as needed. It was here that we got up close to a big group of zebra’s but that was all we spotted (apart from a large domestic bull that that crossed the fence-line somewhere). We walked around on the island for a bit over an hour but were both pretty disappointed not to have seem more wildlife – where was it hiding? We worked our way back to the dug-out and started to make our way back to Dreamer’s camp for us to catch the boat back to the lodge. On our way back we passed by a large group of @ a dozen canoes with tourists that were heading out into the delta for over night (s) camping experiences – the pulla’s paddle for @ 4 hours to an island where they set up camp – they offered full catered options, for one night to multi nights as required – the waterway was busy.

Soon after this we had our best moment of the delta when we came upon 3 big elephants that were down in the water munching on lily roots and reeds – they would pull up the reed or lily root and then proceed to wash it in the water before munching down on it. We were but 25 feet away from the group with Dreamer keeping a close eye out as we would have to move quick if they weren’t happy. It was a pretty special moment and a great way to end our time on the delta (we came away thinking you would need to do the camping option in order to see some more wildlife). KG met us back at the camp and we motored back up to the lodge – baking under the heat of the day. We passed some kids washing themselves and their clothes in the waters edge (we were told there are crocodiles all over the delta and feeder rivers, but we didn’t spot any), and there was also a spot where locals were coming down to fill up water tanks for home supplies etc. Dropped back at the Backpackers we enjoyed a cold drink or two and a bite to eat and relaxed for the rest of the day, but headed out in time to capture the great sunset as it went down over the delta. We had contemplated staying another night as we both enjoyed the settling and tranquillity the place offered, but unfortunately they were fully booked so decision made for us we arranged a taxi to pick us up early the following morning to get us to the bus depot and back to Zambia.

The following morning (Sunday) we were up and out of the backpackers just after 5am with the taxi dropping us off at the Maun bus depot. We had to work our way back up towards Kasane to get back over the border into Zambia and back to Livingstone where we had arranged to stay again at the Le Patino. To get up to the border we would have to take 2 buses – the only direct way across to Kasane is through National Parks including Chobe and requires 4WD and time to take it all in, so instead the buses run east across Botswana to a junction town called Nata and then you connect with a bus up to the Kasane border (distance of @ 650 k’s so was going to take most of the day). Bus to Nata pushed off @ 5.30am – you wouldn’t want to have been late to the depot, just as the sun started to rise. About an hour out of Maun we were stopped at a Police checkpoint where passports and bags were all checked but this didn’t hold us up for too long. The bus stopped and picked up people at random spots and it wasn’t long before it was full and people were standing in the isles (bus was a van like shuttle again).

Bus dropped us in Nata at the junction service station at @ 9.15am before heading on to its final destination of Francistown – they said the connecting bus would be along in 10 min’s. Emm, connecting shuttle van / bus finally turned up after 11am and we were again on our way by 11.30am. I was talking to the lady next to me who lived in Kasane and she said we would see lots of wildlife on the road as we headed up and near to some of the national parks, but all that was spotted was 1 elephant. The bus pushed on and made good time. The border crossing over to Zambia is about 10 k’s before the border town of Kasane at a place called Kazungula and this is where you have to catch a ferry / barge back across the Zambezi River once you have been through the Botswana customs office and walked the 500 m’s of ‘no-man’s’ land down to the river’s edge where the barge runs back and forth over the river that acts as the border between Botswana and Zambia. A couple of k’s out from Kazungula we started to come upon all these large trucks parked up alongside the road – clearly waiting to cross over into Zambia. Between the truck on the Botswana side and those we saw / passed on the Zambia side there would have been the best part of 300 or more trucks queued waiting their turn to cross the river. We were subsequently told that the barge only has capacity to carry @ 40 trucks over the river a day so trucks and drivers are often parked up at the border crossing for 1-2 weeks waiting their turn to cross. They camp up, cooking for themselves on the roadside and sleeping in their trucks – not a very efficient use of time I would argue but just seems to be the norm with any African border crossing where freight forwarders are involved.

To assist the crossing moving forward they are currently building a bridge across the Zambezi at the Kazungula Junction – I think they said they are building a temporary bridge so they can get the equipment and parts needed over to the other side to make the bridge proper – again, didn’t make sense and why wait until now to start such a project??? As an aside as we crossed over on the barge (that can carry only 1 truck at a time) we came up to the Zambezi side of the channel to see a submersed barge and truck being pulled out of the river – supposedly the driver went backwards when he was supposed to go forwards and overbalanced the barge or such like? Across the river and then you get hounded by taxi drivers wanting your fare. We thought we had arranged through Le Patino to get a cab sent but there were so many cabs and drivers around that we weren’t able to figure that out, so once stamped back into Zambia by customs we went with the first taxi driver that had hit us up. The ride back into Livingstone is @ 70 k’s so it took us around 75 min’s but I was pleased to look at my watch to see we had ‘made it back home’ to the Le Patino and it was only just after 4pm – not back considering the downtime we had in Nata (I think all up the buses cost us less than $40NZ  for the both of us to travel so very cost effective, if not a little cramped)

So that was our road-tripping over with – we met some really nice people in Botswana including an older Austrian guy who had been travelling by himself in East Africa for a year, an Englishman who had been in East Africa for 3 years – this time round (he just travelled till his money ran out and then when back to England for work for 2 years and then set off again – had done so for 25 years he said). We spent some time talking with a Swedish couple who spend 5-6 months of the year travelling to avoid the cold of home so we talked with them for ideas re our upcoming excursion to Scandinavia with Maddi. We talked to a young Australian woman at the backpackers who had been in Gaborone doing medical training, and then bumped into a young woman Sofia from Balclutha who had been volunteering at Sunbird Lodge in Livingstone for 2 months before heading off to see some of Africa (Sunbird Lodge is the place Linda had suggested we locate if we were able to do any volunteering ourselves) so we now have a plan for next week once back in Livingstone. There’s so much more to Botswana that we haven’t seen and done – everyone you talk to says how lovely the local people are and we are sure they are, but we really didn’t feel we had the time to do justice to this lovely country. Three things I will remember about Botswana – cows and stock on the roadside ruling the roust, donkeys everywhere – they almost seem to outnumber cows, and just wander around in the towns and out near the delta, and the ants, emm, at the Backpackers there were ants everywhere – all things you just have to adjust to when travelling.

Pictures from Uyuni – gateway to Bolivia’s magical salt flats

 

Collage 2017-09-06 09_51_42

Pic’s from Bolivia’s capital La Paz – supposedly the highest capital city in the world 

Collage 2017-09-05 18_12_57

 

Pictures from Copocabana – Lake Titicaca Bolivian side

Collage 2017-09-04 23_39_04

1504560624653

Namibia Road-tripping

As reported in my post we had arranged with the Tourism office in Windhoek to head off on an 8-day self-drive through some parts of Namibia (it’s a big country and to do it justice we would have needed a month to say we had covered Namibia and then that would be a stretch).

Day One – we were picked up by Selma’s driver at the Windhoek AirBnB address and he proceeded to take us over to the car rental place. Bags loaded into the Hilux and a quick orientation of how the machine was supposed to work, and some directions on how to get out of town (on the B1) and we were off. Navigating our way out of town on the by-pass highway was straight forward and it wasn’t long till we were out and heading north. Today’s route was taking us north to the eastern border of the Etosha National Park. First stop after heading out of town was to stop for supplies at the town of Okahandja – which sits approx. 70 k’s north of Windhoek – all sealed road so smooth selling. There’s a large shopping centre with a supermarket so we stop in and get some supplies for the days ahead, as well as something to much for our breakfast. There seems to be a business in Namibia of providing car park attention that we didn’t know about – returning to the truck we were approached by a local man and asked to pay for is minding of the car – none of which we had asked for, but apparently it goes without saying that if you don’t pay, damage can occur supposedly. Begrudgingly I dipped into my pocket and shoved some coins into his hand and we headed out of there.

We stopped up the road at a rest point to refuel with the snacks we had purchased and then headed off again, looking for the C22 turnoff to take us into and through the Waterberg Plateau Park. The Plateau is a level rock formation that is about 300m’s high and runs across for something like 50 k’s. Strategically located about the base of the Plateau are a series of lodges and camping areas. We called into one which may have been called the Waterberg Lodge – all have gated entrances with guards to sign you in etc. We drove up into the Lodge area – a large building complete with bathers around the pool – its Namibia so it’s hot. The road took us up to the base of the Plateau where we were surprised to find a series of standalone bungalows stretching out across base of the plateau looking down and out onto a vast expanse below. We guess you can hire / rent the bungalows or stay at the Lodge if you want. Also located at this area was a German cemetery which was the burial site of many German’s from the area who were involved in a land war in Namibia in 1904 – looks like Namibia has had some battles over the years, first with the German’s and then with the South Africans.

When we turned off the C22 we hit dirt road – and this was what we followed through the Waterberg area for something like the next 170 k’s before we came out at the small town of Tsumeb. I would have liked to have had some time to check out the town as again it was a strong German settlement and apparently in 1915 when being marched off the land by the English they turned around and dumped a whole lot of cannons and armaments into the local lake. The locals recently have removed many of them and put them on display but it was already after 5pm when we pulled into the local service station so it wasn’t to be today. Near Tsumeb you can go and view the Hoba Meteorite – the largest known meteorite located today on earth and here it is plonked in a farmer’s paddock near the small town of Tsumeb. We paid to go in and have a look not knowing what to expect and found this large metallic chunk of rock that has this amphitheatre around it for viewing. The meteorite itself was approx. 3 * 3 m’s square and stood approx. 1.5 m’s thick, but what was really disappointing was the amount of vandalism of the meteorite that was evident – people trying to capture their own piece of the metal – having hacked into or tried to cut a corner. You’d question why they don’t have more measures in place to protect it. I think the detail stated that the meteorite came to earth around 50 thousand years ago – they think.

Pushing on up the road from here we were keen to get to our first night’s accommodation before the sun went down – we had @ 100 k’s to run and maybe an hour’s sunlight left so it was going to be tight (speed limit in Namibia is 120 k’s but I didn’t feel comfortable getting the Hilux up to much more than 110). We were staying in a Farm stay Guest House and were told it was 25 k’s from the entrance to Etosha NP. Just as the sun was going down we located the turnoff to Etosha and saw the sign for where we were staying but didn’t pay too much attention to the directional arrow on the sign and headed up the road towards the park @ 8 k’s without sighting anything so we headed back to the corner and saw we should have continued on up the main road another 3 k’s. On the plus side we took in a great sunset over Etosha NP. The Schsenheim Guest Farm stay located we pulled in and had the first thing go wrong with the car – Carol opened the door to open the farm gate and the central door hence snapped – just wear and tear, but door still closed so all okay. We checked in as it fell dark and showered before heading over to have a cold beer. We were stilling there in the dark when the guest house owner came over to clear the table and sat with us for maybe 30 mins talking to us about the farm, how the guest house came to be, the people working locally and what we should expect from Etosha – was really valuable and appreciated by us to get this local insight.

Day Two – we raised early and headed over to the Guest house kitchen for breakfast before loading the truck and heading out towards Etosha NP. The run into the NP gates took maybe 20 min’s – we glimpsed some Pumba, Kudu and bits and pieces before arriving at the park gates. Here you get checked in and directed another 12 k’s into the park to the admin area where you have to buy your park passes – we had to pay 180 Namibian dollars which equated to something like $13 US for us to get in. We then had to go to the park shop to purchase a map but this was only something like $3 US so really cheap to visit. At the park admin area there was an old German Fort – turned out there was a fort on the west side of the park as well that the German’s had established. Map in hand we set out to explore the park. Rains were expected in the area November / December but the park looked like they hadn’t come yet and it was very dry and dusty. Unlike the parks in Tanzania and Kenya, the wildlife took some spotting here although I’m sure it is plentiful at other times of the year. That said we soon started to spot zebra, wildebeest, antelope and gazelles, plenty of birdlife and even a few lions. We also got our first glimpse at the mighty Oryx a large antelope with a strikingly large set of antlers which are straight as opposed to curled like the Tope, Kudu or Eland.

The main track across the park is something like 150 k’s and then you can head over to the western area where there are generally some good wetland areas. With a few detours to take in side tracks and viewing spots I think we clocked up the best part of 300 k’s in the part. Having done the main stretch we ventured off over into the western side thinking we would find some water and that this would bring the animals to us. Despite our driving that wasn’t to be the case as the area was dry – they really do need the rains. Turning back and heading back to the gate we needed to exit we hit the jackpot as a large black rhino appeared for us. We followed it along as it run ahead trying to avoid us and then crossed the road in front of us and headed off. Feeling pretty lucky to have seen a rhino today we headed for the central gate that was again the site of another German fort. You drive through it and then head to the park exit gate – a stretch of maybe 15 k’s and a good 15 k’s they were as we again pulled up to the side of the road to have a large rhino grazing and feeding maybe 20 ft from the car. We sat and watched the rhino happily munched – it only roused and moved on when a local tour bus pulled up and there was a sudden floury of camera’s going off. Moving on up the road we were treated to more Oryx and then we had a family of elephants just off the road from us. A good way to end our day in the park.

Our accommodation tonight was at the Toshari Lodge which is located 25 k’s south of the park so we found it easily enough and were shown to our little cabinet (the lodge has around 40 plus standalone cabinets so a really nice experience). The cabins had a nice deck with big chairs so we just sat outside and had a drink and watch the last of the sun disappear on us.

Day Three – today started with an early snap crackle and pop as we were treated to a mighty thunder and lightning storm out of the Etosha NP. As threatening as it looked, it still didn’t produce any of that much needed rain. We enjoyed a nice breakfast and packed up and headed off. Today we needed to head further west to get up near the Skeleton Coast, as we were staying at a spot called Khorixas. Pulling out of the Toshari there was a regional road that cut across country that we opted for – shorter but all dirt, but as the day transpired, I think we ended up drinking only 8 k’s on tar-seal today. Our AirBnB hosts had recommended that instead of going directly down to Khorixas that we should cut west and call in at a place called Palmwag for lunch. Some of the roads today were striking and as a bonus we also spotted zebra and giraffe ‘in the wild’ just wandering and munching. We found the little spot of Palmwag and were surprised to learn that they were in a current foot and mouth zone so there was a lot of control around us proceeding into the area. Palmwag looks to consist of a boundary post, petrol station and a couple of nice lodges. We stopped at one of the lodges and sat back and enjoyed a really nice lunch. The lodge was on the boundary with a river and an elephant was known to frequent the lodge regularly but looked like the river was dry and elephant had moved on unfortunately.

Leaving Palmwag the vehicle was sprayed and we were cleared to proceed on. The countryside coming up to and out of Palmwag was quite something – we climbed up into the hills and had a good hill pass to track along and then out of. Moving out of Palmwag we were heading down and around to find the Twyfelfontein World Heritage Site where there are some historic rock paintings. The road took us through some amazing stretches some of which I recognised from the Fury Road Mad Max movie – it was like driving through stretches of the movie set. The passes are sand based with dunes that form up into hills / mountains – a great stretch to drive. We finally found the turnoff to Twyfelfontein and proceeded into the area. The area is controlled as you would expect so you have to pay to be escorted us into the rock areas where there are some paintings which they thinking date back to maybe 2000 BC. The rock formations were pretty special – the rock paintings were starting to look aged – yes that sounds silly to write, but it really looked like the dry sandy environment was taking its toll and we questioned why they weren’t doing more to protect the area and put some protective structures / roofs in place maybe? A German farmer had settled in the area back in the early 1950’s before the significance of the area was understood. He farmed here and apparently breed great sheep that produced some fine wool – hard to believe when you look at the climate you’re faced with. Anyway in the 1970’s the government decided it wanted to make the area a protected park so he got bumped off the land – all that remains are the partial skeleton of his farmhouse.

Coming out of the area it was already 6pm and whilst there are other significant sites to view in the area we were aware that we wanted to be off the road before dark, and made the call to push on rather than stopping more. Not sure how but our navigation let us down on the run to Khorixas and we somehow missed our turnoff and ended up going the long way round and added a further 70 k’s to the 60 k’s we had to run so needless to say we watched the sun go down whilst still on the road but finally the lights of Khorixas appeared in the distance much to my relief. The Khorixas Rest Camp was on the opposite side of the town to which we ended so we had a few k’s to go (had we came the right way we would have come in from the right side), but we pulled in and were directed to our room. The tourist office blurb describes the camp as ‘has the feeling of a camp that had its heyday in the 1980’s’ – not sure about the 80’s – I was thinking it was more the 50’s. It would be fair to say that the camp was tired and dated – fridge didn’t work, interior door handle pulled off as we tried to close the door – feedback was passed on as we left the following morning. It was around 8.30pm when we finally got to the camp so we just packed it in for the night having had another long hot day in Namibia.

Day Four – today we were heading as west as we could out to the west coast of Namibia and down to the town of Swakopmund. We roused and had a nice breakfast at the camp before pushing off again. Today was a feast of dirt roads again – and included backtracking down the road we had come out on the previous night. Before leaving Khorixas we fuelled up in town and both agreed that this little town was probably the messiest we had seen in Namibia – to date we had been really impressed with how tidy the countryside and town was. We headed out of Khorixas and had to head south before the final push west. Coming up to the junction settlement of Uis and then moving west from there you have a load of road side stalls to pass – the local indigenous people sell a range of goods – the area around Uis is famous for all the crystal that is extracted and available in the area. There is one main tribe locally called the Herero’s (I think that is the right description) and you have a couple of groups within them – the Tjimba ladies wear these lovely long bright coloured dresses and special head pieces that look like that have a cross bone wrapped up in a scarf that runs across the front of their scalps. The Himba local woman get around not wearing much and their hair is laden in clay which clumps it together – I’m not doing this description justice. Anyway both groups wave out from their stands wanting you to stop and buy something from them. We hummed and hared but pushed on and didn’t stop as we couldn’t decide which we should stop at so could have been a missed opportunity.

With the stalls left behind us we headed out into a vast sand bowl that stretched out in front of us as far as we could see. Periodically cars passed us coming up at of Swakopmund so was comforting to see others on this road – would hate to break down as it was just this large endless windswept plain that just seemed to stretch on and on. After something like 120 k’s we finally came out of it and we so comforted to see water again as we came out of the Atlantic Coastline (being landlocked for long periods in Africa just reinforced our love for being near the water). Just as the inland road hits the coast road there is a town called Henties Bay so we drove in and down to the waterfront where we proceeded to have a good walk up the beach and compulsory tipping of the feet into the eastern side of the Atlantic (we did the west side when we were out at the beach at Daytona in Florida). Refreshed we headed south in the direction of Swakopmund. This coast line is famous for some ship wrecks and wasn’t long before we came upon a fairly recent wreck just off the beach. An Angolan fishing boat had lost power and beached here in 2008 and was now a resting spot for a mass of birds as the ship just lies there rusting away (no lives were lost when it washed up and you’d think for such a modern ship they would have tried to salvage it but not to be).

Henties Bay to Swakopmund was a round of around 85 k’s so wasn’t long before we pulled into the city of Swakopmund which has a population of upwards of 50,000 and thrives on a strong tourism industry. The city was established by the German’s in 1892 as their Western Africa seaport and it is apparent that it was / is a very strong fishing port and transit port for shipping (containers, tankers, bulk carriers etc were dotted out in the bay waiting to come in and unload their cargo). Apparently Namibia is the 7th largest fish supplier in the world – hope that makes sense – the cool west coast seas have a bounty of sea-life that draws fishing boats from all over Africa and the world for that matter (I’m not sure how much commercial fishing Namibia does itself as opposed to leaving it to the other countries to pull up).

We found our accommodation – the aptly named Dunedin Star Guest House (no traces of Highlander influence were located thankfully), and settled in and could up ‘on line’ as you do. We then headed out to check out the town and waterfront and were really pleasantly surprised by how lovely it was. There was a nice sheltered beach and people were in swimming. Beachfront apartment blocks stretched up the coast as far as you could see. And then down further there was a nice pier with a couple of good restaurants located at either end. We tried one but it was booked up so headed up to the more fancied Pier 1905 restaurant at the end of the pier and as you might expect, Carol managed to get us a table. We proceeded to enjoy a really lovely meal before staggering off home to the Guest House full and content – Swakopmund was ticking all the boxes.

Day Five – we had two nights based in Swakopmund so this morning we had an early breakfast before having to head down the coast to the port town of Walvis Bay (approx. 30 min drive down the coast along which you pass what look to be newly developed waterfront settlements). In Walvis Bay we had been booked in to do a half day tour down to Sandwich Harbour. We had wanted to and thought our trip was going to head up into the Skeleton Coast proper to find and see these supposed ship wrecks but tours weren’t running that way – so south it was to Sandwich Harbour. The distance south isn’t all that far – in a straight line but we were taking the coastal route which mean waterfront and sand. Our guide this morning was a local chap called Enio – when he introduced himself his name came out differently and both Carol and I looked at each other aghast as it sounded like his name was Anal – it was all in the local pronunciation. Relieved we started heading out of Walvis Bay, where right in the town area there is a lovely lagoon and waterfront area full of fancy waterfront homes – many owned by South African’s we were told, well this where the flamingo like to hang out and feed on the shrimp – right in town. Just out of town there is a large saltworks – produces salt 24/7 that then goes all over the world – we stopped up on a dune overlooking things to have a good look. We then headed out to the coastline proper and followed the waters each for maybe 30 k’s before the flat turns to sand dunes. Dotted along the coastline were loads of locals our in their fancy 4*4’s fishing – a typical vehicle in these parts is a large 4*4 with big surf casting rods either attached on the front or back hanging upright.

Sandwich Harbour is supposedly the only place in the world where the sand dunes come right to the water’s edge. Not sure how or why they don’t recede but they don’t (by the way, there is no harbour, not sure why it is called Sandwich Harbour but maybe back in the day boats came in here – somehow?). Parked up it was supposedly time to climb a dune or two – emm, it’s harder than it looks and where we were climbing was at an angle I want to say of 60 degrees – maybe less but it was steep. Enio strides up the dune ahead of us with Carol and I trying to follow close by. First dune wasn’t too bad and with a huff and a puff we made it – second dune was steeper and higher and took some more work from all of us. But we conquered them and knew this was going to be good training for our upcoming day at the dunes of Sossusvlei. I’d like the say the dunes we climbed with a couple of hundred metres up but reality is they were maybe 50 m’s at beach but I know now when we go home that we will need to find some dunes to climb for exercise – a good workout. The view from the top was great and you get to see the incredibleness of the Sandwich Harbour area with its dunes panning out around you as far as the eye could see, forming these amazing shapes and patterns and then they drop down to the water’s edge somehow not being eroded away.

Enio surprised us with a good beer (at 11am in the morning) and a light bite to eat down in the hollows of some dunes before we trekked up and over (in the 4*4) and back up the coast to Walvis Bay – Enio had and afternoon tour to collect and head out with. We asked Enio if it ever rained in the area along the coastline – he reckoned they hadn’t had proper rain in over 2 years. Back at Walvis Bay by the waterfront where all the tour operators are based we were entertained by a couple of pelican who buzzed us whilst we sat by the waterfront and swooped in to land behind us before waddling into one of the tour operator’s offices to get out of the heat – hard case, and provided some great photos for us and a what looked to be a group of visiting rugby players who were dining next door. Walvis Bay gave the impression it was a bit more of a working town than Swakopmund with lots of port operations locally so we had a drive around before heading back up the road. Back in Swakopmund we headed out for a good walk around later in the day – you get some great sunsets here with the coast filling the horizon, and there is a really nice boardwalk that just stretches its way along the coastline so a really nice place to wander. So that was Swakopmund and this part of the Namibian coastline – we both agreed it was a really nice area and one we would jump back to should the opportunity arise – the area just had a really nice vibe, and it doesn’t take much to get use to all the German tourists in the area.

Day Six – today we had to head south and inland from Swakopmund to get back inland to the dunes of Sossesvlei. Having topped up with a good brekkie at the Dunedin Guest House we had to head back down the coast to Walvis Bay. I loved this drive – on your right-hand side you have the Atlantic and all the boat traffic you would expect with a nations main port so I was in a very happy place – watching the road but surveying what was happening out at sea. Alas Walvis Bay arrived and we had to turn inland and leave the sea behind. Ahead of us lay a stretch of around 250 k’s across the sandy arid landscape. After about 150 k’s the landscape started to change as we had to pass through a rocky valley that once upon a time would have been a river of some scale. Now it was dry as a bone but the landscape was interesting as we wound up and down and through this area – it had some great rock formations and outlooks. We stopped at one spot where there was a cave in the side of the hill – as we walked down we disturbed a big Oryx who was taking shelter from the sun and heat of the day – he moved on but these animals seem to be very photogenic and when it came time to click for picks he stuck the perfect pose for us – very obliging.

Apart this time we started to have fun with the 4*4 – we heard a rattle in the back and stopped to find one of the rear taillight units hanging our dragging along. We didn’t have much in the way of tape but found some bandage tape in the first aid kit and set to taping the light back in place. Trouble was the next 50 k’s was some of the ruttiest road we would encounter – light popped out once but Carol got to and double taped and it stayed put for the rest of the day. There’s a small junction settlement along this road before you turn off towards Sesriem and Sossusvlei called Solitaire – our Windhoek AirBnB hosts said you needed to stop here for Apple Pie – the area was famous for us! Sounded perfect to me so we found Solitaire and were surprised to find a big bakery with lots of goodies – including the famous Apple Pie. Supposedly this chap nicknamed Moose came to the area by himself years ago and decided it would be nice to make apple pie so he set about it and it took off. Moose died a couple of years ago but the bakery still make the pie to his recipe in his honour. We stopped for some lunch at the neighbouring restaurant and picked up some pie and goodies from the bakery before pushing on for the final 40 k’s of the day.

The landscape was changing – some rolling countryside but very barren and dry, but you spotted the occasional Oryx grazing on what seemed next to nothing – not sure how anything survives out here. Before too long we spotted a camp set back inland a bit and sure enough it was the Weltevrede Guest Farm-stay where we would be staying for 2 nights. Supposedly the area is still farmed but not too much with the Farm-stay operation now being the main source of income for the family that live here. We were welcomed in – they didn’t have a sunset side bungalow for us so provided us with a complimentary bottle of wine so I thought that was a nice touch. The heat out in this area climbs as you would expect so we unpacked and retreated to the swimming pool to cool down. As we did a tour bus arrived – full of mainly older Dutch and a couple from Belgium, so we got talking to them as they all clambered for the pool. They were doing a 24-day tour of southern Africa and were having a great time. We asked lots of questions about Europe in readiness for next year. Dinner was provided here so we enjoyed a nice meal before settling in for the night.

Day Seven – supposedly the best time to get out to the Sossusvlei dunes is to head out there early so the Farm-stay packed us all breakfast (the bus group were all heading to the dunes as well) and we were up at 5am and out the gate soon after 5.15am to get out to the Park gate at Sesriem – approx. 50 k’s away. The park doesn’t open till 6.15am – just after sunrise but we were surprised as we pulled up that there were already maybe 20 cars ahead of us at the gate waiting for it to open. Once open the race begins – the big dunes in the area are Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei (Big Daddy) which are at the western end of the park some 60 k’s away (Sossusvlei means the ‘gathering place of water’ which seemed out of place, but supposedly in days gone by seasonal rains came to the vlei area and created temporary lakes that reflected the red sand dunes surrounding them – now the area forms a sand sea which stretches from well down the southern coast back up towards Sandwich Harbour). To our surprise the park road is sealed but states a road speed of 60 k’s – wasn’t long before the tour operators in 4*4’s and buses started overtaking us trying to get ahead.

This morning there was a low cloud or fog hanging over the area but we pushed on and made it to the Sossusvlei staging area where the tour buses and cars were parked up. The sealed road came to an end and we asked what we what here and were told you could drive the remaining 5 k’s if you had 4*4 or you paid for a shuttle to run you in. We had the Hilux so assumed we would be find and headed in and engaged what we thought to be 4*4 mode only to bog down and get stuck. We had to get some help to get out of it and onto some firmer base. We decided not to risk it and head back for a shuttle but proceeded to bog down again – some help arrived again (much to my embarrassment and manhood) and reckoned our 4*4 wasn’t working / wasn’t engaged – right when we needed it. After much pushing we finally got the truck out and back to the car park – I wasn’t happy – my manhood was shattered to be honest – couldn’t handle a simple sandy 4*4 track – great. Begrudgingly I tipped into my pocket and paid $340 for both of us to get the shuttle the remaining 5 k’s and just fumed at what had happened. I found some relief when we did come upon another stranded vehicle up the track so we weren’t the open ones and indeed on our way back out there was another 4*4 bogged down (I will be getting a 101 in how to tackle 4*4 conditions before doing so again).

Anyway, trying to put all this behind me we worked our way in (on the shuttle) to the big sand dunes. We disembarked back down the road with a group and worked across the basin to Big Daddy (Dead Vlei) and I was starting to question ‘what were we thinking’. Ahead of us was a track up the front lower face of the dune and then you could see maybe 50 or more people up on the dune ridge working their way up to the summit (Big Daddy is the highest sand dune in the world supposedly at something like 275 m’s). We made it up the front face with a bit of grunting and it then flattened out before the serious climbing begun. I’m not sure how far along the ridge would have stretched – would like to say a kilometre but I don’t know – it just felt a long way. I was in sandals and sound discarded them and tried to hike up in bare feet. I found that if you followed in the footsteps provided it wasn’t too bad but there were a few steeper stages where the sand just fell away so it really did feel like ‘one step forward and two back’. I was sweating like a pig – it was only 8.30am but the sun was beating down on us but we pushed on and made the summit – felt for a moment like being on top of a mountain – felt good. At the summit we were joined by maybe 50 others, so photos were snapping in between catching our breathe.

Most people at this point run / step down the dune from the highest point – looks like great fun but we were keen for more of a workout so we backtracked down the ridge till it reached a saddle with the adjoining dune and we scaled across and up and along that. Sand was getting very hot by this stage and I had to stop from time to time to bury my feet in the sand to cool down. My trusty shorts gave up the coast of the dune – I tried to do the right thing and move aside for someone coming up and my leg sank down into the sand stretching the fabric in my shorts further than it could withstand and I created some additional air-conditioning down the front on my shorts – good look I know. A Vlei is a dry clay pan so running along at the bottom of the dunes you have what look like dry lakes – Dead Vlei I think gets its name from all the dead trees that reside in the pan – these are some of the most photographed dead trees you will find anywhere. We pushed on along the ridge and then dropped down at the end of the pan and worked our way of the dune back to the shuttle car park area. We had thought we would hike Sossusvlei dune as well but after the workout we had just had, the ripped shorts I was trying to conceal and the fact we hadn’t brought any water for foot out with us we thought it best to head back to the car park to refuel ourselves.

Nourished we slowly drove our way back out of the park area (the fog having lifted before we headed up Big Daddy). Interestingly there was no race this time and we weren’t passed or hardly saw another vehicle. At the park entrance we had to pay our fees to get out and then went and checked out a nearby canyon area – which had long dried up we got down inside the cool rock structures and had a good wander around. It was very hot so a bit earlier than planned we made the call the head out and back to the Farm-stay – the swimming pool beckoned. Cooled down the busload arrived back and piled into the pool so experiences from the day were shared before everyone settled into dinner that night and retired after what had been a long and hard day (you get some amazing sunsets out in the area so ourselves and the tour group would head out on sunset to take it in, snapping pic’s are will).

Day Eight – time to head back to Windhoek today so enjoyed a later start than the morning before and tucked into the breakfast provided for us. We had a really good talk to the Farm-stay host – she had been part of the operation here now for 12 years having married the owner’s son, but they now run the operation. She said tourist numbers just keep increasing year on year. We packed up and headed out of Weltwvrede around 9.15am with around 300 k’s to get back to Windhoek. Our hosts at the Weltwvrede suggested we take one of the side roads which climbed up over a pass so we took that and were rewarded with a great vista back over the valley below. We worked our way across and finally hit some tar-seal and the main highway (B2) neither of which we had seen in something like 5 days, just below the town of Rehoboth. It was a simple run up the main road from there of 90 k’s and into Windhoek.

We run the 4*4 back to the hire place and proceeded to make our way across town to the guest house we were staying at for the night – it was nothing flash but we bunked down for the night ahead of setting off the following morning into Botswana. That update will come next.

Bus Tripping to Namibia and Windhoek

Last time I signed off we were getting ready to hit the road again and head over to Namibia. Our mode of transport was the Intercape bus service on Sunday 5 November. We’d been told it would take @ 20 hours so for tonight we would be bunking down in a bus with whoever else was travelling. Sunday dawned bright and warm in Livingstone, as had been the norm, and we got dropped down the road to the makeshift bus terminal to await our bus that was due to depart at 10am. Bus turned up and was already loaded with a number of passengers – unbeknownst to us this bus service commenced from Victoria Falls the town in Zimbabwe. On board and loaded the bus finally pushed out of Livingstone getting on for 10.30am – we were running on Africa time. About an hour into our trip skirting the bottom edge of Zambia, we hit the bad stuff – pot holes the size of craters. I think we probably had around 40 km’s of stop go and severing round the roughest road (main highway no less) that we had experienced in Africa. I think it took the best part of 2 hours to cover this patch before the road improved to get back up to normal cruising speed.

Next we came up on the border crossing – everyone was off the bus and went through the Zambia customs process to get stamped out and then we had to walk ‘no man’s land’ to get to the Namibia border. The day by this stage (mid-afternoon) was getting very hot and once stamped into Namibia we then had a wait of around an hour in the heat until the customs guy decided he wanted all the bags off the bus so they could check them – grrrr. I think it was around 5pm before we finally pushed on again and entered Namibia proper. About 10 k’s inside the border we stopped at the town of Ngoma for a quick pit stop and opportunity to pick up some supplies and dinner for the evening ahead. Dinner tonight – a meat pie, some potato chips and chocolate – needs must. Around 5.30pm we were off and running again proper but around an hour up the road we had to stop at a Police check point. Everyone had to get off the bus for travel documents to be checked and then we had to pull bags off again and have them checked. Bus driver was getting a bit stroppy as we were already somewhat behind schedule. Finally back on the bus and the sun started to set as we started to pass through the Caprivi Strip and National Park. We were moving along well with the dark of night having settled around us when the bus braked to a stop – whatever for? Answer – a family of elephants were caught in the buses lights wandering across the road ahead of us – not every day you get to experience that.

We managed to snooze off and on during the night, with the bus stopped periodically in towns on the way to drop off and even pick up passengers (last passenger on the bus boarded at something like 2am). Carol roused me @ 5.45am just as the sun started to rise – photo opportunities were taken. The bus pushed on and finally pulled into Windhoek around 2 hours late (the late passenger to board was venting her disappointment with the bus driver about being kept waiting at her pick-up point and now being late at her destination). Our last stop before Windhoek was @ an hour north of the city. Some of the passengers got off the bus to stretch legs and pop into the petrol station – including an Asian woman who was riding with us. The bus soon pushed off and then there was some commotion as the assistant driver was on a cell phone – the Asian passenger had missed getting back on the bus – supposedly she decided to get a nice coffee made and the bus driver had assumed she was departing the bus at this point. As a result, she had to get a taxi the remaining 70 k’s to Windhoek in order to retrieve her bags etc. – I guess it happens.

First impressions of Windhoek were really positive – the city came across as being quite modern and much cleaner than what we had experienced in Africa – as was the case in Livingstone, the city was afloat with taxi cabs, and also very warm. I think the population of Namibia is @ 2 million only, so I’d assumed that the capital city would be the main base of population for the country, but looks like Windhoek is very similar in size to Christchurch or maybe a little less. That said there is a neighbouring city on the outskirts of Windhoek called Katutura where a lot of the indigenous Namibians live. Whilst Windhoek appeared to have nice new buildings and well-maintained homes, Katutura has very basic living for @ 200,000 – many living in shanty like little huts.

We managed to flag down a taxi and got a lift to the Windhoek Tourism office in order to check out some options for our time in Namibia. We were met by Selma who firstly directed us upstairs to a mall for a cuppa and bite to eat whilst she went about exploring some options for us. We headed back to Selma and she outlined some ideas for us and then sent us off to find our accommodation for the next couple of nights, with promise that she would have a plan together for us later in the day. We headed off to find our AirBnB address and pulled up at a very fancy suburb in Windhoek called Eros – similar to Cashmere with lovely homes all taking their space on the hills around Windhoek. Our host Sharon (I think that’s right) welcomed us to her home – a multi-story home build into the hillside, with pool and a separate area for us at the back with its own sun lounge and kitchen area – very nice (reminded Carol of Alexandra and Cromwell as there was a lot of schist and stone). Sharon and her husband whom we didn’t meet until the last morning were great hosts and pointed out to us key things to see and do in Windhoek and her husband then helped with ideas for our Namibia road trip. Settled into our room we rested up for a while and then Sharon offered to run us into town for a further look round and follow up with Selma re travel plans.

Our discussions with Selma were built around us doing a self-drive through Namibia for 8 days and then to come back to Windhoek before heading over to Botswana for a few days and then heading back to Livingstone. With planning underway with Selma we worked our way back up to the Eros shopping area – the plan was we were going to pick up some supplies for dinner, but next-door to the shops is the local landmark – Joe’s Restaurant and Bar. To my surprise Carol suggested to go for dinner – I didn’t need any further encouragement so we headed over and enjoyed a great meal and also some great table talk with other travellers that were dinning tonight. Carol had a lovely steak and I had the Game skewer which consisted of bite size chunks of Springbok, Zebra, Oryx, Crocodile and more.

Namibia was settled by the Germans through the 1800’s and as a result there is a hugely strong German presence right across Windhoek and Namibia – street and road names, town and city names – it’s all pretty much German. The German’s settled all across Namibia but were ‘removed’ by the English in 1915 as a result of Germany’s actions in World War One. German’s are the pre-eminent tourists here – and German is spoken by many locals (Audi’s, Volkswagen and Mercedes are also strong car brands – the Government runs a fleet of black Mercedes sedans). We were both surprised and impressed that our AirBnB hosts spoke German, African and English – would get a bit confusing when answering the phone I would have thought. We also learned that most of Namibia was also once part of South Africa and only achieved its own independence and re-writing of its borders in 1990 – following a long running battle with South Africa over the preceding 20 – 30 years since other southern African countries had battled for independence (Mandela played a key role in granting this for Namibia).

The following morning we walked back into town and took in some of the local sites – there is a lovely German church just up from the town basin that we called into and had a really informative chat with the local chap there that was looking after things. We then headed across the road to the massive Independence building and stature – a tribute to the countries battle for Independence. We were looking for the local botanical gardens when the skies opened up – we’d been experiencing a solid thunder and lightning show and then the skies opened and it pelted down so we raced for some cover under a walkway at the Parliament buildings until the weather subsided. Didn’t take too long to clear and so we pushed on back into town and enjoyed a good bite to eat before heading over to Selma to lock down our details. Part of this included going and hiring a vehicle – we weren’t keen on a big 4*4 but supposedly that was all that the operator had left so we signed up a Hilux for the week ahead. Signed up, Selma’s driver gave us a lift back to our AirBnB address and took the scenic route and showed us around some of Windhoek including the President’s estate – or rather palace – it’s a complex that takes up a whole hill – it’s fenced all around the hill and is causing some controversy now as the building was only achieved through financial support / funding from Nth Korea of all places – as a result the USA aren’t happy with Namibia.

That night we settled in early as we were heading off the following day. The next morning we enjoyed an early good catch up with Sharon and her husband and he shared some ideas of places and routes we should / could take over the coming week – all of which were noted. It wasn’t long before Selma’s driver collected us just after 8am to get us down to the car rental so that our self-drive adventure could begin – which I will update on next.

Livingstone – Zambia

Following our early Sunday morning start (5am taxi pick up) we made it out to the airport and got booked in for our connection down to Livingstone at the bottom of Zambia – today we were flying with Air Kenya. Flight down was very comfortable – had a window seat and was able to see some large crop facilities / irrigation circles down below – not sure if they were in the south of Tanzania or more likely across Zambia – which is a larger country than I had factored. We arrived and departed the plane to a hot blast – welcome to Livingstone. We arranged multi-entry visas so we could ‘jump the border’ with Zimbabwe and Botswana as we needed to in the coming month we planned to be in the southern part of Africa, and were then out to get a taxi. We weren’t sure how big Livingstone would be – best guess we have gathered is that the central population of this town is @ 15000 so smaller than anticipated. That said we were really pleasantly surprised by ‘how developed’ the town was – roads were sealed, trees all around, fairly tidy on the most part, tidy homes etc. (we’d anticipated a lot of dirt roads and I guess some shanty style living, and whilst there is some, that’s not the norm here for the most part).

Before long we pulled into our accommodation – the Le Patino B&B – looked very welcoming and the pool even more so. Checked in we figured we’d best check out town so the three of us wandered out into the heat down town. Besides the heat hitting you, other things are the bugs – lot of mossies’ about and small flies, and then the street hawkers. The hawkers are nothing but persistent and have their stories all lined up for you. You’d say no thanks and then they would come at you with a different story, or if you managed to get away from one, there were soon another hawker to take up the cause – we explained we were around for a week and would be back to look at some stage. The currency here in Zambia is the Kwacha ($5 Zambian Kwacha equates to around 75 NZ cents) so we found a reliable money machine and managed to get some currency although Netty was unsuccessful. We walked the main street – being Sunday there were still loads of people around but we found one of the local supermarkets and had a bit of a shop for the next few days. Between the supermarket and the fruit stand I think we spent the best part of $400 Kwacha which when equated to US dollars equalled around $40 spent – not bad (6 pack of beer was $56 KW so converted that came to $5.60 US).

Through the hotel we booked to do a Zambesi River Cruise on the Sunday evening – the Taonga cruise included Braii and continuous drinks ($60 US each I think) – as well as the cruise so was sounding good. We got picked up and headed down to where the cruise boats head out from – for the most part the cruise boats are enlarged rafts with roofs and motors whilst a couple of operators had some fancier watercraft they used. We boarded along with another 10 people – young couple who looked to be loving it up, couple of couples from India, and a couple of local guys one of whom was with his wife and other was with a tourist ‘showing her the sights’. We pushed out into the Zambezi and motored down and around Siloka Island – the island effectively sits in the middle of the Zambezi separating Zambia and Zimbabwe and the falls. On the Zambia side where the boats depart from you have the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park with a range of wildlife wandering around, including up to the edge of the Zambesi and then you have this island maybe 200m’s off the river bank where some of the wildlife have swum out to and made it there home – pretty cool. We saw a load of hippo in the water, and a big croc up on the bank sunning itself whereas some of the others on the boat had seen a big herd of elephant as they came into the cruise facility – obviously having wandered from the NP. The cold beer went down very well, and the barbe was okay, and we then had a great sunset to soak up the atmosphere. The boat came back in just after dusk and we caught our lift back to the hotel – a good start to our time here in Livingstone.

The following day was the last full day Netty would have with us so we made plans to head off early to cross over into Zimbabwe to see the Victoria Falls which was after all the key attraction we had headed down here to take in (I know it was on Netty’s bucket-list). We’d talked to some local people about the falls and all suggested that the best experience for the falls at this time of year was to cross over to the Zimbabwe side. We found out later that as it is the dry season the Zambian side divert the water from their side of the falls to their hydro plant – so they can sell power back to Botswana and Zimbabwe supposedly, so effectively the Zambian side of the Vic Falls is dry for a number of months (I think the way it works is that the Falls sit across the Zambesi River and acts as a sort of border junction as all the neighbouring countries – Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, have a piece of the river and therefore falls as well). We got a taxi and crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge (built in 1905 to cross the Zambezi and link the countries) and got our first glimpse of the falls maybe 200 m’s across from us.

This is where the money is made – we had to pay I think $30 US each to cross the border into Zimbabwe and then we had to pay $30 US each to enter the Zimbabwe Vic Falls park. Our taxi dropped us at the Zimbabwe border for us to walk through and up to the park – we’d arranged that we would meet him back at the Zambia border crossing mid afternoon so we could walk back over the bridge. In the park you then set off on a trail with 16 points of interest – and obviously valuable viewing points for the falls. We started up to the left and went and visited the David Livingstone statue and memorial – he ‘discovered’ the falls in 1855 and named them in honour of his queen. He must have been quite the explorer – coming out here to Africa to spread the word of god exploring new frontiers as he went. At the statue you get a look back up the length of most of the falls. Remembering this is still the dry season (rains are due again from November for a couple of months) we still saw a huge volume of water moving over the falls, but would be pretty amazing to view in the wet season went I image the falls have water running across the full width of the falls. It’s a compromise though as too much water makes for a load of spray and mist and therefore isn’t good for taking photo’s so we were happy with what we were seeing today.

We worked our way along the length of the falls – obviously across from us, and came to a number of viewing points for Livingstone Island – apparently he had boated to this point in 1855 and walked over the island and peered over to the amazing site of the falls falling so far below him. One of the big tourist attractions here is for people to enter the falls on the Zambia side and walk / boat across to Livingstone Is where they can swim in the Devil’s Pool – so named I guess because you can go up to the ledge like and infinity pool and just peer over knowing you are right on the edge of the falls. Such and experience comes at a price – I think it was something like Zambia park entry and $100 US to do this but we could see a load of people enjoying the experience from our vantage point maybe 200 m’s across from them (we heard subsequently that a young woman died a couple of months ago – got too close to the edge of the pool and washed over, but we’re not sure about that). It was a very hot day in the park so any waves of mist that we did go through were very welcomed but there weren’t enough of them. We got to spot some good birdlife and even a thin green snake. As we got closer to the Zambia side of the falls it was as if someone had turned the tap off and the walls of the falls gorge stood their dry – bit surreal but also gave an interesting perspective of the falls and left you wondering what the full flow of waterfall would be like to experience. Last stop on the park trail is the Vic Falls Bridge viewing area – you get to see this feat of engineering up a bit closer and there were groups doing a bridge walk, and also bungy jumping and a bungy swing were operating off the bridge.

We hiked back out of the trail, had a bite to eat and a cold refreshment and then headed out into the sun again to cross back over the border. We were surprised on both sides of the border just how many vehicles – trucks, were backed up waiting to be processed so they could cross – seemed very time consuming – needless to say we made better time than them crossing back over. Walking back over you had numerous hawkers trying to sell you something so we pushed on past them and met our driver at the Zambia border to head back to the hotel. Back at the hotel it was time for a cold beer, chips and a dip in the pool.

On the Tuesday we took it a bit quieter as Netty had to head off to the airport mid afternoon so we opted to brave the Curio Markets down town. There turned out to be something like 60 stands in the market all with a very similar array of crafts – jewellery, cravings and paintings. I did well to move through at a fairly good pace and only buy two new bracelets by the time I came out the other end. Netty got drawn in here and there and brought a couple of things. Carol appeared to be taken into every one of the stands but somehow avoided buying anything – she obviously worked her charm with that all. The heat here is strong – temps in the high 30’s are the norm, so we took what shade we could and having been shopped out we headed back up to the hotel and made the most of the remaining time we had with Netty before she had to leave.

The team here at Le Patino are wonderful and made us feel very welcomed. The cost of living in Livingstone seems not too bad – accommodation was well priced we felt, and groceries seemed very reasonable, but activities locally seem to be where the money is made – most are in US dollars and seem somewhat out of proportion. With Netty departed we were back to just the two of us, and wanting to extend our budget as much as possible we decided we would have to be very selective on what if any activities we partook in. We’d spoken to Peter one of the hotel chefs about some local food and he suggested a couple of meals for us to make so the next morning we headed out to the Maramba Markets which were on the outskirts of town but supposedly the place to go. It had been suggested we needed to get some ingredients to make nshima – the local cornmeal mixture similar to the orgalli we had in Tanzania. We were also told to get some local vegetables and some fat dried caterpillars and dried fish – the market had loads of dried fish so there were flies bussing around in the heat and smell everywhere. I wasn’t sure about the caterpillar dish but later in the week with Peter’s guidance Carol cooked them up in a local dish and I was really pleasantly surprised by how good it was. On another evening Carol used the dried fish to make a dish and whilst it was okay, she wasn’t fussed on it herself. To keep costs down we have been using the hotel kitchen to cook meals most nights, but we did go out to a hostel down the road for a burger one evening having heard great things about them – and yes, it was very nice.

Our plan from here had been to head through into Botswana and then Namibia but despite numerous emails from us to tour providers and car camper rental companies, not one responded to us – their loss (we need to be up into Dubai by end of November ahead of Maddie meeting us there). As a result we worked in with the team at Le Patino to hunker down here in Livingstone for another week – seemed a cost-effective option for us. Our routine most days has been to get up (hotel have been giving us a great brekkie each morning), head out for a walk for couple of hours and as needed, head down the road to another hostel for better wi-fi connection (Le Patino wi-fi has been hit and miss). We’d come back around midday and do some reading (I managed to get through one big book and Carol is onto her 4th book I think), rest up, have a swim, and then a cold beer and crisps, before making some dinner (hard life I know). We have seen some of the local soaps on TV and been watching them in the main lounge with Peter the cook who seems a big fan.

We spent a few days walking the town to try and find a hostel where Linda from PGW had previously come and stayed whilst doing some volunteer work. I think on our 5th hike out in the heat on the outskirts of town, with some local help we finally managed to locate the place but they were away when we visited so we are thinking if we have time back here later in the month we will try and work in with them better then to see if we can do anything locally to help. One afternoon was spent down at the local Museum – we were pleasantly surprised by how much info was provided and the wildlife section with it’s stuffed animals was great – saw some animals we haven’t yet seen so maybe more safari is needed? On our last full day we also took the opportunity to go along to the local cultural show down near the waterfall. The 2-hour show only cost $50 KW each but it was a little full on for us both with the drum beating constantly for the whole 2 hours (like being at a heavy metal concert with exception they break between songs). The dance involved a lot of gyrating hips and shaking – I think Beyoncé probably picked up some of her moves here. There was singing, costumes and theatre to go with all the drumming and dancing. Some of the sounds reminded me of Polynesian music – I guess there are some similarities world-wide and it reinforced how strong song and dance is to a countries culture. I think the plan is to visit the site on our return as they also local craft workshops and Carol is keen to give that a go.

A couple of things stand out to me about Livingstone – it’s been a lovely spot to stay in, the people on the whole have been very friendly (the hawkers maybe too friendly), the ladies have such an array of hairstyles – long and short, coloured and twisted and so much more (Carol and I hadn’t had our hair cut for something like 14 weeks so we went down the road to a spot the hotel manager suggested – didn’t look anything from the outside but we both came away with cuts for $90 KW in total / $9 US dollars, so cheapest cuts we have had before). So many of the ladies and the guys wear bright clean outfits – some of the outfits the guys down on the street were wearing didn’t make sense but maybe that was their point of difference). Food and drink has been cheap for us – I don’t know if I will find beer this cheap but the past 2 weeks have been enjoyable with one beer and a bag of chips a day. Unlike Tanzania and Kenya there are not many motorbikes here – the most common mode of transport around town is taxi’s and they are everywhere – Toyota’s are the norm – I think Toyota taxi’s outnumber private cars here 5 – 1 easily. And everywhere you walk you are asked if you want a taxi or a passing taxi toots to see if you want a lift. I think the fee structure is minimum charge of $60 KW and max of $100 KW around the area so not bad when you convert it. We’ve been surprised how big many of the sections and homes are and by all the trees and plants that are around the town – the most striking of these being the large Flame Tree that has been out in flower whilst we have stayed here and they have been spectacular to look at – they are everywhere it seems. Another surprise has been how carefree the locals seem to be with water – pretty much every place is out watering plants – in the heat of the day (bearing in mind that with exception of the weekend everyday has been in the 30 – 40-degree range), here at the hotel they wet down the driveway to keep dust down, and we’ve seen water-tanks overflowing without much regard – this is obviously what happens when the water to the waterfalls is diverted?

Feeling a little more local around town than we did a fortnight ago (hadn’t really noticed but the hawkers seem to have eased up on me, and we see the same faces and wave when out walking most days), we have bitten the bullet and made plans to catch the bus through to Windhoek in Namibia on Sunday 5 November (bus ride is another 20 hour plus marathon through the day and night but means one nights accommodation we don’t need) where we have made arrangements to stay at an Air BnB for a couple of nights before we go door knocking on rental car companies and the like to head further afield in Namibia before crossing back over into Botswana. We haven’t made plans yet for more safari – it obviously comes at a price, but we are heading into a couple of famous park areas (Chobe and Etosha) so will see what we can work out and afford and then obviously we will update on those experiences with you soon.

As of today I am completely up to date with my blog entries – finally!

Nairobi – Kenya

Arriving back into Nairobi, albeit at the International Airport we were met by our rep from Gamewatchers who had a shuttle waiting for us. The rep spent a few min’s with us to get some feedback on our safari experience – all of which was good. As you’d expect the main international airport is rather large but I was quite surprised by how much green space the airport had around it. Added to that the airport’s main thoroughfare / drive, is adorned with a load of safari themed sculptures – at the main roundabout there is a family of elephants, whilst back up the road you have a group of migrating wildebeest, zebra, with all the predator cats and hyena close by, with hippo, rhino, gazelle and giraffe all taking pride of place – all life-sized made out of panelled metal – very clever and very effective.

Friday was the National Day – holiday in Kenya so the streets of Nairobi were busy with people as they flooded back out of the central parks where celebrations and speeches had been taking place. Traffic in this big city is pretty manic at times – I’m not sure what the roundabout rules were but seemed like once you entered the roundabout you had to keep giving away to entering traffic – the reverse of us back home. Another peculiar sight is seeing stock (cows and goats) being grazed by Maasai on the larger roundabouts – only in Africa would you get away with this, but supposedly they aren’t allowed and if caught, would have their stock impounded until they paid a fine, but this didn’t seem to deter them as there was grass there to be had. We battled our way through the traffic and arrived at our accommodation (that we had booked) which was down town – on Museum Hill – sounded good, and turned out to be really downtown. It was now getting on for mid-afternoon so we all agreed a quiet afternoon was in order – a bite to eat and a cold drink being the right way to kick things off. Not sure if it was due to the holiday but the staffing at the hotel was light – a snack took longer to prepare than it did to down a couple of beers – dangerous (I have to say that the beer prices here in Kenya, and Africa for that matter are very good compared to home, and probably the cheapest thing to drink). Late lunch finally arrived and consumed we settled into our rooms for a while.

Later we opted to dine in at the hotel restaurant – a seemingly sensible thing to do but I think the food and drink gods had it in for me this evening. It started with the girls wanting to buy a bottle of wine – but the only one that they had was already opened so Carol negotiated with the young chap that they would buy that bottle for the price of 2 glasses – they made on the deal as the 3 girls all got a drink and a top up. I was after a cold beer – sorry sir we have run out of that one – so after going back and forth on this we finally managed to get a beer to have. Time to order – surely things would look up – I got excited by the prospect of pork chops so jumped straight in and ordered them only to be told, sorry, no pork chops left – grrrrr. Right, let’s go for a chicken burger – nice and easy. The 4 meals took the best part of an hour to prepare so when they finally came to the table we were looking forward to them – but where was the chicken burger – this burger certainly had no chicken – it was just a big comedy of errors, so we downed what we could and decided it was best to get out without even considering desert.

The following day (Saturday) was Linnie’s last day with us – she had to be at the airport early afternoon to head back to Oz so we’d arranged with Gamekeepers for a driver to take us round for the day to look at some sights – $100 US being the fee. The day had dawned very wet so everyone was covered up for the day ahead. The driver arrived on time at 8.30am and we were off – first stop was the Giraffe Refuge Centre for Netty – the facility being next-door to the famous Giraffe Manor run by the Rothchild family. Netty had wanted to stay at the Manor but I think the room rate was north of $1000 US a night (might have that wrong) so we’d had to pass on that and do the next best thing and visit the refuge centre. Here you get up close and very personal with the local Rothchild giraffe – so much so that they would take foot from your mouth so you can get a prickly wet giraffe kiss – kiss on the cheek was close enough for me. The faciilty had a dozen or more giraffe that they had reared – the youngest being only something like 3 weeks old, through to the matriarch at 17 years old. Only one male in the family (in order to stop any fighting between males over the girls) – he had sired the younger giraffe we saw today. The refuge has a number of guides all around with buckets of pellets that they give you to feed the giraffe but supposedly only 2 handfuls per visitor. You can feed the giraffe down at ground level or up at their height around the info building. I think they said the giraffe has a tongue that is 45 cm’s long – I tested that out a few times and made the giraffe work for their pellets. The refuge has a good gift shop so both Netty and Linnie picked up some souvenirs. The facility has an open boundary with the neighbouring Rothchild Giraffe Manor estate and so the giraffe move freely from one to the other – the big thing when you stay at the Manor is that the giraffe come up as you are having breakfast and share the experience with you – through the window, over the balcony etc. – this was what Netty was hoping to experience, but I think we all came away from the refuge having enjoyed our experience – a quick stop at the Manor gate for a photo and then we were off.

We next headed to a well-known Bead factor – it’s well know over Kenya and beyond for making fabulous bead work – necklaces, bracelets and the like. The point of difference with this facility is that it homes and employs only local solo parent mum’s – some live on site and some come and go to work each day. We were greeted by one of the guys that runs the facility and he took us through the process – from them making the beads out of clay (they also do some pottery on site), getting them fired, then painted and assembled – the place was alive with colour as the women worked on different designs. I asked the guy and he explained that they do make a lot of jewellery to order for places all around – there seemed to be loads of demand. As you’d expect they have a nice little shop that sells all that they make, so we may have got something for someone back home but enough said.

We left the bead place and found a lovely garden café for a bite to eat – they had a nice shop attached so the girls all went about some shopping – Linnie figured she might as well use up any remaining Kenya Shillings so she took care of some Xmas shopping whilst she was there (both Linnie and Netty had excess bag rates getting home so had room to spare with what they were loading up with – unlike some of us – a magnet would have to do). Having refuelled with a drink and something to eat we made our way out to the airport and bid Linnie farewell – hugs and some welling eyes were exchanged as we all bid her farewell – it had been lovely having her with us there few weeks. So now we were 3!

We headed out of the airport and into down for a look around – on the way we passed a large slum area – our driver indicated that upwards of a 1000000 lived in the area – old rusted corrugated iron being a good standard in the area. We hadn’t anticipated it covering such a large area with so many people living like this (I think the population in Nairobi was something like 6.5 million). We needed some food supplies for the evening as we had agreed we wouldn’t try the in-house restaurant again after the previous evening so we called at a couple of places to get some fruit and cheese and wine and yes, a packet of potato chips. It was getting on for mid-afternoon so our driver took us downtown and explained some of the areas and the bigger buildings. The place was crawling with people and traffic so the going was slow. In the central city the roads and roundabouts seem to be controlled by Police Points man waving their arms. We watched as we waited at one round about for what seemed like 10 min’s – an oncoming driver had got restless and figured they would jump lanes to get ahead – no you don’t – the Points man pulled him over and in fact drove off with him – our driver figured they might have had a fine outstanding or similar – exciting stuff.

We drove around a bit more and finally made our way back to the hotel – thinking that we had seen some of Nairobi but sure that there was a load more to be seen. We’d seen loads of people, big new buildings, run down old central buildings, people living rough, people living the good life in what were ostentatiously large homes – mansions (they really were a bit over of top we felt), we saw the slums, and I guess what you would could project living blocks, loads of crazy driving and some central city livestock being crazed – quite an array of sights today.

Back to the hotel we settled in for an easy evening – wine and cheese being the order of the evening as the following morning Netty and ourselves had another early start (5am pick up) to get to the airport and onwards to Livingstone in Zambia.

 

Some pic’s below from our visit to the reed islands on Lake Titicaca – Peru

Collage 2017-09-03 17_11_57

Here are some pic’s from our time on the island out in Lake Titicaca with Mumma Sebastian.

Here we have a few pic’s from our time on the Inca Trail

DSC08215

Our Inca Trail Guides Richie and Raul looking back from the Sungate overlooking Machu Pichu

Finally, a few pictures – they take a while to update so I will load what I can over the coming week – below are pic’s from our time on the Galapagos Islands

Safari Kenya Style

Having enjoyed the comfort of a good bed – and a pillow for the first night in a week, we were up early the following morning to transit through to Kenya. We’d arranged a shuttle pick up for just after 7am so had an early (rushed) breakfast and waited for the shuttle to arrive. Bear in mind there were 4 of us all with big travel bags and back packs – what should turn up late to pick us up but a tired old Corolla sedan – this was going to be fun. The shuttle driver took about 10 min’s pondering just how we were going to all get in let alone our bags so he emptied his boot and managed to squeeze 3 bags in the boot (had to tie the boot down) and I struggled into the front seat with my big bag balanced on my lap – my personal airbag if needed. When it came time to start the car – that was another challenge – the driver had to jump start the car in reverse (wasn’t aware that was possible) but he looked like he had done it plenty of times. Filled with confidence (not!) we finally headed off down the bumpy dusty road. We arrived at the bus station and who should be our driver through to Kenya, but the shuttle guy so we weren’t late and shared a couple of laughs about what the previous 30 min’s had presented.

Waiting at the bus depot were a bevy of hawkers wanting us to buy – they were nothing but persistent. After what seemed like countless approaches by the hawkers we were finally off – we’d been told the bus would take 6 – 7 hours to get through to Nairobi. Our bus driver wasn’t quite as manic as the Dar es Salaam – Arusha bus driver but he put his foot down once we got out of town and was off. The main obstacle for us today was livestock on the road – goats and cows – they didn’t move so the bus on a fairly regular frequency swerved around them. After a couple of hours we hit the border and had to go through the exit Tanzania and enter Kenya process including showing evidence that we had purchased a visa online in advance. The border process wasn’t too bad – on the Kenya side they have really tightened up on plastic bags and are imposing heavy fines if caught with plastic, so we’d cleared ours out in advance but still had to open bags for the Kenya customs lady to check. Through the other side we were able to climb back on the bus but were immediately approached by the Kenyan hawkers – all the ladies were wanting us to buy something – Carol’s trick was to engage them in conversation and be polite – but I still struggle with their approaches and find the experience quite uncomfortable. We were soon on our way so we all sat back and caught a few zed’s as we moved through Kenya towards Nairobi.

We seemed to come up on the outskirts of Nairobi a long way out and first thing we found on the 2-lane highway was that our inside lane was backed up with trucks waiting to go through a weigh-station – they must have been backed up 3-5 km’s – things don’t seem to move very fast in Africa. Before long we pulled up to our hotel – the Eka which was a very flash prospect for us. The facility had guards at the gate and you had to put everything through an airport like scanner to enter the facility. Checked in we took the afternoon to refresh before getting a safari briefing from the Gamewatchers representative, and then we headed next-door for a nice bite to eat that evening. The following morning at 6.15am we were met by our Gamewatchers shuttle and whisked off to the local regional airport – Wilson Airport. Arriving at the airport the first thing that hit you was the amount of armed personnel around – yes there were some tensions in Nairobi leading up to the election, but seemed that everyone was packing a gun today. Things certainly operate differently here – we arrived at the Yellow Wings depot and met the others heading out on safari with us – there were 11 of us in total and although we were told the flight would go at something like 7.30am, the agent said that because we were all there we could leave now so we headed out to the Cessna Caravan with our bags and clambered in.

We headed out over the Nairobi National Park and were able to take in some great views. Within 30 min’s the pilot was telling us to get ready for our landing – but where was the runway. Couldn’t be that dirt strip in the middle of nowhere could it – yes it was. This was real outback flying but the pilot made it all look so easy. Parking up and disembarking we were met by our Maasai hosts Daniel and Amos in full Maasai dress and adornments, from the Porini Safari Experience. We climbed into their open sided Landcruiser and Landrover and were treated to a dusty ride through the conservancy back to the Porini Selenkay Camp. Joining the four of us on safari (we were fortunate to have the company of Netty and Linnie again for this leg), were Simon from the UK, Janet and her niece Nicole from the States, and a couple of young US boys Matt and Grant. On the way it wasn’t long until we were all treated to some local wildlife – a pair of very big elephants were demolishing a couple of big Acacia trees (you gain a different perspective for elephants when you see the damage they cause in the wild knocking down trees, but supposedly it’s all part of the life-cycle). Following that we made our way through the bush to the camp and were really pleasantly surprised when met with the rest of the safari ‘camp support team’ and our facilities – self-contained tents with really good mattresses and pillows, yes pillows, with a toilet and shower building to the rear of each tent.

Following some down-time we were treated to a lovely lunch – the camp chef appeared to have a few more facilities at hand than Elias had the previous week, and he had the chef whites to boot. Each lunch and dinner he would announce to us all what we were being served that day and bear in mind we had a few in the group with dietary requirements that needed juggling so he did a great job. A bit more downtime (things were looking good for us) and we set off on a safari drive around the conservancy so we could take in the sunset and do a bit of night spotting. On our way we were treated to a couple of new animals – we saw the gazelle like Kudu and Gerenuk – the latter having a very long neck for a gazelle which it used for getting up into the higher parts of the tree for food. We parked up at the waterhole and enjoyed a lovely sunset, and then spotted a couple of things on the spot-light as we worked our way back to the camp. Once back to camp we were treated to hot showers (the camp team boil up water and pour it into your camp shower) so we were very lucky. Some campfire time and we were parked up for a lovely dinner – safari in Kenya was looking good (it was funny as collectively – Carol and the sisters – were all questioning just what more we would see and get from our Kenya safari experience but we all ended day 1 feeling very happy with what the day and evening had presented).

The following morning we were up early and had a lovely breakfast before heading off for the Amboseli National Park (the park goes up against the border with Tanzania so animals transfer between both countries – no passports required). The drive into the park took some time but once in the park we were treated to a fantastic array of wildlife and birdlife. The park is at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro (supposedly the Tanzanians are miffed that although the Mt is in Tanzania, Kenya gets the better views).  The Amboseli NP has a mix of vast dry plains and a wonderful wet basin of marsh and swamp with the water being fed from springs from the neighbouring mountain. This meant that there was a superb array of birdlife unlike any we had seen to date, and loads of wild animals feeding in the marshy areas – there were zebra, wildebeest and elephants up to their bellies in the water – quite the site. Driving around the wet areas to the drier plains there were hyena and vultures prying on the odd unfortunate wildebeest. Throw in giraffes and with the exception of seeing any big cats we were ticking all the boxes again (we had seen lions in the conservancy area the day prior). We explored the NP and made our way to another wetland area where we were treated to hippo chilling out with elephants in the marsh – they appeared to have plenty to eat. We hiked up Observation Hill and enjoyed a fantastic vista as we eat our lunch – what more could you want. As we headed down the hill our next treat appeared in the form of a gigantic hippo that was going cross country – instead of swimming from waterhole to waterhole he decided he was up for a walk in a straight line from point A to point B – was really something to see – such a large animal out of its natural habitat. We worked our way out of the park and made the most of the trek home but the sight of the camp and the knowledge that a warm shower and lovely meal beckoned were a great way to end the day.

The following day we explored more of the conservancy and had the experience of the safari vehicle breaking down whilst we were parked up watching a pride of lions. An SOS went out and we were soon transferred to another safari vehicle all the while the lions gazed on at us. Back in one piece we then went out for a bit of a bush walk – was very hot so the girls all carried umbrellas – maybe to use to ward off animals if required. Matt and Grant the US boys were going for the full on Maasai experience, with Matt having talked one of the guides into selling him his ‘wooden side arm’ – a carved stick with a rounded ball like end that they used as a club and would throw to hit animals. Matt and Grant were flicking the club and the warriors who were walking with us with throwing their spears for added affect. Back to camp we enjoyed some downtime before we headed out to the nearby Maasai village for a visit where we were met by the family with singing and dancing – and loads of colour. All the group loved the experience and most of us came away wondering what might we be able to do to assist the village in some small way (we have a few options to explore). Some more spotlighting was enjoyed on the way back to camp – a bush-baby was caught in the light but couldn’t be made out.

Back to camp we enjoyed our last dinner with the camp team before Daniel and his team put on some singing and dancing (and jumping) for us all – really special way to wrap up our stay here. Daniel was great at explaining ‘local habits’ such as the branding that the men have on their faces (cheeks) and also the elongated ear-loops many of the Maasai have. He talked about the transitions a Maasai male goes through – boy, to man, to warrior, to elder – Daniel himself had recently been appointed an elder. Amos was telling us that not all the males do the branding and ear- loop markings – if the male goes off to school / is going to be educated, the markings aren’t done so as to ensure they ‘fit in’ at school. There was so much to take in and learn from Daniel and his team.

The following morning we were up and away to the airstrip and had to bid Daniel and Amos (and the camp team before leaving camp) farewell, having really enjoyed what the previous few days had provided us. At the airstrip our pilot from Yellow Wings was parked up waiting for us so we boarded. He had no co-pilot with him so I was very fortunate to ride up front with the pilot – I really enjoyed the experience and got some great pictures – loved it. We landed back at Wilson Airport and soon were boarding another flight – this time over to the Masa Mara National Park. No riding upfront this flight as the Cessna had a pilot and co-pilot but we were treated to a really good dirt runway in the Mara (the ‘airport’ consisted of an open shelter and a toilet block). We were met off the plane by Ben and his team – Ben runs the Maasai Porini adventure camp at the Ol Kinyei Conservancy – which forms part of the wider Maasai Mara National Reserve. Ben was to be our guide for the following few days, supported by David – a Maasai warrior. The talk was that to become a Maasai warrior you had to have slayed a lion or been part of the group that slayed the lion but I’m not sure how often that practice still goes on? The Maasai wear a lot of beading and I think that some may define the male’s status in the tribe, along with the colours they wear aligning them to a tribe – of ‘family’ (the Maasai male can have multiple wives – Daniel from the Selenkay camp fancied the idea of having 5 wives and 40 children so he could be chief of the village, but had some way to go whereas David from the Mara camp already had 2 wives and multiple children). Another interesting one is that the Maasai male isn’t supposed to drink until that turn 40 but I’m sure by the way they were talking there were some ‘local brews’ being consumed.

On our way back to the Ol Kinyei camp site we were treated to a myriad of wildlife – we saw elephants and zebra, loads of wildebeest, some hyena and a swag of giraffe. Supposedly the giraffe were getting ready for mating season so there was some competition between the males to exercise dominance – bit of neck slapping but nothing full on, and a couple of giraffe were visually quite excited by the pending mating – some sights you don’t need. Similarly the ostriches were getting ready to mate with one male having 3 females vying for his affections – some would say lucky chap! So before even getting into camp we had seen a load of stuff, so the next few days bode well for seeing plenty more. We settled into camp – camp was set up a little different to the Selenkay site – same tents with a combined bathroom / shower room to the back of each tent, but the dinning team was set up outside the sleeping / tented compound (in Selenkay we were able to eat under the stars each night).

That afternoon after a nice lunch (we were certainly being well fed on safari but part of us looked forward to getting back to some sort of more active lifestyle as all we were doing was eating and sitting to view wildlife – tough work I know), we headed out for a good camp drive and some spotlighting. The rainy season is due late Oct – Dec but seemed that the rains may have come to the Mara a little earlier as the skies darkened and we were treated to a full-on thunder and lightning show. We managed to make it back to camp before the skies opened up too much, and settled in for the evening enjoying a nice dinner, but it was too wet for ‘campfire time’.

The following day we spent out and about exploring the conservancy – because of the rain the previous evening it made for some slipping and sliding especially when it came to us crossing some of the streams and water-races – added to the excitement. We had a good banter building up in our group (the four of us with Simon thrown in the bag seat of the truck for photographic action – he was a keen photographer and had all the gear) and as we would drive along and spot an animal, Ben might call our ‘Pumba’ for Warthog and then as if an echo, David would call our Pumba – this would be the norm for the following days with Ben and David and then morphed into us all making ‘animal noises’ – all good fun. Back to camp before lunch, we collectively all went out for a bush walk to see what we could find – our ‘warrior bodyguards’ keeping a wary eye out for the wildlife. We stopped and looked at animal tracks – we were on our way to being amateur animal trackers. Later that afternoon we headed out for a long camp drive and were very lucky to come upon a large pride of lions – male, couple of females and 5 cubs. The area soon got busy with other safari vehicles, but unlike Tanzania, the safari traffic in the Kenya parks was very manageable. Also filming at this site was a wildlife photographer – his Landrover was fully kitted out for wildlife filming – was a distraction from the lions.

On our way back to camp, the skies darkened again and we got treated to the thunder and lightning show. It was just on dusk and word went out that there was a cheetah nearby – we spotted some other safari vehicles so went over for a look – everyone was looking around trying to spot this cheetah when I chipped in that there it was under the bush sitting up proud as punch. The cheetah then got up and with the protection of the safari vehicles moved himself across and closer to pounce on some nearby Thompson Gazelle and then it was all on. We went from woo to goo in no time – all the safari vehicles pounced just as the cheetah had, trying to catch up with it in order to see the kill, but alas none of the vehicles could locate the cat. It was pretty full on for a few min’s – we were screaming across the plain at crazy speed, being overtaken, with Ben heading where it thought the Cheetah had headed – all pretty exhilarating nonetheless. We made it back to camp just as the skies opened up so we showered and then settled in for dinner and an early night.

The next morning we were up early (5.30am) so we could head into the Maasai Mara National Reserve proper (to date we had spent our game drives in the conservancy and a neighbouring conservancy – both of which had controlled access, thereby keeping the safari vehicles to a minimum but increasing your opportunity to spot the wildlife). With the rain again from the previous night the roads – tracks actually, were quite slippery and the water-levels where we had to cross had increased, but again, this just added to the excitement. The trek to the National Reserve entry took a couple of hours so just as we approached the camp we stopped at a little town – Netty and Linnie took the opportunity to use the toilet but came back regretting that decision. Carol and I opted for the toilet at the park entry thinking it would be better – it wasn’t – if was just a hole in the concrete floor – chances are we will find worse if we look further on our journeys. Relieved as such we headed into the park and came upon wildebeest and zebra a plenty. It was time for brekkie so we found a nice open area with a big tree and parked up for a safari breakfast that the camp had packed for us – certainly went down well.

Today presented our last full day of safari so we had made a couple of requests of Ben and the team – number one we hoped to see a rhino, and number 2, let’s try and see some of the wildebeest migration, as the Mara Reserve is the site of the famous and well filmed wildebeest crossing of the Mara River where the crocodiles lie in wait and pick off some of the crossers (the Mara separates the Mara Reserve from the Serengeti – which of course is in Tanzania, so you are right on the border here). Cleaned up from breakfast we headed off – there were a few more safari vehicles in the reserve with it being an open park, so parked groups of trucks presented a likely sighting of something. We had a good muddy water-crossing to negotiate – one of the competing safari trucks had got itself stranded but all the operators jumped to it to help. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and was talking with an older Australian chap who showed me his pic’s of a large rhino they had spotted earlier in the day – our chances were looking better.

Ben took a bit of an off-road detour – there was talk of a lion or rhino being in the bush, so we were off searching where we shouldn’t when the rangers rushed up to question us. The camp’s second vehicle scampered at this sight and left Ben and David to try and sweet talk the rangers into taking no action, which was the outcome. Sticking to the defined tracks thereafter we headed deeper into the reserve – came upon a good group of elephants by a water-hole, and then we headed down to the border and parked up by the Mara River. Across to our right a mass of Wildebeest was marching along and they looked like they were going to cross the river in front of us. Our vehicle and a few others parked up and waited for the mass to move closer. Meantime down in the river we spotted some very big crocodiles – a couple in particular looked very well fed and looked to do very well by the traffic crossing the river periodically. Also in the river were a large group of hippo – the hippo and croc’s seem to have a very good understanding between themselves and give each other plenty of space (we’d heard that the hippo was the most dangerous animal out on safari, but our Kenya guides claimed that the Buffalo is the No 1 most dangerous, following by the hippo, and I guess maybe the big cats thereafter?

The weather was changing and with it you could see it was going to rain, and it must have been that the wildebeest sensed, as it wasn’t long before they did an about face and decided today wasn’t the day to cross the river – they would head across towards the rain, so whilst we didn’t manage to see the wildebeest jump the river as we had hoped, we did move across and watched the wildebeest cutting across a narrow into the Serengeti in mass. Then in amongst all of the wildebeest Ben gunned the Landcruiser and headed across an opening – for what we weren’t told, but then it all materialised in front of us – a giant Black Rhino – we hit pay-dirt. This fellow was huge and he moved between our Porini vehicles and wandered off across the plain. We moved with him, in awe of what we were seeing – knowing we had been very lucky (there was only our vehicle and two others taking this in) – rhino, tick! After that the skies opened up so we closed down the sides on the vehicle and slowly worked our way back out of the park. As we got up near the conservancy the rain eased, and we were very lucky to come upon a group of Hyena (not sure what the name is for a group of Hyena) – the mum being very protective of a couple of young cubs she had in their hide but we were able to get some great pic’s of this – we’d been very lucky today. Back to camp and we reflected on the day – wildebeest in mass numbers, our rhino, and Hyena young – a great day and a very successful way to wrap up safari. We settled into camp and enjoyed dinner and retired for the night.

The following morning was our last on safari in Kenya so we headed out pre-brekkie for our last game drive. More slipping and sliding around, but we saw some great birdlife this morning – big group of several types of vultures were sunning themselves in the early morning rays, loads of giraffe, few more hyena for good measure and more. We returned to camp and enjoyed a nice breakfast before packing up and loading up into the Landcruiser one last time. We bid farewell to the Ol Kinyei Camp team and Ben and David headed off for the airstrip. Some more animal noises and animal echoes were enjoyed by us all as we worked our way towards the strip. Unbeknownst to us, today / Friday was a national holiday in Kenya and the President had closed the regional airport where we were due to land so that he could ‘come and go’. Our pilots landed and said they were going to drop us at another airstrip in the northern part of the Mara, so we took a quick 20 min hop across the park and we offloaded without anymore details. The wildlife graze freely across the airstrips – as we were leaving the first airstrip a wildebeest wandered happily across, and at the other strip, baboons, warthog and gazelle all hung out on the sides of the strip, seemingly unfazed by the comings and goings of the aircraft. A number of other plans came and went, offloading passengers so there were quite a few of us parked up in this airstrip somewhere.

Finally some aircrew arrived (I think we waited out at this strip for a good 75 min’s) and we were boarded onto a bigger plane. Not much safety here – the pilots turned the outside engine over whilst we were queued to board on the other side. Finally we were on our way back to Nairobi – a little late, and diverted to the main International airport, but we arrived to find our Gamewatchers shuttle waiting to whisk us off, thereby being to an end our Kenyan safari experience.

Collectively I think we agreed that Kenya had been a game of 2 halves – we saw more wildlife (with exception of the Amboseli NP day) with Ben and David, but we enjoyed the camp and company of the Selenkay team more. When comparing Tanzania and Kenya safari experiences, we had easily seen more animals in Tanzania, but the camping experience had been very basic, whereas Kenya showed us a few previously unseen animals (Kudu, Gerenuk and of course the mighty rhino) and offered a really comfortable camping experience. We wouldn’t say one was better than the other, but having questioned what more we would experience with doing safari in Kenya, I think we all came away feeling that we would thoroughly recommend doing both to anyone that was interested in safari. We had ticked off so many animals (Carol and the girls brought a great handbook in the Serengeti that outlined all of what we should see and they had been busy ticking off all that we could recall), and had come away with some wonderful experiences – Maasai villages, destructive elephants in camp, cheetah and its kill, big animals, small animals, some great hosts, and also we got to meet some nice fellow safari fans along the way (in Tanzania we were a private safari group so just the 4 of us with Michael, whereas we were part of the bigger group of 9 in Kenya).

I think we would all agree we have had a very special couple of weeks – thanks to our safari providers for all that we experienced.

Safari Tanzania Style

Thursday morning dawned fine and at breakfast we were met by Andy from African Safari’s – the operations manager who had spent some time living and working in Tapanui – we were all a long way from there now. Andy took us through the itinerary for the next few days with his team and outline the key things for us to remember. We then met our guide – Michael, a local Tanzanian guide who had been with the company for something like 7 years. Michael came from a village on / near Mt Kilimanjaro I think he said. Bags in the back of the extended wheelbase Toyota Landcruiser and we were off. First stop was to head into town (Arusha) to pick up our cook for the safari – Elias. He had been buying some fresh produce for the week ahead and our lunch for the day. And then we were off – we had around 120 km’s to head out of Arusha to the Tarangire National Park. We stopped at our camp site for the night (Zion camp) which was approx. 6 km’s from the main park entrance. We were met by some guys here who got busy putting up our tents (home for the next week) whilst we took some refuge under some shade and had our pack lunch – if this was anything to go by we were going to be well fed this week.

Fed and rested (not that we had done anything much) we headed off for the park entrance. It was mid afternoon already by this stage as we entered the park. Michael had to go and pay and register our entry to the park, so we had a look around the park buildings and spotted our first wildlife – mongoose and monkeys for a starter. Another sight to take in were the large Baobab trees – these trees have thick set bases that taper up into a spray of branches – the elephants like to rub up against then and as we would see, rub a fair bit of the bark / trunk away. As we entered the park spotted some gazelle and what Michael called the McDonald’s Impala – on this back area of the Impala around it’s tail it has black marking which when looked at represented an M. Within something like 10 min’s of entering the park we drove up to a waterhole and then all the safari came to us. Within min’s we had zebra, giraffe’s, baboon, wildebeest, impala’s and elephants all come to the waterhole along with warthogs, ostriches and an array of other birds. It was really quite an amazing experience – we pretty much ticked off most of the animals we had planned to see in the area, all within the first 15 min’s of entering the park. Word obviously got out and before long we weren’t the only vehicle at the waterhole – a swag of Landcruiser’s arrived with cameras clicking. Wondering what more we could see here at the park we set off on some trials and on a very regular frequency we stopped to take in more elephants, zebra, giraffe, gazelles, loads of birds and more. We stopped at a rest point that had a river down below and in the distance I saw what I thought to be a lion so we headed down and sure enough we spotted a few lion resting – supposedly following a good feed.

Some more driving as the sun started to go down and loads more seen we headed out of the park back to game. Back at game the facilities were limited so we had cold quick showers and covered up to prevent the bugs biting and then settled down for the dinner that Elias had prepared for us – soup, main and some desert – the next few days would be hard on the waistline if this evening was anything to go by. Our safari was described as ‘adventure camping’ so the tents were basic with a thin mattress but still pretty good – Carol was enjoying herself. The next morning we rose early to have breakfast and then headed out for a full day in the park – wondering what more we would see today. It didn’t take too long for us to spot more of what we had seen the first day, but also more lions – and up closer, as well as a large python up a tree, cheetah and a leopard although both were a little hard to see. The park was busy with loads of tour vehicles around – Michael was listening closely to the RT talk plus we looked out for any parked-up clusters of vehicles – a sure sign there much be something of interest being viewed. The day was hot and we had seen loads so by mid-afternoon we asked Michael to head back towards camp. Just on dusk we headed out of camp to try and get some pic’s of the sunset and were soon greeted by an ever-increasing group of young local Maasai kids. They seem to just come out of the woodwork wherever you went. They were always keen for something – chocolate seemed to be their preference but Carol went back to camp and picked up a few pens and passed them on – hopefully they appreciated them.

The following morning we packed up after breakfast and headed off for Lake Manyara – famous for its tree climbing lions. We turned off at a local town called Mto wa Mbu and made our way inland up a dusty bumpy road place little villages and groups of people. The area grows a lot of rice and we pass a big area of rice paddies (is that the spelling?). We finally made our way into the Lake National Park – it was heavily bushed and within min’s we came upon a large group of elephants all feeding by the roadside on the surrounding trees. The lake is a salt water lake and at this time of year is fairly dry but it wasn’t long before we got our first glimpses of the lake. The wildlife here was a bit more sparse – probably all hiding in the bush but we did see a few zebra, wildebeest, baboon and the like. We made our way around to the lake that is home to thousands of flamingos, pelicans and other birdlife. There’s a large walkway that takes you out and over the lakes each (at our time of visit the lake was low but you could imagine the water level flowing under the walkway in the wet season). It was quite the sight as a large group of flamingos took off.

Our lunch-stop had a vista with some zebra and wildebeest and we then back tracked a little in search of a couple of lions which we located – unfortunately they were under the tree as opposed to up it. We spotted a few giraffes out on the open plans – Michael explained that they like the open air to cool down at times – in between being in the trees feeding. We then located the hippo hole and caught our first glimpse of hippo – all be it submersed in the mud hole but that was another key animal ticked off. Nearby there were buffalo also wallowing in the mud and a great array of birds again. We then made our way out of the park to the nearby town of Mto wa Mbu a small market town where everyone wanted you to buy something from there. Michael has stopped so that Alouis could get some fresh produce and they jumped upon our slightly opened windows to try and sell us bracelets, blankets and more. We then made our camp side the Twiga Camp and Lodge and managed cold showers as such before meeting Elias for dinner. Tonight he made some local Tanzanian cuisine – one of their main dishes is call ocelli and you have that with a spinach type mixture. To eat you just use your hands so we were all encouraged to dig in literally and mix it up – a bit of this with a bit of that. We all tucked in and enjoyed it – so much so that Carol is intent on making it herself as soon as she can.

The next morning we were up to start our journey into the Serengeti. On the way we stopped at a local tourist spot near an airstrip where they specialise in Tanzanite – a rear gem only found in one mine on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro. They had a little museum that they take you through before you arrive at the shop where they hope to secure your dollars. I would have loved to have got a piece for Carol but price equated to maybe a week’s travel at the moment. The Tanzanite gem is predominantly blue like a sapphire but also in the light can be seen in red and green tones. The shop should have been happy as Netty picked up a lovely pair of ear-rings so atleast one of us was buying today. We moved on and arrived at the Ngorongoro Crater National Park that we had to summit and traverse around to get to get into the Serengeti NP. We stopped at the Crater summit and looked out over this large extinct volcano that is now a haven to many animals. The crater measured something like 20 by 18 km’s so a real expanse but we would be coming back to the crater in a few days after doing justice to the Serengeti. As we headed around the crater and down towards the entrance to the Serengeti the term ‘corrugations for Africa’ sprung to mind – the road was a full on rough bone jarring ride – how the suspension in the Landcruiser holds up is anyone’s guess. It was like riding one of those new vibrating exercise devices they advertise on the infomercials.

On the way into the NP we passed a group of young Maasai boys who were out on their ‘quest’ – I think the way it went was that when the young man is circumcised that have to go out on their own for a few weeks to become men. The boys tend to group up and stay together over this time. They are painted up so I think they probably make a few dollars from tourists wanting to take a pic with them. We pulled into the Serengeti NP office to sign in and had a few min’s to relax to Carol and I climbed up to the lookout point where you can pan across the expansive vista that is the Serengeti. At the top was this lizard – it had a pinkie red head and blue tail and I thought it must be a plastic toy someone had left there but when it moved proved otherwise. We were told it was an Agama Lizard – quite the sight and a good-sized lizard. Also hanging around were the Marabau Stock – a big bird that unfortunately made it onto the African ‘ugly 5’ (Marabau, vulture, hyena, wildebeest, and warthog) as opposed to ‘big 5’ (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino). The Marabau is a scavenger and was hanging around for whatever might come its way – we would see loads more of these birds over the coming days, often hanging out with vultures at the sight of kills.

Making our way through the park to our camp we soon came upon a group of lions feeding on what was left of the zebra they had pulled down – this is how nature works out here. We made camp and unlike the previous couple of stops where the tents were put up for us, today Michael and I had to erect the teams – all pretty straight forward as it turned out. The facilities here were fairly basic so it was more cold showers and very little light around the camp, but after dark was when the sounds of the Serengeti were present. We were told that if we needed to get up in the night that we needed to shine our torch as we exit the team – if red eyes were caught in the beam we were to get back in the tent – and hold on as best we could. Over the course of the next few nights we heard zebra, baboon, and hyena move through or near the camp – this was getting up close to the wildlife.

Over the next couple of days, we out and about the Serengeti in search of wildlife. The wildlife does come in patches – you might drive 5 min’s and see a load of zebra crossing the road in front of you – ‘zebra crossing’, loads of wildebeest and the like, but to find elephants and the big cats you sometimes had to drive for stretches at a time – until word come over the RT of a sighting.  Over these couple of days we were very fortunate to spot a big leopard up a tree – still clearly visible for photos and he knew it and worked that branch for us accordingly. We also came upon a cheetah that had a fresh kill and was trying to munch while the clutch of Landcruiser’s flooded in for photo opportunities. We then spotted a group of cheetah coming out of the long grass and they all came and parked up around the truck that was parked under the shade of a large tree – you get this close to the wildlife here. Another time we came upon a pride of lions with a load of cubs – the mum decided it was good to park up under the shade of a Landcruiser – how much closer to a lion can you get. Similarly we were parked up when a group of elephants passed in-front of our vehicle – safari in Serengeti and Tanzania for that matter really is the up close experience you can only dream of. Another really special sighting was when we pulled up by a water hole to find hippo wallowing in the water but also 2 pairs out of the water on either side of the waterhole – we were something like 15 feet away from a pair ‘hiding’ in the reeds.

The only animal of the ‘big 5’ still elude us was the rhino. One of the days we headed to the south of the Serengeti in search of the rhino but the reality is there is only something like 25 rhino left in the wild in this area so spotting one would be rare but we figured we’d been very lucky to date. We visited a local Rhino Outpost and spent some time with one of the guards learning about the rhino and all that was being done locally to try and protect them. Despite many hours of driving around, the rhino stayed hidden from our eyes. For our troubles though we did see plenty of ostrich, an array of antelope and gazelle (Thomson’s, Grants, McDonald’s, and the bigger Eland Antelope, Hartebeest, waterbuck and the tiny Dicdic – the smallest of the antelope family).

Safari has coined some phrases – the most used of which for us was the ‘bush toilet’ – if you needed the bathroom when out on safari you general had to wait to a suitable area and ‘go behind the Landcruiser’. We seemed to make a few of these stops during our time on safari. Back in camp each night we met some other travellers – we met a few people that had just trekked Mt Kilimanjaro – we had been keen but felt it was outside of our budget (it’s a 5-8 day trek).  The Serengeti is famous for the wildebeest migration and we talked with Michael re options of viewing it but were told it was a 50-50 call at best that we might spot them. The migration moves through the west part of the Serengeti but depending on the rains can move ‘ahead of schedule’ and this appears to have been the case of us – we would have to wait to see if we could spot them up in the Mara next week. We heard some other campers talking about their efforts to see migration and how they had come to zip – it’s just how it is sometimes, but we felt very fortunate with all that we had seen these past few days.

The weather in the Serengeti was a bit changeable – always hot, but we were surprised that we were caught in a couple of good showers of rain – one in particular just hit and turned the roads into floated tracks within min’s. Fortunately because it has been so dry to date the rain soon soaks through, but when it pours the rain tends to pool across the roads until it can find somewhere to run off.

On our last morning in the Serengeti we got to see hippo a plenty again, crocodile and also some localised groups of migrating wildebeest and zebra so a good way to wrap up. We then called at the Serengeti NP office and did a tour of the site with a trainee guide and heard all of what is being done locally to protect the wildlife. Whilst there we came upon a couple more new animals to add to our list – likes of the Rock Hyracs. We then worked out way back out of the National Park as we needed to head for that night’s campsite on the summit of the Ngorongoro Crater. As we left the park a huge dust storm blew up in front of us – we crossed through it and you really couldn’t see beyond the front of the Landcruiser but Michael kept his foot in it, whilst we passed oncoming vehicles – it felt a bit hairy for a few min’s but then we were through the storm and came upon some more rain. Throughout our time on the Serengeti we witnessed these little dust tornados blowing up everywhere – wisps of wind and dust cycling that peated out and then another would form. We weren’t sure what they were called so just referred to them as dust tornados (in Kenya we would learn that they call them ’dust devils’ and they are generally a precursor to impending rains).

Having exited the park we stopped at a local Maasai village as Linnie was keen for us to take in a ‘local experience’. The local family of which there were 120 came our singing and dancing for us. We spent the next 30 min’s or so with the family being shown the local school, taken into one of their homes – a bit small for someone of my height, and then to look at their handcrafts of which we were expected to buy several items. Quite a few shillings lighter – in fact all of our remaining shillings were spent here, we were on our way for the camp up around the crater.

Tents up the excitement then begun as a large bull elephant came into the camp – hungry. He went through the upper camp site and demolished some eggs and bits they had before heading through the rest of the camp – fortunately missing our teams. He found himself a big tree to eat from and was quite the sight and talking point over dinner. Our last dinner in camp was as fine as all the others and we settled in for an early night as we had an equally early start the following morning.

Next morning we were up at 5.30am for a 6am departure – we were going to head into the crater for the sunrise and have breakfast somewhere in the park before heading out by midday as we needed to exit the NP before 2pm. We headed down into the crater and it may have been the time of year that we were visiting the crater but again the animals weren’t quite as plentiful as we had expected but nonetheless we came upon zebra, wildebeest and gazelles. The crater presented our last opportunity to spot a rhino so the search was on. Today was Linnie’s birthday and following a fantastic sunrise we later pulled up to a waterhole with zebra a plenty, hyena nearby, and a group of hippos in the pool for entertainment, for breakfast that Elias had prepared and packed for us. It was quite the spot and was soon populated with other tour vehicles. Despite our best efforts we searched high and low but unfortunately didn’t discover a rhino – fingers crossed for Kenyan safari.

We climbed up out of the park and picked up Elias at the camp site and quickly moved on to be out of the park in time. Once out of the park we were on sealed road for the first time in a few days and had a 3 hour drive back to Arusha. As we came back into the down we passed 2 nasty accidents – both involving motorbikes that had been carrying bits and pieces and came to grief with vehicles – we hoped that the riders were okay. Michael made his way across town and finally haven’t driven up a bumpy dusted road for what seemed some miles, we pulled into to Ilboru Safari Lodge and were greeted with the sight of a lovely pool – bags dropped off that was where we would meet the girls for a drink before dinner. The lodge was lovely and we enjoyed a good birthday meal with Linnie which included the staff coming out with a cake for her and singing happy birthday – a good time was had by us all. We had another early start the following morning as we needed to cross the border into Kenya so we said goodnight to the others and headed off.

Next morning would be the start of our Kenyan leg with new adventures to update on next.

Rio – Dubai – Dar-es-Salaam – Arusha (Tanzania)

Leaving Rio after midnight on the Saturday night (and leaving a good hoodie behind for good measure in the taxi – our check, check and check again routine let us down badly that evening) we boarded our Emirates flight to Tanzania via a stop-over in Dubai. I think the flight left Rio at something like 1.30am (Sunday morning) and with all the time differences and an 11-hour flight we arrived in Dubai at 11.15pm Sunday night. As we exited the plane the captain said the temperature outside was 34 degrees – and it was. We got onto buses to get to the terminal and finally made it through customs and to our hotel transfers. By now it’s almost 12.30am and the hotel lobby is full of people milling around for transfers back to the airport or trying to check in. The hotel person suggests we might like to go and have dinner as the restaurant is closing at 1am and the que may be less when you come back out – but who eats dinner at 12.30am? I think we managed to get into our room @ 1.30am – lights out for a 7am wake up call. We were up, buffet brekkie and then airport shuttle back to catch our flight to Dar-es-Salaam. At night Dubai airport looked something – the daylight confirmed it – the place is huge. Emirates has such a strong presence in Dubai – the motorways have large Emirate murals built in – very styli and we look forward to coming back to check this city out soon.

Flight to Dar-es-Salaam boarded – I had a window seat thanks to Carol and was able to get some great pictures out the window as the plane sweep up and over the city. The day was fine but the city appears to be shrouded in a cloudy haze – could be pollution, could be sand??? The flight heads off overland and all you can see is a desert like environment below – we never got above clouds for the view to be disrupted, so it gave me a great opportunity to view out the window, take some pictures whilst enjoying some Emirates inflight entertainment (this flight was better part of 5 hours).

I hadn’t done any homework on Dar-es-Salaam but we came in overland and swept back towards the coast to land at the international airport. Palm Trees dotted the airport perimeter but as such I got no view of the city as such – such some outlying areas. We hopped off the plane – I think the temp was up around 30 degrees and then had to struggle with the visa and customs process. The city is building a flash new international airport which I’m sure will make arrivals to this city easier moving forward but in the mean time we had the limitations of the old airport to deal with. We queued up out the door back towards where the planes were packed to wait for the customs process – you que, you get to a counter for a visa application, then you que at another counter to pay for the visa at which point they take you passport from you. Then you have to wait at another area for the customs guy to come back with your passport – there didn’t seem to be any order to it – he would periodically collect passports from the team inside and then come out and read out names – was just a waiting game. I think the process took up 90 mins to traverse.

Visa, passports and some Tanzanian currency (Tanzania Shillings) in hand we haggled for a taxi (our Air BnB host had suggested the taxi would be X amount) but none of the taxis would do it for that so Carol got the next best deal for us. By this stage it was getting on for 5pm so traffic around the airport was hectic (and crazy) and our taxi driver seemed to have some difficulty locating the address for where we were staying. We drove up and down some bumpy dirt roads and had to stop and ask a few locals for directions but finally found a gate at a property and took a punt and sure enough it was where we were staying – phew! Our AirBnB host was a foreigner who had come to the city a few years ago and had found this lovely home to live in and let the spare rooms our as Air BnB. We settled in and took a chance on a bit of a walk for a bite to eat – no street lighting in this area so torch in hand we headed out dodging the muddy puddles and found a spot around the road where we had some local barbeque. No eating with utensils here – you eat with your hands – made eating the salad a little interesting but we were hungry and cleaned it up.

Our stop in Dar-es-Salaam was only a stopover for the night as we needed to get ourselves up to Arusha the next day as that was where our Tanzania safari experience would begin. Our Air BnB host had arranged a taxi for us and so we crept out of her place around 4.45am to get the taxi down to the bus depot. We hadn’t brought bus tickets but figured how many people would be heading to Arusha at 5am in the morning? I subsequently discovered that @ 5 million live in Dar-es-Salaam, so much bigger than I had anticipated. Got to our preferred bus company only to be told they were sold out but they said for us to try next door which we did – and managed to get the last seats – that was lucky. We piled into the bus for what we were told would be an 11-hour journey north and up into the centre of Tanzania. We were in the very last row and being the size I am I had to cram myself in like a sardine in a can – made for a bit of an uncomfortable day but all for a good cause.

The bus ride was quite the adventure – we were crammed in, it was warm so you had to open the side windows which made it nosey, and the bus driver seemed to be the fastest vehicle on the road. Leaving the depot at 5.45am it seemed to take us the best part of an hour to work our way across and out of the city. Then the driver opened it up and was roaring along – I think the speed limit in Tanzania in a lot of places is only 80 kmph but there was no way he was keeping to that. There were other buses heading in the same direction and it almost seemed like a bit of a race. Overtaking multiple trucks going up hills with blind crest were all part of the equation – he obviously knew what he was doing. We had a lunch stop and took in some more local barbeque before pushing on for Arusha. We got to take in some interesting countryside but by 5pm when we pulled into Arusha I was more than ready to extract myself from my tiny little seat and stretch my legs.

Anytime the bus stopped – be that at stops to drop off / pick up, or intersections you had local hawkers at your window trying to sell whatever they had to offer – something we would have to get use to but not something I yet feel comfortable with. Getting off the bus we had a flood of guys wanting to offer us a taxi – who to deal with? We found one guy – more like he found us and Carol bartered a price (we had been given an indication of what it should cost) and Carol agreed a price close to or better than that. We piled into a little old Corolla with the guys brother who was the driver – fuel light was on so he had to stop and put in a few dollars just to get us to where we needed to do – the African View Lodge which was some ways out of town. On the way we managed to get a clear view of Mt Kilimanjaro in the distance so that was a bonus. Our taxi hosts were on for a chat – in the hope it would lead to further work, but they gave us some insight into the area including Arusha (city of approx. 1.5 million where most popular way of getting around is on motorcycle taxi’s – we had seen these all through Dar Es Salem and on the road through to Arusha). I’d seen one of the ladies on the bus hop off at a random stop, 4 – 5 different bike taxis rushed in, but first guy had her big bag and was trying to put in on back of the bike – hate to think where she was supposed to sit – and certainly no spare helmets carried for the passengers.

Anyway, finally as the sun was setting, and a couple of very dusty and bumpy roads had been traversed (suspension in the Corolla felt like it had seen better days) we found the lodge and were greeted by our hosts. We bid our taxi guys farewell and were shown to a lovely little bungalow – the lodge consisted of maybe 20 bungalows that fanned out around a lovely pool – this was looking good and we had 2 nights here whilst we waited for Netty and Linnie to join us for safari – we were feeling very spoilt. That night we arrived just in time for dinner and enjoyed some lovely local barbe. A lot of safari groups use the lodge to either start or conclude safari’s so there were people coming and going but as it is the quieter season the place was only maybe quarter full. The following day we decided to give ourselves a down day and just relaxed and caught up on some things. Time in the pool was lovely and before we knew it the sun was setting and it was time for Netty and Linnie to arrive (they were taking the easy option of flying up from Dar-es-Salaam). We had expected then at the lodge before 7pm but they had some flight dramas (in the form of there being no such flight for them from Dar-es Salaam to Arusha Airport) but they made it finally, a little worse for wear (turns out there is the airport at Arusha, and another airport at Kilimanjaro – their itinerary had the wrong destination airport noted so the safari people who were providing a shuttle were waiting at the other airport and vice versa – one for them to work out with the travel consultant back in NZ).

Anyway, they were with us and it was lovely to see some familiar faces again, so hugs and kisses all round. After some dinner and drinks and a few smokes they both started to relax and forget about the drama of the day just gone – I didn’t think it right to suggest that maybe they should have taken the bus. Anyway, we all shared some stories – Netty and Linnie had just had 5 days in Dubai so we were keen to hear all about that, so we enjoyed our evening and then retired knowing that the next day we were set to begin safari in Tanzania.

Foz Iguacu and Rio De Janeiro – Brazil

The following morning our taxi met us and we were off to cross the border into Brazil – all the cars line up and got through the likes of a toll gate to get your passports signed on the Argentine side and then you stop at the Brazil control point to get your passport signed that you are entering Brazil. From leaving Puerto to getting dropped off at our accommodation in Brazil probably took around 30 min’s – essentially you just cross the bridge from one country to the other and if you wanted you could hang a left and head on over to Paraguay to visit the city of Ciudad del Esta. Our taxi dropped us off at our hotel – we were staying at a nice place not too far from the airport or the falls – both important factors for us. We dropped our bags and in need of some Brazilian currency we’d been told there was a money exchange up the road at a big place that sold crystals and crafts. Sure enough we found the place and due fully cashed up our remaining Argentine Pesos and some remaining Chilean Peso’s to get us started (we’d been told there was an ATM at the falls park and would be able to get more cash there). With Brazilian Real in hand we were set – we would be able to pay for the bus out to the falls.

The bus trip out to the falls was only about 15 min’s – you arrive at their national park base (admission was less than the Argentine side but this is comparative to how close you can get on the Argentine side), and you get loaded onto double decker buses that take you out to the waterfall stops. Unlike the Argentine side where there were lots of interior waterfall walks you could do, here in Foz you only have a couple of options to get up close to the water but it’s still breath-taking. Obviously you are on the opposite side to the likes of the Devil’s Throat waterfall but you are still able to walk well out into the river on the boardwalks for a great experience – and you actually manage to get a nice spray from the falls as a cool down was needed with the heat out in the sun. Cooler and in awe of what we were seeing and experiencing, we took the elevator which raises you up towards top of one of the falls so a different experience again. The furry little Coatimundi with their long noses and long tails were plentiful around the falls as they were on the Argentine side.

From there we stopped and had a cold beer which was welcomed from the heat of the day. We took in some birdlife and some more Coatimundi around the café area before catching a bus back out to the park exit. I think the way we did the waterfalls worked out really well for us – 2 days on the Argentine side was needed to do justice to that with one day on the Brazilian Foz side enough to get that ‘opposite perspective’.

Exiting the falls we walked across and down the road to the Bird Sanctuary. The bird park was set up by a couple back in the 1970’s I think it was an was a very impressive facility which had a strong focus on both rescuing injured birds and those that had been recovered from attempted bird trafficking – likes of the Macaws. I managed to get up close to the Toucan which was great but probably the best experience was walking through the Macaw enclosure. I think they said they had something like 150 Macaws in the large enclosure you so as you can imagine it was both very colourful and very noisy. They swooped down and around you – was really quite something. They also had a butterfly enclosure which had some hummingbird so we were able to see these tiny little birds in action – really special.

Waterfalled out and birded out we caught a bus back up the road to our hotel where a dip in the pool was enjoyed ahead of a bite to eat (restaurant didn’t open until 7.30pm which I thought was a little late as I just wanted to have a bite to eat and get off to bed).

The following morning we milled around the hotel before catching a taxi out to the local airport for our flight up to Rio. Check in was a little different – you got your bags scanned before you even got to the ticket counters but we made it through and onto our flight. Flight across to Rio was around best part of 2 hours so not too bad – managed to get some views of this city as we got close to landing. Rio has 2 main airports – the downtown regional airport where we landed and the International which is a little out of town. Regional airport was a fair size – felt like the plane taxied for maybe 10 min’s to get from runway to terminal but all good. Bags collected and we were off to find a taxi to the AirBnB where we were staying. Address located and with the help of our taxi driver he called the intercom to flag to our host that we were at the gate to get in (locked gate). Our host Selma didn’t speak any English – well not more than ‘don’t speak any English”, so we had some fun with Selma over the next couple of days using Google translate on the phone and computer to communicate with her and also to find out a bit more about her, her city and country.

We wanted to get some groceries to set us up for the next couple of days and had tried to say to Selma that we wanted to do some shopping so she led us down and across a couple of blocks before pointing us in the direction of a shopping mall. She headed back home and we wandered off but no grocery store in the mall – just loads of fancy stops and lots of young people. We walked back up the road towards the accommodation as we had seen a fruit and vege store and thought we would try our luck there but carried on up the road a little and talked to a ‘local’ who said to go 3 blocks down and 2 across or something like that. We set off and covered a number more blocks than that but saw people carrying shopping so figured we were heading in right direction and sure enough we finally found the super and were able to top up for the days ahead. Fortunately we found our way back to the accommodation without any trouble and set in for the evening.

On the Friday we had arranged through the Air BnB host for a friend to show us around Rio. Carol (small coincidence) showed up at 9am and we were off. Carol was from Sao Paulo but had lived in Rio for a few years and seemed to have a good grasp of the city and places to see. First stop today would be Christ the Redeemer (Christo Redentor). The day was fine but as we got up towards the hill where the statue resides there was a lot of cloud around so we weren’t sure what our view from the top would be. You get yourself to the entrance at the bottom of the hill and then catch the train up the hill along with all the hoards headed to see the same feature. The train climbs steeply up the hill and you then disembark at the base of the statue and climb up and around to see this marvellous focal point. Not sure why but I had expected the statue to be much higher than it was – from base of the statue to the top looked to only be maybe 50 ft of so – I could have that very wrong. As you might expect, I don’t think anyone visits this site without there being a lot of other people present. As a result you have to fight your way to the edge and other key focal points to get the view and supporting photos that you want. Your in amongst a load of tourist from all over the world, and yes all are looking for the best experience, but some push and shove a lot more than is needed or hog the front spot than is longer that expected. That said, being at this spot high above Rio was something very special. The cloud cleared suitably for us to get a great 360 panorama of this striking city which has an amazing harbour, with wide flowing beaches and then stretches up into a collection of hills, with houses going as high as they dare.

For my own silly reasons visiting Rio was special as this was the sight of a great Bond 007 movie back in the mid-80’s – Moonraker with some of the greatest scenes having been filmed in this fine city – in the streets, along the beach front, Sugar-loaf Mountain and more so I was keen to relive a bit of Bond over this next couple of days. From the top of the Redeemer we took the train back down about half way and then got off and got an Uber town to the bottom of the hill (longer ride than I’d expected with a lot of cut backs) to be dropped off in the Santa Teresa area – an older part of down with narrow cobbled streets that had some lovely homes. We explore this old home – I think it was the home of an artist of poet back in the day but the striking home had been let go until being saved by the city and turned into a national park. I think it was called the ‘House of Ruins’ and it was 3 stories high with large un-glassed windows that gave great framed looks at the city below. At the top there was a chap busking – it was playing this round metal drum – looked to me like a around barbeque with the lid welded down. It had indentations and the guys was just slapping it lightly with his finger tips and making this great and varied metallic sound – Carol recorded a video clip for us – was great to listen to.

From here we caught an old trolley bus down the hill into the main CBD – the trolley buses run through some of the hill areas and are a good way to get around. Disembarking in town we headed off for a bite to eat and then explored some of the downtown area – there are a collection of old striking buildings – many with large statues adorning them and lots of gold leaf making them shine (Municipal Theatre). These are balanced with many modern architectural buildings. We walked through to the famous Confeitaria Columbo – a striking old eatery famous for its coffee and sweet goods. We had thought we would get a cuppa here but the wait time was something like 45 min’s so we carried on. We next visited the Metropolitana Cathedral – quite different any of the cathedrals we had bee through lately as it was octagonal in shape with the sides all coming up in a cone like structure. Inside the sides were adorned with floor to top leadlight glass so it was quite striking whilst having quite a modern feel to it.

Last stop for the day was to locate and climb up the famous Selaron Steps. Selaron was an artist that came to Rio some years ago and found this area of steps and thought it would make a great art piece to lay tiles on all the steps so that’s what he set about doing over the following years. I can’t recall how many steps there are but there were plenty and every step is set out with tiles – we managed to local some Kiwi themed tiles. Selaron was unfortunately killed by someone locally – some sort of disagreement or such like so the steps act as a memorial of sorts to the artist. There were loads of people hiking the steps and taking it all in – it really is one of the spots to experience. By this stage the day was getting on so Carol saw us off to the subway with instructions to take it something like 4-5 stops which we did and we found our way back to Selma’s from there.

Having taken in a load of sights, we still had a few things to look at so on the Saturday, Carol’s boyfriend Junior picked up the reins of being tour guide for the day. Junior had lived and studied in Rio for better part of 10 years and knew his way around the city. He was a robotics engineer and currently completing his Masters – he was heading off to China soon for the ‘robot wars’ – apparently he was well positioned to do very well at this event which he was invited to – all costs covered. The day had dawned a bit wet and as we set off it only got wetter but we covered up (poncho day for me) and took in the local market before having a walk round Maracana Football Stadium – I’m sure Pele played many of his games there in years gone by. We then headed out to the harbour area – like Buenos Aires, Rio has been busy refurbishing its old waterfront, establishing some eateries, markets and also the striking Museum of Tomorrow which was established for the Rio Olympics to showcase what Brazil might be like in 50 year’s time. We didn’t go in but from the exterior the building was quite something to look at. There was an area of old waterfront warehouses that a local street artist (Kobra) had done a series of amazing murals on – 5 indigenous races from around the world – we spent some time taking these pieces of art in – plenty of photos taken.

From there we got another Uber and drove along the famous Copacabana waterfront to the end of the bay to the Forte De Copacabana – a naval fortification established in the early part of the 1900’s to protect this valuable harbour area. Taking pride of place in the bunkered fort was a huge double 200mm cannon – might even been a bigger diameter but I can’t recall the specifications now but this huge cannon sits in the middle of the bunker and could rotate 270 degrees or so in order to cover the bays as needed. Fortification is still manned and run by the Brazilian Navy with guards standing to attention like the Queens guards – Carol wanted to see if the guard would blink but they were rigid as. From there we had a bite to eat and walked along the famous Copa beach – unfortunately for us it was raining but none the less there were still loads of people put on the beach playing volleyball and the like and people in bodyboarding in the rolling surf. We agreed it would be a great spot to come back to but all the travel advice does warn only to carry the basics on you when in the area as muggings do occur but we didn’t have any problems – maybe being in the company of our Brazilian guide was a factor. Beer prices along the waterfront were very competitive – you can just imagine sitting back having a couple of cold ones on the beachfront on a sunny day.

We then caught another Uber and over to the base of Sugar-loaf Mountain to take the cable car – last of the James Bond spots I needed to take in. In order to make our spend go further we opted to walk up the first hill to the cable car station – this was a good hike for us up the hill through some rain forest – bit slippery here and there but we made it up and then looked forward to getting the cable-car over to the top of Sugar-loaf Mountain. On que the skies cleared and we were treated to some great views across Rio – great way to end our day and stay. We then took the cable-car all the way back to base and then with our hosts, made our way back to Selma’s.

We crammed a load into the past couple of days with ‘local guides’ – would recommend using a local to show you around this big city. Interestingly with a big city like Rio there are areas that are safer than others – our guides were very clear about where they felt it safe and not so safe for us to go – benefit of local knowledge. Back at Selma’s we were very fortunate that she allowed us to come back to the room that evening to change, clean up and use the wi-fi – I managed to call home and catch up with the family as they were all gathered out at Linda’s for a Sunday barbe – the time difference just working out for us. We had a late flight but arranged a taxi for 10pm which soon rolled round so we bid Selma a goodbye and we were off again – the end of our South American travels. We had seen so much in the previous 2 months around Sth America but agreed there were so much more we would like to see so plenty for us to come back to.

Next stop – Africa for Safari via a stopover in Dubai – will update shortly.

Buenos Aires Argentina

Last update had us leaving the bottom of South America in order to head up to Buenos Aires (BA) – flight of around 3.5 hours so not too bad. Buenos Aires has 2 large airports – the International and the National – as we were flying internally in Argentina we landed at the latter named Jorge Newbery after as pioneering aviator. By the activity if flights coming and going and scale of the place you could be mistaken for thinking it was an international airport. The airport is nicely located right on the shores of the Rio de la Plata – or the River Plate (I give a geography update on that shortly) so we found ourselves a taxi with the aim of getting town down to the AirBnB address we were staying at. Driving from the airport into where we were staying we couldn’t get over all the green spaces that there were – and all the people out and about lying out on the grass enjoying a lovely sunny BA afternoon. We met our host Christina who welcomed us into her apartment – bulk of the inner-city living is apartment life as you might expect. Christina only spoke Spanish so communication was going to be a challenge over the next couple of days but Google translate got us by.

Settled in by late afternoon we decided to get out for a bit of a walk and to try and find some info on the Hop On Hop Off bus for the next day. We appeared to be staying right in the heart of downtown BA so we got out and stretched our legs and managed to take a load of pic’s as we covered a few blocks – and managed to find the Info site on the way so we were set for the following day. A cold beer and some hot chips were in order before we headed back. We were staying near Florida Ave which appeared similar (but larger) to likes of our Cashel St of old and was full of flashy shops and street sellers trying to pedal bits and pieces. We saw a group all dressed for up for Tango but no dancing as such – they were there on the corner posing for pic’s – for a price, taking advantage of all the tourists who were out and about. The inner city had a real vibe to it – this is a city of upwards of 15 million so a big city, and whilst there was hustle and bustle as we walked round, we weren’t overwhelmed by it and felt very comfortable.

The next morning we were up and out the door early to get ourselves into the first Hop On bus of the day – 9am departure. The Hop On service has 3 routes you can take – inner city, central city loop and west of city loop – we planned to tackle them each and had our stops sorting for where we would need to hop on and off the next leg. With prime seats up top and the English translation coming through on the headset we were off. The Inner-city loop took us out and around some amazing old buildings – the Barolo Palace, Palace of the National Congress i.e. their parliament buildings I guess, out to the La Boca area with its famous soccer stadium and home of one of the cities 2 great teams. We saw some of the inner harbour area – Puerto Madero and decided we would head back there later in the day to check it out. The main street through the central centre is called Ave 9 De Julio – it was a pretty impressive sight as the ave was divided by a central boulevard that ran down the middle and contained the ‘welcome to Buenos Aires flora sign, and the imposing Obelisco stature / tower that takes centre stage in the ave. The ave itself appeared to have something like 6 lanes or more of traffic moving on each side so a big wide and busy expressway.

We then headed out on the Central city loop and took in loads of the green spaces we had sent in the taxi the day prior – the don’t call them parks as such here but Plaza’s – there were loads of them and it was great to see so many people out and about, loads of people exercising and playing sports here and there – it was after all a lovely warm day – very pleasant. BA is another Sth American city that loves its statures – looks like you had been a former president of BA you were rewarded with a large stature in a plaza somewhere – so considering the age of BA there were loads of statures to take in. We passed the Floraslis Generica – a large stainless-steel sculpture of a flower bulb and then out past the imposing Monument of the Spanish – a reflection back on the history and formation of this city and country – from a Spanish point of view. On this loop we hopped off at the Japanese Gardens and paid to get in to have lunch – and to use the restrooms. The Japanese Gardens were gifted to BA around 50 years ago when the Japanese PM made his first official visit to the city. The gardens were lovely – loads of water features with large and colourful Koi swimming around and an abundance of bonsai and cherry blossoms. As you might expect it was a very popular spot but we managed to find ourselves a good park bench to park up on and soak it all up – very nice place.

We worked our way over the pick-up point for the Western side of the Hop On tour and this took us out past a load more plazas and the large Planetarium. We then looped out around the airport we had landed at and ran alongside the River Plate where there were loads of people fishing along the waterfront, and small yachts out sailing. When you look at this area it’s difficult to work out if this is actually a river or the sea as the ‘river’ is right on an opening on the Atlantic Coast and separates Argentina from Uruguay. I knew about the river from a famous German battleship that was scuttled and sunk there in WW2 – by the Germans to prevent it being captured but this happened more over on the Uruguay – Montevideo side. Supposedly the river (geographically they call it a river) has the widest opening in the world at something like 120 km’s over to Uruguay / Montevideo. The river isn’t all that long – runs @ 240 km’s but is an important waterway nevertheless, but it still had that feel of the sea about it was you can’t see land on the horizon – big piece of water.

The bus looped around the back of the airport where there were lots of sports fields and activities being played out – soccer being the most prominent and then up past the large River Plate soccer stadium (Estadio Antonio Liberti) home of BA’s other big soccer power house. Supposedly one of the activities you should do in life before dying (according to Argentine Tourism) is to take in a soccer game at either of BA’s 2 big stadiums between the great soccer powerhouses of Argentina – you can imagine what the atmosphere would be like. The River Plate stadium had a large museum dedicated to the wonderful game but we weren’t in a position to go through and have a look. You are now in the Palermo area of BA with the bus winding its way in and around this area before you come out on the massively big Ave Del Libertador – this expressway was something like 8 – 10 lanes across on each side so made getting across a pedestrian crossing a task that needed to be covered at speed. On the ave you go past the Argentinian Racecourse of Palermo – a horse-track pretty much in the heart of town. The track was well over a 100 years old and took up a stretch of @ 15 blocks of the ave – would have been good to have had a look around inside – be there on race-day.

Our Hop On tour was coming to an end so we rode it back into town and set off on foot for the waterfront area, agreeing that the bus had offered us a really good look at this lovely city. Appreciate we may only have managed to see and area of 5-10% of BA but we were both really surprised by how nice such a large city was laid out and felt – it wasn’t crazy with things moving at a nice pace, it had loads of nice spaces around, and we’d had some lovely weather to make it all the more enjoyable. As is happening in some cities, BA has been working on transforming it’s old inner harbour area and has done a nice job of transforming old harbour buildings into trendy shops, cafes and restaurants. Time for a beer so we found a nice place on the waterfront and soaked up the vibe with loads of people out and about, rollerblading is popular here so plenty of them whizzing by and we parked up to watch the sun go down. One of the centre pieces here is the Puneeth de la Mujer bridge – or Women’s Bridge that spans the inner harbour waterway (sorry, but I don’t have the history and how it came about but it’s a striking span that looks like a harp over the water). Parked up in the inner harbour are a couple of old sailing ships – I think one is an ex-navy vessel that is now a museum and the other may have done tourist rides and the like but both looked striking all lit up at night with lights running out form the masts and rigging. We worked our way back into town – most of the shops were closed by now but Florida Ave still had its vibe going on as we passed it to the apartment.

The following morning over breakfast we met some other guests that were staying at the AirBnB – a couple of chaps from the Manilla who had been away travelling for 40 days I think they said. Got the impression they were very well travelled so we took the opportunity over a cuppa to learn what we could from them both – they had been up to the waterfalls and Rio – our next stops so we heard from them as to how they had found the areas. Was funny, as they had gone to Mt Cotopaxi out of Quito in Ecuador as we had but one only made it about 100m’s from the car park and flagged the hike and the other might have got twice as far before throwing in the towel – they were impressed that we’d made it which was nice to hear (considering it was a bit of a hike at the time).

We only had the remainder of the morning to fill in before heading off on the next leg of our journey so we headed out to have a look at some shops locally. The Galleria was a lovely old multi-story building that had been renovated out to host a swag of high end stores – very fancy – more the architecture than the shops for us. From there we hiked out around town some more and took in the Colon Theatre – another old piece of architecture that had stood the test of time locally. With time running out we headed back to the apartment to bid our host goodbye both feeling we had short changed ourselves with Buenos Aires and really needed a couple more good days to do this lovely city justice – but not to be this time.

Road trip out of Chile and down to Ushuaia – Argentina

I left off with us heading back in the early hours of the morning from Puerto Natales to get the bus from Punta Arenas. Made it back in good time and bus pulled out @ 8.30am and we left Punta Arenas behind. Ahead of us was a 10 – 12-hour bus-trip. First stop was the best – we pulled up to the edge of the Straits of Magellan and had to board a ferry barge to get us across the straits – pretty cool to think that we managed to actually cross a small section of this famous waterway. The bus plus a load of truck and trailers and public vehicles were loaded onto the barge and it pushed off – made really good pace across the open stretch of water and soon has us docked on the other side and back on the bus to pull out. The countryside in this area of southern Chile was pretty barren, but we eventually made it to the border crossing – getting out of Chile was a non-descript process and then you drive over the patch of no man’s land that stretched on for a few k’s before arriving at the Argentina check point. All the bags are pulled off the bus and put through the scanner and your passport is signed and then back on the bus – one of the older chaps on the bus may not have had his papers in order as everyone was back on the bus for best part of 30 min’s waiting for him to be cleared which eventually he was.

The bus pushed on into southern Argentina and we reached the town / city of Rio Grande which kind of appeared out of nowhere. It was a city of @ 70000 – bit rough and ready – Lonely Planet describes it as ‘a bleak pit stop for most travellers’ but it’s a very popular fishing spot apparently. We had to change buses here for our push to the bottom of Argentina – Ushuaia. When you look at the map of South America it seems a bit odd that this southern most corner of the continent isn’t either all Chile or all Argentina. I asked a local what was what with that, and supposedly back in the day the bottom area below the Straits of Magellan used to belong to Argentina but a Chile expedition set sail through the area in the early 1800’s, liked what it saw and decided it wanted to take a stake for Chile so tried to claim all of the southern peninsula. Later in the 1800’s the presidents of Chile and Argentina were meeting to ‘draw up some territories’ and Argentina tried to claim the bottom area belonged to them, but Chile had it’s signed piece of paper and pulled it out when needed and so they divided the peninsula up based on latitude lines with the Straits of Magellan being a shared waterway. Argentina lay claim to having the ‘southern most city in the world’ – yes lower than good old Invercargill, but if you actually look at the map, Chile own the very southern most stretch of land separated by the Beagle Channel but their town of Puerto Williams is only home to @ 3000 people – most of whom are tied up with the Chilean Navy, so Argentina and Ushuaia will continue to be the southernmost city for some time to come (population of @ 70000).

I’m jumping around a bit with my history lesson – back on the bus from Rio Grande we were introduced to our first experience of the Argentine people drinking Mate – the favoured local bitter herb tea drink – drunk hot or cold from gourds – everyone seemed to have their own gourd that they carry around, and a special metal straw that they suck it up with. They all carry thermoses of hot (or cold) water and just suck on this – and share it around – seems a very communal drink (I’ll update our mate experience soon). The bus driver and a passenger sat up front talking and drinking steadily for the 4-hour trip to Ushuaia. Not too long out of Rio Grande the bus was stopped at an Argentine Army check point and they came through the bus checking everyone’s passports and showing more bravado than needed. On the road we started to seem an increasing amount of snow around us – we knew we were low down but hadn’t factored on how much snow there would be. We started to climb up and over a mountain pass – the snow was very thick through there but the road was clear thankfully. Bus was supposed to get in by 7pm but it just kept on going and finally we came down out of the mountains and below the snowline to reach Ushuaia around 8.30pm.

Not having any Argentine Peso’s we needed to get to a money machine so we could pay for a taxi and get a bite to eat. We lugged our bags up the street and sought out some directions to the money machines – 3 different ATM’s later and we were stuck – none would process our request so we managed to cash some US $’s to atleast get us a taxi to where we were staying – no fancy dinner tonight.

The next morning we were up and out early determined to get some money so we could head off on a tour. First attempt today at a different ATM and it was only too happy to spit money out at us – this has happened a couple of times that one day it works and the next it won’t and vice versa. From there we jacked up a tour for the day with Ushuaia Adventures and were picked up by a shuttle and taken out to their base. We met the local team who we would be spending the day out and about with, and the out came the mate and the guides gourd. He brewed up a mix for us to have a go – he had the first suck and passed it onto Carol – it was about now I’m thinking about what was being transmitted through this process, but when in Argentina…….. Carol quite liked it but not sure if I took too much of a swig but emm, not my idea of a cup of tea at all. The tour based was up in the snowline and had a Hobbiton look and feel about it with little timber huts – quite the sight. We went out for a walk to look at the local peat deposits as you do and then came back in for our lunch and what a lunch it was. Local Argentine fare is meat meat and more meat so we have some great steak done over charcoal, potatoes and some salad, and some nice red wine for good measure. This was the first red meat we had eaten in a few weeks so about now the best thing for us would have been a nice siesta but instead we loaded up (there were 6 others on the tour with us) into a couple of 4WD’s and were off around the local countryside exploring some sights.

Interestingly around Ushuaia there is a lot of land that doesn’t appear to be governed – people have just moved in and built little shacks out in the woods – some looked okay but for the most part that we cribs just knocked together with whatever was available. Carol took a shine to this way of life and is keen for us to move back to Ushuaia in order to stack our claim out in the woods and build a crib and live the simple live – no fees attached (‘land-occupiers’ don’t pay any rates as the land they are on doesn’t have a title so there are no services as you would expect, but a load of this woodlands was occupied with these little places). Carol has drawn up some ideas in here head as to how we are going to make a sustainable home back there one day.

Out of the woodlands and we came out to the Beagle Channel and followed it around to a farm out on a peninsula that the same family had run for something like 150 years. The family were the local gatekeepers of the areas penguin colony and control the flow of people in and out of the area. A fast boat ride out into the channel and we came upon this island (that is part of their farm) where you get to walk with the penguins (still some controls in place). On the island were 2 main types of penguin – the Magellan penguin which migrate to the area every 6 months, and the local Papau penguins. The Magellan’s like to get inland a little, whereas the Papau’s who live here all year round like to be out on the beach (if you want to call it a beach) in the softer stoney ground. With the Magellan broad that was on the island it was interesting that they were all males – they were there to clean up the nests and make things pretty for the girls that were due to arrive soon. Being up this close to the penguins was a real highlight for Carol and she was beaming from ear to ear with the experience.

Back across the bay we boarded the 4WD’s again and had a scenic pitstop for a warm drink and something to eat before trekking our way back to Ushuaia. We got dropped back in town and although we had such a lovely lunch we decided to get a bit to eat in town – local specialty apart from barbe looks to be King Crab so we found a place for Carol to try some. We made our way back and downloaded on our day with our young AirBnB host (our room in Ushuaia must have been the smallest we have stayed in to date). Our host helped us translate some arrangements for a bus transfer from Buenos Aires up to Iguazu so that was another leg ticked off.

The next morning we had to pack up and get out to the airport disappointed not to have more time to explore this special little city. The day was stunning and clear as we pulled into the local airport which really impressed with it’s design and use of timbers. Checked in it was time to head north for next leg of our trip – a couple of days in Buenos Aires and then up to Iguazu Falls.

Santiago – Valparaiso – Southern Chile

Today we had a half day to fill in around Santiago before heading out to Valparaiso on the bus so left our bags at where we had been staying and set off on foot. The weather was better today and made for some good exploring. Carol wanted to Plaza de Armas where the cathedral and square were so we set off in search. We were really pleasantly surprised by some of the buildings and architecture around the city of Santiago – dating back to late 1800’s and still for the most part looking really good – the city has managed to do a nice job of merging the old with new buildings. We managed to find the Plaza and were really taken by the Metropolitan Cathedral – it didn’t look too much from the outside but it was huge inside and some of it’s features and history were striking – I think the history of the church and local religion dated back to the early 1500’s. Whilst we were there they were busy inside getting the cathedral really for the pending anniversary weekend service and celebration. The Cathedral takes centre stage around a square – or Plaza as they like to call them here, with the national congress buildings (parliament and courts etc.) all being in the area and all of a fine vintage as well. Heading back from here you can’t help but pass that President’s building – they are all about having large stately buildings with plenty of columns around here – with plenty of guards / sentries on duty.

Having enjoyed out walk around it was time to head off. We had it suggested that we take the subway to the bus terminal – a mere 4 stops away – so after lugging bags up and down into the metro we were finally on the platform and away. Bus terminal was a town in itself as they tend to be around here with loads of carriers all based on the one site, food vendors and shops all around etc. Bus trip to Valparaiso was around 2 hours and had us arrive mid-afternoon. Taxi got us up to our accommodation – well where you had to check in. Our apartment was over the road and up the hill so more lugging and struggling with suitcases but after a breather I was over it all again. We were staying in an old apartment – part of a block or block of apartments that work their way back up into the hillside – quite quirky. Time to explore and get a few supplies so we had a good wander down and around the town to the waterfront liking what we had seen so far.

The next morning with map in hand we headed up the hill to skirt around the hill suburbs and see some sights. Valparaiso is a city of approx. 300 K people right on the coast looking out over the Pacific (main shipping port for the inland Santiago), with the city then stretching back up into the hills all around it. The Chilean Navy have a strong presence here with their Naval school – whilst we were here I think there were around 9 different Naval ships in port. Besides the great weather – warm and balmy but not humid in part due to the good coastal proximity, the think that stands out around this city is the abundance of street up – especially up in the hill suburbs. There really aren’t too many spaces that don’t something painted on them and pleasingly the effort that had gone into the artwork is really good – there were some stunning pieces to view – and some I didn’t get. If you are into street art then this city would be your dream. The hill suburbs hugged the contours of the hills and valley’s and it was a joy to get out and walk up and down and all around. We eventually headed back down to the flats – the temperature is warmer up in the hills, and there is less street art on the main city area, but it’s still there to be found. We walked along the waterfront to the pier and parked up for a while. The old neighbouring pier was loaded up with snoozing sealions enjoying the afternoon heat.

One of the other novelties to take in around Valparaiso are the elevator cable cars that are located around the steeper hillside areas. One of the cable cars dated back to late 1800’s – all are still in great working order and are really well used by the locals. We took a ride up the hill that evening as you do and were surprised by how steeply the cars pulled up the hillside – it wasn’t vertical but we were atleast going up a 60 degree face I reckon. Sitting back at the end of that day we both reflected on how much we had enjoyed this city – it’s outlook, vibe, appearance, climate – the boxes were all getting ticked. We both agreed that you would want to live up on the hills so as to be able to take in and enjoy the vista that Valparaiso presents.

The next morning we were up and out the door early in order to make our way back to the bus depot and back to Santiago. We got back into Santiago and finally found where we were staying around lunchtime so it was a quick drop and we were off to do the local Santiago Hop On Hop Off bus as we figured this would be the most effective way for us to see the city in a comparatively short time. Combined with what was stunning weather we thoroughly enjoyed the bus ride and all it offered up in the form of sights around the city. One of the stops allowed you to get off at the Metropolitan Park – the largest green space in Santiago. Here you take the 2km cable car ride up to the summit of San Cristobel where there is a striking view of this lovely city – it’s not until you are up higher that you can really appreciate the size and scale of the city and how many high rises there were. Also up at the summit is the stature of San Cristobel – a large Christ like sculpture – maybe Santiago’s version of Rio’s Redeemer. It was nice to see so many people out and about enjoying the lovely weather – we ran into our AirBnB host from Antofagasta who was in town for the anniversary weekend to catch up with her daughters.

The best way to get down out of the park is to take a ride on the funicular cable car – this safely drops you down the 500-odd m’s to the bottom of the park and dated back to the early 1900’s – a testament of engineering. Back down on the flat I managed to misread the map and took us on a detour that involved a few more k’s than needed, so with accommodation in sight we stopped for a bite to eat and a cold drink – both went down well.

The next morning was another a typical early start for us – we had to be up and out to the airport before day break and got a taxi out front of where we stayed. We should have taken it as a sign that having to wake the driver may not have been the best thing, but after a long slow ride that sometimes had us all over the road we arrived at the airport pleased to have that experience behind us. Today we were flying to Punta Arenas down the bottom end of Chile, right on the Straits of Magellan. On the way the plane had a stop at Puerto Montt – when we were planning this part of the trip we had hoped to catch a ferry from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas but we were a couple of weeks too early for the ferry sailings which recommence from end of September. Arriving into Punta Arenas airport it gave the impression of being a windswept wild place – stepping out of the terminal confirmed that. We hired a car so we could get up country from here and made our way into the town proper to a hostel we had booked. The city was pretty quiet as it was gearing up and was in the middle of Anniversary weekend celebrations so there wasn’t a lot open or to see. Unbeknown to us one of the key sights locally is the cemetery – supposedly one of the most visited in all of Chile (Lonely Planet let us down there).  Punta was certainly fresh – the air had a real bite as it swept across the Straits of Magellan to remind us that we were in the south of Chile with the Antarctic not too far away.

Having explored what we could around the city (population or @ 135000) and colder for it, we decided we were best to get some supplies and get back in doors which was what we did. The next morning we were up and away to head up to Puerto Natales which is in essence the gateway to the Southern Patagonia and the Torres de Paine National Park – which was on our radar for the following day. We managed to make the 250km trip in 3 hours and pulled into the town (population of @ 20000) which is hard up against a one of the waterways that runs inland from the Pacific here. As we came into the town the local army horse battalion were returning from the Anniversary celebrations – we’d heard that the Chilean army had a strong German presence but were really surprised to see the soldiers wearing what looked to me to be WW 2 German uniforms and helmets – maybe it was just part of the celebrations look? Lonely Planet describes Puerto Natales as the ‘hub of Gore Tex clad travellers heading to the continents number one national park’. The streets were narrow, largely one way and in some cases unsealed but we managed to locate where we were staying and checked in. From there we went for a hike around town to see what was what – lot of the locals were taking in some Anniversary celebrations so lots of skewed meat was cooking.

The next morning we were up and away to take in the National Park. First stop was to have a look at a large natural cave that was up in the entrance to the park where the local people had hunted prehistoric animals back in the day. The key feature here is the Milador (think I have the spelling right). It was a prehistoric bear like creature that they found fossilised remains of locally. The cave system was home to a number of tribe families back in the day – hard to think how life would have been back in the day. We pushed on into the National Park from here – the day had started grey and a bit bleak so I wasn’t sure how much mountain spotting we would achieve but we had our fingers crossed.

We headed in and took in the Grey Glacier – you walk down to the lake and at the heads of the lake is a large glacier – the lake had icebergs that had broken off – it was quite the site. You can take a boat trip up to the glacier face but we didn’t feel we had the time to do so.  We pushed on a worked our way around to the mountains with the goal of seeing the large Torres del Paine – with it’s finger like peaks. As fate would have it, the cloud lifted and we were able to soak up some magnificent views of the mountains in this area. The area was an abundance of lakes, white mountains, and some wildlife – we managed to see loads of guanaco which are like the llama but redder in colour and roam freely in the park, and the Nando which was a large Emu like bird. Having felt very fortunate with how the day had turned out we headed off back to Puerto Natales. Being Anniversary day there were only a few eateries open around down so pretty quiet but we checked out a couple more areas before settling back into our accommodation. We were a little surprised when we came back into town to see a large ferry tied up at the dock – hoping it wasn’t the one we were wanting to get from Puerto Montt?

An early night was in order as the following morning we had to be up and on the road back to Punta Arenas by 4.30am in order to get the rental car dropped back and to get the bus that would take us across the rest of Chile and over into Argentina but I will update on that stage next.

Easter Islands

The following morning we were off to the Easter Is – we had to be at airport something like 3 hours before the flight went as it was an ‘international national’ flight as such (Easter Island is part of Chile). Flying over we lost another 2 hours so arrived into Easter Is @ 1.30pm local time. Our island host created us at the airport with a local lei so nice touch. Vehicle of choice out on the islands is small Suzuki jeeps (Vitara, Jimmy’s and the like) so with 3 of us arriving our hosts car wasn’t big enough for all of us and our bags so it took 2 trips to get us back to where we were staying which was in the main town Hanga Roa on the island which has @ 4000 inhabitants. Settled in we headed out for a bit of a walk and look around – for the following couple of days we had hired our hosts car so we would leave going too far till then (that said the island is only something like 24km’s across so not big at all). That first evening Carol and I headed out to a spot that our host suggested for sunset – there were several Moai positioned here to take in – our first opportunity to get us close to one of the official sites, and all within easy walking distance.

The next morning the 3 of us clamped into the small Suzuki jeep to explore the southern side of the island – map of all the Moai sites in hand and we were off. All the historic Moai sites (including those that are now ruins – fallen Moai) were clearly laid out – this area / the island effectively all forms Rapa Nui National Park. Needless to say our journey today was a stop start affair as the official sites came up at regular frequency – you drove a bit then got out and walked to check out the sites – all good. We stopped at one spot – I think it was called Hanga Te’e which was a bay with some ruins. Some local guys wandered past us in their briefs carrying flippers and a net so we watched them for a while as they worked their way around the rocks to the head of one side of the small bay and then got into the water and fed the net out across the bay – they pulled it in on the other side of the bay so we weren’t able to see what if anything they got but they was up and packed up and off so we can only assume they got enough fish for dinner that night.

Dotted along the coast line their were fallen Moai and the occasional upright one to take in. We then got to Rano Raraku which in essence was the islanders of old Moai workshop – in the hillside here they carved out the Moai all those years ago and then somehow ‘walked’ them out and dotted then around the island. The hillside was a face of rock and with Moai dotted all around which for some reason hadn’t been walked out as far as the coastline which was the normal resting spot for completed Moai. Also in the hillside you could see carved Moai which hadn’t been lifted out of the rock face – they was just lying there with all their frontal features carved out waiting to be sliced out of the rock – but they weren’t to be. Really interesting place to take in ‘the construction phase’ of them carving Moai. The big question is still how they then transported them out and around the island – in some cases upwards of 20 km’s. Looked like a lot of them had rounded bases so the thinking was that maybe they wobbled them out and around – we’ll never know.

Next up was the postcard picture – at the base of the hillside where the Moai are carved is Ahu Tongariki – the wall of Moai where you have 15 of the big Moai all lined up on a base on the coastline but facing back inward – a really special place to visit. For the most part the facial features were all their to be seen still on the Moai but obviously the effects of time are affecting them and wearing away at the rock. Interestingly each of the Moai appeared to have slightly different features and characteristics – some had bigger noses than others, some were taller than others. Only one of the Moai here wore a ‘hat’ atop them – not sure what was significant about then one although the sight around this area did have the remains of a couple of fallen hats (hats weren’t carved into the Moai but sat atop their heads – kinda wedged in place). Plenty of pictures later we carried on – in awe of what we had just seen. We now crossed over to the north side of the island (the island is effectively triangular in shape and each corner has an extinct volcano – some bigger than others). There are several spots around the island where in addition to the Moai there are historic rock art – petroglyphs dating back to the times when the Moai were being carved. We carried on to the top point of the island called Anakena and were really surprised by what we saw – here we had Moai dotted around on a white sandy beach with palm trees and people out swimming (we’d been told that the water temperature is consistent year round and good for swimming). It was all a bit surreal so we parked up for a beer and hot chips to take it all in. The day was getting on so we then worked out way back across the middle of the island back to Hanga Roa – having left a few Moai sights for us to explore the next day.

That night we had arranged to do ‘dinner and a show’ – we ended up being only ones in the restaurant that night but had a lovely meal and then went next door for the Maori Tupuna ‘authentic show’ – tribal dance and the like and yes I got pulled up onto the dance floor to embarrass myself (Carol opted for the face painting by the scantily clad dancer – she seemed happy). A few laughs were had by all – a school party (teenagers) were on the island and were at the show so you had @ 30 young women shouting and screaming at the young dancers.

Next morning we piled back into the Jimmy and headed first to the southern part of the island in front of the airport to check out the local volcano – Orongo. This volcano had a much more manageable crater lake (than we had last volcano we got close to in Galapagos). There were some tech people taking some samples from the crater lake – good hike up and down for them with their sampling gear. On the other side there are a couple of small islands (more like big rocks) just off shore which are the centre of the ‘Birdman’ local piece of history. Story goes that their was some bird that came to the islands each season to lay it’s eggs and the locals had a competition as such to swim over to the island and be the first to retrieve the first egg of the season – in return that warriors village king would then have local sovereignty of the island for the coming year. The warriors worn bird mask to try and disguise themselves as they snuck up the cliffs to the nests – all this was happening up to later part of 1800’s I think. On the mainland facing the islands the locals had taken up village and had a cluster of rock houses that they had built – bit like Hobbiton in a way – rock walls, low height, but interesting they all had flat pancake type roofs – quite an engineering feat back in the day. The weather and the years were taking their toll on the remains of the village and there was a big move afoot to try and restore what remained.

Working our way down the hill we made our way inland to the Ahu Akivi Moai site. On the way we stopped at the site where back in the day they had cut the Moai hats from the rock – probably a good 10 km’s away from the main construction sight, but obviously they cut the hats from the rocks here and rolled them around the island from there as needed – no mean feat in itself. The Akivi site had a good line up of Moai – I think there were 7 in the line but interestingly these was well inland whereas the other Moai are predominantly dotted around the coastline. From there we worked out way back out to the coast and walked into a cave site – was a good hike for us to get there but we finally found this small opening – was small for a reason so that back in the day invading tribes would struggle to charge into the cave to attack as the opening was tight and confined. Made our way into the cave and out to the openings – they sat probably a good 30 ft up from the water below so not entering from the sea. Hard to think that a family or tribe lived here all those years ago.

With that we had pretty much ticked off all the Moai sites around the island so we worked out way back into town and parked up. The next day we spent the remaining time we had on the island checking things out before having to head for the airport to return to the mainland. Looked like the Navy supply boat was in town as there were Chilean Anniversary celebrations coming up that weekend so we watched as the barge came back and forth with cargo for the islands – including new cars (supposedly you could pay more to have it stored in the hold otherwise it rode up on the deck out to the island). Looking at some of the cars around the island, rust was a major factor – hard to see how some cars were holding together they were eaten away with rust so much rust. We had a good flight back and gained back a couple of hours which put us back into Santiago @ 11pm. Unfortunately Ann had taken ill and decided she was best to head back to NZ ASAP so we got the bags and then got her over to the departure counter in time for her to get the 12.30am flight direct back to AK. I think we managed to get ourselves away from the airport and back into Santiago to where we were staying some time @ 1am – not quite the plan but necessary under the circumstances.

So that was the Easter Islands – I hadn’t known really what to expect but had been really pleasantly surprised by the island – nice size, good climate, nice people, loads of history – was a highlight for me and had Carol asking how might we manage to come back and live here one day? On that, local rules only allow Easter Island descendants to own property on the island so not sure how we will get around that problem – one to work on.

Chile – Antofagasta – Santiago

In Calama we had to find the bus depot to get our tickets down to Antofagasta where we had planned to meet up with Alain Maine – Ann P’s sister in laws brother who had lived here in Chile for @ 25 years. The turnaround between buses was tight but we needed to find something to eat so we found a food shop and struggled to order something – I went for the burger and much to our surprise what came out was a burger the size of a dinner plate. Took some consuming but I took one for the team, so full we staggered back to the bus depot for the next leg – 3 hours to Antofagasta. We arrived and arranged a taxi to get us to the AirBnB that we were staying at – turned out to be quite the exercise. The taxi looked a little worse for wear and he was struggling to find the spot to drop us off – eventually he got there but couldn’t open the boot to get our bags out so we had to pull the seat back and pull bags out that what. He’d double parked and I gave him 20000 peso’s looking for change (was a 9000 peso trip) but he was off – if I come upon him again he’d best look out. Fortunately our AirBnB host was a nice person and we had a good talk about the city, Chile, family, travels etc.

The following day we had arranged to spent with Alan – he wanted to take us out of town to show us around so we had a great day (once we found him) taking in some different sights. We headed north of Antofagasta to the ruins of a town that had been the site of a mining operation 130 years ago but was then deserted at turn of 20th century due to yellow fever I think Alan said. Centre piece to the area was this grand homestead – looked completely out of place but the bones and frame still stand today by the seas each although scavengers have stripped any materials of value from ghe building. From there we turned and headed back down towards Antofagasta and went into this area that is full of power plants – not generating power for the nearby city but instead for various mines up and over the hills – power is generated down by the coast and piped up to the mines – each mine had it’s own plant it appeared – certainly a different scale to NZ. We stopped at this little coastal village for lunch and on the way out there was this area where there was atleast 100 large fishing boats all sitting up in dry dock – a few blocks back from the waters edge and each boat atleast 50 feet long – quite the sight as well. From there we headed back into town and Alan dropped us in the middle so we could get some bits and have a look around.

That evening we headed up to Alans’s for dinner. Turned out that Alan’s apartment was just around the block from where we were staying so nice and handy. Alan and his family invited us in – interesting table with Alan doing the translating whilst his wife and daughter in law only spoke Spanish. Alan and his wife live up on the 13th floor in an apartment so quite the view of the sea and suburbs (Antofagasta is the main shipping point for a load of local resources and is quite an economical city with fancy buildings, and lots of new cars). Alan has his office in the corner of the apartment looking out over the ocean – bit distracting I’d think.

The next morning we were up and said farewell to our AirBnB host who had been a pleasure and made our way out to the airport to get our connection south to Santiago. In Santiago we were to have a bit of a wait whilst we awaited the arrival of Ann’s flight from NZ – was going to be nice to see a familiar face for a couple of weeks. We got into Santiago and planted ourselves down for a nice lunch and waited for Ann’s plane to come in – finally after about 4 hours at the airport she came through so we grabbed a taxi and headed into town where we were staying at an apartment. What was left of the day was grey and drab but we ventured out for a bit of a walk knowing that we would be back in a few days and able to explore more then.

Lake Titicaca – Bolivia (La Paz, Salt-flats and bus-rides)

We were up and away early in the morning with prospect that we had along day on the bus ahead of us. The bus travelled out of Puno and followed the lakes each out to the Bolivian border where we had to go through the customs process to get out and then into Bolivia – had to walk a stretch of no man land of @ 200m’s to ‘cross into Bolivia’. Once there we were told there would be some delays – the big city just out of La Paz weren’t happy with their mayor and wanted him out so had set up protests and barriers to cause disruption – we were told we would get to La Paz but that the public transport was being locked down for a following 2 days as a precaution – we weren’t too sure what to expect.

Before that though we travelled the short distance from the border crossing to the Bolivian lakeside town of Copacabana – a real treat for us. The bus had a 4 hour layover here as a popular tourist thing to do is to take a boat ride on this side out to one of the Bolivian islands on the lake (4 hour trip) but we opted to check out the town and had been told of a place to eat. After a bit of walking round we managed to find their pizza shop – run by an American couple who had come to the area 6 years ago to do mission walk, fell in love with the area and set up the café / pizzeria as well as maintaining ongoing mission work – proceeds from the café all go to the mission. They were a special couple to meet and talk with and to hear and see all that they were doing locally. With full bellies we headed over to have a look through the local cathedral – quite the sight and pretty amazing seeing all the architecture and detail that had been created here. We parked up over in the town square and took in the sights and sounds – one of the downsides of this area was again all the stray dogs. We talked to the café owners about this and they were trying to tackle the issue as best they could but locally there wasn’t a lot of ownership of the issue – females dogs would be put out to produce pups that they owners could sell off – only for them to then become street dogs once the puppy appeal wore off – vicious circle unfortunately). On our way back down to the bus we passed some amazing architecture – not sure what the story was but their were some really quirky buildings in an area – all looked to be part of a bigger complex – will try and get some pic’s up of this.

Bus was late leaving Copa – due to us being late in so it was getting dark by the time we pulled out. About and hour down the road we had to get across the lake so we were all off the bus an onto a water taxi whilst the bus was loaded onto a barge and motored over. The next leg of the trip was the part that was disrupted with the protests with the bus having to go on and off road with a big detour to try and get us through to La Paz. We were due in @ 10pm but finally made La Paz around 11.15pm so not too bad (protesters had roads blocked and those that were opened were littered with big boulders and rubbish). First impressions even at this late hour were that we were in a big city, loads of traffic (even late on a Monday night), and lots of rubbish. Accommodation found we settled in for the night (we had one night in La Paz before we were to get our next overnight bus late the following day).

First thing we had to sort that next morning was how we would get some the salt flats down into Chile by end of the week? Bus operators in Peru were no help so we found a local operator in La Paz who could move us from Uyuni (salt flats) down to Calama in Chile – best we could do on a budget). With that aspect sorted we set off in search of the cable car in order to get a better perspective of La Paz and it turned out to be a great way to see more of the city. We rode the cable up as high as could could (not sure what the altitude would have been but Laz Paz is the highest ‘main city’ in the work supposedly). Great views were on offer (lot of locals trudge up the terraces of steps as needed), and then we took the cable car out and across as far as we could – I think to the southern side of La Paz. Heights and angles were a bit hair-raising at times, but the cable car which was just dotted across the tops of homes and buildings, was quite the engineering feat – very impressive. We made our way back to the hostel where we had left our bags just as a bit of a storm hit the city. The hostel arranged a taxi for us to get to the bus depot – what a crazy ride. It was like being on a fun park ride where you don’t know what will happen next – but not in a good way. Driving in La Paz and Sth America in general is out there – not sure what the rules are but seems to be survival of the fittest on the roads. I was pleased to get dropped off.

We took the overnight bus from La Paz down to Uyuni – we left at bit after 9am with prospect of reaching Uyuni @ 7.30am the next morning so we settled back and tried to get some sleep. Around 6.15am the bus pulled over out in what seemed a desert plan so we could see the sun rise – you had the moon going down on one side, sun coming up on the other, and then out in front of us, the salt flats. Pulling into Uyuni was an interesting experience – it must have been quite a city back in the day with industry but now it appeared to really just serve the tourist traffic coming here to see the salt-flats. Lot of the streets were just dirt, some were cobbled – we read that the city was set up to be a main city with all the natural resources close at hand, but that it never quite came to that. As you might expect there were loads of street dogs here as well as loads of rubbish dropped out on the road etc – not really sure why people live like this? We got our tickets for the bus that would take us down to Calama in Chile early the next morning and dropped our bags at a hostel before heading off on our salt-flats excursion.

I think they said there was something like 80 different operators running tours out onto the salt, with the vehicle of choice being the Landcruiser – I think there was something like 400 tied up in salt tours locally as most operators either did one day or 3 day salt excursions. We headed off with our guide and driver – with one other tourist – a young tall French woman that was travelling by herself. First stop was to the train graveyard – Bolivia had a strong rail network in place but past presidents had plundered resources and networks and here before us lay a graveyard of old steam trains – rusting away out in the desert – quite the sight. From there we headed to the village Colchani that borders the salt-flats. Here you get to see a demo of how they process and prepare the salt with everything locally being about the salt – the houses were made of salt blocks, the table and chairs that we had our lunch on were all made of salt, and all around the village were crafts tying  back to the salt. From there we moved out onto the salt and stopped at a café that is set up as the finishing point for the Paris Dakar rally – there was a salt mount shrouded in flags so we busted out the All Blacks flag for a photo opt. From there we headed out into the middle of the salt – quite some way given the flats cover something like 12000 square km’s. Having been fortunate to have been on the salt at Bonneville last year I had assumed the salt here would be very similar and for the most part it was with the exception of being a larger area and having the islands on it. Alas, no rocket cars were running across the salt – just the occasional Landcruiser zooming along. We stopped at this island which was a maze of enormous cactus – we had a good walk round and then headed back out in order to capture the sunset. Our guide pulled out the wine and chips as the sun started to set so a special way to end the day.

Back into Uyuni we crashed for a few hours as we had a 5am bus to be on the following morning. On the bus and we were off again – first of 2 bus rides for us today with our end goal being Antafogasta Chile. The roads in Bolivia leave bit to be desired with our track south to the Chilean border being basic dirt roads. As the sun came up we passed through this massive stone valley – there were big boulders on both sides of this valley for atleat 10 km’s or more – quite the sight. We finally made it to the border crossing – this stop point took more than 90 min’s – the Chileans were checking and checking again before letting the bus continue. Once through border control it was funny how the roads improved – we were back on sealed roads for the first time in hours. It took a few hours but we then made it into Calama – we’d made it into Chile.

Cusco – Puno – Lake Titicaca

We spent the day after returning from the Inca Trail ‘recovering’ – just taking it quietly around town and not pushing it too much but we did go for a decent walk to stretch things out a bit. We found the local Cusco Markets – quite the place to check out and some sights to talk in – loads of cooked foods, dry goods, fresh fruit and veges, loads of cheeses and nuts and the butchery – appeared that they locally they tried to use every part of the animal – we saw a load of hoofs for sale, and cow snouts – quite the sight. Laundry done we were ready for the next leg of our journey.

The next morning (Friday) we were met and carted off to our bus to Puno – a days trip taking in some sights along the way. We headed off out of Cusco but stopped before leaving the city – turned out that our bus guide for the day had slept in and was chasing to catch up with us which it managed to achieve. Our trip was to consist of 5 stops – 4 historic sights and a lunch stop. Our first stop was to a village with a historic church – all sounded good but then the bus company tried to tell up that our tickets didn’t give us access to the sights today – emm, not how I read it so we went back and forth with the bus company as we tried to sort this. As a result, we missed the church visit and sat outside and talked to some other tourists in the area. On the bus across from us we were an older NZ couple so we had a good talk with them as we moved along. Keith and Diane were an older couple from Auckland travelling in Sth America for @ a month. They were into cars and Keith had the dream job – he’d been a self-employed coach-body draftsman drawing up car plans as needed – he had me hooked in. They talked with us about having packed up back in 1991 and heading off travelling through Europe for 2 years – they did say their current trip was costing them more than 2 years abroad 25 plus years ago.

After standing our ground with the bus company they finally came to the party at the second tourist stop and said that everything had been cleared and that we had access to the sights for the day – one stop too late that anyway we were off this time. This stop had us calling at the Raqchi historic site – and area that supposedly pre-dates the Inca and quite the site it was. There were structures here that had stood the test of time and – built in clay and stone as opposed to the consistent Inca stone structures we had become accustomed to. We had a good look around here – one of us enjoyed themselves a bit too much and it wasn’t me – the bus was loaded and I’m running around the site looking for Carol – finally she surfaced – she’d got herself lost in it all – so walk of shame onto the bus and we were off again. Next stop lunch and quite the lunch it was for us – no dinner for us tonight so I loaded up.

One of the big things that hit us on the road today was the number of stray dogs living on the road side, scavenging for whatever they could find, and all the rubbish that was just dumped on roadsides – not sure what that was all about. A couple more stops to take in some local history and we crossed the high point of the road – I think we were at @ 4200 m’s again, and then heading downwards towards Puno. The main city in this area is Juliaca – Lonely Planet isn’t that complimentary about this city, and its not too hard to see way. It appears that the city is growing faster than the infrastructure can support (population of @ 350 k and growing) so there were long-drops littering the road side heading into town, dirt roads, loads of people and more. Fought our way through the town and we were then plain sailing down to Puno and before long had our glimpse of Lake Titicaca – Puno is the main city that services the lake and all it has to offer (population of @ 150 k) – the lake borders Peru (60% ownership) and Bolivia (40% lake ownership). The city starts up on the hillsides and sweeps down the lake front and consists of a maze of narrow streets – how the bus managed to get through them I’m not really sure. The bus depot dropped us by the lake front so then it was a matter of getting ourselves to our local accommodation – which we managed with some help.

Checked in we took the opportunity to have a bit of a look around the town (albeit it was now 7.30pm). We wanted to get some supplies and managed to find the supermarket – not your average super as it had whiteware and appliances for sale, TV, Toys, and yes, some food items. Quite the experience we made it back to our hotel and settled in for the evening.

Saturday dawned fine and we were met at our hotel by our Lake tour guide – quick walk round the street to our shuttle and we were off to the lakefront. From here we boarded a water taxi and headed out onto the lake. First stop – the floating reed islands of Uros. I had expected these to be some distance out in the lake – reality is they were within 5 k’s of the shore with Puno and the mainland still in good view. We’d seen pics of the area and hadn’t anticipated just had commercial the area was – everything was aimed at capturing the tourist dollar – demonstrations by local families, arts and crafts, tour around the reed village and info on how they build the islands, and then a boat ride on a reed boat from one side of the village to the other. To our surprise the locals were living a more modern life than maybe we had anticipated – some had homes from more permanent materials, there were solar power and the odd satellite dish. Walking around on the islands took a little getting use to – as you might expect you sink a little with every footstep but the thickness of the island is constantly added to in order to maintain a good base.

Back on the water taxi and we motored over to an island that we were experiencing our homestay on. I wasn’t sure what to expect from there – but here we go. We docked at island – Isla Amantani and were soon introduced to our host – Momma Sebestian – a little local woman dressed up in the national dress. Remember that the lake is at a high altitude (our guide must have told us it was the highest navigatable lake in the world atleast 20 times), so as we pulled up and collected our bags we had to follow Momma up hill to her home – needless to say it didn’t take long to be our of breathe and struggling. The homestay reached, Momma prepared some lunch for us (we were staying at this home with a French couple from the boat who fortunately knew enough Spanish to help us out with communications). The big news for me was that the entire island was vegetarian – emm, not the worst thing in the world for a weekend I suppose.  To my surprise, lunch was pretty good – soup and then main dish with cheese replacing any prospect of meat (tour info suggests that rather than giving your host family money you bring for them a small gift so we had brought some fresh fruit and veges that Momma graciously received). That afternoon we all met up with the guide again and had the option of hiking to the top of the hill to a ruin to see the sun go down – we didn’t think we were up for it so did some exploring around locally and managed to have to cut through a couple of backyards here and there to find our way back to Momma’s. That night we all had to dress up in local attire to head to the ‘discotique’ where we were entertained with some local island music and dancing – nice way to see how they enjoy themselves (the island is split up into 10 communities each of which host homestays so Momma village gets a new group of visitors through every 10 weeks to host and ‘show the sights’ locally).

Evenings on the island – on the lake for that matter are cool – especially at this time of year, so bedding consists of quite a few layers but we made it through the night warm and were up early to catch the water taxi the next morning by 8am. Momma got us a cuppa and some breakfast and then walked us down and hugged us goodbye. Carol fitted in really well on the island – she was taller than many of the locals – hard to believe I know but she’s been standing a bit taller since in Sth America. Back in the water taxi we motored over to another island – Isla Taquila (like the drink but with an a). Here we had a bit of a hike up to the town plaza where we took in a local demo and then we were hosted for lunch where to my surprise there was a fresh fish option available to so we both jumped at that (this island was all vegetarian as well although that do a lot of fish farming – to take and sell / trade for basic food supplies in Puno). We were told our walk back to the boat involved going down a few steps – we were fortunate we were going down this was as another party had arrived on the island at this bay and we having to use the steps to get up – we were tired for them. The boat cast off and we putted our way back to Puno – our Lake Titicaca experience over.

Back to our hotel in Puno we cleaned up and made our way out for a nice meal knowing that we would be off again the following morning. When in Cusco we had booked a couple of our next travel legs / activities which involved getting the Peru – Bolivia Hop On Hop Off bus the following morning.

Cusco and the Inca Trail – just a bit of a trek

After another late combo of flights we arrived back in Lima @ 2am and headed to our hotel which was the meeting point for the G Adventure group we were completing the Inca Trail with. We managed to get about 2 hours sleep before having to get up for a 5am shuttle to the airport to get our connection to Cusco – the gateway to the Inca Trail. At the hotel and shuttle ride to airport we got to meet some of the people we would be hiking with – a Canadian Dad (Rob), his son Andy and daughter in law Katrina, their tall friend from Toronto Guthrie, couple of lads Peter and Adam from Liverpool, an Australian couple (Lisa and Mike) and a young Australian women Amanda travelling by herself. Flight from Lima to Cusco was good – up above the clouds the Andean mountains kept poking through here and there – had me wondering if any of them were the trail we were going to be walking? Emerging through the cloud was the city of Cusco – sitting up in a valley in the mountains at a height of @ 3300 m’s above sea level. The airport appeared to be in the middle of the city / low of the valley so we passed it and then made a steep banked turn to come into land – number of the team didn’t fancy the sweep – but I didn’t think it was too bad.

Landed and with bags collected we headed off to find our guide – it was now they we were introduced to Richie – a short local guide who would lead us for the next few days. Richie got us onto our shuttle and into Cusco where we were staying for the night – good spot to acclimatise to the altitudes we would experience in the days ahead. Collectively we headed out for an orientation of the city and all went for lunch – it was about now we were introduced to the local dish Cuyp – or cooked guinea pig – the national dish. No one opted for it today – most indicating it could be reward for completing the trek – ourselves included. Later that day we headed up to the local G Adventures office for our briefing – about now the reality starts to sink in.

The following morning we headed out of Cusco on a bus heading for the Sacred Valley – today was going to be about taking in some sights (ruins) on our way up to Ollantaytambo – the base you head out from and back to for the trek. On the way we were taken into a Peruvian women’s coop that G Adventures support – we got a taste of Peruvian lifestyle, the arts and crafts, got to see lama, alpaca and guinea pig (before any were cooked), and some coco tea – the staple drink up at altitude – which after a week we had become quite accustomed to. From the village we headed inland and visited the Pisac ruins – this involved a hike up the hill – which left us short of brief and concerned for the following days – well maybe just me. After the Pisac ruins we stopped for a traditional lunch at another village that G Adventures support – can’t remember how many dishes came out, but meal left us full and content and meant a bit of a snooze was in order for remainder of the days bus ride. We passed through one local town – they must have specialised in Cuy – stand after stand along the main street had cooked guinea pig on big skewers for sale – not everyone’s cup of tea, but quite the sight.

Checked into a hosted in Ollantaytambo we went to check out the local Inca ruins – before us lay a mountain – more a good-sized hill of steps just going up – so off we went – thinking with every step that this was the sort of training needed for the next few days and the Inca Trail proper. The ruins were an Inca fortress – one of the great Inca warriors was rewarded by the Inca King and offered whatever he wanted – he asked that he be able to stay in the area of Ollantaytambo with this fortification serving to protect the Inca Trail beyond. It was pretty unbelievable walking up as high as we did to find huge rocks – slabs of rock that had been somehow hauled to these heights as part of the local fort and temple – not sure we will ever know just how all this was achieved. Most of the ruins had big terraced levels to them – the local Inca used the terraces and supporting irrigation systems to grow their crops – clued up bunch. Surviving the trek up and around we headed down and retired early as the following morning we were into it proper.

Early the next day we took the final leg of our bus ride to kilometre 82 – start of the trial – along with all the other hikers that were setting out. Pretty sure they said they limit the trail to @ 500 people a day – this is a combo of around 200 hikers supported by @ 300 porters. For us we were limited to a 6kg duffle bag that the porters would carry for us, and whatever we wanted to carry on our bags – water, snacks, wet weather gear etc. – with it suggested our bags should be as light as possible (didn’t manage to achieve that over the coming week myself). The day was fine and warm as we set off – first 10 min’s was a good steep incline and I was thinking am, how’s this going to go, but then things flattened out and the first day was a good intro hike – best way I can describe it. We arrived at our camp that the porters had prepared for us (tents up, bags in tents for us etc.) and settled into happy hour – warm drink and popcorn – this was to be the norm for the next 3 days. To say we ate well on the trek was an understatement – lunch was soup, main dish and small desert – dinners were soup and main dish and hot tea, but in fairness we were going to burn most of it off with the hike.

First night out in the tent was a precursor for the next few nights – not a lot of sleep as I tossed and turned in a sleeping bag on the hard ground – but hey, it was only for a few days. Having talked to a number of people about the trek, we were led to believe Day 2 was the grueling day. The day dawned cool and drizzly so mandatory poncho was pulled out and we were off – uphill. Our group was supported by Richie and a second guide Raul and a team of upwards of 20 porters.  Each morning the guides would pack down the site, load themselves up and then pass us as we trekked along with just our day packs – these guys were impressive. Richie set the pace out front with Guthrie and the 2 young guys from Liverpool in hot pursuit but Carol and I held our own and always followed this bunch in. Day 2 was about heading up – on Day One we started at a height of 2800 m’s and climbed up to 3150 m’s. Day 2 was about getting up to Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 m’s before dropping back down to our Day 2 camp at 3600 m’s.

It didn’t take long for me to warm up – my choice of hiking attire for the week was a pair of shorts and a tee shirt – and the poncho if needed but it didn’t stay on for long. For the first part of Day 2’s trek Richie set the pace with Raul staying back with the slower members of the group. Half way up the hill Richie allowed the group to move off at their own pace so Carol and I carried on with us being the third group to get up to the pass – with Guthrie somewhere off in the distance giving the porters a hurry along to get to the camp, and the Liverpool boys encouraging us on to the top of the pass before they carried on. The top of the pass was shrouded in mist and it was cool given the altitude so after a short breather we headed down a load of steps and got into the camp early afternoon – a good effort from us both and comforting to know that was the hard part out of the way although Day 3 had another climb at the start before levelling out and dropping off for a long 16 km trek – but that would be tomorrow. One of the team – Andy had taken ill the previous night and struggled through the 2nd day but by @ 2.30pm everyone had made it into camp (one of the porters hiked back up the hill to the top of the pass with sandwiches for Andy and co to keep them going – seemed to be no stopping the porters).

The only downside to Day 2 was the fact that you could see the Day 3 climb ahead of you so after a cool night we got ready to set out again. This time it was the turn of young Peter to not be well with him crook all night – Adam his mate didn’t show a lot of sympathy but Peter struggled on. The Day 3 climb was back up to over 3900 m’s but no where like Day 2 and once we were at the peak (with the obligatory ruins to take in along the way) the path eased upwards before dropping down to around 2800 m’s – that meant a load of steps. Being the longest day, the porters set up a lunch tent for us at the top of the Day 3 pass – so we fuelled up with soup and food and headed downhill from there to the last big ruins before Machu Picchu – we camped facing the opposite side of Machu Picchu knowing that the following morning we simply needed to walk up and around the side and we would be there. Our Day 3 camp coincided with a big dinner ahead of an early night as Day 4 starts at 3.30am in the morning as the porters have to be packed and down the hill to catch a train by @ 5.30am.

Up early we headed down hill to a check in point which for some reason doesn’t open until 5.30am so you all have to stand around and wait 45 min’s or so before you can get into the last leg. Generally Day 4 was to be an easy hike – but again we had been told that just before the sun-gate you had a pleasure of some more gut busting steps. We found and conquered the steps and after more of a last hike than I had banked on, we were at the sun-gate just after daylight – waiting for the cloud and mist to lift so we could get our first glimpse at Machu Picchu – the reward for the previous 3 days efforts. Richie huffed and puffed like the big bad wolf and gradually the mist cleared to give those of us that had stayed back at the sun gate, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu – reward for our previous 3 plus of hiking. After many photos had been snapped off we made the final trek down to the site – and what a sight it was.

Yes we have seen postcards and clips on line of this sight, but it wasn’t until you are actually there in front of it that you can truly appreciate the scale. The other aspect that surprised me was the volume of tourists that were there already – the easy option is to get a train and bus up from the base town of Agua Calinte to enjoy the day – didn’t really seem right to me but apparently the sight can get upwards of 6000 plus tourist ‘on a busy day’ – how today compared I’m not sure but there was a load of people everywhere so the option of getting a picture without anyone in the background just wasn’t going to happen. Richie and Raul guided us around some key points of the sight and then we had time to wander at will as we wanted – making sure we took in a few pic’s of the many llama that adorn the sight.

Tired the group had agreed that we would bus down to Agua for lunch before the pleasure of the train ride back to Ollamtaytambo. We took an earlier bus and had a wander around this mountain down – one of the drawcards being the train that runs through the middle of town. This town serves the sight about with buses and trains running back and forth with regularity. Collectively we all have a nice lunch in town and then we hiked up to get the train. Train was a nice way to enjoy the countryside – from a different perspective. We rolled into Ollantaytambo and then it was onto a bus for the remaining ride into Cusco with the promise of the first shower we had managed for the previous 4 days – not that any of us were aware that we smelt or atleast said anything along those lines.

Into Cusco, room allocated a number of the group headed out for their reward – meal of Cuy but we took the shower and an early night option – knowing that within a couple of days we would be on our way again. Reflecting back I’m really proud of what we achieved with completing the trek and how well we had come through it – we did ourselves proud.

I’ll get some pic’s up to support this update accordingly.

Quito – Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

Last time I managed to post we were leaving Iquitos to head up to Quito in Ecuador and then over to the Galapagos Islands (getting good wi-fi connection to post updates is proving quite challenging). Heading out of the jungle we got back to Lima to get another late flight up to Quito – arriving there around 3am in the morning. On the plus side, the traffic was favourable so we go a good run into town here where we were staying. I really didn’t know what to expect from Quito other than it’s altitude of nearly 3000m’s so it was going to be a good acclimatisation for us ahead of doing the Inca Trail. First day in Quito we opted to take it easy (having only had a few hours sleep) so good opportunity to get catch up on the laundry. We took the option of the Hop On Hop Off bus to explore the city and quite the city it is. Local Quito has a population of something like 2.2 million so much bigger than I had assumed it would be.

The bus was a good option to get a good easy snap shot of this city – taking in the city centre, the Old Town, the many and magnificent churches that adorn this city and the striking Panicilla status which oversees the city from high up on the hill (another increase in altitude for us). The city is set in a valley so the suburbs spread up the hillsides but unlike some of the cities we had recently visited, Quito had quite a modern feel to it – new buildings, nicely laid out etc. notwithstanding there are plenty of people living poorly as well. I’ve misplaced my info on the city but there was a striking cathedral that dominates the older part of town – I think it was called the San Fransico. Up on the hill standing proudly over the city is the statue Pancillo – quite the site and it gave a great view down onto the city below (I’ll try and upload a pic of it).

That evening we walked down to the local park for some street food and a look around. One of the things that you see everywhere is people playing cards or similar – betting. On corners, on the street, cafes etc. – very popular. In the park there was a night market but what took our interest was the crowd watching a game being played between a couple of guys. They were on likes of a tennis court with a volleyball net and the players had to either kick the ball, header it or could play a volleyball type shot without the ball touching the ground – some skills. We were told it was a national game of Ecuador called Cocos and like the cards, the crowd were betting on the outcome. We were also told that volleyball is competitive and that if one team know that the other has a stronger player than they do, they can make that player play one handed – only in Ecuador.

For our second day in Quito we had hired a guide to take us up to Mt Cotopaxi – second highest peak in Ecuador at something like 5700m’s and an active volcano to boot as well. A good drive out of town gave us another view of the area and surrounding towns and then we were presented with the mountain in front of us. The access road left something to be desired – we haven’t been thrown around so much in a vehicle before I don’t think – be nice to think some of the park entry was going into road upkeep. We struggled our way up to the carpark at something like 4200 m’s so we were well above the top of Mt Cook by this stage and you felt it as we started up the track to the refuge. You have 2 choices – a 900 m steep climb or the further 1600 m zig zag option – we opted for the latter but it was still some hike and took us the best part of an hour to get from the car park to the Refuge at over 4850 m’s – the air was getting thinner so a cup of coca tea was needed to revive. The hike back down was challenging in that the surface was small stones so very loose underfoot but I was very grateful for seeing our vehicle after exerting ourselves as we had. A bumpy ride back down the hill and we made a stop for a bowl of Potato Soup – a local speciality to recharge. A challenging day for us but a good work out at altitude ahead of the Inca Trail so we came away with a good sense of achievement.

On our last day in Quito we were supposed to link up with our guide again but he failed to show so we set off on our own to find the ‘middle of the earth’. Several bus rides later (many thanks to a local lady that guided us to the right bus) we made it to the Middle of the Earth Centre. This was really well set up and we spend half the day looking around all that this facility has on offer. At the centre of the complex is the centre as you might expect with it’s east west north south lines crossing. There’s a tower you go up for a great view of the neighbouring area. You then work your way through a 9-level museum within the town that tells of how the site was established, local culture, and some experiments to do with gravity in the area – very worthwhile. A bus ride back towards town and we had to get off and walk our way back down into the park area of town, so refuelled with a good meal before retiring ahead of an early start to get out to Galapagos.

A 5am taxi got us out to the airport ready to fly to the Galapagos. Flights to Galapagos run from Quito, stop over in Gllyway which is Ecuador’s largest city to pick up and drop off passengers and then heads the 1000 km’s out to Balta Airport in the Galapagos. Balta Airport wasn’t a lot to speak of – a landing strip on a volcanic rocky outcrop (the US set up the island as a base in WW2 as a precaution). All the airforce buildings have been removed now that the area is national park so you bus across this island to get a water taxi over to the main island of Santa Cruz and the bus over the island to the main town of Puerto Ayora. Once at our hotel – the meeting point for our tour we were advised that the rest of the tour party were delayed so we would be staying put locally for the night so Carol and I got out and explored the town and met some of the local wildlife – sea lions, crabs and Iguana’s. The town has loads of street stalls and food stands so having met up with the tour party we all headed out for a meal together. We were part of a small group with only 6 of us on this tour so good opportunity to get to know one another over the course of the next week.

The following morning we had an early start to get a powerboat over to the island of Isla Isabella the western most and largest island in the Galapagos chain (we had bee meant to go over the previous day but with delays that was postponed). A bumpy 2.5 hours later and we dock at the island and are straight into tour mode. 90% of the Galapagos is National Park and so besides your tour guide you have to have a park guide with you to undertake any of the sites. First stop was the tortoise refuge where there were literally thousands of tortoise of varying sizes and age. From there we headed inland for a hike. The plan was to walk the 16 km round trip up to the largest volcano on the island (the name of which slips me at the moment). We started out in mist, cloud and light rain but soon climbed through it and were in the sunshine and there below us was the volcano – pretty sure it last erupted 10-15 years ago. It was vast – the crater was something like 11kms long by 8 km’s wide. Fortunately the altitude wasn’t too bad – we were only at around 1000 – 1500 m’s up. We spent the next few hours learning about volcanos (the islands are dotted with them) before hiking back down – another good workout.

The following day was free for us to explore the island so the others in the group headed off on a tour excursion whilst Carol and I did some exploring locally of our own. Wasn’t long before we found a good spot and were fortunate to see a large sea turtle swim past the dock close by us. More Iguana’s spotted and a few flamigo’s. We headed back to the dock area in search of some more sea turtles and braved the water – Carol will share a funny story with you that had me setting on the dock step when a sealion decided it was time to get in the water so I had to dive back in to make some room. To warm up we then took in a spectacular sunset. The next day we were up and about before light for a powerboat ride back to the mainland and some more exploring. I guess I’d expected to see wildlife around every corner but it wasn’t like that – you did have to go looking a bit.

That afternoon we headed off to the Darwin Research Centre for a good look around at the wonderful work this facility undertakes including a team from Auckland Uni – nice NZ link to the area. From there we took a bus out to the Tortoise Ranch to see large tortoise in a natural habitat – and there were plenty to view. That night Carol and I headed out with one of the group Lester for a seafood feed down at the street stalls – Carol and Lester had lobster – I went for the whole fish – needless to say we staggered back to the hotel after that.

The following day we headed over to Isla San Cristobel (another 2 hour boat ride) – the eastern most island in the chain and I’d have to say the nicest – it had a population of @ 10000 but was cleaner and felt ‘newer’ of that makes sense. This island abounds with sealions – the local foreshore and beached is for want of a better word littered with them – quite the spectacle. We had a free day so Carol and Lester hired some snorkelling equipment and we headed off for a spot to explore. I stayed onshore and did the spotting for them – there were sealions to swim with, and array of fish and fortunately I spotted a sea turtle so Carol had a ball swimming with this and another larger turtle – quite the experience for her. That afternoon we headed to another spot in the hope of some more turtles and whilst the sea was too rough for snorkelling we did see a group of 10-15 turtles ‘surfing’ close in shore so next best thing for us.

On our last morning on the Galapagos we took into the National Park info centre for some details on the history of the island, it’s people and culture etc. We hiked up the hill for a good view and was then time to get back and fly out of the Galagoes – all in all an enjoyable 6 day experience for us – we saw some sights, and we met some really nice people along the way.

Not looking forward to the rest of today – we have a fly back to Gllyway and then have to head up to Panama to get our connection back to Lima courtesy of flight cancellations – going to be a long night for us.

Some pics from around Quito including the guys playing Cocos (not that you can really see) – statue is the the Pancillo (I’ll need to check my spelling on that.

Hiking up to the Refuge at 4800 m’s plus on Mt Cotopaxi – some workout for us.