juliamhammond

Africa

An unexpected giraffe rescue in Uganda

It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that travel is supposed to be about: sunrise over a flat calm Nile, the water as pink as the sky above it. Staying at the excellent Red Chilli’s Murchison Falls Rest Camp, we were conveniently situated for the earliest ferry crossing. A queue had quickly formed behind us, but our driver was pleased with himself for being first to board the rudimentary, flat bed vessel. We were too busy gazing at the water to care.

However, that morning’s game drive hadn’t lived up to expectations. Save for a bunch of Rothschild’s giraffe, a scattering of Jackson’s hartebeest, the ubiquitous kob and a few distant hippo, we’d been unlucky. Game sightings hadn’t been as prolific as I’d experienced in other East African nations such as Tanzania and big game were conspicuous by their absence. It was looking increasingly likely that we’d be returning to Kampala a little disappointed, the sunrise proving the highlight of the day. Even our ranger seemed to have lost interest after his initial animated commentary.

DSC_0048 (2)

Suddenly, we pulled over on the dirt track and looked across at a vehicle careering off road across the park. My first thought was that our ranger was about to give them a serve for off-roading, but as they drew closer, we could see that they were uniformed personnel working for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It turned out that one of a pair of elderly giraffes under a nearby tree had caught his hind leg in a snare.

Sadly, the threat from local poaching, despite efforts to tackle the problem, remains a significant one. The Uganda Conservation Foundation reported that bushmeat poaching, primarily through the setting of snares, continues to pose a significant threat to wildlife in the park:

“In April 2011, 40 rangers did a three day patrol of the Delta to Pakuba area of Murchison Falls, the region most densely populated by animals and a tourism hotspot. Over three days 1154 snares were recovered and destroyed. On February 12, 2013, rangers did a six- hour search in the small part of the Delta and discovered 285 wire snares. Large scale clearance of existing snares and gin traps is ongoing. One large scale sweep by rangers was done in March 2014 that resulted in the recovery of 42 wire snares and 6 metal traps. During the same patrol a warthog was found dead, trapped by a metal snare.”

Our MFNP guide told us that there was a particular problem in this part of the park as the nearby water provided the perfect excuse for poachers to masquerade as fishermen. Though warthog and antelope are the intended targets, other animals are caught in the traps. Fighting back is difficult. The park’s considerable size, coupled with budgetary constraints that hinder ranger employment and low salaries for those in post, combine to form a powerful set of obstacles. This is compounded by the park’s proximity to the DRC which facilitates illegal cross-border arms traffic. Marine rangers regularly patrol the riverbanks to enforce the law but the UWA faces an uphill battle.

DSC_0024 (2)

Initiatives such as the Michigan State University “Snares to Wares” aim to offer locals an alternative source of income, but such projects are a drop in a very large ocean. Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor reported on the issue in January 2016, explaining just how tempting it can be for those living in abject poverty to slip into poaching:

“The scarcity of sustainable livelihoods is also blamed; poverty drives people to make a living from illegal means. For instance, a hippo carcass is worth about Shs1.5m and a kilogramme of buffalo meat costs Shs15,000 on the black market.”

Visitor numbers are down: according to statistics from the organisation Global Conservation, visitor numbers are down to about 50,000 annually (2017 figures), compared to 70,000 a decade ago. The greater the impact of poaching on wildlife numbers, the more likely it will be that visitor numbers will continue to fall as tourists relocate to other countries where wildlife is more abundant. Without revenue generated from park entrance fees, currently worth about $2 million, the outlook becomes even more bleak.

Animals trapped in snares bleed to death if not discovered. “Our” giraffe was one of the lucky ones. The UWA ranger asked if our guide would assist her team in darting the giraffe and removing the snare; when safe, we would be able leave the safari vehicle to watch. The vet prepared the dart and the team set off in pursuit. It took a while to get an unobstructed shot, the giraffe spooked by the presence of humans at such close quarters. Finally, the sedative took hold and the giraffe fell to the floor.

DSC_0068 (2)

What happened next was almost a blur as events progressed at lightning speed. One ranger covered the giraffe’s head and held down its neck. The snare was cut with wire cutters and the ranger documented each step of the rescue with her camera. It took just a couple of minutes before the elderly creature began to come round, but getting to its feet proved considerably more difficult for the weakened animal.

It was heartbreaking to watch. Time and time again, the animal fought to raise itself, lifting its neck but then crashing down to the ground with a horrifying thud. After the buzz of the rescue, our spirits fell. It was a horrible feeling to be powerless to help. What if the giraffe couldn’t get up? But back in the vehicle, our driver was getting impatient. The ferry left on the hour and we were supposed to be on it. Reluctantly, we clambered back inside our vehicle, craning our necks to see if the giraffe would right itself, and dealing with the enduring disappointment of its repeated, failures as we grew ever more distant.

DSC_0076 (2)

The following morning, we set off again for our last game drive. As we waited for our vehicle to disembark, we caught sight of the ranger from the day before. She had good news. Eventually, with the help of a sling and a lot of heaving from the team, it staggered to its feet and headed off to join its mate in the bush.

For once, it was a happy ending. But for many, the story is heartbreaking one. I hope that the UWA secures the funding it needs from the impoverished Ugandan government in order to win what seems to be an almost impossible fight.


Gorillas lite: up close with the chimps of Kibale Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.

DSC_0336 (2)

Lowland gorilla in Port Lympne safari park, Kent

I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek.  Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.

9E0FFAED-19A0-4347-852F-A44613DA33A0

Grooming

Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.

Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.

D49B4B77-03A2-48CF-8CAE-A6AEADC2F3F8

Chimps are exceptionally good climbers

As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.

F80E8FCD-413B-4D7A-BA13-175D3347B351

Chimps share 98% of our DNA

Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.

Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.

4D8DEF58-7FD5-4713-931B-84979C35F3E2

The initial group

I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.

152300DD-4EAB-46A7-B9E7-84637BDE71F0

Time for a snooze

The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.

0DBF9E27-73CC-43FB-966E-424F9889F758

It’s a real privilege to be so close to the chimps

Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.

After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.

15601AE4-99B9-4E8C-BF3C-E8F8E9C20D0E

Letting it all hang out!

In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.

FB793DCA-6931-43F2-98A7-8E087A6114D9

The adults were well habituated though the babies were a little unnerved by our presence

You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link:

Click to access UWA-Tariff-2018-2019.pdf


Review: Kampala’s backpackers compared

During my trip to Uganda I stayed at the three backpacker hostels in Kampala. Each was very different, so if you’re looking for cheap accommodation in the capital, my reviews might help you decide which is best for you.

Red Chilli Hideaway

The clue’s in the name with this one – it’s tucked away at the end of one of the roads leading south from Kampala’s city centre. It’s as much a resort as it is a hostel, with a sizeable swimming pool as well as two bars. Day guests can pay for the use of its facilities, but it retains a backpacker vibe nonetheless. Staff are helpful and efficient.

The location is both Red Chilli’s biggest plus and its worst drawback. Because it’s so far out of the centre – around 10km from downtown – it’s inconvenient if you intend to visit the city’s sights. Traffic is horrendous, so that 10km journey can easily take an hour or more of frustrating stop-start driving, more in rush hour. If you’re coming into the city on a tourist shuttle such as Pineapple Express, note that drop off will be at the Oasis Mall, still a considerable distance from Red Chilli.

That said, if you’re looking for a place to unwind as part of your Ugandan or East African trip, it’s the perfect spot. Security’s excellent – all cars entering the compound are checked thoroughly, with mirrors used to check the underside of the vehicle. Guards on the gate are also a reassuring presence in this relatively remote location. The views across the valley to the surrounding countryside further distance you from the hubbub of the city and it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. Sunrises are spectacular and well worth rising early for.

The multiple accommodation blocks contain a range of room types, from dorms to private ensuites. The latter are roomy and are equipped with fans and showers that actually deliver hot water. I slept well, cocooned from the noise of those socialising in the bar. The room was basic but clean.

53110963_10216448196145203_682174302778294272_n

Red Chilli Hideaway is the sister property to Red Chilli Rest Camp up at Murchison Falls. I took the three day budget safari, which costs $320pp in shared tents and about $80 extra if you upgrade to a self contained banda. It was well organised and well thought out, and though the distance travelled was considerable, the two included game drives and boat trip made the package excellent value for money as well. The safari price includes a free dorm bed the evening before – it’s definitely a good idea to stay in order to avoid a ridiculously early start just to reach Red Chilli itself.

Would I stay there again?

Yes, if I was looking for a place to stay put rather than get around.

Cost of a single room with ensuite bathroom $45 with a discount for booking the safari – I paid $33 (note that prices have recently risen)

Bushpig

If you’re looking for a sociable backpackers then this is the pick of the bunch, but I also found it to be the noisiest of the three. Located on busy Acacia Avenue, there’s a constant buzz of traffic as well as considerable noise from the immediate vicinity – bells ringing when people asked to be let in and chatter for instance. My single room was tiny, the bed taking up the whole of the window side of the room, making it difficult to access the window. There was a small hole in the glass, so even with the window shut, it wasn’t remotely soundproof, though mesh and a mosquito net ensured I wasn’t bothered by the bugs.

The showers and toilets were in a room a few doors down the corridor. They were clean and the water was hot. I rented a towel for 4000 shillings (a little less than £1). However, there was no door to the bathroom itself and (unlike the rest of the rooms in my section) my room had mesh above the door rather than a solid wall. The noise from flushing toilets and running water was therefore bothersome. I managed about three hours sleep which wasn’t ideal.

Where Bushpig scored highly was in its food. There was an outdoor bar with tables. An extensive menu sold really tasty food at reasonable prices and it was a popular place to entertain friends as the number of visiting diners indicated. Staff were approachable and helpful. The manager went out of his way to get me connected to the WiFi when my devices were being uncooperative and it proved to be the speediest once I was online. Also, the reception staff helped me figure out the location of the relocated Post Bus service as well as sort me out with a reliable taxi.

Would I stay there again?

Probably not, on account of the noise, though it was a temptingly convenient location. However, I would definitely visit for the food and atmosphere in the bar garden.

Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $25, which represented the best value of the places I stayed

Fat Cat

Occupying a site in a quiet side street close to Acacia Mall, this backpackers had the most convenient location. It was the smallest of the three and felt the most basic. My single room was directly off the main dining room, which could have presented a noise issue had there been more guests, but in fact I got a good night’s rest. Staff were efficient, and my driver for the late night airport transfer was waiting for me outside Entebbe Airport. However, I didn’t get the sense that they were especially bothered if I was enjoying myself and came across as a bit bored by the whole customer service thing.

The shower room was very basic. The cubicles were fairly clean but the windows and walls were grubby and there wasn’t much space to hang clothes or a towel while you showered. The water was almost cold, adding to the monastic feel. Though it was dearer than Bushpig, the room was larger, but the facilities were definitely a lot more rundown and in need of modernisation. I only ate breakfast here, and that too was basic. There was a lounge and several traditional hostel noticeboards where you could post requests for shared rides and the like.

I did like the garden area, which was a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink with plenty of shade. You could qualify for a free beer if you went litter picking in the vicinity of the backpackers. Just outside the gate, Uber bodas (motorcycle taxis) congregated and I had no difficulty organising an Uber car and driver when I needed to go into the centre of the city a short distance away.

FullSizeRender - 2019-03-06T190330.115

Would I stay there again?

Possibly. Despite it being the most basic, it functioned well and its proximity to the Acacia Mall and a number of cafes and restaurants helped.

Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $34, a little steep given the quality but admittedly reflecting that it was significantly larger than the room at Bushpig.


Review of Nile Horseback Safaris

“Oli otya!”

My greeting, freshly learned, typically resulted in a surprised face, followed by a torrent of incomprehensible words in Luganda, the language of Uganda. The villagers that responded could have been saying anything. It was as if I was participating in a kind of verbal line dance in which everyone knew the steps except me. I trusted they were repeating the familiar pattern of “hello, how are you?” that I’d been led to expect.

“Cale!” I replied, I’m fine.

5C887CEE-0D25-446A-8AB5-DBA006937BC7

Fortunately, passing astride a horse at a slow but steady pace, by the time I’d uttered the final response I was some way down the trail and thus unlikely to be troubled by a continuation of the conversation. Francis, my guide, was effusive in his praise, commenting on the accuracy of my pronunciation, though obviously not on the extent of my vocabulary. As he’d been the one who’d taught me earlier that morning, I echoed the compliment.

A couple of hours earlier, I’d made the short journey out of Jinja, a pleasant town famed for being at the source of the Nile. English explorer and army officer John Hanning Speke had made his way here in 1863, searching for the beginning of the world’s longest river. Noting a spring that rose from an outlet of Lake Victoria, he staked a claim, sending a telegram that said simply:

“The Nile is settled.”

644FFF69-30EA-45E9-A630-2E6F92A77391

The claim was disputed, however, largely due to a lack of corroborating evidence and competing egos. Speke died in 1864, receiving posthumous recognition for his discovery in the latter part of the 1870s after Henry Stanley mounted his own expedition and proved Speke had been right all along. Things are considerably easier in the 21st century, with a memorial to Speke in the grounds of the Living Waters Resort and a blue and white marker located prominently (though inconveniently) in the middle of the river. Disputes over the source of the Nile continue, however, with many differing theories as to which bit of water lies furthest from the Nile Delta over four thousand miles to the north. The very visible spring bubbling up at the outlet from the lake at Jinja adds credibility to this particular claim.

Kitted out for my own, much more modest expedition in helmet and half chaps, I’d set off on a horseback trek. A series of mounting blocks at different heights made it easy to mount JD, a sturdy horse with a calm temperament that boss TJ had selected for me. The path we took soon led us through the village of Naminya. A succession of little children tottered about in the dust, their older siblings busy in the classroom. As we approached, they waved enthusiastically.

9E26E508-3872-42FE-B449-DEC489BDCB67

“How are you?” they trilled, giggling with delight at my response, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m fine!!!” The singsong chorus was one that would become familiar wherever I went.

The sound of their voices faded to a whisper as the horses continued further along the dirt track. Such small children had much more freedom here. Passing bodas aside, there was little to trouble their safety. In any case, these motorcycle taxis hooted a warning as they passed and even at this tender age, the tots knew to stand back. We continued on, the horses’ hooves kicking up the compacted terracotta earth which passed for a road. The same mud held together by thin branches and topped with rusting sheets of corrugated iron provided rudimentary shelters. Those who could afford it upgraded to brick built dwellings, the uneven blocks fired in crudely constructed kilns that belched acrid smoke.

We passed the village well. Two women chatted idly as they pumped water into faded yellow plastic cans. Effortlessly, they swung the weighty loads onto their heads and strode off in the direction of home. They made it look deceptively easy. A man passed us, carrying a sizeable bunch of green plantains, the staple of the Ugandan dish matooke. What we call a bunch is merely a hand; this was a stalk crammed with the fruit and weighed a ton.

10826418-3AC0-4778-9E46-6CAAB5660D96

Soon afterwards, we encountered a woman in a fuchsia pink blouse and skirt making light work of an equally heavy sack on her head, and, more unusually, a lighter bag in her hand. Along the track, three sheep tugged at the ropes that tethered them in a yard shaded by banana trees. Next to them was a roughly constructed wood and rusted iron shelter that in no small measure resembled a bucking bronco.

2EC3B28D-438A-4485-90AB-54F00E1F0337

The ride took us through plantations and lush countryside. Francis turned and said:

“Julia, if you’d like to pick up the pace tell me and we can trot.”

In the warm sun, though, I was content to walk, the lazy rhythm far too relaxing to interrupt. Out of practice – it had been a year since I was in the saddle – I wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle. The tightly zipped chaps gripped my chunky calves and numbed my feet. JD plodded on, patiently accepting the fidgety novice on his back without complaint. Every so often, I freed a foot from the stirrup and rotated my ankle. Francis continued to lead the way at a steady, manageable pace, glancing over his shoulder at regular intervals to make sure I was OK. I was. Even when his horse spooked a little at some cows beside the road, JD was reassuringly composed.

We looped round, passing verdant fields planted with crops. I was getting stiff, my body unused to the saddle. Ready to return, my interest suddenly piqued as the Nile came into view and all aches and stiffness was forgotten. Across the grass, in a gap between the trees, a glimpse of blue appeared. Francis led us to a clearing, from which the sliver opened up into a broad swathe of water.

“Would you like me to take a photo, Julia?” he asked.

2AC29FEA-79E8-4725-9BF6-923C0A548738

I nodded, and manoeuvred the horse with some difficulty so that I faced the camera yet avoided coming a cropper down the steep river bank. Photo session concluded, we headed off along the trail following the river bank. So high above the river, one slip would send me tumbling down to the water, crashing through bushes and trees on the way. Once again I was relieved that JD’s calm disposition meant I could trust him not to stumble, leaving me free to enjoy the view from the saddle. Soon, the gate to the property came into view and it was time to dismount.

About Nile Horseback Safaris

Nile Horseback Safaris is an established riding business well run by TJ, an Aussie expat, and his Kiwi partner. A number of rides are offered, the most popular being the 1.5 and 2 hour rides that combine village trails with river views. These suit most riders as the pace is relatively gentle, but complete novices may prefer the one hour ride. Longer safaris are available for more experienced riders.

It’s a very professional set up and one which receives consistently positive reviews. Horses are well looked after, safety is paramount and helmets are provided. To ensure that the horses are as comfortable as their riders, a strict weight limit is enforced – check the website for details if like me, you are on the heavy side. The mounting blocks make it easy to get on and off the horses and TJ’s policy of sending out two guides with each group – one leading and one at the rear – ensures that if a rider was experiencing any difficulties, assistance could be given promptly.

47D03703-7A5A-40C9-95E7-78257BA92DD7

I’d like to thank TJ for providing a complimentary ride but would hasten to point out that all views expressed are my own. I was very impressed, both with the set up and the scenery, and would happily recommend Nile Horseback Safaris to anyone looking for an alternative way of viewing the Nile and Ugandan countryside. This is slow travel at its best.


Fogo: trouble in paradise

Is an increase in tourism a good thing?  Fogo follows hot on the heels of the likes of Barcelona and Venice to question whether an increase in tourism is to be encouraged.  It is one of the islands that makes up the archipelago nation of Cape Verde, a country that receives around 20% of its GDP from tourism.  Approximately 22% of employment in Cape Verde is in the tourism sector.  Fogo’s stats are considerably lower and when I visited back in November, I found that trouble was brewing in paradise.

DSC_0052 (2)

Currently, it’s estimated that Fogo receives about 8000 visitors a year.  While Sal and Boavista welcome international visitors with open arms and embrace resorts which wouldn’t look out of place in the Canary Islands, Fogo has so far resisted mass tourism.  That’s not to say it’s unattractive.  The cobbled streets of its main town São Filipe have caught the eye of UNESCO while a volcanic caldera criss-crossed by hiking trails and littered with fledgling grape vines dominates what’s left of this tiny scrap of land.  Fogo is the kind of place you go when you want to escape the hustle and bustle of your life back home, the kind of place where hours pass before you smile to yourself and acknowledge you’ve done absolutely nothing.

DSC_0184 (2)

But plans are afoot to increase the visitor count to 200000 people per year.  The timescale is unclear, but is unlikely to be gradual if those pushing for change have their way.  Those 200000 visitors would of course require lodging and meals, as well as services like electricity, water, internet connectivity and rubbish disposal.  These services are already stretched on Fogo and it is unclear who will provide for such expansion nor who will foot the bill.  I was told that the mayor of Fogo had gone to Italy on a fact-finding mission to explore the possibility of opening a similar waste disposal facility yet the project would operate on a scale the municipality could ill afford.

DSC_0118 (2)

Even building new hotels brings its own challenges.  Most hotels on Fogo are small, offering just a handful of rooms.  Sand in quantity is vital if construction of new properties is to begin and it’s a commodity in short supply on the island.  The few black sand beaches that exist have already been plundered and seasonal rains that might have washed new sand down off the volcano’s slopes failed to materialise.  I was told that any new building work taking place currently has to import sand by sea from the Sahara via countries like Mauritania.  This comes at a significant cost.  One builder I spoke to quoted a price of €28 a tonne just for shipping; once the cost of the sand itself was factored in, that figure rose to €70 a tonne.

DSC_0046 (2)

Even if development was financially viable, such development would drastically alter the character of this island.  Sleepy Fogo’s signature attraction is its languid lifestyle.  Its cobbled streets so far have escaped the ugly blanket of tarmac that blights such roads in other parts of the country.  Wood and plaster age gently in the sun, while islanders perch on stone steps as they chat about the day’s business.  But colonial-era sobrado mansions stand empty awaiting repair, hoping to attract an investor before irreversible dereliction sets in.

DSC_0071 (2)

To run efficient mass tourist hotels on Fogo would be to change the way things are done.  The introduction of tens of thousands more impatient incomers rushing to tick off the sights before their plane departs couldn’t fail to upset the balance of a place which beats to is own, proudly African, rhythm.  Of course, economically, development makes sense.  The financial gain to the island via increased spending and job creation would benefit many, but would the cost to society and the environment be worth it?


Trinidad: sugar and slaves

Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.

FullSizeRender

Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.

Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.

FullSizeRender.jpg

The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.

FullSizeRender.jpg

Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.

FullSizeRender.jpg

On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.

FullSizeRender.jpg

Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.

FullSizeRender.jpg

Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.

Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.

FullSizeRender.jpg

As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.

Getting there
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.


A beginner’s guide to Marrakesh

Its nicknames include the Red City and Daughter of the Desert, but the origin of the name Marrakesh is thought to come from the pairing of two Berber words, mur and akush, which mean Land of God.  You’ll see it written as Marrakech, also, as this is the French spelling.  This beguiling city is an easy weekend destination from the UK and captivates the visitor with its exotic easygoing charm.  Here’s what you need to know if Morocco’s famously intriguing destination is calling.

IMG_1021

Getting there

Many UK travellers head to Marrakesh on a direct flight with easyJet or Ryanair.  Fares can easily be found for as little as £50.  Don’t be concerned about travelling in the British winter as temperatures in the city are relatively mild – perfect sightseeing weather – though the nearby Atlas Mountains will have snow.  Scheduled operators include British Airways and the Moroccan flag carrier Royal Air Maroc.  Flight time from London is about three and a half hours.

Arriving overland can be an adventure in itself – in a good way.  The first time I visited (back in 1997) I caught a ferry from Algeciras in Spain and took the train to Marrakesh. I had a stop in  Fès on the way down and in Rabat to break the journey in the opposite direction.  You can catch a train from Tangier Ville station now and in 9 to 10 hours, arrive in Marrakesh with a change in Sidi Kacem.  Alternatively, there’s a sleeper train overnight which takes about 10 hours.  It’s usually OK to book a day or two ahead once you get to Morocco.

Morocco Djemaa food vendors

Getting around

From the airport, most people jump in a taxi or arranging to be met by your hotel.  If you opt for the former, check the rates on the board outside arrivals as a general guide and then agree a price with the driver through the front window.  Only get in when you are happy with how much he’s charging.  If you haven’t much luggage, bus #19 travels between the airport and the Djemaa el Fna via the Sofitel and loops back through the Ville Nouvelle (including a stop at the train station).  It costs 30 dirhams per person single and 50 dirhams return.

For the purpose of sightseeing, the city can be split into two: the old city or Medina and the Ville Nouvelle, also called Guéliz or the French Quarter.  Pretty much the only way to get around the Medina’s souks is on foot, where you’ll need to watch out for men racing donkeys laden with hides, straw and other goods through the narrow passageways.  Within the rest of the old town, mostly it’s compact enough to walk.  To get to the Ville Nouvelle, the easiest way is to flag down a taxi, but there are buses which depart from the Djemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia minaret – easy to spot.  Another useful bus route to know is the #12 which you can use to get to the Jardin Majorelle (Ben Tbib stop).  Tickets cost 3 dirhams.  Check out the bus website for more routes:

http://www.alsa.ma/en/marrakech/itineraire-urbain

IMG_1177.JPG

Calèche rides (horse-drawn carriages) are a common sight in the city but you’ll need to bargain with the drivers to take a tour.  Check that the horse looks fit and healthy and then begin negotiations.  Aim for about 150 dirhams per hour.  Make sure you’re clear on whether that price is for everyone or per person as it’s common for there to be some “confusion” when it comes to the time to pay.  It’s a lovely way to see the city, particularly the ramparts and Ville Nouvelle.

IMG_1153

Where to stay

The first time I visited Marrakesh, I stayed at the railway station hotel, now an Ibis.  It was convenient, but lacked soul.  The second time, I decided I wanted to stay in one of the courtyard mansions known as riads and opted for one deep in the souk.  It had character in spades, but trying to find it without a ball of string in the labyrinthine alleyways was a nightmare.  More than once I had to call the hotel for them to talk me in which was funny at first and then enormously embarrassing.

The third time, I got it right.  I found a characterful riad which was a twenty minute stroll from the Djemaa el Fna yet on an easy to find road near the El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs.  Riad Dar Karma was delightful, cosy, chic and quiet – a cocoon from the hustle and bustle of central Marrakesh.  It also has its own hamman.  When I got sick (do not eat salad in Marrakesh no matter how well travelled you are), they brought me chicken soup.  I cannot recommend them highly enough:

http://www.dar-karma.com/en/

What to see

The souks

Plunge in and explore the souks  right away.  Getting lost in the smells, sounds and sights of narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops piled high with anything from spices to scarves is the quintessential Marrakesh experience.  Don’t try to follow a map.  You’ll get lost regardless, so embrace this lack of control and immerse yourself.  When you’re ready to leave, if you’ve lost your bearings, as is likely, just ask someone to point you in the right direction.  Try not to miss the dyers souk with vibrant skeins of wool hanging from the walls and of course the tanneries on Rue de Bab Debbagh, which you’ll smell long before you see.

Haggling is a must if you wish to purchase anything.  It’s best to make a return visit to the souk when you’re ready to buy; shopping later in the trip, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost and know what your target should be.  The general principles are that if you make an offer, it’s the honourable thing to pay up if it is accepted, and a final price of 30-40% is usually good going.  Remember, the vendor will need those extra few dirhams more than you so don’t haggle too fiercely.  Read  my tips on how to haggle successfully:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/five-steps-to-becoming-an-expert-haggler/

IMG_0960

Djemaa el Fna

Though its name loosely translates as the Assembly of the Dead, there is nowhere in Marrakesh that comes alive like its main square, the Djemaa el Fna.  It’s busy by day but really comes into its own at night when it transforms into a night market with row upon row of delicious street food.  You’ll see water sellers posing for photos, snake charmers, acrobats from the Sahara – even street dentists who’ll pull out a molar there and then for a fee.  If it’s your first time out of Europe it’s a veritable assault on the senses but one that you won’t forget.

Koutoubia Mosque

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque looms large behind the Djemaa el Fna and is worthy of closer inspection.  So the story goes, when it was constructed, the alignment was wrong and it was knocked down so the builders could start again.  What you see dates from the 12th century and got its name from the booksellers who once congregated around its base.

IMG_1209.JPG

El Badi Palace

This ruined palace is a good one to explore and lies within walking distance of the Djemaa el Fna.  Its name means Palace of the Incomparable and there’s certainly nothing like it in the city.  It was built in the 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi to celebrate a victory over the Portuguese.  It’s possible to walk within its walls and courtyard.  You’ll frequently see storks nesting there.

IMG_1061.JPG

Jardin Majorelle

Yves St Laurent gifted this garden to the city of Marrakesh after lovingly restoring it to its original beauty.  It was designed and created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle; begun in 1924, it was a labour of love and a lifetime’s passion.  The vibrant blues and bold yellows of its walls and pots set off the mature planting to form a breathtaking space that will delight, whether you’re a keen gardener or not.  Be prepared though: it’s a busy place with around 700000 visitors a year so you’re unlikely to have it to yourself.

IMG_1160

Out of town

Captivating though Marrakesh assuredly is, it’s well worth heading out of town if you can.  On the edge of the city you’ll find the Palmeraie, a good place to ride a camel while shaded by around 150000 palm trees.  The Menara Gardens are located close to the airport.  They were laid out in the 12th century and from them you have a tantalising glimpse of the mountains beyond.  A bit further away from Marrakesh and you can visit waterfalls and visit Berber villages and markets.  The surf at Essaouira is a two-hour bus ride away and a visit to the Atlas Mountains is another favourite.  Your hotel or riad can fix you up with an organised tour or a driver/guide.

I took an excursion to Ouarzazate, stopping off along the way at Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO-listed, ruined fortified village which has been the setting for many a film, including The Mummy and Gladiator.  At the Atlas Film Studios, just outside Ouarzazate, you can have a lot of fun re-enacting scenes from those movies and more amidst the sets and props which remain. Check out their website but note, when they say “Famous Shootings” they don’t mean with a gun:

http://www.studiosatlas.com

A final word of advice

Scamming of unsuspecting tourists is a sport in Morocco and although the level of hassle is considerably less than in other cities, it’s wise to be on your guard.  A few key pointers:

Never use a taxi or ride in a calèche without agreeing the price first, the same holds for any services you use e.g. henna tattoos, photos of water sellers and so on

Carry small change to avoid prices being rounded up

Make sure you ask to see your guide’s licence as it is illegal to work without one

Nothing is ever free, even if your new friend says it is

And a scam I’ve never experienced, but is reputedly common: you visit a restuarant and are given a menu with temptingly cheap prices.  When the bill comes, the prices are higher; if queried, a new menu is presented with the more expensive prices clearly shown.  It’s an easy one to prevent: take a photo on your phone of the original menu prices and call their bluff if necessary.

Do you have any tips for Marrakesh or any advice for travellers planning their first trip there?  If so, please leave a comment.


A beginner’s guide to Cape Verde

As the northern hemisphere winter starts to bite, our thoughts turn to warmer climes. But travelling to the Caribbean can be expensive unless you can snag an error fare and the Med’s still a little too chilly.  If you’re looking for winter sun on a post-Christmas budget, why not consider Cape Verde?  Known locally as Cabo Verde, it’s a ten island archipelago, nine of them inhabited.  With a long history and dramatic volcanic landscapes to complement its many glorious beaches, there’s an island to suit everyone.

DSC_0642 (2)

The salt pans which gave Sal its name

Getting there

Most Brits jet off to Sal, a largely barren island blessed with a bumper crop of  beaches and enough resorts to leave you spoilt for choice.  The two main operators that win on price are Thomas Cook Airlines and Tui, both of which offer direct flights from the UK.  Depending on which extras you consider essential, you can pick up a flight for between £200 and £400. I recently blogged about my experience with Thomas Cook Airlines. Find my review here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/review-of-thomas-cook-airlines/

IMG_1733

Thomas Cook plane at Sal airport

No scheduled carriers offering direct flights serve the UK, but you can fly with TAP via the Portuguese capital.  If you’ve never been to Lisbon, it’s possible to add a stopover to your holiday.  Find out what you can do in and around Lisbon here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-lisbon/

View from Mirador Portas do Sol

Lisbon’s Alfama district seen from the Mirador at Portas do Sol

Getting around

There’s recently been an increase in domestic flights between many of the islands, with Binter extending their reach from their Canary Islands base and Icelandair taking over the national airline TACV which could see it become more reliable. These changes have opened up island hopping for those constrained by relatively short holidays, providing a real alternative to the inter-island ferries that are available.  I had a week on Cape Verde, splitting my time between the islands of Sal, Santiago and Fogo.  Ideally you want to spend at least a few days on each.  If I’d have been there for a second week, I’d have flown to São Vicente, home to the island’s cultural hub Mindelo and hopped over to Santo Antão for some hiking.

DSC_0586 (2)

Binter, one of the inter-island airlines

What to see

Sal

Sal’s a package tourist hub, but with a little effort, you can venture beyond the horizons of the all-inclusives.  I based myself in Santa Maria, the main resort.  As time was limited – I’d really only added a night here to make sure I didn’t miss my flight – I booked an island tour through my bed and breakfast, the centrally located but basic Pensão Les Alizés.  Costing just 25 euros for the day’s excursion plus a couple of entrance fees, it was a good way of covering some of the main sights on Sal without resorting to expensive taxis.  You’ll notice the currency stated is euros; on Sal, most places will take euros alongside the local Cape Verdean escudos.  It’s also worth visiting Project Bioversity’s turtle project, located on the beach behind the Riu Palace Hotel.  Read about it here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/an-interesting-turtle-project-on-sal-cape-verde/

DSC_0012 (2).jpg

Fisherman on Sal Island

DSC_0592 (2)

Murdeira, looking over towards Monte Leão

DSC_0617 (2)

Shoe rental, Shark Bay

DSC_0645 (2)

Salt pans at Pedra de Lume

DSC_0674 (2)

Mirage, not water

DSC_0682 (2)

The Blue Eye

DSC_0697 (2)

Buracona lava pools

DSC_0727 (2)

Local fisherman, Palmeira

Fogo

Fogo’s about as far removed from Sal as you can get.  This tiny island is dominated by an active volcano which looms menacingly against the skyline as you approach.  The island’s main town is São Filipe, whose colourful colonial sobrado mansions straggle down the rocky coastline towards the shore.  The pace of life is slow, and tourists are relatively few in number.  I’d recommend a stay at the Colonial Guest House, a restored 19th century sobrado house with a pool and restaurant within walking distance of the Bila Baxo’s historic attractions.  It’s possible to climb the volcano, whose last eruption ended in February 2015, though I settled for an easier guided walk inside the walls of the caldera, along the Chã das Caldeiras.  Book well ahead through your guest house to secure an English-speaking guide, as they are few and far between.

DSC_0052 (2)

Bila Baxo

DSC_0071 (2)

Sobrado mansion awaiting renovations

DSC_0118 (2)

Bringing in the firewood, São Filipe

DSC_0184 (2)

Parque Natural do Fogo

DSC_0278 (2)

Homes and businesses buried in the 2014-15 lave flows, Portela

DSC_0310 (2)

Road to nowhere, Chã das Caldeiras

Santiago

Home to the nation’s capital Praia, Santiago is an interesting destination for visitors.  I based myself in Praia and, like most of its residents, headed out to nearby Cidade Velha on a warm November Sunday.  Once known as Ribeira Grande, it was the country’s capital and focus for 15th century settlers.  There’s a pillory post, left as a reminder to the island’s slave trading history, and a short stroll away you’ll encounter the oldest colonial church in the Tropics, Nossa Senhora do Rosário church.  It’s also worth venturing into the island’s mountainous  interior as the scenery is spectacular.  The local minibuses, known as alaguers, are cheap.  Try to get a front seat spot for the best views.

DSC_0363 (2)

Rua de Banana, Cidade Velha

DSC_0364 (2)

Nossa Senhora do Rosário church

DSC_0343 (2)

Pillory post, Cidade Velha

DSC_0442 (2)

Football on the beach

DSC_0514 (2)

Sunrise over Praia

DSC_0556 (2)

The road to Assomada

DSC_0561 (2)

Dramatic peaks of Santiago’s mountainous interior

Tips for travellers

The diverse landscapes and captivating history make Cape Verde a rewarding destination.  The variety of activities on offer make island-hopping a very attractive proposition, and with online booking, simple to arrange without the need for a package.  That said, it is Africa, and travellers need to be prepared for things to occasionally run less smoothly than they’d like.

Transport can be a bit hit and miss, but the friendly Cape Verdeans will help if you find yourself stranded. Alaguers, or minibuses, run on set routes but if you flag down an empty one you’ll be asked if you want it “colectivo” or not – it’s cheaper to share but you’ll spend time waiting for passengers if they’re not full.

Weatherwise, it’s significantly warmer than the more northerly Canary Islands.  During my mid-November trip, temperatures were pushing 30ºC.  However, be prepared for the wind to pick up – if you’re looking for a fly and flop holiday, make sure your accommodation has a decent pool as you’ll often find the sea’s off limits due to dangerously strong tides.


An interesting turtle project on Sal, Cape Verde

While in Sal last month I was fortunate to be able to meet with a couple of volunteers working for Project Biodiversity.  Established two years ago, it’s a non-profit organisation which works tirelessly to protect the turtle population on Sal, one of the Cape Verdean islands most afflicted with the negative impacts of mass tourism.

loggerhead-turtle-123402

Sal has a significant number of loggerhead turtles yet the species is globally endangered.  The rapid development of tourist infrastructure and large scale hotels on Sal is threatening this species alongside historic threats like poaching and pollution.  A team of local rangers, field biologists and volunteers donate their time and expertise to ensuring that these creatures have the best chance of survival.  They also run an education programme in local schools to ensure that children get the message about how important turtle conservation is, not just to Sal but also to the global community.

DSC_0022 (2) (2)

I visited the project, located at the top of the beach near the Rui Palace hotel, to find out more about the organisation’s work.  During the nesting season, roughly from June to November, volunteers patrol some of the beaches on Sal Island.  They’re looking for hatchlings and if these tiny creatures aren’t heading in the right direction – that’s straight for the sea – then they rescue them and take them back to their base for some TLC prior to release.

22539770_1683111295066230_1508518556723251419_n

Something like 7500 nests have been monitored this year, and at the time of my visit, 984 nests had been rescued and brought to the main hatchery, with several hundred more rescued to other locations.  Female turtles typically lay between fifty and a hundred eggs at a time, up to seven times a season.  Incubation is between 50 to 60 days.  But then, explained volunteers Cristina and Marisol, comes the heartbreaking statistic: they don’t all hatch and on average only one in a thousand hatchlings makes it to adulthood.  It’s a tough life being a baby turtle!

The work that Project Biodiversity is carrying out aims to help conserve this species.  Each of the hatchlings is counted, the time of birth recorded and also that of their release.  The number of eggs per nest is recorded too in an attempt to monitor the health of the species.  But despite the non-profit’s efforts, they estimate that  many turtles were still killed this year.  Volunteers go out with locals knowledgeable about the island’s beaches and also with military assistance, not because of any particular perceived threat but because their presence helps to ramp up the deterrent factor.

23244200_1703107346399958_7052683245127994049_n

Yet even with the best efforts of Project Biodiversity to educate, there’s also an issue with misplaced kindness. One Riu Palace tourist I spoke to explained that he’d seen hatchlings being taken from their holding pen while the Project Biodiversity centre was unmanned and released directly into the sea.  But this interferes with their ability to imprint to their natal beach.  The hatchlings need to make their own way down to the sea across the sand – that way they’ll be able to find their way back to nest as adults.  In addition, hands that are contaminated with sunscreen or other oily substances like handcream can also interfere with the imprinting process.  Sal has one other threat to hatchlings taken right to the shore.  The waves are huge!

21743761_1645969415447085_1368305271258042413_o

To find out more about the project, visit their website:

https://www.projectbiodiversity.org/sal-turtle-conservation

During nesting season, it’s possible to visit the project in the afternoons around 5pm.  Note that if you aren’t staying at the Riu Palace, you won’t be allowed in the hotel grounds; take the path around the side of the hotel instead.  You’ll be able to witness the newest hatchlings make their way to the sea and learn first-hand about Project Biodiversity’s work.  If you wish, there’s also the chance to adopt a nest or make a donation to the project, but there’s no hard sell.

With thanks to Project Biodiversity for their time and also for permission to use of the images in this post.


Vitamin Sea

It’s not long now until my trip to Cape Verde and as an autumn chill lingers on the Essex marshes long after sun up, I’m looking forward to some warmth and sea air.  To keep me going, I’ve been thinking about five of my favourite beaches and where I’ve most enjoyed getting my Vitamin Sea fix.

Anse Source d’Argent, Seychelles

DSC_0939

Anse Source d’Argent

I had high expectations for this glossy magazine favourite but didn’t leave disappointed.  It’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen and a pre-dawn walk from my guesthouse meant that I had it to myself at sun up.  There’s something about the size of the granite blocks that makes it feel almost prehistoric.

Pointe Sable, Haiti

image

Sunset at Pointe Sable

Solitude is hard to find in the Caribbean, but Haiti’s still off the beaten track and this beach at Port Salut was the prettiest I found during my travels there. It’s popular with aid workers at weekends, so time your visit for midweek to have it to yourself.

Little Hunter’s Beach, USA

image

Little Hunter’s Beach

I really enjoyed a few days in the coastal town of Bar Harbor, Maine, the jumping off point for Acadia National Park.  Parking up on the loop road, I found serenity and beauty in this tiny cobbled beach.  Most people drive right by as the beach isn’t signed.

Jökulsárlón Beach, Iceland

IMG_9405

Jökulsárlón beach

Nicknamed the diamond beach, this spot near the outflow of the retreating Oraefajokull glacier is pockmarked with glistening icebergs that have calved and been washed out to sea.  Out of season, when the crowds are thin, it’s one of the country’s most incredible sights.

Elmina Beach, Ghana

Ghana 026

The beach at Elmina, Ghana

No matter which way you walk from the castle at Elmina, you quickly reach unspoilt, almost deserted beaches.  Save for a few hawkers the fine sands and superb views are yours alone.  São Jorge da Mina castle has stood on the spot for over 500 years, built by the Portuguese to use as a trade hub and later part of the Gold Coast slave trade.

I’m looking forward to finding some world class beaches in Cape Verde.  If you’ve been, I’d love to hear your recommendations.


An island for every month of the year

For many of us, an island holiday is the ultimate in escapism.  There’s something about it which engenders a kind of “pull up the drawbridge” mindset perfect for recharging the batteries.  What follows puts together those islands that for one reason or another have made a lasting impression on me, with a suggestion for a good time to visit weather-wise.

Gorée – January

Senegal’s Île de Gorée is at once a melancholy and vibrant place.  The focus for the country’s remembrance of those lost to the slave trade even though few were ever shipped from its shores, it’s also colourful and charismatic, a favourite of artists and craftsmen.  It’s an easy day trip from the Senegalese capital Dakar.  In January the weather is sunny and mild, making this the perfect winter escape.

img_6588

Roatan – February

Honduras might have a hellish reputation in terms of safety and security – its largest city San Pedro Sula is considered to be the murder capital of the world – but the languid island of Roatan off its northern coast is about as far from trouble as you can get.  It has all the characteristics you’d expect from a Caribbean island: a laid back welcome, turquoise warm waters and fresh fish dinners.  In February, it’s busy enough to feel buzzing, yet you’ll have no problem finding space on the beach to soak up those tropical rays.

img_8328

La Digue – March

The Seychelles has a reputation for luxury – and all the costs that come with achieving it.  The good news is that La Digue manages to offer accommodation for all budgets.  Better still, it’s one of the prettiest islands on the planet and compact enough that you can explore it by bike in a few days.  In March, the weather’s on the turn, but unless you’re really unlucky, visiting La Digue in the shoulder season means you’ll dodge the worst of the crowds as well as the rain.

DSC_0939

St Lucia – April

One of the lushest islands in the Caribbean, St Lucia is also one of the prettiest.  But that verdant setting has only been achieved with rainfall totals higher than many in the region.  April is statistically the driest month, so time your visit to the island’s cocoa plantations, hot springs, iconic peaks and of course fabulous beaches to hit the best of the weather.

img_1440

Gozo – May

Malta’s firmly on the beaten track when it comes to Mediterranean escapes, but visit Gozo before the main tourist season kicks into gear and you’ll be impressed.  This rural and characterful island combines fascinating historic attractions with impressive coastal scenery.

malta-gozo-countryside

Lanzarote – June

If you’ve ruled out Lanzarote on account of its nickname, Lanzagrotty, then you need to have a rethink: this place is seriously cool.  Avoid the crowds of tourists tied to school holidays and get in ahead of the crowds to explore Cesar Manrique’s fabulous architectural legacy and some of the hottest volcanic scenery on the planet.

img_9648

Zanzibar – July

There are few islands with names that conjure up as exotic an image as that of Zanzibar.  The reality is as satisfying: the narrow alleyways of the capital Stone Town are lined with mansions made from coral stones held together with lime mortar, built by merchants who traded spices, silks and slaves.  To the north of the island, you’ll find plenty of excellent beaches where you can enjoy the dry, hot July weather.

img_7408

Tanna – August

Faraway in the South Pacific lies the archipelago of Vanuatu.  Its most fascinating island is without a doubt Tanna.  Dominated by one of the most accessible active volcanoes on the planet, visitor interest is piqued by the John Frum cargo cult, and in particular the offshoot Prince Philip movement that think our Queen’s husband is a god.  Toast him with kava, the local firewater which numbs your mouth and sedates your brain.

img_4782

Bali – September

Well on the beaten tourist track, Bali offers a winning combination of culture and relaxation in one neat and tiny package.  Its resorts make the best of the sandy beaches and September sees the crowds thin ahead of the October to March wet season.  Watch the sunset over the ocean at Uluwatu temple or head inland to the green rice terraces that encircle the pretty town of Ubud.

indonesia-tanah-lot-temple-at-sunset

Kyushu – October

The most southerly of Japan’s big four, Kyushu packs a punch.  It’s a good choice for those wishing to get up close to the country’s tectonic action, with mud pools, hells and hot sand baths at Beppu and the active volcano Sakurajima an easy ferry ride from the city of Kagoshima.  By October, the humidity that plagues the summer months is long gone, but temperatures are still high enough to make sightseeing a pleasure.

img_7782

Easter – November

Despite its isolation, remote Rapa Nui is recognisable the world over for its moai, the oversized stone heads that gaze out over the Pacific from all parts of this mountainous island.  The five hour flight from the Chilean capital just to get there is arduous, but when you do, you’ll agree it’s well worth the effort.  Its history is fascinating, but it’s the location that  blows your mind.

image

Cuba – December

Go there before it changes, they said.  So I did.  But that was well over a decade ago and the tour companies are still saying it.  Nevertheless, I haven’t yet met a visitor who was disappointed.  Cuba’s one of those places that gets under your skin, from the old ladies in Havana who’ll puff on their cigars for a dollar to the horses that you’ll still see trotting down the cobbles of backstreet Trinidad.  Forget generic Caribbean, this place is unique and special because of it.

cuba-the-cigar-ladies

So there you have it, my favourites.  What are yours?


Five favourite travel books: Africa

While novice backpackers cut their teeth on the well-trodden route from South East Asia to Oz, Africa outside the beach resorts and luxury safari camps can be challenging even for the most experienced traveller. Fortunately for the world of travel literature, this is good news. Challenges make for gripping tales. These books are my favourites from this enchanting, maddening and diverse continent.  What are yours?

In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong

fullsizerender-10

You could be forgiven for thinking that some of the topics chosen by Michela Wrong as suitable book material might be a chore to read but she has a talent for observation as well as insight and thus her work is hard to put down. This vivid account of Mobutu Sese Seko opens with the words:

“At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, a group of guests who had just staggered back to their rooms after a heavy drinking session in L’Atmosphere, the nightclub hidden in the bowels of Kinshasa’s best hotel, heard something of a fracas taking place outside. Peering from their balconies… they witnessed a scene calculated to sober them up.”

I’ll forgive her following a.m. with morning.  That’s one great opening paragraph.

The Congo isn’t somewhere I’ve been, though it is somewhere that fascinates me. This book, tackling the subject of how good leaders turn bad, is one to be devoured, one that will keep you turning the pages long after you should be asleep and one that is essential reading for any traveller to Africa, Congo or otherwise.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

fullsizerender-14

Another Congo account, entirely different but equally enthralling, is Butcher’s tale of his journey along the Congo River. Such were the dangers likely to be encountered en route, you’d be forgiven for thinking at the outset that the author was a complete lunatic. It’s one of those narratives where you find yourself holding your breath so often that you wonder whether such behaviour could be good for you. He writes beautifully:

“The heat began to grow, so I shed my fleece, but not the feeling of torpor.”

He’s economical with words, yet is wonderfully evocative at the same time:

“I stirred in the pre-dawn chill, my legs pedalling for bedclothes.”

It’s such a casual phrase but one with an imagery with which you identify instantly, a delight to read right from the get-go.

The Lost Kingdoms of Africa by Jeffrey Tayler

fullsizerender-11

This guy is great too and through this book, you get to accompany him on a journey westwards across the Sahel from Chad to Senegal. These days, much of the region would be challenging to visit, some on the no-go list through risk of kidnap or terrorism. He sums up Dakar:

“Women dressed in elaborate banana headscarves and tight-waisted floral dresses strolled the sidewalks. The wind set loose clothes flapping, but it carried no dust; it was pure, coming from the Atlantic, intoxicatingly fresh.”

I spent my holiday in Senegal by the ocean, from its capital Dakar to St Louis in the north, but having visited the Sahara, I can imagine how refreshing it must have been to have finally reached the sea after so long travelling through that desiccated region. I can also identify with his impatience to get out there and engage with the city:

“We soon slowed and got stuck in a traffic jam. I was too excited to sit still. With my bag on my shoulder, I jumped out…”

Isn’t that why you should always travel light?

The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers

fullsizerender-13

Douglas Rogers’ poignant memoir about his family’s struggles in Zimbabwe is one of the most heart-rending works on Africa I’ve read. It’s a timely reminder that issues surrounding land ownership and race in African nations are hugely complex. There are no easy solutions but there are always victims. Rogers deals with the subject tactfully and with empathy for both sides:

“Other farming families stayed longer, determined to fight to get their property or livestock back, or simply because this was home. They were Zimbabweans. There was nowhere else to go.”

Swahili for the Broken-hearted by Peter Moore

fullsizerender-12

Sometimes you just want to read something a little less serious, and Peter Moore has a light touch and a sense of humour that hits the spot. Each chapter begins with an African proverb, which is an education in itself, but it’s his witty turn of phrase and wry observations as he travels from Cape Town to Cairo that make the book such a gem. He’s the kind of person you’d love to go travelling with despite deep down knowing you’d be led astray, as with this account from the Zim side of Victoria Falls:

“Perhaps the most astounding thing about the falls is that there are no guard rails along the rim to stop visitors from falling in. Back home they stick up signs screaming ‘Danger!’ even if it’s a 1-metre drop onto a bed of spongy moss. Here you can get as close to a 107-metre drop as you want… As I crept towards the edge to peer at the river 100 metres below I lost my footing and slipped on the wet rocks.”

Peter, if you’re reading, where shall we go?


The coffin makers of Teshie

If you could choose a coffin designed to match your favourite hobby or interest, what would it be? A football boot? A bottle of Coke? A mobile phone? In Teshie, a suburb of the Ghanaian capital Accra, there’s no such thing as a regular coffin.

Ghana 327

If I’m honest, I’ve never really given my own funeral much thought, concentrating instead on living. But to Ghanaians, death is a big celebration, the funeral a chance to mark the contribution a person has made to their community. And a big part of that is a customised coffin. Despite the typical cost coming in at more than six times the average income, many families choose to invest in one of these designer pieces to give their loved one a worthy send off.

Ghana 334

The southern Ghanaian Ga people believe that death is not the end and that a person’s spirit will live on in the afterlife. It’s thought that deceased relatives hold much influence over the living and thus need to be kept happy. Depending on a person’s status, they might qualify for a particular type of coffin. Swords have high status and therefore cannot be used for just anyone; lions, cockerels and crabs represent clans and so only the heads of certain families are permitted to be carried in them.

Ghana 336

Pulling up along the main street in Teshie, at first glance it seemed a pretty unassuming place. My driver led me to the back of one of the breeze block shops that lined the street and up a rickety wooden staircase across the back yard.

Ghana 332

There, open to the elements, was a tiny showroom and workshop packed with finished and half-finished creations. An aeroplane, silk lined and carefully painted, looked ready to leave, missing only its dead body. A small photograph of an unsmiling policeman was tacked to the wall next to a crudely chiselled dugout. It was in its early stages, but it was clear  that  before long, this was going to be the ultimate vanity project.

Ghana 326

It’s also common for the deceased’s relatives to choose a coffin themed to their loved one’s former occupation. A fisherman would find himself interred inside a fish – how ironic – while a fruit seller could end up in an elongated pineapple or mango, perhaps. A barman (or drunk) could be a bottle of beer, a farmer a cow. There was no shortage of imagination, or skill.  Many of the craftsmen working on these fantasy coffins have been in the family business since starting their working life. Artisans employ apprentices who learn the craft and do the grunt work, leaving the artist to work simultaneously on the finer details of a number of coffins at once. Once carved, specialist painters or sign writers are drafted in to decorate the coffin appropriately. A coffin such as this is always to be a carefully crafted item, never a rush job.

Ghana 325

But although such businesses have been operating for decades since around 1950, interest from overseas is a relatively recent phenomenon. Word’s now out, though, and the coffins have featured all over the world in museums, festivals, commercials and trade shows from Milan to Toronto and a wealth of places in between. Coffins for local use are generally sculpted from the wood of the wawa tree, but for increased durability, those going to temperate climes are usually created out of something harder such as mahogany.

Ghana 330

 

If I’d have been at the beginning of my trip rather than the end, I might have been tempted. Never mind the freight charges, just think of the reaction when you got it home.  Orders take at least a fortnight to take shape if not longer, however, so for now a personalised coffin will have to wait.  In any case, I have no idea what I’d choose.  Would you?


How to visit The Seychelles on a budget

The Indian Ocean island nation of the Seychelles isn’t likely to be your first thought when planning a budget holiday but with beaches as photogenic as they come, it’s been on my wish list for a very long time.

1914566_10207771872002522_467734680855073929_n

Photoshop not required!

With resort prices coming in at around £1500 for a week-long break, and some of the most luxurious offerings well over that for just a single night, you could be forgiven for giving up and going elsewhere.  Don’t.  Although it’s never going to be what you’d call a cheap holiday, here’s how to make those beautiful beaches a more affordable reality.

DSC_0939

Anse Source d’Argent

Choose your flights carefully

I flew indirect via Colombo, Sri Lanka, and with the use of a few Nectar points, snagged a fare of under £500.  Other routes to explore include Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa and Kenya Airways via Nairobi.  Emirates and Etihad also serve The Seychelles.

Travel in the shoulder seasons

Peak time means peak prices.  Off season brings the rain and there’s nothing worse than a beach destination in wet weather.  I travelled in March.  It was hot and humid but the sun was shining.  April’s also good as is our autumn.  Avoid Easter and Christmas when prices soar.

DSC_0587-1

Locally registered car parked at the ice cream parlour!

Unpackage your accommodation

The all-inclusive resorts offer a lot, but you pay handsomely for the privilege.  Instead, choose a home stay or a self-catering option.  On Mahe, I needed an overnight stopover before catching a ferry to the islands and came across Chez Lorna, just north of the capital in De Quincey Village.  The owner was exceptionally welcoming and my en-suite air conditioned room with shared balcony cost me just £30 for the night.

DSC_0346

View across Victoria from Chez Lorna

On La Digue, I upped the budget a bit and spent about £80 a night on a cottage at Cabanes des Anges in within an easy stroll of the jetty in La Passe.  For that I had air conditioning, my own kitchen, living room with satellite TV – and the place also had a pool.  Considering my accommodation slept two, that’s extraordinary value at £40pppn.  Best of all, the island’s main supermarket, Gregoires, was just a minute’s walk away making self-catering an attractive option.

DSC_0744

Cabanes des Anges

If you’re looking for a traditional hotel set up, then Palm Beach at Grande Anse on Praslin might fit the bill – right on the beach with a decent pool and sea views from superior rooms.  The price was about £80 per night for a double room.

DSC_0370

Palm Beach on Praslin – ask for a sea view

Eat local

Eating out isn’t cheap in The Seychelles but it is possible to save money by eating where the locals go or by self-catering.  There are plenty of pizzerias if you’re looking to eat out but have a tight budget.  On La Digue, most places charge extra for WiFi but Fish Trap by the jetty offers a free connection to its customers.  You can eat for about £10-12 but save money on surfing while you check your emails.  It also has a beachfront seating area and the sunset cocktails are worth pushing the boat out.

DSC_0748

Use local transport

Getting between the islands is cheapest on the ferries.  Expect to pay about £30-35 depending on the exchange rate for an economy seat; the journey takes about an hour making it a convenient choice.  The fifteen minute hop between Praslin and La Digue is cheaper.

DSC_0729

The boat linking La Digue and Praslin

On Mahe and Praslin, the buses are easy to use and cost a flat fare of 5 rupees (about 25p) however far you go.  You’ll need small change as notes greater than 25 rupees aren’t accepted.  Choose accommodation on the bus route and there’s no need to hire a car to get around.  The two options listed above are close to the bus stop.  Note that you’ll need to hire a taxi if you have luggage, though, as the buses won’t let you on.

DSC_0388 The best bargain in the country

On La Digue, it’s easy (and free of course) to get around on foot, but you can also find bicycle hire for around 100 rupees a day (about £5) which makes it straightforward to explore the rest of the island.  I hired mine through the Cabanes des Anges reception desk but there are plenty of operators in La Passe.

So there you have it: proof that paradise doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive.


On two wheels around La Digue

Grande Anse soon after dawn

Grande Anse soon after dawn

The biggest threat to my safety in La Digue, without a doubt, was that posed by novice cyclists. Despite never having ridden on two wheels before, or at the very least since childhood, these tourists didn’t hesitate to rent bikes. After all, cycling was the only practical way to get about on this almost car-less island. The ox carts of yesteryear had pretty much been replaced by open-sided trucks, the hotel golf buggies seemed to vanish when the inter-island ferry sailed and hot footing it on two legs took on a whole new meaning in the sweltering temperatures and almost unbearable humidity.

Ox cart - a rare sight

Ox cart – a rare sight

So bike it was. Continental Europeans, of whom there were plenty, veered to the right as was their custom, but the Seychellois follow British convention and there was much gesticulation, albeit of a tropically languid kind, to force them to ride on the left. Weaving erratically across the street, they cut up pedestrians and wobbled perilously close to roadside ditches causing the South Asian migrant workers to rattle their tiffin boxes in protest. A Gallic shrug indicated that they didn’t really care.

"Traffic jam" in La Passé

“Traffic jam” in La Passe

The local youth weren’t much better when it came to road sense. By day they rode three abreast to the pumping sounds of the beat boxes on their shoulders and by night they rode hell for leather with no lights. More than once I had to swerve onto the sandy verge to avert an accident.

And then there was the animal traffic. A few stray dogs roamed the island, passing their time comatose under a shady tree until a cyclist took their fancy and a chase ensued. Soon, though, they’d tire. The threat was worst in the early morning before it got too hot. I learnt the hard way, ambushed on my way to the Union Estate copra plantation with a dog snapping at each ankle and lucky to escape with my trouser legs intact. Fortunately a lump of seaweed on the nearby beach provided a welcome diversion. They were soon flinging it around and pouncing on it, good practice for their regular habit of crab chasing.

Beach dogs giving me a special welcome on Anse Union

The beach dogs who gave me a special welcome on the beach at L’Union Estate

A giant tortoise taking an amble along the road up at Anse Banane was less aggressive, though the crowd of tourists who had stopped to take his picture were making a pretty effective road block. Eventually they, and their target, had moved on. The tortoise, predictably, hadn’t got very far. The effort of chomping on some couch grass had proved too much and it had fallen still alongside someone’s rear tyre. Fortunately mine was parked in the next rack; when I retraced my steps an hour later the creature still hadn’t moved, though to be fair neither had the bike’s owner. It was all too easy for one fresh juice to turn into two or more.

Giant tortoise - an usual road hazard

Giant tortoise – an usual road hazard

Despite these hazards, and aside from getting to grips with derailing gears – my fault for back pedalling – cycling around La Digue’s coast road was a pleasure. Locals shouted words of encouragement on the inclines. As I freewheeled on the downhill stretches, I felt the breeze snatch my wet fringe from my forehead. It was worth every last drop of sweat expelled on the way up. More than once I’d lost momentum distracted by the many scenic bays that dotted the coast. It was exhilarating, and if I’m honest, not that challenging to anyone with reasonable physical fitness. Not for the first time I cursed my preference for spending my evenings snacking in front of the TV rather than heading out to the gym.

Anse Source d'Argent

Anse Source d’Argent

But the burn that nagged at my thighs was worth it. Huge chunks of granite, sculpted by persistent waves, trapped the ivory sand in gentle crescents. Coconut palms arched over takamaka and casuarina trees providing a little shade for those tempted to rest. The warm clear water looked inviting, but dangerous rips gave it a potentially murderous beauty. An engaging German tourist stressing about a shark attack was quickly shut down by the fruit seller. That incident had been two years ago and in any case, on Praslin, she said. Not here. Nothing like that would happen here.

The fruit seller at Anse Severe

The fruit seller at Anse Severe

But which beach to choose? That was easy. To figure out which was the best, all you had to do was look for the one with the greatest number of bicycles propped by the roadside.

Petite Anse - ironically reached by a hike not a bike

Petite Anse – ironically reached by a hike not a bike


Are these the world’s best railway journeys?

This week, in preparation for my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve been booking train tickets to explore the country’s beautiful hill country.  The Man in Seat 61 has, of course, been an invaluable tool as ever, and I’ve been very impressed with the service provided by Visit Sri Lanka Tours, a recommendation gleaned from Seat 61.  It’s got me thinking about previous rail journeys I’ve taken.  These are my favourites, but are they yours?

Peru: Cusco to Machu Picchu

IMG_3533

Machu Picchu, Peru’s mighty Inca citadel

Before tourist numbers reached epic proportions, to reach Machu Picchu by train you used to have to crawl out of bed in the dark to catch the early morning local train from central Cusco’s gloomy station, travel for five hours as the wooden bench seating slowly petrified your buttocks and emerge blinking into the middle of the market at Aguas Calientes to find your diesel-belching ride to the famous mountaintop Inca ruins.  Periodically, the train halted in the dark to facilitate trade.  Hands used to appear through the tiny windows to offer roasted corn and alpaca wool hats.  It was one of those iconic travel journeys that is better relived from the comfort of your armchair several months later.  Taking the journey again years later, this time in a glass-roofed backpacker train (boy, hadn’t backpacker expectations grown?!) I was delighted to see that snow-capped peaks lined the route and that the PeruRail authorities had built a fancy new station.  The increase in comfort was worth the hike in the fare and best of all, the switchbacks to enable the train to haul the train out of Cusco’s bowl-shaped valley were still the most fascinating stretch of the journey.  Then, in 2010, flooding and landslides caused severe damage to the track and when repairs were completed, the train began from Poroy, just outside the city, rather than from Cusco’s Wanchaq station.  Despite the changes, it remains one of the best railway journeys in the world.

Switzerland: the Bernina Express

IMG_2069

The Landwasser viaduct from the Bernina Express

It’s hard to pick a favourite amongst so many standout lines, but if forced to choose, then the Bernina Express gets my vote.  Run by the Rhaetian Railway, the Bernina Express covers two lines which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site – Albula and Bernina.  During its 122km run from Chur to the Italian town of Tirano, the train passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts including the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct pictured here.  To fully appreciate this engineering marvel, take a local train (the panoramic picture windows don’t open), head to the back and lean out of a right hand side window.  The train loops and glides over the Bernina Pass, with the Morteratsch and Palü glaciers and alpine Lago Bianco darker Lej Nair lakes providing the glamour in terms of scenery.  With no cogwheels aiding its descent, this impressive adhesion railway has one final wow up its sleeve: the 360° spiral that encompasses the nine arches of the century-old Brusio Viaduct.

Kenya: the Lunatic Express

IMG_8584

Mombasa’s beach, the prize for those surviving the Lunatic Express

I first read about this railway in Bill Bryson’s African Diary.  His descriptions of being flung around as if being tumbled in a washing machine were as compelling as you’d expect from the undisputed king of humourous travel writing and I decided there and then I’d make the same journey.  This narrow gauge railway runs from Nairobi to the coast at Mombasa, cutting through Tsavo National Park on its way.  It gained its unusual nickname as several workers involved in its construction ended up as dinner for the hungry lions, dragged from their tents as they slept exhausted from the day’s hard labour.  I didn’t see any lions, just a beautiful sunset over the savannah plains, though I was plagued by hungry mosquitoes and arrived in Mombasa covered in bites.

The best of the rest!

Russia: Trans-Mongolian

IMG_8772

Omul on sale at Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal

The longest rail trip I’ve done, with a trip that took me from Moscow to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator by train.  I saw a lot of trees, but I also learned first hand what a warm and welcoming bunch of people the Russians are: a special mention here for Aleksander the army officer who fed me smoked omul and showed me his family photos.

New Zealand: Tranz-Alpine

GoNZLake Brunner

Serene Lake Brunner

Not the Alps in Europe, but instead, New Zealand’s South Island.  Crossing from Christchurch to Greymouth, this scenic ride crossed Arthur’s Pass and chugged alongside pretty Lake Brunner.  Wrap up warm if you’re going to ride the open air viewing car in winter as I did – it’s freezing!

Update: I’ve just booked a ride on the Northern Explorer to see more of North Island out of a Kiwi Rail train window.  Watch out in 2018 to see how I got on.


Mapunda’s story

As a keen proponent of independent travel, you might be surprised to find I’m also an advocate of hiring a good guide.  While it’s great to wander aimlessly round a city stumbling over its hidden and not so hidden attractions, there are some destinations where a guide will significantly enhance your experience.  Sometimes, as in Cappadocia, hiking for the first time after injuring my back, I was grateful not only for my guide’s navigational ability but for a helping hand over what were at the time quite challenging boulders and slippery gravel paths.  My favourite guide, by a considerable margin, was the inimitable Mapunda, with whom I spent an exhilarating, and at times hysterical, few days amidst some of Tanzania’s most beautiful scenery.  Here’s why we had such a fun time:

“Let me tell you why I am named Mapunda. A long time ago, my ancestors lived in South Africa. They embarked on a long journey, crossing Mozambique before settling in the south of Tanzania. Along the way, they killed zebra to eat. It was the way they survived. Because of the zebra, I am here today. And in my language, the word for zebra is mapunda.”

Mapunda

Mapunda

Mapunda went by the nickname Zebraman. He had worked as a driver for a safari company based in Arusha, in the north of Tanzania, for the past eight years. Before that, until the threat from poaching got too dangerous, he was a ranger at Tarangire National Park. But Mapunda had a secret. He dreamt of owning his own safari company and working for himself. This was a huge endeavour. To buy a brand new safari vehicle outright would cost over $60,000, so he planned to rent. On the side, he dreamed, it would have a zebra logo, black and white not only being the colours of the animal after which he was named, but also, he added, for the black and white people that would all be welcome to travel in it. Proudly, he gave me his business card, bearing the logo of two zebras facing in opposite directions watching for lions. As he shared his plans, his eyes lost their customary sad, wistful appearance and shone brightly. It was clear this meant the world to him.

Tarangire, our first stop, is known for its elephants, a childhood favourite of mine. The first thing Mapunda pointed out, however, was not a living creature. Instead, he showed me the house he lived in during his ranger days. He spoke with fondness, apologising unnecessarily for delaying the start of our safari. Later, his ranger experience paid dividends as he always knew the best places to find the animals, even during their midday nap. Without malice, he was dismissive of many of the other drivers, tutting after they asked him where the best spots were, or, worse still, follow him to tailgate on the wildlife he had found. He always helped them, though.

Coming in dry season, the grass was dry and river levels low. We forded the Tarangire River several times during the course of the day, watching zebras and wildebeest linger bravely for a drink whilst keeping a watchful eye out for any hungry lions that might pick off their weakest. Impalas grazed under five hundred year old baobab trees, skittish as Mapunda cut the engine and pulled alongside. Nonchalant giraffes munched on the highest leaves, their long thick tongues gently caressing each stem as they made their choice.

As we ate our sandwiches, Mapunda taught me some Swahili. ‘Tembo’ meant elephant, ‘simba,’ lion; ‘nina taka’ translated as ‘I want’. After lunch, it was time to try it out.

“Nina taka tembo.”

The elephant, grazing a few short metres away from the vehicle, flapped his ears wide and lifted his trunk, warning us off. I was transfixed.

Male elephant scratching on a tree stump

Male elephant scratching on a tree stump

Eventually, Mapunda asked if I was ready to go.

“Sawa sawa,” I answered. “OK.”

We headed down to the river, rewarded by the sight of more of these magnificent creatures blowing water and quenching their thirst. Others, further up the river, wallowed in the mud in the shallows, rolling onto their backs with the bliss that comes from cooling off from the relentless sun. Each encounter left me wanting more.

Mapunda was patient, indulging me. Click, click, click. Mapunda was keen to make sure I was getting good shots, and enthused when I showed him what I’d taken.

“Nina taka simba? Or more elephants, Julia? Or a zebra. Why don’t you like my zebras?” he teased.

It became a regular joke that if I saw elephants, I was happy. Equally, he would laugh when I would fake that the zebras were the highlight of that particular drive. We got each other. Sometimes a look was all it took to have us both hooting with laughter.

Mapunda's beloved zebras

Mapunda’s beloved zebras

Mapunda and I joked that I said “Nina taka” and what I wished for immediately came true. Perhaps I should have said “Nina taka lottery win” or for Mapunda, “Nina taka lots of clients for the new business.”

Each day, Mapunda was punctual, eyes bright, grin wide. His enthusiasm was infectious: I felt lucky to be spending time with someone with such a zest for life. I’d been on safari before, but this time, the memories have endured, more than just the animals I spotted, and I reckon that’s mostly down to Mapunda. Every now and then I get an email from him. The business is slowly getting up and running and his gratitude to each client is a reminder that we should all count our blessings.