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The end of the High Street travel agent – or is it?

News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.

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I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.

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But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?

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In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.

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Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.

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While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

http://www.ugandawildlife.org/images/pdfs/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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


The risks of road transport – and how to avoid them

Independent travel brings many rewards, but travel using such means isn’t without its risks. The older I get, the more I factor safety into my plans. If as a traveller I have nine lives when it comes to near misses, I figure I used up a fair few of them when I was young, naive and imperturbable.

Room for one more, Senegal

Rust buckets and fatigued drivers

In the UK, we take it for granted that vehicles are roadworthy but the same can’t be said for some parts of the world. Things have improved somewhat since, but on my first trip to Lima, the taxi that took us to the airport was an ancient Beetle. Its doors had rusted into a beautiful but deadly filigree mesh and were held shut by pieces of ragged string. Even the driver made reference to its poor condition, opting to leave us on the road outside rather than to risk being apprehended by the police or airport authorities in front of the airport terminal. Things are rather different now. Doing the same run on my last visit I had a functioning seat belt and a seat with complete upholstery, though the traffic in Callao was as bad as it had ever been.

Peru Time to feed the llamas in Cusco

Driver fatigue, particularly when it’s coupled with bad roads, can be lethal. In places where driver hours aren’t regulated and drivers aren’t routinely breathtested, you could find yourself in a whole heap of trouble. Sometimes, if it’s the only bus company running the route, you don’t have a choice. The bus I boarded to take me from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca wasn’t in the best of condition (though by no means the worst I’ve encountered) but it was that or a prohibitively expensive private transfer. Safety-wise, I should have opted for the latter. Instead I tried to sleep through a night of switchbacks and squealing brakes, saying a prayer of thanks that we made it one piece when we pulled up at our destination at daybreak. Travelling at night had one big advantage, however – it was easier on the nerves not to see how close we were to the edge of the ravines.

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Often, I’ve taken local buses within cities or out into the surrounding countryside. In Latin America, they’re often repurposed American school buses. The bench seats are uncomfortable: sticky in the heat, the cracked leather slippery and uncomfortable on bare legs. In Haiti, though, I’d have given anything to be travelling in one of these Nicaraguan chicken buses. Instead, I took what was possibly the most uncomfortable ride of my life in an overloaded tap tap. The end justified the means, but you can read here about the journey from hell that took me to Port Salut:

https://juliahammond.blog/2015/02/14/the-best-beach-in-haiti/

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These days I turn away vehicles, though, when I know there’s a choice, refusing a taxi without seat belts and doing some homework about which bus companies have the best safety record. It’s possible to find companies that run services with two drivers so that each can be well rested after a stint at the wheel. If a company states on their website that they routinely screeen for drugs that’s also a plus, though admittedly hard to corroborate. It’s particularly important to be cautious if the road you’re due to travel on is an accident blackspot. Hiring a car and a driver is often a smart choice, though check the condition of the vehicle before agreeing a price – no one wants to break down in the middle of nowhere, as happened to me out in the Senegalese countryside.

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The dangers of walking

It can be tempting, especially in cities, to think that opting for two feet instead of a ride with a crazed minibus driver would be safer. Remember though, that this assumes the driver won’t opt for your bit of pavement. In Nairobi, I needed to get to the central railway station to catch a train to Mombasa. It departed right in the middle of rush hour; my journey took me from the suburbs to the thick of the action.

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Drivers lent on horns to vent their frustration but in the melee, there were vehicles everywhere. Lane discipline was a forgotten art as cars, buses, vans and taxis tried everything they could to get ahead. Not every overtaking manouevre was a successful one. Consequently, some drivers found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the road. My driver was optimistic we would reach the station in time, following a full sized bus packed with commuters up the kerb and along the pavement (which incidentally wasn’t as wide as the car, let alone the bus). Pedestrians scattered and we returned to the carriageway when we reached the junction.

Vietnam Motorbikes parked in Saigon

I’m not saying I was especially safe in the passenger seat, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pedestrian on those streets. In China and Vietnam, I’ve found that the solution to crossing roads where there is that much traffic – there, it’s likely to be bicycles and motorbikes – is to team up with other pedestrians and form a kind of Roman testudo, minus the shields. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve put a local person between me and the oncoming traffic. I figure that they’re used to it, plus they speak the lingo should it become necessary to yell obscenities at any driver coming too close. I’ve also learnt that it’s imperative to maintain a steady pace and not to waiver from my course. If the driver or rider knows where you’re going to be, they can swerve to go round you.

It works – if you can hold your nerve. Have you got any other tips?


Five places I’d love to visit again

Reconnecting with a Japanese friend this weekend made me think about the trip I’d made to Honshu and Kyushu in 2007. It got me thinking about countries I’d love to visit again. I’m all for exploring new countries – Uganda and Kyrgyzstan will be new destinations for me this year – but it’s also good to revisit places that made an impression. I’m making another visit to Italy this year, this time to see the trulli of Alberobello in Puglia, which I’m really looking forward to. So which are my top five places I’d love to visit again?

Japan

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This Asian nation’s unique culture makes it special. Last time, I took a sand bath, soaked in an onsen and watched cormorant fishermen catch fish by firelight. In Kyoto I saw a geisha in Gion and in Tokyo, followed in Bill Murray’s footprints by staying at the hotel which featured in the movie Lost in Translation. Coping with the language barrier and different alphabet wasn’t as challenging as I’d expected thanks to video calls and picture menus. I loved how you could buy practically anything from a vending machine, including beer and hot chicken. Even the trains were a revelation, with slippers to wear and attendants that bowed when they served drinks. Next time, I’d like to head inland to the mountains and north to Hokkaido.

Austria

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My visit to Nuremberg’s Christmas markets this year made me realise just how much I’d enjoyed my visit to Salzburg the year before. The markets themselves were much more handicraft oriented and in their mountain setting, a delight to explore. It would be hard to choose a season though – Austria’s just as beautiful in summer, if not more so. It’s been nine years since I took our elder dog to St Johann in the Tyrol and I’d love to go back with our younger one. We used to go to that part of Austria when I was a child and it’s a place I always feel a sense of calm. Something about the clean mountain air, perhaps, or the hearty, home-cooked food?

Nicaragua and Guatemala

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When I eventually reached Nicaragua, I had been delayed two days, detained by the “Weekend Whiteout” in New York City. Despite the shortened time, I very much enjoyed the city of Granada and its colourful colonial core. Nearby, I explored volcanoes and cloud forest, and took leisurely lunches beside tranquil lakes. I’ve always felt that the trip was a little rushed, though, so it would be great to go back and explore at a more leisurely pace. Guatemala was equally charming, but a disappointing hotel on the edge of Antigua took the edge off my stay there. It would be fun to revisit around the time of Day of the Dead and compare the experience to the wonderful trip I made to Oaxaca a few years back. In a better hotel, of course.

Australia

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As a die-hard Neighbours fan, boarding the bright blue minibus back in 2005 was a rite of passage. But now, as well as paying a visit to Pin Oak Court, the sets themselves are included in the tour and regular pub nights offer a chance to meet cast members. That in itself is a reason to go back, but I’d also like to spend some time in the north west of the country which is blessed with some stunning scenery. Taking a road trip north from Broome to the Bungle Bungles and beyond would be quite the adventure. (Hey, if Helen Daniels painted it, count me in!) I’d also love to ride the Ghan, Australia’s iconic train linking Adelaide and Darwin, stopping off to see Brolga and his kangaroos in the red centre along the way.

Morocco

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I’ve visited Morocco several times since my first visit in 1997 and there’s still plenty more I’d like to see. A new high speed train service would be a real treat to try out – on that first visit I chugged my way from Tangier to Marrakesh and back again at a snail’s pace. Last trip, I planned to visit the coastal town of Agadir for a day trip and would have done, had I not been laid low with a bout of food poisoning (don’t eat the salad!) The blue city of Chefchaouen looks so photogenic it would be irresistible, another for the wish list. I’m told its cobbled lanes lead to leather workers and weavers. I’m a big fan of Moroccan style when it comes to home furnishings – I know it would be hard to resist a bit of shopping.

Is there somewhere you’ve visited that you’d love to go back to? I’d love to hear about it.


A January daycay: just the thing to banish those winter blues

Do you suffer from the winter blues? If you do, this month’s hell. Without Christmas lights to lift the spirits – excepting the neighbour whose outdoor tree will be a beacon of defiant brightness until the temperatures rise in the spring – the long hours of darkness can seem endless. If there’s a rare blue sky to tempt us to take a walk (it’s free and healthy after all!) it’s accompanied by a merciless cold north wind that defies the toughest hat, gloves and winter coat combo. The Arctic has nothing on the damp, seeping cold that whips off the North Sea in January while I’m stood waiting for the dog to finish his interminable sniffing. The sales are on, but there’s no longer anything worth buying, and even if there were, we couldn’t be persuaded to drag ourselves off our sagging sofas to investigate, such is the pervasive lethargy that blights January. Yet throughout this, our TV screens are awash with adverts featuring smiling families in sun-drenched locations having the holiday of a lifetime. It’s like a parallel universe, designed to torment us while we wait for our January paychecks and lament how our less than perfect life fails to measure up to that depicted by TUI.

Yesterday I escaped from all that, just for the day.

Despite living out on the Essex coast, it’s an easy run into London thanks to the swift and reliable service from Greater Anglia trains. This time, in preparation for the day ahead, I made a point of stopping by the Kelvedon station book exchange to pick up some reading material. It’s not often I have the luxury of curling up with a book on a working day, so this would be a real treat.

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It was bliss. I spent the day trialling a new concept, a daycay, and it was just the thing to banish those winter blues. My day stay at the stylish Trafalgar St James in the heart of Central London had been arranged by DayBreak Hotels. They specialise in providing accommodation that would otherwise go to waste. Think about it: occupancy rates are lower than average in the UK at this time of year. Factor in that many people check out early and check in late, and you have hours and hours in between where those beautiful hotel rooms sit empty.

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In the award-winning and recently refurbished Trafalgar St James, I was allocated a junior suite, complete with a comfy sofa looking out over a sunny Trafalgar Square and an even comfier bed promising to help rid my face of the grey skin and black circles that had settled in over Christmas. Watching from above the pillow was a black and white photograph of a youthful looking Mick Jagger, one of many in the hotel to be taken by acclaimed celeb photographer Dave Hogan.

The room was thoughtfully equipped, the attention to detail marking it as one of Hilton’s prestigious Curio Collection properties. Waiting for me, I found a Nespresso coffee machine, a book on London’s curiosities and a selection of glossy magazines, as well as a plate of melt-in-the-mouth macarons beside a welcome note.

There were a selection of Molton Brown toiletries lined up in the spotless bathroom and a couple of inviting dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe. This was like a home away from home, but unlike home, I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t doing the hoovering or clearing away the dishes.

You might expect that as you’ve only checked in for six hours you might not be treated with the same respect as an overnight guest, but you’d be wrong. Every interaction I had with the hotel’s staff, from the receptionist to the restaurant servers, emphasised the close attention paid to customer service. I was offered a tour of the hotel, the highlight of which was enjoying the views from the rooftop terrace. The rooftop spaces make great entertainment venues; if I wasn’t a freelancer I’d already be bombarding my boss with emails about where to hold next year’s Christmas party.

I was also invited to see one of the suites that used to be one of Cunard’s corporate offices. The Landseer Suite was occupied, a minor disappointment as this was the boardroom where Cunard first received word of the sinking of the ill-fated Titanic. Next door, I did get to look around the Barry Suite, its original woodpanelling preserved under a coat of contemporary matt grey paint. It managed to be grand without being stuffy, the kind of place that makes you want to pop in to John Lewis on the way home to buy a few more cushions to spruce up your own place.

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The hotel strives to be innovative – there’s not a hint of a bland, corporate hotel chain here. I found that also to be the case with afternoon tea. The dining room will shortly close for refurnishment, but the untrained eye would never guess. I was presented first with a menu of teas from the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall. I had no idea that we even grew tea in this country and made a mental note to check that place out next time I was in the West Country. My question – was the rose tea better, or the red berry? – was met with the best possible answer – why not try both? (I did, and they were both a treat.)

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The savoury treats were presented next, each accompanied by the Molton Brown scent that had inspired them. Coastal Cypress & Sea Fennel was represented by a slice of compressed cucumber topped with pieces of fennel crisp. Carpaccio of Denham Vale beef with pink peppercorn gel on sourdough toast exemplified Fiery Red Pepper. Following this were scones with jam and clotted cream, pleasantly warm and surprisingly filling. The patisserie was equally as inventive. A rose and rhubarb pastille was bursting with flavour and a mouthwatering prosecco sabayon with watermelon and berries decidedly moreish. My favourite Molton Brown aroma, orange and bergamot, came in the form of a chocolate and Earl Grey eclair topped with tiny strips of candied orange.

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There was barely a crumb left by the time I’d finished. Had I not been in public, I’d have been tempted to lick the plate. With an hour and a half left on the clock, I chose to return to my room for a profligate nap. London, with its galleries and museums and countless other attractions, would have to wait. After all, it’s not every day a girl can say she fell asleep under the watchful gaze of Mick Jagger, is it?

About DayBreak Hotels

Daybreak Hotels offer a range of properties in destinations across Europe, the Americas, the UAE and Australia. The daycay concept is a clever one, with daytime and evening slots available. Same day and advanced booking as well as special offers can be found on their website:

https://www.daybreakhotels.com/GB/en-GB

There are so many reasons why you might book a hotel for the day instead of the night – perhaps you’re looking for a comfortable place to shower and change before a posh night out on the town or somewhere to relax before an evening at the theatre. Perhaps like me, you’re tempted by the promise of an indulgent afternoon tea or need a winter pick-me-up without the expense of a full-on holiday. Some properties come with spa or pool access, making them a great choice if you’re in need of a little pampering.

Maybe you could make use of a convenient city centre base for a sleepy toddler to have a rest in between seeing the sights? Or how about a place to leave a grumpy husband in the ultimate man crèche while you potter the shops at a leisurely pace? Also, there are plenty of hotels on DayBreak’s books that are conveniently located on or very close to airports, ideal for a lengthy layover – and far nicer than hours spent in an airport lounge. Whatever your reason for booking, the daycay concept is one worth checking out.

Thank you

I was a guest of DayBreak Hotels and benefited from complimentary travel with Greater Anglia. To both: many thanks for your generosity.