Diary for ScouseLeeM on Tour


Med tour

1987-01-31 to 1987-02-20

..can`t remember much of this, but have some old photos from the pre-digital age, so have scanned a few in.

Was only 14 at the time, I look quite tiny on the photos! This was a swanky med cruise with my school - included Athens,Rhodes, Turkey, Egypt, Israel. Will add to my entry if I can ever remember much of what happened...

 Do remember visiting the Sphynx and pyramids with smelly old blokes trying to sell rides on even smellier camels while small children swarmed around us trying to beg for cash, the temple of Artemis in Turkey, swimming in the Dead Sea in Israel, and buying ceremonial jewel encrusted knives in Turkish markets (providing great difficulty in getting through customs flying back to the UK!)...


Liverpool

1998-05-25 to 1998-05-30

not travelling at all, but thought I`d add this as my home base before my round the world japes begin, the greatest city on Earth. Have added a few photos from my tour to the holiest of venues, Anfield, home of the mighty Liverpool FC and 4 European cups (so far)...time for adventuring to begin...


Paris/Marseille

1998-06-01

Before embarking on my year in the Southern hemisphere, started a little closer to home...


Off with Gazza and Nick to the greatest sports event on Earth, the footy World Cup in France. Made our way by various combinations of planes, trains, and ferries to France, myself and Gazza catching a ferry from Dover then trains from Calais to Paris to Marseille, quite a bloody long trek all in all (especially as my journey began in Liverpool).


Upon arrival in the venue of England`s first game, checked in to our very classy one star hotel - shared bathrooms, no TV, no bar, no food. Myself and Gazza went to meet Nick at the station and that`s when the fun began!


We found the station was surrounded by riot police following earlier trouble. After starting our walk home, a gang of local Arab thugs started causing trouble and one proceeded to kick Nick around the head, so a nice traditional friendly welcome...upon reaching the hotel we found tear gas cannisters going off in the streets, and sirens everywhere - so decided to stay in for the night. Next day, we had a police escort to the stadium, and from our seats we could see fighting going on outside the stadium, also heard that at the supposedly safe Radio 1 venue on the beach (just for England fans), there had been fighting and stabbings.


Decided to cut short our pleasant jape to the South of France, and paid to get a first class seat on the first train to Paris. Then, all the way back to Liverpool, to pack, before back to London to fly to the other side of the world!


Bangkok

1998-06-15 to 1998-06-22

Blimey, a bit hot here...

Decided to stop in Bangkok en route to my year in Oz, never realised it was possibly the most humid place on planet Earth at this time of year. Came here straight after going to France to watch England playing their first game in the World Cup, and the Thais are gripped by footy fever, games showing in all the bars every night - unfortunately can`t watch them in peace without getting pestered by the local working girls, who don`t seem to understand the importance of football!

Hard to know what to make of this place, the city itself is a bit seedy for my liking, but the sightseeing is fantastic - did some tours of the buddah temples and the spectacular palace (laiden with real gold), but unfortunately the film in my camera got jammed, exposed, and ruined, so lost nearly all of my photos - all I am left with is a few from a trip to a local zoo/crocodile farm (a very entertaining game of football between 2 teams of elephants was the highlight). A good excuse to come back one day, and do the jungle up in Chang Mai...

Shops are incredibly cheap and full of counterfeit goods, but can`t buy anything as the backpack won`t hold it for the next year! Stayed in the 4 star `Bel Aire Princess` hotel - ahead of my year of hostelling, this seems a wise choice for the air conditionaing alone. Leaving the hotel results in my t-shirt being saturated within minutes, I couldn`t live here in a million years. Also being an obvious tourist means you never get left alone by people trying to sell you stuff, or drag you to a sex show or prostitute...

In summary, an experience, but keen to move on to Oz...

 


Perth

1998-06-23 to 1998-07-07

Arrived in Oz at last, feeling particularly jet lagged, and picked up at the airport by a mini bus from my hostel in Northbridge,  promptly went staright to bed for about 14 hours  recovery in the dorm...

Awoke to discover the worst. Had purposely started my year in the Oz winter to get cheaper flights, with the aim of getting to the tropical North fairly pronto. Spent 2 weeks in Perth enduring temperatures of around zero degrees, perpetual rain, and thunderstorms. They call Perth `Little England`, and can see why based on my experience of the weather alone.

Not the most cultural of my stops in Oz - met some fellow Brits in my hostel, and spent most of the time watching the last weeks of the footy World Cup. Due to time differences, games were kicking off around 11pm and 2am, so spent many days sleeping, getting up mid evening, watching footy till 4am, then trooping off the local 24 hour McDonalds and stocking up on the backpacker deals (i4 burgers and 6 portions of fries for a few dollars).

Did get out and do a local wildlife park for my first experience of feeding kangaroos, holding a wombat, emus,koalas etc. Also went to Freemantle to see the prison that held the original Ozzie immigrants. Spent many evenings in the Northbridge bars taking up the backpacker `happy hour` - free drinks for an hour, free BBQs, so managed to live for next to nothing.

After a few weeks,  I could do with raising some funds and hear of work available on a farm in Manjimup, a few hours South. So I head there with Andy, a Leeds lad that have been watching footy with every night, to experience the delights of cauliflower picking...


Manjimup

1998-07-08 to 1998-07-22

..after leaving work to spend a year in the sun, this wasn`t part of my original plan. Spent 2 weeks htoiling away from 6am to 5pm every day for the princely sum of $10 an hour (before tax) picking cauliflowers...

Arrived to be picked up by the farmer, who took me to the `hostel`, better known as prison house... From here we are taken out every day to various farms to endure slave labour, and return weary and sore, before going to bed completely shattered at 8pm, very glamorous.

The house is in the middle of nowhere, miles from `town`. This consists of around 2 roads, one supermarket, one pub, one KFC rip off fast food joint, and a bizarre internet cafe that serves pancakes the size of dustbin lids covered in maple syrup. On a rare excursion to this metropolis, we clubbed together to hire a video player to set up back at prison HQ, and ventured to the pub - stared at intently by the locals and challenged to play pool under their local, and nonsensical 'rules'.

The daily work consists of bending over double, trying to pick 2 rows of cauliflowers simultaneously, while keeping up with the harvester, driven at Formula 1 speed by the sadistic farmer. There are also a number of local `professional` pickers, who can go at the speed of light, and some international backpackers who have been staying here for 6 months (why?????????????????????).

This is very very VERY hard work, 7 days a week. One group of English girls arrived, and left the next night, being so enamoured with the whole thing. After 2 weeks, enough is enough; have saved a few pennies, given that there is nothing to do here except sleep. Time for warmth and  some proper adventuring...


Darwin

1998-07-23 to 1998-07-27

Bought a very prudent flight from Perth to Darwin, saving me a road trip of several days, and to finally encounter some much needed sunshine and heat...

Only really came here to explore the national park of Kakadu, and spent the first day sizing up tours - settled upon a 5 day excursion to Kakadu, Litchfield, and canoeing Katherine Gorge. Then time to relax, a few days lying by the pool and visiting Mindil Beach - nice white sand, and shallow water as warm as a jaccuzzi. Unfortunately man eating crocodiles can get in to the bay, so didn`t really spend any time in the water. Did however get sunburned to buggary, so plenty of aftersun now being applied...

Darwin is a fairly small town, with not a huge amount to do. Went to a local bar one afternoon, seemd like a nice family place with a mixed crowd - the next minute a female stripper appears, promptly gets naked on the table next to us  and covers herself in baby oil, while we are playing pool. Apparently this happens every lunchtime, what a country...

Right, time for some culture...Kakadu.


Kakadu

1998-07-28 to 1998-08-01

One of my favourite places on Earth, although got off to an inauspicious start...
A couple of things happened in the days leading up to my Kakadu trip, which made a few people quite nervous:

Firstly, some dozy bird decided to go into Kakadu camping on her own, and pitched a tent next to the riverbank. After a few days, predictably enough, a crocodile decided to pop in and bite her in two, then was shot by rangers somewhere down the river...nice.


Next, the night before our tour, the one bridge from Darwin into the park managed to collapse! The foundations gave way, leaving the bridge shaped like a `U`, and lots of backpackers stranded inside - the day we set off, these poor souls were having to walk over the bridge single file while rangers with rifles kept watch for man eating crocs below...


As a result, we had to enter the park from the South, meaning an extra 4 hours driving. We started with an up close and personal introduction to the local crocs, with a boat cruise on Yellow Waters. No life boats on show as we cruised out and fed meat from a stick to giant prehistoric reptiles..got myself a great photo of `Elvis`, the pet name for a 5 metre beast who looked like pure demonic evil. Also learned to set up campsite/make fire like prehistoric man, while our guide, Jim, cooked delicacies such as as kangaroo stir fry. Glad to say that skippy tastes great.


We spent a couple of days touring around and going hiking/swimming in local waterfalls. Highlight here was Twin Falls, where we swam a kilometre to reach a little desert island beach that had a waterfall on either side, and a lagoon full of fish to swim in. A slight panic during our swim to the island, as people on the shore started flagging us to get out of the water - a 3 metre crocdile was sitting on a rock in the middle of the river! Upon closer inspection, it was a fully grown freshwater croc, rather than one of the man eating salties, but difficult to tell when you are swimming next to it!


We also spent a morning bathing in natural hot springs, and Jim took us to a secret Aboriginee cave filled with bats, hidden half way up a cliff - quite a climb and the cave entrance was about 2 feet x 2 feet, so a long one way crawl to get in - the bird in front of me got stuck so had to prod her in the arse with my torch to get her shifted...


Great adventure, not one for those with a fear of big reptiles - at night we could hear the crocs fighting in the river 50 feet away, also saw one jump out and try to take down a fully grown horse at the waters edge. Next, on to Katherine...


Katherine

1998-08-02

On the way back to Darwin from Kakadu, we stopped at some giant termite mounds in Litchfield,  then spent a great day canoeing along Katherine Gorge, spotting various crocodile footprints on the shore. Managed to capsize my canoe on some rocks, after which it wouldn`t steer properly and just kept turning 360 degree circles - so nearly ran into the tourist cruise ships that were going up and down.

We spent the last night camping in Katherine under mossie nets in the open air. All very cutesy as wallabies came looking for food, approached us at the camp fire and we fed them biscuits with one hand, while trying to take photos with the other hand.

On the  drive to Darwin, we stopped off at a roadhouse and saw a wildebeest that was apparrently in the film Crocodile Dundee. Could all just be a big tourist ploy - might be any old wildebeest. Still, get to take more photos...on to the outback....


Alice Springs

1998-08-03 to 1998-08-07

This is where the climate began to spice up, temperature well into the 30s here. Out in the middle of sweet FA, a very strange town...

Came here as a gateway to do the usual Oz tourist stuff i.e. climbing Ayers Rock. What I didn`t expect was to meet a mate from home 13,000 miles away - step forward Matty boy, a mate from Uni days that I randomly bumped into at the hostel, taking a couple of weeks off work. We hit the town together, partaking of an `Ozzie platter` at Alice`s premier restaurant - including delicacies such as wallaby mignon, crocodile, camel, and buffalo. We also went to a reptile show, and managed to get ourself wrapped up in a boa contrictor, see photos.

Managed to go out and do a camel trek along the so called `river`, which is completely dry as it never rains here. My camel, Phoenix, seemed obsessed with biting the tail of the camel in front, who kept turning round trying to spit at and bite my legs.

One final note to whichever git nicked my Liverpool shirt off the washing line in the hostel, I hope you fester in the bowels of hell! Off now to climb a bloody big rock...


Ayers Rock/Kings Canyon

1998-08-08 to 1998-08-10

Ventured out of Alice on a Greyhound bus pass to Adelaide, including a free 2 day tour of Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon, staying in a hostel in the middle of the desert.

Stuck on a coach with a bunch of freaky Germans, we made our way to the big red rock, and were advised that the locals prefer tourists not to climb it...so of course we all climbed it in order to get some photos and prove we were here. Heard all the stories about the stupid people who die every year by running off after their hats and fall off, probably Americans...

The second day was spent hiking to Kings Canyon - quite impressive but no Grand Canyon. Erm...that`s all there is to say about that.

One of the natural wonders of the world then - but couldn`t help but feel at the time `It`s just a big rock in the middle of nowhere`. Glad I've done it, but wouldn`t go back or recommend v something like Kakadu. On next to the mad, quirky world of Coober Pedy...


Coober Pedy

1998-08-11

One of the weirdest places ever, staying more than a few days would probably drive you insane - but highly recommended.

Arrived in the middle of the night at the hostel, which was a cave built underground, and tuned in my world shortwave radio to the BBC World service - listening to Liverpool thrash Newcastle courtesy of a Michael Owen hat trick...

After a good nights sleep, went to do the one day tour of the town, after which there really is nothing else to do...the first stop gave a good indication of the weirdness level, Coober`s cemetery. Went to visit the opal mines and saw the miners homes, built underground to escape 50 degree heat in summer. Quite impressive pads complete with satellite TV, and chandelliers...

After an unsuccessful session trying to find opals  by the mines, we went to visit Crocodile Harry`s nest - Harry is an old codger that earned his name in his youth, by going into the wild and wrestling crocodiles, dragging them from the rivers by the tail, i.e. a bloody nutjob. He has a huge cave filled with bizarre items like blue ringed octopus in a jar, and a vast collection of female tourists knickers hanging from the ceiling... the oddest thing is that while coach loads of tourists troop around, he just sits there in a rocking chair..in fact he could have been dead for years, noone would know teh difference.

Other adventures included seeing the 'worlds biggest fence' (yes, sounds, and indeed was...utter crap), then playing golf on a putting green made of sand, as there is no grass that can survive the heat.We were dressed in shorts and flip flops with factor 50 sunscreen in 30 something degree Celsius heat, while local Aboriginees were wearing wooly sweaters and hats - for them this is winter.

After this extraordinary day, back on the coach to Adelaide.


Adelaide

1998-08-12 to 1998-08-15

Bloody hell what a dull town, can`t think of anything exciting here at all..except the casino was quite good. hmmm, no nothing else, just bided time for a few days while waiting to travel out to Kangaroo Island...

oh, almost forgot, was introduced to the Ozzie burger at Hungry Jacks (Burger King to the rest of us) - a mammoth cheeseburger with a fried egg on top and beetroot, truly odd.


Kangaroo Island

1998-08-16 to 1998-08-17

after the dullness of Adelaide, a welcome relief with a return to the stereotypical Oz adventuring - an island full of kanagaroos, koalas, emus, seals...and penguins.

Had never known about the penguin bit before reaching Australia, highly entertaining. We were taken down to the beach at dusk and waited for the penguins to start waddling out of the sea right past us on the way back to their nests for the evening. Best bit was when leaving the beach, seeing penguins waddling up the street and even into nests underneath our hostel. Although it shouldn`t be funny, seeing some of the little birds fall over on the rocks was very amusing.

While the `penguin parade` was great, the absolute number 1 highlight came when we did a tour of some underground caves. Outside was a picnic area with a typically loud American family taking up residence, and some wild kanagaroos looking for food. The 2 annoying yank kids began taunting one of the roos with a stick, then tried to pose with it for a photo taken by their morbidly obese dad...kangaroo then turns, grabs the little boy, and delivers a powerful kick, knocking him to the floor crying - BRILLIANT!!!! Just wish he`d sliced the little sods guts wide open...

Now completely skint after 2 months of adventures, I head off to THE big city, desperately needing to earn some money....


Sydney

1998-08-18 to 1999-02-28

officially my second favourite city ever, and that`s saying something behind the mighty Liverpool.

Can`t really do this justice in a diary entry, as this was both a tourist stop, and  my offical Austalian `home`, spending a fair amount of time doing `proper living` i.e. working here and living in proper houses, rather than hostel bunk beds.

Arrived at the Jolly Swagman backpackers in Kings Cross wondering what the hell was going on - the Sydney axe murderer had recently been caught - some bloke who attacked backpackers using telephone booths around Kings Cross, chopping their heads in half, nice. Also seemed to be an area whre shootings were not uncommon, yet at the same time some of Sydney`s swankiest bars and people were based there.

Almost skint when I arrived, with barely a weeks rent in my pocket, soimmediately looking for work a little less strenuous and better paid than my previous cauliflower picking jaunt. Went off in search of temp agencies on day one, doing umpteen PC tests on word processing, spreadsheets etc, and had a call the next day to start work straight away! Getting work in Sydney was easy as pie, I walked from one contract to the next with ease: worked for companies like Walkers, British Telecom, and the Westpac bank. Also several stints of telemarketing, something never to be repeated back home (hopefully): saw lots of people get fired for not reaching weekly sales targets, all a bit too much like working in a prison camp.

The local Kings Cross Hotel, the casino at Darling Harbour, and the `Car Wash` disco, have all been favourites of mine and my new hostel chums, though can be a buggar clubbing on a Wednesday night before getting up at 6am to catch a train to work...after a few months, I finally left the hostelling scene and moved in with a bunch of British backpackers to a lush executive apartment overlooking Sydney harbour at Pyrmont bridge - including indoor heated pool and gym/jaccuzzi. Crazy housemates included Lee (very confusing), Sophie, Bob, Ali, and Lucy. All can be seen in a photo taken at our Christmas meal (a Chinese, very traditional).

Many adventures in our little Brit apartment, including Lucy walking into a plate glass window (as we watched in disbelief and didn`t tell her what she was about to do, due to the associated comedy value), Sophie getting a job as a waitress in a bar run by a lecherous mobster who made her dress in a cocktail dress the size of a  (miniature) napkin, and a highly entertaining Xmas day in mid summer, giving eachother presents  from the one dollar shop. These included water pistols, that led to several weeks of ambushing people when they arrived home from work. Myself and the other Lee also went to the official public opening of the Sydney Olympic stadium - walking on the running track, and signing the official register of vistors, with such names as `Kevin Keegan` and `Mickey Mouse`, all very childish, ho ho.

Xmas and New Year were surreal, everyone feeling a little homesick, and despite a Xmas day picnic on Bondi beach, it didn`t seem right that it wasn`t cold/snowing. Shortly after this, 4 of us grabbed tickets to watch the Ashes test at the SCG - saw England get stuffed by the Ozzies, but great fun being in  the Barmy Army and chanting obsceneties about the Ozzie players. Eventually, the sixsome was broken up, as everybody went their separate ways to continue their travels around Oz. For my final month I moved in to a house at Coogee, 2 mins from the beach, with another bunch of Brits.

Did all the sightseeing stuff during my stay - awesome harbour, especiallly on New Years Eve with 4 million people watching the fireworks. Quite surreal going to Taronga zoo,  seeing elephants with the harbour bridge and opera house in the background. Also went to the blue mountains and rode the steepest train in the world, plus a nerve jangling cable car across the canyon.

Would definitely recommend Sydney to anyone - a vibrant 24 hour city, but still chilled out by British standards, loads of great beaches, cheap to live with great accommodation available. Didn`t want to leave, but needs must - time is ticking on my visa and I need to see the East coast...


Melbourne

1999-03-03 to 1999-03-12

From Canberra I moved on to a tour along the Great Ocean Road, en route to Melbourne. All very spectacular, looking at s the Apostles, cute groups of seals sunbathing, and sharing a mini bus with some Irish piss artist birds. Stayed in hostels during the trip, and our guide introduced us to a marvellous `3 slices of pizza for a dollar` shop, ensuring my Oz healthy eating regime continued...

We also stopped at an orphanage for animals - lots of baby wallabies,kangaroos, emus, and wombats whose parents had been run over. Yet more cutesy animal photos then...after this, onto Melbourne for the sporting highlight of the year, the Formula 1 grand prix. Accommodation was booked well in advance throughout the city, I stayed in a hostel where people were paying to just get a mattress on the floor for 4 days!

In true backpacker style, I paid for the cheapest pass to the grand prix,  99 bucks for a 4 day general access ticket - no seats, just wandering around the attractions and sitting on a grass bank in front of a chicane. This proved to be a great spot ,as in the celebrity race Natalie Imbruglia careered off and crashed 10 feet away from us. Lots of stuff going on with fighter jet displays, stunt bike riders, pit girls in hot pants all over the place, best organised sports event I`ve ever witnessed. On the day of the race, we had to queue outside the gates at 8am, then run for the best viewing spot as soon as they opened - then sit without moving all day! The race itself was pretty entertaining, Irish driver Eddie Irvine winning and causing mass celebration/drinking among the throng of Irish backpackers and ex pats.

The day after the race  I did a whirlwind city tour - visited the jail and saw the quite eerie `death mask` of Ned Kelly, visited the Melbourne cricket ground, and went up the Rialto tower to get some aerial views of the city and grand prix circuit. Also had a night out with some of the hostel inhabitants at the Crowne casino complex, then visited a carnival that taking place by the river.

Melbourne struck me as more laid back than Sydney, very much a `coffee culture` kind of place. Good to visit, but Sydney is my personal preference as a place to live...


Canberra

1999-03-11

After leaving Sydney, decided to take in the Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, and stop in Canberra en route.Had been warned by other backpackers it isn`t the most inspiring place, and they were right. However it was scaldingly hot, which helped. Just spent one  day touring around on the hop on, hop off bus looking at the sights - parliament, various museums, the black tower, etc. Stayed in the YHA hostel, which was stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all in all wouldn`t recommend spending more than a few days here...


Surfers Paradise

1999-03-13 to 1999-03-17

Trying to do as much of the East coast as possible before my visa expires and I have to head back to Blighty on my round the world ticket...a complete lack of culture here, 3 days to be a stereotypical tourist and do the various theme parks - Warner Brothers World, Water world, and a water slide park. Lots of white knuckle roller coasters, wild animal displays including white tigers and dolphins, and much better weather tham Melbourne, also managed to get a fair bit of sunburn...

All came to a quicker end than planned, I cancelled my original coach to Brisbane when I found out there was nowhere nearby showing the Liverpool v Man Utd game live -  so quickly booked a late night coach, got to Brisbane and went straight out at 2am to the casino to watch the match..


Brisbane

1999-03-18 to 1999-03-22

Hit Brisbane in the early hours and watched the mighty reds draw 1-1 with the evil Scumchester United in the casino, don`t think the locals quite knew what was going on as they were playing roulette while I was screaming insanely at the TV...

There was only one real reason for coming to Brisbane, and that was the famous Lone Pine Sanctuary, where you can get your photo cuddling a koala. Spent a day  at the sanctuary feeding kangaroos and had a photo with a baby koala, also saw vicious little tasmaninan devils, and big fat wombats.

Rest of the time in Brisbane was spent wandering around the city and sunbathing. Found the place a little remeniscant of Adelaide, i.e fairly quiet, and ran out of things to do after a few days. However the hostel, the `Backpacker resort` was the best of any I stayed in during my year away - en suite bathrooms, cable TV, swimming pool, sauna, jaccuzzi, free BBQs, cinema nights on a big screen, and also came complete with a red back spider hanging over the toilets, the first deadly creature I`d seen during my time in Oz.

For a tee totaller, spent a highly non - entertaining day doing a tour of a brewery with some birds from the hostel - at the end of the tour was a free bar, so gave away my vouchers for free beers to my new friends, who could barely walk home afterwards.

Glad I visited, but Brisbane wouldn`t be on my list of places to repeat.


Hervey Bay/Frasier Island

1999-03-23 to 1999-03-30

Had heard good reports about the 4 wheel drive camping trips on Frasier Island, which required stopping on the mainland in Hervey Bay. Went to the `Beaches` hostel and signed up for a trip leaving the next day, assigned to a mixed group of English and German backpackers, - not typical Germans in that they seemed to have a sense of humor. Also met a scouse bird who had a very odd job, the boss had agreed to give her a secretarial role on condition that she worked in the nude...which she was absolutely fine with.

Day 1 of the adventure began with a trip to the supermarket, to stock up on supplies for camping. 90% of the shopping was made up of raw meat (and beer for the rest of the happy troupe). After a briefing we took our 4WD onto the ferry, and were taken to the island, then left to our own devices until the following evening when we had to be back at the ferry to depart. With map in hand, we proceeded to spend 2 days exploring - swimming in natural lakes & springs, visiting shipwrecks, watching tiger sharks from clifftop viewing points, and cooking at least 4 whole cows and pigs on our camp fire...

At the end of day one, we had to race along a beach on one side of the island at sunset before the tide came in and left us stranded without a place to camp. Then spent 2 hours in the pitch black searching for a campsite with an available space, and watched a family of dingos trying to steal our food while we finally pitched our tents.

On our way to the ferry, all was going well until we suffered a flat tyre, and had to stop on the dirt track holding up about 200 vehicles behind us. After a long time getting very dirty indeed , we finally raced off and  made the ferry with minutes to spare...a slight shame that several vehicles didn`t get on because they had been stuck behind us, and the next ferry wasn`t for 24 hours - sorry!


Airlie Beach/whitsunday Islands

1999-03-31 to 1999-04-07

One adventure after another - I pre-booked a 3 day cruise around the Whitsunday islands on `Tallarook IV` a round the world race yacht, and was pleasantly surprised when we saw the vessel, and especially the quality of the food!

I was introduced to scuba diving during this trip, undertaking learner dives from the beach, and also from the boat in the middle of the sea where we saw mean and moody looking hammerhead sharks - had to get out of the water as apparrently they weren`t too happy to see us, as they were soon to be giving birth in the area...

We also spent an afternoon sunbathing & swimming at Whitehaven beach, probably the best beach I`ve ever seen - white siliicone sand that stays ice cool even in 30-40 degree heat. The final night on the boat was quite eerie - a dinghy took us out for a night dive, spent 30 minutes in the pitch black, unable to see anything and we allmanaged to cut ourseves to shreds on the coral reef (that we couldn`t see).

We managed to all lose eachother underwater, and had to wave our torches in the air to attract the boat to pick us up, I also disturbed a very angry looking moray eel that tried to attack me. Following this it was back to the mainland, upwards and onwards to Cairns...


Cairns

1999-04-08 to 1999-04-12

The final stop of my year in Oz before flying to Fiji, and a real tourist hotspot, with lots of Ozzies from the South heading here to find some winter sun.

Went out on a boat tour of the Great Barrier Reef, but all a bit too commercialised and the reef not left as natural as further down the coast.

Nice and sunny, I spent most of my time visiting local tax offices trying to sort out rebates from my various jobs to help pay off various credit card bills run up while travelling the East Coast. By pure fluke I met up with Bob, my ex flatmate from Sydney, in the Captain Cook backpackers, and watched the greatest footballing travesty of all time as Scumchester fluked a 2-1 win in the European Cup final over Bayern Munich...

A bit bored with Cairns, booked a few days in Cape Tribulation. I`d met several other backpackers that recommended the horse ride along the beach there, so made my way up to PKs Lodge...


Cape Tribulation

1999-04-13 to 1999-04-16

Took a ferry from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, across a river full of man eating crocodiles, and arrived at PKs Lodge late at night. A very lively hostel, staying in little beach huts in the jungle with a big central hall hosting a bar/restaurant...

After a far too brief night`s kip, got up early and hiked through the jungle to the horse stables up in the hills, to be introduced to my new thoroughbred friend for the day - a gigantic horse named Raja. Worryingly, I was told he was a retired ex New Zealand racehorse, and was hoping he didn`t fancy trying to rekindle old memories by galloping at full pelt, given I`d never ridden in my life...

After clambering on board, we trotted down through the forest and along the beach. Then the best part of the day, taking off the saddle and leading the horses into the Ocean for a swim, being careful that they didn`t stand on our feet! Great experience, and one I would go do again if the chance ever arises. After a swim (well the horse swam while I put my feet up on his chest while holding the reigns), we rode bareback out of the water to dry off. Next possibly the scariest part of my whole year away, as we galloped back through the forest to the stables - only myself and one other rider were novices, and unfortunately the horses didn`t seem keen to take any kind of instructions to slow down or stop, leaving us clinging on for dear life and trying to evade decapitation by low hanging branches...

Raja`s `reward` for nearly killing me was a bucket of oats, which he devoured eagerly. After that, time to head back to Cairns, pack, and fly out of Oz, leaving behind my home of the last 11 months. Not all bad news though, off to Fiji to go and chill on a desert island!


Fiji - Naadi/Beachcomber Island

1999-04-17 to 1999-04-30

Flew into Fiji unsure of what to expect, picked up by a mini bus to take me to a hostel and headed off through the wilderness en route to Naadi - only to pass a McDonalds 5 minutes later! (which I returned to that evening for some traditional Fiji grub).


The standard of accommodation was not quite up to that I had seen in Australia - managed to get ravished by mosquitoes, both legs covered in red lumps within 2 days. Very friendly though, and (as usual) loads of British backpackers around. Had planned to get a boat out to a desert island for a week, on arrival found 2 girls who had just spent the same year in Oz and were booked to go to the same island, plus spookily were booked on the same flight out from Fiji to Los Angeles later...


Travelled out a few hours from the coast to Beachcomber Island in highly choppy seas, packed into the worlds smallest fishing boat. Several people were being ill over the back of the boat, thankfully I seem to have a cast iron stomache for this kind of thing. What followed was a week of bliss - staying in little beach huts with no modern conveniences, a group of locals cooking all our meals, and spending each day hiking to the beach on the far side of the island, snorkelling with reef sharks. We stopped in `Mamma`s kitchen` each afternoon - a giant hut in the middle of the island where a local woman would cook batches of chocolate cake and homemade ice cream, every backpacker on the island would turn up like clockwork at 1pm.
We were also taken snorkelling to the adjacent island, where the film `The Blue Lagoon` was shot. Great chance to use the underwater camera, fish were everywhere as soon as we stepped into the water, a very idyllic unspoilt spot.


A week of chilling was then followed up by another terrifying boat ride back to the mainland. 5 of us travelled together, and got tickets for the World cup rugby qualifying game between Fiji and Canada. Fiji won, and we joined in the celebrations at a local nightclub, where we could not recognise or dance to any of the music.

Before leaving Fiji, we decided to experience a little bit of luxury, heading to the Sheraton resort in Naadi to pretend we were guests and use their beach for the day. Then a day of scuba diving out in the Pacific Ocean, which was not one to forget!


Unlike Oz, the health and safety restrictions on diving in Fiji seem somewhat 'lax'...after 12 of us crammed onto a boat built for  6, we headed off into the middle of the ocean, no land in sight. The group consisted of a mix of qualified divers, learners, and those who had never dived before. In very choppy seas, we were all told to jump out of the boat, and follow a rope down to the ocean floor. Unfortunately with just 1 instructor between 12 of us, several people bottled it, had panic attacks, and had to go back to the surface. Meanwhile, down below was total chaos, with people heading in various directions and unidentified species of sharks circling...

I had fun with a very friendly and beautiful leopard shark that came over and wrapped around me like a purring cat, then it was a boat ride back through the choppiest seas I`ve ever seen and time to pack for yet another country - the good ol` burger munching US of A...


Los Angeles

1999-05-01 to 1999-05-08

My first experience of the US - flew in from Fiji with Claire and Davina and booked to stay at a hostel in Santa Monica. A wise choice, due to its location on the beach and near lots of pleasant cafes & shops, also given how scummy the centre of LA proved to be!

Did a number of day tours, highlights included homes of the rich and famous, the highly entertaining Universal Studios, and Venice beach watching musclebound freaks trying to impress the throngs of roller blading passers by.

Have to say I was a little underwhelmed by a day at Disneyland - nice to look at but definitely for kids, as the rides were very lame, none of the gut churning white knuckle rides that I am more fond of. A city tour was ok, but we were informed not to head there in the evenings unless we fancied getting shot or mugged...with that cheery thought, decided I`d seen enough of LA and booked to go somewhere even more pretentious and false...VEGAS!!!!


Las Vegas

1999-05-09 to 1999-05-16

Where better to finish a year of backpacking around the world when you are flat broke and sticking everything on credit cards - well certainly not Las Vegas!!!!

Came from LA on a backpacker tour, stopping en route in the middle of the desert at the worlds largest thermometer,, where the temperature was over 120 degrees -  a bit like stepping into an oven.

The rest of my comrades had decided to shack up in a hostel in downtown Vegas, while I paid a  lavish $15 supplement to stay on the Vegas strip in the Sahara casino - and what a fantastic choice I made. After we had all checked in, we met up for a night on the strip, where I heard tales of gun shots, prostitutes on street corners and cramped dorms with bunk beds and cockroaches...

If anyone`s first experience of the US was Vegas, they could be forgiven for thinking all Americans are fat obnoxious loudmouths, as they are plentiful here. Due to restricted budgets, gambling was limited to the $1 blackjack tables found in the casino where I was staying, however I was quite successful and managed to stay up all night playing the day before we were due to drive to the Grand Canyon - then sleeping all the way there in our bus.

The Canyon alone was well worth visiting the US - after driving there and having lunch overlooking the biggest hole you can imagine, I decided to dig out the credit card and paid for a helicopter flight through the Canyon landing at the bottom, producing my final set of travel photos on this epic voyage.

On the last night, we travelled to the top of the Stratosphere Tower overlooking the Vegas strip (apparently one of the 5 tallest buildings on Earth), and found that there was a tower drop roller coaster on the roof - obviously we had to do this at midnight, looking down the strip. Given the location several hundred metres in the air, this must rank as one of the best coasters around...

And that was it -  a whole year gone by in a flash. After a bus back to LA, it was off to the airport and time to jet over the pond all the way back to Blighty..buggar. Time to start planning the next trip, before the reality of work and dull ass day to day life set in...


Kos

2001-05-01 to 2001-05-15

..just an excuse to put a dot on the map really - a package hol rather than travelling, but found a couple of old photos recently...

bloody hot, and no real sightseeing, but did undertake a ridiculous round trip to Athens to watch England play Greece in World cup qualifiers. We flew out in the early hours of the morning, spent all day wandering Athens in 40 degree heat, I then developed a migarine and vomited repeatedly in bars around the ground. After watching a glorious win, myself, Nick, and Gazza the got a train back to the city and had the windows pelted by bricks from disgruntled locals...decided to go straight to the airport, sat there all night, then flew back to Kos to sleep for the first time in about 50 hours, before being greeted like heroes by other British holiday makers and offered free drinks in various barsthat night.

Culture!


Tsavo/Amboselli/Mombassa

2002-01-21 to 2002-02-03

Not really part of the whole backpacking experience, somewhat more luxurious - but  a nice adventure...

Initially spent a week doing Kenyan safaris in 3 national parks: Tsavo East, Tsavo West, and Amboselli. Staying in lodges out in the wilderness, some with very nice luxuries like swimming pools, others like Leopard lodge having their own guaranteed wildlife - in this case a family of leopards. At this lodge, there was an open air restaurant, and during dinner a leopard stood about 50 feet away from us tearing a cow carcass to pieces: this made for some spectacular photos, and worrying thoughts of what would happen if he decided to do the same to us...

All kinds of wildlife here, including a bull elephant who was blocking our path and decided to full on charge - our local driver responded by turning around and chasing him! Quite unnerving, but better than sitting at a sodding desk looking at spreadsheets. After a week of this, it was off to Mombassa for a week of luxury holiday, our own private beach and dive school in the resort.

Usual beach chilling here, but also did my 3 day PADI qualification. Have done a number of dives on previous trips but never had time to do this before. All pretty straight forward, and got to dive a shipwreck, meet a family of dolphins underwater, and saw a humungous whale shark up close and personal.


Capetown

2003-05-23 to 2003-05-27

Second year in a row I`ve come to Africa, this time the other end of the country, and in Autumn. This didn't stop myself, Neill, and Dave from walking around in shorts while the locals were wearing woolly cardigans and jeans...

On arrival, I was more than a little jet lagged. This didn`t stop us doing a bus tour of the city - not that I can remember much,  as I dozed off within minutes, only waking up when we reached Table Mountain and got out to take some photos of the city. Unfortunately the cable car up the mountain closed the day before we arrived for maintenance, but we still got some fairly lofty views.

After a decent night of kip, we set off to explore, and caught the ferry to Robben island, where Nelson Mandela and others were held prisoner for decades before the end of Apartheid. Aside from the prison itself, we were  treated to the sight of the islands resident penguins nesting, they must get pretty bloody hot in the summer...

We also decided to sample local Cape Town nightlife, despite the warnings of never walking anywhere at night or going anywhere alone - under advisement of our trusty travel books, we took a cab to `Mamma Africas` - a restaurant/bar that served traditional local delicacies such as crocodile, gazelle, buffalo, and delightful ostrich steaks. Following a good feed, we found a local pool hall, and decided against  a visit to one of the shady looking `nightclubs` in the town centre...

Not content with merely risking our lives at the mercy of great white sharks (See next stop after Cape Town!), another potentially fatal activity was required, so how about a day at a shooting range playing with Magnum handguns? Ever so slightly illegal in the UK (for good reason), we set off into the woods (where our bodies would never be found), and proceeded to fire numerous weapons at a range of targets, including some highly dangerous bricks taht we needed to take down in self defence. More disturbing was the trip back to Cape Town, as we drove past mile upon mile of sorry looking shanty towns, on the way to our luxury hotel. Despite the end of Apartheid, every menial job in Cape Town seemed to be performed by the black population,  more than a little disturbing. 

From here, it was on to little fishing town of Gansbaai for the real, and very deadly, purpose behind our visit to this beautiful country......


Gansbaai -Great White Sharks

2003-05-28 to 2003-05-29

The big adventure we came to Africa was now upon us, in the rather unconventional setting of a sleepy fishing village that we could not pronounce - Gansbaai, where the `G` is pronounced by imitating a bloke trying to cough up phlegm...


Quite a drive from Cape Town, we were dropped off at a B& B, where we would spend 3 days and 2 nights as our base camp. A quick exploration determined we were absolutely miles from any form of civilisation, save for a single pub about a mile away. The very friendly landlady gave us a lift in her car to `town` - which consisted of a single road containing a number of takeaways/supermarkets, and video libraries - growing up here may just border on the tedious. High teenage pregnancy rates and alcoholism abound, no doubt...


Surviving on a succession of fairly high quality takeaways, this was a true bloke experience - evenings in our`suite` consisted mainly of comparing and rating the recently published UK and South African editions of FHM`S 100 sexiest women supplements, coming up with our own individual lists, as well as an overall group consensus.


Apart from this, the small matter of going out to dive with ruddy great man eating Great White Sharks! As sightings aren`t guaranteed, we had booked to go out on 3 successive days - as things turned out, we saw them every day, and during my dives I got up close and personal with at least 7 of the buggars.


Being picked up from our B&B in an (apparently) road legal vehicle that was essentially a golf buggy, we were driven to town for a briefing on our dives. The weather was awful, and bordering on unsailable, our dives in doubt for some time...Neill maanged to help attract sharks by blowing chunks over the side of the boat, as indeed did several others in our dive groups. My iron cast stomach was totally unmoved.


The first thing our briefing sprang on us was the fact that we would be diving without using any breathing equipment - as the poor 20 foot maneaters are frightened by bubbles! Instead, the aim is to get into the (tiny) cage, wait for someone to spot a shark, then hold your breath while diving to the bottom of the cage and peering out at the monster...other surprises included :
1) the fact that the cage has no lid, instead the top bobs up and down on the surface held by floats
2) the cage has a ruddy great gap all around the middle with no bars to allow `better viewing`, or a nosey shark to try and stick his head in...


Unperturbed, off we set on day one with a bunch of typically loud Americans (much whooping and a hollering) in tow, going down in the cage in pairs, and getting several photos of sharkds from above and below the water - AWESOME!!! My big moment came this day, as Dave had just clambered out of the cage and I was about to do the same, allowing the next pair in...

The skipper ordered me back down, as a big shark was coming and seemed keen on taking the bait. Unlike most of the sharks we saw, who took a bite, swam around the cage for a bit , then headed off, this was a very hungry fish who wanted to eat the whole bait. The crew dragged the bait right up to the cage I was in - the shark followed, oblivious to me and promptly clattered in to me head on, shaking the cage, and jumping out of the water over my head, allowing everyone on board to get a photo staright out of a Jaws movie, moth wide open...unfortunately while this great photo opportunity was taking place, I was  holding my breath, a little scared of being decapitated at the surface. Still, I got a good close up photo of him about 2 feet away - or at least his tail, thanks to my disposable camera and naff photography skills...

Didn`t put me off though, got back in the cage several more times over the next few days and managed to get a few (murky) photos. We also discovered that some local nutter gets in the water without a cage and swims with the sharks like normal people swim with dolphins. Apparently he studies them, and knows when it is `safe` to get in and play. Good for him, but you couldn`t pay me enough money...particularly when seeing them up close, and realising they were as long as the boat we were in.


On our second evening, we discovered that migrating humpback whales had appeared in the bay. Our kindly landlady took us on a tour ,and we gained a few sightings. Some locals were going out to snorkel with them, giving us ideas for another possible trip (not the harnless humpback whales here, why not get in with some killer whales in the freezing sea in Norway?)


After 3 days of grey skies, rain, and swimming with the cast of Jaws, it's back to the boredom of Blighty and work...


Barcelona

2003-06-14

Not part of a big trip, just a quick jaunt to Spain to celebrate Nick`s 30th birthday. Came across some photos recently that show the marvellous art and culture of this great city - or maybe not, all taken of myself, Nick, and Paul at the Nou Camp football stadium doing a tour and pictured with the European Cup.


Basically several days of lying in bed, partying all night along the Ramblas (spotting all the British birds on hen do`s that where plastered before most people were even going out), and sunbathing courtesy of our handy location (roof top pool in the hotel located a 2 second crawl outside our window!)


Barcelona to Andorra/Pas de la Casa

2003-06-15 to 2003-06-16

Making the most of Barca, adding a slightly more cultural few days before heading home...

Making the lengthy journey to Andorra, with some stop offs en route: Montserrat in the mountains, Baga and Ax les Thermes in France (dipping  feet in the open air thermal spas, and grabbing some non traditional French cuisine from the town market - Goats cheese pizza followed by a gorgeous lemon meringue tart. Next up the highlights of this little detour - the Pyrenees mountains and Pas de la Casa.

Breathtaking landscape views of the mountain ranges, and time to take a hike through an 'old style' Andorran village up in the mountains - remote stone houses in the middle of nowhere, yours for a bargain price of around £300 per night if you feel the need for isolation. Then a  short hop via Soldeu and Ransol to the capital of Andorra, a hive or tax free shopping activity - or  in my case, a place to do a spot of sunbathing in glorious sunshine while taking in views of the surrounding mountains.

Having added another country (or principality, depending on your view) to my list, it is back to Barcelona, with a free morning to walk around the cathedral and a lengthy session of culture at Gaudi's masterpiece - the unfinished (at least for the next 20-30 years) Sagrada La Familia. Not one for religion, but I was still overawed by the architectire and scale of this place; incredible views in the interior, a myriad of colours in the plethora of stained glass windows.

Having managed to cram in a little bit of natural beauty and culture at the end of what had been a rather non-cultural trip, time to return to the reality of work...


Las Vegas

2004-01-25 to 2004-01-31

Easily my most frequent stop outside of England now.. Have been here several times since my original year around the world trip, often tagging it on to business trips. This time, a stag do - so a lot less sightseeing, and a lot more clubbing! Rode the rollercoaster at New York New York, enjoyed the virtues of Coyote Ugly and Rum Jungle, spenty an evening at the House of Blues entertained by the cheesiest retro act of all time, and best of all we were there during Superbowl weekend - yeeeeeeha hi five!!! Lots of US trailer trash in town.

We also enjoyed a stretch limo ride to one nightclub, which cost 100 bucks for about 3 minutes - but one of the guys had just won on a slot machine and paid for it, so I`m not complaining. We also enjoyed VIP status at one of the swankiest clubs, Rain, with our own private area overlooking the dance floor. In the same area were several middle aged blokes enjoying the company of  young `unescorted ladies` as Vegas calls them  - politically correct terminology!


San Francisco

2004-02-01 to 2004-02-03

Hit San Francisco with Andy en route back from the stag do in Vegas - figured 'hey, while half way round the world may as well do something adventurous...'

Crammed it all in here: city tour, Alcatraz, Golden Gate bridge, big Yankee style food portions, and watched the Superbowl in a local bar filled with truck driving lard ass Amercicans, yeee haaaa...

Evening was a bit different, as we hit a 24 hour gym and punished ourselves before ajaccuzzi/sauna to relax, then hit China town for a truly immense banquet (forgot the portions would be American size!). Unfortunately we tried to walk back to our hotel, forgetting San Francisco was built on a series of hills, and that our hotel required walking up the very steepest of them -  wecould well have done with a team of sherpas, as walking up a seemingly endless 60 degree gradient was not fun.
 
Real whistle stop stuff,  defintely a place to come back to if I ever get to Yosemite (something on my  bucket list) -  a very chilled out, laid back, and pretty city.


New York

2004-05-24 to 2004-05-30

Another free holiday to some extent, tagged on to a business trip to Minneapolis. Boys on tour with Andy, Neill, and Brad - we bought a New York pass for 2 days of exploring the attractions, and managed to avoid every one of the museums in the process!

Instead, we took a double decker bus tour, visited USS Intrepid (the last resting place of Concorde),  the statue of Liberty and Central park, gave up on the 3 hour queues to climb the Empire State building, and did a one hour harbour cruise on the `Beast`...a huge speedboat that guarantees to get everyone on board soaked from head to toe, which succeeded in keeping its promise.

Sampled the NYC nightlife - all a bit of a let down except the very amusing `Hogs and Heffers` bar that Coyote Ugly was  based on. Unfortunately the clientele don`t really look as good as in the film...the trip was also slightly ruined by a migraine attack that cut my sightseeing short, but will return.


Stonehenge & Winchester

2004-12-20 to 2004-12-22

I found these photos recently, from over a decade ago at the time of writing, so just popping them in her for posterity.

Honestly have little memory of this - Stonehenge has amazing history and mythology surrounding it. the visitors center was all very nice, but in reality I was rather underwhelmed by the site itself - I guess that is the issue of having travelled around a fair bit of the world and seeing some truly spectacular sights.

Similarly, Winchester cathedral is renkowned for its history, architecture, and the King James bible. However, I am not really the target audience to be blown away by this - quite pretty, but as I not exactly religious, and have seen hundreds of cathedrals around the world, a pleasant rather than 'must do' activity for me personally. It is also Jane Austens resting place, again sure to appeal to others more than myself.


Buenos Aires

2005-02-04 to 2005-02-05

..the start of a new epic journey, around the globe in around 35 days so knocking Phileas Fog right off his pedestal. Not quite like my last round-the-world backpacking expedition of 1998, this time I`m travelling with an executive expanding suitcase, not quite the luggage you normally see around the hostels. Arrived in Buenos Aires fairly jetlagged but could have been worse, the kind people at the Varig check in at Heathrow upgraded me to business class for the  flight to Sao Paolo!

Definitely one for the list of places to come back to, Buenos Aires looks a like a cross between England, Spain, and Italy..and warm in February! Did a whirlwind city bus tour, and thoroughly enjoyed the ultra cheap restaurants and Argentinian steaks while here. Unfortunately a day tour to a `gaucho` ranch, playing polo and eating traditional Argie BBQ, was cancelled due to rain, so ended up in a cinema watching `Meet the Fokkers`! Good job it was a good film, as the seats were the most uncomfortable ever...

The city is a good one for night owls, the shops were still doing well at around 11pm, and eating out at midnight doesn`t seem to be a problem. Michelle had some difficulty in resisting the immense number of bakeries selling fresh cream cakes, while I had a staple diet of ham and chesse baguettes: `jamon y queso` is one of the few Spanish phrases I know, this combined with pointing your finger at photos on menus seems to do the trick...if I ever come back, well worth learning some Spanish. This is the first country I`ve visited where you can`t get by by talking English slowly/loudly (various lads holidays in Europe!), even the cabbies seem to have no knowledge of English whatsoever.

Stayed in `Hostel Clan` here, good value at 3 quid a night! Very laid back/relaxed, to the point that on arrival there was a young blonde American bird (Sarah) lying in `my` bed...they think of everything here.


Iguassu Falls - Argentina/Brazil

2005-02-06 to 2005-02-07

2 days that flew by, and a bit of a change after backpacking in a £3/night hostel in Buenos Aires. Staying in the Sheraton Hotel perched at the top of the Falls on the Argentinian side, with a marvellous outdoor pool,gym etc, more befitting of an executive like myself. Iguassu consists of well over 200 waterfalls in one area at the Argentina/Brazil border, provides for amazing views from the hotel window.

Day 1 started with a slight panic - after getting a cab to the airport in Buenos Aires, we were told at check in that we were at the wrong airport! Had to get another cab right across town and barge our way to the check in desk as our flight had already closed..thankfully it was slightly delayed and we got on...

After being picked up by a chauffeur driven car at the airport and dropped at the hotel, we embarked on a few self guided tours of the Argentinian side of the falls. Firstly took a train to the top of `Devil`s Throat, the tallest waterfall...spectacular views, interesting to look down and see the little speedboats heading right under the falls, something we were due to do the next day. Then did a walking tour of the lower trail, took a lot of photos so will probably all end up looking the same but hey ho...

Day 2 was an early start, picked up by a personal tour guide who ferried us across the border to Brazil (neatly evading all the huge queues at passport checks/customs en route), we took a speed boat ride along the bottom of teh falls, getting thoroughly soaked but with a temperature of 30 degrees soon dried off. Then a walk along the Brazillian side of the falls, a very different perspective plus whole new batch of photos! Indulged in an all you can eat Brazillian buffet, made aware of the delights of black beans and a hell of a lot of meats in various forms. After that arce back over the border and onwrads to the next destination...


Rio de Janiero

2005-02-08 to 2005-02-11

On to Brazil, for the end of the carnival...at least in theory. We didn`t actually get to the official carnival at the Sambadrome, a ticket for one night was more than 400 dollars. Instead we opted to go and see a footy match at the Maracana stadium...holds 200,000 people, very impressive (though the night we went there could only be about 20,000 in the place, watching local team Botafogo win 2-1).

First day we headed to the beach - sunbathing and drinking out of a coconut (helps to forget about work), unfortunately Michelle`s sunbathing consisted of falling asleep face down in the sand with no lotion on, resulting in fairly predictably very nasty sunburn that will take many weeks to heal...Did a full day city tour including visits to the christ the redeemer statue as well as a cable car ride to Sugar Loaf mountain, plenty more photos taken. Also had a traditional Brazillian carvery style meal - waiters contantly walking around carving various meats from skewers to your plate, could definitely live here...

Spent another day doing the `Green Route`, driving down the coast to some of the Southern Islands and spending a day crusing around on a boat sunbathing and snorkelling, temperature well into the 30s (well I sunbathed while Michelle sat in the shade). On the final day we visited a nature walk at the base of Sugar Loaf mountain, unknown to most tourists - saw humming birds and tiny little monkeys which came down from the trees for food. On our last evening the good weather ended and the storms moved in, looking forward to heading to Mexico!


Cancun/Chichen Itza

2005-02-12 to 2005-02-16

Arrived in Cancun, quickly became aware that if you want to see the `real` Mexico this is the last place to go, very much a haven for North American tourists, a 20km+ beach full of luxury hotels and bars/clubs. Back to backpacker standards for us though, staying in Chacmool hostel downtown for a few quid and a bit closer to the locals - while we were there, the local square had a carnival of some sort going on every night, we partook of the local customs by going on the dodgems and eating churros, very cultural...

Made our way out to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza in blistering heat, and climbed the 200 steps to the top of the main temple, also learned about the rather interesting ball game that they used to play there, where the winning captain would be beheaded at the end of the game by the losing captain - not one SkySports will be looking to bring back any time soon. Entertained over lunch by some crazy Mexicans doing traditional dancing, while balancing bottles on their heads.

Spent another day at ecological park Xcaret - full day including `snuba`, a cross between snorkelling and scuba, spent 60 mins swimming out on the reef and a chance to use the underwater camera. Also plenty of animals on view including manatees and dolphins, before spending an evening at the Xcaret show - depicting the history of Mexico from Mayan times to present day, and a lot more interesting than it sounds...

Final day was one of total luxury, as we visited the Marriot resort spa, had a much needed workout, sat in possibly the worlds biggest jaccuzzi, then an 80 minute swedish massage - just the trick before returning to a backpacker lifestyle in San Diego...also enjoyed possibly the best tuna steak the world has ever produced in a posh restaurant overlooking the lagoon. Michelle got a little pissed, first time since we left the UK!


San Diego

2005-02-17 to 2005-02-21

...aah the bliss of getting away from the cold wet UK and heading to sunny California...or not, in this case.

We arrived in what is one of Southern California`s 5 wettest seasons in history. All started well with a day at Sea World, the sun actually shined for part of the day, and was thoroughly entertained by the dolphin and killer whale shows. Also watched an obtacle course demonstration by well trained dog, cats..and a pig!

Decided to also spend a day at the world famous San Diego zoo, only to be met by 5 hours of non stop torrential downpours, and a host of animals cowering at the back of their enclosures peering out at us wondering what the hell we were doing out in the rain.

Had great fun finding our hostel, the cab driver was a foreigner who couldn`t even find the road it was on, I ended up using a map and guiding him there, the fare was about 3 times what it should have been but hey ho the hostel were paying. In a cool little area called Ocean beach, plenty of cafes, ice cream parlours, waffle houses etc, and obviously near the beach, good place to go back to but preferably in the summer next time...

Spent one day out doing a city tour, looking at the areas where the rich and famous live, and doing a harbour tour. We also attempted to go whale watching, but the boat had to turn back due to bad weather so something else for a future visit. Ended up touring a US destroyer, looking at jet fighters, touring the bridge etc. Overall a great place to do again when it`s hot, right now can`t wait for the (supposed) heat of Miami beach, but need to party in Vegas first...


Las Vegas

2005-02-22 to 2005-02-25

Vegas!!!! Lost count but think this is about my 7th visit to Vegas, it`s certainly been hotter than this pretty much every other time, as the weather from San Diego i.e torrential downpours, has continued.

As Michelle has never been before, spent some time just walking the strip and looking at all the casinos and attractions on offer - the Bellagio fountain show, Traesure island `Sirens` show, the lion habitat at the MGM, and the white lions/tigers at the Mirage.

Spent a full day doing the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam, had a great flight through the canyon and boat ride along the Colorado river, saw the Joshua tree forest, and luckily ran into a herd of wild mustangs on a dirt road en route back to Vegas, witnessed 2 stallions having a scrap close up...

Also managed to take in some shows on the strip, saw Mamma Mia at the Mandalay Bay, and sat in the front row of the Penn and Teller magic show in the Rio, Michelle was particularly delighted as she was picked as a `volunteer` for one of the tricks with a spotlight shining on her - never seen anyone blush quite so much. Did some partying too, with a particularly late night at the `Bikinis` club in the Rio, also a cheesy retro evening at House of Blues club, Michelle got VERY pissed indeed.

In summary, marvellous, as usual, and will be backagain in May for pure partying and no culture...


Miami

2005-02-26 to 2005-03-02

No photos to speak of here, as I actually came for a conference at the fabulous Hilton Fontainbleu resort. Chance to (once again) escape the hostel scene and chill in a four star hotel.

Unfortunately the Yanks seem to go a bit overboard when it comes to work, with seminars starting at 8am, a time when I might normally be contemplating rolling out of bed and going to work. Won`t bother detailing any of the conference as far too dull...

Was supposed to spend a day doing an everglades tour, but cancelled this as found an `English` pub (Churchills) that was showing the Liverpool v Chelsea Cup final at 9am US time.

This establishment was in what appearred to be Miami`s ghettos district. Putting any worries aside, proceeded to tuck into a full English breakfast in an establishment run by a lovable English rogue (i.e a fat skinhead), who decided to show porn on the big screen as a build up to the game... Unfortunately the game didn`t go to plan, and the 2 Chelsea fans in the bar were fairly muted in their celebrations given the 40 odd Liverpool fans present...to cap off a fine day, England lost to Ireland in the rugby game that was being shown at the same time on the other side of the bar.

Right, time to forget work, off to Melbourne for the Formula 1 Grand Prix....


Melbourne

2005-03-03 to 2005-03-06

Back in Melbourne for my second Ozzie Formula One Grand Prix (1998 seems a long time ago), doing it in slightly better style this time with a 4 day grandstand pass directly opposite the pit lane exit, and so allowing for some excellent photos...

More impressed with the city this time, on my last visit I much preferred the hustle and bustle of Sydney, but stayed in South Yarra this time and found a whole new area filled with shops,cafes, and nightlife. The weather has been mixed, with plenty of people walking around looking burned after catching the sun when it breaks through the clouds.

Quite an adventure on arrival, as luggage didn`t appear! Airline managed to trace, and we were told it would be deliverd a day or so later. Unfortunately this left us with no clothes/toiletries, but in the best British bulldog spirit we went straight from the airport to the first day of the Grand Prix clutching our hand luggage and very overdressed given the scorching sunshine. After that it was time to hunt for some shops, as the airline had given us $50US dollars each to buy emergency supplies before our luggage arrived...

Unfortunately, despite a thriving area of shops and cafes nearby, we discovered that they all closed at very England - like early times, and were forecd to buy clothing from the Chinese equivalent of a Poundstretcher store. Michelle bought not one, but two pairs of distinctly non classy knickers at the princely sum of £1 each from a dump bin in this establishment - would not be surprised if they were second hand. Thankfully luggage did arrive the second day, and at this point I threw away my emergency clothing, however Michelle had bonded with her new prize hipsters and to my knowledge is still wearing them now (could do with a wash sometime).

Grand Prix was fairly marvellous, lots of eventful qualifying with rain falling half way through the session and causing chaos. Lots of events going on around the track, including the offer of having a hot shave from some bird if you bought a Gillete razor, one which I took up (see photos). Due to execllent seats, had a great view of the celebrations after the race, got close up to the podium and flying champagne. Michelle also wangled us a private tour of the pit lane courtesy of connections with the British Motorsport Institute, allowed us to get up close and personal to the cars while the crews were working on them.

During our stay in Melbourne, made a few visits to the Crown casino, including a night at the `Gold Class` cinema - unfortunately the film was absolute dross, but made up for by the fully reclining seats and waiters bringing food/drink/confectionery on demand to your seat whenever you want...


Phillip Island

2005-03-07

Last day of my current world tour, spent it viewing Melbourne from the top of the Rialto tower, visiting the Melbourne Motor show, and finally heading off to spend the afternnon and evening on Phillip island...

Really stereotypical Ozzie stuff, spent the afternoon feeding some kangaroos, looking at koalas, and then watching the penguins come waddling out of the sea at sunset - got the same photos that a billion tourists/backpackers have taken before! Head back to blighty tommorrow and straight back to the office and working life...great. Next weekend to be spent planning future trips - Amazon, Inca trail, etc etc.


Istanbul

2005-05-25 to 2005-05-26

....no sightseeing of note. Pure partying and all night celebrations following `the greatest comeback in football history` as described by the English papers....and I was there!

Almost a total calamity, our flight from Stanstead was due to take off at 7am, get to Istanbul at noon then take us to relax in our hotel befor going to the game at 5pm. What happened is that we sat on the plane while receiving endless messages about delays, finally taking off 4 hours late and arriving in Istanbul at 4pm. Coach took us straight to the stadium, leaving our baggage on board and spent several hours in the `fans zone`, taken up entirely by queueing for food, while listening to some poor quality live music...

Into the stadium for a rousing chorus of You`ll Never Walk alone, before the drama unfolded. Following truly bizarre team selection, Liverpool were 1 nil down inside a minute, and 3 nil down by half time, a rather depressing atmoshphere, particularly after spending 375 quid on a ticket! The second half would go down in footy folklore as the `miracle of Istanbul` as we scored 3 goals in 6 minutes to send the game into extra time.After a miraculous double save by Jerzy Dudek in the last minute of extra time, Liverpool won the penalty shootout to win the 50th European Cup final, our 5th title, and so entitling us to keep the trophy forever.

Good atmosphere after the game, somehow got a free upgrade to a 5 star hotel and spent many hours in the 24 hour bar eating and drinking with a dozen other fans on the same trip, before catching a few hours sleep.

Next day proved equally as enjoyable, as we checked in at the airport in the line next to the AC Milan team (loooosers!), then met the Liverpool team in the departure lounge with the European Cup! Really regret not taking a camera, but took some very poor qualitry snaps of my trip using my mobile phone, so have loaded some of the clearer ones here...next, time to fly home, pack, and leave immediately for 2 England football friendlies/sightseeing in Chicago and New York…normal relaxing lifestyle. Oh, now Liverpool have qualified for the World Championship in Tokyo in December, so that will be another stop for my map!


Chicago

2005-05-27 to 2005-05-29

about the 10th time I`ve been through Chicago, first time I`ve actually stopped and done some sightseeing!

Went with Nick for the England friendlies v USA and Columbia (in New York), basically meaningless games but treated the whole trip as an extended celebration of the Champions league win in Istanbul, very enjoyable...

On arrival in Chicago, headed out to do some sightseeing, started with a nightt ime trip up the Sears tower. Decided to follow this with some world famous Chicago deep pan pizza at Giardellis - bad idea!!!! How on Earth American can finish one of these is beyond me, we ordered a 12 inch pizza between 2 of us, and couldn`t even finish 2 slices each. When they say deep they really mean deep, you need scuba gear to get down to the crust...

After hitting a bar on Rush/Division Streets (full of England boys on tour), hit the bed and then out for the USA game the next morning. Met 2 young perky American college girls from Utah at the train station, who decided to abandon their plans to watch baseball and asked if they could tag along with us to the `soccer`. Not a very traditional pre match build up, we went to the Field museum next door to Soldier Field stadium - saw the worlds biggest Tyranosaurus Rex `Sue`, and the stuffed `lions of Tsavo`, who ate 150 humans in Africa, a story depicted in the film `The Ghost and the darkness`...

Good crowd at the game, dominated by England fans and ex pats, a 2-1 victory for England and then another night out on Division Street in a very English style party bar with the American birds... a good lie in for me the next day and a jaccuzzi before flying to New York, while Nick haeaded off in advance at some godforsaken hour.


New York

2005-05-30 to 2005-06-01

My second visit to New York in a year, decided to finish the sightseeing we never got around to before, and do a bit of shopping that I couldn`t really afford.

First morning, up early doors for a traditional cream cheese bagel from a 24 hour deli, then off to join the queue for the Empire State building. Good decision to go early, got in and up to the observation tower relatively quickly, great sunny weather and spectacular views of the city, harbour, staque of Liberty etc. After this we raced down the road to do a tour of `the world`s greatest sports arena`, Madison Square Garden - nice from the outside, dull as dishwater inside as we saw empty seats and locker rooms, how thrilling. One (brief) highlight was seeing the original world heavyweight boxing championship trophy, awarded when there was only one champion rather than 10! After this we went to ride `the Beast` speedboat through the harbour for good views of the city and a bit of a soaking, then wasted some time in Madam Taussaud`s. Finally, we took a bus out to Woodbury Common, a premium outlet centre of 200+ shops selling stuff at 40-70% discounts, managed to spend 300 bucks in 1 and a half hours...

Next day and time for the game, off to New Jersey and Giants stadium, sat out in the blazing sunshine enjoying a tailgate party with unlimited burgers,chicken, hot dogs and soft drinks before watching England beat Columbia 2-1. A night out at 2 sleazy bars in the meat packer district, home to pack and then straight to the airport with no sleep to fly home. Yet more relaxation as have to be back in the office tommorrow!


Prague and Kutna Hora

2006-12-28 to 2006-12-31

Really don't remember much about this, found some old photos many years later, so sticking them on here.

A trip to prague, but the key highlght I recall was a day trip to Kutna Hora, which included a visit to the Sedlec Ossuary - a church decorated with human bones and skulls, including a bone chandelier, pretty awesome place. Apparently they ran out of burial space for bodies, so started outting them to a more practical and dcorative use...


French Riviera

2007-03-24 to 2007-03-26

No real memories of this, but found the old photos so keep them here for posterity - Nice, Eze, Monte Carlo, Cannes, St Paul, and Villefranche  as a stopver for a few days while visiting France.

I do recall it pissed down all afternoon during a visit to Cannes, and some very nice gelato in the old town of Nice, but not a not else. Photos look nice though...


Belgium & Luxembourg

2007-09-30 to 2007-10-03

Combing some old and new photos here to cover Brussels, Luxembourg, and Dinant.

Have been in and through Brussels may times, but without taking photos, so on my latest visit took the opportunity to take a day out for sightseeing, including a day trip to Luxembourg and a stop in the town of Dinant.

A trip to the TinTinMuseum, a stroll around town seeing the sights, and a whole lots of chips,waffles, and chocolate - it is a wonder Belgium is not the most obese country on the planet. Luxembourg was worthwhile stop that means another country added to the list, and Dinant is a quirky little place, the home of the inventor of the saxaphone and they make the most of it - a sax museum, lots of statues, and a host of decorated saxaphones scattered around teh town in the colours of each European country.


Tysfjord - Killer Whale safari

2007-12-08

After quite a long break from adventuring, and having been given a few extra days holiday to use before the end of the year, I decided to fulfil another ambition...snorkelling with killer whales.

A short adventure, flying into Norway then catching a coach to the sleepy village of Tysfjord - the journey was a mini adventure in itself as we drove through a herd of wild reindeer, then spotted 2 wild elk as we got off the coach...

After donning appropriate thermal survival clothing to deal with the extreme cold, boarded the big boat with 25 other intrepid explorers and headed off into the fjord looking for orcas. Was initially dismayed to learn that some people had been going out every day for 11 days, and not seen a single whale for over a week at a time - due to the effects of global warming having changed the path that the herring take (the orcas natural food supply)...

 

However, I was in for a major slice of luck, within 20 minutes of leaving the harbour we found a family of 4 orca that appeared right next to the boat and hapily played around until making a run for it to find some herring...after a few hours without further sighting, I then boarded a smaller zodiac inflatable boat with 8 others to try and get a close up experience. Again luck was on my side, due to a large fishing boat in the fjord. The orcas made a bee line for this due to the chance of a free meal, and we saw at least 8 of them in close proximity, including a mother and young calf porpoising out of the water within 20 feet of us. As the whales were staying close by, we then took our chance to enter the artic waters complete with snorkels...

Bloody freezing!!! After a few initial second of not knowing whether I was dead or alive, or suffering hypothermia, my vision cleared and I realised a large male whale was diving only 8 feet away. Randomly clicking my underwater camera I somehow managed one good shot. A professional cameraman with us took several shots at lower depths, and I bought one of his photos at the end of the trip for 11 euros - robbing theiving b***ard!! A highlight of the boat trip home was a sighting of the majestic sea eagles on a nearby cliff, they also made a few passes over the boat but no end of endless random clicking on my camera produced any worthwile photos...

After a hot drink, time to get changed, a long coach ride to Bodo airport. At this time of year there is only 3 -5 hours of daylight in the area, so we were entertained by sunset at 2pm, and later during our journey witnessed the phenomenon of the northern lights dancing in the sky before flying home - quite a lot to pack in to one day!

Time to start researching the next adventure...inca trail/amazon here I come

 

 

 

 


Lake Maggiore and Zermatt/Matterhorn

2008-05-27 to 2008-05-29

..a business trip to Milan gave me an excuse to take a short trip to the shores of Lake Maggiore for a few days - touring around the Borromee Islands including the palaces and gardens, heading up the cable car in Stresa for a view over the 7 local lakes, and a trip across the border via the Simplon pass and Brig, to see the Swiss Alps.

This last trip took in the spectacular Matterhorn mountain, spending a day in extortionately expensive Zermatt - eating fondue and rosti before heading up to the viewing hill for an uninterrupted view of 12 mountains, all over 4000 metres tall.

Returned to Zermatt to stuff my face with pizza and coconut gelato, before flying home from Milan - just in time for another mundane week in the office...hey ho. Oh, and picked up a case of the trots after a dodgy sausage pizza - ah, the memories


Lake District, UK

2008-06-02 to 2008-06-03

not exactly globetrotting - old photos from a trip to the picturesque Lake District, all of 2 hours from my home city.

Don't remember anything of this, other than some exquisite gingerbread in the town of Grasmere. Fresh air, hiking, lakes, boats, sheep, and William Wordworths grave.


Cusco

2008-06-07 to 2008-06-08

Back on the adventuring trail, finally time to cross the Amazon and Machu Picchu off the list...

This tour started with a series of mini disasters; having booked an Amazon trip based in Manu, I was due to arrive in Cusco, Peru and fly in and out of Manu to a small private airstrip. However, 3 days before the trip I was informed of an industrial dispute meaning teh Boca Manu airstrip was closed until mid July. This meant seekinga n alternative, very long winded route  a 10 hour drive from Cusco into the edge of the Amazon followed by a 10 hour boat ride down teh river to Manu...

Before any of this could take place, I had another small matter to deal with, as there was no sign of my luggage arriving in Peru! Arriving in Lima on 1am Saturday morning, I discovered my bag was stuck in Canada, assured it would arrive the following daya and be sent to Cusco before departing to teh Amazon. This didn`t happen, which meant I spent most of Sunday trying to find shops in rural Peru to buy 5 days worth of clothes/kit for a trip into the jungle...

Despite these setbacks, I did manage to do a city tour of Cuso and the surrounding Inca ruins. The main square in Cusco was a hive of activity on Sunday, with the military parading through the streets, local children desperately trying to sell drawings and finger puppets for about 15p each, and tourist groups trapsing through the cathedral. I managed to fend off the horde of finger puppet traders by offering 2 children a whole US dollar to find me a shop selling ponchos and hiking boots for the Amazon - money well spent as I got some bargains in a shop on a side street I would never have found in a million years.

The local Inca ruins were slightly underwhelming, truly being ruins, a few rocks in the ground. Much imagination was needed, and following my 30 hour plus journey to Peru this was painfully lacking. The cathedral and temple were more impressive, but my later trip to Machu Picchu would be a much greater experience.

I also packed in a few new culinary delights - Alpacca  (a member of the Llama family)and..guinea pig for Sunday lunch. What a cultural fellow I am. On Sunday Evening I met with the tour leader for teh Amazon, Ricardo, who took me through the new itinerary, then early to bed for a 6am start...

 


Paucatambo and Manu

2008-06-09 to 2008-06-13

Starting at 6am on Monday morning, I was the first member of the Amazon group to be collected. The rest of the group followed shortly -  Sian, an English girl that amazingly went to the same secondary school as me in Liverpool, Karina, a Danish girl, and an American family Doug, Stephanie, and Fletcher.

Most of day one was spent driving into the edge of the Amazon - spectacular views as we had to drive up into the mountains to the highest point of the cloud forest. En route we stopped in Paucatambo, a very rural Peruvian town. The local school children were obviously fascinated by our presence, as I was fascinated by the `Sven Erickson` bridge. This, it turned out, was not in honour of the football manager, rather another Swede that had played some part in development of the local region.

In the evening we arrived at the `Cock of the Rock` lodge - not a porn set as it may sound, but a location where the famous male Andean Cock of the Rock birds gather to display in the trees, hopeful of attracting a female. Noone has told the poor sods that the females are only interseted for one month in September, so they expend a lot of energy for no reason...we were in luck as we were met with a large number of bright red displaying males close to the hide, and even a rare sighting of a dull, brown, female looking predictably uninterested. Photos were difficult due to the fading light and the tree canopy but managed a few worthwhile shots. At teh lodge we also saw a humming bird feeding in teh twilight, before a quick bite to eat and an early night...

Day 2 was waterbound. After a few hours drive to Atalaya, where we saw Lyre birds in the trees, we caught our boat for the 10 hour jaunt to Manu - more spectacular views along the river, sightings of spider monkeys and countless birds. Upon arriving at the lodge we headed out for an evening at the local clay lick. Here we camped under mosqito nets on matresses and awaited teh arrival of wildlife at nightfall, while tucking into a jumbo portion of pasta and chicken.. eventually we heard a thunderous crash of water and ventured from our hiding place - to teh sight of a mother and baby tapir in the lick. It was pitch black, and although we were aided by an infra red light, photos were nigh on impossible - I managed a couple but could equally claim these to be bigfoot, or the loch ness monster...

Day 3 meant another unnaturally early start, and a brief boat road to the McCaw lick. On our brief trek to the viewing hide we experienced a troop of monkeys passing overhead, and also discovered some fresh Jaguar crap on the path. Hoping we weren`t about to be torn limb from limb, we safely made it to the hide. We were faced with a large cliff face, and over the next few hours we saw hundred of blue headed parrots and red McCaws swoopping overhead and feeding at the lick. We also saw a white throated toucan, and below us a white cayman with his head buried in the stream.  Back to the lodge and a chance to take about 40 photos of a cute little tamarin monkey in the trees, we chased her around the campsite as she caught and fed on grasshoppers, she also hopped on to my shoulder  to try and swipe some biscuits from my hand.

In the afternoon we went for a catamaran ride on a local lake - searching in vain for giant otters, but we did see a large black cayman, lots of red monkeys and countless species of bird. On the way back to the boat we found fresh jaguar tracks on the shore just a few metres from our vessel, so hoped we might catch a rare sighting down the river...

Day 4 meant a full day on the river to the Manu wildlife centre, a place where volunteers do eco work . Accommodation here was much more basic - an open room with no wall/windows, consisting of a bed with a mosqito net. No hot water either, not a place I could stay for an extended period. All the volunteers seemed to be English, on gap years or career breaks from hectic city jobs, and we were given a guided tour of the vegetable and orchid gardens. Yet another early night before the final leg of our adventure.

Day 5 and we really saw the Amazon RAIN forest, torrential downpours all day as we completed our boat ride to Atalaya. This trip was upstream against the tide, several times the boat crew got out to push the boat in the shallows, and we had to get out and walk along teh shore in one section to lighten the load. Highlight of the day came when the crew had to take the boat close to shore through the trees. As we brushed through them, a lone red howler monkey was sitting directly in front of us a few feet above the boat - he looked somewhat surprised as we nearly ran him over while he was enjoying his lunch. A VERY long bus ride back to Cusco and finally back at my hotel at 9pm, 15 hours after we set off. There I was reunited with my delayed luggage, and teh luxury of clean underwear...


Machu Picchu

2008-06-14 to 2008-06-15

Back from the Amazon, I couldn`t face the full Inca trek so cheated - taking the `Vistadome` train from Cusco there and back.

In theory, this train takes around 4 hours each way, however this theory does not seem to translate into reality. i thought British Rail was bad...the journey there was around 6 hours after we broke down twice, the journey back around of similar length.

In between came the all too brief highlight of Machu Picchu. Arriving on the train, it was a 20 minute bus ride up to the top. I decided to avoid teh guided tours with herds of tourists and just took myself around, far more relaxed. The sight at the top was of two things - breathtaking scenery and architecture, and literally thousands of tourists all looking like they were about to collapse due to the high altitude. Following the Amazon where we had been practically alone throughout our 5 days, this came as quite a shock, and a little too touristy for my liking. Unlike the rest of Peru, they have beome extremely commercial, with a cafe at the entrance to the ruins charging around 8 dollars for a sandwich that would probably be 2 dollars in Cusco. Still worthwhile, follwoing the ruins headed back into town to look for bargains in the market - picked up some musical pipes then endured teh torture of the return train journey.

On the return journey we were `entertained` by the train staff putting on a fashion show (trying to sell alpacca clothing) and some very strange voodoo style show with abloke in a mask prancing up and down teh corridor - I shielded myself from this by watching several episodes of Heroes on my laptop. Upon returning it was time to pack and head for Lima


Lima

2008-06-16

Having arrived late in Lima, there wasn`y much time to explore before leaving the country so packed in as much as possible - booked a city tour in the morning, then headed to the zoo to spot a few of the animals we hadn`t seen in the Amazon, and an evening trip to the affluent beach front area of Mira Flores (the local hub for cafes, bars,shops etc)...

The city tour was quite passable and predictably had a heavy religious flavour - churches, cathedral, catacaombs. The catacombs were quite an eye opener, as the remains of around 40,000 people were on show. Some Brazilian girls in our tour group were too scared and left, while a group of schoolchildren at the site could be heard screaming somehere in the darkness. The highlight of the tour was the gold museum, where unfortunately no photos are allowed - a huge collection of artefacts from Incan times, as well as other cultures. Obviously many of the artefacts are gold, and the collection must be priceless (it has never been valued to date).

A whirwind tour of the zoo meant I got to see a spectacle bear (from the cloud forest region of the Amazon), plus various monkeys and bird life as well as traditional zoo fare - penguins in Peru just seems wrong.

Finshed off my day with a trip to Mira Flores, where the hip, trendy, and rich locals live - a stunning location on the ocean front that has seen all the big hotel chains open up there. Looking for a traditional Peruvian restaurant proved near fruitless, with KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and Tony Romas amongst the countless franchises on offer. Finally found something suitable where only a couple of people were eating, and managed to get a traditional chicken dish that was substantially more nutritious. Then off to the airport for a 1am flight and the start of a riduculously long journey back to Amsterdam via Toronto and London...


Toronto

2008-06-17

An unplanned adventure, due to an 8 hour stopover between flight on my return from Peru. Having done a little investigation, I found a city tour that picked up from the airport, so after a night with no sleep on the plane, blearily made my way into what I expected to be the bright sunshine of Toronto in a limousine...

The first disappointment was the weather - I had passed through Toronto on my way to Peru, when it had been over 30 degrees celsius. Today however, was around 16 degrees and with scattered showers, marvellous. Joining a London style open top bus tour, I whizzed around Toronto in 2 hours getting soaked.

The second disappointment was the length of the tour, about 1 hour 50 minutes too long! I`m sure Toronto is a great place to live, and probably worth visting to go and see Niagra falls, but as a sighseeing tour this must be the dullest I have experienced anywhere in the world. The obvious highlight was the CN tower, although the cloud cover was so low that it wasn`t worth going to the top. Apart from that we saw Canada`s largest castle, not much more than a large house, and some apartment that Avril Lavigne lived in once....

Before returning to the airport, I decided to look for some shopping bargains in the city mall - bought some jeans and shirts to replace items that had been lost from my heavily delayed baggage in Peru, and I also picked up a copy of V: The Second Generation (book), this was probably the biggest win of my day in Toronto, as I was addicted to V the TV series as a kid, and this sequel is not available in Europe yet. Managed to occupy me for part of my lengthy trip home, as well as plans for my next adventure - a tiger safari in India...


Fort Lauderdale - Hi 5

2008-11-14 to 2008-11-16

An unexpected trip to explore the delights of Fort Lauderdale and some sunshine in mid November, courtesy of a very generous workmate...

Danone were hosting their biannual `world cup`  football tournament, 40 mens teams and 35 womens teams from countries around the globe competing over a very long weekend to determine the world champions...having not bothered to play in the qualifying competition due to a clash with a Liverpool home game, was not expecting to be there.

However, a good friend at work won a competition for 2 people to travel as VIP guests, all expenses paid, and due to her not liking football and being on a business trip to China, myself and another colleague were nominated to take her place -don`t look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly when it involves business class travel!

After a lengthy flight we reached the hotel, which played host to a number of the competing teams- France, Netherlands, USA, UK amongt them. Of particular entertainment value were the UK mens team, all Scousers and all with their WAGs in tow, all sporting fake tans and short skirts.

The tournament itself was very impressive, well what we saw of it - after a traditional Olympics style opening ceremony, we watched half of the first days league action in blazing sunshine, before bailing out and heading to the largest shopping mall in Florida for lunch and to stock up on Levis, shoes etc. for several hours before a lavish buffet dinner at the hotel. Day 2 was a full day of knockout competition starting with 32 teams - some predicatble results, with UK being beaten by Brazil in both mens and womens quarter finals, Brazil destroying everyone on their way to a 4-1 win in the mens final, and some truly laughable womens football - another highlight were the hotties of the Austrian womens team...

Next day and myself and Adam booked ourself into a splendid hotel at Miami beach to do a little sightseeing and sunning...

 

 

 


Miami, Everglades

2008-11-17 to 2008-11-18

Following 2 power packed days watching football, we decided to take a chill out day at Miami beach before the long haul return trip. Stayed at a great boutique hotel (Churchills) 1 block from the beach and the legandary News Cafe (English newspapers printed that day with a full breakfast)..

Spent a relaxing day around the beach, with some attractive sights on view, then on day 2 took a 4 hour trip to the Everglades, which I heartily recommend - a hover boat ride with a close up look at some alligators, followed by a wildlife show featuring alligators of various sizes, scorpions, toads etc, and finally a chance to hold a baby alligator. Unfortunately not enough time to try an alligator sausage or burger, but don`t think I missed out on much. Straight to the airport and back to Amsterdam...


Umaria/Bandhavgarh

2008-12-23 to 2008-12-26

Having finally taken the plunge and booked my trip to India, it started horrendously... assuming Swiss Air would be a highly efficient airline proved a big mistake, with a10 hour flight delay in Zurich. The airline proved most unhelpful, only offering a 20 Swiss France/food/drink voucher,  less than the cost of a one course meal in the airport restaurant. After finally boarding, I discovered the plane was straight from the 1970s - no personal entertainment system, and just a shared screen at the front showing some chick flick, absolute torture!

Due to my flight delay, I was met in Delhi and informed that I needed to go straight to the train station for my connection to Umaria, no time to shower or sleep. So off to the station, and a 17 hour overnight journey, in less than executive conditions...

I travelled in `upper second`, the highest class on this train - I certainly wouldn`t like to see the lowest class. On the plus side, I had a `bed` around 6 feet by 2, but this was for me plus all baggage, in an upper bunk. Nowhere else to sit on the train, and the communal toilet was an Indian `crouch` style, quite a challenge on a fast moving train in the middle of the night.

Finally, some 48 hours after leaving Amsterdam, I arrived at the `Tiger Trails` resort in Bandhavgarh. This is India`s best national park for tiger sightings. Around 25 tigers live in an area of 75 square kilometres here, and I had undertaken my epic journey to give me the best possible chance to see these majestic beasts in the wild...

Over the next few days I enoyed 4 safari jeep drives, with a Dutch girl who was the only other tourist - 70% of tourists had cancelled bookings following recent shootings in Mumbai, and I  admit I had thought twice. Thankfully all went well - tiger sightings on 3 separate occasions, 6 tigers in all,at pretty close quarters.

We even got to follow 2 tigers while they were trying to hunt deer, but our jeep ensured they were not exactly successful. A great experience, with friendly & knowledgable guides, plus saw lots of other wildlife. Even though I am not a (feathered) bird watcher, I was mildy excited by the sighting of a blue bearded bee eater -  apparently an extremely rare sighting even for our guide.

So after several days of wildlife watching, time for another 17 hour train ride to see the cities and temples of the Golden Triangle...


Agra

2008-12-27

Starting with another 17 hour train journey (to Delhi) in a very cramped space, this trip was much more pleasant than my first train ride. This was mainly due to meeting 2 friendly locals, one a doctor that had worked in Birmingham several years ago. This helped time to pass fairly quickly, and upon arrival I briefly experienced luxury at a 5 star hotel. Then a 5 hour drive to Agra.

En route, we had to stop at a border crossing  for the driver to complete some forms. This place was absolutely full of local trying (persistently) to sell utter tat, and trying to force performing monkeys into the cars in exchange for cash.

Arriving in Delhi, I had a  relaxing night in a plush hotel - my room had a direct view of the Taj Mahal (over the trees). The next morning, I met my guide and headed to the Taj, horse riding to get there and passing numerous camels and working beasts on the road.

Unfortunately, we picked the busiest single day of the year to visit (45,000 people), which meant a lot of queueing, but well worth it to see one of the 7 wonders. Quite a breathtaking structure, it is a shame thatthe second, black marble, Taj was not built as intended across the river.

After avoiding more sellers and beggars, I succumbed to sales pressure, and bought some Agra marble to decorate my new flat. I then spent the rest of the night wondering how the hell to fit it into my bag for the flight home...following a good nights rest, off to Jaipur.


Fatehpur Sikri/Jaipur

2008-12-28 to 2008-12-29

After a far too early start for my liking, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri en route to Jaipur. This is a palace used by early royalty before relocating to Agra, very impressive in size. The harem area was notably large - home to 300+ birds, the Maharaja was obviously a busy man...then an all day drive to Jaipur, and a desperate rush to t find somewhere showing Liverpool v Newcastle. Finally found a hotel with ESPN - in black and white with no sound, I could just see clearly enough to know we won 5-1, and were still top of the league.

Next day was very busy, we stopped at the wind palace and water palace (possibly my favourite sight in India apart from the tigers!), plus the royal observatory and city palace. The bulk of the day was taken up with a trip to the `Amber fort`.This is a huge complex on top of a hill, which requires an elephant ride to reach. Quite a sight to see around 100 painted elephants parading up and down the narrow paths, with locals running alongside promising to take tourists photos and sell them the pictures when they get to the top (which I did). The Fort has its own `great wall` that seemed quite comparable to China`s, a terrific sight at sunrise.

Once the sightseeing was complete, another long drive to Delhi for the final stop.


New & Old Delhi

2008-12-30

Had a full day to play with in Delhi, as my return flight was due at 2am the next day - or so I thought...

Yet again, Swiss Air proved to be anything but reliable, advising me of another 10 hour delay due to `weather`, despite all other European airlines being unaffected. To ease my stress, I started my morning as every executive should, with a Balinese massage, followed my only Western style breakfast on this trip.

Leaving this problem aside, I set off to explore Delhi while suffering from a nasty bout of Delhi belly, and fully dosed up on Imodium (hence the move to Western style food). Visited the Sikh palace/holy waters, Delhis presidential palace and parliament (briefly, as due to recent shootings and bombings noone was allowed to linger), before Delhi`s own version of the Taj Mahal, where many royals are buried. Very similar to the Taj in structure, but without the intricate artwork or jewels, it is impressive none the less. After a stop at a bazaar to stock up on wooden carvings, paintings and other tat, it was off to the airport to find a solution to my Swiss Air debacle.

Thankfully, I was the only Swiss Air passenger that managed to find their office, hidden away in a labrynth of corrdors in the airport basement. After explaining my situation to the manager (I made up a good story), I was transferred to the KLM airlinr, that mysteriously had no 'weather' delay, and actually  ended up flying home earlier than my original schedule. Unfortunately the other Swiss Air passengers spent all night sitting in the airport, arriving in Zurich too late for onward connections to other countries, never mind...


Singapore

2009-03-21 to 2009-03-22

On my way to Oz for the GP, decided to stop off for a few days in Singapore. Have been through the airport many times without seeing the city, and glad I did.

Stayed in a cheap but  swish 5 star hotel on the Marina, and made full use of the spa, pool and gym. On the first day, I had a hastily arranged city tour that took in China Town, the Indian district, and Orchid Gardens. Not the most inspiring tour, as flowers aren`t exactly a passion of mine - but worthwhile none the less. Also had my first experience of the afternoon monsoons.

After this, reurned to the hotel quite jetlagged, and immediately went out on another tour, the night safari. Singapore zoo has purpose built the only night time viewing safari in the world - as I soon discovered impossible to take photos, but great to see some of the wildlife actually awake instead of their customary daytime dozing (although the lions were still asleep). Walked 3 trails at the park, and joined a train tour, before a very cultural cheeseburger and late return to the hotel.

Day 2, and an early start toSentosa Island, a Western style resort island with lots of attractions. We started at Underwaater world, where a nutty Japanese tourist took the `Touch pool` too seriously - trying to lift a sting ray out of the pool  and pop it into a plastic bag. He was quickly apprahended by a large security guard. After this a quite entertaining show in the lagoon, featuring pink dolphins. Finally, a trip to the symbol of Singapore, the `Mer Lion` statue, an odd combination of fish and  lion - no Liver bird, but who am I to argue?

Returning to the city, I took a ride on the Flyer, the tallest observation wheel in the world. Great views of the skyline, and the vast areas of new construction. Singapore is reclaiming land from the sea,  building a whole new city centre, as well as a huge super casino resort. Not exactly Asian culture, but that`s progress for you. The wheel also looks directly onto the Formula 1 track, scene of the only night race on the calendar - so getting me in the mood for Melbourne.


Kuala Lumpur

2009-03-23

Having one of my usual less than relaxing trips, I decided to get up in teh early hours and make the short flight from Singapore to KL, and spend a day sightseeing. Beautiful weather, at least until the monsoon arrived in the afternoon, caught the double decker tourist bus and made a first stop at the bird park. The worlds largest open aviary, with hundreds of exotic species, sat in on a bird show and caught a great shot of an eagle in mid flight . Following this it was on to the most famous sight in KL, the Petronis Towers.

I`ve been to lots of cities and visited tall buildings/obsrvation towers, but never seen anything remotely as impressive as this, the towers almost seem to disappear into the skyline. My claim to fame is that my new apartment in Liverpool is in a block designed by teh same architect, although I am only 4 floors up!

Has a squizz around the enormous shopping malls, and resisted the temptation to buy any gadgets. Then as the rains came, viewed teh Palace and KL tower from teh safety of a dry bus seat before flying back for my final day in Singapore.

 


Singapore

2009-03-24

A final day in Singapore before flying on to Oz..made full use of it  by walking around the city, visiting the state buildings and famous Raffles Hotel where the Singapore Sling was created. Then the rains came, so retreated to the safety of a fish spa - 30 minutes enduring hundreds of fish biting  dead skin of my stinky feet. Pretty ticklish to start with, hugely amusing and no idea if it actually has any benefit. Still, made for a good photo...on to the airport, wagons roll to Melbourne.


Melbourne

2009-03-25 to 2009-04-29

arrived in Mebourne at 7am to be greeted by grey gloomy skies and constant drizzly rain - not what I travelled 12  thousand miles for. After trying to stay awake in vain, nodded off at my hotel until early evening and completely missed the Formula One `behind the scenes` tour at the track. Met up with my old buddy Matt for a quick drink in teh evening, and discovered that the old sod has gone and gotten himself engaged, good work fella...

After a lot more sleep, met up with Matt for day one of the GP with a hearty breakfast, Off to the track where Michelle, Michael and Steve soon appeared to complete our intrepid group. I won`t go into too much detail about the 4 days at the track, seeing as I`ve done it all twice before ( see photos) - but undoubted highlights where the `dancing`  performances of the highly talented XXXX Angels, a British win for Jenson Button in the feature race, and a free concert by The Who on the final night (good for a bunch of old geezers). Also squeezed in a  night of pampering at the Gold Class cinema, barely avoided nodding off during the very odd movie `Duplicity`, but at least he food was good.

We had a major drama on the Sunday, when Matt lost his wallet, looked like a pickpocket had struck. Amazingly, an honest local saw it fall to the floor from his bag, and called him to return it - so all`s well that ends well. All too soon, it was time to go for a brief fry at the beach in Broome, tough life...


Broome

2009-03-30 to 2009-04-01

On my 12 month trek around Oz as a youngster, the one big stop that I never made and vowed to return for, was Broome. So, I decided to take a pretty big detour from Melbourne to have a few relaxing days on one of the worlds top 10 beaches, Cable beach.

Definitely a place to go back to for a longer break, the weather was beautiful at 36 degrees. While I spent the bulk of my time fring on the beach, I di manage to cram in a feeding tour at the crocodile park, a sunset viewing of the famous camel trains on Cable beach, and a tour around the coast in a hovercraft. Also experienced the joys of returning to hostel life, although in a far more executive double room with ensuite, rather than sweating with 7 other people in a dorm - although wouldn`t have minded with a couple of cute German birds that were staying there.

Trip was shortened due to my hastily arranged final stop, the aptly named `Cage of Death` experience in Darwin...

 


Darwin - Crocosaurus

2009-04-02 to 2009-04-03

D day finally dawned...a ridiculously expensive detour on my Oz adventure, due to Darwin recently opening Crocosaurus. This is the only place on earth where it is possible to dive with man eating, saltwater crocodiles.

Having seen the website the previous year, it had instantly been added to my `to do` list, and given my trip to the F1, this presented the perfect opportunity to make comparisons with my great white shark encounters in South Africa...

Arrived late at night, and headed to the park first thing, spent an hour or so touring the facility and seeing the parks 7 big salties, each held in their own tanks. They included Burt, who starred in Crocodile Dundee and at 80 years of age has tried to kill several females that have shown an interest in being his mate. Was soon time to don my swimmers and jump in the clear perspex cage, which was covered in a worrying nuber of bite and scratch marks. Also discovered that the 8 sided cage was not solid - between each side there is a gap that water flows through.

Assuming that all was safe, and signing a form that acknowledged I might die, the crane proceeded to lower my cage into a crocodile pen containing Houdini and Bess - Houdini a 5 metre croc, with a worrying abit of escaping from captivity, Bess his 2 metre `wife` . Whie ttheir eyes followed me everywhere, they seemed content to lie next to me without trying to devour me, spent about 10 minutes in vain trying to use my underwater camera, then gave up due to the bright sunlight and distraction of trying to hold my breath underwater.

Next, the crane moved me over and down to meet the big daddy `Chopper` - the parks biggest croc at a whopping 5.5 metres. Poor old Chopper has lost his 2 front feet in fights, but you wouldn`t exactly give him a cuddle to cheer him up. This is one mean looking mutha, and I was dropped almost right on top of his head, which he was not too pleased about. Great close up looks , defintely more scary than the great whites - and apparently about 5 times their bite force.

Adventure over, straight to the airport for an unbelievably long journey home via Perth and Singapore - but with a mighty refreshing foot crystal mud bath and reflexology session at Singapore airport...

 


Miami/Key West/Orlando

2009-10-03 to 2009-10-13

Not exactly the most cultural of trips - 10 days of lying down on Miami beach, sitting down eating at good restaurants (and fast food joints), and watching hi 5ing, yee-hah Americana sports...

Still managed to pack in a few new experiences worth adding to my journal. While in Miami we did the city tour/boat cruise, a welcome relief from the sunburn accrued on our first day on the beach...saw a lot of famous/rich people's homes, the Miami holocaust memorial ( lots of German tourists on the bus, not quite sure what they made of that), the Venetian pool, and a lot of old Cuban blokes playing dominoes, marvelous...

In Key West we walked around viewing the various historical attractions, most of which were not photo worthy - also the 'mile zero' marker of US Highway 1, which runs from the Keys along the whole US coast, and the official site of the Southern most tip of continental USA.  Added in a snorkelling expedition, which was slightly disppointing - grey coral reef, with a few fish and stingrays about. On the positive side I got a good tan...

We also made a visit to the Kennedy Space centre, which gave us a chance to see the original Saturn rocket that powered the 1969 moon landing, as well as lunar landers, lunar rovers and various Apollo equipment. We saw the space shuttle Atlantis - sort of...unfortunately we arrived the day before it was due to be wheeled out to the launch pad for the next launch, but the hangar doors were partly open so we saw the bottom on the booster rockets through the gap.

And on to the undoubted highlights of the trip - 2 NFL matches of the Miami Dolphins, watching them trounce Buffalo then win a classic against NY Jets, 31-27 scoring the winning touchdown with 6 seconds to go. And the reasons for this being the highlight - obviously the Dolphin cheerleaders, which took up more than 20 photos, very talented. We also had a huge Latin American half time show, and a speech by president Obama that went down like a lead balloon - the 80,000 crowd roundly booing him - how times change.

Enough cheeseburgers/steaks - my next 2 trips will be genuinely cultural, touring Japan and China. Shame the Dolphins cheerleaders won't be there...


Beijing/Mutianyu

2010-09-03 to 2010-09-05

A year without an adventure is far too long - so time to explore the mysteries of the orient, and cross 1 or 2 of the 7 wonders off my 'must see' list (depending what source you use)...

Started this adventure in Beijing/Peking, depending whether you are new school or old school, packing quite a lot in to a short space of time. Diffcult given the horrendous traffic in the city and how spread out everything is, we ended up with very full days and precious little sleep.

The first evening started with a delightful chinese banquet of 13 dishes, little did I know how sick of chinese food I would be 2 weeks later.. .

Following a full chinese massage and all of  2 hours kip, we set out for Tian An Men square with an official guide, Ben. He did his best, but is obviously required by the state to be 'politically correct' in what he tells foreign visitors about the events of the 'Tian An Men incident' i.e. massacre! As we stood in the square taking in the enormity of the surroundings, we had many inquisitive locals standing nearby listening intently to what the guide was saying - while some were obviously pickpockets, it seemed likely that others were on the government payroll - any words out of place and good old Ben would be off to work in a remote paddy field for the rest of his days.

After many hours in the square and truly huge( 9999 rooms, over 720k square metres) Forbidden palace, where past Ming and Qing emperors resided, we continued our trip to the stunning Summer Palace, bulit by Empress Dowager Cixi. Very serene, built on Kunming lake with hillside palace buildings and a cool lakeside walkway tunnel, we encountered locals playing traditional Chinese musical instruments and undretaking the rather more modern practice of selling cheap tatt to tourists at massively inflated prices.

In the evening, we wearily made our way to the traditional 'Peking opera' - one of the most surreal things I've ever witnessed, still to this day have no idea what the hell was going on - but it did wake us up. The singing would not exactly trouble Pavarotti, and the storylines were not exactly the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, but the costumes were amazing, and in one 'scene' we had a group of guys displaying amazing football-esque skills - kicking traditional spears to each other across the stage, with various flicks, tricks, overheads etc - amazing that China's footy team is so naff...

The following day we travelled to the Ming dynasty Temple of heaven, built entirely from wood and meants to symolise heaven on earth. In the surrounding park land, Chinese wrinklies relax playing badminton, doing thai chi, and again showing amazing football skills playing with giant shuttlecocks, something that would look at home on the beaches of Brazil. We then headed off to vist a (relatively) quiet section of our first  'wonder', the Great Wall. Over 7000km in length, it was originally built to keep out the northern barbarians, only recently did they realise the Scottish were actually thousands of miles away on another continent...as expected, quite stunning and lots of photo opportunities - only when you get home do you realise they all look the same.

With a number of us nursing  mosquito/gnat bites gathered as souvenirs of our visit to the Wall, we had a traditional Peking duck dinner at a posh restaurant in the city - unfortunately the duck only arrived after 11 other dishes...and then kept on coming. God knows how the little locals manage to stick it all away... after a few hours kip, onwards to the modern metropolis of Shanghai...

 


Shanghai

2010-09-06 to 2010-09-07

After the ancient wonders of Beijing, we landed in the rather more modern city of Shanghai, and were instantly greeted by the sight of the rather wonderful Bund. Possibly the most amazing city skyline I've come across anywhere in the world, and much more astonishing by night, as I discovered when we took an evening cruise. The Pearl Tower especially, is a miracle of modern engineering, would be a great place to spend New ears eve out on the waterfront.

Having taken in the modern city, the next day we returned to a more traditional China - visiting the museum, Jade Buddah temple, and Yu Yuan gardens. A place of great reflection, combining 'the grace of water, wonder of stone, and beauty of plants', apparently - looked a bit like China town in Liverpool to me, sat down and had some pleasant traditional tea, before we headed to the truly spectacular Shangahi acrobatic show.

I highly recommend this as a must see to anyone visiting, many great acts - undoubted highlight was a chunky Chinese bloke that could balance massive ceramic pots on his bonce - hurling them high into the air, spinning them on his head, and balancing them at bizarre angles. God knows what advice he got from his career advisor at school, but it seems to work.


Shanghai World Expo

2010-09-08

The following day was dedicated to the modern age - couldn't go to Shanghai without visiting the World Expo, as it may be a once in a lifetime chance. Got up at the crack of dawn to queue with the masses outside the gates, and got in 10 minutes after the gates opened. Was instantly greeted with a tannoy announcement that 'all China Pavillion tickets have been given out' - 60,000 tickets in 10 minutes! Putting a spoke in my plans, I decided to head for my second choice, the Japanese pavillion, which had great reviews...

After spending 2 and a half hours in the queue, finally got into Japan's bizarre purple bubble pavillion, and was undoubtedly the highlight of the day - all about the future/technology, got to see the cars, personal transport, and crucially, TV of the future. The TV was an up and running version of what you see in the Back to the Future films, Panasonics 'Life Wall' - the full size of a wall in your house, 4 times the definition of HD, live full screen video phoning, and all conrolled by the motion of your hand in thin air.

Much more practical was the Toyota humanoid robot, that walked up on to the stage, picked up a violin and played note perfect classical music - bit of a luxury item.

After spending half the day getting into one pavillion out of the hundreds on offer, I headed for the European section - to find we had visited on the only day of the whole expo when the UK pavillion was closed! VIPs only, as prince Andrew was in town. However, climbing to the top of next doors crazy Dutch pavillion, could see into the UK one, and listened to the Philharmonic orchestra playing for the VIPs.

Managed to get into various other pavillions during the day, each with very variable content - Austria's vision for the world seemed to consist of a bird playing a violin and a bloke on a flute, slightly less visionary than Japan. Took the opportunity to finally take a break from Chinese cuisine, with a well earned Pappa Johns pizza for lunch, and 2 pieces of original recipe KFC for dinner - never has unlucky fried kitten tasted so good.

Decided to pack in a bit more after an already full day, and went to ride the Maglev (magnetic levitation train)- the worlds fastest commercial train, makes Japans bullet look like British rail. Hitting 431km/hour was a little like being in a space shuttle lunch, could hear some rattling around the carriage once we got past 300km/hr, and trying to hold a camera steady was impossible (thank god for sports setting). In teh next year or 2, a new line will open to a neighbouring town, which will allow the train to reach full speed, at well over 500km/hour!

On the way back to the hotel, visited the 'People's square', Shanghais older buildings and fountains beautifully lit up, with the more modern skyscrapers in the background. Surreal, but most relaxing before heading to our next stop...


Xi'an

2010-09-09 to 2010-09-10

Heading to what we expected to be more rural China, primarily to get another great wonder crossed off, the Terracotta army...

We stayed in a hotel next door to the Big goose pagoda, beautiful, traditional Chinese views of ancient architecture. What was a little surprising was turning in the opposite direction, to be confronted with bright neon signs that would do Times Square or Vegas proud...all the western fast food joints, supermarkets,a nd countless electronics shops. Progress is a buggar..

We visited the ancient city walls of Chinas old capital, and Xi'ans most famous Tang architecture, the small goose pagoda. Built in 707, 2 of the 15 stories collapsed in an earthquake in the 16th century. I passed on the chance to climb the remaining 13 stories, in case it fell down.

Next stop was what we came for - off to see Emperor Qin Shi Huang's memorial, which took longer to contruct than he actually lived. His tomb has not been opened, but 1 mile away is the site of China's most amazing discovery, unearthed by farmers digging a well in 1974. Numerous vaultscontaining thousands of life size terracotta soldiers, horses, and chariots. 2 things are striking about this - the sheer sizeof the army, and the unbelievable artistry. No 2 warriors are the same, each of different heights, facial features and detailing.

Along with the masses, was tempted into buying some miniature terracotta reproductions. Thankfully, I dismissed the sales patter to buy a terracotta 'emperor', for which they were charging a suitable premium. Later discovered that no terracotta emperor has been found to date, some poor American schmucks were not happy.

On our final night in Xi'an, we headed next door for the spectaculat Big Goose pagoda light show. Another must see for any visitors, at 9pm the many hundreds/thousand of fountains in front of the pagoda are bathed in multi coloured lights, and perform to musical accompaniment for an hour. Took us some time to achieve a good view, as the whole of China appeared to be gathered, but well worth it. A little like the Bellagio show in Vegas, but on steroids, many many more fountains, and an ever so slightly more historical backdrop.

 


Chengdu

2010-09-11 to 2010-09-12

The final stop in China, here to see one of the great endangered species. No wonder they are endangered -big fat cuddly bears designed to be meat eaters, but who rather sit on their arse chomping bamboo, and have little or no interest in sex...

Still, they are cute - Chengdu's panda breeding research base is only haf an hour from the city, and allows the pandas to live in a wild state, with over 80 acres of hills, forest and bamboo groves to choose from. There is also a centre where infants are nurtured, we even saw 1 and 2 month old cubs in incubators. There were no guarantees of us seeing the pandas, but we were more than lucky. I've uploaded a small selection of the many shots I took, various adults and cubs in different states of activity.

A fitting finale to this tour, and think I will need to come back to nail Hong Kong and Tibet...for my final night, treated myself to a traditional 90 minutes Chinese foot masage, a deep soak in a wooden tub with medicinal salts, plus scalp and face massage. All yuan spent, time to get home for a full fry up...


Bangkok 2

2010-11-28 to 2010-12-03

..the sequel. 12 years after my first visit to Bangkok, finally got the chance to return and rectify former injustices. On my previous visit I did plenty of sightseeing, but due to a camera malfunction in the pre-digital age, lost almost all of my photos.

Thank god for business trips! Due to the limited time outside of my work agenda, couldn't do  everything I would have liked. However did visit the grand palace and Emerald Buddah temple, which was the main aim.

Also enjoyed a manic race across the city in a death trap tuk tuk, a river cruise, plus a visit to the night bazaar where Niki managed to fall down an open drain - losing one of her favourite shoes and getting covered in sh** in the process! Also crammed in a traditional Thai massage, which I am suffering the after effects of now, having had my arms and legs bent at angles they should never naturally reach. Now, if I can just wangle a business trip to the Galapagos islands...


Borneo - Pangkalan Bun, Camp Leakey

2011-04-24 to 2011-04-27

Taking a short flight from Jakarta via Banjarmasin, landed in the town of Pangkalan Bun, Borneo, with the explicit of agenda of seeing Orangutans in the wild...

Rather than taking a beach holiday , chose Pangkalan Bun as it offers the chance to live and sleep on a traditional wooden 'klotok' boat. This proved a wise choice, and one I would recommend to anyone else  thinking of heading to Borneo.

Spent 3 days chugging along the river at a sedate pace, having all meals prepared by the crew, and spending a little time sunbathing on the upper deck, while being peppered with highly aggressive mosquito bites. Met some American travellers that made me very jealous - they've been to 27 countries in the last 10 months, and are still going now - with their 11 year old twins in tow, oh to win the lottery...

Stopped at various rehabilitation centres along the river, where the OR's were last released into the wild back in the early 1990s. They still come back into the camps to top up their natural diet, as do their chidren and grand children. Camp Leakey is the most famous centre, and here we were treated to several hours of activity, with 20-30 apes of various ages - males, females, babies, & juveniles. This included us having to run away from a known troublemaker, who frequently steals tourists belongings and followed us at pace for several kilometres during one of our walks. The same ape also took a dislike to a wild pig that stumbled into camp and started eating the food - he took off into the forest to find the largest stick he could, came back and belted the living sh** out of the pig over the head - cue much squealing and some very fasy moving bacon through the trees.

We were also extremely lucky to meet a dominant male at one of the camps, as they are normally defending their territories. He entertained us for a good 30 minutes posing and posturing for the assembled tourists, also becoming quite agitated when the provided bowl of milk ran out - what followed resembled a scene from Benny Hill, as we all ran single file through teh trees to get away from him, while he followed with rather keen intent..until one of the rangers placed a new bowl at the feeding station, he then placidly went back to stuff his face.

In addition to the camps we visited, we were also lucky enough to see a host of truly wild OGs on the other side of the river - who have never been in the rehabilitation centres, and are not decended from any of those apes. Predicatably, they were less happy to see us and made that fact very clear, sounding loud warning noises to communicate their displeasure. We also met up with many troops of Probiscis monkeys, macaques, and a very flamboyant gibbon that almost seemed to pose for photos on the river bank. Ended up with several hundred OG photos, just uploaded a few here as a taster.

This was a sensational journey, and I would have wanted to stay longer it it wasn't for those bloody mosquitoes - my back, legs and backside were looking like a lunar landscape...headed to Bali for a much needed day of recovery by the pool, air conditioned room with king size bed, and a Balinese massage, before continuing the adventures in Rica and Komodo...

 


Komodo Island, Rinca, Flores

2011-04-28 to 2011-04-30

Nursing life threatening sunburn and mosquito bites the size of golf balls from Borneo, I made my way via Bali to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, in order to visit the islands of Rinca and Komodo...the only places on earth that the fabled Komodo Dragon is found in the wild. Fascinating prehistoric critters that bite their prey, then wait for them to die an agonising death as bacteria eats them away.

Spent a few days saling to, and between, the various islands, sleeping and eating on board - truly fabulous local Indo food prepared by the crew, some of which even made vegetarian fodder seem tasty.

I foolishly chose to join the long trek around Rinca in the middle of the day - 32 degrees of searing heat, tramping through swamps, up and down rocks, and up to the peak of the island for a view of the panorma. Quite posibly the longest 6km of torture I have ever experienced, but we were rewarded with several Komodo sightings, as well as meeting a water buffalo up close and personal, also viewing the remains of  many Komodo meals. Following this we stopped for a much needed swim in the Ocean, and headed to Komodo, which has less tourists due to its remote location.

The early morning trek in Komodo was held up somewhat, due to our little boat breaking down. This gave us the opportunity to visit Komdo village, while the crew tried to find spare parts, and meet the cheeky local children, who were quite insistant on us taking their photographs repeatedly while they posed. Also took the opportunity to buy some hand carved komodo dragon souvenirs, to add to my plethora of travel tatt...finally up and running, decided to be brave and go for the long trek again - much easier and flatter than Rinca, we met up with a much larger dragon here, who was lazing by the watering hole after eating an unlucky wild pig.

Also discovered, rather worryingly, that no medicine is kept on the islands to cure a Komdo bite, and also none is kept on the mainland...last year, 3 villagers were bitten, and all of them died - the closest medicine is kept in Bali, which is a 4 hour boat ride then 2 hour plane journey, and which the villagers can not afford! Also you need to be lucky and only bitten on arms/legs for the medicine to have a chance, a bite on the torso with teh bacteria getting into any vital organ/stomach, and it is goodnight. They only told me all of this after I had posed for a photo sitting right in front of a large adult dragon, protected only by a ranger with a little wooden stick...oh, and the muthas can also run at 27km/hour if they really want to! Spent the afternoon snorkelling at Pink beach - and now want to go back to Komodo for a scuba holiday, great selection of fish, coral, and manta rays.

Back to the mainland, spent an evening walking through Labuan Bajo, a typical rural town with goats and chickens walking through the streets - and an unbelievable number of locals wearing cheap fake Liverpool FC shirts, at least they have good taste. Went to watch the sunset over the harbour in 'The Lounge' a bar that travellers/backpacker frequent, partly because it has free wi fi and they can sit there nursing one drink all day. Was most dismayed that while enjoying the view, they rolled down a cinema screen to show live coverage of the bloody royal wedding from England, bah humbug. Cue much cooing by the females in the bar, while the blokes inquired if there was any live sport on.

Spent the final morning touring the local market and famous cave system in Labuan Bajo, picking up a whole new batch of mossie bites, and meeting up with fruit bats and some rather ominous looking giant black spiders. Then time to head back to Jakarta, with another quick syop in Bali en route for another 2 hour Balinese massage - quite a bargain at £12, and a great cure for jet lag.

Back to my travel list - fingers crossed may get Hong Kong, Vietnam and/or Cambodia crossed off later his year...

 

 


Shanghai Bund 2 - the sequel

2011-08-14 to 2011-08-19

A very brief tour...while working in Shanghai, 3 of us took an evening to head to the Bund. Had already been before, but this time got to cross the final 'to do' off my list, going up to the observation platforms in the magical Pearl Tower.

We spent most of the evening queueing, first to get into the tower, then for the elevator to the first observation tower, then for the next lift to the much higher 'space module' (later had to queue for each elevator in reverse!) - however, well worth it to see the Bund from an alternative perspective.

We had intended to go to the revolving restaurant in the tower, but it closses at 9pm, which seems to be a huge lost revenue opportunity given the Bund is lit up until11pm! Instead we had to head to the only local eatery that was still open after our sightseeing - a cheeseburger and pineapple pie in McDonalds, ah the culture...

This time I also made sure to spot the '3 graces' of Shanghai, something I had not been aware of on my previous tour This is a scaled down replica of the 3 graces on Liverpool's waterfront - the Liver building, plus...err, the other 2. Knowing it was there made it much easier to spot, maybe the fact that they don't actually have the Liver Bird at the top of their Liver building replica is why I didn't notice first time around...onwards to Vietnam/Cambodia...


Cu Chi tunnels - Vietnam

2011-08-20 to 2011-08-21

Making the most of my meetings in Ho Chi Minh, I took the opportunity to head out to Cu Chi, visting the war tunnels that were home to the 'Hero American Killers' for many years, as described in  local publicity!

Only a short hop from HCMC, we were escorted around the various tunnel sites by a local guide, taking the opportunity to crawl 100 metres through a specially adapted tunnel (made much larger so that fat Westerners can actually fit!)..not one for the claustrophobic, couldn't find room to hold my camera down there - and if I could would have just been a photo of some birds arse right in front of my face.  We toured the various underground living, eating, and cooking quarters, plus various clever engineering feats such as the booby traps tdesigned to slice,dice, & skewer the American troops, also some of the reclaimed American tanks and weapons.

Next it was off to the shooting range, and for a mere 10 bucks time to to take 10 rounds of ammo with the most powerful gun they had,  the M6 'Rambo'...had to have a massge later that night to help my shoulder recover, but well worth it, knocked the Magnum handgun from Capetown for 6.

The visit finished with a mildy uncomfortable video summary of the war itself, highlighted some of the previously mentioned 'hero American killers', including a young girl who was only around 13 years old at the time, and personally killed more than 20 US soldiers. Not quite sure how some of the American tourists took that, but I'm sure they would be much more uncomfortable at the HCMC War musem that I visited later in my trip!


Cambodia - Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

2011-08-21 to 2011-08-27

Making the most of my work in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to take the short hop over the border to Cambodia, and strike another of the '7 wonders' off my list (Angkor Wat)..must be at least the 10th of the 7 wonders I've been to, depending which list you use...I found a great agency that did everything for me - a tourist bus from HCMC all the way to Siem Reap, hotel, tours, all meals, and a flight back to HCMC, for a very reasonable price.

Met some interesting characters on the bus to Cambodia, including various backpackers that have given up their lives back home, sold their houses, and taken off around the world - jealous!I highly recommend the bus route, as it gave us a good look at the real  Cambodia - at the same time very glad I paid the premium to fly back later - 14 hours by bus v 1 hour flight is quite a difference. As we passed through the border, we first hit a mini Las Vegas style area, full of mock Vegas casinos (including a 'Win' instead of the 'Wynn'..).

Apparrently gambling is illegal in Vietnam, so they cross the border to do it here, and the casinos hold many of the farmers land registration documents as credit, slightly worrying. We spent some time passing through the floating village areas - houses built on stilts in large lakes, and witnessing local villagers and animals working their fields.

Stopping in Phnom Penh for lunch, there was no time to visit the national Genocide musem (possibly a good thing), before continuing to Siem Reap, arriving late at night for a good night of kip, before a full day at Angkor Wat.

Next morning we headed out in a small monsoon to Angkor, which lasted all morning. As such, we were dressed like tellytubbies in bright yellow plastic macs. We spent the moring visiting the South Gate area of Angkor Thom - Bayon, Phimeanakas, the terrace of the elephants, and terrace of the Leper King.

This was an impressive start to proceedings, but nothing compared to the main event that afternoon, at Angkor Wat itself. Before Angkor Wat, we headed to Ta Prohm, the setting for some of the 'Tomb Raider' movie - no Angelina Jolie here, but a mightily impressive temple that is overgrown with huge trees, the 2 blending together in eerie fashion. Great photo opportunities...

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and the scale is hard to describe or justify in photos. Entering the complex is a little similar to the Taj Mahal, but on a much biger scale. Probably the most impressive view while walking through the area was that by the small lake, which offers a full reflection of the central temple - this also takes you to the area where you will be harrased to buy t shirts, ash trays and general tatt. I managed to get away lightly with a can of coke for around 30p.

After climbing the central, tallest tower, for a view of the entire complex, we headed back to Siem Reap for an all you can eat feast and traditional Aspara dance show - after 10 days of noodles and rice is was nice to add a plate of good old fashioned chips.

Before flying back to HCMC, spent a morning mooching around Siem Reap, and took advantage of a 30 minute traditional foot & leg massage for the princely sum of 3 US dollars, worth going just for that! Shame I didn't have time for the 60 minutes 4 hands full body massge at 10 bucks...


Ho Chi Minh City - Vietnam

2011-08-28

Having spent some time working in HCMC, it was about time to spend a full day touring the sights, traditional tourist style..

I booked to join a group tour, and as this is low season, found myself as the only tourist - for 19 bucks I had a full day private tour with guide and driver including lunch and all entrance fees! Bargain...

Skipped through China town (very like other China towns basically), and visited the Giac Lamh pagoda and Thien Hau temple in the morning - some of the biggest Buddah statues I've seen anywhere.  Had a traditional Vietnamese 'Pho' meal for lunch - basically a noodle soup with chicken and herbs, and  quite a bargian in the local eateries at around 1 English pound.

In the afternoon took a peek at some of the traditional French Colonial buildings - the post office, Notre Dame cathedral and Opera House, then spent some time in the War Museum and Unification Palace. The War Museum is an incredibly sombre place - floor after floor  displaying in graphic detail the impacts of the war here, although, as you might expect, a rather one sided view. There are various displays of the torture methods employed by the South/US on Northern Vietnam prisoners, and many examples of those who suffered at their hands, including those deformed by chemical weapons, and many stories of terrible, illegal deaths. Slightly more enjoybale is the wealth of American recaptured vehicles on display - war planes, choppers, and tanks.

After a hard day of touring, headed to a loca spa for a 90 minute hot stone massage before another banquet of meat, noodles, spring rolls, pancakes,and rice.

 


Manila, Tagatay, Taal

2011-12-04 to 2011-12-09

More sighsteeing tagged on to a business meeting. Would have liked to do more, especially given the 30 degree plus temperatures, but have to fly back to Europe for a trip to Slovakia, where it's minus 3 at the moment, hurrah...

Will add some details later, current feeling too jetlagged and ill to be bothered...


Hong Kong

2012-05-07 to 2012-05-09

Continuing my series of Asian escapades, I decided to take advantage of our Japanese expedition, with a stopover  in Hong Kong.

Arriving early on day 1, was thankful to find that our (relatively) budget hotel was actually in prime location, just a few hundred yards from Hong Kong Harbour in Kowloon. I set off for a few hours initial exploration, and being so close to the Harbour, was a bit of a no brainer. Took a quick walk down the 'Avenue of Stars' harbour side in 30 degree sunshine - Hong Kongs equivalent of Hollywood, with various Asian and internatonal performers palm prints set in concrete (I only knew  Jackie Chan).

While strolling in the sun, I was accosted by 4 separate groups of local schoolchildren, who as part of a school project were being tasked with asking English speaking tourists a series of questions. I tried to play the polite English gentleman, but got a little frustrated at answering the exact same questions every time, after telling them I'd already done it before..began to make up some of my answers by the end, as they kept asking what I liked best about Hong Kong, my favourite food there etc., difficult having spent about an hour in the country. I also got stopped by 2 local girls asking to have their photo taken with me, no idea if they thought I was someone famous, maybe Mickey Mouse...

After a brief recouperation back at the hotel, we headed out to do a quick cruise on the local Star ferries service around the harbour. Many of the local skyscrapers on Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are lit up at night, and there is a 13 minutes 'lights and laser' show set to music that features in the Guinness book of world records. To say we were a little dispappointed would be an understatement, having heard a lot of hype - the harbour was pleasant enough, but 2 hours on a ferry was a little excessive to go around the same small area multiple times, and the 'light show' was practically non existent, one green laser beam occasionally flicking on and off from one buidling plus some barely visible searchlights elsewhere. We spent almost half off the time dozing off, and hoped for better the following evening.

As we had a brief stopover, day 2 was crammed. We set off to do a tour of HK island in the morning - visiting the Aberdeen fishing village, aslightly surreal (and smelly) place in the middle of the city where everyone lives on boats, and location of the famous 'Jumbo' floating restaurant, a tourist trap that we never dined at, thankfully so judging by some of the internet reviews...following that, we drifted by Repluse Bay, which looked a pleasant place to do a bit of sunbathing with more time, and on to the famous Stanley Market - reminded me of many similar tourist markets selling cheap crap the world over, we avoided all shopping and headed to the waterfront for a drink in the sunshine. Following this we headed up to Victoria Peak for a view across the island and harbour, and trip on the tram back to the bottom.

To finish the trip, I took up a recommendation to visit one of the many tailors in Hong Kong, to have a custom made shirt whittled up. Apparrently there are 3 tiers of tailor in HK, the lowest of which are the guys you meet in all of the streets and outside hotels, touting for business- delivering shoddy service using pre cut fabrics/sizes. Avoiding these guys, I headed for a recommended 'Shanghai' tailor who doesn't tout, taking along a unique shirt from Singapore that I've never found elsewhere - the tailor extroadinaire  took some measurements, gave me a choice of a million fabrics, colours, and patterns, and duly delivered an exact replica, hand stitched and tailored to fit within 20 hours. HIGHLY recommended.

In the evening we headed out early for dinner with a tour group, something we probably regretted booking. The 'revolving restaurant' that we had booked was closed for rennovation, so we were rerouted to the rather less glamorous 'Bubba Gumps' which was up on the peak we had visited earlier, safe to say there won't be a Michelin star forthcoming, pleasant enough though for what it was. We then stopped part way down for a skyline view of the harbour and famous light show, which left us equally nonplussed as the first evening! We made a visit to the night market, which was fairly impressive and full of relatively cheap fakes, although I resisted temptation, then on to a boat for yet another hour around the bloody harbour - aaaaargh! At least there was a free bar, though not much help to me...

On day 2 we took some time to chillax in the local gardens at Kowloon, with 2 hours of sunbathing, and partook of some very cheap local food in a busting HK cafe. I avoided the popular whole roast duckling (including head,beak, and eyeballs!) that was advertsised on large posters around the walls, and went with a safer chicken and noodle dish, while studying form in the local paper for what proved to be an excellent evening of horse racing...

Our final major activity in HK was truly fantastic - we had booked an evening tour to Happy Valley racecourse, which is set right in the middle of the city, a very surreal location surrounded on 3 sides by skyscrapers and mountains - quite a sight at night. We booked a tour that is only available to international visitors, that gives access to the members enclosure, buffet dinner, racecard, and stunning location overlooking the whole course with private betting facilities, also a tour to the paddock and members/press section by the finish line.  I would definitely recommend this to anyone visiting HK, and if I ever have a flight stopover will make sure it's on a Wednesday!

Despite knowing nothing of the local horses, my form reading proved mildly profitable with 2 winners and a couple of forecasts, netting me 300 dollars profit for the night (about 25 quid). I also tried my hand at the near impossible 'Triple Trio' jackpot, which requires you to pick the first 3 horses home in 3 consecutive races, the jackpot standing at 11 million dollars when we visited. I didn't do too bad, naming 2 of the first 3 in all 3 races, but 2 luck buggars nailed it sharing the dosh. Worth another go next time...On our visit to the finish line, I took a photo that any sports journalist would be proud of, with the added bonus of sticking 40 dollars on the winning horse I so professionally captured (get in number 11!)

A perfect end to our stopover, I would go back just for Happy Valley racing and to get some more tailored shirts, but will probably give the harbour/light show a miss! Onwards to the land of teh rising sun...


Tokyo

2012-05-10 to 2012-05-12

We'd been keeping a wary eye on the weather forecasts ahead of our flight to Tokyo, as for several weeks there had been dark clouds, thunderstorms, and heavy rain across all of our intended stops in Japan.

Initial signs wer not good - landing at Narita airport in a deluge, there were no ground staff available to get us off the plane, they were all inddors for health and safety reasons. By some miracle, this proved to be a one off - we only experienced rain on one day during our entire stay in the country. After gaining our Japanese rail passes at teh airoport we set off on a lengthy trek into the city, wandering the streets to find our hotel in the historical Asakusa area.

Rather tired, we set of to find a local eatery for a late dinner  followed by much needed sleep - this proved rather difficult, as every local establishment had no sign of English whatsoever. other thena teh title 'food' above menus of all Japanese text. One exception to this rule was a restaurant that seemed to serve nothing but feet, tongues, skin, intestines etc., but given previous experience in China gave this a miss. Thankfully we came upon a saviour (wanted to avoid McDonalds!), a resztaurant that operates using vending machines at teh front door. Selecting meals and drinks by photo, and inserting the required coinage, the machine presened a receipt that we gave to a waitress, all duly delivered to our table, only needing to say 'thanks', one of 4 Japanese words in our armoury. Nice to have this as a fall back option, and the meal was truly fantastic, and very reasonaby priced at about 6 quid including various side dishes, rice,and miso soup.

At both the airport and hotel, had my first experience of a true cultural phenomenon, the Japanese toilet - throughout our tour of Japn these truly fascinated me, with a range of buttons and wheels for bottom (and front!) washing, variable jet strengths and temperatures, 'flush sound' buttons to hide any embarrassing noises, seat warming, plus a host of controls with Japanese language that I could only guess at - just hoped none said 'eject'...

With a tight schedule, we set off on day 2 for a full day tour of the essentials in Tokyo - joining an international tour group to visit the Imperial Palace, enjoy a traditional tea ceremony, take a cruise on the river, head up Tokyo Tower for a view of the city (think Blackpool tower, in red), and visiting Tokyo's most important Buddhist shrine in Asakusa as well as another very touristy shopping street leading to the shrine - Japan's equivalent of a 'Kiss me quick' type area, I was only tempted by a rare cultural dish - grape flavoured ice cream. The undoubted highlight was lunch at a traditional teppanyaki eatery hidden away in some Japanese gardens, absolutely exquisite - I've tried it in other countries but this went up several notches - no Western showmanship here, just unbelievable quality of food.

We freewheeeled on our next day, heading out to the national gardens in Tokyo. We settled down outside a traditional Japanese tea house and scoffed some English stye sarnies in preference to teh evil sushi offering that I simply couldn't stomach - happy to try new things, but raw fish  and me just don't go. I made my first of many fruitless efforts to locate the rare 'Crisp picker upper' gadget that became infamous from UK TV show 'An Idiot Abroad', trying to explain this to various shop assistants was rather frustrating! We were in truth quite surprised at the lack of English on the whole in Tokyo, but I gues when your economy is as successful as theirs, who cares about English...

In the afternoon we headed for a highly entertaining session of Sumo wresting at teh national stadium. Only 2 'bashos' per year are held in Tokyo, we were lucky that our visit coincided and had booked excellent seats with a great view of proceedings. Outside teh arena, many spectators were gathered hoping for a gimpse of their heroes at the 'athletes' entrance - we headed straight in for lunch. Finding that all of the local 'bento box' lunches were sold out, we were forced into Western offerings - decling french fries and fried chicken, I went for an East-West hybrid in a teriyaki bacon burger - truly a creation I will need to recreate. Taking our seats, we were highly entertained by 4 hours of fat boy athletics, grand ring entrances, and a near riot when teh final match took place. Traditionally, the final match of the day features the 'Yokuzuna', the highest ranked Sumo wrestler. Facing a lower ranked opponent, the big man was clearly the fan favourite, but in a back and forth battle, both men ended up throwing eachother out of the ring simultaneously and almost hitting teh floor together. After the judges sitting at ringside conferred, the decison was announced, and the underdog had prevailed - cue all of the locals sitting on the lower level throwing their floor cushions into the ring, apparently as violent as the Japanese seem to get, bless them.

We set off in the evening to explore 'Electric city' in Akihabara, a large area of stores selling all the latest tech/gadgets. After another failure in my search for the crisp gadget, we were fascinated to explore the variousgaming arcades, predominately occupied by Japanese business men with brief cases, indulging in role playing games that seem to mainly feature scantily clad busty female characters, I sensed a lot of frustration...this area is also famous for its 'maid cafes' - the street is adorned by young females dressed as saucy french maids, trying to entice punters in to cafes where they serve food, ad in some cases offer neck/back massages - all on the level apparently, but we had no chance to find out as the menus outside all of the cafes were in Japanese only and the locals seemed to offer no/pigeon English at best.

Returning to our hotel, we stocked up with provisions from one of the millions of 24 hour convenience stores - I was surprised and delighted to find such a simple commodity as a bottle of water can be glorified in Japan, with promotional toys attached. The bottle I selected came with a range of 'Moomin' figures, a cartoon series I vaguely recall from my childhood in the UK, quite astonished to see it alive and well in the far East.

After a few brief but tightly packed days, my conclusion on Tokyo would be it makes for a cool stopover, but probably not a place to spend a full holiday, and certainly not unless you're willing to take some language lessons, or survive by pointing at pictures of food!


Odawara, Hakone, Mount Fuji

2012-05-13 to 2012-05-14

Traversing by the local 'shakinsen', better known to us as the bullet train, we headed swiftly from Tokyo to Odawara, en route to our lodgings in the Hakone region of Japan. Why oh why can't we have trains like this in the West - plenty of leg room, no overcrowding, incredibly fast, always on time (and, thankfully with station names in English!). Spending 50 minutes on a bus from Odwara . we found our way to our simple, traditional Japanese accomodation in the village of Sengokuhara, way up in the mountains.

Quite a contrast to Tokyo, I could have stayed here for weeks, and would definitely return. Quiet and serene, the town basically shuts down by 8/9pm every night (except the compulsory 24 hour convenience store found on every Japanese street), and is short hop away from what every tourist visiting this region seeks to see - Mount Fuji.

Dumping our bags, we set off on our first attempt to see the great mountain, following a traditional route - taking a cable car from Gora, then boarding the 2nd longest ropeway in the world, over Owakudani (hot sulphur springs created when the local volcano last erupted 300 years ago). As the ropeway reaches the high point at Owakudani, you finally find out if Mt Fuji is visible. On this day...no cigar, nothing, zilch - cloud and mist obscued Fuji completely, which was a tad disappointing. Contiuning onward to Togendai, we boarded the local sightseeing pirate ship across Lake Ashi to Moto Hakone - which provides stunning views of the local panorama (and Fuji, on a good day). After a lengthy return journey home, we set off to eat before the village closed down, managing to point at pictures of food and enjoying quite a hearty feast of noodles, pork, ginger, miso soup and pickles at 'Daichi', a restaurant we had to identify by Japanese symbols only, quite a task in our tired state.

Returning to our guesthouse, we donned traditional Japanese robes and made our way to the private outdoor 'onsen' hot volcanic baths with some cold drinks. This truly is sensational, and worth the visit alone. Heated naturally by the local volcanic activity, the baths are full of healthy minerals (also acidic to the point that any silver jewellery would be corroded!).Funnily enough, they are BLOODY hot, and I did need to take a cold shower mid way through our 30 minutes, but felt fantastic afterwards. In our traditional Japanese room, I managed to stream the final day of English Premiership football on my laptop, which meant quite a late night/early morning but worthwhile to watch Alex Ferguson suffer. Checking the weather forecast for Hakone showed some promise - that morning was the only time that clear skies were forecast in the next 14 days...

Over breakfast the next day, we met other travellers from across the world (Hong Kong, Switzerland, and France, to be specific), and made the most of our final day in Hakone by replicating the journey made on day 1....this time we were very, very lucky, with just a few small clouds in the sky. From the base of Lake Ashi, we viewed Mount Fuji at dawn, an awesome sight. From the ropeway and Owakudani, I took countless Fuji photos from multiple angles - none can accurately represent that view, this is something everyone should do given half a chance...even in real life, the mountain looks surreal, like someone has painted it on the landscape, quite bewitching.

This time we disembarked the ropeway at Owakudani, and trekked around the hot suplhur springs nearby, also indulging in the local 'black egg' delicacy. These are eggs boiled in the volcanic springs, making the outer shell pure black. These eggs would definitely belong to the Tesco 'Finest' range at about 4 quid for 5 eggs, but they served as a pleasant mid morning snack together with the sachet of salt provided by teh local egg mafia.

Feeling extraordinarily blessed, we undertook the journey back to Odinawara, for some more 'bullet training' to Kyoto, Japans old capital...

 


Kyoto and Nara

2012-05-15 to 2012-05-19

For some reason, I was surprised at the sheer scale of Kyoto, I had maybe expected something a little more rural, akin to Hakone. What we encountered was something similar to Tokyo in size, but with a much more relaxed, laid back feel, and without the skyscrapers. I liked it a lot, and like Hakone, could happily go back for an extended stay.

Unlike Toyko, English seems to be prevalent here - many tourists visit the old capital to find themselves spiritually, visiting the hundreds of temples and shrines,  they have obviously made an effort to accomodate for this more so than Tokyo. We even found (worryingly) the obligitory 'Irish pub', although we refused to venture in, and the place is nowhere near as cheesy as this would make it seem!

On our first evening, we headed over the bridge to old Kyoto for a walking tour of the 'Geisha' district, learning all about the history and traditions of Maikos (apprentices), and Gaikos (fully qualified Geishas), as well as the misconeptions about this career path! We visited the location used in some famous chick flick 'Memoirs of a Geisha'(?), some of the famous tea houses where they entertain well to do guests, and the training houses where they live. Our efforts to spot them in the narrow streets making their way between appointments was largely fruitless, save for one nimble footed minx who I managed to capture a side shot of as she galloped away. Outside the most famous tea house, one girl in our group was approached by a 'bouncer', who pushed her rather roughly into a wall - apparrently a sign we were not welcome!

Next day we made our way to some of the key headline sights of Kyoto, before heading to Nara in the afternoon. Highlights included Nijo castle and gardens, inhabited by the last Japanese Shogun before handing rule back to the Emperor, and the stunning 'Godlen Pavillion' which lives up to its name, coated in pure gold leaf. The greatest sight of all was the Giant buddah statue at Todaiji Temple in Nara, standing 15 metres high. This was thought to be the tallest buddah statue in the world, until another was uncovered in Tibet at 20 metres, so will need to add that to my 'to do' list. Feeling rather ill with a migraine at the end of a long day, I couldn't have our planned teppanyaki - instead after some medication and a nap, I had to give in to a westernised snack instead of our usual rice/noodles feast - ignoring McDonalds we decided to try Japans local equivalent, MOS Burger - nothing like the western chains, everything is cooked after you order as you like it, and is off much better meat quality - I had a delicious burger with teriyaki sauce that tasted every bit as succulent as kobe beef. Taking a walk through the old town for fesh air to clear my aching head, we stumbled across 5 geishas and I managed to get a perfect photo of one of them.

Our final morning in Kyoto was spent giving in to the temptations of tourism - we headed for the highly recommeneded handicraft centre, which stocks every conceivable souvenir of Japan, but at reasonable prices without the naff tourist marketing practices seen elsewhere. After stocking up on some miniature letter opener samurai swords and (almost) buying some wooden sumo wrestlers, I made one final attempt to locate my highly sought crisp grabber gizmo in 2 department stores - no luck, apparrently the item was discontinued last year, buggar...

In the afternoon I headed off to Eastern Kyoto do some more temples and shrines, that were truly amazing. Starting with the Heian Shrine (a replica of Japans original Imperial Palace), then  the Sanjusangendo Temple which features 1001 gold statues of the goddess of mercy (no photos allowed, unfortunately!), and finally Japan's most beloved temple, Kiyomizu-dera on the hills overlooking Kyoto. However, all of that was about to be knocked into a cocked hat by the ultimate Japanese cultural experience...

Before meeting up and catching a late night bullet train back to Tokyo, I had 30 minutes free time, so decided to peruse the local shops en route to Kyoto station. Visiting the local 'Yodabashi Camera' electronics superstore, I decided to make one last valiant attempt to locate my 'crisp picker upper'. Expecting failure, imagine my surprise when the sales assistant seemed to acknowledge my pathetic miming of a hand grabber, while saying 'potechi' (Jpaanese for potato)...leading me through a maze of aisles, there I was, staring the mythical 'potechi no te' potato chip grabber, by all accounts the last remaining stock in all of Japan. Grabbing up a handful of the little beggars (souvenirs, plus a spare, in case mine breaks down!), we then made our way merrily to Tokyo, buying some Japanese Pringles on board to test the gadget out - success!!! My very own 'Idiot Abroad' moment...

Arriving late in Tokyo, we decided to try out the nightlife of Rappongi, which has something for everyone. During our exploits, we meandered through the Rappongi Hills shopping/entertainment mall, where the biggest surprise was a store selling kittens - at between 600,000 and 900,000 yen - by my calculation thats  5000 quid upwards! I definitely need to start a black market operation exporting tabby cats to Japan...how many can I fit in a suitcase?

Lessons from Japan?

1. Teriyaki sauce makes anything taste delicious, even vegetables

2, Japanese women are very intriguing - they seem to have a particular penchant for dressing in schoolgirl like outfits, with knee high socks and very short skirts...

3. Japan can be done on a pretty reasonable budget if you don't do it as a fully guided tour (we used a fantastic agency that sorted our transport passes and hotels, & gave us local destination guides for eating/transport,sightseeing etc., we made our own way around witha  couple of local tours)

4. Tokyo is stopover, but not a holiday destination - go for Kyoto, and most definitely Hakone for a lengthy stay. Mount Fuji is worth staying until you get a clear day...

5. Get your legendary 'potato chip grabber' from Yodobashi Camera, Kyoto! If they ever get more stock...

6. Never try tipping in Japan, not needed and causes confusion...upon leaving a Gyoza snack bar in Kyoto one night (great fried meat dumplings), we were chased down the street by a waitress as we had overpaid by one yen (less than one pence)

7. The West could learn a thing or 2 when it comes to transport, food, and those fabulous  toilets...

8. I can actually use chopsticks! no need to ask/mime for cutlery in future...

And with those spiritual learnings in place, it's time to start the planning cycle again...Tibet, Polar bear safari, or Galapagos islands...hmmm


Petra

2014-05-29

While in the Middle East, a quick trip to Petra was a must - another one to cross of my list of 50 things to do, and at least the 12th of the '7 wonders' I've visited depending whose list you choose to follow...It would be nice to return to spend longer, but tried to make the most of a full day. After we joined the standard site tour trekking through the As-Siq 1200m long entrance gorge to the iconic 'Indiana Jones' famed Treasury, followed by royal tombs, theatre, and colonnaded street, I chose to stay on to do the insanely knackering climb to the monastery and high peak viewing points across the site.

Well worth the extra effort, but probably should have spent a bit more time in the gym  - climbing 1000 'steps'  - if you define steps as random bits of rock jutting out several feet high in places, in 37 degree mid day heat. There were not too many tourists about, but slightly off putting was the 30 stone American woman riding up on a poor little terrified donkey screaming 'ooh, I don't like it!' while some lcal kept whipping its backside to 'encourage' it to keep climbing - I would bet the donkey disliked it a whole lot more love, wish he'd bucked you off and you'd hurtled down the steps breaking your bloody neck...

We returned for the 'Petra by Night' tour, a more leisurely (and cooler) trek to the Treasury through the Al-Siq in darkness illuminated only by thousands of candle lanterns, accompanied by the sounds of local traditional music/instruments.

There were a few little bumps and scrapes in the darkness & sounds of people falling on their ass behind us - hopefully it was the Yank cow from the donkey incident earlier!

A really cool, chilled out, and stunning place to visit, and not at all over crowded - the local Jordanian people could not have been nicer, local food was great also. Definitely somewhere to return in future and highly recommended for anyones to-do list..


Churchill - Polar Bears and Beluga Whales

2014-08-19 to 2014-08-24

A  trip to Canada gave me chance to cross 2 more items off my bucket list, seeing polar bears in the wild plus swim with beluga whales..

A 3 hour (rather expensive) flight from Winnipeg into the northern wilderness on Manitoba takes you to Churchill, the northern most town that can be reached with any degree of ease, known as the world capital for both bears and belugas due to the huge populations of both found here.

Churchill could be described as a typical one horse town (except the horse would soon freeze to death or get eaten by a polar bear). One main road in town contains the only grocery store, a handful of b&bs, 2 bars, a pastry shop, and a few tourist firms organizing local events. All of 10-15 mniutes is all it takes to get around the town itself in full - although you need to be extremely vigilant for bears that wander in to the town and beach. Polar bear 'police' are on call 24 hours a day, as in summer the bears are hanging around waiting for the bay to freeze over and haven't eaten for a number of months, so a tourist or local makes a welcome snack.

The town also has a 'polar bear jail', which houses bears that get too close for comfort. We visited on a day that a mum and cub were being released after 30 days captivity - quite a spectacular event as tranquilized bears are hoisted in nets by helicopter, and taken many miles out into the wilderness for release. While winter is peak tourist season to see the bears, oce the asrea freezes over, I would highly recommend summer season - still plenty of the buggars around, easy to spot them when much of the asrea is still green rather than white, plus all the beluga whales are in the bay before they migrate north in winter.

We arrived in the last week of summer season, just as the weather was turning, so optimal to catch the bears waiting to return to the ice around the shore, Unfortunately that mean that we had one day of torrential rain/wind when all tours were cancelled. Our host, Lazy Bear Lodge, did a marvellous job or rescheduling everything to fit into the other days. On our day off, we took advantage of their log cabin sat in front of wood stoves, drinking hot chocolate and eating elk stew plus bison burgers...

In the remaining days we took extensive boat tours of the bay and Hudson areas, and saw hundreds of brilliant white beluga whales. Even from the shore, the bay was littered with their white backs, pods scattered as far as the eye could see. I joined a snorkelling tour in the bay to gain a clear view under water, which was quite a ride - the motor boat chugging along in the Arctic sea while trying to hold a rope attached to the back of the boat - whales following, swimming underneath and blowing air bubbles straight in my face..unfortunately one of my fellow snorkellers from Japan slipped off the end of the rope and caused our expedition to end earlier than planned, as we had to all clamber back to the boat, then circle around tying to find him in the ocean swells. I also joined a whale kayaking tour, which did not last as long as I would have liked - within 50 metres of shore, a playful beluga swam up to me, blew water in my face then dived under my boat and clattered my rudder, capsizing me in icy cold water..

Over 3 days we encountered 12 bears, some on the shore while we were in boats, others that we followed in our tundra buggy or (from a distance) on foot. While touring the local Prince of Wales Fort, a bear got a little too close for comfort, deciding to plonk himself between us and our boat. Our local guide Gerald had to fire 4 warning shots before he retreated to asufficient distance that we could walk. We also saw foxes, caribou, moose, artic hares, golden eagles and bald eagles, so something for everyone. And if watching wildlife isn't your thing, the bison burger at the local Tundra pub is almost worth the trip alone.

After 5 days of viewing all this wildlife in its natural environment, I made the most of half a day in Winnipeg to visit the newest attraction in their zoo - 2 orphaned polar bears from Churchill, with an underwater viewing area to watch them swim/play. Catching them doing this is pretty hit and miss and I was in luck, as both bears were out and about, playing and fighting underwater a spectacular sight.

I'd highly recommend any wildlife lovers to get to Churchill - it's not exactly cheap, but if you find yourself in North America with money burning a hole in your pocket, you won't regret it..


Santiago and Andes horse trek

2014-09-29 to 2014-10-02

The start of a '3 for the price of 1' adventure, 3 more items off the bucket list and now touching 40 of the 50 tasks I set myself all those years ago...horse riding in the Andes, Easter Island, and Angel Falls..

Arriving in Santiago, I started with a day of ambling aimlessly around the city using my legendary array of Spanish phrases to survive - 'ham and cheese sandwich' and 'still mineral water' being the primary ones, along with hello, goodbye, please, and thankyou. This was followed up with an offcial city tour taking in the cathedral, original colonial areas of the city, and beautiful panoramic city view, taking in the surrounding mountains I was due to ride across in the coming days. I was stunned to find the locals are not all morbidly obese given the apparent addiction to enormous cream cakes and hot dogs smothered in mayo, guacamole, and ketchup..for breakfast! Still, good value to be had in the local cafes with lunch and dinner coming in at a couple of bucks.

The next 2 days were spent on the first of my 3 adventures. Picked up in Santiagio and driven a few hours outside the city to a ranch jointly run by Brits and locals, to join a motley crew of travellers from Oz, US, and Argentina. We were paired up with our horses for the next 2 days, trekking through the Andes mountains.

Shockingly, based on my previous riding experience (2 hours in Australia 16 years ago!), that made me an 'intermediate' rider amongst the group - so I was paired with a less experienced horse than the novices..slightly disturbing, more disturbing when they told me new pal had just been retired as a rodeo horse. Thankfully something was lost in translation, not a bucking bronco, but a very docile sandy brown gelding, called Pedro.

After all of 5 minutes riding instruction, and the entire group deciding to shun safety helmets in favour of cowboy hats (more photogenic), we set off for 2 days with overnight camping in the mountains: spectacular views with clear blue skies in pleasant 20 degree sunshine, snow capped mountains, incredibly steep climbs and sharp descents, riding through rivers almost waist high, and riding across almost sheer drops with no discernible path. One Argie girl in our group screamed her lungs out  regularly, and had to end up getting a tow rope from one of the local guides.

My mount on the whole behaved very well, while a few of the others played up - our guide rode the only full stallion (the other poor blighters were all gelded), and the testosterone kicked in a few times, especially once horses were tied up for our overnight camp. This led to the guide getting a little heavy handed with a whip, the only part of the trip I didn't enjoy..one of the other horses got spooked as we posed for photos, and threw an Ozzie bloke to the floor, but no damage done.

We made overnight camp with our 2 non English speaking guides doing all the hard work & cooking - after an early morning campfire breakfast of scrambled eggs, we made our way back to the ranch. Our initial instruction had been to not allow the horses to stop and eat  any vegetation while riding, but Pedro insisted on trying at every possible opportunity: walking at the very edge of every trail and carrying me through every tree/bush rather than around them. He also insisted on walking right at the very edge of sheer drops rather than the safe side of the paths, thankfully I'm not a vertigo sufferer.

On return to the ranch, we dismounted with slightly sore undercarriages and prepared to go our separate ways, but not before Pedro went full on psycho..a few minutes after leaving the horses at the stables with our guides, Pedro hurtled past at a full gallop, setting off down the long driveway toward the open road and highways beyond. Thankfully the guides finally caught him, and brought hime safely back home.

Returning to Santiago, early to bed for a very early wake up and the flight to Easter Island...


Easter Island

2014-10-03 to 2014-10-08

Leaving behind my new 4 legged friend in the Andes, time for the second phase of my '3 for 1' trip..

After 5 hours flying time from Santiago to the middle of the ocean, arrived in Hanga Roa on Easter Island for my pilgrimage to the famed Moai statues found here. Not surprisingly given the remote location, Easter sland isn't the cheapest place to survive, certainly compared to Santiago - cafes and restuarants a plenty in Hanga Roa with spectacular views of the Ocean but no 2 dollar meals to be had. Still not too extortionate, if anything comparable to Britain, and particulary good for any seafood lovers as everything is freshly caught - loved the tuna empanadas, which added to my extensive Spanish vocab 'Atun con queso empanada..' The hotel was very reasonably priced, a beautifully appointed set of log cabins 2 minutes from the ocean with small pool, and (like the whole island) the slowest internet connection on the planet, 9 hours to send 1 hotmail message is a new record - even compared to my original backpacking in Oz and Fiji all those years ago.

Over the next 2 days I joined up with a local guide and tour group for 3 tours to cover the main points of interest across the island. I was the only native English speaker, and other than the bilingual guide, only 1 girl from Chile spoke English - hence sign language a plenty, lots of 'thumbs up' and smiling like a homocidal maniac. I was suprised at the lack of non Latin American tourists on the whole - other than a Chinese bloke and 2 Italians, almost everyone on the island was from Chile, but it is a pretty long way to go from almost anywhere on the planet.

Day 1 was a full tour to the far side of the island, taking in amongst other sights the iconic photo stop at Tangoriki where the largest number of full Moai statues sit mounted on their 'Ahu'. Also a trek around the volcano Rano Raraku, the quarry where the Moai statues were originally crafted, before being transported to the coastal areas to be mounted on Ahu plinths.

This offers spectacular views, with 500 Moais left here in various stages of completion, many of the full heads sticking up out of the earth. Late afternoon, after a barbeque lunch at the volcano, we stopped at the only sand beach on the Island, Arakena, where another collection of completed Moai sit. 30 minutes after arriving, a storm arrived, so sunbathing on hold, we returned to Hanga Roa. Later that day, rain subsided, and we stopped at Tahai, a site just 10 minutes from the hotel which is popular for spectacular sunset views over yet more Moais.

Day 2 consisted of 2 separate tours - one to Orongo, the site of the birdman islands where chiefs of the island districts gathered each year and competed to be overall head honcho. This was done by climbing down the cliffs, swimming to the islands and waiting to find the first egg laid by the local bird population each season, then being first to return an unharmed egg by swimming & climbing back to Orongo...a buggar if you crack the egg after all that faffing about,  this small task used to take around 3 weeks! A few minutes from these islands is dormant volcano Rano kau, now with a crater lake, providing a great panoramic view.

Making our way to our final tour spot at Ahu Akivi, we stopped to pick and eat fresh guava fruits at the roadside. Then a visit to the only mounted Moai statues not at the coast, instead these ones face the sunset from the centre of the island. This was also a site used as a crematorium for important clan members.

The next 2 days were spent freely hiking around the island, getting charged by a bull in the middle of the countryside and scrambling over a fence to safety, swimming, watching a local surf competition, and eating an epic amount of tuna steak. On the final morning, I was treated to a rare occurance - a full lunar eclipse and 'blood red' moon, with perfect clear skies. After yet more scrambled egg, time to fly right the way across South America to Venezuala for part 3 of my trilogy...


Angel Falls, Canaima, Caracas

2014-10-09 to 2014-10-13

..onto the final leg of my latest bonanza, and completing a dream I've had since reading the Arthur Conan Doyle novel 'The Lost World' some 30 years ago, back in ye olde days before e-readers existed. That novel was based on the spectacular scenery around Venezuala's jungles, waterfalls and mountains, a remote area where dinosaurs still lived. And seeing is believing, the sights were truly worth the trek to this remote area, looking just like something straight from Jurrassic Park, but without the CGI...

After a flight delay, and 20 hours holed up in Bogota at the airlines expense with a well deserved jacuzzi, steam room and chicken cordon bleu, I finally arrived in Caracas  - then an onward flight via light aircraft to the remote area known as Canaima, from which our expedition would take place. Canaima is effectively a small village, set on a beautiful lagoon with 2 sets of waterfalls, and the closest point of civilsation to the world tallest waterfall, Angel Falls. Standing a smidgeon under 1km in height, this makes Niagra and other  pretenders look like a dog taking a leak on a lampost..

A large group of us assembled to form our trek group: a mix of holiday makers, gap year students, and some jammy bastards taking career breaks from the rat race, from all over the planet. After a stroll through this remote village with its amazing modern school and satellite internet cafe, plus a group lunch to get to know eachother, we set out for a full day on the lagoon by canoe. This was followed by several hours trekking through the wilderness, swimming in the base of Sapo Falls with a walk behind the curtain of water - getting absolutely saturated in the process, but highly invigorating. After trekking to the top of the falls, we were treated to astonishing panoramic views across the plains and mountains of this region, and on the way back to our boat encountered a highly poisonous yellow tree frog.

Following a night in the village, we set off early morning for Angel Falls - the only way is 4 hours by motorized canoe through some turbulent water & rapids in a bloody uncomfortable boat, sitting in pairs on hard wooden benches. We stopped for a welcome respite, to have a picnic lunch on a small pebble beach area where thousands of small fish gave us free pedicures, then continued (fingers crossed) for a clear view of the legendary Falls. In this area the weather is highly unpredicatble, on many days the Falls are obscured by cloud cover and at certain times of year the falls are dry, or only a trickle of water. We lucked out - a completely clear sky, plus a healthy torrent of water welcomed us when we entered Devils Canyon, and caught our first glimpse from the boat. 20 minutes later we put our hiking boots on, to start our ascent to the viewing spot - a fairly heavy going, 1 hour hike through the forest, scrambling through tree roots, up 35 degree rock climbs and through plenty of mud. The group was fairly stretched out here, I managed to reach the top in a respectable 4th place and 30 minutes before the stragglers, so plenty of time to take in the spectacular views.

This truly is awe inspiring, these falls are so high that water looks like steam rather than water. at the top. After taking in the view, 4 of us continued to trek until we reached the base of the falls for a swim - not literally under the water flow, as that might have decapitated us given the 1km drop. Finally we made our way back to the group, and made our way to overnight camp, sleeping in open air hammocks before a 5am start back to Canaima.

Returning to Canaima, ahead of onward flights to Ciudad Bolivar, myself, an American and a German decided to club together and charter a light aircraft that will take you for an aerial view of Angel Falls - for the princely sum of 55 dollars!  With only 3 rows of seats, I got to occupy the co-pilot position - we took off for a 40 minute round trip, circling the Falls 4 times and also taking in views of various other falls, lagoons, and local scenery.

Then it was straight from one plane into another - at Ciudad Bolivar, we got to see a replica of the plane flown by Jimmy Angel, the pilot who discovered Angel Falls by accident when he crash landed there.

On to Caracas - having previously met many travellers who had warned me of the potential dangers in one of the most feared cities on Earth, including tales of gun shootings in hotel lobbies. Thanks to the agency helping me out, I had nothing to fear -  spending a morning walking the city, taking in a panoramic view from the surrounding hills, the cathedral, presidential palace, and Simon Bolivar statue. Finally, just time for a very pleasant local delicacy lunch consisting of black beans, pork, cheese and avocado (picking out the bits of avocadao, I'm not a bird on some crazy diet)

With a full belly, I have completed my latest adventure and can start planning the next..Galapagos or Tibet?, eeny meeny...


Rome

2015-03-31 to 2015-04-01

I found these photos lurking on my camera some time after this trip, so uploading for posterity..

Avoiding the blistering heat of summer, this trip provided a little relaxation, plus teh chnace to strike off another of my bucket list items (actually several items that I combined into one, inlcuding Pisa and Pompei).

Really can't remember many details now, but I know we stuffed our faces with pizza and gelato of every possible flavour under the sun. A tour of the colliseum including the 'basement' where gladiators and animals were kept, and the Vatican, despite my highly non -religious views, were the initial highlights. Basically we did all of the typical tourist highlights, if I'd written a blog at the time I'm sure I could recall more. Anyway, more of my 'Italy' bucket list item to follow...


Pisa

2015-04-02

..well if we were going to hit Rome, I simply had had to complete my 'Italy' bucket list entry during our visit.

Hence, a high speed train to Pisa, to spend a few hour  at another of the 'Wonders' of the world - the leaning tower. 'Leaning' is ceratinly no understatement - I took the chance to enter the tower and walk up the spiral staircase to the top. Certainly a surreal experience, given the angle of the tower - alternatively leaning into and away from the wall as you stagger like the town drunk in circles. With yet more gelato in my belly, back to Rome, and time for us  to venture South for the final entry in this mini bucket list entry...


Pompeii & Naples

2015-04-03

so to finish the Italian chapter of the bucket list, with the ruins and fossilised remains of Pompeii - plus a hike to the summit of Versuveus, the volcan responsible for the decimation..and, of course, a pizza in the bay of Naples.

Well worth the detour South, we were entertained by a tour of Pompei including the amphitheatre, town streets, plus various buildings including the local brothel, complete with picture 'menu' of services on offer.

The most memorable, and haunting, part of Pompeii is surely the plaster casts taken of humans (and a dog!) that were caught in the disaster - each frozen at the exact moment in time that the volcano rained down upon them, many cowering in fear.

To recover from that experience, we took a lung busting climb to survey the smoking crater of the volcano itself. And with the umpteenth pizza in a matter of days, time to return to Rome and finish the sights there..


Venice &Rome

2015-04-04 to 2015-04-05

not my choice, and not part of my bucket list - but worthwhile none the less. We trekked from Rome to spend a day surveying the sights of Venice.

Despite reports from friends regarding the bad smells eminating from the canals, thankfully our visit was stench free. Resisting the urge to buy a Cornetto and recreate a TV ad from the 1980s, we toured the Palace and Duomo, and wondered at St Marks Square..

Mainly, we wondered at the ridiculous prices of drinks and food, rather than the architecture. A second mortgage is needed if you fancy a cappucino sitting outside in the Square. So instead, we ventured through the alleyways, to find some more reasonable paninis and enormous coloured meringues.

Having also seen the famous Bridge of Sighs and Rialto Bridge, we returned to Rome for some final aimless wandering - including accidentally stumbling avross the Trevi fountain (surrounded by scaffolding due to maintenance). And, of couse, a final pizza before leaving Italy. My cholesterol level probably trebled in a few days...


Belfast

2015-06-23 to 2015-06-26

One of may stays here, but taking the chance to take a little tour for a change - a few full Irish breakfasts to boost the cholesterol level, a full day touring the Giants Causeway and various locations along the Antim coast/Game of Thrones filming locations, plus a morning visiting the Titanic exhibition. Job done..


Quito, Quilitoa, Papallacta

2015-10-21 to 2015-10-24

A quick 3 day stopover in Ecuador en route to crossing off #42 of my 50 item bucket list, and top of my remaining 'to dos', the Galapagos islands..

Started my layover with a full day trek from Quito to Quilitoa lagoon - originally supposed to be climbing Cotapxi volcano, but it decided to erupt before my visit, so a hasty change of plan. The lagoon proved a beautiful but damned painful alternative - had not factored in the effects of high altitude in Quito with no time to adjust. Attempting to climb down, and more importantly back up the rather steep sand/rock 1 hour climb to the surface proved a killer, but refused the American tourist option of taking a horse from the bottom. Watching the poor things suffer lugging their hefty asses up a mountain was not enjoyable, even if I felt a tad jealous half way up.

Any stop in Quito means you have to do the compulsory photo at the zero degrees lattitude equatorial monument - so spent a day touring the historical city centre (full of churches, as in every other South American city), a panoramic view of the city from el pancillico (again a bloody big statue on top of a hill - mandatory in any South American city worth its salt), then an afternoon tour to the 'official' grand equator monument for a photo, plus a visit to the real zero degrees location a few hundred metres away - less spectacular, but amazing how entertained a bunch of tourists can be watching a sink of water being emptied either side of the line, water spinning clockwise and anti clockwise each side- then being emptied on the line with no spinning at all, going straight down..who needs a Playstation? Also got the official zero degrees lattitude stamp in the passport.

A day to relax in the hot springs of Papallacta with a German scientist bird that had been working in Galapagos gave me the chance to get some insider info on my upcoming bucket list trip, and some rather spectacular views of the surrounding snow capped volcanoes. Job done, stopover complete, time to go and get the purpose of my visit sorted, Galapagos here I come...


San Cristobal and Kicker Rock, Galapagos

2015-10-25 to 2015-10-27

The start of the big one..flew in a day early and met up with Rheya, an Aussie girl touring South America. Before the others arrived we took an afternoon to hike around local viewing points and the conservation centre, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of the local town being over run by sea lions - lying on benches, walking/waddling down the main street and basically flopped down on the pavement all over the shop, and not in the least bit intimidated by humans, even getting up to sit next to us on benches.

Day 2 we hired a taxi to take us around the highlands, visiting a lagoon, a giant tortoise reserve and a couple of beaches on the far side of the island to see our first pre historic looking marine iguanas and a lot more sea lions. Then met up with the next 2 American arrivals and we all headed off for a hike and first snorkel of the trip at Loberia beach - had our first sightings of sea turtles and many hundred sea lions incuding mums nursing new born pups, still rocking umbilical cords. Quite a surreal experience having sea lions everywhere on the beach, some of them coming to lie behind us to get in our shadows out of the sun.

Day 3 and a boat ride to snorkel at Kicker Rock, a number of turtle and playful sea lion experiences (getting banged head on by them under water) plus first sightings of some white tipped sharks, plus blue footed boobies and masked boobies on the rocks. Then more snorkelling back on the mainland with some more new arrivals from Germany and yet more sea turtles. Next, disaster strikes - my underwater camera breaks down, deciding to let water in through the zoom mechanism...and buying one in Galapagos is impossible unless you want to splash out 600 dollars. Time to buy some crappy 20 dollar disposable cameras and hope for the best...


Floreana, Isabela, Cabo Rosa - Galapagos

2015-10-28 to 2015-10-29

Leaving San Cristobal for some lengthy boat rides, with an influx of new group members, we head to Floreana for a few hours hiking through the highlands - learning about the history of the first visitors to Galapagos and seeing giant tortoises in the reserve. Some snorkelling (several more sea turtles) and more marine iguanas (unique to Floreana, reddish in colour) and sea lion sightings, before we head to Isabela for relaxing evening.

Next day and I made the very wise choice to head to Cabo Rosa instead of a scheduled 16km hike to a volcano crater. Cabo Rosa is an area of lava tunnels created by volcanic activity - creating an area of calm, shallow lagoon like crystal clear water, teaming with turtles and sharks, sea horses and Galapagos penguins amongst other wildlfe. Blue footed boobies with new born fluffy chicks adorn the rocks. Scenery here is spectacular, and our 90 minute snorkel was unreal - literally inches away from numerous turtles that were quite happy to swim alongside us. I would say it worth going to Galapagos just to go to this one stunning spot, and would happily spend 2 or 3 days doing multiple trips to snorkel there, highly recommended..in the afternoon yet more giant tortoises at the local breeding centre plus a hike to a lagoon watching some flamingos having a fight...


Tintoreras, Calera, Santa Cruz - Galapagos

2015-10-30

A morning at Tintoreras walking, literally, through a sea of iguanas - needing to tip toe gently between them without standing on the little buggars, followed by a fabulous snorkel at Calera - a shallow spot with a dozen sea turtles, first sightings of marine iguanas swimming past us, and a enormous manta ray - fabulous spot, shame I got my back burned to buggary as decided to leave the wet suit off. A few decent photos despite the naff disposable camera to boot...then onwards to Santa Cruz, the main island most tourists head to, to base ourselves for a few days while jetting out on day trips to 2 uninhabited islands.

In the afternoon, we head out out to hike across the island to Tortuga Bay, for some relaxation in a beautiful mangrove beach, ready for an early start the next day..


North Seymour and Bachas - Galapagos

2015-10-31

Time to head off to one of the completely uninhabited islands, and supposedly the best island of all for wildlife - it did not disappoint. Tourists are only allowed on land for a limited time each day, we managed around 90 minutes of hiking around seeing countless blue footed boobies with chicks and hatching eggs also frigate birds with their enormous chicks. The frigate male birds display by inflating a huge red pouch, and they were everywhere, also flying with the pouches inflated, god knows how they could see in some cases.

Like all the other islands, the amazing thing is how close the animals let you come to them, with o sign of discomfort.Many are physically on the trail, but make no attempt to move when you approach. Again, numerous more sea lion and iguana experiences here (this time with the yellow land iguana) before heading to Bachas beach for snorkeling and many more pelican, flamingo, iguana sightings etc etc....

An absolute must do visit if you find yourself in this part of the world..


Santa Fe - Galapagos

2015-11-01

A long boat ride for a day trip to our final island, Santa Fe - 2 key reasons to visit this one - a plethora of sea lions to snorkel with, plus a unique species on land iguana. The island is also covered in large cactus trees, if that's your bag..

Upon arrival we were met by a dominant male sea lion swimming around the beach barking loudly to assert his authority, a large number of females, plus one of the smallest cutest pups you could ever imagine - unfortunately the little blighters mum was off fishing, and he was crying loudly for her, following us around the beach and being pushed away by other sea lions.

Hiking around the island we got to see the unique Barrington iguana that is endemic here - a darker greeny yellow than the normal land iguana found elsewhere, then spent some time swimming with the sea lions. Despite my crap disposable camera, I even managed one decent shot when a sea lion decided to stop and play alongside me. Back to Santa Cruz for the last 4 of us still standing at this point for a celebratory slap up meal before our departure next day..


Santa Cruz, Baltra - Galapagos

2015-11-02

A final day on the mainland before flying out - a brief visit to see some more giant tortoises in extremely muddy conditions, a walk through the on land lava tunnels and then time for the ferry to Baltra and a flight back to Quito.

Game over - and the #1 must do on my remaining bucket list definitely lived up to expectations. If you love wildlife, and snorkeling or diving, it has to go to the top of anyones list...if and when I finish the last 8 items on my list, this in the one I'm coming back to again, to do some of the outer islands that can only be reached on a live aboard boat trip, diving at Darwin to see thousands of hammerheads and whale sharks plus a trip to Genovesa to see red footed boobies is going on my next bucket list...

After 2 and a half weeks of fresh fruit, juices, smoothies, freshly caught fish with rice and salad, time to get back to reality and a ruddy great double bacon cheeseburger.


Tibet - Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Mount Everest base camp

2016-04-23 to 2016-04-30

Mystial, magical Tibet...well worth the effort to visit, as long as you are willing to put up with the high risk of chronic headaches, vomiting, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, lack of sleep and total loss of appetite that various members of our group suffered.

Such are the delights of dealing with the high altitudes involved in this region - and that is just in the capital, Lhasa, before even starting to ascend to the heights of Mount Everest base camp! We were also advised that we should not shower or wash our hair during our trip, to help avoid high altitude sickness symptoms, so a rather smelly week lay ahead...

Flying in to Tibet was quite an experience - at the airport, the runway was surrounded by a full compliment of military fighter jets, fully armed with missiles pointing directly at the runway we were landing on, slighly unnerving... a reminder of some of the 'tension' regarding this autonomous region within China.

Lhasa stands at an altitude of over 3000 metres, upon arrival our group assembled for a full day of moderate acclimatization by visiting to Dalai Lama's palace (Potala) and Johkang temple. The palace is stunning in terms of its scale, with over 1000 rooms. Thankfully not all open to the public, as by the time our group had climbed the stairs (maybe only 150 metres high), we were all on the brink of collapse/needing oxygen already - the impact of this altitude is hard to explain, certainly much greater than I had expected, and greater than previously experienced on my visit to Ecuador.

As is the custom in much of Asia, no photos are allowed inside temples/religious buildings, so only external views shown here. On the inside the amount of wealth is staggering - a pretty penny could be sought from cash4gold.com, each room seems to contain  buddah statues built in tribute to each Dalai Lama containing over 3 tonnes of gold. After a tour of the capitals main temple and views across the city/palace, we tried to rest before starting to climb higher towards Everest, after a first experience of delicious Yak meat for dinner accompanied by a fruity little apple Lassi.

This first night did not go well for the group. I managed 1 hour sleep, by the morning, we had already lost 3 of our starting 12: an Australian guy sent out of Tibet asap on doctors orders with sky high dangerous blood pressure, and 2 Americans taking themselves out of the tour as unable to cope physically with lack of breath/unable to walk.

The remaining international ensemble (1 Belgian, 1 French, 1 Dutch, 1 Iranian, 1 Italian, 2 Portugese, and 1 Singaporean) set off on a lengthy bus ride to our next stop in Shigatse - only a few hundred metres higher than Lhasa, but that is certainly noticable. We stopped at one of the major Tibetan monasteries en route, again no photos allowed, and at this point I started to notice  a more pronounced shortness of breath with every step. The whole group took it easy for the night, most of us couldn't even be bothered to go for dinner/no appetite, so a Snickers and Coke for energy, followed by a (slightly) better nights sleep.

Then for the big day, a full day journey to Mount Everest base camp. We made a few stops en route as we got our first glimpses of the mountain range (Everest is one of 5 peaks that all stand over 8000 metres here), also stopping for lunch - another dose of Yak meat combined with some Yak cheese 'momas' (dumplings), and some 'butter tea', the Tibetan staple drink that consists of milky, frothy tea infused with...Yak butter, obviously. Sounds horrendous, tastes fantastic, I am wondering if by 'butter' they actually mean cream in the translation.

We arrived at the tour base camp mid evening - now at an altitude of over 5200 metres. First we dumped our luggage in Yak hair tents, made acceptably warms by Yak dung fires - the temperatute overnight dropping to minus 13 Celsius. Then a 4km trek up to the 'official' base camp before sunset - this is where those climbing the mountain are based, and gives the closest possible views unless you are actually forking out and crazy enought to attempt the full ascent.

After some beautiful sunset views, we headed back to the sanctuary of our tent to try in vain to get warm for the night ahead, and managed to while away the late hours by watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones we had dowloaded to a laptop in Shigatse.

This night bordered on torture - no appetite to eat any dinner, I slept for 30 minutes maximum and was suffering a  chronic migraine attack. We also had to contend with the delights of the toilets - a shed containing 3 holes in the floor with a long drop to the rocks below and no lighting of any kind. A truly magical midnight experience of half freezing to death wandering around with a torch trying to find the toilet first, then finding 2 blokes sat down in the shed grunting and groaning trying to take a dump, and trying to avoid falling down the hole into a steaming pile of crap below fumbling with a torch while trying to go the loo..morning could not come soon enough! Most of the group in my tent had very little sleep, with lots of coughing and sneezing throughout the night, plus a few panic attacks/shortness of breath.

Thankfully respite finally came as we packed up in the morning to head back towards Shigatse - but not before discovering more woes amongst our group. Our Belgian comrade had expereinced a very bad time of it, talking gibberish and his lips and eyes turning blue, he was rushed to 'hospital' (a bloke in a  room) overnight, in the middle of nowhere, and given an injection. He and our guide rejoined us later that day. Another of the group had started violently vomiting  throughout the night, had a chronic headache, and was using the oxygen tank. Although Everest is stunning and worth the trip, we all were keen to get the hell away as fast as possible.

After a much better night and proper  sleep in Shigatse, we had a more relaxing trip back to the capital - stopping off to visit the Pekor Chode monastery (where photos were allowed of some of the interior rooms for a change), the stunning turquoise Yamdrok lake and the Karola glacier.

Back in Lhasa, before the group went our separate ways, there was just time to return to see the Potala palace by night, and with a returned appetite have a proper 'cheat' meal - after a week of noodles and rice (or no meal on several occasions), myself and 2 of the group found a KFC outlet just begging to be visited en route to the hotel - a 2 piece chicken meal and Pepsi was gratefully devoured, before flying  to Chengdu and hopefully some proper sleep away from the horrors of high altitude. It was also a chance to finally have a proper hot shower and wash away a week of stinky odour.

This is a great place to visit, but just be prepared for the horrors you may have to endure...


Iceland

2016-06-08 to 2016-06-13

Not so much travelling, rather a long weekend stopover - but none the less it covers another item from the bucket list..

Have uploaded a few photos, covering the Golden Circle, and the glacier/iceberg lagoon in the South of Iceland.

Visiting during summer, 24 hour daylight at our disposal - managed to throw in a  quick puffin/whale watching cruise, as well as soaking in the volcanically heated springs. All in all a well worthwhile stop, and would highly recommend to anyone travelling between Europe and the US... even though everything in Iceland costs a bloody fortune, unless you want to live on hot dogs from the stand near the harbour in Reykjavik!

So another bucket list item bites the dust, 6 offically left to complete and a couple already booked in the next 8 months..


Washington DC

2016-10-01 to 2016-10-04

After multiple flight changes in Washington, time to finally leave the airport and actually spend a few days in the US capital...

Proved to be a fine decision, using this as a stopver en route to Yellowstone. Quite different to the other big US cities with much more open space and no skyscrapers in sight. There is more than enough sightseeing to keep multiple days and nights fully occupied here, and some rather pleasant October weather made this most enjoyable.

A full tour of the many monuments and memorials, both by day and when illuminated at night is well worthwhile. And the range of Smithsonian museums along the national mall could keep you going for weeks - took a morning to head of the city to the superb air and space museum out near the airport (way too big to fit into the smaller air/space museum on the mall), housing my favourite plane from my younger model building days, the gorgeous SR 71A Blackbird that flew at 3 times the speed of sound. Possibly of more cultural importance, this museum also house Enolo Gay, the plan that dropped the Hiroshima A bomb, as well as the Discovery space shuttle.

Visited various Smithsonians including Natural History, American, and the haunting Holocaust museum. And to cap it all off, unexpectedly a wildlife encounter on the national mall, when an albino squirrel decided to come and say hello...


Denver

2016-10-05

 A very quick stop on the way to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone - visiting the State capitol and mile high marker plus the Red Rocks amphitheatre. That's about it...


Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse

2016-10-06

A bit of a trek to get there, but well worth it. We headed to the Crazy Horse memorial and Mount Rushmore en route to Yellowstone.

I found Rushmore way more impressive than I thought I would, well worth the stop and to hear the history about the construction of the site, the tribute to Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson.

Even more impressive (when finished!) will be the memorial to the native Indian chief Crazy Horse - the four faces on Mount Rushmore would all fit into just the face of this absolutely massive monument. After decades, the only finished element is the face of the chief - eventually he will be carved in full, sitting on a horse. The scale models on site give an impression of what is to come, and it will be truly amazing - if fancy going back in the estimated 35 years it is going to take to complete. Maybe not...


Yellowstone, Devils Tower, Teton mountains

2016-10-07 to 2016-10-08

Before entering Yellowstone we made a stop at the US's first national monument, Devils Tower. I was actualy more impressed by the incrediby cute prarie dogs we encountered on the way to the base of the tower. Unfortunately the little buggars were so tiny and fast that I couldn't get a photo of them, but there were hundreds darting about the place.

Finally we reached Yellowstone, and spent several days touring the classic sites, including Old Faithful (that erupted bang on time),  the incredibly colourful Grand Prismatic Spring, as well as Yellowstones version of the Grand Canyon (somewhat smaller). We toured across the 3 states that Yellowstone spans in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

There is no freedom to stray off of the public areas into the park here, which is slightly frustrating but intended to preserve the park and its wildlife. Despite this we encountered several hundred elk and bison, a rare wolf sighting and (from a few hundred yards away) 2 grizzlies. 

We also got close up to a bison at a diner in West Yellowstone, just outside the park - bison burgers all round, lovely jubbly...

Leaving Yellowstone we stopped at the Teton mountain range, a local guide giving us the skinny on the amazing cutural meaning of 'Teton', a name apparrently given by French trappers of years gone by. And what fantastically spiritual meaning lay behind the name?...titties, or nipples depending who you listen to. Yes the French thought the mountains looked like boobs. Consider my horizons suitably broadened. The biggest mountain is 'Grand Teton', so translated literally - the big tit.

A quick stop at Jackson Hole on our way to Salt Lake City, enjoying a very American lunch of triple grilled cheese with bacon toasted sandwich, plate of fries and bucket of coke followed by a hot fresh cinammon bun covered in gallons of warm icing..or as they refer to it locally, a slimmers lunch.


Salt Lake City

2016-10-09

Really only visiting in order to catch a flight, I was pleasantly surprized how pretty Salt Lake City is, seems to be a place worth spending more time.

The Great Salt lake, 8 times saltier than the ocean, was spectacular at sunrise. After a quick visit to the state capitol and famous Mormon temple, time to move on..


New Zealand Chapter 1: North Island

2017-01-19 to 2017-01-26

Nineteen years in the making...some time after my backpacking year in Australia, I finally get the chance to tick New Zealand off the bucket list. Having somehow bypassed this wonderous land all that time ago, key objectives for this trip were the Waitomo glow worm caves, Milford sound, and a chance to get up close and personal to the glaciers...

To start the trip, a few days gently meandering around Auckland soaking up a very British style mix of sun and downpours, taking a harbour cruise, and then a full day out to visit the Hobbiton movie set/hobbit holes plus the Waitomo caves. Hobbiton was fun, but the Waitomo caves were truly wonderous - sat in silence on our little boat, staring up in awe at what appeared to be the most star-filled sky you could ever wish to see...also an unscheduled stop at an Antarctic experience/aquarium, when it pissed down rain during a hike along the coast. At least it was a chance to see some penguins ahead of my intended Antarctic expedition (whenever I find a buyer for my kidney).

Following this, it was time for our pack to assemble for 15 days touring North and South Islands. And what a pack of amazing individuals it was, would truly put the Avengers to shame:

Chief Bravefart - Andrew, our Scottish trumping and snoring champion

Catwoman - Catrin the Welsh Ironwoman

Juliet Bravo - Sarah, the (former) long arm of the law

Possum Peter and Adrenaline Junkie Norann, the dynamic Anglo-Irish duo

Lady of the Rings - Elizabeth, our human dictionary and resident J R R Tolkien fanatic

Co Captain America/MC Star Spangled banner - Meredith, our all American gal, thankfully not living up to all American stereotypes

FBI's Most Wanted  - aka 'Bessie' amongst many names and aliases we discovered later. Allegedly a Canadian teacher..

Speedy Gonzalez - Veronika, Lithuanian greased lightening. Wind her up and watch her go..

The German Smoke Machine and Swiss Miss - Nina and Hannah, our font of foreign swear word entertainment

The Pocket Rocket - Marie, our trusty Kiwi 'Gandalf' leader and entertainment coordinator supreme

After a fairly civilized meal on our first night together, little could I imagine what was to follow over the coming weeks. A very harmonious, chilled out group with at times a rather risque  British style 'Carry On Kiwi' sense of humor, made for a very memorable trip..

North island highlights started with the Coromandel Peninsula. Trying in vain to dig a  'jacuzzi' at Hot Water Beach, before simply stealing someone elses, we stayed at gorgeous lodgings in Hahei, taking an afternoon hike to the beautiful Cathedral Cove.

Following this it was off to Rotorua, stopping for a team photo at a ruddy big bottle of L&P soft drink in Paeroa (as you do). A variety of activities ensued, I took the chance to visit the rather stinky Hells Gate geothermal park, and take a head to toe dip in volcanic mud and sulphur pools. Having been advised not to wear my own swimming shorts due to the lingering sulphur smells, ended up hiring a pair that proved to be a size too small so left me looking like some dodgy budie smuggling twerp. Key fun fact of the trip: a human body can be fully disolved in Hells Gate mudpools in 3 days, including teeth and bones! Others in the group went white water rafting, zorbing down a hill, having relaxing massages or just chilling in town.

We spent the night at the Tamaki Maori Village, living in a traditioanl communal hut, where the group got to experience Chief Bravefarts tuneful snoring all night long. Before thtat delight, we were ritually humiliated with a group rendition of 'I would walk 500 miles' to introduce us to the locals, taught a local Maori song to perform that eveing before a large crowd of tourists. Additionally the blokes in our group were 'taught' (I use the term loosely) the Haka - apparently my tongue action was quite good... The girls were taught other dances/games to ensure humiliation was evenly spread. Following a feast of a dinner, it was time for a hot tub soak in what felt like liquid magma with Catwoman and the German Smoke Machine, a few drinks in front of a roaring fire then a sleepless night near a Scottish bulldozer.

More geothermal visits at Wai-O-Tapu including a visit to Lady Know Geyser, followed - much team debate on pronunciation of 'geyser' took up most of the morning. Cockney 'geezer' was popular, but ultimately over ruled...after a stop at Mt Ruapehu, it was on to the remark - a - bull -y entertaining town of Bulls en route to Wellington.

After a quick tour of Wellington with the pocket rocket, some of us went on the cable car and took a surprisingly entertaining tour of the botanical gardens, normally not my destination of choice. I'm sure this should have actually taken about 30 minutes, but felt like decades as we wandered in what seemed liked circles aimlessly and took comedy gold photos. After this I took a trip to the Zeatopia nature reserve to take in some bird and lizard wildlife plus spectacular scenery, and a visit to the Te Papa museum (with an amzing Gallipoli exhibit created by Peter Jackson), before an untimely migraine attack curtailed my North Island experience...

South Island here we come...


New Zealand Chaper 2: South Island pt I

2017-01-27 to 2017-02-01

After an early morning ferry from Wellington via the Cook Straight/Marlborough Sounds to Picton, we headed towards Hamner Springs. Not our original intended route, but necessary following last years earthquake in Kaikoura, and so shelving any plans to swim with dolphins there.

A stop for wine tasting (or smelling in my case) at the St Claire vineyard, was followed by some more appealing cheese and chocolate tasting nearby - the latter drained most of the group of some cash, as the macadamia chocolate brittle and other assorted treats were just too good to resist. An emergency stop in Murchison for dinner before arriving in Hamner Springs for a full, event packed day. 

Next a day of pleasant sunshine - lazing in the variety of hot springs and sulphur pools, an early morning lung buster hike to Dog Stream Falls (for most of us, while Veronika sprinted ahead to pretty much the peak of Mount Cook!), and a highly competitive afternoon of crazy golf. Split into teams, we (myself, Co Captain America, Catwoman, and the Lady of the Rings) kicked ass, while Chief Bravefarts shamed losers failed to meet his pledge to streak through the main street. After a pleasnt day being baked in sunshine, a relatively early night for all - except Bravefart - a brief 'breath of fresh air' at 11pm took 3 hours after running into a raucous hen do at the bar next door.

Onward to Franz Josef for a glimpse at a glacier - unfortunately from the ground only, after all helicopters were grounded by bad visisbility up top. So instead a day made up of kiwi bird house visits, hot tubbing with a group of dirty dorm backpackers and their remarkably candid tales of STD sharing, and chilling at local bars and cafes... a late night pitch black walk to a forest clearing to view glow worms was not exactly up to Waitomo standards, I'd been well and truly spoiled previously.

Next up the thrill capital of Queenstown, with stops at Lake Matheson mirror lake, Thunder Creek falls, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. A slap up meal at a Texas themed restaurant set us up for a full day of high octane fun...

Or so we thought. All did not start well, with the highly anticipated canyon jet boating cancelled all day due to high water levels. Eventually we managed to book an early morning re-run for the next day on our way out of Queenstown, and hoped for the best. The English, Scottish, Welsh trinity then took to the skies via cable car for breathtaking views of the area and clear blue lake Wakatipu, before embarking on a (near suicidal) bout of street - luge...

On reflection, hurtling down a steep mountain road on a flimsy tray on wheels, in a pair of shorts while refusing to apply the brakes may not have been entirely prudent. But it was bloody great fun, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Race 1 on the gentle course went fairly to plan, with some excellent Formula 1 style defensive driving securing a solid second place. Race 2 however, on the rather faster, no holds barred course turned out to be a kamikaze mission. Leading from the front, the decison just to go flat out proved fatal for my right leg at the second last corner - clipping a curb and wiping out at top speed, I now have my very own temporary tattoo with a significant area of skin completely removed from my leg and a large open wound that is refusing to heal, with a bacterial infection to boot. Hey ho, a 'legendary' Ferg burger' for lunch (where queues can be 1.5 hours to be served) helped ease my distress, while our waitress even offered some first aid.

Time for more adrenaline pumping, so off with Speedy Gonzalez back up the cable car, to take on Zip-trek - 6 lines through the tree canopies all the way to the bottom, including the steepest, fastest descent in the Southern hemisphere. Highly entertaining, travelling in a manner of poses including upside down on the various lines, and some very smutty jokes being shared by our guide Lauren. The evening was completed with a slightly lower adrenaline mix of gelato (served by a young Scouse bird that gave me a free scoop upon hearing her first Scouse accent in 18 months), the worlds sweetest hot chocolate ever, and a $20 rump steak meal on the banks of the river, in what rapidly started to feel like Actic temperatures - huddling for warmth in blankets, we looked like a retirement home of oldies waiting to suck soup through a straw...

Up early, jet boating was thankfully on, and a key highlight of the trip - travelling through the canyon at 80km/h, skimming walls and rocks and pulling 360 degree spins for what felt like hours, I can't recommed this more highly, and would happily have repeated. The noises eminanting from beside me resembled a scene from When Harry Met Sally, so I am sure others in the group have similar feelings. With that, onward to Milford Sound...


New Zealand Chapter 3: South Island pt II

2017-02-02 to 2017-02-06

..so the conclusion of the epic trilogy. Leaving the thrills and spills of Queenstown behind, a long trip to cover the rather short (as the crow flies) distance to Milford Sound.

 Stopping in Te Anau for lunch, we stopped in a slightly 'specialist' souvenir shop stocking possum nipple and willy warmers...as NZ is overrun with the little sods,  and the population actively encouraged to run them over, they need to find some use for them...

Further stops in  Eglington Flat/Valley, Mirror Lakes, Knobs Flat (really), Key Summit, Monkey Creek, the Homer Tunnel, and the Chasm followed before joining the Milford Mariner, our boat for the overnight cruise. Tender boat cruising, seal watching, getting very wet under enormous waterfalls, plus a  slideshow and talk about the area from our Nature Guide, Blair. Finally a late night seal visitor joined us on the back of the boat, and we spent the night moored in Harrisons Cove. Early morning we sailed out to the Tasman Sea, then back through more spectacular views of cliffs, waterfalls and seal colonies. We wound our way around the shores of Lake Wakatipu and the Kawarau Gorge, followed by the wine regions of Gibbston Valley and Bannockburn and some giant fruit in the town of Cromwell. After climbing over the final mountain pass of our trip, the Lindis Pass, and stopping in Omarama for a quick break we finally arrived in Twizel for the night, and a gob smackingly good meal in the local eatery.

Next up a trip to Mount Cook - amazing views from the ground, but again no heli hikes due to weather up top. Instead, we made our way to a 3D movie on/around the glacier, making me even more determined to find a heli hike somewhere else in future. Some fantastic views around deep blue Lake Pukaki and the Church of the Good Shepherd, and we reach our final destination, Christchurch.

A quick tour of the city is enlightening, while also shocking and a touch depressing. The effects of the big quake 6 years ago  are very evident, and never has a big city felt quite like such a ghost town, even on a Saturday evening. Memorials to the dead are a sobering finish to our final evening as a full crazy gang, but it is nice to at least make a small contribution to the regeneration of this city.

A farewell dinner, and then breakfast, sees the group sadly begin to split and take flights around the globe. Some of us take a city tour via tram and a few of us take the cable car for a final panoramic view of the area, before a chance to chill in 29 degree C sunshine. The final 6 in our happy band convene in Christchurch's finest steakhouse, Bloody Marys, that evening  - a bit of a splurge but well worth it if you are in the area. And with that, it's game over for me, an early morning departure to Singapore means the group will be down to just 3, trying to make the most of what Christchurch has to offer.

Desperately sad to leave so soon - a few more days in Queenstown and Franz Josef to get onto that glacier would have been nice, and the Kaikoura dolphin experience would have been a nice addition. But all in all well deserving of my excessive 19 year wait.

The group we had was the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake, maybe some/all of us will manage to meet up in other exotic locations around the globe. In the mean time, fond (and not so fond) memories of 3 straight music quiz victories, crazy golf supremacy, decidedly foul Scottish odours and bulldozer snoring, orange choc chip ice cream (a cultural immersion well worth the trip alone!), plus a street luge injured leg that may possibly require amputation, will linger..

Journey's end..for now.

Death Valley/Yosemite/Alamo/St Louis and Manatee swmming in Florida - you're next.


Gibraltar & Andalucia

2017-04-14 to 2017-04-15

A unique and worthwhile stop - not exactly on my bucket list, and remarkably close to the UK in more ways than one...

Somewhat better weather than those back home were enjoying, but with the benefits of English as the main language, and British pound as local currency. Cheap accomodation, pleasant beaches and unique sightseeing, all contained in a very small area that is easy to get around. A couple of days is ideal, any more than that might be a but much...

Undoubtedly a highlight for most tourists here are the monkeys, or 'barbary apes' that roam freely around the upper parts of the rock in 3 packs. We met quite a few on our walks, all of whom were totally relaxed mingling with the swarms of humans milling around.Several babies were around, including one brave soul that left its mum to climb onto our mini bus.

We had many views of the surrounding shipping straits from the top of the rock, and the sky was clear enough to see Africas second highest mountain over the water. We also visited St Michael caves - fairly surreal, an impressive collection of stalactites and stalagmites but with loud music and disco lights installed to jazz it up..not needed in my opinion, in fact somewhat spoiling the natural beauty.

A visit to the WW2 caves and the huge 100 tonne gun provided a reminder of Gibralatars strategic importance in war time. Lots of british pubs, fish and chip shops and English breakfast cafes give a pleasant reminder of home, while a short walk takes you across the border intp mainland Spain. All in all, a surprisingly pleasant few days -  I would recommend a little stop here to anyone visiting Europe.


Cordoba

2017-04-16

Making the most of a free day - a quick trip to Cordoba in glorious 30 degree sunshine, to spend a day initially mooching around the enormous mozquita - a unique blend of cathedral and mosque bringing together 2 religions in one complex.

As a totally non religious person, it was more a case of the architecture that impressed me. What was less impressive was the enormous bloody queue to actally get into the place, after initially joining a separate queue to get tickets. After a brief stop for lunch (as brief as it can be in Spain, with 3 courses to get through), a walk around the Alcazar gardens and royal stables, then a meander across the Roman bridge for a panoramic view across the city. A liitle time to bake in the sun with a cold drink before catching a train back to civilization..


Marrakech and Atlas Mountains

2017-04-29 to 2017-05-01

Just a few days stopover here to sample another North African country, a continent I have only explored a tiny fraction of...

Hiking out in the Atlas Mountians and nearly dieing trying to climb to the top of the waterfalls while being practically thrown up the rocks by our local guide, we stopped for a glorious traditional Berber lunch of chicken and lemon tagine followed by oranges coated in cinammon. Visiting the 4 valleys of Asni, Ourika, Oukaimeden and Sidi Fares (which we could barely see, as covered in fog) and Takerkoust Lake, this was a very pleasant way to spend a few days.

Topped off with a  day in Marrakech touring the palace, mosques, royal tombs, Menara gardens, main square complete with snake charmers by the dozen, and a long trek through the sights and sounds of the souks..and another healthy portion of chicken tagine. Next stop Lake Maggiore...


Malta & Gozo

2017-08-25 to 2017-08-28

Combining a few photos here with a previous trip to Malta I never uploaded... A few days visiting friends and a chance to get some sunshine, before picking up the next instalment of my bucket list back in the good ol' US of A.

On this ocassion, took the opportunity to head back  to Gozo, spending time visiting the ancient Ggantija temples, the biggest freestanding stone structure in the world, a liitle swimming in Xlendi Bay, and a trip to Gozo's own blue grotto cave, plus a little time at the Citadel in San Lawrenz. All rather pleasant, apart from feeling like I was being roasted alive in the 37 degree heat, with no sign of the slightest breeze anywhere.

Have combined some old and new photos here from the island of Malta - including a trip to the Blue Grotto caves on the South of the island, the fishing village of Marsaxlokk (which I recall included a marvellous tuna steak lunch), and various sights around Valletta. Also a sighting from a speedboat tour of the Azure window - which no longer exists following strong storms in 2017, causing it to crumble and fall into the sea...

Still seems a relatively cheap place to visit, with a lot of miltary and prehistoric history, and some scorchingly hot weather. And better than work...


Yosemite and Death Valley

2017-10-27 to 2017-10-30

2 'mini' bucket list items for the price of one..when I kicked off my list 20 years ago, I grouped together a bunch of US west coast activities as 1 intended bucket list trip.

That never quite happened, as I've covered a lot of those things on individual visits. 20 years on, I can 'almost' tick that big item off - just one little jaunt to the Volcano national park in Hawaii left, to finally complete my 47th of 50.

Having been 'forced' into yet another, 30-something'th weekend in Vegas, I tried to make use of my remaining holidays and maximize my time in the States. So the perfect opportunity to cover a few more national parks in Yosemite and Death Valley.

With a brief stop back in San Francisco -  it was a very early morning start with a cheese omlette the size of my head in a 24 hour diner, before setting off. Starting in Tuolomne Grove, the home of the giant Sequoia trees, we were unleashed and free to wander, having been warned by our guide that the walk back was the equivalent of walking up 40 flights of stairs. He must have been talking about a dolls house or have very short legs, as this is a pretty gentle stroll up a very slight incline, so I would certainly pay no heed to any such warnings. My travel buddy for this walk, Cynthia, even managed it in a pair of flimsy flip flops, and despite her protestations she does no excercise whatsover.

The trees certainly live up to their billing, when they say giant this is no exaggeration. The photo highlight in this Grove is the 'tunnel tree', and pretty much does what it says on the tin - a tree with a big tunnel carved into the roots that you could drive a car through. There is not much left of this tree, only a stump. Still, a stump of enormous proportions...no bear sightings here, but several noisy squirrels, and a rare sighting of a (fast moving) bobcat scurrying across the path right in front of us.

Following this, a full day in and around Yosemite Valley - stopping at various iconic sights including Half Dome and El Capitan, the rock climbers mecca. Indeed, a number of nutters were climbing while we were there. Barely perceivable to the naked eye, and only a third of a way up the rock, only by using 120 x zoom on a camera could you really make out they were humans - that gives an idea just how high this bloody thing is. Yellowstone was cool, but I'd have to say, for me, Yosemite was a little more 'oooooooh' to look at, a very worthwhile stop.

Following a whirlwind of burgers, a truly enormous steak, and a truly amazing cultural immersion into the American phenomenon of 'tater totts' at Wahlburger, plus a walk to reminisce along the Vegas strip, it's time to chalk off Death Valley. Barely believable I've never done this before, given how close it is to Vegas and the number of times I've been here, and a very enjoyable day. Not quite the scenery of Yosemite in some ways, but then again, it is a desert. But for a desert, the hottest place on Earth is quite spectacular.

Stopping at the abandoned ghost town of Rheolite, and also the most amusing Area 51 themed 'Alien Brothel' (offering 'free tours'!) en route, we meandered around all of the sights this park has to offer -  including Badlands salt plains, the colourful Artists Pallette, Zabroskie Point, the Mesquite sand dunes (where sci fi nerds can go crazy, used in the Star Wars films for planet Tatooine scenes), and also Scotty's Castle - a bizarre grand mansion built in the middle of a desert by an old time con artist. Quite a different atmosphere from Vegas and well worth the short trip.

Also a highly educational trip - the toilets as Furnace Creek, where we stopped for a picnic, havea handy visual guide to your dehydration level placed above the urinals - allowing you to directly anayze the colour of your own pee v the chart. Marvellous..

So with those 2 mini bucket list entries in the bag, time to use up my few remaining holidays with a couple more stops in the US en route back to the office...


San Antonio & St Louis

2017-10-31 to 2017-11-02

A few bonus stops here, making the most of some spare days on the way back to work..

San Antonio - an excuse to see (what remains of) the Alamo, and meander around the famous Riverwalk area, in glorious Texan sunshine. Took the opportunity to take a tour of the missions, a boat cruise, the sunken Japanese Gardens, and the Mexican market square, as well as the Tower of the Americas, built for the World Fair. A very pleasant city, friendly locals, and an excellent fast food chain in Whataburger, so highly recommended all around.

More importantly, this gave me the opportunity to be as stereotypically American as humanly possible - watching the deciding game 7 of the world series of baseball at a Hooters restaurant on the Riverwalk, eating wings and yet more tater totts while scantily clad waitresses scurried around in neon hotpants. After what seemed to take 10 days, finally the game was over and a team from Texas declared 'world' champions - cue much hi-5'ing and whooping. Yee ha Houston...who knew a game of rounders could be so popular?

St Louis - purely stopped here as a convenient place en route to my planned wildlife adventure in Florida, and a chance to see the St Louis Arch. Not a place I would recommend to tourists, unless you are driving through, I really couldn't find anything other than the Arch of note. Still very impressive for what it is - cruised the Mississipi on an old paddle steamer, then took the 'tram' inside the arch to the top, for a city skyline view.

This is definitely not for the claustrophobic! The tram is basically like being sealed in a coffin - no windows, steaming hot, and chunders sideways then upwards, sideways, upwards, taking 4 minutes in total to reach the top. Once there, it took about 30 seconds to see what there was to see through narrow slit windows (a baseball stadium and the old court house), then time to suffer in the torture sweatbox again to return to ground level.

The overwhelming highlight of St Louis turned out to be a staggeringly good food truck parked on the main street leading to the Arch - yep, even more tater totts! This time, 'fully loaded' totts, smothered in cheese and bacon. I wil be lucky to see the end of 2017 at this rate...

Stopevers complete, on to Florida and Crystal Lakes to snorkel with manatees. That is, if I can still float after all these sodding tater totts, wings, steaks, and burgers.


Swimming with Manatees - Crystal Lakes & Homosassa

2017-11-03 to 2017-11-05

A bonus stop of the highest order, well worth anyones time if in Florida. In fact, even if not in Florida, worth flying there just to do this..

Never a bucket list item, but in retrospect it should have been. Heading out early morning after a safety/interaction briefing, we hit the river and spotted our first manatees within 2 minutes. Imediately out of the boat, we were face to face with 4 of them, and I spent 10 minutes swimming with one 2000 pound specimen upstream - that could make a whole lot of burgers, wonder what they taste like..with a side of tater totts, naturally.

Incredibly cute, docile and engaging, this was awe inspiring. The main river water was a little chalky, limiting the quality of photos, but we could see them very clearly as long as we stayed close. Next we were taken into the clearer water at the springs, where we got to interact with another adult, followed by a mum and her very cute baby.

At this time of year, the manatees have just started returning to Crystal Lakes. Weather was beautiful, and way outside peak tourist season, so a perfect time to visit. In summer, you would be lucky to even see one manatee here, and if you come when manatees are here literally in their hundreds, huddling together around the springs for warmth (February), it is the middle of winter - so no sunbathing and pretty bloody chilly, even for us Brits.

However, having done this once, if I'm ever around  in the US one February, I think I have to return and do this again when they are here en mass. Quite a sight to behold...

Feeling fulfilled, we gorged on an enormous beakfast at a Southern diner, where I got to 'enjoy' some grits, recommended by the locals. Well thank god I doused them in butter and could mix them with a cheese omlette, because as far as I'm concrened, I think they confused  'gr' with 'sh'...never again. After this, we whiled away a few hours at Homosassa, seeing even more manatees, alligators, snakes, foxes, wolves, all American bald eagles, black bears, and quite bizarrely, an African hippo. Couldn't really fathom that one out, but enjoyable none the less.

With that, work beckons. A few more American shannanigans to come at Niagra and Atlantic City shortly, then its time to hit Europe and get some trips done before Brexit well and truly screws everything up - think I can just about bear the thought of work for a month or so..


Leichtenstein, Zurich, Rapperswil

2017-12-22 to 2017-12-23

A small stop enforced  by a 1 day stopover - making the most of a stop in Zurich to head out and get another 'country' struck off the global list. Certainly not my first time in Zurich, but the first time I have done any sightseeing or had a camera with me.

Tiny little Leichtenstein, one of Europes 7 independent principalities and personally the 6th one I've managed to see  - giving me an excuse to travel around Lake Zurich, through beautiful Swiss mountain ranges, the 'Heidi' village, and a small stop in Rapperwil to see the castle and eat some famous 'cheese - cake' (which turns out be a quiche, but was absolutely delicious).

Time to buy some fabulous Swiss chocolate for some not-so-fabulous prices, and see the arch-dukes castle in Vaduz, and take in the Austrian Alps range surrounding this town. Back to Zurich in time for my flight connection.

Amazing what you can fit in to half a day rather than sit on your arse in an airport...


Niagra Falls, Atlantic City, Philadelphia..& New York, again...

2017-12-26 to 2018-01-01

...dragged kicking and screaming against my will to New York (well not quite), I decided to make the most of a few days in the big apple by covering a few new US stops,  bolting on  a trip to Atlantic City and Philadelphia.

First up, a dash across NY state to see Niagra Falls.

Niagra is not a place that was ever on my bucket/wish list - as something of a seasoned travel snob these days, I always thought it was simply too commercial, and just for obese American tourists to say they have seen a natural wonder. In fact, the only reason for doing it this time is I've already seen everything New York city has to offer, several times over...

In the end, a worthwhile day with a very early morning start and one and a half hour flight from JFK to Buffalo. Amazing that you can fly for 90 minutes and still be in the same US state - back home in Europe I could probably have covered 4 or 5 countries in that time.

Heading over the border into Canada, we were awe struck - not by the falls, but by how much tourism they can cram into one place. Hotels, casinos, theme parks and souvenir stores galore adorn this side. Thankfully, the US side has been left relatively natural, meaning good views and photos from the crazy commercial side.

Even better, some very cold weather (-15 degrees Celsius), means the Falls were probably at their prettiest - with snow underfoot, ice covered islands, and icicles hanging down all around the Horse Shoe falls, the key attraction here. And a pretty rainbow to complete the fairytale picture...Many hours spent walking along the smaller falls and whirlpool, as well as the 'behind the falls' tunnel and viewing spots under the falls, were followed by panoramic views from on high (while stuffing faces with an all-you-can-eat buffet). Worth a trip if in the New York/Toronto area, but this is no Angel Falls in terms of magnitude and prehistoric wonder, and certainly no Iguacu in terms of sheer spectacle/awe. But it would take something truly incredible to match either of those two.

On returning to NY, and before joining some very non cultural stag do activities, enough time for a few festive photos around key sites of the city, such as the Rockefeller centre Christmas tree and Saks 5th avenue light shows.

After a few days of NY debauchery, time for more debauchery down the Jersey coast - making time in my schedule to meet up with Rob in Atlantic City, Hi 5...after 30-odd trips to Vegas and still counting, time to finally meet the East coast version. First impressions were mixed, maybe this was what Vegas would be like if it died...and went to hell? Some very grim areas if you walk down the wrong streets.

Thankfully, over the course of the next few days, my mind was changed - partially helped by a lot of time spent in the huge Tropicana casino and its many eateries and bars (obligatory wings fest at Hooters, and a fabulous full Irish breakfast in their Irish pub while watching Liverpool FC at 10 in the morning). We also experienced a cultural phenomenon, that Americans are probably trying to get added to the '7 wonders' list: the worlds biggest Pac man arcade machine at Bally’s, & stuffed our faces with and endless supply of 'salt water taffy' - the sour grape flavour one is something I could possibly live on for several months. No idea what the hell is in salt water taffy - one thing for sure is no salt water is involved, for which I am grateful.

As a fan of 'Boardwalk Empire', I had to take in a tour of the city - this is a lot more spread out than Vegas, with some real high roller casinos a few miles from the boardwalk, and plenty of places that would be great to explore in summer. There are at least 2 'bikini bars' in town and on the beach, and it is also the home of the annual Miss America beauty pageant, so it truly is culture all the way...in fact, only by taking in a tour did I find some slightly more high brow sightseeing - the Absecon lighthouse, Steel pier, Korean war memorial and civil rights garden a few of the highlights.

To break up the casino - fest, we headed to Philadelphia for a day full of culture... and cheese steak! Spending a morning seeing Independence hall, where the Declaration and constitution were signed, and the liberty bell, it was time for some nutrition. Hence we set off in the direction of the holy grail of Philadelphia - Pats and Genos are the 2 cheese steak kings of Philly, and what seems like a Himalayan trek from the city centre in South Philly.

Our original plan had been to grab lunch at one of these 2 establishments, continue our sightseeing, and then finish the day with an evening cheese steak at the other joint, then draw our own conclusion on the true 'king'.. following our trek in freezing temperatures, we agreed there was no chance in hell we would be making this voyage twice in a day.

Hence, a 'man v food' challenge began - we started with a trip to Pats - briefed on the correct way to order  in short. sharp efficient Philly fashion (apparently, if you don't do it right, they will send you to the back of the queue), it was time to wolf down an enormous chopped cheese steak with mushrooms and provolone, sat outside (no indoor seating) and unable to feel our fingers in the arctic temperatures.

Feeling totally full, we proceeded over the street to order another round of massive cheese steaks - this time, I was persuaded to go for 'whizz' as my cheese  on a sliced cheese steak - an American concoction of luminous gloop that looks like nuclear power plant waste. After forcing down another pound of meat, we reached a unanimous decision - for us, Pats with their chopped steak is the winner.

Almost unable to move, and in need of an afternoon nap, we forced ourselves across the city to the museum of Art, better known for its iconic role in the original Rocky movie...time to strike a pose at the Rocky statue that has become a Philadelphia institution, with long queues to match. Despite Rob being incapable of operating my camera correctly, and managing to shoot a video that mainly comprised of his own feet, I somehow managed to salvage a usable photo later that evening, using forensic skills that could get me a job in CSI Philadelphia...then time to make our way up the famous Rocky steps (not sure he had 2 cheese steaks in his belly when he ran up them), and a panoramic view of the city. After that, enough time to head over to the very grand-looking city hall, before another high brow evening in Atlantic City.

Game over - just time for a quick stop in NY before it is hit by blizzards, and make my way back to Europe...


Seville & Granada

2018-02-09 to 2018-02-12

Just uploading a few photos here, from a very chilled out weekend in Seville, the start of a series of trips to make the most of Europe and its crazily cheap budget flights...

While here, took the opportunity to visit the Seville Cathedral and beautiful Arabian palace, the Alcazar, using  highly recommended front of line entry to beat the enormous queues. This was a perfect time to visit, in pleasant 19 degree sunshine (in summer it is well into the 40s and ridiculously overcrowded). Seville is ideal for a weekend - you can walk around all the sights in a day, with no need for buses or any other transport, and  it seems surpisingly cheap for accomodation and food.

This visit was broken up with a small-ish detour to Granada, to visit a place on many bucket lists: the ancient Alhambra palace. Set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, this is a spectacular setting and well worth a guided tour to see the interior. Having said that, I probably found Seville's Alcazar  just as pretty, if not more - but worth doing both.

With a few spare hours to fill  before heading to the airport,and a small rain shower to avoid, I discovered that the famous 'Bodies' exhibit was in Seville, and ducked out of the rain. This was pretty cool, as they were running a special animals version of the  exhibit, complete with gorilla, giraffe, and elephant amongst others.

Feeling very content, time to continue some European explorations - next time, 3 new countries will be added to my map...


Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia

2018-02-23 to 2018-02-26

..well a bit of them anyway..

Due to some airline cock ups and resulting compensation, taking advantage of a free flight and accomodation to add 3 new countries to my list.

Not countries that were actually on my wish list, but not to look a gift horse in the mouth, this seemed about the only place in Europe where I hadn't been, that I could to use my free flight.

Am glad I did, cramming in Sofia in Bulgaria, plus a trip across the border to Macedonia to the Osogovo monastery in the mountains (via Zemen), and a trek into Serbia to the town of Nis, complete with its famous skull tower and WW2 preserved concentration camp.

3 days stacked full of meat and cheese - this part of the world is not for vegetarians,  so totally my kind of people! I developed a full on addiction to banitsa, the Bulgarian breakfast pastry filled with white cheese, but maybe not a  fan of the salty yoghurt drink they crave here to accompany it.

As always in these countries, there is a plethora of churches and monasteries - 3 days was just right for me, as some stunning places to see, but another day or 2 would have seen me going stir crazy. Day one started from Sofia  with a trip to the UNESCO Boyana church and Zemen monastery before entering Macedonia to see Osogovo, and a large dose of meat, cheese and chips overlooking the mountains - such culture. Osogovo has some rather unique artwork to admire v other churches and monasteries, lots of devils/demons depicted, which made a change from the norm...

A very early start the next day for the 4 hour bus ride into Nis, Serbia (2 of the 4 hours spent at the bloody border going through passport control/security). Nis was a revelation - a really great city to visit that is worth a  return. Unbelievably cheap, friendly people, and great sights to behold - it is not serviced by direct UK flights, but many budget carriers are coming from mainland Europe, would definitely be worth a  summer visit. A  full day trip was spent milling around the fort, various city monuments and museums, Roman ruins, the WW2 well preserved concentraton camp, and the skull tower accompanied by our very colourful guide, Bane (a former rock and roll guitarist that has led a life so varied he makes Forrest Gump look dull).

The concentration camp, as you would expect, is slightly surreal and sombre, with many stories adorning the walls of those that lived and died there, or were sent to other camps to meet their fate in the gas chambers. The camp is incredibly well preserved and worth a visit for a dose of reality and reminder of how lucky most of us are.

The skull tower is fairly unique, erected following a massacre of Serb troops by the Turks - the sultan ordering the skulls of defeated soldiers to be built into a 4 sided tower. Originally numbering over 1000 skulls, less than 100 remain intact, but it is still a sight to behold.

A final day spent amongst the sights of Sofia in 6 inches of overnight snowfall (a lot of churches!), while stuffing my face with banitsa and baklava, was polished off with a nice light Bulgarian lunch of lamb soup, half a cow and a whole chicken. The snow gave the city a very different, and highly picturesque feel, so added a few more photos of places I'd already seen...

End of free trip, onto my next paid vacation...


San Marino, Rimini, Milan

2018-03-10 to 2018-03-11

Making the most of some free hospitality in Milan, we spent 2 days being treated to copious amounts of pasta, meat, cheese and bread (also wine, wasted on me). I've been here twice before, but never taken any photos - so finally took the opportunity to take some snaps of the spectacular Duomo one evening, while we stuffed our faces with pizza in the cathedral square.

Crucially, I took an extra few days off to set off on a personal adventure, ticking a few more European stops off my travel list: San Marino and the Cinque Terre national park were my priorities - first a trek across the country to the independent principality and tax haven that is San Marino...

This was avery full day trip from Milan, which took me through Bologna and Rimini (stopping off for a walk through the town to see the ancient Roman sites of the Tiberius bridge and Augustus Arch).

Thankfully nowhere near peak holiday season, when large crowds can descend on the tiny principality of San Marino, and temperatures can be in the stcky 40s, this was an ideal time for me to complete my personal set of all 7 European principalities - Andorra, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, and Vatican City were already sitting in my dust. And San Marino was a worthwhile addition - the smallest of all, and realistically you could see all of the key tourist sights in just a few hours, but some spectacular scenery and panoramas.

Tourism here focuses on a specific area of San Marino, high up where the 3 very photogenic towers are placed. Long winding, traffic-free, narrow roads carry you though a myriad of  tax free shops (a haven for visiting Russian tourists), and cafes simply begging visitors to load up on yet more carbs, meat and cheese. All very reasonably priced - after several hours hiking up to the 3 towers, and climbing their rooftops for spectacular scenic views,  as well vists to teh armoury and torture museums, I finally succumbed to the charms of a restaurant with an open terrace looking out over the surrounding snowy mountains.

For 16 euros I feasted on a 3 course meal - in keeping with true Italian tradition, no lunch is ever light; the starter alone was a plate of meat pasta to fill any grown man. 2 courses later (plus aseemingly infinite amount of bread), I waddled slowly down through town, to begin the very long  bus and train trek to Milan. and seek a few hours precious sleep, before another crazy trek cross - country, in the other direction...


Cinque Terre and Florence

2018-03-12

After a ridiculously small amount of sleep, it was up before the lark to set off at 4am for Florence, en route to my date with destiny at the Cinque Terre national park.

In a state of near hullucination, and with an hour to spare in Florence, I manged to get myself to the iconic  red -roofed Duomo, and grab a few snaps before any other buggar was out of bed, the area was practically empty. Then time to join a full day experience to Cinque Terre - the picture postcard national park of Italy, complete with spectacular coastal views, clifftop colourful towns and villages, and rough and ready hiking trails that will make you ache for weeks to come...

Stunning views abound here. A multinational group of us joined a local guide, to initially undertake a 6km hike up and down on slippy rocks and dirt trails while it conveniently decided to pour with rain - making conditions rather hazardous and a few slips and falls ensued (none for me). We started in Volastra, taking in  numerous costal views above the town of Manarola on our way to Corniglia, where the sun suddenly decided to pop out.

A relatively light (by Itlain standards) lunch of a ham and cheese sandwich the size of my head, on a sun terrace overlooking the sea, provided welcome relief while we dried out. It was then time for a short hike (downhill thankfully) to the train line that runs through the various towns of Cinque Terre, and onward to Vernazza. Another colourful town, with spectaculat crashing waves in the bay, and a delightful gellateria that refreshed me greatly, before a length stop in Monterosso.

Now the sun was shining brightly - we took a pleasant leisurely stroll through the new and old towns, as well as panaoramic viewing spots overlooking the bay, before moving on to Riomaggiore - this is the place that everyobody goes for their 'postcard' photo of Cinque Terre, and doesn't disappoint. Would not enjoy being here in summer though, with all the local italian tourists, plus cruise ships sending a plethora of other toursist here, it would be far too crowded for my liking. This was ideal, with just a couple of groups around, and there was enough time to hit a local pizzeria for yet more carbs and cheese, before catching the train to La Spezia, then the epic voyage back to  Milan.

Finally arriving back after midnight, it was a worthwhile but  crazy long day. I finally collapsed for a first proper night of sleep in 3 days, with both of my hamstrings feeling like they were about to snap in 2 after our hiking extravaganza...


 


Kiev and (almost) Chernobyl

2018-03-18 to 2018-03-20

I'll keep this short and sweet, as that is exactly what this trip ended up being...

Original plans here went up in smoke - due to a snowstorm causing travel chaos, and delaying my arrival in Kiev by 18 hours...instead, I found myself 'enjoying' a free airport hotel with buffet dinner and breakfast in Frankfurt. Not totally unpleasant, but destroying my best laid plans.

Originally I should have been up with the lark and off to the rather unusual tourist destination of Chermobyl, to view the remnants and aftermath of the great 1986 nuclear disaster, including the iconic deserted ghost town of Pripyat. This is a heavily restricted area, and visits require advance registration and permits, only valid on the specific date pre-registered. As such, my chance to vsit during this trip was gone, and with no way to rearrange before leaving. Buggar...

Instead, I spent 2 days familiarizing myself with the (snowy) sights of beautiful Kiev. Maybe my favourite East European city to date, and possibly containing more gold - roofed buildings than the rest of Europe combined. This is a city that blends the ancient and the modern in all aspects of culture, arhitecture, and crucially, food. And very friendly locals (with excellent English lanaguage skills  a plenty).

It also remains remarkably affordable,very pleasant hotels on offer for 25-40 quid per night, and a filling local meal available for 2-3 pounds. If, as I did, you want to treat yourself to something a  bit more upmarket, a fine 2 course lunch and drink at a plush central steakhouse set me back all of 7 English pounds. As did another 2 course dinner in a traditional Ukranian restaurant  in Taras Shevchenko park, after a long day and night of sightseeing - stuffing myself with a local concoction of pork, potato and cheese after a beef broth and mountain of bread.

Transport is insanely cheap - the amazing subway system (the deepest in the world, and decorated with extravagant mosaics and chandalier-like lighting), costs approx. 15 pence for a single ride anywhere across the city. The funicluar/cable car system was even cheaper, and made for a slightly less strenuous way up the very steep hill to St Michaels monastery.

Like many East European cities, churches, monasteries, and cathedrals are all over the place. Surprizingly, I didn't get bored of them here, and following a small group tour to get familar with the city, spent a full day and a half hiking miles in deep snow, to cover as much as possible. Independence Square is the central focus of the city, and the site of an all too recent 2014 massacre, snipers killing 70 or so protesters -  incredible to see how peaceful and friendly everything seems now (although armed soldiers can be seen everywhere).

Despite not getting to Chernobyl this time, I did get to visit the official Chernobyl musem and audio tour, which gives a detailed account of the tragic events, as well as stories and memorabilia of those affected by the event, and those that gave their lives to save others. At some point, I will try to return as a stopover to visit Chernobyl, en route to one of the few remaining European countries I've yet to visit.

Let the East European tour continue - next, Romania and teeny tiny itsy bitsy Moldova...


Romania - Bears and castles galore

2018-03-30 to 2018-04-01

More East European adventures here, spending a  few days in Bucharest, and travelling out to Draculas homeland, Transylvania, before a trip to little Moldova.

A key highlight during this trip was to visit 'Libearty', the brown bear sanctuary in the small village of Zarnesti. This is a place filled with adult and baby brown bears, that have been resued from miserable lives of abuse at the hands of cruel humans. Able to roam free in large open enclosures, but used to human contact and so quite willing to come up very close, I'd reommend a trip here to anyone visiting Romania. The babies are incredibly adorable,and make for some fabulous photo opportunities. It's also nice to be able to contribute to their conservation.

The 'Dracula' castle in Bran and Peles Castle (the royal family  castle, rather than the Brazilian footbal legend), in Sinaia, made for entertaining stops outside of Bucharest, Bran in particular very picturesque. After a few stops in Rasnov and Brasov to take in panoramic views and some delicious salted caramel butter ice cream, it is time to head towards Europes least visited country...


Moldova and Transnistria..the non existent country

2018-04-02 to 2018-04-03

A little bit obscure this one...taking the opportunity while in Romania to see Europes least visted country, Moldova. Even more obscure, taking a detour to 'Transnistria', a self declared independent country within Moldova.

First up, flying in to Chisinau from Bucharest and trying to get myself to Tiraspol in Transnistria. Quite an effort this, needing to find the central bus station in Chisinau with no sign of English anywhere, and trek through the various minibus stands, trying in vain to figure out which one went to Tiraspol (again no destinations written in English, an noone at the bus station speaking English).

Eventually, and by luck rather than skill, I found myself on the right bus, and for the princely sum of 10 English pennies had myself a 1 and a half hour journey to the past - Transnistria is a rement of yesteryear, with Soviet ties and a distinct feel of the cold war era Eastern Bloc. It has its own border, own currency, and ruling government - but is not recognized as a country by any official body, only by a few other 'self proclaimed' countries in ex Soviet states.

Thankfully I had organized to be met in Tiraspol, and spent a day looking around  the monuments and sights of the capital, as well as the ancient Bender fort, also visited the village of Kitskeny to see the beautiful working monastery and panormaic views across the local area.

I was shown around by Andrey and Elena, who entertained me with tales of local life and the tragic, bloody history  of their revolution. Apparently I was one of only 2 foreigners in the whole of Transnistria that day - this is not unusual, it is a place for the 'off the beaten path' traveller to see something a  little unusual.

Well worth the trip (especially when getting there from Chisinau cost 10 pence!), a key highlight was the Bender fortress, which includes a room filled with ancient torture devices and graphic descriptions of how they were used - most of which involved things being inserted into various human orrifices, causing extreme pain and slow deaths...lovely. You won't find any international chains here, so one of the few places on the planet you don't see a McDonalds or Starbucks, quite a welcome relief. In fact, I barely saw a shop of any kind...

Following the return bus, it was time to spend a day looking around the positively modern (by comparison), Chisinau...as the whole country only gets 30,000 tourists per year, so not surprising I didn't seem to see any others. A very pleasant day of sunshine was spent strolling around the sights and memorials, before treating myself to a slap up meal in one of their more expensive restaurants overlooking the main square and cathedral - a 3 course meal for less than 10 euros.

And so, from here a contunuation of the East European oddesey, up in the Baltics..


Riga and Rundale - Latvia

2018-05-03 to 2018-05-04

Continuing my Eastern European oddesey, in a quest to complete 'level Europe' in my personal world travel game. Probably the only continent in which I will actually visit every country (except North America and Oeania, which are a bit of a doddle!)

A pleasant opportunity arose for me to complete the Baltic states, with visits to Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus -  having already visited Estonia many years ago in a not-so-cultural England football visit. From memory, we spent a free day visiting Tallinns local seaside resort to watch the local talent playing beach volleyball and meandered through the town, but didn't take a single photo record of our visit...a slightly more mature approach this time

First up Riga, Latvia's capital and at one point  very popular with British stag and hen dos, due to the cheap flights, beer, and general cost of living. Spent a long day travelling aroung the old town (castles, churches and monuments galore as per the standard in Eastern Europe, plus some more quirky points of interest such as the monument to the world first decorated Christmas tree), and capturing some panorama photos from the top of the affectionately titled 'Stallin's birthday cake' building. Then time to chill out in a town square with late evening bright Baltic sushine, entertained by live music and snacking on a local delicacy of toasted rye bread strips with dipping melted cheese...totally undoing any health benefit of the days walk.

If I thought I had done a fair bit of walking, little did I know what was in store the following day. Deciding to set off on an adventure to Rundale Palace, using the incredibly cheap local bus services, it was first a lengthy bus ride to Bauska (and a quick look at the Bauska castle), before taking a local bus service to (somewhere vaguley near) Rundale Place. I say vaguely near, as after getting off the bus at the correct stop, I seemed to be standing in the mddle of countryside, with no sign of life in any direction...

Thankfully  a signpost pointing up a long, tree lined country lane told me I was on the right path - some 1.5km later, more signs down another side path eventualy led to the outer grounds of the palace, and finally I came upon the enormous palace and gardens, compared in style to Versailles. After a self guided tour of the grand  interior rooms and huge gardens, it was time to start the trek back to Riga.

This is where things went pear shaped, as the already rather infrequent bus service fro the middle of nowhere decides to take a 3 hour break in the middle of the day, starting just before I reached the bus stop. With no life of any kind in view, I foolishly decided that I needed some excercise, and would walk all the way back to Bauska from Rundale, which I could complete before the next bus would appear. After 13 kilometers of walking along a country road, I finally reached my destination, ready to sleep on the bus journey back to Riga. At least the afternoon was one of bright sunshine, so got a little bit of a tan (well, pink skin).

No time to rest properly , as a 11pm flight would take me on to the the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius...


Vilnius and Trakai - Lithuania

2018-05-05

Due to scheduling, I was left with one entire day in Lithuania to try and pack as much as possible in...and that is exactly what I did.

Up with the lark and off into Vilnius itself for an early morning hike around some of the key sights in Cathedral Square, Town Hall Square, and the Gate of Dawn, before catching a bus to Trakai - one of the most popular destinations in the country, for locals and visitors alike.

Trakai castle sits on an island in the middle of a large lake, and provides for very scenic views from the shore. 3 of us trekked over to the castle itself, and meandered through the inner rooms and courtyards, before sitting outdoors in blazing sunshine for lunch overlooking the scene. On returning to Vilnius, I was just in time to catch the official open top tour bus, to do a complete loop of the old town as well as new town and some sights based a little further affield, such as the St Peter & St Paul church.

This tour ended up taking much longer than scheduled, as I had chosen to visit on a day when thusands of bikers/hells angels were descending on the city. Our bus ended up stranded at a crossroads where an endless stream of the buggars kept coming, and refused to stop whenever the traffic lights were on red...this seemed to go on for a good 20 - 30 minutes.

Back in the city centre, there was still some late evening sunshine to enjoy - and enough time for a trek out of the city to a panoramic viewing spot. Pleasantly, I discovered a food truck festival going on halfway up the hill to the viewing spot, so stopped for a ruddy great burger to fuel my adventure.

A lot crammed in to one day, but I'd seen pretty much everything in Vilnius itself, as well as fitting in Trakai. No time to rest on my laurels, as now for the rather more obscure, less visited Baltic jewel of Belarus, a member of the Russian Federation...


Minsk - Belarus

2018-05-06 to 2018-05-07

I may just have found one of my favourite cities in Europe, and indeed the world. And now probably my new favourite city (so far) in Eastern Europe..

I really wasn't sure what to expect from Minsk - internet research had left me a little unsure and apprehensive of what to expect, also believing it would be incredibly difficult to navigate my way around without  local language skills.

All fears were quickly laid to rest - I'd wisely booked a 3 hour orientation tour with a fabulous local guide, Kristina - taking me through the old town, the Soviet area, and the Trinity Suburb. There were plenty of stops and walking opportunities during this tour, and once I knew my way around, I found it very easy to navigate by foot for the rest of the day and next day to see even more.

Minsk is very large in size and has a  population of 2 million, but it doesn't have the big city feel of London or Moscow - everything is spread out, and with huge expanses of sculpted green parkland and lakes across the city centre and beyond. It is also pristine, not one shred of litter in evidence anywhere, and crime is almost unheard of by all accounts, an extremely safe place for vsitors.

Before my tour, I had time to venture into the unknown - making initial visits to the Island of Tears (memorial to soldiers in all conflicts), the Bolshoi opera house, Gorky Park, and the permanent, very artistic, home of the Belarus State circus.

I even had time to squeeze in a highly recommended local delicacy, the potato pankakes - in my case, topped with chicken and bacon in a cheese sauce - can only aid slimming as part of a calorie controlled diet.Thanks to my internet research, I'd found a cafe that had menus in English and came very highly recommended. The menu was the size of an encyclopaedia, shame I didn't have a chance to return, but I definitely recommed the pancakes. Main meals on the menu ranged from around 2 to 5 pounds, and considering this was a very tourist friendly establishment, unbelievably good value...if you are profficient in Russian (or Belarusian), even better value could be found - average salaries in Minsk are around 600 dollars per month, so prices following suit.

Kristinas tour was very informative, and also entertaining - including Freedom Square, Independence Avenues many sights (it is 15 km long) including the enormous Independence Square, the unique and famous architecture of the national library, plus various palaces, monuments, memorials, and sports arenas.

I spent a long evening and following day returning to spend longer at some of the sights,hiking through the parks, and enjoying more beautful Baltic sunshine, before departing - further East European stops to follow...can anything match Minsk?