How do we summarise our adventures of the past year? We have done so much, met so many great people, had so many adventures, learned so much………….. and drank just a little bit.
The headline is that it was an incredible experience that I would not swap for many things and it will be one of the defining years of our lives. Many people say ‘I wish I could do something like you have done’ to which I say, work out how to make it happen. You are unlikely to regret it, and if kids are the reason not to travel more, trust me that they will gain immeasurably from such experiences and learn far more than can be taught in school.
To help untangle it all I guess we can start with some numbers:
359 days on the road
6 continents visited
19 countries visited
2 wonderful weddings attended
1 dinner at the Tower of London
27 flights taken
31 different forms of transport (we could argue definitions of ‘different’ all night). My fav – the donkey cart carrying me over the mud on my run in Luxor. J’s favourite horseback safari.
13 different hire cars and I can’t recommend one single car hire company.
19 meetings with old friends in places around the world
89 blogs written
Approximately 1200 Instagram posts…..
178 Google reviews written
0 big arguments. Seriously. On our last big adventure, 11 years ago, we discussed divorce 3 times!
100,00 times we have said ‘Wow!’ Followed by that’s beautiful, that’s amazing, that’s incredible or we are very lucky.
Can you spot yourself in this??
I have some take-always below. Some are handy tips, some are me trying to make sense of a huge amount of experiences, some elements are just my rants.
Was it worth it?
One of the key questions is ‘Has it been worth it?’ Do we have regrets? Having this adventure was a significant decision. It’s not like we have surplus cash: we have large mortgages to service for many, many years to come and investing in reducing these would have had a large long term benefit. It was a significant professional gamble to bugger off and time will see how the dice land. It will take a lifetime to really know if the risk was worth taking. My hunch is this: when I am sitting in my rocking chair near the end of my life, if I am lucky enough to be able to spend evenings talking to friends, in a lovely house, or in a cardboard box under a bridge (what a strange place to have a rocking chair, I hear you cry), the stories I will want to share won’t be about saving a failing project, deploying ‘lean’ skills into a business or about the nice stuff in our house. They will be about the places we have been, the people we have met, the adventure, the wonders of the world and how special the place we live is…… and perhaps just a little bit about the experience in the army to keep a realistic view about how horrible we can be too.
If I should be unlucky enough to find my life drawing to a close sooner rather than later, this last year will be one of the key episodes of it that will help me reflect and conclude that I have given the living thing a reasonable crack.
No matter where we have been, how wealthy or otherwise a country, how peaceful or violent their history has been, there are a few things that shine through. Mostly, this is because we have a wonderfully connected history. When you see the relatively recent history of the Romans, who can be found in most of Europe, in North Africa & in the Middle East, the Vikings who roamed from Northern Europe all the way to southErnest France, to the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, to the Moors who found their way through Southern Europe, to the Francs and Norman’s in the UK, to the Britons in parts of France, the Chinese in India……. I could go on and on and on. We are so closely related to so much of the world. Those around us are literally our relatives. It is such a shame we forgot it so often and view people who look different or speak a different language as a threat.
No matter where you are in the world, at an individual level,99.999999% of people are decent. They look after fellow humans, they are kind, they like animals and they are mostly interested and interesting. The tiny % that aren’t are often desperate. People mostly want similar things: health, security, their kids to go to school and a roof over their heads. Simple Maslow stuff. There’s also a small number of tossers who want power and influence and they are the one who encourage people to feel superior, different, special. They say that ‘the others’ are bad, lesser or have too much of something. These tossers are the real problem.
By seeing how people live in the vast majority of the world, J and I know that to be born in the west, to loving parents who stayed together, provided a secure environment and encouraged us to be successful on our chosen paths, that through this luck, we two of the most fortunate people on the planet. We are no more talented than those scraping a living in Uganda, no more intelligent than those growing coca in Colombia and we really, really don’t know what hard work is. We just popped out of our mothers in the right place at the right time. We are no more entitled to the standards of living we enjoy than those born somewhere else, we just have easier access to it through sheer chance. In some ways we should feel less entitled as our nations wealth was built on the exploitation of others nations (did you know that when the Brits turned up in India, it had about 30% of the worlds GDP. When we left it, it was just 8%. The UK had grown a lot off the back of this). The world would be a better place if those who had this great luck were more generous to those with less luck, those with greater, but more basic, needs.
People...... What a wonderful bunch
The incredible human.
For 1000s of years, our species has achieved incredible things. The pyramids and temples of Egypt, the castles and cathedrals of Europe, navigating, trading over and populating the planet, the gaining of knowledge to better our lives. At our best, we are truly amazing and our achievements really show our potential. Unfortunately, we have a wonderful ability to fuck it up. The amount of effort that humans have expended in trying to destroy each other because some people want more stuff, or some ‘leaders’ have convinced their people that their history, language, culture or religion is worth killing others for is as incredible as it is awful. These people made the idea of one bunch of people going somewhere to rip another bunch of people apart acceptable and in most cases, glorious and worthy; This paradigm survives to this day.
Funnily enough though, on a macro level, it is hard to find an example where this approach works out in the long run. Mostly we are just left with stories of great battles where one side ripped apart more of the other sides youngsters, or conquered another country for a decade or so, stories designed to reinforce the narrative that war is an ok thing to do. In the long run, the course of our history flows back to cooperation and mutual respect, and over decades or a hundred years or so, through peaceful means, the world finds its balance............. yet we still want to do the war thing. We are as dumb as we are amazing.
We are as good at creating as we are at destroying
On top of those things that we have in common that I’ve mentioned above, we have many differences. Different languages, different ways of cooking, different music, different countryside, climates, cultures, ways of governing, architecture, booze. These are wonderful differences that give the world colour, resilience and depth. We should embrace these differences and not be frightened of them. It was really apparent that nations can be on the doorstep of each other, share many common organisations (national government, a Federation of states, the EU for example), and still keep those wonderful cultural differences.
The really complicated bit is understanding where the balance lies. Catalalonians have been convinced by men who want power that their differences are so special they are better-off without the Spanish (but want to remain part of the EU), the Brits have been convinced by libertarians and their charismatic puppets that they are special enough to be better off without Europe, nationalists are convincing the Scots that they are better off without the UK but with Europe, and an orange cockwomble that the US is better off without off without the world…. And brown people. The people who encourage these thoughts really should fuck off.
Religion is part of so much of the above, but they don’t ‘alf build some incredible buildings. They have done so well off the suffering of others, but the legacy is incredible!!
It’s the simple things that matter.
A sunset, a sunrise, a good view, mountains, animals, the sea, a good storm, a good book, being rested, laughter, discussing ideas with others, spending time with the people you love. These are the important things in life. Big TVs, posh cars, designer clothes add very little to proper happiness.
Isn’t nature marvellous!
There are many good things about Instagram. It makes you look at the world differently, looking for that interesting pic. It is a lovely record of what we’ve been up to. It is largely a positive place to share experience and images.
But seriously folks, what the fuck are you doing? Stripping down to a bra and flowing scarf in the middle of an Egyptian Temple in a devoutly Muslim country is not ok. Asking people to leave a historical building so you can get a shot in an empty place is not ok. Standing in front of the attraction for 20 minutes whilst you get someone to take a load of pictures is not ok. Then, saying ‘can you do them all again with my feet in this time’ is definitely not ok.
The outcome should be about seeing, learning and experiencing, not turning up with a face full of slap and a flowing dress, or a tight t-shirt and moody looks, grabbing a photo and fucking off, smiling only when the camera is on you. Get a grip people.
Time spent with animals is time well spent
This is the longest I’ve ever blogged for. Many years ago, before the internet and computing machines, I used to keep a diary when I traveled, or if the travel was an operational tour in the Army, use letters to describe what I was seeing, thinking and feeling. It wasn’t until ‘The FT’s escape from reality’ which recorded our 2007/9 adventure that I recorded things online.
Lots of people blog and many make money from it. Mine will never make money and I remain unsure if more than 2 or three people read it. It used to achieve three things: keeping a record for J and I to reflect on when we are old, greyer, sitting in a pool of our own urine and trying to make sense of our lives. It also provides a constant reminder that these adventures are possible, very rewarding and we need to plan the next.
The final reason was to keep Mum up to speed. When I started the escape from reality one, she hated the title and found the whole thing a bit showy offy, but when she read it, I know she loved it and probably got to understand me better. Mostly, when I wrote stuff, Mum was the ‘audience’ I was trying to communicate with. Now that this audience has gone, it has been difficult to find a voice and structure. At times it has felt like a chore to write, just for our old age. That said, as I finish off, I am glad I have persevered. My mind is such that I can already barely remember what we did at the start of the trip.
Religion; Imaginary friends lead to great buildings
Over the past 359 days, I have spent 355 with J, the other 4 spent with Liz in the Colombian jungle. I have eaten 99% of my meals with her, slept in the same bed every night, walked with her, talked with her, had low level disagreements, discussed politics, sat saying nothing next to her whilst we’ve read, and drunk a shit load with her. Pretty much our only time apart is when I run or when one of us has a really big poo (though in most places the walls are thin enough to make that feel like a shared experience).
I think it’s fair to say our relationship has been tested and we know each other reasonably well. I don’t think I’ve learned anything new but I have got to understand the balance better. The single minded determination to not accept defeat, a trait that is occasionally tiring, has got stuff done and made our experience better. For example, I am sure that we wouldn’t have had the magical day at the Route de Champagne if J hadn’t accosted….. and ….. to give us a lift to the first village. There are a heap load of other examples too.
Her unflappable nature has been useful too, when we’ve been in a potentially dangerous situation in a Kia Picanto on a Colombian mountain, when we’ve been stranded in lion infested game reserve in a bogged in vehicle for example. Either of us losing our shit would not have been useful.
I am a lucky man to be able to share such an incredible experience with someone I like, love and admire and the experience is better for it. Thank you J.
Travelling with your best friend is the best way
Some practical/interesting stuff.
Getting SIM cards is pretty easy in nearly everywhere we went and getting local ones was pretty much the first thing we did. France and Canada are ridiculously expensive. If you get a SIM in Portugal, the UK or spain, they are cheap and roam in France. In Canada we used our $5 a day vodafone international thing. Download DING; in many places recharging can appear difficult and Ding is an easy way to recharge PAYG in 140 countries.
In Colombia, don’t try to recharge in the Movistar or Claro main shops; they don’t have a clue. Recharge in a local shop, It took us 2.5 difficult months to work that out.
You don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think you do. In real life most of us like to wear different things day to day. Often it’s because you don’t want your mates to think that either you have bad bodily hygiene or can’t afford more than two shirts. When you are travelling, meeting new people most days, you don’t have to give two shits. Bank on 7 days between washes and then take it from there. Have a few spare pairs of pants, coz no one likes smelly pants, but otherwise, go lean.
Cheap, lightweight swimming shoes are really useful if you plan to swim in rivers, the sea, lakes, under waterfalls. They really save your feet.
Have multiple bank cards and credit card. I think in 12 months, we had a full working set for about 2. Also check when your cards run out……………
Trust people as a default. Most are wonderful and you have much more fun when you meet the locals properly.
Haggling is an important part of many cultures. Enter into it but keep a level head. Getting a $1 off a price may feel like a victory but for some, it’s a days pay and getting such a ‘bonus’ once in a while is like a minor lottery win. There is a line to be drawn so that tourists don’t inflate prices for locals, but have this in your mind, don’t use it as an excuse to be a tight arse.
Order is important. Going to Rwanda before Uganda was a great acclimatisation to that region of the world. Perhaps for this reason, visit Jordan before Egypt. Also, after seeing the Egyptian temples, Petra is only ok……. The temples of Egypt spoil you. Perhaps, if you really want to go to Cuba, go before you visit other more vibrant Latin American countries so the contrast is not such a downer.
If you do visit Cuba and venture away from the tourist areas, remember they really have sod all there. Take clothes and other stuff (sunglasses etc) that you are happy to leave in hotel rooms, give to people who say ‘I like that shirt’ etc.
Mixing hot and cold climates makes packing a challenge.
Take a couple of cups, a couple of sporks, a couple of peshtemals (great as lightweight towels, picnic blankets and bed blankets) and a corkscrew. All got used lots.
Auspost are crap. If you are away for a while and are forwarding mail somewhere, start before you go so when they screw it up, you can resolve the issue before you get on a plane.
Trains, planes, automobiles and huskies
Meeting our friends in new places and having fun (Troyes, Bordeaux, Singapore, London, Bristol, Netheravon, Sardinia, Bologna (god I was pissed that night), Berlin, Vancouver, Versailles, Colombia, Tunis, Luxor)
Meeting new friends who I hope will remain friends.
J and I getting through the more difficult challenges together.
Learning to communicate in a new language.
Having time to get to know places
The landscape of Corsica (but not the roads)
Getting to know Europe again; the diversity of everything (language, countryside, architecture, food etc) makes it a fascinating place.
Colombia – nearly all of it (not that keen on Cartagena and Santa Marta), especially the friendly people
4 days in the jungle to see Ciudad Perdida
The gorillas in Rwanda
A horseback safari
Jogging in the Ugandan bush, with zebras, hippos etc
The adventure of Uganda and Rwanda
The magnificence of the Egyptian temples (Luxor and Abu Simbal are particularly ‘wow’)
The boat trip down the Nile
The beaches of Cuba (the rest of Cuba …… meh)
Bridge and Mo’s multi-cultural wedding and Ed and Emma’s very English one
Horse riding in the Camargue
Friends in different places
Food and booze highlights:
Rwanda make the best chips (hot chips for my Aussie friends), second only to the UK.
Spain do great croissants. Lots of places in France do not.
Portugal; Ginja, Natas and good Tawny port. Yum.
Vermouth with olives as an aperitif in Spain
Pasta in Bologna
Good Guinness in London
Great curry in Birmingham
Fried cheese sticks in Medellin
Drinking champagne, eating cheese and listening to music at La Route du Champagne.
Home cooking whenever we stop long enough to do it properly
Frozen yogurt when it’s hot.
Nun Juice (wine made in a convent) from Jericó
Drinking beer or wine……..or cocktails in squares in France, Spain, Italy and Colombia and watching life go by.
Food and booze! My favourite.
Things I would change.
Nothing really. Life is not supposed to be perfect. It is a wonderful balance of good and bad, easy and difficult, relaxing and nerve racking..........though the last 5 km of the Berlin Marathon could have been a lot less shit......
So now we are back in Bundanoon, determined to celebrate the year that we have had, rather than to mope about the fact we have returned. We live in a lovely, privileged country, I work with great people, we have lovely friends and Fulford Folly is a beautiful place to be. Best of all, Freddie and Mr Percival are back in our lives.
So, until the next adventure!!!!
Short of winning the lottery, it would be impossible to end this year long adventure with a bang. A champagne Sunday Lunch in a nice hotel in Singapore or Hong Kong would have been a pretty good alternative and that’s one for the ‘Lessons Learned’ for next time!
Bali is a bit of a halfway house between a trip abroad and being in Australia. It is definitely abroad, but there are a fuck load of Aussies here. It is to Australians what certain parts of Spain are to Brits; not too far (in Aussie terms, that’s a 6.5 hour flight) good weather when Australia is in winter and it is relatively cheap. On the upside lots of Aussies means pretty good coffee. On the downside, men in singlets, or topless, talking about sport are everywhere. I know very little about sport, certainly not enough to credibly chat about it, and my moobs mean that I look faintly ridiculous without the majority of me covered. I love Australia, but still can’t get my head around how many dressed up women put up with men who believe dressing up for an evening out is putting on their best tee shirt. Bah. Standards.
This is the third time I’ve been to Bali. The first time was an exploring holiday about 20 years ago and the next was a Christmas in a vila with a pool with Katie and Al and very little activity other than eating and drinking. This couple of days was pretty much just a stopover to capture two more days of warmth.
We stayed in a place we had booked because it was near the airport and the ferry to Gili Air on our way in, they were happy to hang on to a bag when we went to the Island and we thought we would only be there for one night on the way out. It was fine, but lacked a pool so we had to find a place where we could crash there pool. One was at the Sakala Beach club which featured a nice pool, hogsnarlingly experience cocktails, middle classed children left to run riot and ambient house with the bass cranked up. Not really for the FTs. Day 2 was at the Byrdhouse Beach Club where for a min spend of about AU$30 each on food and booze you could use there facilities. It had good scoff, ok cocktails so the spend challenge was child’s play.
It was odd to pack up our bags for the last time, need to the airport for the last time and OD on free booze and food in an airport for the last time. It is so hard to get our minds around what we have done over the past year and that we would soon be home. It is pretty much impossible to summarise what we’ve learned and the experiences we have been fortunate enough to experience, but we really did feel that is was a year to be celebrated rather than the end being something to be sad about.
That said, in my next blog I have tried to summarise the year, rant a little bit and provide some hints, tips and highlights.
In Oz, Bali is the place to go for a reasonably easy, reasonably cheap holiday somewhere exotic but not too challenging and a mere 6.5hrs flight away. Bali is beautiful and the tourist scene is well developed. There is everything from some of the smartest hotels and restaurants in Asia to plentiful cheap and cheerful hostels. It’s only downside is it can feel a little hard to believe that you have got away from it all.
Unbeknown to us, the Gili Islands are a three hour fast boat ride from Bali and are a three beautiful tropical Islands. We decided to head for Gili Air, more developed than Gili Meno, but more laid back that Gili T (the party Island), it seemed like our kind of place.
The Island has no cars or motorcycles, just horses and carts, bicycles and walking, all along small concrete or dirts/sand paths. The whole island circumference is only 6km so any of these methods are easy enough. The beaches are good, if not great and at low tide, swimable sea is a way out. It’s possible to eat well, if not fantastically (Mama Pizza, Musa Cookery, Waroeng Alam Damai and the restaurant at Dolcemare’s were stand outs) and they are all reasonably cheap so good value and there are reasonably good places to stay.
The Island also features ‘The Mosque From Hell’. I know lots of people still like to do this God stuff, and it comes in all forms, with many different calls to prayer. As a Brit, I was brought up to the sound of church bells, and whilst they didn’t have the intended brainwashing effect on me, I do rather like them, so I understand the place of the call to prayer from mosques. I also know a ‘good Muslim’ prays 5 times a day, but in Gili….the Inman Never. Shuts. The. Fuck. Up. Seriously. Never. All through the night, chatting and wailing. Torture. Wherever you are on this small island you will get a does of it, but trust me, you really do not want to stay too close to this bad boy.
We had the potential to stay up to 12 nights but only booked 5 in a place called ‘Wake and Baked’ so we could stay flexible. Wake and Baked is very quiet, nicely laid out and very, very laid back place, with 4 rooms set around a small swimming pool. By very, very laid back, I mean often the staff were asleep. One day we came back and saw one foot poking from behind the reception and another member of staff sleeping on a raised platform. We went to the pool, splashed around a bit then not wanting to wake them, helped ourselves to a couple of beers. When we told them we had the beer and didn’t want to wake them, one said ‘I briefly woke, saw it was you and figured you could look after yourselves. We had a big party last night’. This approach may be in keeping with the hotels name. We googled ‘Wake and Baked’ and found it means to wake up and immediately light a spliff.
After our 5 days there, we moved to the slightly more grown up and very comfortable Samata Village Resort for another 6 nights.
Our mission: to do very little, sleep, sunbake and prepare ourselves for a Bundanoon winter (it’s been -3c there). Really, it was to have our final holiday.
We had two day trips. The first was a snorkelling trip around the three islands to see turtles (ugly but graceful), tropical fish, coral (much of it dead), a wreck (a pretty horrible experience as glass bottomed boats full of non-swimmers tried to manoeuvre over the wreck, making being in the water a tad unsettling) and a bunch of underwater statues (this was so much people-soup, we gave it a miss). Nevertheless, it was a nice way to spend a few hours.
The second was a trip to Lombok, a 10 min fast boat away from Gili Air. It was a pretty much standard tourist thing; a couple of nice beaches, a temple, a pottery workshop, a weaving workshop, a scenic drive and a nice place for lunch. Our tour guide (Omar) was a lovely and interesting bloke and it was good to see the Island. It is a bit immature though, about 30 years behind Bali and the pottery’s & weaving thing was very much ‘here’s a token effort to show you how we do things, now buy our stuff’ affair.
The rest of the time was by a lovely pool, on an ok beach, in beautiful clear sea, eating, dinking, watching multiple sunsets made more spectacular by happy hour cocktails, reading and for me, blogging. Our thoughts also turned to updating CV’s, the job market, stuff we need to do in Bundy etc. Yuk.
For what we wanted, Gili Air was perfect…… but you should always strive to do better so we left the Island for a few days on Nusa Lembangon, a bigger Island about 45 mins off Bali. Compared to Swindon, it is a tropical paradise. Compared to Gili Air, it’s a bit of a shit hole.
It is more developed so has roads, lots and lots of whiny scooters, many ridden by less than competent tourists and beaches with incredible views of crashing waves but not great for swimming. On night one we found a nice bar that did good espresso martini’s, OD’d on them and stayed awake most of the night.
The following day we added to the barely competent scooter rider whining around from one spectacular beach to the next before deciding we needed to leave a day early and return to Bali. It’s not awful, it’s just there are heaps of better places to be.
he last time we came to Kuala Lumpur was about 17 years ago, on a holiday covering quite a lot of he country and Singapore. Our memories of the capital are hazy, but we remember that the newly opened Petronas Towers were the biggest buildings in the city and the world, we remember bars with older western men talking to younger local women and we remember not really warming to the place.
It’s changed quite a bit. The towers have been out grown by many others around the world and equaled in the city. The city centre has many, many big, new, shiny buildings and there is a modern cosmopolitan feel about the place. That said, there are still lots of low rise old suburbs around with great food and lively atmospheres.
With only 36hrs there, mostly we wandered, firstly following a route from place to place looking at street art (one mans graffiti etc…..), finding interesting suburbs on the way and ate in interesting places. On the scoff front we found a great Indian (The Indian Kitchen), the Lot 10 foodhall for some great duck (you can get pork here too, which is rare in Malaysia) and the wonderful (if you are not a veggie. If you are a veggie, use ‘pretty shit’) Jalan Alor night food court.
The only touristy thing we did was go to see the fountains and lights show in the KLCC park, which whilst a bit naff was also rather impressive, much more so than the lacklustre display in Versailles.
The locals thing we did was use Grab; a bit like Uber and got us around the city really easily and for peanuts.
Our brief encounter made us think that it is a bit like an earthy Singapore, and as I am not that keen on the sterile nature of Singapore, may favour KL as my stop-over of choice in the future.
Driving around a couple of developing African countries. How hard can it be??
We had a good look at different options to get us around Rwanda and Uganda. Initially we had engaged a travel agent to sort it all out for us but he had irritated J and IAS not only was He expensive he was also rather inflexible. I think he had a off the shelf plan and didn’t want to deviate from it. Also some of the hotels we would be put in didn’t get great reviews and if you end up paying a lot of money for a crap hotel it can be a tadge annoying.
The decision to go ‘self-drive’ made us immediately excited about the trip in a way that we hadn’t been. It would be more of an adventure. A bit more challenging, it an adventure.
We then looked at different hire car companies and car alternatives. Plan A; a land cruiser with a roof top tent seemed to be illogical as we were not going to use the tent every night so the cost of the tent when we did use it was about $250 a night, which we could get a pretty good hotel for.
We decided to go for a RAV 4 and shopped around to find a company with genuine good reviews. This is harder than it sounds and many companies have fake reviews (watch out for a heap of reviews by people who have only done one or two reviews). I had thought I’d done my due-diligence and found one. Paul, from Rent-a-car Kigali was super responsive and the company had a couple of good genuine reviews on trip advisor.
They use two names in Rwanda - Rent a car Rwanda and Kigali 4x4. In Uganda they trade under Go Gorilla Trekking LTD. All I can say is that I made a mistake…….. At best they are incompetent, at worst they are scam artists.
One employee - Paul - tried his hardest to help, but he was always on the road and often out of contact. Other members of staff, particularly a lady named Mickie, lied, was consistently difficult and in the end deliberately took financial advantage of us.
The story is below. In hindsight we can almost laugh but dealing with this company was more than a little frustrating at the time.
We booked the car for 12 days in Rwanda and Uganda and on every single day, the car and the company had a significant negative effect on our holiday and cost us a lot more money than we had budgeted for.
Day 1: The car (a 2000 RAV 4 with 160,000 km on the clock) arrived on time but without the full set of camping equipment we hired and other important items. Once most of it was provided (including a full set of wheel nuts) we left 2.5 hours late.
Before we left the representative from the company looked me in the eye and confirmed the car could go to Uganda. This was the first porky.
The car was in poor condition; it made noise when we went round left hand corners, had a broken door mirror and was missing an indicator, but hey, this is Africa: we can manage.
When we arrived at our first campsite, in the dark after a rushed 5 hour drive south, we found we had two x old one person tents, none of which were waterproof and lacked enough poles, pegs etc. They were unusable. They were the kind of things you take to the beach for the kids. We paid for a room that night, in a place with no electricity or hot water and cooked scoff on the step of the pace.
Day 2: The messages I sent to the company about the tent were ignored. Bastards.
Day 3: The company told us that they were sending a new tent and a new car that day. I asked why we needed a new car: ‘This one is better’. I asked them to confirm that the one we had could go to Uganda. They said yes..... again. The car did not turn up that day and we had changed plans to be available to receive it. The company eventually contacted us to say it would arrive the next day at our next destination.
Day 4: New car and new tent arrived, much later than they said told us it would, again effecting our plans. New tent was still not waterproof, so from that point forward, we could not camp. The car was a Prado with 360,000 km on the clock and was so empty of fuel, it was running off fumes. I handed over the RAV that I recently filled up.
Day 5: On way back from gorilla trek the car engine got very noisy, warning lights came on and it lost power. I Whatsapp’d the company and they said a new vehicle would be delivered that night between 6-7. This was the night of our 15th wedding anniversary. Despite many reinsurances that the car would be there soon, it never arrived. We spent the night of our 15th wedding anniversary sitting in a small room of a B&B. It turns out no car was never coming as they couldn’t get the authority to get it over the border. The plan had been to return us the RAV4.......
Day 6. After we left the B&B, the owner of the Prado we had arrived so we met him where we were having breakfast. He had been told by the company we had hired his car through that we were getting a new car so he could take his away. Obviously that couldn’t happen so he ‘fixed’ the car and kindly helped us across the Ugandan border before having to make his own way home. He was unhappy with the company too.
Day 7. Leaving our lodge in the early hours, high in the Ugandan mountains, the car had no power and lots of noise from the engine. We limped to park hq, found a mechanic who knew the owner, paid $40 for oil, then left on our trek. On our return we were delighted that the car had been ‘fixed’.
Day 8. In remote jungle, car lost power. We got to a lodge. The owner sent a mechanic. It took 2 hours for him to get to us. At this stage I was happy to write the car off and pay for another. The owner then assured me it was fixed and the mechanic would go with us to next destination. The mechanic got us lost in the jungle then, near the town he lived, the problem started again. We took the mechanic to our lodge (some interesting persuasion tactics were used, best described over a beer), via a shortcut he knew and got bogged in for a while. The last hour was driving in the dark and in Uganda, that’s a challenge.
Once at our lodge, the mechanic took the car for repair in his garage.
Day 9. Car returned to us ‘fixed’. I argued that it probably wasn’t and we needed a new car but eventually, knowing my argument was getting nowhere, decided to set off and if at any stage there was a problem, abandon the car in a town and hire a taxi. Mechanic wanted me to drive him home: a 90 min round trip, so I hired a boda boda for him. We didn’t drive the car that day. The novelty bit was that the mechanic was wearing a Balmain Tigers football shirt, the team from our home suburb in Sydney. He had no idea what he was wearing!
Day 10. We had power problems all day but got to our next lodge, a tense 5 hour journey away. I insisted that I would not drive any further and the company should pay for transfer to Kigali airport. They said they would do. They also promised to refund the money I had paid to hire the camping equipment which proved useless without a tent.
Day 11. Driver for the broken car arrived unannounced to pick up car. Company at this stage were cagey about paying for transfer. After heated whatsapp discussion I gave up and handed keys to driver. I needed to enjoy my last night of our stay in Uganda.
Day 12. Met their representative at their office in Kigali (Mickie). She paid the driver of our transfer, but with a smirk, told me she would give me less than half of the money for the camping equipment. She offered me ‘some Rwandan francs’ too, showing me a very small amount and knowing I was about to leave the country.
At this point it became clear it wasn’t incompetence and the challenges of Africa that were the problem, rather that the companies employees are dishonest. Bastards.
The upside is that we had a bit more of an adventure than we planned and met some lovely people who helped us at various stages. The downside is we didn’t do everything we had planned spent more than we had planned and got a bit pisad off.
But, as I said before, we would opt to self drive again, we would just avoid this bunch of muppets!
83% of adults in Turkey are tee-total. This isn’t coz it’s illegal, it’s a choice. How the fuck to they get through the weekend? How do they meet potential life partners? How do men work up the courage to dance?
Now, I really do understand that not every culture think it is grown-up or clever to drink an expensive mild poison that dulls your judgement, makes many violent, some arseholes, some incredibly funny and wonderful dancers but will also rot your insides and increase the chances of an early death. I understand the point of view as a logical one, but you really can stuff it up your arse.
When walking along a sea front in the sunshine, I want to stop for a beer. I don’t want a frighten mocktail, or fruit juice, or to smoke some sweet smelling tobacco surrounded by miserable looking blokes with beards. It’s for this reason I could probably never fall in love with Istanbul. It’s just too friggin hard to get a beer.
Other than that, it’s rather nice…
We did heaps of tourist stuff; took the hop-on, hop-off bus, took ferries on the Bosporus, visited the Topkapi Palace Museum (excellent), the Hagia Sophia Museum (ok but chaotic), and the cisterns (ok), went into Asia (no friggin beer), went to the Grand Bazar (reasonably pleasant and interesting, but no friggin beer) and watched the religious whirling dervishes ceremony. This last one, in my humble opinion, is crap.
The history behind it that the founder of the Sufi movement decided that dancing in a circle got you close to God, so an overly elaborate ritual was devised. There are about 5 parts to the ritual. To my eyes, 4 were identical and involved 4 men spinning on the spot (ish) whilst slowly circling a man spinning on the spot (proper), in the middle. The last had all 5 men on the outside and no one on the inside. The choreographer was obviously a bluffer. The music is whining crap.
You can’t take photos and if you were inclined, can’t clap ‘coz it’s a very special religious ritual’. Bollocks more like.
We really did only touch the surface of the city but found modern bits, old bits, good food (the Privato restaurant is particularly good for breakfast), lovely views, a sense of energy and we know there is lots and lots more to see. Despite the lack of copious bars, I would be happy to return and explore more.
We were there just before the re-run of the election for the Istanbul government that was being held as Erdogan didn’t like the outcome of the last one (his party lost), so it was a very, very political city. Mostly it was Erdogan’s man that was evident, and there was thousands and thousands of posters/billboards with Binali Yildirim’s face on. I think there was probably 50 of the Justice and Development Party for every one of another party (justice and development for those that aren’t gay, those who do as they are told, etc). There was also lots of very noisey JDP supporters in squares, at ferry ports etc. As an outsider, it looked like not very subtle brainwashing. The very visible heavily armed police presence added to this a bit (riot trucks, armed personnel carriers with remote weapon stations on top, Tourist Police with more weaponry than the SAS etc). Anyway, it was great to see that it didn’t work, and despite all this effort, the opposition won again.
If all goes well, when we next return it will be to a country a little more tolerant than it is now.
So the next day (after much car related shenanigans), we hit the road for Uganda and our second gorilla experience. In the planning, we had thought that day 1 would be so overwhelming we should have two days, so we could savour the experience on the second day. We couldn’t afford Rwandan prices, hence the move to Uganda. Uganda have a number of different places where you can trek from to see the gorillas and some are easier than others. The permits for the easier ones sell out quickly so our lack of organisation saw us going to Nkuringo, well known for being a bit of a bitch.
We had a travel day, getting across the very bureaucratic and Ebola controlled boarder, getting SIM cards and money, then heading off on dirt tracks for 2.5 hours through the mountains to Nkuringo.
Uganda and Rwanda are different and the same. On both sides of the boarder they ask questions on behalf of their national bureau of stats. On the Rwandan side the info is pumped straight into an iPad, on the Ugandan side, straight into an exercise book. This is a micro example of the relative development of both countries. There is also noticeably more plastic rubbish on the roads and in the towns on the Ugandan side (Rwanda is immaculate. We wondered if it was because they have an out 120,000 criminals from the genocide doing community service but noted that everybody seemed to do their bit), and there is a little less order on the Ugandan side too. Really lovely people are on both sides.
Getting to Nkuringo
We arrived at Nkuringo at about 3.30 with two missions; to ensure we had all the details for the next days trek and to find somewhere to stay. Both had mixed success.
We got to the park office shortly before they closed and found a very charming and military bunch of rangers; rifles, saluting etc. We had been trying to book the trek for some time and the principle challenge is the lack of IT in Uganda, so most pick up physical permits from Kampala or have a tour company collect them. Our ‘self-drive’ approach meant that after some to-ing and fro-ing (aka J being bloody persistent), we got a letter from the Ugandan Tourist Baird to show to the head warden. So we met John-Justice, after a young officer marched smartly in to his office, saluted and introduced us. 10 mins later it was agreed that we did have permits, that the day was overbooked but they could make it work. As the rain lashed down, thunder boomed and lightning struck, we kind of hoped they couldn’t make it work and offer us a refund.
The hotel hunt was interesting; the place I thought looked ok was beautiful and as they only had 2 residents in a 90 person hotel, offered us a discount; only US$480 a night…… so we left.
Nearby was the 7 Volcano View Resthouse and we had discovered this was pretty much the only other gig in town. It didn’t look open or finished when we arrived and the combination of torrential rain, mud, a very slow response to us knocking on the door and a general feeling of abandonment meant that the charming young host was rewarded with grumpiness. They had no electricity, could not promise hot water (it was solar and there hadn’t been a lot of sun) and due to the fact there was a guide as the only other guest, didn’t have much in the way of food. For all that, we got a big room with a big bathroom with the potential of an amazing view (if the rain stopped)for less than a tenth of the other place. They also let us use their kitchen (a gas bottle connected to two rings, a sink and a sideboard) to cook our own ‘emergency rations’ that we had been carrying with us. They lit a fire, gave us hot water bottles for our bed, provided beer and the clouds lifted, so we very quickly warmed to them.
We also met the other guest; Wilson, a lovely local ish man with a lovely story involving a short career as an IT salesman that necessitated him buying a 4x4, a loss of job, followed by a demand from tour companies for his 4x4 leading him to get educated as a guide. He ploughs some of his money back into his village; buying sewing machines for the women, putting a cover over the area where the sewing machines are and funding a teacher. The last minimises the drowning of children who used to go to the local school across a log over a river (in one year, they lost 8 children…… we really do not understand how lucky we are).
7 Volcanoes View Resthouse
The next morning started early and involved some car based frustration (more about that later), and we arrived at the starting point at about 7.30. We had heard lots of horror stories about just how hard the Nkuringo treks are, of people being carried out (for US$350… in cash) and of 8 hour epics, so were relieved to see a couple of larger people and some old people. We wanted to be in their groups. We weren’t. We weren’t even with the group that had one man start on a stretcher (not a miss type).
We were with 5 other people, all of whom looked fit. We also had the opportunity to hire porters and as we had researched the positive impact hiring them has on their families, and that they may only get one gig a month (at a min of US$15 for a full days work), we hired two. I was slightly horrified when I met mine, the 5 foot something, 55kg Sabrina, who was to carry my bag for me…….. She, and Gregory who Jodie hired, were outstanding. Sabrina’s lightning sharp reactions vice like grip saved me from falling a number of times and Gregory was invaluable to J.
So we set off at about 8.15 am. The first three plus hours was down hill, initially through villages, then through steep agricultural land, then through very, very steep tea plantations. To quote one of the Americans with us “That wasn’t walking, that was a controlled fall’.
Once at the bottom, sitting at the edge of the jungle, we waited for about 30 minutes for the trackers to tell us where the family were when the stopped moving, then we were told ‘we’re off! It’s about 30 minutes from here.’ Fucking liar......
The next 2 hours or so were spent hacking through thick (impenetrable) jungle, walking up a lot of vertical muddy slopes and wading fast flowing streams. At one stage, ahead of us, I saw the photographer lose her footing, slip off the path and was luckily grabbed by the porter before being hauled back up. The slope wasn’t sheer, but the steepness and mud would ensure the tumble would have been long, fast and painful. 5 mins later, J did he same thing..... and luckily both Gregory and I got a hand to her and hauled her back up. As J exclaimed, sometimes walking in thick jungle on a mountain is ‘fucking dangerous!’. Whilst physically I did not find it demanding, I did think the terrain was the hardest I’d ever walked on for a prolonged period of time. We really did have to concentrate on every step.
Eventually, shortly before 3pm, we got to them. They had settled in thick bush, sleeping and relaxing. One of the women was enjoying an afternoon wank. Some gorillas have no shame. Even on the second time of seeing them, they are amazing and we felt privileged to be there..... as well as feeling just a tad fucked (J, sitting 5 meters from 2 gorillas, one of which was 5 days old; “this is fucking shit”...).
Then we began the walk out. The jungle bit was downhill but a challenge never the less. It was also pissing down by this stage, so when we got to the rivers and streams, we didn’t bother taking off shoes and socks coz we were soaked anyway.. Once out of the jungle, it was about 1.5 hours through tea plantations then us a long slow hill before we reached our cars at about 5pm, some 8.5 hours since we set off. When I say our cars, ours was still in the car park as we are self-drive, but luckily the Americans had room for both us and our porters back to the park HQ. Thank fuck they did; it took us more than a hour in a car; J and I would have died. I loved America so much by the end I considered getting that Stars and Stripes tattooed on my face.
For J, this really was a tough day; probably the hardest walking she had experienced since the rather tough Royal Military Academy Sandhurst exercise called Long Reach that she had completed some 25 years earlier. Sometimes things are tough and once you are in that situation you can do two things; crack on or give up. I always admire J’s ability to crack on. One day she will do so without giving me a hard time. One day.
The Trek From Hell
From Bwindi, we drove through beautiful countryside and jungle around the forest, down onto the plain and to the Ishasha sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, mostly along dirt roads. Due to car based frustrations (more about that later), the 5 hour journey to our next destination took over 8 (one breakdown, the mechanic getting us lost in the jungle, then getting us bogged in on a ‘shortcut’ are the highlights). It was dark, we were filthy and we had with us a mechanic that had needed some persuasion to stay with us (I am happy to embellish on the word ‘persuasion’ over a beer, but not in writing!!) when we arrived at the lodge.
Enjojo Lodge was way off our budget, but after the past few days we needed hot water etc. We were going to stay one night, but due to car based frustration, kicked the arse right out of it by staying two. The lodge is in beautiful parkland, has a lake that is visited by all kinds of birds, great service and the cottages were beautifully put together, on stilts over marshland, with open air showers and surrounded by the sounds of nature. Really beautiful and at that point, the nicest place we had stayed on the trip,
During the afternoon, we went on a game drive to the park proper in the hope of seeing the famous tree climbing lions, hippos, elephants and other animals. As our car was crap, lions are dangerous and the park unknown we hired the lodges car and driver/guide to take us. We had a lovely few hours, saw all we wanted including a big male lion sleeping in a tree (king of the jungle = lazy fat bastard around there). On our return from the hippos to the lion, just as we were about to drive through a big group of Baboons, the car hit a hole and we got well and truly stuck.
I’ve never been stuck in an open sided vehicle in a park with dangerous and aggressive animals before but assumed the guide had a plan. He didn’t have a plan, a shovel, a rope, or a diff that worked, so we had to get out and push, in the process getting covered in mud again. After much effort and frustratingly watching the one airborne wheel attract all the power, we were getting concerned, and we all agreed that walking into the bush to try to find wood to put under the wheel was foolish. A few calls later and a small team from a Ugandan Army camp a km or so away was dispatched with a shovel, a machete and an AK47. 30 mins after their arrival, after pushing, digging and J doing a bit of directing of the Ugandan Army, we escaped. All very exciting.
Close to our lodge we, and two other safari cars were halted again by a truck that had spilled a load of long poles all over the road and after a couple of minutes of watching a 12 year old and a 15 year old struggle to clear it, I hopped out to help. After 5 mins or so our guide and another were shamed into helping too. It was towards the end I noticed that the original kids and the owner of the van had decided to stand back and watch us!
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The next morning we left early for the 5 hour trip to what was always going to be a treat; staying in Mihingo Lodge at Lake Mburo and going on a horseback safari. Despite problems, the car got us there and I vowed not to drive it again. The first 70km was through the park was gorgeous and we saw lots of wildlife including elephants by the side of the road. We also had to negotiate patches of dirt as slippery as ice and bogged in trucks. The last 30 km was beautiful too and we saw our first zebras, our first long horned cows and lots and lots of impala.
The approach to the lodge was interesting, involving very basic dirt roads and due to the fact that I miss-read a sign, very boggy roads (‘oh, you took the ‘water road’. Wow. Well done for getting through’) and no sight of the lodge. When we got there we had a real ‘Wow!’ moment when we eventually came across this wonderful organic building on top of a hill, with a pool overlooking a waterhole and views to die for. Our room was half mud/brick, half tent and was incredibly well put together. Enojojo was pushed into second place and I think that Mihingo lodge may be one of the most special places we have ever been to.
Whilst there was 14 cottages, we were the only guests and enjoyed the pool, feeding the bush babies and watching the sun set, before an early night ahead of the following days 7 am start for the horseback safari.
We had two guides - Tom and Charles - and our two horses were massive ex racehorses (J’s was 16.2 hands) his shoulder was above her head) and with them spent the next four hours, walking, trotting and cantering alongside zebras, Impala, giraffes (the horses are a little afraid of these strange creatures and a little hard to handle), warthogs and hippos, as well as lots of other animals. I have to say that the novelty of riding amongst these creatures is very, very special and we would do it everyday if we could.
The last morning, I was up early again and pretty much had the same experience on foot, running with Tom as my guide (didn’t see giraffes but saw all the rest, including getting rather close to hippos) and have to say it was the most fascinating run of my life. The fresh leopard tracks were a bit special too.
Our trip back to Kigali was reasonably straightforward: we had ditched the car and insisted that the hire company paid for car and driver to take us to the airport. Other than the drivers desire to break speed records and a bit of an argument at the car rental office (they had agreed to pay us back for the camping equipment too, but at the last minute decided to shortchange us) it all went well, so well that we arrived 4.5hrs early for our flight. In Kigali, it’s not just that the check-in doesn’t open until 3 hours before departure, the airport won’t let you in, so the first 1.5 hours were spent in a booze free café, then the next three is a very basic lounge before we boarded a thoroughly average Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.
One of the things that struck us in both countries is just how hard people work. There are no gangs of men hanging around starring like you see in some developing countries and both sexes graft hard. In most developing countries, the super rich have expensive cars, the rich cars, the majority scooters and the poor have bicycles. Here, take one step and a bit steps down. Few have cars of any type, people are lucky if they have a scooter and few have bikes. Most walk or, if they can afford it, hire a mototaxi or a bike taxi. The last are just that; brightly painted, old fashioned, sturdy bicycles with a cushion on the back shelf for one adult, a couple of children or massive amounts of goods to sit on.
They can’t cycle up all the many, many hills but they do manage gradients with people on the back that I would struggle with riding my posh bike on my own. Going down hill, they get some speed up. 60-70 kph. We where passed, in our car, round a corner by a bike with three people on doing about 70kph. Thinking about what would happen if it all went wrong makes my stomach turn.
As I say, most walk. They walk to school, walk to the market and earn money by carrying heavy things from one place to another on their heads. We saw one guy having a bag that needed two people to lift to help him get it on his head. He then headed up a very steep hill. When I looked at the strain on people’s faces, it reminded me of the really tough days in the army when we were carrying 60+kg of weapons, water, ammunition etc up hill and down dale, and we had to dig really deep to get through it. It felt really, really tough. Perhaps I had to really dig deep for a sustained period less than 100 times in a 17 year career. These people do it for 30 years, every single day.
We really, really don’t know what hard work is:
I had a tough day at the office today; loads of emails.
I had a tough day at work too. I carried 70kg on my head to 10 miles of hilly dirt road, but I got $1.
I had a tough day today; the boss wasn’t very pleasant.
I had a tough day too. I pushed on my bike so many huge bunches of bananas for 30km, I couldn’t fit on the bike and every step up hill took all my effort.
I had a tough day in the office to day; back to back meetings that didn’t achieve very much.
I had a terrible day today. No large weights to carry, no banana bunches to push, so no money; I don’t know what my kids will eat tonight.
It is either despite this, or because of this that people are charming, friendly and helpful and makes a visit really interesting and rewarding.
Besides the car crap, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in both countries. You have to understand you are in Africa so there are shortages, roads are crap (in Rwanda the main roads are good, pretty much empty cars) and people can be a bit unreliable and if you do you’ll be fine. Some of the frustration came from peoples desire to not give you bad news, so they will say what they think will make you happy.
It really does feel like an adventure too. It’s not completely mad and difficult like some places can be, but it is a different culture, a challenge and a very different environment. We really want to go back, spend more time and actually do the camping thing properly.
We have considered the pros and cons of the self drive thing and concluded we would do it again. The breaking down was a pain, but through it we got to meet lots of new people and see the very best in the local community. We got to change plans, stop where we wanted, eat alone without the need for small talk to a driver and mostly feel in control.
If it’s not on your holiday radar, give it some thought.
Going Back to Kigali
Rwanda or Uganda for a Gorilla Trek?
So, having done both, how do they compare? If we were to do it again, what would we do differently?
Firstly, I do not think it is necessary to do it twice. Once is magical and the memories will stay with me for a long, long time (and Facebook will remind me every year). Secondly, I do not think that ‘earning the right to see gorillas’ adds anything to the experience. Once you have walked an hour or so in the forest, you know you are somewhere very different and special. Walking 5 hours just makes you tired. If you want to do two different things; combine a hard trek through challenging terrain with seeing the Gorillas, go to Nkuringo, but I recommend keeping the activities seperate.
Also, whilst we only saw a particular family, on a particular day with a particular guide, so know that all these variables can change, the Rwanda experience was better organised, the guide more knowledgeable and communicative and the terrain meant that once we found the family, it was much easier to see what they were doing and the interaction was much better. It may be different with the other families on the northern edge of Bwindi.
The Rwandan permit is almost 3 times the price of the Ugandan one ($1500 v $600), so that is a real factor. Why? Everything is more expensive in Rwanda, but the plan is to use the money to buy land from farmers and increase the size of the park. Thanks to the great work of the authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the population of gorillas is on the up. The downside is that now, fights over territories between families have led to an increase in the deaths of Silverbacks. To grow the population more, they need more land. I am happy for my $s to support that. That said, whatever you do is magical, a privilege and totally worth it.
In the early part of our adventure I posted an article on LinkedIn about the benefits of a sabbatical to both employee and employer. One of the points I made was that it helps people get used to change, to adapt, to absorb other perspectives and to think on your feet. After 10 months of adventure we are pretty good at all this stuff and I felt that I may be getting a bit numb to it all. Enter Rwanda.
One day I was driving down the familiar and beautiful roads of Wiltshire, the next, we were walking through the streets of Kigali and we weren’t numb at all.
Rwanda is unquestionably 2 things; hilly and green. Everywhere we look, we see, walk up, drive up to, is covered in green. If you like green, it is perfect. I like green.
Whilst my exposure to Africa is reasonably limited, it is enough to have preconceptions, mostly around chaos, noise, rubbish and a lack of safety. Kigali fuels none of these. It is clean, relatively ordered, friendly, picturesque, mounted on many, many hills and we felt safe. There are lots of quiet streets, good housing, restaurants and bars. We were happy to walk the streets before & after dark as well as get the ubiquitous Mototaxis, small motorbikes that you jump on the back of and weave through the traffic on. The thing I wish we hadn’t done is read about the mototaxis before we got on them after dinner and learned that you are 300 times more likely to die on one than is a car taxi, and the good riders don’t operate after dark as they think it is too risky…….. We made it though.
A bit of a disappointment was our hotel. Remember in the 70’s and 80’s, at the height of the package tour to Spain ramp up, we used to read about “Barry and his family of 7” who arrived in Benidorm for their 2 weeks, all inclusive holiday for £25 and were horrified to find that their hotel was’t finished? Well, if you feel a bit of nostalgia for that, I can recommend The Nest in Kigali. It lacked curtains and a closing bathroom door amongst other things…. I was a bit amused when I asked a team of blokes filling a pick up truck with bricks outside our room at 10pm to stop and said ‘This is a hotel, not a building site”, and he smiled and replied, ‘well it is also a building site’.
It’s hard to call it a highlight, but the Genocide memorial is a really important place to visit. The story of the genocide is horrific and well told here. It is a graphic illustration of what people can do when politicians make them believe someone else is the enemy. The language they used in the early days of social conditioning is the same language that our politicians and commentators are using now (Trump, Farage, Morrison, Dutton, Katy Hopkins, Johnston, Fox News etc). We shouldn’t take it for granted that we are different and would never sink to such depths.
From Kigali he headed south to Nyungwe national park in a Rav 4 we had hired for our trip. More about that later, but at this point the experience caused us to leave Kigali 2.5 hours later than planned, so we had to drive for 5 hours straight to get to the park office to check in for the next days Chimpanzee trek before it closed at 5. We made it with 4 minutes to spare, discovered that we had a 5.30am meet the next day then headed off to find a campsite. We found one in the gardens of an ok guesthouse that had not had power for three days, and set up our tent. It then became apparent that the hire company had given us a tent for one person, with no guy ropes, 3 pegs and a broken pole. Luckily, we could hire a dark room with cold water and they let us cook our scoff on the patio. Not quite the night under the stars we wanted…… but it rained like hell, so perhaps it was for the best.
The chimp trek was fun but challenging, bashing through thick forests and down steep hills. We saw the little blighters but only a few in the trees. They are so agile.
From there we headed north to Kibuye on the shore of the massive Lake Kivu and found a lovely campsite on the edge of a hill overlooking the lake……and hired another room for two nights.
It is a beautiful area and we spent the day on the lake with Emmanuel from Blue Monkey Tours, climbing hills on islands, visiting monkeys with blue balls, swimming and enjoying this spectacular setting. We went back out with him at night to watch the singing fishermen leave at sunset to go fishing for the night. Armed with a bag of wine, we cruised next to them and had a perfect evening.
A backdrop to this was more car issues…… more about that later.
From Kibuye we headed 4.5 hours north to the Volcanoes national park where we were to spend three nights whilst we visited Golden Monkeys on one day and Mountain Gorillas the next. We were due to stay in a campsite for one night and a nice guesthouse on the edge of the park for two more. The lack of a tent on the first night and the fact that the nice villa had a leaking roof meant that we actually stayed in a small B&B in Musanze, hosted by Jane from Bradford and her husband Issac (Volcano view B&B) and, through the two days of car based fiasco that followed, could not have been better looked after.
Our first trek, to see the golden monkeys, was well organised, straight forward, reasonably easy and hilarious. They are such cute creatures and the family we saw were completely unfazed by humans. They also pee on you. Not on purpose but there are a lot of them and they sit in trees and pee a lot.
The second trek was the main event; to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary with a visit to the mountain gorillas. It was a reasonably challenging 1.45 hrs until we found them, walking through fields, rainforest, massive nettles and mud before we came across the family we had been looking for, and we then had the most magical hour with them.
There were three silverbacks (the oldest in the area, at 47, his son and heir and a bald one called Big Ben). Big Ben was not a catch for the ladies but also in the group was a lady who had lost a hand to a poaching snare, who was not a catch for the men, so she and Big Ben were having an elicit affair…
There was a baby of 5 months old, other youngsters and some juveniles, all of which were playful and interesting. They either ignored us (the silverbacks were brilliant and pretending we weren’t there) or played around us. We smiled so much our faces ached. They are so gentle, but so big and powerful, so strange but also rather familiar. I can’t imagine the interaction we had with them getting any better. But we had committed to try.
Our last dash to the UK was a little hectic. The prime reason to be there was Katy’s 40th and Ed & Emma’s wedding, both in Southwold, Suffolk. We also had to pick up a bunch of stuff from various places around England and get it to our removers in Swindon, whose 5th job for us was to ship some of the furniture I had inherited from Mum back to Oz, so we decided to put some of the stuff we weren’t in a hurry for in there too (if you ever need a remover in the Wiltshire area, you can’t go wrong with Kingsley and the team at New Horizons).
We spent the first night with Mel in London (after dashing around town trying to get cameras repaired and finding shoes and hats for the wedding), enjoyed a great curry, some lovely Guinness in a proper boozer on a long spring evening (it made me rather nostalgic about London), then did some ridiculous dancing back at Mels.
Then it was off to Southwold. I didn’t know the area, largely because it’s friggin hard to get to. Our first stop was Ipswich to pick up my morning suit and that’s a town that doesn’t make you want to hang around. As it was a hot day, shirts appeared optional and the shirtless option is invariably taken by those who really should stay covered. There was also a group of about 15 old people standing around the car park ticket machine, getting militant about the new machines that required them to punch in their cars registration numbers first. Those that could read the instructions couldn’t remember the numbers, and those who got that far couldn’t see the letters and numbers on the keys. It was carnage. Those in the queue entertained each other with car park ticket related stories, like the time Mabel went to the hospital for a 4 hour appointment, but it only took one hour……and she’d already payed for 4 hours parking. Fascinating……. It was an interesting way for me to spend 15 minutes of my finite life….
Getting closer to Southwold, we could why people love it, and when I went on a run the next day beside canals, through fishing villages and along the the Southwold promenade, I had my love for the English countryside reinforced.
It was great catching up with the family for Katy’s birthday on night one. Besides Nic, Jodie and I, it was exclusively Lewis and Caths immediate family so we felt very privileged to be invited. It could only have been better if Katy was there too!! That’s right; a very ill husband and a very young child was a combination not compatible with a flight from their home in Milan. Lets hope we can do something before her 50th.
The wedding the following day was pretty much the perfect English wedding. It had all the right ingredients; a beautiful church, a sunny day, a reception in a converted barn set in English farmland, great food and booze, superb speeches (the Best Man really, really nailed it), some great bad dancing but most importantly a bride and groom who clearly loved each other, were best of friends and had lovely friends.
It was great to see John, Pauline, Caroline and the extended family and it was also the first family gathering I had been too without Mum. As she was a big character there was something missing. The slight tension between J and Mum, and constant trips to the bar to ensure Mum was topped up was also missing but I think we would have all preferred to have her celebrating with everyone else.
J ensured that the evening ended in style. On return to the hotel, feeling a bit peckish, she and Nic mounted a restaurant raid, figuring that cereals and stuff maybe left out overnight. The good news is that she was right. The bad news was that the doors were alarmed..... Think wailing noise, owner having to come out and me coming downstairs to see the staff checking the CCTV. J fessed up and they had a reasonable sense of humour about it. It reminded me of kitchen raids in Officers Messes we used to mount as drunken, young, hungry officers.......... Quote from a chef, shouted in the kitchen ‘And the fuckers have nicked all the bacon as well!’.
The wedding and Southwold
From Southwold we made a dash across to Bristol for a night with Guy and Lou. Guy had been a little unwell and a little grumpy at the Tower, so I was determined to see if the grumpiness was related to the illness or a new permanent state. Fortunately it was the former. It was lovely to see them both, Georgina and the Rampe, pride and joy; the garden.
Then a final night in the UK with Nik and Jacqui in Netheravon. Tom and Fiona also came over and we had a pleasant evening BBQ (and it stayed warm and sunny), chatting, drinking and having an occasional jump on a trampoline. There, I ‘enjoyed’ my last run in the UK. Netheravon is on the edge of the huge military training area of Salisbury Plain, a place I know well. It’s a bit of a obstacle for most people as live firing and fast moving armoured vehicles provide plenty of hazards so often you can’t use the roads on the edge of it. To cut a long story short, at the 10km point with two to go, I found myself blocked by red range flags and two choices; another 10km running or asking Jacqui to come and pick me up………. Thank you Jacqui.
After a nip into the storage centre in Swindon, we hit Gatwick and on to the African stage of our adventure with a flight to Kigali in Rwanda on Rwandair.
The Palace of Versailles was high up on ‘my places to visit’ list. The treaty thing, the opulence, the fact they used to shit in the corridors, these things all fascinated me (when they were a bit short of cash, they announced that they would only clear shit from the corridors once a day). The closest I had got to it was a couple of years ago, when I was invited fo a small conference to be held in the grounds. Unusually for Paris, very deep snow scuppered the meeting and we ended up cramming into the front room of my bosses house in a nearby village. This time, we were determined to get there so booked 4 nights in a small hotel (thanks air miles) in the town. We also got to meet up with my old boss Chris and his wife Claudie for cheese and wine in slightly more relaxed and roomy circumstances.
The town of Versailles is as beautiful as it is dull. Once you’ve seen the palace and had a wander around the town you are left with a a very conservative and expensive French town. Think Cheltenham.
I did love the palace though. It, and the gardens are truly magnificent and a great testament to what you can do when you have despotic rulers who spend all their country’s money on shiny things and their mates whilst not giving a dam about the starving population.
The scale is incredible; we spent a day there and didn’t see it all. One of the best bits is the queens village, built to help Marie Antonette feel at home. It was built in the style an old English village, by someone who had either never seen an old English village or had consumed a fuck load of drugs beforehand. It’s more twee than a toilet roll cover made from doilies.
When there, I discovered that it is possible to get in early in the morning and run around the grand canal and adjoining farmland without paying an entrance fee, so whilst running around the town is a bit shit, my following mornings run was rather wonderful.
The Palace and around
When not cutting around Versailles we went back into Paris, a short train ride away. We revisited L’Orangarie museum, a small place that is the home to two huge versions of Monets Waterlillies. Like the garden, it is a place that we can sit for an hour just absorbing them.
We also revisited a restaurant that we have had a bit of crush on – Relais de la Venise. They exist in London and Paris and have a fairly straight forward format; you get a green salad to start with, heaps of lovely French bread then entrecôte, sauce and chips, followed by a very limited selection of desert. The only real decision to make is how you want your steak cooked. If you are a veggie, you get a heap of cheese. My crush wore off a bit as I realised that the formula also includes cramped tables and very off hand service. I think it always has been like that - what has changed is my tolerances/grumpiness.
Another revisit was to the beautiful monument to stained glass that is Sant Chapelle. The last time we were on the way there, I got the ‘get home quickly’ call as Mum had taken a turn for the worse and became a day I won’t forget as I didn’t make it.
We do love Paris. Every time we go, we find new interesting areas, we eat well and learn loads. On this occasion we visited the area north of the massive Eglise Saint-Eustache with it’s great cafes, and restaurants and the most disappointing ‘tower’ you will ever come across (there is an old manor house/ museum that was a tower which is not only lower than most buildings in the area but you can’t actually ghetto out at the top),
It was a lovely few days and sometimes I think maybe I should’ve learnt French after all.
Day trips to Paris