MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

On the Trail of the Incas

Walking up the three steps to the hotel lobby was exhausting. It had been a long haul to get there, and my body was tired and struggling to cope with the sudden jump to 12,565 ft (3829 m) above sea level. After 4 flights and many sweaty hours, I had finally reached my first bed, only to be waylayed by the hotel staff as they sat us down and forced us to drink coca tea. I just wanted a good night’s sleep, but was assured that this fine beverage was the be-all and end-all of altitude sickness cures; the locals swear by it. The locals are also acclimatised, so have nothing to go on.

I had left Glasgow the day before on flight number 1 to London. Shortly after I was on flight number 2 to JFK, sat next to the fattest man I’ve ever had the ‘joy’ to sit beside. It took 1.5 hrs of being herded like cattle by the grumpiest and most humourless Americans I’ve ever come across, just to get my passport checked and my fingerprints scanned. By the time I was on flight number 3 to Lima, I was getting smelly and irritable. Thankfully, having been met at the airport, our group was transferred to a hotel for a quick shower before being transferred back to the airport for flight number 4. Departing Lima, the plane headed east over the mountains. We were flying to Juliaca via Cuzco, and this turned out to be one of my favourite landings ever. I had spent the flight chatting to an Australian who was over on holiday, and as we started our descent into Cuzco, it became obvious that he had a slight fear of flying. It turned out that due to the weather conditions of the region, the Cuzco airport is usually closed to flights after 4pm, and it was getting close to that time as it was. The descent involved a sharp drop into the valley for a short run-up to the runway. Houses became visible in the windows, and the ground was not far off, when suddenly the plane accelerated and ascended again, banking sharply: it had overshot the runway. This amused me greatly, but did nothing to calm the nerves of my companion. Second time lucky, we landed, waited for the embarkations/disembarkations to complete, and then we were off again, heading south-east towards Juliaca.

The altitude was hard to deal with. Our room in Puno was on the second floor, and I had to get the lift. Walking even a block left me short of breath and exhausted. I felt pathetic. Thankfully, the temperatures were mild, never adding to the general level of discomfort. We enjoyed visiting the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca to visit the locals who live out there, and nearby Silustani, a burial site from before the Inca era. I felt ill the first couple of nights, but thankfully as we drove away from Puno a few days later, I started to feel a bit more sprightly.

 

This mountainous region was pure alpaca and llama country. They were everywhere, with a few guanacos for good measure. The locals were colourfully dressed in the traditional guise, and everyone was so cheerful and friendly. I had been lazy with my Latin-american Spanish, so I knew little for conversing. Passing through the high pass of Abra la Raya at 14,170 ft (4319 m), we got to stretch our legs in awe of the snow-capped peaks around us. Continuing onwards on our long day of travel, we stopped at the Raqchi ruins near the Urubamba river. The main component of the ruins is the Temple of Wiracocha, and surrounding it are various buildings which were previously used as storehouses, living quarters and even a ceremonial bath. This was the first of our many insights into Inca life.

 

Cuzco was a lovely city. Our hotel was up a hill and up a large flight of steps. Whilst my adjustment to the altitude was progressing, I still continued to feel breathless by the time I reached the top. Cuzco is the former capital of the Inca Empire, and is surrounded by many examples of Inca architecture. The best, and the most awe-inspiring is that at Sacsayhuaman (sounding very much like sexy woman when spoken with a latino tongue) on the outskirts of the city. Large, shaped boulders form the walls and staircases of the massive complex. As with all Inca structures, the boulders have been perfectly shaped and slotted together, fitting neatly round the natural rocks and landscape, with no mortar or binding agent visible between them… and nobody knows how they did it. That is part of what makes their sites incredible, but the sheer scale of the walls at Sacsayhuaman are particularly impressive. Climbing up and looking back towards the south-east, Cuzco and the suburbs sprawl away in the valley below.

 

The following day marked our introduction to the Inca style of terracing. The countryside of the region is littered with hillside terraces, many of which are still used for agriculture today. The winding road above Pisac showed up several of these, and the main ruins at the top marked a path which hugged the hillside, and made me wary of the height against the valley floor below. Without barriers to break a fall, it was a case of mind over matter to negotiate some of the narrower, steeper sections on the trail to Intihuatana where the Temple of the Sun overlooks the valley below. Often trailing behind the main group, I missed out on hearing a lot of the history lessons. I therefore didn’t really understand what a lot of the buildings were or what they represented, but I was impressed not only with their architectural skills but their choice of builds in terms of the view. The panoramas afforded from many of the high ruins were spectacular.

 

Deciding to hike the Inca Trail is an easy decision. Getting fit for hiking the Inca Trail is easy in theory, but when laziness gets in the way, it results in a rather poor training programme. As a generally active person, I wasn’t expecting to have too many problems. Straight away though, the altitude had hit me more than I could have anticipated, such that I felt generally weak after very little exercise. Easing into the exercise side of the holiday, we enjoyed a white water raft (grade 3) down the Urubamba river. Split into 2 rafts, people were either falling into the river over the rapids, or they were being pushed in when the occupants of the neighbouring raft were feeling vindictive with their oars. By the end of the trip, I was the only dry one among us. It was obvious on the looks of the faces of my companions, that there was no way I was making it to the shore dry. Opting to take control, I rolled backwards off the raft and ended up waist deep in the cold river. The ensuing picnic was an absolute treat.

After an overnight stay in Pisac, in an effort to gauge our relative strengths as a group hiking, our guide took us on a day hike heading away from the Urubamba river and up the mountain to the village of Chincherro, nearly 3000 ft (900 m) above our starting point. It was a false start, meandering through a village and past farmland at the bottom, before suddenly ascending steeply up through the trees, and up the valley wall. Whilst not last, I lagged far behind the leaders, and I was utterly ashamed at my lack of fitness, and cursing myself at my lack of training. Our guide looked a little concerned with the two of us that lagged far behind, and made several comments about the Inca trail being much tougher than this. I was starting to get worried. Reaching Chincherro at 12,335 ft (3759 m) it quickly became bitterly cold as the hours passed. Staying in one of the village houses, there was no heating, and we had to sleep with the blankets piled high on the bed. Getting motivated to get out the next morning was difficult.

 

The reward for getting out of bed was a day on the saddle. Mountain biking through the Sacred Valley took us past more Inca ruins, this time the circular terraces of Moray, then on down steep-sided ravines, and through the countryside with the Urubamba mountains watching over us. Reaching the salt pans at Salineras, the trail became increasingly dangerous to go at speed, and the condition of the trail deteriorated. Not being confident enough, I opted to get the bus down the final descent whilst the others continued on the trail. Meeting them at the bottom, one of them had come off his bike half-way down and had multiple lacerations on his lower leg. Nothing too serious but for the fact that he knew he was going to have to hike with a large cut on his ankle. Luckily between us all, we had a pretty good first aid supply. Enjoying some local brew at a guinea pig farm, we headed on towards our final sleeping place prior to starting the Inca Trail.

 

Ollantaytambo was great. The showers (our last for nearly a week) were great, and the village nestled at the bottom of steep slopes from which overlooked the ruins of Ollantay, the only stronghold to resist the Spanish invasion. The climb up the many steps of the fortress was exceedingly steep, but the view over the town and the surrounding area was beautiful. Small in size, the village was great for wandering around solo, but it was inundated with foreigners all there for the same reason. This was our last stop for picking up much needed supplies of water prior to starting the Inca trail. Thankfully we started out quite late on in the day. This meant that the vast majority of the other hikers doing the trail had already left, and we found the early stages of the trail to be quiet, and we essentially had it all to ourselves.

 

Stopping for the obligatory photo opportunity at KM 82, we continued on, starting our ascent, and eventually leaving the Urubamba river behind as we passed the Llaqtapata ruins on our way to our first campsite. The ruins were the first time we saw any other hikers, and they again left ahead of us. We had the campsite to ourselves as those that had set off earlier in the day would have continued on to a higher altitude. The nights were cold and dark, but with the heat of exertion, the days felt very warm. With all the calorie burning, meal time was an utter joy, and we grew to love our porters for their tasty dishes and their help with the carriage of all our stuff. They ran nimbly along the Inca trail, leaving us far behind in order to get the next camp site set up and have a hot meal waiting for us on arrival. I remember sitting down for that first dinner on that first night and thinking they were crazy for having cooked so much food. As we tucked in, it quickly became clear how much need for food intake, and high calorie food intake at that, we required to balance out the spent energy on a high altitude hike. Our bodies were at high capacity output to keep us moving in such relatively thin air.

 

The second day marked the start of the steep ascents, and the entry into sub-tropical vegetation. The mountains were angular and domed, disappearing for miles in every direction, and for the most part covered in thick vegetation away from the cleared paths. On several occasions throughout the whole hike, steps from, or a fork in the path was evident, but it would only go as far as a few yards before the vegetation swallowed them up. There are many paths from the Inca times, and so few of them have been explored. One of our rest stops on day 2, was essentially our last place of ‘civilisation’ until we hit Macchu Picchu. A small village with hens and goats running around, it also boasted a ‘shopping centre’, essentially a hole in the wall with bottled water and juice visible, and a hand-painted sign above stating “SHOPING [sic] CENTER: WE ACCEPT VISA, MASTERCARD”.

The epitome of day 2 was the campsite at Llulluchapampa at 12,500 ft (3810 m). With the increasing gradient of the hike, I was starting to lag behind again. One of the last to reach the campsite, we found our tents had been erected at the edge of a terrace, such that the view from the entrance to the tent was of the valley below and the mountains around it. Waking early, we watched the morning shadow sweep across the mountain range opposite until the sun spilled over the peak above us and warmed us up. This third day was the toughie. Only briefly paying it any attention the evening before, the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass was now towering over us. Continuing on the steep ascent, the rising sun warmed us, and by the time we’d reached the sign for 4000 m (13,123 ft), both jumpers and jackets were off. Pushing on ever upwards, I was again the second last to reach the highest pass on the trail at 13,829 ft (4215 m), and with the wind rushing over the summit pass from the valley below, it quickly became really cold. After taking photographs, the trail fell steeply away down the next valley, with the view of the ascent up the other side visible from the offset. It was slightly disheartening going all the way down, when we knew we had to climb all the way back up again at the other side.

Descending down to Pacaymayo at 10,707 ft (3263 m) had me ahead of the group for once. Going downhill, I’m like a mountain goat, skipping and hopping away. I quickly lost the advantage when the uphill section commenced again, and once more I was near the back of the group, slowly hauling myself back up to the Runkuracay Pass at 12,962 ft (3950 m). Descending again, we hit the masses of other hikers that had set off ahead of us. The crowds were wandering round the ruins of Sayaqmarka and the campsite further along the trail on the opposite side of the valley. This was the biggest gathering of hikers we had seen since we had set off. It is where the high pass trail and the standard trail come together, so there were masses of people congregating everywhere, sharing their collective stories. We even bumped into some people that had shared that enjoyable plane ride into Cuzco, including the Australian, who seemed much more at ease.

The next section of the trail was probably my favourite. At times feeling like hiking through a jungle of vegetation, and others on open sections where the immense drop was all too obvious, the landscape and flora were just incredible. The surrounding mountains rolled away into the distance, all green with thick vegetation, and the clouds danced around the summits. Reaching one viewpoint in particular, we were all mesmerised by the scene in front of us. The size of the mountains were spectacular, and it made me feel so small and insignificant, and I was so giddy to be there in such a place. The giddiness was to get even worse when we came across our final campsite. Sitting above the ruins of Phuyupatamarka at >12,000 ft (3657 m), the campsite was spread out across the varying tiers of the summit, spanning out onto the varying precipices. I adored this campsite. The view was phenomenal, there were small walks spanning out in all directions to reach different viewpoints with alternate perspectives, and in the morning on the fourth day, we awoke above the cloud base. Our whole group wandered round that morning, camera on standby, taking photos left right and centre, excitedly chatting about the sight below us, of the morning shadows creeping over the neighbouring mountains, and the cloud base that lay beneath us.

 

That morning, we said goodbye to our porters who had, without word of complaint, carried our belongings, tents and cooking equipment, up and down the trail like a mountain goat. We would get one last hearty meal from them further down the trail, but other than that, they were heading home to meet the next batch of hikers. We posed for a ‘team’ photograph before setting off. Descending down the steep steps past the ruins, we passed through the cloud and out the other side. The final day’s trek was a dawdle compared to the rest. For the most part descending, surrounded by jungle, we passed through an Inca tunnel, carved out of rock. Passing more ruins, we eventually hit the fork which leads to Winay Wayna. It is mainly a deep slope of agricultural terraces, but the view from the doorway looks down over the Urubamba river, our first sighting of it since we had left KM 82 a few days before. Heading back onto the main trail, we continued for a few more miles until we reached the steep steps towards Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Crawling up on hands and knees, I was more than relieved to reach the top, and was quickly rewarded by stepping through the sun gate, and glancing Macchu Picchu below. I was ecstatic and again giddy with joy. I had wanted to do the Inca trail for about 3 years, and here I was finally looking down on it with just a short hike to go before I’d be on the hallowed ground. What irritated me, and burst the bubble slightly, was the windy road up the hillside from the valley floor with the buses visible, crawling round the bends. Here was another major historical site being ruined by tourism. Slightly hypocritical since I too was there for touristic reasons, and I too was impacting on the environment by hiking along the heavily-used trails, but it irked me to see all the lazy (or possibly infirm) people being deposited at the ‘front door’ without having had to break out in a sweat. I felt self-conscious walking amongst them, dirty and smelly from the trail. I was triumphant, but it was marred slightly by the mass of people that swarmed over the site like flies.

After a brief wander round the upper terraces overlooking the main site, we ourselves boarded the bus to head down to Aguas Calientes where we could enjoy our first shower in 4 days. Unfortunately, the hot water didn’t last long enough for us all to enjoy it equally. After a quick wander round the tacky tourist shops, we headed out for dinner to celebrate. The alcohol was flowing, but as I had spent the whole holiday on antibiotics, I hadn’t touched a drop, favouring instead the neon Inca Cola. Even our guide was getting merry, and after a few hours, the group split up, and I headed back to the hotel whilst the others stayed out on the town. It was to be an early rise in the morning to get back up to Macchu Picchu to watch the sun rise. Awakening on time, and waiting in the lobby of the hotel, our group slowly convened, minus the guide and one other. Stories abounded of the guide’s behaviour in the night, and it turned out that he had got locked out of the hotel, and had drunkenly smashed in the window in order to get back in. The hotel manager was not impressed, and our guide himself, was rather sheepish when he eventually appeared. Heading back up to the historical site, there followed one of the worst guided tours I’ve ever been on. Normally so informative, he was in such a hungover state, that his musings were garbled, disjointed and brief. I was finding it hard to hide my annoyance. More than once I thought out loud about the fact that I had waited 3 years to get there, and my guide wasn’t sober enough to do his job properly.

Thankfully though, there was enough time to explore on my own. As a group, we headed up Wayna Picchu, the peak behind the ancient city, and visited the temples at the top. The hike itself was more of a mental challenge than anything else. Very steep, but with no barrier, and at times, there were ropes screwed into the rock to give a hold whilst climbing up some of the steeper sections. It was nerve wracking when people appeared trying to descend, at times it was only wide enough for one. At the top though, the view was spectacular, overlooking the ‘lost city’, the valley below and the mountains beyond. In places, I had a slight struggle with vertigo, and as a result, I couldn’t follow the whole path round the top, opting to turn back and go back the way I came. Slightly annoyed with myself at missing out on part of the site, I at least got to see that view. Back in the city, I had several hours to myself after the guide left to go and sleep. Lost in a reverie, I wandered along terraces, through old buildings, up and down stairs, dodging llamas and tourists alike, taking hundreds of photos, and also pausing for endless moments to simply absorb the view. Every turn showed up something different, every angle gave a new perspective. Whilst I felt it was in part ruined by the overwhelming number of tourists and the resultant road carved out of the hillside like a scar, it nevertheless left me in awe, and again left me giddy as I pinched myself that I was really there. That I had made it after all the planning, and that here I was wandering around and looking down upon, such a famous piece of history. Those that have visited somewhere they’ve only previously dreamt of, will know how I felt that day. They will understand why a smile kept creeping across my face; why I felt like jumping up and down every few minutes; and why I sat for an age just staring at the place. It took a lot of effort to make myself leave.

Our last night in Cuzco was our last night as a group. The following day, a few people were heading onto the Amazon rainforest, the rest of us were heading back to Lima for our flight back to the UK. We treated ourselves to the Peruvian specialty of guinea pig. Wood-fired, oven roasted guinea pig. Just the look of it on the plate, sent me into a fit of giggles, and in my attempt to hold it up to have a photograph taken, the leg fell off. This made me giggle even more. There is very little meat on a guinea pig, and frankly it wasn’t worth fighting to get it off the bone. Always eager to try local cuisine, I was rather disappointed, and slightly disgusted with this one. Not even the ‘salad’ was edible: what seemed to be a raw potato and a few green leaves. Followed by a few Macchu Picchu cocktails, it was time to head back to bed.

The flight out of Cuzco was uneventful, and the three of us that headed back to Lima got a brief tour of the city’s landmarks before being left to our own devices. We wandered around the shopping district, then headed down to Miraflores to La Rosa Nautica. I had read about it in the in-flight magazine where it was reported as being the former mafia hangout. Now, it is a seafood restaurant with the most divine menu I have ever set eyes on. We all ate like the kings and queens we felt we were in that place, and we left satisfied. Bidding farewell, we said our goodbyes to another group member, and then there were just 2 of us to head to the airport.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again flying via JFK, we this time had time for a stop over in Manhattan. Heading into the central district, we spent a few hours wandering around central park, before heading down to Times Square, and round past the Empire State building before heading back to Central station, and then back to the airport. It was raining, misty and grey, and the top of the Empire State building wasn’t even visible from street level. I got the fridge magnet, so that is as much of a visit to the Big Apple as I feel the need to make.

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Drinking Tea With Elephants

After finally regaining the lost weight post-Delhi Belly, I decided it was time to head back to Asia. My favourite part of the flight to Colombo was the external cameras on the plane’s nose and nose wheel, which gave a bird’s eye view of the world below. The flight plan took us via Male in the Maldives, so on approach, we could watch a world of coral atolls pass by below. Beautiful deep and pale blue waters surrounded clear sandy beaches as far as the camera’s eye could see. It’s the only flight I’ve been on that has had cameras on the plane like that, and it’s a pity that it wasn’t on some other routes I’ve been on since.

The first day in Sri Lanka was spent wandering along the sandy beach outside our hotel, with the warm waters of the Indian Ocean lapping at the shore next to us. After a much needed sleep, we visited the local fish market with its pungent aroma and myriad of fish species, many of which I had never seen before, and some of which, even to this day, I have no idea what they were. It was a hive of activity, not just for the local people, but also for the local cat population that paraded amongst the stalls looking for scraps.

 

Wary of repeating the previous year’s gastroenteritis, I was very cautious with my introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine. Playing it safe the first night in Negombo, I was a bit more relaxed the next day, and my friend Kat and I enjoyed some delicious food at a lovely roadside cafe. That second day was spent on a bus ride that would take the best part of the day. Throughout the bus ride, Kat’s complexion got whiter and whiter until eventually she had to jump off the bus in order to throw up. She curled up looking miserable, and I empathised with her greatly, memories of the utter misery coming back to me. Learning from my experience, I had at least equipped myself with a supply of anti-emetics, however, even these could not be kept down, and Kat proceeded to fill a few bags on route.

After what probably felt like the longest bus ride in the world for Kat, we arrived in Habarana. She curled up in a ball by the swimming pool whilst the rest of us went off to explore the park by elephant. It was the second time I’d ridden an elephant, but this time, rather than being hustled up a crowded road to a fort, it was a leisurely stroll through the vegetation, ducking under branches, and eventually going for a swim in a little lagoon. I even got to ‘drive’, sitting on his neck behind his ears and rubbing them as we walked. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked him by offering him his dinner. Kat was gutted to have missed it, but still felt rotten. There was still some driving to do before we reached our hotel for the next few nights, and understandably, she crawled straight into bed on arrival.

 

We stayed in the same region for a few days, which gave Kat time to recuperate. Thankfully, it was a quick recovery, and she was back on form within a few days. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was a short drive away, and lay nestled amongst the vegetation: a collection of palaces, temples and Buddhas. The remains were in apposition with trees and bushes, and running amongst them all were several troupes of toque macaques, who roamed the grounds with complete abandon, and unflustered by the myriad of wandering tourists in their domain. It was mesmerising to walk amongst the ruins and the grounds, and I could have easily spent all day there in a reverie, however the intense dry heat was oppressive and Kat and I both struggled as our Scottish genes failed to modulate our hydration and temperature. Keeping up with the constant loss of electrolytes was a challenge in that first week where we experienced the hottest temperatures.

 

Sigiriya is a fortress on top of a large rock which is visible for miles around. Stopping only briefly for some refreshments in the cafe by the bus stop, we started our trek through the gardens at the base of the rock, before starting the ascent up the side. The stairs were either carved out of the rock side, or man-made with metal gangways, and thankfully most of the initial climb up to the lower platform was in the shade, as it was another intensely hot day. The lower platform gave an amazing view over the gardens below and marked the starting point for the final ascent. The entrance to the palace at the top was designed to be a lion’s mouth. All that remains is the giant paws either side of the lower stairwell. Much of the staircase is missing, and as a result, parts of the upper climb are a bit of a scramble, clinging onto anything with purchase in order to let people pass in the other direction. The view from the palace summit is worth the effort, with a complete panorama of the surrounding region with lush vegetation visible as far as the eye can see, and some hills on the horizon. I was struck by how green Sri Lanka is, how lush the vegetation, something which contrasted to the part of India I had visited the year before. As a result of this vegetation, the wildlife was in abundance. From monkeys to monitor lizards, and fruit bats to giant squirrels, there was life everywhere. After spending some time at the top, we headed back down to the bus, passing the obligatory snake charmers which are as much a part of the scenery in Asia as the tourist attractions themselves are. As I often handle snakes through my work, I was deemed the best person to hold the snake for the obligatory photo opportunity.

 

The last day in the Habarana region was spent immersing ourselves in the local life. We hired some bicycles, and set off cycling through the local villages, watching the parents toiling the fields, and the children either playing by the stream, or helping their parents. We followed the flow of the river which left Habarana lake, and cycled for a few hours, enjoying the countryside. When we returned, we visited the lake-side to watch the fisherman bring in their catch, knowing that we would be eating them in just a few hours for our dinner. I can’t remember what kind of fish it was, but I know that I had never heard of it before, and it tasted delicious, even more so for knowing how fresh it was.

Our hotel was a conglomerate of wooden buildings over looking the lake, and it nestled neatly amongst the vegetation, such that it blended in well, and from the lake side it wasn’t too obvious. It had a spa suite attached to it, and whilst I’d never had a massage before, the recommendation of one of my travelling companions persuaded me to give it a go. I’m sure in normal circumstances, it would be the most relaxing massage ever, but it was difficult to completely relax when the only thing protecting your dignity was a flimsy curtain that failed to completely block off the rest of the room. There was no towel or drape, it was a case of lying completely naked on the board, either face down or face up. My masseuse spoke no English, but from her gesticulating, I could tell she was trying to get me to relax. I wasn’t as bothered when lying face down, but it was easier said than done when I was face up as I became acutely aware of every movement past the gap in the curtain. After the massage, I was shepherded into what can only be described as a giant coffin, with a hole at one end for my head to stick out, and essentially it involved lying on a wooden bench whilst hot coals steamed away underneath. It was at the limit of my heat tolerance, and I was glad to escape, only to be taken through to a giant jar of potpourri where I had to sit sweating amongst the intoxicating smell. It had been an awkward experience, and I gave the masseuse a rather large tip out of embarrassment. She looked at the note in abject horror, and her boss looked first at me in shocked disbelief, and then at her in a rather threatening manner. Whilst the conversion meant it was hardly anything in British pounds, I was immediately aware that this was probably the most she had ever held in her hand, and I hastened my exit, aware that I had clearly made some kind of faux-pas. I just really hope that she got to keep the money, and wasn’t made to hand it over to her boss the minute I left the building.

The day after the bike ride, we boarded the bus to leave Habarana behind and head on to Dambulla and then Kandy beyond. We were not long on the bus when we turned off onto a dirt track and pulled up by the side of a river. Confused, we got out, to be greeted by the sight of some elephants bathing in the river. It turned out that our guide had felt sorry for Kat missing out on the elephant ride, that he had had words with the local elephant herders, and arranged a visit for us whilst they were getting their daily bath. We hauled off our socks and shoes, rolled up our trousers, and waded in, gleefully washing behind their ears and rubbing their thick hides with water. They seemed to enjoy it as much as we did, and Kat was elated. We were both touched that the guide had put in such an effort for us.

 

Dambulla has an extensive cave temple complex that has been preserved well. It was a day of rain, and we climbed the steps to the temple through a heavy downpour. Littering the steps was hundreds of frangipani flowers. This was the first time I had seen these, and they were beautiful. They have subsequently become my favourite flower, and they were prevalent in many places in the southern half of Sri Lanka.

 

My main memory of Kandy was the fruit bats. There were thousands of them, either flying manically through the sky above our hotel at night, hanging from the trees in the city’s botanical gardens, or hanging fried from the electricity cables where they had gotten electrocuted on landing. Their silhouettes flitted across the night sky every night we were there. I loved lazing in the hotel pool in the dusk, watching them flying overhead.

 

I loved wandering around the botanical gardens, not so much for the plant life, but because of the couples that were clearly courting. It was a practice that was very evident in the cities. In the villages, things were still very much a case of being controlled by the father and brothers of the house. In the villages, when a girl hits puberty, she isn’t allowed to leave her room for a month, and only females of the house are allowed to look at her. In the city, this didn’t happen, but yet the younger couples, we were informed, were seen in public at their own risk, and they often went to the gardens amongst the tourists to get some privacy. They were only talking and holding hands, nothing more, but it was lovely to see the unfortunately old-fashioned behaviour of courting in full swing. It made many of us feel sad that this has all but died out in modern Britain. I always enjoy spending a few weeks without a mobile and internet access, and it was nice to see how romance would be in a life without emails and texting.

On the shores of the lake in the central of Kandy, lies the Temple of the Tooth, the city’s most famous landmark. Highly revered by the Buddhist community, it is a site of great importance to locals and foreign visitors alike. It is also a pick-pockets heaven, as I saw a couple of boys milling amongst the visitors to the temple trying to help themselves. On our last day in Kandy, we got treated to a dancing and fire-walking display, and we got to enjoy the adrenalin thrill that is a tuk-tuk ride. I had had that joy in Agra, India the year before, and in Sri Lanka we took several, but every time it feels like a theme park ride as the adrenalin surges whilst your driver ignores any road sense or oncoming traffic and proceeds to weave through the traffic around them, cutting corners, and occasionally mounting the verge.

 

Boarding our train in Kandy station, we headed through the most stunning scenery and amazing vegetation, climbing higher and higher up into the tea country. The night before I had pigged out at an expensive restaurant with their all-you-can-eat dessert menu so I was feeling slightly sorry for myself for the first half of the journey. The latter half, I spent a lot of time hanging out the doorway in awe at the view, taking pictures of all the tea fields that stretched for miles around. From the station at elevation, we then had a rather interesting bus ride winding even higher in altitude round the side of hills on single track roads. When traffic appeared in the other direction, it was a very precise, and very slow inching forwards on the edge of the road which usually had a sheer drop to the side. There was more than one occasion when looking out the window meant looking straight down a ravine, and knowing that the wheels of the bus were clinging on to the very edge of the road. It was a tense drive, and we were eternally grateful for the expertise of the bus driver. It is well known from news stories about tourists dying due to accidents on just these types of roads.

 

Nuwara Eliya was our high elevation base for exploring tea country. The tea fields spread for miles around and driving along the roads, it wasn’t hard to spot the pickers up the slopes deftly stripping the leaves for collection. We stopped for a tour of a tea factory and enjoyed a cup of freshly picked tea at the Lover’s Leap plantation on the Pedro Estate, 6200 ft above sea level. The temperature and humidity were noticeably different. Up here, the nights were cold, and it rained heavily and regularly. Waterfalls and streams littered the hillsides, and it was evidently clear why tea grew so well up here. Not normally a tea drinker, even I enjoyed the local tea, and brought a little crate of leaves back to Blighty.

 

Descending from these heights, we passed more and more mountains and valleys green with lush vegetation, and waterfalls and rivers abounded. The beauty of this small country never ceased to amaze me, and everywhere we travelled there were monkeys on posts or running through the tree tops.

 

The original plan had been to visit Yala National Park in search of leopards, however whilst we were at altitude, there was a Tamil-led massacre in that region, and a last minute change of plans instead took us to Bandarawela and onwards into Uda Walawe National Park. I was initially disappointed at missing the chance to see leopards as we were informed there were none in UWNP, but on arriving in the national park, I quickly forgot about any disappointment. The national park was stunning. There isn’t enough superlatives to describe a place as this, but within it we saw water buffalo, crocodiles, a jackal, eagles, and hundreds of wild Asian elephants. We spent hours on a game drive just watching as the elephants milled around in family units, wandering around the scrub land, and bathing in the lagoon. We even stumbled upon a very young baby that was shielded by it’s mother and older sister. Nearer Bandarawela was an elephant orphanage where we got to watch the youngsters that were being rehabilitated prior to being considered for release. It was amusing to watch the orderly queue at feeding time, and the greedy bullies that always tried to barge their way back for seconds.

 

After nearly 2 weeks inland, we finally hit the southern coast. A region devastated by the 2004 tsunami, there were scars of its destruction littered along the coastline for miles. Missing houses, wrecked boats, and holes in the vegetation were all still evident nearly 3 years on. Whole communities had been affected, and some small communities had been completely wiped out. Even our hotel was missing a section of its sea wall, and there were photos displayed in the hotel of the flooded grounds after the waves swept in. We visited a new housing project that was being funded with some of the money donated by international charities, and one of the families living within it was a pen-pal of one of our companions. The project was far from finished with just half the estate occupied, but many people from the community were helping to build it so that finally, those displaced by the tsunami, would once more have somewhere to call home.

 

We had a brief stop in Galle before visiting the Kosgoda turtle sanctuary, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. Fascinated as I am by marine life, it was a joy to visit the hatchery and the play pools where the baby turtles hung out prior to being released by moonlight at the local beach. In amongst the hatchlings were a few injured and rescued juveniles and adults, and the size difference to the babies was phenomenal. Unfortunately, the next batch of hatchlings to be released were going the following day, so we missed sharing the experience of their release into the Indian Ocean. They were absolutely adorable, and utterly cute.

 

The final day was a rather rushed affair. We got another train ride, passing the wreck of the train that was the grave for many people after the tsunami, and otherwise enjoying the coastal scenery, again evidence of the tsunami’s destruction evident over much of the route. We stopped at a lovely restaurant overlooking a river, and tasted some shark fillets. It tasted overwhelmingly of garlic so I have no idea what the shark actually tastes like, although I had been informed that it is usually cooked in garlic to mask the taste! On arrival back in Colombo, there was a brief tour of the capital city before we transferred to our final eating place prior to flying back to the UK.

 

Often referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka surprised me greatly. It was rich in both flora and fauna, and everybody was so friendly and eager to please. There was little of the oppressive begging that plagued my trip to India, and even the cuisine, whilst having some similarities to India, was much more delightful. In short, I loved Sri Lanka. It is a wildlife haven, and the scenery at every turn was beautiful, which means it thoroughly deserves it’s place on my list of places to go back to.

The Land of Tigers

By the time I’d taken a few steps, I could barely breath and my legs gave way underneath me. I sat down in the elevator and had to be helped out the door at the next floor. A paramedic was called, and I was given an oxygen mask and wheeled into the medic bay. A few phonecalls later, and I was being taken by ambulance to hospital. It’s the most ill I’ve ever felt in my life: dehydrated and dizzy, my body was giving in to whatever infection had invaded me, and it just couldn’t cope anymore. Unable to swallow, I was hooked up to an intravenous drip, and spent that Saturday night drifting in and out of a nauseating semi-sleep.

If I’d been shocked by those slums in South Africa, I was shocked by Delhi. It was the epitome of pollution and filth and utter chaos. Driving from the airport to our hotel, we passed elephants walking along the street with their cargo of wood, and weaving in and around the traffic were numerous noisy tuk tuks and scooters. If there were any driving laws, they were constantly flaunted. Red lights were ignored, right-of-ways were ignored, and oxen weaved in amongst the vehicles alongside people who seemed oblivious to the cars and buses and tuk tuks that fought to move round them. The pavements were littered with rotting waste, from which children and adults alike rummaged through looking for things of value or edibility. People would even openly relieve themselves in the middle of the road. In India, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. It was my first experience of the constant horn tooting that is so rife in Asia and parts of South America. It made a clamourous noise that pierced my soul and awoke me from my post-flight tiredness. Following a brief respite, we headed out into the city, and enjoyed a tour from the back of a bicycle, an experience which meant being stared at by a lot of people watching us pass, not to mention having to weave through the busy market streets that littered the side alleys of New Delhi. I was disheartened to see the infamous M logo outside a burger joint. America’s invasion is far reaching.

 

Away from Delhi, the countryside was beautiful, though scarred from countless droughts and floods reshaping the landscape. We stayed in the town of Nawalgarrh where the locals showed us their manual skills, weaving and making pottery, and we were welcomed into the local school where the children eagerly awaited gifts. Camel driving at sunset was an interesting way to spend one evening. At the train station, we were the only ‘westerners’ to be seen, and the locals formed a circle around us in order to stare unreservedly at us. They didn’t speak a word, but stood in silence staring at us in turn, until the train appeared and it was time to board. Even then, we received a lot of attention. Our first class seats were the equivalent of a European 3rd class, and whilst they were fine enough for us, it was obvious that those locals who could afford such ‘luxury’ were very privileged. In the lower classes, people were crammed into the carriages like cattle, and people were forced to hang out the doorways and some sat on the roof.

 

For all my dislike of Delhi, I loved Jaipur. Heading into the land of the Maharajas, the palace and the observatory were glorious. Even our hotel was styled like a palace, and we had a lovely walled garden to enjoy the sunshine, overlooked by chipmunks and owls. Within the observatory, we were left in peace to marvel at the astrological devices of old, but outwith the grounds, we were hounded by beggars that wouldn’t leave us alone. It was difficult to turn a blind eye, but it was so incessant as to be a constant niggling annoyance for the whole holiday. Our guide insisted that we gave them nothing, it was a practice that was worsened by tourist generosity, and he enlightened us on the fact that many of the beggars were more than capable of working, and others were more than capable of stealing. Still, the sight of a man with such a crooked spine that he had to walk on all fours to get around, was a difficult sight to block out.

 

Away from Jaipur was the Amber Fort where I got to experience my first elephant ride. A 20 minute shuffle up the road to the Fort on the hill was a smelly affair, and a slow affair with countless elephants marching up and down the hillside. The view to the town below was delightful, and the intricacy of the design of the Fort was stunning. The many concubines and harem of the various maharajas through the years were gifted such beautiful gardens, and hallways lined with mirrors. From the walls, the macaques and langur monkeys played and surveyed their kingdom below.

 

The reason I had come to India, was to visit Ranthambhore National Park and go in search of wild Bengal tigers. A few months earlier, I had deliberated between going to Oman to go swimming with whale sharks or to go to Rajasthan to see the tigers. I quickly came to my senses given my general fear of swimming in water too deep to see the bottom, and booked the trip to India. It was an early rise for the first safari, and we weren’t disappointed. Fairly soon after entering the park, we happened upon a tigress who meandered in and around the bushes before disappearing. Following the road, we spotted deer and monkeys galore, and even a few terrapins lazing around a waterhole. Deeper into the thicket we spotted another tiger, this time a male. He sat, paws crossed, considering us from a distance, not moving apart from the occasional twitch in response to the offending flies that buzzed around. Eventually, perhaps bored with us, he stood up and walked away. Later on, we came across him again, and he once more lay down and lazed in the shade at a distance. He was beautiful, and it was hard to look away as we drove off and left him to his daydreams; watching him until we turned a corner and he was out of sight. Our second safari revealed no more tigers, but the abundance of langur monkeys stole the show.

 

Following a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, we continued on the Rajasthani triangle towards Agra. The city itself, whilst being nicer than Delhi, still holds nothing about it other than 1 of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. Built as a show of love by the emperor Shuh Jahan for his favourite wife, she never got to see it’s completion, dying during the birth of their 14th child. It became her final resting place, and it has since become a site of great pilgrimage as well as a world-recognised structure of great beauty. With everybody else, we arrived early to watch the marble change colour with the rising sun, before wandering around the gardens and onwards towards the main structure, the central dome. Amongst the tourists, the macaques watched on with vague levels of interest, the youngsters taunting passers by before running away scared if anybody reacted to their faked bravado. It was a day for becoming lost in a world of your own thoughts and reveries.

 

After 2 weeks, our group returned to Delhi. My roommate and I decided to treat ourselves at the coffee shop that was attached to the hotel, and we chatted over coffee and chocolate cake. We had a last dinner with our guide prior to one final sleep before heading to the airport. Both of us woke in the night with suspicious noises and flutters coming from our bellies. By morning, whilst not 100% well, we both felt that we had sorted ourselves out. At Delhi airport, we had a long wait. Having plugged myself with immodium, my stomach was doing mini back flips, but by the time we had boarded our scarcely filled plane back to London, it had quieted itself. My next move was the fatal one. I ate the food on the plane. Not only that, I ate the chicken curry option. Thankfully, the plane was half empty, because I was able to spend those moments where I wasn’t in the toilet throwing up, lying prostrate across a row of seats, clutching my belly willing to be home already. It was an 11 hour flight, of which I spent 6 hours in and out of the toilets bringing up every millilitre of fluid that my wretched body contained. I’m not proud of this, but I’m pretty sure I blocked a few of the sinks with it all, but the last thing I was considering was my fellow passengers. Eventually, after having been missing for some time, due to rocking back and forth on the toilet floor groaning, I was met by a knock on the door by the air stewardess asking if I wanted some flat lemonade to settle my stomach. No thanks.

After 6 hours of acute fluid loss, I struggled to stay in my seat when the seat belt sign came on for the descent into London. Focusing on my breathing, I waited on the plane until everybody else was off, and then I slowly put one foot in front of the other, and disembarked. It was quite clear very early on, that things were not going to go how I’d planned. I had a night booked in London, before I was to transfer to a different airport for my flight back to Scotland the next day. But after collapsing in the elevator, I found myself being stretchered into Hillingdon hospital, and put in a cubicle next to the Saturday night drunks. I had a fever, and when they tried to get me to drink some water to swallow a tablet, I threw up all over the cubicle floor. I spent the night being disturbed every hour to have my temperature checked and to ask me how I was feeling. The anti-emetic I was injected with burned in my vein and made me more dizzy.

The next day, the doctor deemed I was fit for discharge based on the fact that I could now swallow. I was taking up a bed, and he didn’t care that I was 400 miles from home and without my baggage as well as without a ticket home. There was no way I would make it to Stansted for my flight home now. I had little energy, and whilst the oral issue was sorted, the immodium had worn off, and I was under strict instructions not to take any more in an effort to let whatever had invaded me flush out the other end. Whilst not as ill as the night before, I felt miserable heading back to Heathrow airport to fetch my luggage. Now without a way home, I traversed the terminals in search of a ticket to Scotland. Unfortunately, I had chosen to fall ill on the bank holiday weekend, and all the flights were booked. There was only one ticket available in the whole airport, and it was a business class ticket to Edinburgh. At the time, I lived in Aberdeen, but my family was in Glasgow. Either of these would have been a better option, but in desperation, I paid the £230 fare just so that I could reach my home country. Ironically, as part of my business class ticket, I got access to the business class lounge which had unlimited complimentary snacks and drinks. In any other circumstances, I would have lapped it all up. Instead, I spent the time in the posh toilets, sat on the seat, willing the ground to swallow me up.

The ‘business class’ ticket was for an Embraer-ERJ plane, which means it is a row of single seats on the port side, and a row of double seats on the starboard side. It only contained 19 rows of seats, so essentially, my £230 ticket was for the front seat of the single row. I couldn’t help but feel ripped off on top of my continuing malaise. Finally though, Edinburgh castle showed up in my window as we descended, and I finally felt like I was home, or at least on home turf. It was another 1.5 hours before I crawled into my childhood bed and pulled the covers over my head. It took a week before I could eat a normal meal again, I was off form for 3 months, and it was 6 months later before my weight bounced back to it’s previous numbers, having been at it’s lowest levels since I’d reached my adult height. I loved the Taj Mahal and I loved seeing the tigers, but India is the only place on my list that I will happily never visit again.

South African Odyssey

I have no idea what happens once you die, but I’d like to be reincarnated as a spinner dolphin. I have no recollection where my obsession with cetaceans came from, but as far back as I can remember I have been entranced and enthralled with films of whales and dolphins cavorting with each other in the oceans of the world. My experience with orcas off British Columbia sparked a thirst for more encounters. Whilst avoiding studying at university one day, I came across a program in South Africa that took volunteers, and after 18 yrs of solid education, I decided to take some time out after graduation and head to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in my life.

On the bus into Cape Town, I had my eyes opened for the first time. After years of seeing slums and shanty towns on the news, here I was seeing them for myself for the first time. Rows and rows of ramshackle huts made of corrugated iron and whatever other materials came to hand. It humbled me, and made me realise that here I was in Africa. My place of rest was snuggled near the base of Table Mountain, and it towered over me from such proximity. It was impressive to say the least. The grounds had security entry and walking down to the main road brought me level with armed guards patrolling the neighbouring hotels. Yes, I was definitely in Africa.

It’s amazing how first impressions can be so false. I was so nervous and suspicious that day wandering round, but after subsequent trips back to the city, I have found it to be a charming and relaxing place that has a fantastic vibe and joie de vivre. In essence: I loved it there. 5 hrs east of the city was my home for 3 months: Plettenberg Bay, one of my absolute favourite places in the whole world. Words will never do justice to the beauty of that town and the surrounding Garden Route, nor will I ever be able to fully express the effect on me that that stay had. I believe everybody has a lifechanging moment or timespan where they grow or develop as a person, and my time in Plettenberg Bay was it.

 

I lived on a farm about 20 mins drive from the town, which just so happened to share a fenceline with the neighbouring elephant sanctuary. Looking out the bedroom window across the field to the elephants bathing themselves in the pool, was a sight that never grew tiring, nor did the sound of their haunting trumpeting to each other, or the vision of the youngsters playing with each other.

 

The majority of the time was spent office bound, collating data relating to the dolphins and whales that frequented the area. The Centre for Dolphin Studies has been based in the area for many years, and is associated with the commercial company Ocean Safaris that runs whale watching trips out on the bay. There is a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins in the bay, as well as migrating humpback dolphins, common dolphins, humpback whales, bryde whales, southern right whales and orcas. I was in my element. The research side was also investigating the diet of the local population of Cape Fur Seals, a task that involved monthly trips to the colony to pick up poo for sieving. This involved a terrifying scramble down the scree slope on Robberg Peninsula, avoiding mambas and other poisonous creatures, only to be engulfed with a putrifying smell of rotten fish, faeces and urine. Add in a temperature of 26-30 oC and you may come close to imagining how the task might have felt.

 

The highlight of the week was the outdoor excursions. Once a week, we were allowed to join a whale watching trip with the tourists, and we joined in their awe as the whales came up to the boat and appeared to play with us. On one occasion a juvenile male appeared to practice his mating technique on the hull of the boat, and the dolphins loved showing off their acrobatics. My favourite whale is the humpback. I have watched countless reels of footage of them breaching and feeding off Alaska and Hawaii, and when that first humpback appeared near Plett, I could have cried. They were beautiful, elegant and mesmerising. After 3 months, I lost count of the number of cetaceans I saw. Certainly, the Southern Right Whales and Humpback Whales were nearing the 100 mark, the dolphins were in the 1000s, and there were sightings of a few Bryde whales and a large shoal of hammerhead sharks which lived near the shipwreck in the bay. My favourite dolphin is the Common dolphin, and I was regularly disappointed with the lack of sighting of this species. As an open ocean feeder, they don’t tend to come into the bay, so seeing them meant heading out into open ocean. The entrance of the bay is an interesting affair to negotiate, and boy can you tell the difference in the sea swells! Several of the tourists on board the trip struggled to keep their lunch in their bellies. On only 2 occasions did we ever venture out the bay, and on one of those trips we were rewarded with a large pod of common dolphins racing towards us, and passing around us. I felt complete.

 

Whilst the real purpose of the trip was to explore my love of cetaceans, it was the out-of-work activities that made the trip. I made some fantastic friends there, 1 of which lived in a city I’d only visited once as a child, but following my return to Scotland, ended up being my home for the successive 5.5 years. Indeed, my first place of work ended up being 2 minutes along the road from her house!

As a group, we made the most of our weekends of freedom. Trips to Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Outdshoorn, Knysna, Wilderness, and Tsitsikamma presented opportunities for hiking, canoeing, horse riding, ostrich riding and bungy jumping. The highest bungy jump in the world is at Bloukrans bridge to the east of Plett. The fall is 216m (708ft) down towards the canyon base. The guys that work there are the epitome of the term lekker, and they were great at helping you put a brave face on. On my first visit, I took the zip slide from the gorge side to the mid-arch of the bridge, then offered support to my friends that took the bungee plunge. I always told myself that I would never do something as stupid as that, but yet a few weeks later, I was back again, strapped up and teetering on the brink. Looking out at the gorge in front of me, I had an experience which was as real to me as anything I have ever experienced, but which wasn’t real. I’ve never been able to explain it, and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me since. Standing on the edge of the jump site I had an out-of-body experience. The guys were running through the system checks prior to letting me jump, but yet there I was soaring through the air down towards the river below, falling, falling, until all of a sudden I was back up in myself on the jump spot. After the countdown, and the launch into the air, everything was as I had just felt it moments before.

 

For those who have never done a bungy jump, it is nothing like skydiving. This is very disappointing, considering I had just done a tandem skydive a few weeks before and loved it immensely. For those who have never skydived, well you don’t know what you are missing. The flight up from the little airport at Plett gave such an amazing view of the surrounding coastline and countryside that I was so distracted by that to care about the impending leaping forth from the plane in mid air. At 12,000ft, the door opened, and before I knew it I was sat in the doorway. 1,2,3 and we were out. The fact of skydiving is that you are descending towards a rather hard object (the Earth), at terminal velocity. The reality, or rather the perceived reality is that you are floating weightlessly in the air. There is no sensation of falling, just the peaceful feeling of floating like a gliding bird. It has to be experienced to be believed, but it was a feeling that I loved and wanted to repeat. Once under canopy, I had the surreal experience of holding a conversation with my friend Emma at an altitude of 3,000ft, her strapped to one guy, me strapped to another. I remember it so vividly, not the words, but just the image of her and I in mid-air talking to each other amidst adrenalin-hyped giggles, before separating in order to land safely. Certificate in hand, I vowed to do it again.

Bungy jumping on the other hand, is not so enjoyable. After launching off the bridge, I waited for the floating sensation to kick in, only to quickly realise that I was indeed falling, and falling upside down at that. I remember screaming as was instructed to be done, and then eventually the bungee cord kicked in and the bouncing up and down commenced. This part was thankfully quite enjoyable, and then there was just the matter of hanging around upside down waiting for a man you couldn’t see to rappel down to you and assist you back up to the bridge. It was all very surreal, and the way I see it, if I’ve done the highest in the world, why would I need to do it again?? It is a good way to burn off some calories thanks to the tacchycardia that develops, so perhaps it can be introduced into the weight watchers programme as a viable alternative to dieting, although probably not the best idea for people with underlying cardiothoracic issues.

 

During the last month I also had a go at something else I’d fancied for some time. Heading back to the little airport, I sat with an instructor getting some ground schooling before getting to take the controls of a Cessna to take to the skies. Heading west from Plett, we flew towards and around Knysna, practising stalling procedures, and getting to grips with the plane’s manouverability. Banking and climbing we surveyed the countryside below us before losing altitude and flying low over the heads of Knysna, prior to turning back east towards Plett. On the radio on the way back to the farm, the track ‘I believe I can fly’ by R Kelly came on, and it put a smile to my face. One day I will get back up there, and get myself a licence.

One long weekend, we headed back to Cape Town. Again staying at the foot of Table Mountain, we sat in the bar in awe at the view. From the V&A Waterfront, we took the boat out to Robben Island to see the infamous prison that held captive Nelson Mandela. The guide is a former prisoner himself, a man who was there at the same time as Mr Mandela, and despite his experiences there, he was still determined to stay there for work purposes in order to show tourists, who will never ever comprehend the realities of his experience there, around his former ‘home’. The cells have little room for stretching, never mind swinging a cat. The bed, little more than a mat on the floor, and the toilet simply a pan in the corner. It takes a greater mind than mine to stay sane in a place like that over the 18yrs that he was there for.

 

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of fried food, the blanket finally lifted from the table top, and we set off for Table Mountain. When it comes to mountains, if there is a cable car up to the top, then I’d rather hike up. We chose a route up on the front face, which for about the final 80% of it is a near vertical climb. I find it difficult to keep pace with others, preferring to continue at my own rate, so when one of the party started to suffer from vertigo, I had to keep going in order to not have to look back or down, and fall foul of the same problem. It was up to Dawn to encourage Claire to keep going so that we could all be triumphant. Emma and I made it up to the top at the same time, gasping for air and water, followed by Dawn and Claire some time later. Eventually making it to the main tourist area, we wandered round sweaty and triumphant, only to be looked down upon by the cable car tourists, for our dishevelled appearance. Frankly I feel the view was so much more worth seeing after our effort to get there!

 

Our hire car to Cape Town was from Banger Car Hire. It had no power steering, and it was old fashioned, but on the open road it drove like a dream. Thankfully, it also turned out to be baboon-proof. We headed down to the Cape of Good Hope, passing through Simon’s Town to visit the famous colony of Cape Penguins at Boulders Beach. As we neared the Cape Point, numerous troups of baboons littered the side of the road and ogled us as we passed. Further on, there were ostriches wandering free, and eventually we reached the car park at the Cape where the wind took our breath away as we got out. The Cape marks the most South-Western point of the African continent, and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, a mixing line which can be clearly visible from the lighthouse at times. The rugged landscape was dramatic and the whipping wind added to it. We spent hours wandering around the varying walks and lighthouses that mark out the Cape. On the drive back to Cape Town, we came across a troup of baboons in the middle of the road. Stopping to take photographs, we got a bit of a shock when a male baboon jumped onto the bonnet of the car and looked through the windscreen at us. We sat for several moments staring at each other before he eventually climbed onto the roof. He refused to get off until he was coaxed to with a gentle drive forward of the car whence he proceeded to slide skillfully off the back and jump onto the ground behind us.

 

Outdshoorn is a totally different world compared to the Garden Route. In the ‘outback’, it is a land of orange barrenness, sparsely vegetated and with an overwhelming majority population of ostriches versus humans. Cango Caves sits in the rocks high above the town, and is a mesmerising maze of caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. For added adrenalin, we opted to take the optional cave crawling tour. As we were warned at the start, this would involve passing through tight passages and gaps no wider than the length of an average ruler. One of the first challenges was ‘the devil’s chimney’, ascending 3.6m through a passage with a narrowest point of 45cm. I was one of the last people to enter the chimney, staring up at the arse of a complete stranger, only for them to freeze halfway up. There are occasions when I can struggle with claustrophobia. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but I had to battle hard to fight off the demons when I was stuck in a chimney below a stranger who was having to be coaxed up the remaining climb. Following this, there were several narrow passages to squeeze through or crawl through, culminating in ‘the letter box’, a narrow slit in the floor of the cave, shaped like a letter box, and only 27cm high. This was a task that involved shimmying through on your back, or on your front if you fancied going head first into the next chamber.

 

Outdshoorn is most famous for it’s ostriches. For miles around, the road signs point to one farm or another, many of which are open for tourists to wander round. At the hostel we stayed in, we enjoyed a braii (bbq) of ostrich meat which was delicious, and every morning, an ostrich egg was opened to feed everybody for breakfast. It contains the equivalent contents of 24 chicken eggs, so all the guests could enjoy omelette, scrambled egg or whatever they fancied. Down on the ostrich farm, a couple of hatchlings were breaking out of their shell in the incubator, juveniles were strutting their stuff in the fields, and the adults were racing against each other on the racetrack. Ostrich riding is much like sitting on a large feather cushion with a large joystick as a control. Bending the neck left turns it left, right turns it right, and pulling it back makes it stop. Their long sinewy necks are so flexible that they can bend them round in all sorts of angles, something which you need to be very aware of with the males when it comes to avoiding bites from an amorous bird. They are such fascinating creatures, and I could have sat on one all day if I was allowed to. Instead, I got a few moments of being ‘saddled’ up, whilst Dawn and Emma got the pleasure of riding one around the arena. It is a sight that will stay with me forever.

 

The Outeniqua Choo-Choo is a train ride that runs from Knysna to Wilderness and back through some of the most beautiful scenery of the garden route. Across lagoons, through glens, alongside lakes and rivers, we chugged west towards the rather sedate but understated town of Wilderness. The beach of Wilderness is beautiful. Open and exposed yet clean and peaceful, it was a lovely place to get lost in your thoughts. There’s not a lot to do in the town itself, but it was a lovely day trip away and Dawn and I enjoyed walking along the beach listening to the roar of the Southern Ocean. Some weeks later, Claire and I returned for work purposes as a humpback whale carcass had washed up on the shore. Blubber samples amongst other things can give valuable information for researchers studying the lifestyle and habitat of these creatures, so we were dispatched with instructions on what to collect. Unfortunately, the local council had already started to break the body to pieces in order to get rid of such a mammoth body on the rather public stretch of beach, so by the time we got there, it was a mess. It was a stinking, rotting mess at that! The body had been spotted at sea a couple of weeks earlier so we knew it wasn’t fresh. Rotting already in the heat over that time, the corpse was a mass of blubber and rotting flesh. Collecting the samples that we needed involved wading knee deep into the quagmire. I was again in my element, fascinated by the anatomy. We appeared in the local paper, and my subsequent article was also published in the Plett newsletter. After a long day raking through rotting tissue for the samples we needed, we were starving. A quick wash in the sea did little to remove the goo that was by now caked to my bare legs and arms. Undeterred, we traipsed into the local petrol station to get some snacks, only to be met by several eyes above several upturned noses. We stank, but we didn’t care. On returning to the farm, the dogs greeted us with elation and started licking our legs and clothes. To them, we smelt of meaty heaven…

 

I spent a few more days in Cape Town before returning to Scotland. By then it was December, the temperature was hotting up, the days were lengthening, and I struggled to merge that in my mind with the Christmas tunes that were playing in the shops at the time. The flight back to London involved one of the worst spells of turbulence I have ever experienced, over Nigeria, and I found myself restless and sore in the seat, having spent the day hiking around the outskirts of Cape Town. We flew over Tunisia at night, and the cities twinkled below us. I returned home tanned but cold. The snow was not far behind my arrival in Scotland, and the realities of a northern Christmas soon took hold. The friends I made in South Africa are now spread far and wide. Another place added to my list of places to return to, and the far flung friends are a good excuse for further adventures abroad…

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