MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “camping”

Serengeti National Park

I was raised on David Attenborough documentaries, with Sunday nights spent watching the television, ogling over creatures I never imagined I’d see in the flesh. I didn’t spend my childhood thinking I’d ever travel or see some of the things I’ve seen, but as an adult I’ve had the privilege and excitement of some incredible wildlife exposure. The African Plains in the Serengeti National Park has always been a regular backdrop to these BBC programmes, and last February at the age of 35, I found myself bouncing up and down in the back of a safari jeep, sending a cloud of dust behind us as we went in search of Africa’s animals in that exact location.

Initially there was a dearth of vegetation but it wasn’t long before we came across a male lion who was just chilling out next to some abandoned man-made structure. He seemed a million miles from anywhere, but in the late afternoon, he just sat there, ignoring the presence of the couple of jeeps that had stopped to look at him. He had a few scars on his face and his mane was pale, and he barely moved. When we pressed on deeper into the park, we found a lioness asleep on top of a rock. Clearly hunting was not on any of their minds at this time of the day. As we continued, small pockets of acacia trees appeared and dotted in random places were rocky outcrops which broke up the otherwise vast expanse of the plains. In the far distance, hills were on the horizon, and they grew closer as we continued on the road in search of wildlife.

 

These rocky outcrops with their trees were potential wildlife hot spots, but with the coverage of the vegetation, spotting anything there was difficult. Luckily our driver guide was an expert at spotting things that our naive eyes couldn’t see. It also helped that we’d occasionally come across another jeep that was parked up which would allude to an animal’s presence, so when the word went out that there was a leopard in a tree on top of one of the rock piles, I was beside myself, straining my eyes to see it through the vegetation. I was grateful that my camera had a decent zoom on it, as this was pretty much the only way to spot it aside from binoculars. If I hadn’t been told it was there to know where to look, I’d have never spotted it on my own. The camouflage was incredible.

As we continued on our safari, the acacia trees grew taller. At one large singular tree we found a few jeeps parked up near its base, and we were quick to learn there was a lioness up in the branches. As we once more strained to see it through the foliage, we became suddenly aware of another couple of lions approaching from the other side of the jeep. As we watched, the numbers of jeeps grew and as the lioness in the tree climbed down to join her pride, I experienced my first annoyance about the management of safaris in this popular park. As the lioness walked on our right, and her pride walked on our left, the drivers of the jeeps ahead of us were so intent on their clients getting the ultimate view that they actively moved and blocked the path that the lioness was taking. She stopped to re-evaluate, her chosen path suddenly gone and the pride found themselves divided by several jeeps that kept jostling among themselves for a better view. We hung back where we were and I was grateful our driver was more respectful. Eventually, the lioness walked in front of the melee and joined the others.

 

The bulk of the jeeps drove off shortly after, leaving just our two jeeps behind. We stayed where we were, watching the social interactions from a distance. Suddenly my attention was drawn to a figure moving through the long grass towards us and I realised it was another lioness. She stood on a little mound right by my window and as I shamelessly took a selfie through the window, a juvenile appeared behind her, shortly followed by another one. Although the lioness left, these two older cubs hung around by us for quite some time, before the pride gradually joined together and began to move away. For a first safari in the Serengeti, it had been a magical start.

 

The cloud looked a little ominous as we headed towards our accommodation for the night. We had to pop into one of the local offices for me to pick up my ticket for an add-on that I’d booked onto the following morning. The office building had a bar and small shop attached to it, but wandering around the site were lots of little rock hyraxes, a peculiar looking creature that live in large groups. They ran fast making them difficult to photograph as they popped up and around rocks and logs. We didn’t have far to drive from here to where we’d be spending the night, and as we watched the sky grow dark and rain move across in the distance, we pulled up and unloaded our stuff. As someone who usually travels independently, I’m used to being responsible for the choices of where I stay, but probably because it was an organised tour, I either hadn’t bothered to read the itinerary or hadn’t really understood it if I had, but we found ourselves at an open campsite, our tents already pitched and waiting for us. I have no idea where this campsite was in the grand scheme of things, but here we were completely unfenced in the Serengeti, and at our briefing we were informed that there was no guard and nobody would be patrolling for wildlife through the night. For all intents and purposes, we were wild camping in Africa.

Another group had bagged the campfire, so we had a quieter dinner before watching the most stunning sunset that faded to a gorgeous purple sky as the rain clouds sweeped past us a little way off. We’d passed some kudu not too far away so knew at least that there were herbivores near by but what we found out was that hyenas patrolled the campsite at night, and as such there was a no-food-in-the-tent policy, and all food had to be securely locked in the jeeps. As darkness fell, we were given strict instructions not to wander further than the toilet block on the edge of camp, to always walk with another person and to have a head torch on at all times. In pitch black, as we readied for bed by visiting the toilet block, our headlamps picked up the sparkle of animals’ eyes not far away. On our walk back to the tents we discovered that a hyena had just run into the group by the campfire and stolen some of their dinner.

 

There was a nervous excitement as we nestled into our sleeping bags within our tents. In the darkness as we tried to sleep, the cries of hyenas reached our ears. I wouldn’t have knowingly chosen to camp in such a manner in Africa, but this was an experience like no other. I would sleep for a bit then get woken up by the sounds of something outside. Occasionally a hyena’s cackling laugh would pierce the air, and I would lie there still before eventually dropping back to sleep again. When my alarm woke me the next morning it was still pitch black outside. I had paid extra for an add-on activity, but I was the only one in my group doing so, meaning against advice, I had to walk to the toilet block on my own to ready myself for the day ahead. The toilet block had a security gate meaning it was possible to lock yourself in the building should an errant animal follow you there, and I had to hover nearby with just my head torch for company, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I was joined by another person who was part of the other group and before long, the two of us were collected and driven off into the darkness for an activity I’d never done before.

Aotearoa Road Trip

It is a long drive north from Christchurch to Auckland, and we had a few days to get up there for Christmas. Setting off early from the South Island’s largest city we made it to Picton, the departure point for the Interislander ferry, with the afternoon to spare. I’d previously just passed through Picton swiftly on my first arrival in the South Island nearly two years previously, and finally I had a bit of time to enjoy it. Picton is a beautifully set harbour town nestled within the Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the island, and it is the gateway to the north. Due to its location, it is also the gateway to exploring the sound itself, with multiple boating options, and departures for the Queen Charlotte hiking track as well. But with my love of cetaceans, I was drawn to the wildlife adventure, and headed out for a few hours on a wildlife spotting cruise. There is plenty of bird life here, and we saw the very rare King Shag, a species that only exists in this one location in the entire world, and has a population of only about 500 birds. We found 2 sunning themselves on a rock amongst some more plentiful cormorants. We stopped off at an island far up one of the channels which, following a brief hike to the summit, gave a fantastic view of the peninsulas around us. Heading back to port we finally came across some of the shy and rare Hector’s dolphins that were busy hunting for food in a sheltered bay. We were even lucky enough to see another rare animal, the little blue penguin out for a swim. Away from the ferry terminal, Picton has a small beach and a large marina, and there are a few local walks that can be taken from there which offer alternate views of the sound. In short, I love Picton, and the Queen Charlotte Sounds is a definite gem in the South Island’s crown.

 

The original plan had us catching the early morning ferry to Wellington, allowing us to drive quite a way up the North Island before pausing another night. Unfortunately, right before the peak season started, one of the ferries lost its propeller and went out of service, completely disrupting the schedule of sailings. As a result, our crossing was delayed by 7hrs, and we set off north in the early afternoon. The cloud hung over the South Island as we sailed through the sounds, but as we entered the Cook Strait, the sky above us was clear, and we had sunshine for the rest of the crossing. It is a beautiful 3hr sailing: firstly there is the stunning sight on either side of the boat of the peninsulas and islands of the sound, then as you cross the Cook Strait, you can see along the coast of the South Island spreading out behind you whilst the North Island comes clearer into view ahead of you. Tracing the coast of the rugged North Island coastline for a while, the ferry eventually enters the narrow entrance into the wide expanse of Wellington harbour, and the view to the east is of barrenness, whilst the view west is of development with planes coming into land at Wellington International airport and pleasure boats sailing around Miramar peninsula. As the city centre looms closer, the lovely Oriental Bay with Mt Victoria behind watches as the ferry makes its final approach into dock.

 

We headed straight out of Wellington on state highway 1 (SH1) as soon as we got off the ferry. Snaking out the back of the city, the highway initially follows the coastline travelling up the Kapiti coast with Kapiti Island visible just off the shore. The region makes an exceedingly tasty ice cream, but today we were just passing through, eager to get some kilometers behind us on the next leg of the journey. We spent the night in Foxton, a rather unassuming little place that neighboured Foxton Beach, which had, as the name suggests a beach. There was a glorious sunset that night which we watched from the warmth of the truck, facing the lapping sea as it hit the shore.

 

SH1 continues snaking north, and as it does so, the scenery changes dramatically. From the Kapiti coast it turns inwards and cuts through a rolling green landscape rife with gorges and forests and rolling green hills. Then it turns into Desert Road as it gains altitude, and from here, on the edge of Tongariro National Park, on a clear day, you can see ‘Mt Doom’, or Mt Ngauruhoe and its neighbouring volcanoes. Within the national park there are 3 distinct volcanoes which were the filming location for Mordor and Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The vegetation in this region around SH1 is barren and dry, resembling a desert, and with its altitude and exposure to the elements, it is the most commonly closed road in the winter months. At the time of writing, I have driven this road 3 times, each time in the summer months and each time, the volcanoes have been partly or completely hidden from view. Despite this, the stark scenery is still mesmerising. Eventually though, the great expanse of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, comes into view, and SH1 follows the eastern edge of it up past the town of Taupo itself where we took a brief stop to stretch our legs. Rounding the top of the lake, the highway then heads north-west towards Hamilton and Auckland beyond. My memory of Hamilton was very vague, and last time we had driven through from a different direction so I saw much more of the city this time than I had last time. What impressed me about the place was the large gardens and river walks which I hadn’t seen before, and in the glorious hot sunshine, the place looked lovely.

I will always love Auckland. It doesn’t matter how many times I go there, I always find my way down to the Viaduct and the road round to Mission Bay and beyond. The sight of Rangitoto Island across the harbour, Auckland’s most recently active volcano, and the Sky Tower amidst the city skyline, always bring a smile to my face and make me feel at home. I always make a point of getting round to Mission Bay and going to Movenpick for the most delicious ice cream which is best enjoyed sitting by the beach. After taking a walk along the Viaduct, we took a drive round to Saint Heliers and up the hill to a lookout on the tip of the coastline which gave a perspective on the city that I had never seen before. On Christmas Eve, once the sun had gone down, we headed into the city centre to walk up Franklin Street. Every year in the run up to Christmas, the houses on this street are decorated with bright and flashing light displays. What started as one household has now become an annual tradition with houses trying to out-do each other with their displays. It has become an attraction, and the walkways were packed with people taking photos and videos and carrying their young children on their shoulders so that they could see. On top of this, the cars were queuing to drive up and down the street leading to traffic jams at the top and bottom. People were carol singing in the street, a balloon artist was making shaped balloons for the kids, and a coffee shop at the top end was doing good business selling hot drinks whilst people wandered around. It was amazing to witness.

 

After disappearing to Queensland for a week, we returned to Auckland in the new year and had a week before we needed to be back in Christchurch. Joining up with some friends, there were 4 of us setting off on the next leg of our road trip round Aotearoa. The Coromandel coast road was something I had wanted to do since skipping across the peninsula on my last visit. The weather stayed with us and with blue skies, blue seas and green hills surrounding us, it was a beautiful drive. Hugging the coast for most of the drive up the western side, it cut inland for a while and climbed up to give us some amazing views, before heading back downhill and eventually coming out at Coromandel Town where we based ourselves for the night. From here, we headed further north on the unsealed road to Fantail Bay near the tip of the peninsula. The road comes to an end a little further along the coast from here, so we headed back to town to relax. Near the marina, there is a path winding up to a lookout which affords a wonderful view of the town itself, the hills behind, and the coastline around. It was an uncomfortable hike up in my jandals but the view was worth it.

 

The following day we were intent on staying one step ahead of the weather. We could see some unsavoury weather heading our way, but it was coming from behind us, so we got round to Hahei as fast as we could. On the east coast of the peninsula, Hahei is the nearest place to Cathedral Cove. Last time I was here, it was a beautiful sunny day, and we had kayaked here prior to taking a swim in the surf as it lapped gently on the beach. This time round, we walked from the car park along the coast and down the steps to the beach. Straight away I noticed the stark contrast: the tide was high, covering half the beach and also making passage through the cave a bit wet and hairy; and the sky was grey and the sea a little squally making a swim out of the question. I was a little disappointed. But we managed to have some fun trying to get through the cave from one beach to the other without being drenched by an impending wave. Some of us were more successful than others. It may have turned into a dull day by the time we left, but the crowds were still coming in waves. On the trail from the car park I was excited to come across a stick insect, a creature which went through a fad as a popular pet for a while in the UK when I was in primary school, and had never actually seen anywhere else. In fact, I didn’t realise they existed in New Zealand, but as it was wandering across the path, I lifted it up and let it wander across my arms for a while before setting it loose on a tree. Sometimes the simplest things give enormous pleasure.

 

Finally, the bad weather caught up with us and the heavens opened. We were shrouded in rain for the drive to our next stop, Mt Maunganui where we waited out the rain watching a terribly long movie at the cinema. The clouds only lifted as the sun lowered to the horizon and we had to wait till the following day to see this place in its full glory. In stark contrast to the neighbouring Tauranga, a very industrial harbour settlement, Mt Maunganui is a beautiful town nestled on a peninsula on the great expanse of the Bay of Plenty, with an apparently endless stretch of beach spanning its length and capped at its tip by the mount that gives the place its name. I walked along the beach from our motel towards the mount, breathing in the sea air and smiling at the other people who were out enjoying the sunshine. At the base of the mount I joined my friends whereby we first circled the base of the mount due to a slight navigational error, and then as the day heated up, we started the slog to the top. From a distance it looks like an easy walk, but close up it is evident how steep the sides are and as a result, parts of the path involve either a lot of steps or a steep gravel path. But the view is very much worth it. Looking out into the expanse of the Bay of Plenty in one direction, the peninsula of Mt Maunganui stretches inland in the other direction, and the port of Tauranga and Matakana Island can also be seen. By the afternoon, the sand was almost too hot to walk on, and we lazed on the beach soaking up the rays and paddling in the sea. I had heard a lot about Mt Maunganui and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

 

Heading south, we skirted Lake Rotorua and headed straight for the ZORB centre. I couldn’t believe the change in the place in 2 years. Last time I was there, I got a printed certificate when I signed up, there were lockers to store my belongings, I got a free digital photo to upload direct to the internet, there was a dedicated desk for ordering photos, and the high quality photos came on an official looking CD in a ZORB-shaped container. Stepping into the office this time round it was sparse. The lockers had gone, the photo desk had gone and it looked run down. The certificate on sign-up was only available via email (and to this day the email has never come), the photos were of a noticeably poorer quality (and it took an hour to get them), and they were presented on a plain CD-R in a plain CD case. Despite plenty of people being there, the whole experience just screamed out that the company is struggling financially which is a shame. With a competitor on the main road whilst they are hidden away down a back road, perhaps their business had taken a bit of a hit. I was nervous about injuring my back, as I had spent the previous 4 months recuperating from a back injury, but after a solo run down the zig-zag hydro-slide and a dual run down the straight hydro slide, I came out soaking wet and happy. It was a beautifully sunny day, and with a regular run of people coming down the hill, we stayed and watched for a while.

 

Back towards town, we pulled in at the Skyline Gondola and headed up Mount Ngongotaha for a view over Rotorua and the lake of the same name. The real reason for coming up was to do the luge, a milk-cart style rally down a variety of tracks winding down the side of the hill. I’d loved this last time I was here and with a competitive boyfriend it was inevitable that we would stop here on this trip. With 3 routes to choose from: scenic, intermediate and advanced, I did each run once, and again noticed that things had changed in the 2 years. This time it was merely the route which had had a few new chicanes put in, and I was sadly beaten on every single run. Still, it was a good feeling for me to be able to do something fun after all the months I’d previously spent unable to do much exercise.

 

Following the Thermal Explorer Highway south, we passed a multitude of geothermal parks before arriving in Taupo on the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake. Taking a break from motels, we pitched our tents for a couple of nights at the back of town and settled into holiday park life. The rain rolled in the next morning and everything took on a grey hue but by lunchtime the weather had eased slightly. We took a boat trip out onto the lake for a water’s view of the town, but more specifically to go and see some impressive Maori carvings. Viewable only by boat round at Mine Bay, they may only be about 40 years old, but they are impressive none-the-less, in particular the giant face carved into a large rock face. To the side of this are lizards, dragons and more faces, and we hovered there for a while taking it all in.

 

On getting back to shore, we headed out to the Craters of the Moon geothermal park, one of the cheapest of the paid parks in the area. It was a relatively new geothermal area, having been created when a nearby power station was being built. The earth’s crust is exceedingly thin in this part of the world and there are bubbling pools and steam vents in abundance in the region around Rotorua and Taupo. I am fascinated by volcanic and geothermal activity so wandering around these parks has me in my element. The park itself is mainly a large open space filled with steaming vents of varying sizes and intensities. The ‘rotten egg’ sulphuric smell was thankfully barely noticeable. There was little to compare it to the two parks I had been to on my previous visit but it was still worth the wander around, and there are still other parks I would like to explore on future visits. Back at the campsite, wandering around in the dark by torchlight, I got a thrill when I came across a live possum halfway up a small tree not far from our tent. Its eyes glowed in the torchlight and it contemplated me as I contemplated it. This was the first real sighting I’ve had of a possum in New Zealand despite estimated numbers being in the millions. I’ve seen plenty of dead ones driving around the Port Hills in Christchurch, and on 1 other occasion seen the rear end of one running away in the distance, but this very cute little creature was close up and in no hurry to go anywhere. I savoured one of those glorious private moments that are yours and yours alone before it eventually scarpered off into the gloom.

 

The temperature had started to drop, and on arriving in Tongariro National Park at our next lodgings in Ohakune, as the clouds lifted and fell over the mountains, we could see that fresh snow had fallen. Suddenly, we were in a 3-layer of clothing situation, a stark contrast to just a few days before. Whilst the boys hit the pub, my friend and I took to the hills and went for a walk through the forest and across an alpine region to the park’s highest waterfall, an impressive 39m. On arriving there, a lot of the waterfall was hidden behind trees, so we didn’t linger long, but on the way, during a brief break in the clouds to let the sunshine through, we got the best view yet of Mt Ruapehu. I had been keeping an eye on the weather whilst we were so close in Taupo in the hope of finally being able to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, an impressive day walk across a couple of volcanoes, an experience which had eluded me last time. Alas, for the second time, the weather got the better of me, and I had to accept that once again, it wasn’t going to happen.

 

Paraparaumu is a lovely seaside town on the Kapiti coast. Kapiti Island sits directly out to sea, but otherwise the coast is exposed to the full brunt of the Tasman Sea, and the stretch of sandy beach is littered with an incredible amount of flotsam. For me, a lover of sea air, I was thrilled to be back by the coast again. A relaxing walk along the sand was followed up by fish and chips which seemed so fitting. Growing up in Scotland, battered fish and chips was always such a ‘Scottish’ thing, a weekend treat until the day I moved out of my parent’s home, but even on the other side of the world it is loved just as much. I don’t eat it very often, but when I do, it conjours up so many memories of Scotland and just feels so normal.

 

Even a brief trip to Wellington has to involve a trip to my favourite cafe, the Boat Cafe on board a converted tug boat. It was a beautiful day and the small beach at Oriental Bay was dotted with sun worshipers and a volleyball tournament. We only had a few hours before our ferry south so it was a brief respite by the sea before a brief catch up with family who lived in the city. Before we knew it, it was time to get round to book in for the ferry. With the ferry port being across the bay from Oriental Bay, it was an excellent spot to watch the ferry come in and dock. This was the smallest ferry of the fleet which didn’t take long to explore before I found my prime viewing spot on deck to spend the crossing. The sea looked and felt calm but there was a wicked wind whipping around the ship as we left the safety of Wellington harbour and headed out into the Cook Strait. I could never get tired of doing this crossing, the view is just spectacular, and although it feels so familiar, every time I ride that ferry, it still feels like a new adventure. On this crossing I was overjoyed to see a whale in the distance behind us. It was the blow that alerted me to its presence, a tall blast of steam shot high above the waterline, followed by a dark shape breaking the surface briefly. This occurred several times before it got too far away to keep a track of with my eyes. It was hard to determine the species, but given the location and the elongated back with lack of obvious dorsal fin from a distance, I’m assuming it was a humpback whale.

 

The sun beamed down on us for our passage through the Queen Charlotte Sounds, and disembarking at Picton, we continued south to spend the night in Blenheim. Notorious for it’s closeness to a multitude of wineries, we were here primarily to break up the journey home. Having said that, I’m glad we did, for the simple reason that we ate at a fantastic restaurant with probably the best chef-come-waiter that I have ever met. Next door to our motel was Gramado’s, a Brazilian bar/restaurant. Our waiter, who was also one of the chefs, was from south Brazil, and he sat with us and spent time talking us through the menu, and giving us suggestions on what to try and what drinks to have. He was enthusiastic with a permanent smile on his face, and his attitude was infectious. The cider he recommended was delicious and sweet, the white wine he offered was local and scrumptious, the Brazilian bean stew he recommended to me was amazing, but at the end of the night, he brought us out a Brazilian delicacy to try: barbecued chicken heart. Of the 3 of us, I was the only one who tried it, and I ended up having 2. As a vet, I sometimes find it difficult to eat some cuts of meat without analysing the anatomy first (a trait which can be quite displeasing to other diners who join me on a trip to Nandos!). This was no exception. I’d never looked at a chicken’s heart before and I couldn’t eat it without first looking at the various blood vessels poking out of it, and examining the cut surface with each bite I took. I’m not normally an offal eater, but despite the slight mental battle I had to overcome with the thought of what I was eating, it was delicious.

 

The drive from Blenheim to Kaikoura and south to Christchurch is stunning. Past wineries, rolling brown hills, and pink salt pans, it hits the coast and hugs it all the way to Kaikoura. The sea is turquoise blue and crashes on the rocks right by the roadside. At Oahu, the New Zealand fur seals come ashore to sleep and there was a nursery of babies playing around a rock pool when we stopped to watch. As Kaikoura approaches, the Kaikoura Range shoots up on the inland side of the road, and from Kaikoura south the road winds through tree-strewn valleys and hillsides, cicadas thrumming loudly as we drove. It was magical, and sums up everything I love about New Zealand: the Great Outdoors.

Travels with a Local

My hands turned white with the force of gripping the seat in front of me. With nothing but a windscreen between me and the road in front, I held on to the head rest tighter as the speedometer on the taxi climbed higher and higher, and the driver weaved more manically through the busy streets of Athens, ignoring stop signs and chasing red lights. It was the wildest taxi ride I’d ever been on, and even a few clicks on Youtube before the holiday couldn’t prepare me for the crazy driving in this country.

The heat on arrival in Athens was overwhelming. My partner at the time was an Athenean, and we were met at the airport by his aunt and cousin. From there it was an hour’s drive to his mother’s summer house, and I sat crumpled in the back seat listening to the argument about the air conditioning. Many Greeks decamp in the summer months to their second homes, somewhere in a small town or village, and generally on the coast. His mother lived in an area not officially recognised on a map: a collection of relatively new homes with no shops and little business. But it had a beach and that was all that mattered. I spent those first few days of our 2-week holiday failing miserably at the Greek language, missing out on half the conversation, and awkwardly trying to get along with my potential in-laws. The weather was divine though, and I enjoyed chilling on the balcony, watching some amazing sunsets, and tucking in to locally caught fish and savouring frappes.

 

One of the fantastic things about my Athenean was that he held a private pilot licence. He had a friend who worked in the Air Force, and on his day off, we arranged to rent a little Cessna and fly out to the island of Skiathos. So we turned up at a little airstrip outside Athens and the two of us, the friend and his girlfriend loaded up and took off. Greece is a beautiful country at ground level, but it takes on a whole new perspective from the air. We flew over forests, lakes, and mountains before hitting the sea. Unfortunately for me, my obsession with filming and taking photos out of the window resulted in an acute onset motion sickness, and I missed a good portion of the view whilst keeping my eyes tightly closed and concentrating on my breathing, desperate not to vomit in front of 2 people I’d only just met. It was embarrassing enough just cradling the sick bag. I managed, thankfully, to regain some composure to witness the approach to Skiathos over a myriad of little islands, and beautiful blue sea scattered with pleasure boats. It felt surreal to pull onto the tarmac next to a large jumbo jet filling up with tourists.

 

Skiathos was beautiful, but had a few too many Brits for my liking. I like to go on holiday and feel like I’m escaping all things British, so it is always slightly disappointing to travel for hours or days to find the place riddled with British tourists. It was a short walk into Skiathos town, and the place was crammed with locals and tourists alike. Having recovered from my motion sickness, I was starving, and the food was an absolute delight. I’ve often acknowledged how different that holiday would have been if I had not been there with a Greek. My grasp of the language was pathetic, and my stubbornness to avoid speaking English, meant I relied heavily on my partner doing the talking. With a local, the places that you end up going to and eating at are often very different from where the typical tourists go, and I definitely feel the reward is the most amazing food ever. The lunch we had that day in Skiathos was one of my favourites of the whole holiday, and I felt better prepared for the flight home that evening. It was another stunning flight over the islands and onto the mainland. It was very much a shame that large sections of the forest that we had flown over were destroyed in a massive bush fire just a few days later.

 

After over-nighting in Athens, we caught a bus north heading towards Volos. This time, we were off to visit the father’s holiday home in a little sea-side village, again missing from most maps. This little village round the coast from Volos, quickly became my favourite place in the whole country. The house we stayed in was amazing, albeit riddled with mosquitoes, and it overlooked a beautiful bay with crystal blue water. It was a mecca for seafood, and I loved every night dining out on the waterfront with most of the village people around us, savouring mezzes of all varieties and soaking up the warm evening air. This was a place that no tourist would know to go to, nor find reference to on any map or in any guide book, and yet here was the authentic Greek summer experience, and I adored it. The heat during the day got unbearable at times, and I struggled with the concept of taking siestas, stupidly ignoring advice to stay indoors and insisting on going for hikes round the coast in the heat of the day. My reward was verging on sun stroke on one occasion, and generally being eaten alive by every mosquito in a 12km radius. By the end of that stay, I looked contagious, such were the numbers of wheals all over my body. The language barrier was hardest with this side of the family, but yet we all had an amazing time together, and I was sad to leave at the end of it.

 

After another long bus ride back to Athens, watching the smoke from the forest fire advancing towards the city, we prepared for our big adventure out on the Cyclades island of Sifnos. We planned on hiking round the island and camping under the stars, and went prepared with hammocks and mosquito nets. Zipping across the Mediterranean in a catamaran, we arrived as the sun sat low on the horizon. By the time we had enjoyed yet another amazing meal, it was dark, and the mountain that we had planned on hiking over was invisible in the gloom. We decided to reverse our hike, and grabbed a taxi to drop us off in the middle of nowhere. The driver was bemused by our request: Greek people don’t hike – what were we thinking? It was a challenge in the dark to know that we were at the right track, but we waved the taxi goodbye and started hiking by torch light. It is amazing how simple noises are magnified in the dark to unknown terrors that may be hunting you down for a meal, and we got a bit of a shock when our torch light detected some pigs at the side of the track in a make-shift pen. The intermittent sound of dogs barking in the distance kept us wary, never knowing if they were loose, and how domestic they would be if they found us. Eventually, we grew tired, and in the dark, the hammocks were trussed to some trees and we fell asleep.

I was woken by rustling and scuffling around me, and peeked out to find us surrounded by a herd of inquisitive goats. With the benefit of daylight, I could see that we had erected our hammocks in a little copse, and the goats were foraging for food. Scrambling out and walking to the path, I was met by a stunning view of a dramatic coastline… and more goats. Following breakfast, we continued on our hike, skirting round to the south coast of the island and following beautiful rugged coastline down to secluded bays and beaches where we relaxed in our hammocks waiting out the heat of the day. Eventually though, a shower called us, and we hiked back to civilisation where we got stared at by the bikini-clad beauties on the beach as we trudged through them laden down with hiking boots, backpacks and hammocks.

The beauty of Sifnos was that it lived in a time that was not our own. Relatively untouched by the buzz of modern life, it was peaceful and idyllic, and reassuringly simple. Goats littered the landscape, and donkeys were still kept for pulling carts. The settlements were quaint, and only just beginning to be touched by the tourism scene, but it didn’t take much of a wander to feel that you were in the Greece of the past, and it was wonderful. We did several day hikes round portions of the island, including up to a monastery on top of the mountain overlooking Kamares, the ferry port. It was the hike that we had planned to do when we arrived, but it was worth the view to do it in daylight hours, and it was hard not to get lost in the blistering sunshine, never mind the darkness when there would have been no landmarks to keep our bearings. It was exceedingly windy at the summit, and it was delightful to get there to find some utensils and some coffee for making a cup of Greek coffee. Anyone who has drank Greek coffee will know that it tastes very different to what the rest of us would define as coffee, and frankly it fails to do coffee justice: it is gritty and very bitter. After a short break, we braved the cross winds to traverse the summit, hunkered down against the ground to avert being blown off the edge, and made our way towards an old mineral mine. The landscape resembled a scene from Star Wars, as we worked our way round the abandoned mine entrances, and picked our way down the unmarked mountain-side. Eventually we picked up a trail again, which took us down a relatively hidden, yet very steep path down the mountainside, and back towards Kamares. We approached the town as the sun was setting, and we treated ourselves to a dip in the hotel pool on our return.

 

Our final hike on the island took us round the west coast, past monasteries, both used and abandoned. It was surprising how remote some of the active ones were. We camped overnight hanging in an orchard, and both the sunset and sunrise were stunning from the hammock. I was rather sad to board the ferry and leave the island behind. For nearly 2weeks, my partner had been encouraging me to speak to people, forever lamenting that everybody in Greece spoke English and I would be perfectly understood. Waiting in Kamares on the ferry, I had decided to use my well-rehearsed Greek phrase for ordering a frappe (Greeks love their frappes!), only to be met with a response I wasn’t anticipating. I stared at her blankly, then looked in despair at my partner who just laughed at my misery. I felt particularly ashamed to discover that our waitress was Swedish, and was fluent in both English and Greek on top of her mother tongue. Another example (there are many from several countries) of my lament at being British and so poor at foreign languages. On the ferry back to Athens I gave in and decided to order (yet more frappes) in English. I went to the counter and addressed the guy in his early-20s, only to be met with a blank stare and a look of desperation directed towards his colleague. Thankfully his friend spoke fluent English, but I blushed none the less, and sheepishly pointed out to my partner that not everybody speaks English. Apparently, I found the only non-English speaking Greek in Greece!

 

Arriving back in Athens, we were bundled into a taxi with 2 other strangers, and taken for that most interesting taxi ride through the night-time streets of Athens. We had already experienced an interesting taxi ride in Volos where the driver told us not to fasten our seat belts (because Greeks don’t do that apparently), and then proceeded to drive us for an hour, mainly facing sideways conversing in Greek with my partner, and paying only vague attention to the road ahead, all the while maintaining a good amount of pressure on the accelerator. This time in Athens, I was squashed in the middle of the back seat with no seat belt, and only the head rests of the 2 front seats to grip onto whilst our madman of a driver negotiated the busy streets of the city at high speed. Apparently stop signs and red lights do not apply to taxi drivers, and any gap in crossing traffic was a challenge to push out. It was vaguely reminiscent of India, only the cars get up to a much faster speed than the tuk-tuks ever did. I worried with every emergency stop that I was just a hand-grip away from being sent flying through the windscreen onto the tarmac.

The last 2 days in Greece were a very rushed affair, trying to get round some of the historic sites of the city, mainly focusing on the Acropolis and the surrounding area. It doesn’t matter how much I travel, but I will always get excited to find myself at some well-photographed landmark, and have that pinch-myself moment of comprehension that I’m actually there! It was the same at the Parthenon, although I was slightly disappointed at the amount of scaffolding marring the site. One whole side of it was hidden behind immense steel scaffolds and platforms. That aside, the view from the Acropolis over the old and new sections of the city was amazing. It was bakingly hot, and there was a constant shimmer on the surface of the ground. Spending hours in the intense heat was hard going, and it was refreshing to finally sit down in the shade with a beer. By this point, I could understand enough Greek to freak out my partner. When he was chatting away to his friend, he turned to translate for me and before he got a chance, I related pretty much what he had just said. Incidentally, Greek, like many languages, is easy to learn on the ear, but the written language is a whole other ball game. Having said that, once you master the alphabet, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to read and write (I subsequently took several Greek classes in an effort to be more competent on any future excursions there).

 

I love wandering through foreign cities after dark and marveling at the similarities and differences to those Scottish cities I grew up in. I watched in awe at the controlled way that Greeks drink alcohol, a stark contrast to the rowdy, drunken behaviour that tarnishes the British social culture. Bars were packed out to the pavements, and drink was a plenty, but yet no matter how many streets and lanes we walked through, nowhere were there the signs of passed out drunks, or people peeing against every wall they could find. It was refreshing to find coffee shops open as late as the bars, something which I have always dreamed of in Scotland: somewhere social to go at night, that doesn’t revolve around alcohol. It was a fun place to be, just a pity the Athens stop-over was so rushed. I could have easily spent a lot longer immersing myself in local life, and the history of the place.

 

Looking back, it would have been an all together less satisfying holiday without a Greek at my side.

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