From England to Ecuador and beyond

From England to Ecuador and beyond

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Game on (part III): Ngorongoro Crater

The night before

This crater had better be worth the hassle getting here, and the crappy campsite! The road from the Serengeti to Ngorongoro Crater is outrageously bumpy - 'bumpy' being an understatement. We're talking the kind that has your brain rattling around in your skull, your arms glued to your chest to restrain any runaway boobs and your funny bone screaming out in pain as you whack it against the window for the umpteenth time. You can't read, you certainly can't sleep; even drinking a sip of water is out of the question because you will inevitably end up taking an early shower. 

This went on for hours until 'luckily' the truck got a flat tyre so we could chill on the side of the road while it was being fixed (being watched and approached by curious Masai tribespeople, one of the creepy variety who started reading my book over my shoulder - pet hate - touching my shoulder, and asking for my name, home town etc). Got to the campsite late, rushed to pitch the tents before the light completely faded, tromped over to the shower block trying to avoid big lumps of elephant shit (there are animals roaming around freely here too - there were zebra walking to and fro just a few metres away while we were having dinner!) to be greeted by cubicles with no lights (seriously, why?!) and squatty potties. B-e-a-utiful. 

Game on (part II): The Serengeti

I've finally arrived in Africa. Parched, dusty plains dotted with iconic acacia trees; wildlife galore; and to top it all off, a beautiful African sunset transforming the clear skies into a fusion of rusty oranges, deep reds and soft pinks. We are well and truly in Lion King territory - we even saw 'Zazu birds' (hornbills) - and I am in my element.*

It is a world away from the lush green Masai Mara in terms of landscape. In terms of the wildlife we've had fewer sightings and close-ups, probably owing to the fact that the Serengeti is a hell of a lot bigger than its Kenyan counterpart (8 times bigger, to be precise, at 14,700 km squared - the name actually means 'endless plains'), plus it's currently drier so game is migrating across to the Masai Mara to find water. Having said that, the Serengeti is rich with wildlife; the stomping ground of ostrich, baboons, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, Pumbas, topi, gazelle, zebras, jackals, hippo (we saw tracks, a big group of them half immersed in the water & a loner chowing down on some grass), elephants (saw a family spraying themselves with mud right by the track and had a HUGE one cross the path right in-between several safari trucks including ours), lions (2 lionesses and 7 cubs between them) and plenty more we haven't seen I'm sure**. 

And here's the best bit: we saw a LEOPARD (!!) which ticks off the last of the Big Five. We've been so incredibly lucky with wildlife - someone pointed out that we hadn't seen a hyena yet and honestly, less than 60 seconds later we spotted one sprawled in a lazy heap across an earthy mound. The leopard was the best sighting, of course: at first it lay concealed by the tall, straw-like grass but a few minutes later it sprang up without warning, ran behind the truck and up a nearby tree with a very dead and very raggedy looking gazelle/impala hanging from its mouth. Since we were facing almost right into the sun it was tough to get good photos but I've thrown one of the okay-ish ones in below - will play around with it at home (mid-September) to make it sharper.

The lovely thing is, almost all of our Big Five sightings have been special beyond the fact they're part of this prized group of game: the black rhino charged right at us, the lioness had 4 gorgeous cubs and (call us perverts but...) the pair of lions or 'honeymooners' were having a romp, the leopard ran up a tree with a kill in its mouth and we've had elephants lumber right past the truck as if we weren't there. The only thing we haven't seen is a kill: we've seen the before (the cheetah's failed attempt in the Masai Mara) and the after (the leopard with its kill). We have 2 game drives left so there's still time!

Great day, although the same can't be said of the campsite unfortunately - firstly it's slap bang in the middle of the Serengeti and not fenced off, which is quite cool as I can hear elephants trumpeting as I write, but also kind of nerve-racking (apparently hyenas and all sorts roam around freely at night)! Also the showers are SHITE - I expect cold water, that's fine, but there aren't even lights in the dirty cubicles which isn't terribly helpful when you arrive after sunset! And there's only one toilet and it's a smelly 'squatty potty'. Sigh. The campsite yesterday made up for it though: we stayed right on Victoria Lake - the largest lake in Africa - and it was beautiful. An abundance of wildlife (birds and lizards mainly), little beaches dotted around the site and swings looking out onto the lake - so tranquil and so perfect, and it didn't rain (we camped in insane thunderstorms for 2 nights on the trot a couple of days ago). Early morning game drive here tomorrow then heading to Ngorongoro Crater territory! 

P.S. The morning after the night before: just got on the bus to leave the campsite and we've already seen a pride of lions running around in the distance and an epic sunrise. Other people saw a herd of elephants earlier & a group on the other side apparently had a giraffe in their spot during the night - and a lion with its eye on the giraffe! 

*Speaking of The Lion King, 'Simba' is Swahili for lion! Never knew...

**Worth mentioning perhaps that we were multitasking by this point, simultaneously watching for game and thwacking any suspicious looking flies that buzzed into the truck with flip flops & anything else that looked like it might make a good squishing device. The northern part of the Serengeti is home to tsetse flies, which swarmed around the truck when it was rumbling along slowly or had come to a complete halt. Their bite causes a nasty sleeping sickness and they can also lay eggs under your skin - totally rank.

Jambo! Welcome to Africa

Since this trip is mainly focused on the rich abundance of wildlife East Africa has to offer, I haven't got much of an idea re: the culture and way of living, but bus appreciation days (i.e. 10 hours driving, yawn) and a seat by the window every other day have given me a bit of an insight. 

The people 

The rugged landscape is speckled with goats, cows and donkeys & there are kids as young as five taking charge of huge herds and working in the fields (and tea plantations in Kisii, perfectly balancing big baskets of leaves on their heads). The kids are great for the most part - they wave and smile as our truck passes the little villages (one decided that pulling his pants down and using something other than his hand to wave was a more suitable approach...what a LAD). 

They take a lot of interest in foreigners: we stopped at a grassy patch for lunch as we drove to our campsite in Kisii, and within about 2 minutes of parking the vehicle a small crowd had gathered - mostly children standing and staring as we ate lunch and a couple of adults was as if they'd never seen a white person before...maybe they hadn't? A couple of the guys starting handing out sweets and pencils & it was absolute CHAOS - massive scramble for treats from the 'rich white people' (some of the kids we pass on the bus yell "Give us sweets!" so they must be aware of some sort of cultural difference). 

We also stopped off at a soapstone 'factory' the following day and part of the tour was outside close to the street, where a few people gathered not too far off to have a good look at us. But weird, not going to lie, and is taking some getting used to...all very interesting though! 

The living conditions 

The living conditions are, quite frankly, appalling: houses that are little more than tiny shacks made out of whatever people can find; dusty earthen paths carpeted in litter and huge piles of rubble; rubbish burning in the streets; medical centres advertised with dirty, handwritten signs; tiny colourful shops, hardware stores and pharmacies protected from the elements sheets of corrugated metal; gaping holes in the pavements...the list goes on. Towns and villages look more like building sites - you really feel those miles between the squalor here and civilisation at home. 

When the bus goes through these villages, some people smile and wave, some look angry and others look bewildered. It's such an eye opener just driving through these places - I knew conditions were bad but it's still shocking to see it in person; we have it pretty good back home. 

We made a half hour stop in a Masai Town before going on the game drive through the Masai Mara and that was honestly quite enough. I said in a previous post that there are some places you choose to travel to where you just want to scarper in the other direction - and fast. This is definitely one of them. It's scary: there are armed guards outside the banks, guards outside the supermarket who scan your backpack and the roads are absolute chaos - you just have to go and hope they slow down! Throw in squat toilets, persistent flies and equally persistent street vendors and you have a fairly rounded idea of my worst nightmare - eeek. Quite glad we're keeping mainly to the wilderness and the wildlife!

A Brit abroad: 100 travelling experiences you will (probably) have

In celebration of my 100th blog post! Thank you to everyone who follows my blog, whether you've swung by on the odd occasion or you've ploughed through all 100 posts. Big love from Cape Town xx
  1. You will underestimate the sun's strength (who can blame you!) and end up with sunstroke/sunburn. Who knew there really is such a thing as 'too much sun'?
  2. You will miss the rain. And the cold. (Honestly.) There's no place like home...
  3. No matter where you are in the world, you will make a beeline for McDonald's after a long flight/stressful day 
  4. And get yourself a cuppa, pronto - or the closest possible alternative 
  5. You will be forced to have coffee or - god forbid - FLAVOURED herbal teas with breakfast. What is this brave new world?
  6. You will experience severe 'normal tea' withdrawal symptoms
  7. But fear not, as you will develop the impressive ability to hunt down English Breakfast Tea in the most unlikely places
  8. And if things get really desperate, you can always raid that emergency stash of PG Tips #firstthingyoupacked
  9. Source:
  10. You will open your mind to interests you'd never considered before, and become a meditating, bird-watching, mountain climbing incarnation of your former self - look out world!
  11. You will make 15 new Facebook friends in one day 
  12. And they'll be from all four corners of the world. Free accommodation, you say?
  13. You will ask a lot of strangers a lot of questions
  14. You will be amazed at the lengths people go to help you when you're lost/confused/need a computer to update your blog
  15. A British accent will get you far, especially in New York
  16. Although you should make the effort to learn snippets of the local language/dialect
  17. You will get hopelessly lost in a city you don't know
  18. Embrace it; getting off the beaten track is what it's all about
  19. You will indulge in the petty theft of shampoos and soaps from various hostels and hotels
  20. You will accumulate more shampoo and soap than you could ever hope to use
  21. You will get wildly excited at the prospect of free hostel towels
  22. You will worry about how excited you get at the prospect of free hostel towels #aminormal
  23. Peeing in a bush/at the side of the road/in a pitch black room with a hole in the floor becomes second nature. Needs must
  24. You will be forced to replace flip flops on a regular basis. Best not get too attached
  25. Same goes for sunglasses
  26. You will become an expert wi-fi hot spot detector
  27. You may have to go without wi-fi for a few days on the trot - but you'll probably enjoy the freedom
  28. You will become a bag packing, clothes rolling extraordinaire
  29. You'll develop a love/hate relationship with living out of a backpack
  30. You will kick yourself for not bringing a bottle opener/underwater camera/emergency teabag stash
  31. You know roughly how much your pack weighs just by lifting it
  32. But you still worry all the way to the airport how it will fare on the scales of doom. You live in fear of the 20kg limit
  33. You will get sick. Inevitably just before a 14 hour overnight bus
  34. You will feel sad, lonely or homesick at some point during your travels
  35. But you'll lift yourself out of it as quickly as it set in - and home's just a FaceTime call away
  36. A bit of distance makes you realise just how shite the Daily Mail is, especially when you log on to catch up with the news. The ACTUAL news, not 'headlines' about Kim Kardashian's daughter liking to comb her own hair. #WTFDM
  37. You will be swept up in the traveller wristband craze - you can barely see skin on one arm for the amount of bands you've amassed
  38. You will get a travel-inspired tattoo
  39. You will become one of those annoying people who always manages to bring the conversation back to their travels: 'I had a similar experience in Bolivia' / 'That reminds me of this one time in Tanzania...'
  40. You will catch the travel bug. Don't fight it
  41. It's infectious. You will inspire others to see the world 
  42. You'll soon realise there's no cure. The prospect of going back to a dreary 9-5 existence in drizzly England is seriously unappealing
  43. Working abroad/finding a job that pays you to travel has crossed your mind more than once
  44. You will eat weird food. Llama and mash, anyone? Tarantula leg?
  45. You will read a LOT. Now's the time to get started on War and Peace
  46. You will depend on your iPod to drown out snoring roommates/avoid conversation with weirdos
  47. You will perfect the art of ignoring pushy street vendors (Ooo, could I just have a look at that wristband actually?)
  48. You don't even consider staying at a hostel if it hasn't got a common room, wi-fi, secure lockers and 24/7 reception
  49. You will conduct the smell test on clothes to check whether you can eke out one more day's use
  50. You will drink a lot. Go with it.
  51. You will quickly learn to factor hangover days into your travel itinerary
  52. You will probably gain a few pounds. Bring on the loose, floaty traveller trousers!
  53. No matter what lengths you go to, you will always stand out as a tourist
  54. You will irritate friends and family with insane status updates/epic photos/awesome stories
  55. You will worry less. Most things that go wrong can be fixed. 
  56. You will appreciate how good you have it back home
  57. You will do things you never thought you could. You will push yourself out of your comfort zone, experience new things and constantly surprise yourself.
  58. Your world geography will improve apace. (Oh, the capital of Rwanda? Erm...) Okay, so the GENERAL whereabouts of places in GENERAL.
  59. You'll promise yourself that you will return to the places you love the most. You don't know when, but you'll make sure it happens
  60. Things that seemed bizarre at first will soon be considered normal. Zebras grazing by the road? Yeah, and what?
  61. But there are so many places to visit and so many things to see that the novelty of travelling never wears off
  62. You will fret over whether you should be back at home finding a job and settling down rather than gallivanting round the globe with no return flight
  63. But you'll shake it off sharpish - life is for living, and the road is life
  64. Likewise, you'll be glad you didn't let your dreams remain dreams #noregrets
  65. You will get so hot that you'd gratefully accept 50 ice bucket challenge nominations
  66. You'll get so cold that wearing the entire contents of your backpack just isn't enough
  67. You'll find out who your real friends are by who keeps in touch, and whose absence you feel most acutely
  68. Tinder is global. Just sayin'.
  69. You will have lots of time to think and figure things out
  70. You'll learn to love plane food
  71. You will become the master of unearthing free activities - anything that keeps you travelling for longer
  72. You'll struggle to keep your eyes open some days. The explorer by day/party animal by night character is a dude but darn hard to keep up with sometimes
  73. You will take so many photos that your SD card will be fit to burst. Oh hey Dropbox, nice to meet you
  74. You'll struggle to decide which is your most valuable possession, your passport or your camera
  75. It will dawn on you just how big the world is; that it's impossible to go everywhere
  76. If you weren't already, you'll turn into a yes (wo)man - you never know where an opportunity might lead
  77. You'll see some truly special places that only a handful of people will see in their lifetime
  78. You'll find yourself doing things you thought you hated (such as camping) because it's the cheapest/best way to see somewhere - and whaddaya know, turns out it's not SO bad after all
  79. Your aim will improve dramatically thanks to swarms of biting and stinging foreign insects. Those mozzies don't stand a chance
  80. Squat toilets also play a part in this. If at first you don't succeed...
  81. You will scorn your former fear of the harmless money spider after coming face to face with lions, great whites and giant flying bugs
  82. You will find a squashed, forgotten food item at the bottom of your bag when you decide it's time for a re-pack
  83. It will probably be mouldy. And damp. And have leaked onto your clean clothes.
  84. You will strive to put off washing day for as long as humanly possible
  85. But you'll never appreciate clean clothes more than when you're travelling
  86. You will meet a lot of Canadians, Australians, Danes, Germans and fellow Brits
  87. There will ALWAYS be at least one crying/irritating/boisterous kid on your plane/bus/train. It doesn't get any more tolerable over time.
  88. You will be humbled by the power of nature as you feast your eyes and ears on the sights & sounds of incredible landscapes and exotic wildlife
  89. You'll pick up new words and phrases from people you meet that rapidly establish themselves as part of your everyday vocab (That's totally rad, hot dayuum, saúde-SaOOji)
  90. You will watch countless sunrises and sunsets over the ocean, iconic landmarks and natural wonders of the world
  91. You will share many of your experiences with other people
  92. But you'll also get the chance to spend lots of quality time with YOU
  93. You'll be super glad you didn't listen to the people who tried to dissuade you from packing jeans (take them: they are universal, versatile and go with everything)
  94. You might find yourself getting strangely attached to geeky items, such as your head torch. But seriously, what would you do without it?
  95. You will accumulate small but meaningful treasures to remember your journey by: a Bolivian bag here, an African necklace there - not to mention postcards and ticket stubs
  96. Plus heaps of fabulous memories to draw on at your leisure
  97. You may find you don't like some places as much as you'd hoped
  98. And you might fall in love with a city you didn't expect to
  99. Swings and roundabouts eh; it's all an experience. All you really need to know is...
  100. You'll have an AMAZING time!
If you have any more to add, the comments box is ready and raring!

Game on: The Masai Mara

The VERY bumpy terrain we had to cross to get here (or as our guide says, too much African disco) was well worth it - although next time I will be packing a sports bra, just sayin'. Over the course of two days here we have seen TONNES. Jackals & vultures hungrily tearing the meat off an unidentifiable dead animal, along with abundant buffalo, zebras and giraffes. The lush green land is also populated with elan (the largest type of antelope) and wildebeest, who like to stick with zebras as they can sense danger. We were so excited to see elephants, another one of the Big Five! With a one month baby in tow, they lumbered right past the truck which was SO cool. Also had the good luck to see a lioness and her four cubs, who put on quite a show - and then a young male and female pair (honeymooners) who we saw in the act of mating! Delightful. Apparently they're at it every 15 minutes for a two week period just to make sure they conceive! No wonder the male was yawning every few minutes - or that the female looked disinterested and slightly put out! Got so close, it was fantastic, very happy with the photos! 

We haven't spotted a leopard yet but saw cheetahs on three occasions during our second game drive. The third came very close to the truck and we realised it had its eye on an impala a little way off in the distance so stuck around for a while. So glad we did - it was a long old waiting game but once the impala had its back turned the cheetah started creeping forwards step by step and when it was about 30 metres away went in for the kill...only to be outsmarted by the impala. Epic seeing the chase though, high speed action and lots of dust kicked up - no photo unfortunately as it all happened in the blink of an eye. 

We may also see hyena our campsite! Dear GOD. Our guide warned us not to leave anything outside our tent in case the hyenas steal our stuff (apparently they have a particular penchant for shoes). And not to go to the bathroom on our own in case we get attacked! Cripes. On that note, the toilet facilities are a lot better than I expected, except for the inevitable bugs flying towards the light: a ginormous moth sent me packing out of one cubicle with my trousers round my ankles (luckily I was alone!) and diving into the next for safety. Showers...not so great. And now it's raining like crazy, which just makes everything ten times more difficult when you're in a tent. WHAT have I signed up for. Think this will be my last camping excursion for a while!

Naivasha and Nakuru Lake

Naivasha Lake

My first ever game 'drive' was actually a boat ride on Lake Naivasha - and oh WOW what a great start to the trip! With leafless trees half sunken in a vast expanse of shimmering water positively teeming with life, it was impossibly beautiful on arrival. 

We saw tonnes - buffalo, topi, zebra (the stripes are unique to each individual, believe it or not), hippos and giraffe. We got so close to the hippos (possibly a bit too close for comfort, they're known for being very aggressive, but great views!). 

We saw giraffes from a distance and I kept my eyes on these at first, until someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out one almost right in front of us neatly camouflaged in the bushes. If that wasn't enough, another one stepped out and waded through the shallows to shore just in front of our boat. So close. So awesome. Couldn't stop staring! 

It was a lovely boat ride - lots of game, lots of close ups and nice & relaxing - plus we were split among three boats so had some more space and better viewing. Most of our game drives will be in the big overland truck (boo) apart from the Ngorongoro Crater where we split into separate 4x4s. 

Nakuru Lake 

Nakuru 'Lake' is actually more of a park than a lake and is also jam-packed with amazing wildlife. Saw jackals, warthogs (Pumba!), zebra, giraffe, impala, topi, baboons and flamingoes. And...2 species of one of the Big Five - black and white rhinos! We saw the black rhino within 5 minutes of entering the park, which was lucky in itself, plus our guide kept saying how rare it is to see them anyway, especially so close up! It was a very pregnant female so she was incredibly protective and territorial, particularly when faced with our 10 tonne monster truck and 21 pairs of eyes - so much so that she charged right at us, only coming to a screeching halt when she was just metres away from the bus. It. Was. Awesome! 

We also saw some white rhinos, which were eagerly followed by waddling geese-like birds who gobble up the grasshoppers dislodged from the ground as the rhinos make their way across the plain. Speaking of which, the plains could have been a canvas - the pied landscape was dotted with so many different species it was hard to know where to point the camera. So, two of the Big Five (buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard) in one day - not bad going! Has been a long day though, am absolutely knackered - it's 9pm and we're bedding down already (haven't quite managed to shake off 60 year old syndrome post bird-watching) although we do have very early starts and long drives during the day so playing grandma is quite necessary!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Isn't it amazing how the smallest decision...

...can end up drastically changing the course of your day, trip or even life? When I went down to dinner alone yesterday, I never dreamed that this everyday affair would lead to meeting a world renowned zoologist and receiving a free pair of nearly new binoculars. 

In last night's blog post, I mentioned that a nice Canadian couple (Lu and Jaynne) who invited me to sit with them at dinner kindly offered to drop me off at the National Museum in the morning, as I'd been too nervous to leave the hotel that entire day. As it transpired, they'd planned to spend a few hours there themselves and let me tag along as their private guide showed them the museum's collection of stuffed bird skins (it was more interesting than it sounds! There was one tiny bird the size of a moth's body - so excluding wings - and some beautiful, brightly coloured specimens too). After being introduced to everyone in the department, we went for a stroll around the museum grounds looking and listening for birds with Lu's binoculars looped around my neck (bird watching is their thing, and it was a privilege to see how passionate they are about it - stopping mid-sentence to identify a bird that had hopped into their line of vision & letting their soups go cold to hurry me down the path and make sure I got a good view of an African Paradise Flycatcher). 

When we sat down for a Kenyan shandy/ginger beer concoction (verdict: delish), Lu said he and Jaynne had been talking and that they wanted to give me the binoculars! Like, proper binoculars which were bought new at the beginning of his trip. Speechless is not the word; I think I managed to stammer a thank you but I was entirely lost for words at such a generous gesture - especially since they'd known me for little under 8 hours. And then they were shocked I paid for the tea! It was the very least I could do - did I also mention that they gave their guide their 50x zoom camera as a parting gift?! Canadians are officially my favourite people.

The binoculars are not only a symbol of generosity but will also dramatically enhance my safari experience. I'd gone upstairs a bit miffed at myself after dinner yesterday for not having packed a pair (honestly, the thought hadn't even crossed my mind until Lu showed genuine concern for how much I might miss. Found myself Googling gaff like 'Do I reeeally need binoculars for a safari' and the resounding answer was a big fat YES. Balls).

I am SO chuffed with my gift, which will do the obvious and enhance my viewing of animals we can't get up close to, and allow me to see wildlife we do get up close to in greater detail. Plus, they'll come in super handy for whale watching in Hermanus, so I can take my favourite pastime to the next level! Yay!!!

If this wasn't enough, it turns out Lu - who introduced himself as a retired zoologist and biologist - is actually an internationally renowned expert in his field, has published several books and...wait for it...has worked with David Attenborough (my idol)!! And to think I almost cancelled because I was tired... (There was a wedding taking place nearby last night that went noisily on until the early hours.) Life eh? Sometimes it really comes through for you!

P.S. Got a bit of a shock on the walk back from the museum. A man collapsed behind us and appeared to be having a seizure. It was so scary, he was foaming at the mouth and I really thought he was going to die. Luckily Lu & Jaynne's guide was with us and rushed to put him in the recovery position while Lu ran off to get help (while I just stood there frozen to the spot, useless). By the time help had arrived he was sitting up and seemed to be okay, but the whole episode was slightly terrifying.

P.P.S. Met my group just now...there are 21 of us and of the 16 people there (including myself) 14 are couples!! Sigh. There's one girl from Surrey who's on her own and seems cool & if there are 5 more left to arrive that means at least one more person is travelling solo - hooray! Although the couples do seem really nice (one from Ireland). Tomorrow should be good, we're doing a boat safari on Lake Naivasha & a game drive round Lake Nakuru. Excellent! 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Bananaaaa and other things

My minions are coming to the end of their life span :( 

Boooo. Impressed with how long they've lasted though - got them painted in April! And yes...I know I've got weird feet.

Other than the dawning realisation that I won't have minions on my toes forever, the first night here went well - a really sweet Canadian couple invited me to sit at their table during dinner (I'd gone down to the restaurant on my own - waiting for tour buddies to arrive) and in addition to super interesting conversation (all from my side of course), they also said they'd ask their personal guide to take me to the national museum tomorrow morning to make sure I actually get out of the hotel. How nice?! Turns out someone I met in the Galápagos back in April is in Kenya and actually planning to go to the museum tomorrow as well...! Funny how things work out eh. Quite fancied the National Park for a pre-safari experience but it's €150! Museum it is. Apparently the grounds are really nice and are home to a number of wild birds, which, if anything like the species I saw earlier, will be pretty sweet! 

Is that a GIRAFFE?! First impressions - Nairobi

Well! Africa got off to a fabulous start: I was treated to my first African sunrise as the plane landed at Jomo Kenyatta at 6.25am and within 30 seconds of leaving the airport car park I glimpsed giraffes roaming around in the wild. Then, in the hour it took to crawl the few miles though the traffic to the hotel, I saw some enormous white birds half the height of a human being perched on the tops of trees, on rooftops and at the roadside - and Kenyans strolling past without giving them as much as a glance. I've decided that these are excellent signs and am now super excited to go on all the game drives lined up over the next week. 

However, Nairobi as a city...the reason I arrived a day early is because I'd read that sometimes checked bags from Heathrow don't arrive/experience delays so I wanted to give myself enough time to deal with the aftermath should this have happened to me. But now that I'm sitting in the hotel room with bag very much in tow, I'm wondering whether it was such a great idea. Despite requesting a city map and directions to the nearest supermarket from the front desk, I have still not made it beyond the hotel premises and I've been here for 9 hours. Why? For starters, the armed guard and big metal gate fencing the building off from the general public is somewhat off putting...added to the fact that I didn't see ANY tourists on my journey from the airport and that Nairobi is not deemed a safe city - by my tour company and by the FCO (kidnappings, terrorism, that sort of thing).

For someone who merrily spent 11 hours walking around Paris on their first day in the city, being cooped up and unable - albeit for safety reasons - to explore somewhere new is incredibly frustrating, especially when I know it would PROBABLY be fine. It sucks, but at least I (for once) had the foresight to go book shopping at the airport before leaving London. One evening and one very long day to go...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Brace yourself! 5 things that are IMPOSSIBLE to avoid in Venice

Fabulous though it is, travelling isn't all smooth sailing. Whether you go gallivanting off for two months or two years, you will come face to face with a string of problems, big and small, that are down to you - and you alone - to fix. Sometimes you may even find yourself in a place you just want to skedaddle the hell out of, and that's okay. It's all part of the experience; after all, it's better to have a life of 'Oh wells' than 'What ifs'.

They say that preparation is often the best defence, and knowing what to expect can help you grin & bear a difficult situation and make the most of being in even the most bewildering of places. I really liked Venice, but there were a few things that left a sour taste in my mouth. Don't say you haven't been warned!

1. The crowds

Oh dear god, the crowds. Hoards of tourists pour into Venice every single day of the week, and I'm pretty sure it didn't help that I visited in high season. Here are just a few of the things that will make even the most gentle-natured person fly into a fit of rage:
  • Confused and/or curious tourists will come to a sudden halt right in front of you to pore over a map or indulge in yet another spot of window shopping. Outcome: you trip over yourself in your haste to stop, or you end up with your nose in someone's armpit. In 29C heat
  • People will happily shoulder barge you to get past or beat you to the prime photo positions. Queuing doesn't count for much here, something which is sure to rile any British tourist (or any decent human being with a shred of respect for other people)
  • Bulging rucksacks will send you flying across a bridge or careering down a set of steps when their owners suddenly whip round without warning. Cue bruised body parts and a keen desire to throw the offending item, and its owner, into the Grand Canal
  • You will be temporarily glued to the floor when unobservant tourists stand on the back of your flip flops, unwittingly pinning you to the ground. Lucky it's Venice and there's always something interesting to look at while you wait for them to kindly release you back into the general carnage
How to deal with these creatures of anarchy, you might ask? I thoroughly recommend abandoning all traces of the inherent grace and politeness that comes with being British, and sharpening those elbows - you're going to need them!


2. The pigeons

The opening line of an article I read about Venice before leaving home stated: "Venice: the city of St Mark's Square, palazzi and pigeons - why wouldn't you want to go there?" Why indeed... I'm not too sure why these disease-ridden and frankly rather scruffy scavengers were included in a top three list of Venice attractions; after all, they're hardly comparable to Australia's koalas or South Africa's whales. These brazen birds rule the roost here, particularly in St Mark's Square, flying within an inch of your head as people feed them and kids hyped up on gelato send them scattering in a panic. They really are everywhere, as demonstrated by this unwitting young lady!

3. The expense

Even a short stay in Venice can ruin your budget if you don't tread carefully. A single trip on a water taxi costs an astronomical €7 (even if you're just travelling two stops down the line - your best bet is to get hold of a 24/48/72 hour pass), it costs €5 for just half an hour in an internet cafe (and $0.50 to print off a boarding pass) and €1.50 to use the public toilets. Watch out for the sneaky service charge restaurants whack onto the bill too. Venice doesn't come cheap!

4. Pesky waiters

The second you begin to peruse a menu in the window, a waiter materialises from thin air and incessantly starts asking difficult questions (whether I want pizza, pasta, gelato, cappuccino #firstworldproblems) until I ignore them for long enough or turn on my heel and leave. Something they also really need to be made aware of is that staring at a girl on her own and making comments on her appearance is only going to lose them business, no matter how nice they think they're being. I was about to walk into a pizza restaurant until the waiter opened his mouth, at which point I made a swift U-turn and marched off absolutely seething in the other direction. I don't care if it's the culture; in my book it's unprofessional and makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Why would I want to eat in an establishment where I'll be stared at/interrupted/harrassed during my meal? One evening I resorted to getting take out and eating on some steps beside a canal because I was so self-conscious - definitely not how it should be.

5. Getting hopelessly lost

Honestly, you might as well take the €2.50 it costs to buy a city map and use it to buy a gelato - you'll find yourself getting utterly lost either way. The labyrinthine network of streets is almost impossible to get the hang of in a few days, and christ knows how the locals have mastered it. But then, losing yourself in a new city is half the fun, not to mention a great way to discover hidden gems and off the beaten track treasures!

Knowing what to expect can help you deal with issues abroad quickly and easily, so it can be worth doing your research beforehand to ensure your trip goes off without a hitch. Whatever you do, don't let me put you off going to Venice: it's a gorgeous, unique city that's like nowhere else on earth - I say go!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Don't do churches or museums? 4 reasons you should STILL go to Venice

Of the 131 things to see and do in Venice, as proposed by a map I picked up at the tourist office, 56 were churches, 48 palaces & museums and 11 historical schools. A further six suggested theatres and several of the 10 attractions under the 'Points of Interest' subheading were markets. My heart sank - I've never been hugely interested in churches or museums, and shopping is a painful chore that only worms its way into my schedule when absolutely necessary. Had I chosen the wrong city to end my two week jaunt on the Continent?

To put it simply, no. Despite having been awake for 24 hours by the time I floated into Venice and the gentle rocking of a boat I could only hope was going in the right direction proving inconveniently conducive to sleep, I somehow managed to summon up the energy to admire how unique the city really is. It was all up from there, and I spent three lovely days knocking down the foundations upon which my initial concerns were built, without a church or an art gallery in sight.

While I generally like to spend a good three or four days in a city, I think Venice can easily be done in just two - and that's at a leisurely pace. Here's how I brought my European gallivanting to a close:

1. Piazza San Marco

Perhaps with the exception of floating down the Grand Canal on a gondola, strolling through St Mark's Square is the most touristy thing you can do in Venice, but there's a reason so many people are drawn to this area. The walls of the impressive buildings behind the square's celebrity status are laced with intricate carvings and patterns, cooking up a real feast for the eyes in every possible direction. With exquisite detail wherever you shift your gaze, an abundance of al fresco dining options and shops selling locally crafted glass and lace manufactured on nearby islands Murano and Burano, it's no wonder tourists flock to this bustling piazza. 

If you do one thing in San Marco, go up the Campanile, which provides stunning views of Venice for €8, and when leaving the square keep an eye out for the famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospire), which connected the Old Prison in the Doge's Palace to the New Prison across the water, and is where legend has it the heavy sighs of felons could be heard as they snatched their last glimpse of Venice before being locked away. The name is an invention of Romantic poet Lord Byron, from his 1812 work Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: "I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and a prison on each hand".

2. Winding waterways

Founded 1,600 years ago on a marshy lagoon, Venice is something of a masterpiece, with its emerald blue-green canals relieving a vastly urban landscape dominated by stone and stuccoed walls. These gondola-lined waterways (which put the murky Thames to shame) are flanked by buildings where doors open straight onto the water, bestowing a unique air upon the city - it's an incredible feat of architecture like nowhere else on the planet. Surrendering some time to the canals that made Venice an essential stop on any European travel route is a must, whether you achieve this on a gondola, aboard a water taxi, at a canal side restaurant or reading in a quiet back street watching the word float by.

3. Narrow back streets

I thought the canals were a bit on the narrow side, with skilled gondoliers manoeuvering these typical Venetian rowing boats to the side to make room for two-way traffic and gracefully stooping under low-slung bridges. Then I veered away from the tourist spots on dry land and felt like I'd fallen down the rabbit hole. With doorways so low I actually ducked out of necessity rather than wishful thinking, narrow passageways that can't accommodate two people going opposite ways and backstreets plunged into almost complete darkness even in the middle of the day, the maze of streets surrounding the main visitor draws are well worth exploring, not to mention a great way to escape the crowds. The signposted route from Piazza San Marco to Ponte di Rialto makes a good starting point, but after that put down the map and lose yourself in the crumbling facades and hidden corners the less well-trodden streets have to offer.

4. Burano

I'd read several posts online warning tourists to avoid both Burano, famous for its lace trade, and Murano, where the impressive glass ornaments adorning Venice shop windows are lovingly created. However, after conducting a quick Google Image search for Burano, I chose to ignore the reviews and make the two hour journey to this tiny island north-east of Venice - and I'm so glad I did. Burano may be small but it makes up for what it lacks in size in formidable beauty. Being 5'2'' (and a little biased), I'm a great believer in the saying that good things come in small packages, and Burano does nothing but add to the evidence. Despite being a neighbouring island, the brightly coloured houses and enchanting crooked bell tower that characterise this sleepy fisherman's village are a world away from the faded facades of Venice's white-grey cityscape.

Lime green, Mediterranean blue and sunshine yellow with colourful flower boxes in the windows to match: the homes on this quaint patchwork island have unwittingly created a fabulous al fresco art gallery that has the bewitching power to hold the wandering gaze of tourists - and of course it provides photo opportunities by the gallon. Plus, with wild grassy areas tracing the island's outline - where you'll get a feel for the 'real' Burano away from snap happy tourists - it is also an oasis for those seeking rural respite. I cannot recommend it enough!

Out of everything I did, I have to admit that simply sitting on a bench looking out across the water came up trumps, closely followed by my spontaneous trip to Burano. It's currently late afternoon, and I'm sat comfortably on a bench along the waterfront away from the centre, watching as the sinking sun gradually extinguishes the spectacular skyline, transforming churches and palazzis into intricate silhouettes and lending a shimmering orange glow to the vast expanse of water that isolates Venice from the mainland. I can feel the pent-up frustration from battling the crowds all morning melt with each soothing lap of the gentle waves, and the light breeze offers welcome relief from the heat of the day.

However, there's a sense of urgency pervading these rare moments of peace: the city is sinking and it faces an uncertain future as the sea levels in the Adriatic continue to rise. Venice has long been a source of inspiration for poets and novelists, but it may not be around for much longer - so it's all the more important to grasp the opportunity to see it if you can.