Uluru-Ayers Rock, Australia

                                              

 Our Itinerary

22/10/2020   ThursNewcastle to Sydney 
23/10/2020   FriSydney to Uluru 
24/10/2020   SatUluru 
25/10/2020   SunUluru 
26/10/2020   MonUluru to Kata Tjuta to Uluru 
27/10/2020   TuesUluru to Sydney to Newcastle 

Thursday 22nd October, 2020

 Newcastle to Sydney

After catching the train from Hamilton to Central Station in Sydney we walk up Oxford Street to Jillian and Michael’s apartment in Surry Hills. With Covid still happening, the streets are much quieter than we’ve ever seen before. Apparently lots of people are working from home and lots more have lost their jobs.

At seven o’clock we head up to the Courthouse Hotel for dinner. The lift is tiny so it’s a struggle for Michael to get his wheelchair inside but eventually we’re all in for drinks and dinner. Later we walk around to Tam’s apartment to meet her and Matt.      They meet us outside for a long chat then the four of us have more drinks at home.

Friday 23rd October, 2020

Sydney to Uluru

 At six thirty Mark and I are up, showered and ready to leave. Walking back to Central Station is exciting as always when we’re off to the airport. Only the Domestic this time as international travel is sadly non-existent. And it’s the reason we’re flying to Ayers Rock instead of Thailand or Bali or anywhere else overseas.

This Ayers Rock trip was booked in August but all flights were suspended after the Indigenous community closed the National Park. A plane load of tourists were virtually spun around and flown back to Brisbane on the 4th August. The Mutitjulu Aboriginal community blockaded the gates to the park as they were rightly worried about the risk to locals from visitors flying in from interstate Covid-19 hotspots.

We’d planned to fly to Brisbane that day and then onto Ayers Rock so we made a quick change of plan and flew to Darwin instead. This ended up being a fantastic trip and now we’re still going to the Rock anyway. Things usually work out.

At Sydney Domestic we’re all stopped by police to be interviewed before getting into the boarding area. Not only do we have to show id and the Northern Territory Border Pass, but we have also have to show our bank statements to prove that we haven’t been in a hotspot in the last fourteen days. 

The terminal is weirdly quiet – we wear masks and social distancing is advised – but on the plane we’re all squashed in like sardines! The plane is so full that Mark and I haven’t even got seats next to each other but at least we’re across the aisle. Not a big issue on a three hour flight.

As we approach Uluru, people are cramming the windows to see the Rock below – we only get a glimpse from our aisle seats. But disembarking straight onto the scorching tarmac, we can see it sitting alone and majestic in the distance. Amazing!

So, should we say ‘Ayers Rock’ or ‘Uluru’? Officially, it’s both – actually ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’. It was originally called Ayers Rock by William Gosse who was the first European to set eyes on it in 1873. He named it after the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time – very boring – but then in 1993 the name was changed to Ayers Rock / Uluru, acknowledging the Aboriginal name. Even better, in 2002 the names were switched around to prioritise the Aboriginal name.

Another cool fact is that while the Rock has two names it also has two UNESCO World Heritage Listings. The first was in 1987 for its unique geology then in 1997 for its cultural significance to the Aboriginal people.

We wait in long socially distanced lines in the shade outside the terminal as only a certain number of people can be inside at the one time. Each person has to go through the whole border security process that we’d already done a few hours ago in Sydney. We don’t really care though as there’s a real holiday buzz despite everyone wearing face masks – bizarre!

Two hours later we’re all put on a series of buses headed for Yulara only ten minutes away. Yulara is the only settlement in this area and situated just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.  Most of the town is made up of Ayers Rock Resort and the rest is where resort staff and tour guides live. It’s also the home of the National Indigenous Training Academy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Leaving the airport we see the vast semi-arid landscape which we really came to appreciate when we visited Katherine a few months ago. The red dirt is striking against a brilliant blue sky.

Turning into Yulara we drop people off at the Emu Walk Apartments and at the Lost Camel which are both budget accommodation options and where we would normally have stayed until I found an awesome deal on Luxury Escapes. So now we’re in the five-star Sails in the Desert resort, daaaarling! – we never stay anywhere five star! Instead of $600 a night we’re only paying $300 a night. This is still really, really expensive but we do get a buffet breakfast each day plus a Fields of Light tour tonight.

Now we pull into Sails so called because of the soaring white sails that overlap the resort. Inside we walk straight into a gallery and gift shop showcasing Aboriginal art then check in at Reception. All the staff are local people and are sooo friendly and funny. ‘Palya’ they say, which is a greeting in the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara language. We’re given the rundown on the resort and all the activities they offer for free.

Our room isn’t ready just yet so we settle into the busy glass-walled bar and restaurant area for prawn nibblies and a glass of champagne each – welcome to Ayers Rock Resort – love it already.

Later we’re shown to our room with a wide balcony facing the pool. The room is big with all the things a five-star resort is supposed to have. After showers and a nap we head back to the reception area for our bus to The Field of Light experience which is part of our package.

On the way we drive around the Resort past the camping ground and the Pioneer Resort which is currently closed to tourists – Covid again – and is being used to house staff.  Ten minutes later we pull up at the bottom of a track that leads up to the viewing area. At the top of the dune, Ayers Rock is facing us in the distance with the installation in a broad field below. At this time of day there just appears to be a whitish glow and we’ll have to wait till dark when the 50,000 solar-powered stems light up.

So what is The Field of Light? It’s a light installation created by British artist Bruce Monroe who fell in love with the Red Centre in 1992. He said that he “wanted to create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars”. He developed his idea over a decade then returned to Ayers Rock in 2016 to install it. It was only supposed to stay for a season but it’s still here and has now been extended for another seven years.

Before dark, we’re handed outback canapes and drink sparkling wine and beer. Mark is having a great time drinking my share as well. I just stick with a champagne and orange – hate wine and beer. As darkness falls, the glass spheres slowly come to life in brilliant reds, blues, purples, green and every other colour of the rainbow.

Late we all walk down to immerse ourselves amongst the lights. Pathways wind across the fields which seem much bigger at this level and seem to go on forever. It’s been a surprisingly fabulous experience.

Back on the bus we’re looking forward to drinks and something to eat. Driving back through the desert it’s very dark by now so the resort is like a little glowing oasis. We’re too late to have dinner at Sails so we head over to Town Square where the Gecko Bar is pumping with locals and a few tourists.

We order a pizza and have a fun night with beer and my smuggled in Bacardi. Bed about 9.30pm when the bar closes – early nights in the resort which suits us as well.

Saturday 24th October, 2020

 Uluru

Our plan today is to hang around here this morning then we’re booked on a sunset tour of Uluru starting about two o’clock this afternoon.

In the main dining room we find that our package includes a full breakfast which would cost us $45 each otherwise. It’s usually a buffet style but with COVID we all have to stay seated while the waiters come to our table. We can still eat as much as we like so we both order two meals each. We figure that a huge breakfast will mean we won’t need to buy lunch – pretty expensive here.

The resort also offers free cultural experiences like Bush Food Experience, Bush Yarns, Guided Garden Walks, Didgeridoo Workshop and more. So at 10 o’clock we wander over towards the grassy area near Town Square where the Bush Yarns are about to start at the Circle of Sand. A lovely Aboriginal man called Leon tells us about the weapons that the local people used for hunting, some still do but he says he stopped using them when he was given a rifle – ha ha. We learn a lot which is one of the things we love about travel – like, we thought all Aboriginal people used boomerangs – wrong! Leon also shows us women’s tools and techniques they use to gather bush tucker. We love it all!

Later, we hang out at Town Square and the Mingkiri Arts Gallery where we buy Indigenous crafts for us and for gifts. We’ve really fallen in love with Aboriginal artwork since our visit to Darwin a few months ago.

Now we decide to visit the Camel Farm which is on the other side of Yulara. We wait for the shuttle bus that comes about every half hour. A young Aboriginal woman chats to us at the stop. The small bus winds around the resort mainly dropping off workers at their accommodation near the camping area – we’re the only tourists. 

The Uluru Camel Farm is the largest working camel farm in Australia operating five tours per day and home to sixty working camels from the wilds of Australia. We stop to talk to a real camel cowboy then a camel cowgirl who tells us how much she loves the camels and how each one has a very distinct personality, so we wander around the series of large pens where the camels are held to say hello.

But camels aren’t indigenous to Australia and are now considered to be a pest. They were first introduced here in the 1840’s to assist in the exploration of inland Australia. Incredibly, between 1840 and 1907 around 20,000 camels were imported from India! At first they were domestic, but from the 1920s as people started using vehicles and the camels were just abandoned. Once they were released in the open, they became feral and started multiplying out of control. Today there’s about three million of them – Australia actually has the largest wild population of Arabian camels in the world!! More about this later.

We check out the rest of the Farm which has its own Saddlery, where they make and repair their own saddles, the Royal Mail Hotel and Old Tom’s Water Hole. While we wait for the shuttle to take us back to Sails, we buy drinks at the General Store.

At the Resort we head straight for Town Square to have lunch at the Gecko Bar. We sit outside in the shade near the fountain and share an excellent hamburger.

At 2.45pm we wait with a large group outside Sails – getting picked up for our Uluru Sunset Tour with SEIT Tours. This will be a five hour tour of the Rock costing $177 each. Our driver/guide is Barry again who is just as enthusiastic as he was last night. We’re looking forward to learning a lot more today – old farts!

It’s a short ten-minute drive to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. At the entrance we show our passes although the park fee was included in our package and anyway, the fee has been waved during these COVID times – everything is being done to try to attract tourists.

Of course, we’ve already seen the Rock looming ahead of us – it’s HUUUGE! A giant red blob sitting alone on the flat desert plain. At 348 metres high, 3.6 kilometres long and 1.9 kilometres wide we can’t but be impressed. What’s even more impressive is when Barry tells us that the Rock extends six kilometres below ground – straight down – bloody hell!

After stopping a couple of times to get out of the bus to take photos, we drive around to the eastern side of the Rock, eventually pulling into the Kuniya carpark. From here we follow Barry to the base of Uluru. It’s surprising to see lots of tall trees – River Red Gums – compared to the low lying scrub of the rest of the landscape.

The track leads us to an overhang or small cave where ancient aboriginal art covers the ceiling and the walls. Barry explains what the different drawings mean, like a circle with concentric rings means a water hole and an empty circle means no water.

The paintings were made by the Mala people who were the ancestors of the Anangu people, the traditional owners. Barry tells us about Tjukurpa which is basically everything to do with Anangu spirituality and culture. He says this is not just an abstract idea but lives in the land and the people.

Further on, we reach the Mutitjulu waterhole at the base of the rock. Uluru receives around 300mm of rain on average each year which creates waterfalls and some flowing into Mutitjulu.  Looking up, the Rock is extremely beautiful with crevices and soft folds smoothed by wind and rain over millions of years.

More Barry info is that Uluru isn’t made up of red rock but is actually a grey sedimentary rock called arkose sandstone. This is high in iron which rusts when exposed to the air to form the beautiful red colour it’s famous for.

Back in the bus we drive around to the opposite side of the Rock where we start the Mala Walk. This is dotted with lots of traditional cultural sites and we find a cave where the ceiling is black with soot from ancient campfires.

We meet the bus at a carpark which was once the starting off point for climbing Uluru which was officially banned in 2019. We can see the trail which looks scarily steep especially the first section. Google says that ‘an estimated 37 people have died on Uluru since Western tourists began climbing the site in the middle of last century via a track so steep in parts that some scared visitors descend backward or on all fours. Some slipped on wet rock and fell to their deaths.’

The Anangu people always requested that visitors refrain from climbing the rock out of respect for their ancient culture. Aboriginal people have called Uluru home for over 30,000 years so I think they’ve got the right to stop these fuckwits wanting to climb it just for a thrill. Stats say that an average of 135 people a day climbed it – even English royalty like Prince Charles and Princess Diana who climbed it on their 1983 tour.

And you can’t think of Ayers Rock without remembering the terrible story of Azaria and Lindy Chamberlain. Azaria was only two months old when she was taken by a dingo from her parent’s tent in August 1980. Lindy was tried and convicted of murder on 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1986 when a climber fell tragically to his death, a piece of Azaria’s clothing was found near his body. This finding near numerous dingo lairs led to Lindy Chamberlain’s release from prison.

But now, as the sun starts to drop we drive to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area to watch sunset over Uluru with Kata Tjuta in the distance. Barry sets up tables to serve drinks and nibblies and, as usual, when there’s food to be had, people swarm to grab as much as they can – pretty funny and they’re a really nice crew anyway.

With a glass of champagne each, we pose for photos with the sun setting behind Uluru then chat with some Asian ladies who are having a ball – love Asians.

Back at Sails we run into them in the restaurant and they ask us to sit with them. Lydia and Volet are from Canberra both originally from the Philippines and married to Australian diplomats plus Leta from Bali. We have a few drinks with them and plan to meet for dinner tomorrow night. They’re all hilarious and definitely out for a good time.

Bed about ten o’clock after a wonderful first day. 

Sunday 25th October, 2020

 Uluru

At 4.30am we’re up to get ready for our sunrise camel safari. Again we’re picked up outside Sails for the short drive to the Camel Farm. About twenty of us line up next to the camels which are tied together in a long row. John introduces himself as our guide then he and a young female cameleer called Lisa, decide which people will ride which camel – big person, big camel.

Our camel’s name is Khan but Nico is the camel directly behind us and I think she’s fallen in love with Mark. She keeps snuggling up to him and rubbing her face on his back. Leaving the Camel Farm we head out into the desert as the darkness slowly lifts. In the peace and coolness of the morning we ride over the rich red sand dunes while Lisa walks beside us telling us about the flora and fauna along the trail.

On top of a sand dune we stop to watch the sun rising over Uluru and Kata Tjuta which we’ll be exploring tomorrow morning. Before we came to Uluru I thought this camel thing might be a bit touristy but we’re here in the middle of the Australian outback riding a wild camel! Awesome!

After an hour and a half we plod our way back to the Camel Farm where we warm up in the General Store for a breakfast of warm beer baked damper and hot chocolate. A perfect end to a great experience.

Before leaving we all wander over to the baby animal pens where I feed a bottle of milk to a cute black calf and Mark finds a baby camel who loves up to him as well – Mark, ‘The Camel Whisperer’!

Back at Sails it’s still only early and we’re actually in time for breakfast. Today we order pancakes, bacon and eggs plus the usual fruit and croissants they give us anyway.

At eleven o’clock we walk over to the Amphitheatre for the free Bush Tucker Experience.  Volet and Lydia are here as well. Leon who we met yesterday when he told us bush yarns is with another Aboriginal man called Joseph and together they explain how the indigenous people hunted, gathered and prepared bush tucker from the local vegetation. Joseph then makes cookies from bush foods and we get to try some he’s ‘made earlier’.

Now we wander over to Town Square with Lydia and Volet where we hang out in the Mingkiri Arts Gallery. We all buy up big. I also find a fly-net at the general store. We’ve seen lots of people wearing these over their hats and thought it was hilarious but I’m up for it for our trip to Kata Tjuta in the morning. Mark says he’ll brave it.

Later we head back to the Arkani Theatre to watch Capturing the Cosmos. This shows the current research being carried out by astronomers in Australia and narrated by Geoffrey Rush – really worth watching.

Lydia and Volet are going to the Guided Garden Walk but Mark and I decide to skip it – need a nanna nap after our early start.  And besides Mark is feeling unwell – probably something to do with his diabetes.

By six thirty Mark is still feeling off so I walk down to meet the girls on my own. Luckily they’d remembered to book in at the restaurant as it’s packed already. I don’t know what they do when the whole resort is booked out in pre-COVID times. 

Dinner is not overly expensive and the desserts look amazing. We all get stuck into the alcohol except for Leta who, after a near death experience with a motorbike and a truck in Bali last year, is now alcohol free and is into meditation and all that stuff. She was actually running around Uluru on our tour yesterday in bare feet as she wanted to feel ‘at one with the earth’ – ha ha.  But she’s no wanker and has us laughing all night. And Lydia and Volet are just as funny making dry comments in their gorgeous Asian accents. I love these girls!! 

And being married to diplomats they’ve lived all over the world and travel somewhere big every year as well. They mainly do Europe on expensive trips but they love hearing about all the weird places that Mark and I go to. Could talk with them all night! 

Wobbling back to the room, Mark is a bit better so he should be good for the 4.30am alarm to wake us in time for our Kata Tjuta tour.

Monday 26th October, 2020

 Uluru to Kata Tjuta to Uluru

Like yesterday we wait in the dark outside Sails where we meet the small group who’ll be going to Kata Tjuta. They’re all friendly but it looks as if one woman might be a bit hyper.

Today our guide is John, a bent little old man decked out in khaki – he’s the real deal and just as passionate as Barry. As we head out of Yalara towards Kata Tjuta, he tells us about the cultural significance of the area to the Aboriginal people. Because this place is so sacred lots of dreamtime stories are told about it. One legend remembers the great snake king, Wanambi, who was thought to live at the top of Mount Olga and whose breath could turn a breeze into a hurricane to punish people who committed evil deeds.

After about half an hour we stop to walk up a track to a viewing area to watch the sun rise over Uluru thirty-five kilometres to the east. The horizon turns to gold then orange before the sun peeps above the horizon. Behind us is Kata Tjuta also known as The Olgas – remembering my old Social Studies days in primary school – so, two names like Uluru/Ayers Rock. The name The Olgas was given by an explorer in 1872 after the Russian Queen Olga but then given a second name Kata Tjuta later in the 1900’s to commemorate its Aboriginal meaning.

Besides the view, we love the Social Distancing sign. Instead of the usual ‘1.5 metres apart’ the Northern Territory version reads ‘2 Sand Goannas’ or ‘2 Digging Sticks’ or ‘4 Carrying Bowls.’ Not too practical because we have no idea about how big these things are but we get the message anyway.

From this distance we can see that Kata Tjuta isn’t one single rock like Uluru, but a collection of large domed rocks. Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in the Aboriginal language which really says it all. There’s actually thirty-six domes with Mount Olga being the highest point at 1,066 metres which is two hundred metres higher than Uluru.

Now we head back down the track and set off to the western side of Kata Tjuta. Here John pulls into a picnic area which is just a couple of basic shelters set amongst dusty red dunes and patches of greenery. He’s really happy that we all jump in to help and he especially loves the chatty lady.

Mark cooks toast on a gas burner and we all make our own coffee and hot chocolate. We need hot drinks because did I say how cold it is! I’ve wrapped myself up in scarves so I look like a mummy. Oh, and how’s the flies! I’m super grateful for my fly net – I think Mark is eyeing it off but too late baby!

After clearing away breakfast, John gives us his geology lecture – love it! He tells us that the rocks are the remains of erosion that began around 500 million years ago. And, like Uluru, they’re just the visible tips of enormous slabs of rock that extend as far as six kilometres into the ground.

But now we’re ready for our walk through Walpa Gorge. The 2.6 kilometre rocky trail follows the natural creek between two of the tallest domes of Kata Tjuṯa. We’re right between the sheer red rugged walls that tower above us. It feels almost prehistoric. The Gorge is a refuge for plants and animals from the hot desert sun and we even come across a small stream, extremely important for native animals and the Aboriginal people as a source of drinking water. The problem is that wild camels often guzzle up and pollute not only this stream but lots of others in the area.

Every now and again John stops to give us more information. He tells us that Walpa means ‘windy’ – no shit! It’s blowing a gale! There’s another walk we could have done through the Valley of the Winds but thank God we gave that one a miss.

As we head back out of the Gorge, we have a spectacular, sweeping view of the desert plains stretching far into the distance towards South Australia. And, despite the cold, the wind and the flies it’s been amazing to experience this special place. 

By ten o’clock we’re back at Sails and luckily still in time for breakfast. Again we eat up big and enjoy being spoilt – this five-star thing is a real novelty but really appealing and I just hope we’re not getting soft!!!

After the very cold morning the weather is hot again so we decide to have a swim and hang around the pool for a while. Desert weather is so extreme – cold nights and hot days – and not much rain which means that nearly every day is clear blue skies and just how we love it.

At three o’clock we wander over to the Lawn Stage near the Town Square for a Didgeridoo Workshop. A local man explains how it works and demonstrates how to play it. A few people in the crowd have a go and they’re all hopeless. It’s the circular breathing technique that apparently takes ages to master. Anyway this guy is amazing!

Tonight we meet up with Lydia and Volet again. Leta has left this morning for her home in Brisbane so it’s just the four of us tonight. We meet at 6.30pm in the dining room for a posh dinner especially the beautiful desserts. I’m so impressed I even take photos.

We all have too many drinks with the girls keeping us entertained all night. They’re prolific travellers and Volet is already planning trips for us all to go on together – oh God, not a cruise! We’ll definitely visit Canberra early next year for a weekend to catch up and meet their husbands. We’re already Facebook friends so I can see what a big social life they have as well. Love them!

Tuesday 27th October, 2020

Uluru to Sydney to Newcastle

Today we go home – could really have stayed a few more days but at least we’ve experienced this wonderful place.

After breakfast we meet the girls outside to wait for the bus to the airport. Big hugs and photos before we board on the sweltering tarmac. We see Uluru for the last time as we head home but then actually fly over Lake Eyre, you know that massive dry salt lake in the middle of Australia – lucky!

Land in Sydney then through the eerily deserted Domestic Terminal to catch the train home.

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Northern Territory, Australia 2020

This trip has changed so many times because of all the chaos around COVID-19. Whenever a new hotspot turns up flights are cancelled and new flights booked. So the first booking was a return trip from Sydney to Uluru with Jetstar. We’d booked 3 nights at Sails in the Desert at Ayers Rock. All good until Sydney became a hotspot according to the Northern Territory government and the flights were cancelled and we were given Jetstar credit coupons. We don’t live in Sydney so we thought we were safe to book Newcastle to Brisbane and Brisbane to Uluru then Uluru back to Sydney. Then Port Stephens was declared a hotspot by the NT and Newcastle Airport is in Port Stephens. After phone calls to Newcastle Airport, the Queensland government and the NT government we found that if we went straight to Newcastle Airport without stopping then stay at an airport hotel in Brisbane we were right to go.

Next, our Uluru to Sydney flight was cancelled so booked Uluru to Brisbane to Newcastle flights. All good until the Aboriginal people closed Uluru National Park and Uluru Airport. This means all flights cancelled and more Jetstar credit coupons.

The closure of Uluru was announced yesterday on Tuesday 4th August but we were determined that we weren’t staying home. We decided to keep the Newcastle to Brisbane flight and work out something from there. So on to the diary ….

Wednesday 5th August, 2020
Newcastle to Brisbane

Our flight from Newcastle to Brisbane leaves at 5.30pm so we have to decide this morning if we’ll just stay in Brisbane for a few days and return to Newcastle on Monday as planned… or to take another week off work and either fly to Cairns or to Darwin. Mark checks out the weather forecast and it looks bad all along the east coast over the weekend and into early next week. Darwin on the other hand, will be hot and sunny so it’s a no-brainer.

Besides, I’ve been talking to Kerrie and she tells me that Ross Kerridge will be on the Brisbane flight this afternoon. Marion is already in Darwin staying with her sister Margaret so I give her a call. She convinces me that Darwin is the place to be – hot and tropical!

Kerrie and David are leaving tomorrow to drive to Brisbane before Queensland shuts its borders to NSW on Sat morning. They want to see Todd in case this thing goes on forever.

But then comes more news that some fuckwit from Sydney had been spreading his germs all over Hamilton on the weekend so there’s every chance that the Northern Territory will now class Newcastle as a hot spot.

I call Marion who’s been calling the NT government and I do the same. So far so good and we decide to take the chance. At 1pm I book Qantas flights for tomorrow to Darwin returning to Brisbane next Thursday.

Besides all the phone calls, border restrictions, both of us sorting out annual leave from work and constant Facebook posts about Hamilton being Covid infected, I still haven’t packed! I’m actually standing in the middle of our bedroom just staring into space.

Part of me wants to just forget the whole bloody thing but then I know this might be the only chance for who-knows-when that we’ll get to go away. We just want to be on a plane and be somewhere hot and steamy.

At 3.30pm we say goodbye to our three darling girls and are heading towards Newcastle Airport in an Uber. We have to track our trip so that we can prove we didn’t get out of the car between home and the airport which is in the Port Stephens hotspot. We chat with Ross then all don facemasks as we board the plane.

In Brisbane we walk to the Ibis Brisbane Airport Hotel where we have to isolate for the night. Originally we’d booked a cheaper place but it was 7kms from the terminal which doesn’t fit in with the Northern Territory’s border rules of staying within 4kms of Brisbane Airport. All this shit can make your head spin!

At the Ibis we have to check in and not leave our room. We’re allocated a quarantine room where we can get room service. A few drinks and a pizza later we’re in bed.

Thursday 6th August, 2020
Brisbane to Darwin

This morning we walk to the terminal and grab a coffee and muffins before boarding at 8am. Once again, masks are compulsory, which isn’t a great experience on a four and a half hour flight. Since we’re flying Qantas we expected to be able to watch inflight movies but because of Covid19 it’s not available. WTF?

The issue today is that our flight lands at 12.30pm which is half an hour after the NT government decides which areas are classed as hotspots. And because of the big deal about Covid cases in Newcastle (they’ve been two confirmed cases overnight) we suspect that it will become a hotspot and we won’t be allowed in and will have to go into quarantine until the next available flight out.

Anyway we can’t do anything about it and just go with the flow. At Darwin airport we all line up to be interviewed and to hand in our border passes. Ross is ahead of us so we know that if he gets through we should be okay as well. And yes, he’s in! Next our turn and we’re asked lots of questions before being waved through.

So, so great to be here and wonderful to walk outside into the warm sunshine. Palm trees and Aboriginal sculptures remind us that we’ve actually made it to the tropical Top End.

Marion is here to pick us up in Margaret’s little yellow car. We all fit and head off to Margaret’s place where Marion has made lunch.

We drive to Fanny Bay which is one of the older and nicer areas of Darwin. And we love Margaret’s house – in a tree-lined street surrounded by tropical plants and tall palms. We sit outside next to the pool, making salad sandwiches and swapping Covid stories.

Lots to talk about and plans to make. Later Marion drives Mark and me around the city to get our bearings. Most of the town is flat with the city proper on a low bluff overlooking Darwin Harbour, with Frances Bay to the east and Cullen Bay to the west. We like how small it is and that the water is never far from anything.

Marion drops us at the Travelodge where we’ve booked a room for tonight. It’s in a good spot in the town centre but not sure if we’ll stay here tomorrow – we’ll check out booking.com later. After dumping our bags we’re straight into the pool. It’s wonderful to be in the water again and surrounded by lush gardens and even a waterfall.

Later while resting in our room, I read up on the history of the area which is what we usually do before we go anywhere but there wasn’t time this trip. This is what I learnt …. The greater Darwin area is the ancestral home of the Larrakia people, but on the 9th September 1839, HMS Beagle sailed into Darwin harbour during its survey of the area. John Clements Wickham named the region “Port Darwin” in honour of their former shipmate Charles Darwin, who had sailed with them on the ship’s previous voyage in 1836. The settlement there became the town of Palmerston in 1869, but it was renamed Darwin in 1911.

At 5 o’clock we meet Margaret outside. We’ve met her a couple of times before when she’s been down to Newcastle for Christmas and for Marion’s birthday parties on Boxing Day.

She drives us back to her place to drop off the car then the three of us walk down to the Darwin Trailer Boat Club on the shore of Fanny Bay. It’s the city’s oldest seaside club, now a Darwin institution. We’re surprised how many people are here and it’s why Marion and Ross had come down earlier to grab a table. Apparently it’s like this every night as people come to watch Darwin’s famed tropical sunsets.



After ordering beers and wine, we enjoy the spectacle of the sun sinking into the Timor Sea. It reminds us of untold times in Bali that we’ve watched sunsets on Kuta Beach – one day again soon, we hope.

After a seafood dinner and smorgasbord, Mark and I call an Uber and head into town. Instead of going back to our room we decide to check out the area for a bar. We find a cluster just around the corner in Mitchell Street – Shenannigans, The Tap Bar and Six Tanks Brewery. We settle in at The Tap Bar for an hour listening to live music and trying to dodge the smokers.

We also book a trip to Litchfield National Park on Sunday – all online in five minutes flat – the internet never ceases to amaze me!

Home to bed about 10.30pm.

Friday 7th August, 2020
Darwin

Because we’re smack in the middle of the dry season (which runs from May to October), we’re not surprised that the weather is warm and sunny without a cloud in the sky. The Top End has distinct wet and dry seasons with the temperature being virtually the same all year round. While the dry season is very dry, the wet season is very wet with monsoonal downpours and thunderstorms every afternoon. Apparently, this is the ‘off’ tourist season but Margaret said that most locals love it.

This morning we decide to move hotels. We’ve found The Palms on booking.com and love the tropical look of it. While the Travelodge has a nice pool area, it’s still one of the generic high rise hotels. And anyway, the Palms is cheaper at $88 a night.

Dragging our packs through the streets we pass lots of Aboriginal people just milling about or squatting in groups – some of them drunk but all looking pitiful. So sad!

We make our way to The Esplanade which runs along the cliffs of Darwin Harbour and the green lawns of the shady Bicentennial Park. The Palms Resort sits on the corner of the Esplanade and Herbert Street, a perfect spot within walking distance of shops and the Waterfront.


After checking out the lovely pool (we’ll be back later) and settling into our room, we head off in search of breakfast. We decide to head down to the Waterfront, walking along The Esplanade.

This is a truly lovely area with lots of old buildings. Actually, we’re surprised to see any old buildings at all as the city has been almost entirely rebuilt four times – after the 1897 cyclone, the 1937 cyclone, Japanese air raids during World War II, and Cyclone Tracy in 1974. We suspect that most of these ‘old’ buildings are replicas of what once was.

What is for real, though, is the very pretty Government House. It’s a white Victorian Gothic villa with shaded verandahs set amongst lush hillside gardens. It’s the oldest European building in the Northern Territory and miraculously survived all the cyclones and bombings.

We also pass State Square which houses the Supreme Court buildings and Darwin’s Parliament House – a huge monstrosity of a building – what were they thinking???

Nearby we find a staircase shaded by trees and vines that leads down to the harbour. At the bottom we come across the historic Oil Tunnels and plan to come back for a tour after breakfast.

Down more steps we find the Darwin Waterfront with manicured lawns, a swimming lagoon, restaurants, bars and the Wave Pool. This is a man-made outdoor pool complete with a sandy beach and where artificially made waves let swimmers ride boogie boards and other floaties. It looks amazing and we wish we’d brought our swimmers – we’ll just have to come back another day.

Breakfast is eggs on toast at an outdoor café then we head back to the Darwin Tunnels. They were built around 1942 after Japanese air raids destroyed the above-ground oil tanks. It was decided to build underground bomb-proof tanks but by the end of the war only a few tunnels had been completed and none had ever been used. Still, it’s interesting to walk along the 650 foot tunnel which is lined with information boards of photographs and stories about the Allied wartime events up here at the Top End.

Back up in the city we find Smith Street Mall where we spend ages in an Aboriginal art gallery. We buy a painting, a bag for me, a wine cooler and fridge magnets all painted by local people. We’re given coloured printouts with a photo and bio of each artist. The shop owner tells me that the lady who did the painting on my bag died in a car crash a couple of years ago – really sad.

On the way back to Palms we buy a couple of kilos of prawns to take to Margaret’s for dinner tonight then stop at historic Lyons Cottage where we sit outside in the shade of an umbrella drinking iced chocolate and iced tea – really hot by now!

So because of the heat we cool down in the pool, loving being here in the tropics. After an afternoon nap in our air-conditioned room, we grab an Uber to Margaret’s place. We sit around chatting, peeling prawns and drinking beer and wine. I actually like the wine – a Tasmanian bubbly called Josef Chromy Roaring Beach – I take a photo to remember it. Ross cooks a barbeque and Marion makes up a salad.

We make arrangements for a trip to Katherine on Monday with Marion and Ross. We’ll stay two nights and stop off at a few places on the way. Very excited about it!

After dinner we call another Uber and get the same lovely young Bangladesh guy who brought us here. He wants to bring his mother to Australia because he’s scared of her getting Covid in Dhaka – not surprisingly it’s rife over there.

Of course, we don’t go straight to bed but have a few drinks at the Darwin Hotel just around the corner from The Palms. This is only after Mark hires an electric scooter which is the rage here in Darwin. I have a try but I’m a wimp so we give up.

Saturday 8th August, 2020
Darwin to Litchfield

This morning we’re being picked up at 7am for our day trip to Litchfield National Park. Because of Covid19, tour companies can’t use minivans – social distancing – so we’re picked up in a big tour bus even though there are only twelve of us on the trip. Our driver is a tall, pretty woman called Marietta who came to Darwin from Holland twenty years ago as a backpacker and hasn’t left. We like her.

We only have one more couple to pick up and we’re soon heading out of town speeding south down the Stuart Highway. ‘The Track’ as its often called, runs almost three thousand kilometres from Darwin to Port Augusta in South Australia and is named after Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart – the first European to cross Australia from south to north (sorry, never heard of him).

And when I say speeding, I mean speeding – the speed limit is 130kph which has only recently been changed from no speed limit at all!

Marietta introduces herself then we all call out our names and where we’re from – lucky no Melbourne people who are the lepers of Australia at the moment – ha, ha. Melbourne is currently in Stage 4 lockdown and has been for about six weeks – would hate to be them.

Litchfield National Park is just an hour-and-a-half drive from Darwin and is an important area to the Koongurrukun, Marranuggu, Werat, and Warray Aboriginal people. But the park is named after the explorer Frederick Litchfield – another European. It’s just occurred to me that Darwin, the Stuart Highway and now Litchfield are all named after white people – and probably heaps of other places as well. How fucked up for the Aboriginal people!

The landscape is dry and barren, typical of the Australian tropical savanna covered with dense grass and scattered trees. The land is also mainly flat with only a few straggly trees and shrubs – not beautiful but interesting.

Our first stop is for morning tea in the small town of Batchelor, ‘the gateway to Litchfield National Park’ (and you guessed it, named after another whitey, Mr. Batchelor, in 1912). It’s a pretty place with lots of greenery and tall trees. It’s like an oasis after the rest of the trip.

In Batchelor we stop at the Banyan Tree café, of course, named because of a huge banyan tree attached. It’s a cute place with an old car filled with tropical plants and a coffin with a white faced dummy inside.

After everyone loads up on tea and coffee we set off for the termite mounds. A really impressive sight is the hundreds of Magnetic Termite mounds standing two metres high on a wide flat plain. From a distance it looks like a graveyard with tall grey headstones. They’re up to one hundred years old with magnetic compasses – their thin edges pointing north-south and broad backs facing east-west. This aspect thermo-regulates the mounds so the termites don’t get too hot or too cold.

Nearby, Mark and I are more impressed with the four metre high Cathedral Termite Mounds. Always wanted to see these and we pose for photos next to them – tick it off the bucket list!


Now we keep driving through the Park to Florence Falls. Marietta tells us that it’s a bit of a walk but worth it once we get there. We change into our swimmers from the carpark to walk along tracks then down lots of stairs through the rainforest-filled gorge to reach the Falls – spectacular!


Water cascades into a crystal clear swimming hole surrounded by sandstone walls and the monsoon forest. We dive straight in even though the water is ‘refreshing’. Mark swims over to the falls then comes back to get me. This is the first time I’ve ever stood directly under a waterfall – tick that off the list as well!


We spend ages just floating around soaking up the beautiful surrounds. Because of the lack of tourists (Corona Virus), there are only about thirty people here. Normally this place is packed!


Time to head back, we decide to return via the one kilometre Shady Creek walk. This loops along a stream through the rainforest – so pretty. Towards the end of the track we emerge from the shade of the forest into dry open woodlands and the scorching sun. At the top we chat with some of the group then all pile back onto the bus.


Our next stop is Tomer Falls near the western boundary of the park. This time we can’t swim as it’s too hard to get down into the gorge. Instead we walk to the viewing platforms and just take photos.


Heading about 60 kilometres further south, Marietta tells us that we’ll be having lunch at Wangi Falls which is the most popular attraction in Litchfield. This is completely different again with a manicured picnic area and with the falls and pool just a short walk from the carpark.


Before swimming, though, we all have lunch in the kiosk/restaurant. Social distancing here, with our group the only ones allowed to sit down to eat. Lunch is a cold buffet salad which is perfect on this very hot day. We chat with an older couple originally from Scotland. She’s a sweet little mouse and he’s hilarious. Totally politically incorrect every time he opens his mouth (he never draws breath) so we love him instantly.


Now we walk past the Crocodile Warning signs to the pool. WTF??? We’re told that it’s safe to swim here in the dry season as the salt water crocs aren’t able to swim up the river from the coast. But what if there’s one still in there?? And the pool here is surrounded by tall reeds and I’m sure one is lurking in there somewhere.


But no-one else seems worried but I do make sure I’m in the middle. This pool is much bigger than the one at Florence but still lovely surrounded by lush monsoon rainforest. We stand around in the water chatting to the guys from our bus then at 2.30pm change back into our clothes and set off north.


Marietta explains that by now we’re now 150 kilometres from Darwin so we’ll be driving for an hour or two before our last stop at Howard Springs. This is a nature park popular with Darwin locals for weekend picnics. Marietta buys bags of dried fish to feed the turtles and barramundi – huuuge things – in the man-made pond. This area is lush with rainforest plants and was a recreational spot for soldiers during World War II.


We arrive back at our hotel about 5 o’clock and on dark, walk down Mitchell Street for a drink and food at Monsoons. A guy is playing a guitar and singing. Unfortunately he takes requests – ‘Country Roads’ – and I sing along. A fun night ending up at the Darwin Hotel once again.

Sunday 9th August, 2020
Darwin

Today we plan to hang out in the city and meet at Margaret’s about three o’clock so Mark and Marion can get out to the airport to pick up the hire car for tomorrow.

Down on the Waterfront we walk along Stokes Wharf to find the Royal Flying Doctor Museum. It takes ages and the sun is belting down. Darwin Harbour looks amazing with clear blue water and clear blue skies above. The RFDS Museum also houses the Bombing of Darwin Museum so we relive the attack with a Virtual Reality experience of the bombing. We wear headsets that allow us to see a 360 degree view of the attack from where we actually are right now on Stoke’s Wharf which took the brunt of it.


It’s February 19th 1942, and this is the most significant wartime attack ever launched on Australian soil. More than two hundred Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin, destroying ships and the city’s waterfront and killing two hundred and thirty five people. The sight of the planes coming and the sound of the bombs exploding is frightening – a brilliant production. Also my first Virtual Reality experience – yet another thing to tick off the list!

At the rear of the Museum is the RFDS exhibition with a real plane that we can climb inside to see how it’s fitted out. The RFDS is significant to Darwin as the NT is where it began its aero medical operations in 1939 after being founded by the Reverend John Flynn – good trivia question.


We don’t hang around much longer and the staff are shocked that we’re leaving. ‘Oh no, we’ll be back this afternoon’, we lie and quickly fuck off out of there.

 


We make the long hot trek back to the Waterfront where we hire another e-bike. I’m better this time but still not confident enough to ride it around the streets. Now we change into our swimmers and pay to enter the Wave Pool. The waves today though are rough and we don’t stay long. Anyway we’re hungry and an Uber ride later we arrive at Cullen Bay.


This is a man-made housing and marina development area and is Darwin’s top residential suburb. The Marina is home to over two hundred boats and overlooked by some of Darwin’s best restaurants. We like the look of the very funky Lola’s Pergola decorated with horses from an old merry-go-round. It has a deck over the water with the boats so close we can almost touch them. After a seafood lunch we call another Uber to take us back to The Palms for a rest.


At three o’clock we order another Uber (lucky they’re cheap – about $12 a trip) to take us to Margaret’s. Mark, Ross and Marion leave for the airport to pick up the hire car while Margaret and I chat and empty the fridge. She’s having her kitchen done up and the builder is starting tomorrow. The boys will move the fridge when they get back. At 5.30pm we drive to Mindil Beach for the weekly Mindil Beach Sunset Market.



The market is said to be the heart of Darwin’s cultural melting pot with over two hundred stalls, including more than sixty food stalls. Because of Darwin’s close proximity to Asia, it means that there’s a strong Asian influence, especially in the food scene. But we find many more international food stalls – Indian, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai etc.

The market has a great buzz even in these Covid times. People are having picnics on the grass under tall coconut palms all along the beachfront. We split up for a while then meet on the beach just before sunset. Hundreds of people have come down to the sand – reminds us again of Kuta Beach when crowds of Balinese people and tourists head for the beach every night for sunset. And the sunset here doesn’t disappoint. As the sun falls, the sky changes from gold to orange to red – stunning!



Later Marion drops Mark and I back in town where we head straight to our local – the Darwin Hotel – but have an early night – off to Katherine in the morning.

Monday 10th August, 2020
Darwin to Katherine

At 7.30 am we check out of The Palms and book another two nights for when we return on Wednesday. Marion and Ross pick us up at the side gate and we set off south for the 320 kilometre trip to the outback town of Katherine.

With Mark driving, we take the Stuart Highway through Palmerston and Coolalinga then past the turn-off to Litchfield National Park. From here on Mark and I haven’t been on this part of the highway but the scenery is basically the same the whole trip, dry savanna with red soil and scrawny trees.

After an hour, we stop at the small township of Adelaide River. We spend half an hour at the war cemetery – Ross loves to read all the signs so we do the same. It’s a peaceful place and, like all war cemeteries, has manicured lawns and gardens.

Back near the main road, Marion and I check out the market. This consists of two stalls – one run by a grumpy woman and the other by a sweet old lady selling jams and pickles. We buy from the sweet lady.

At the servo Mark buys chocolate Billabongs for us all then we head off for Pine Creek. This is an old gold mining town which stumbled into existence when the teams building the Overland Telegraph Line in 1870 dug up some gold while digging holes for posts. Here we drive up to the lookout that has views of a deep lake, once an open cut gold mine but now filled with water.

Back down in the town, we set up in a pretty park, to have a picnic lunch that Marion has brought then decide to go off the Highway onto the Northern Goldfields Loop. The main reason for this is to visit the Grove Hill Historic Hotel. This is
63 km north of Pine Creek so it’s a long hot drive on a dirt road. We find it situated on the old Northern Railway line and it looks amazing – but sadly it’s closed!



Marion tries to chat to a couple of Asian ladies sitting in the shade of a big tree in the side yard. She’s hoping they’ll let us have a look inside but they’re not interested in being friendly. We do manage to get a look through an open shutter though and it’s amazing – full of mining artefacts and all internal walls made of corrugated iron. This industrial look is the real deal!



We keep driving hoping to find our way back to the highway but we seem to have missed the turnoff and end up ages on the horrible gravel road. Very glad to get back onto the paved highway and on our way to Edith Falls where we’re going to have a swim!

After another hour or so, we turn off the Stuart Highway once again and drive a further nineteen kilometres to Edith Falls which is now known by the Aboriginal name of Leliyn Falls – about bloody time! It’s actually a series of waterfalls but the main attraction is the vast natural swimming hole with only a small waterfall on the distant shore. The area surrounding the pool is lovely – fringed with paperbark, pandanus and grassy areas under the trees where families have set up picnics. We all jump in to cool down and spend ages floating around. The pool is spring fed so it flows all year round. We don’t bother with the any of the many walks around here although I’m sure Marion and Ross will be back to explore next week.

From here it’s only about seventy kilometres to Katherine. It’s the fourth largest town in the Territory and is known as the place where “the outback meets the tropics”. Coming into town we cross the Katherine River then turn right onto the Victoria Highway. This highway is almost seven hundred kilometres long, linking the Great Northern Highway in Western Australia with the Stuart Highway here in the Northern Territory.

On the outskirts of town we pull into the Victoria Village Hotel where Margaret has booked us in for the next two nights. It’s a strange place made up of shipping containers and mainly used by FIFO (fly-in fly-out) people working in the surrounding mines. We love it – we’ve never stayed in a shipping container before!



After settling in, we lay around till it’s time for dinner. This comes as part of the cost of the room – so, too, does breakfast we’re told. It’s like being back at residential school at UNE! It’s a buffet style with lots of choices – including desserts.

Later we decide to go star-gazing. Ross has borrowed Margaret’s telescope but we need to get out of town, away from the street lights. Marion drives a few kilometres along the Victoria Highway then pulls into a side road. It’s very dark with a clear sky so a perfect night to see the stars. Unfortunately, the telescope legs break but it’s pretty amazing with just the naked eye.

Back at the Village we play scrabble and have a few drinks before an early night.

Tuesday 11th August, 2020
Katherine

We’ve decided to just hang out in and around Katherine today then do Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) tomorrow before heading back to Darwin. After breakfast at 6.30am Mark and I just chill out while Marion and Ross go for a walk. We plan to pick them up in town later.

About nine o’clock we’re all back in the car driving the thirty kilometres north-east out to Nitmiluk National Park. Marion wants to check it out to make sure we can get onto a cruise in the morning.

The Visitor Centre is fairly new and impressive with a vast interior opening onto a large outdoor deck on two levels. Trees come right up to the edge which overlooks the Gorge. We settle in for coffee and cakes then follow a winding path through the bushland down to the river.

Back in town we call in at the Katherine Museum. Inside a weatherboard house we find exhibits of old household equipment and lots of posters showing past floods. Katherine it seems, has a history of flooding, those in 1957 and 1974 but the worst was on Australia Day in 1998 which devastated the whole town and was declared a National Disaster.

In an old World War II regional air terminal we find more pioneer memorabilia and even a Gypsy Moth plane used by the Flying Doctor Service. It’s good to see that there are also Aboriginal artefacts from the region plus furniture, home wares and tools ranging in date from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

Next we park in the town centre where we split up and plan to meet back in the car in an hour when we’ll find somewhere to have lunch. Mark and I check out the main street walking up one side then back down the other. There are lots of Aboriginal people hanging around and don’t look in any better condition than the poor souls in Darwin.
There doesn’t seem to be anywhere decent to eat in the town centre so we drive to Katherine Bowling Club. This is typical of bowling clubs anywhere in Australia – a bit daggy but cheap food and drinks.


After lunch we head back to the Village to grab our swimmers. Marion and Ross had come across the Katherine Hot Springs on their walk this morning along the Katherine River. These natural thermal springs are actually made up of a series of pools framed by native vegetation. This place is very pretty with the clear spring water shaded by the monsoon forest. And they’re not really hot at all – only about 25 degrees – which would have been not so good on this warm sweaty day. Surrounded by tall paperbark trees and pandanas, we spend a lovely hour or so bobbing around and chatting with the other tourists.


On dark, we eat again in the dining room then play a game of Bananas with Marion and Ross – fun.

Wednesday 12th August, 2020
Katherine to Darwin

After an early breakfast, Marion and Ross set off walking into town while we finish packing the car. Mark drives us down to the river but the ‘WARNING. CROCODILE SAFETY’ signs keep us safely inside the car.

We pick up Marion and Ross then head out to Nitmiluk National Park. The Park is vast with thirteen gorges carved out of the ancient sandstone. But because it’s the dry season we can only visit the first two by boat.

Down near the wharf, we line up (socially distanced) then go through the Covid registering before boarding the boat. We’re introduced to our driver, Josh, and our guide, Jamie. Both guys are from the Jawoyn people who are the traditional owners of the area and who jointly manage Nitmiluk National Park with the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission, as well as owning and operating Nitmiluk Tours. Jamie explains about the Jawoyn people’s association with the area and brings to life the stories of Bula the Creator and Nabilil, a dragon-like creature who camped at the entrance to the gorge.

Cruising the emerald waters, we’re hemmed in by the seventy metre high red sandstone cliffs of the Gorge which snakes its way from here for twelve kilometres along the Arnhem Land Plateau on its way to the sea. At the end of the first gorge we all disembark to a rocky area shaded by the towering cliff above us. Here Jamie points out Aboriginal rock art which he tells us could date back as far as ten thousand years ago! This is another first as this is the first time either of us have seen Aboriginal rock paintings even though we’ve seen so many on the tele. It’s awesome to know how old they are! Apparently rock art sites are dotted all over the Park and Jamie’s dreamtime stories are special.


We all follow him across a rock bar that separates the first two gorges. Boarding another boat we chug quietly up this second gorge stopping in a shady inlet to turn around. This gorge is even more spectacular but I’m sort of glad we’re not visiting all thirteen – been there, done that as they say! And it’s so hot I wish we could jump in for a swim.



Back at the Visitor Centre we’re soon speeding towards Katherine then onto the Stuart Highway heading north to Darwin. This will be a three hour trip which we break up at Lake Copperfield just south of Pine Creek. Marion and I can’t be bothered getting out of the car but Mark and Ross walk down to the water’s edge. Here they find the remains of a fresh water crocodile nest and take photos.

About six o’clock we arrive in Darwin where Marion and Ross drop us off at the Palms. We’ve booked a more expensive room with a wide balcony overlooking the thick gardens. This is much nicer than our first room as we can leave the door wide open.

On dark we set off for our nightly drinks and dinner. At the farther end of Mitchell Street we set up in the Six Tanks Pub. Mark orders beer while I go for the half priced margaritas. You get what you pay for as they say because they’re undrinkable.

Soon a DJ starts playing terrible music but then, to make it worse, we realise this is a karaoke night and tragic wannabes are out in force. We move to a table on the balcony to try to escape the noise. The singing is atrocious and we leave as soon as we’ve eaten.

Next door is Shennigans where we’d had a drink on our whistle-stop visit to Darwin in 2012 when we’d had a three hour stopover on our way to Bali. A couple more drinks here then a last one at the Darwin Hotel.

Later we have another drink on our balcony while Mark feeds cute possums that pop out from the palm tree overhanging our balcony.

Thursday 13th August, 2020
Darwin

Today will be our last full day in Darwin as we fly out tomorrow at lunch time. Marion drives in to give us the car for the day then she’ll walk home after visiting Margaret at work in the building just next to our hotel.

We head first for the George Brown Botanic Gardens just north of the CBD. They were established by European settlers in 1886 where plants could be tested for their suitability in the tropics. But in 1974, Cyclone Tracey destroyed most of the plants. Restoration was led by George Brown and so the gardens were renamed after him – get it?



We wander around seeing fountains, shaded walkways, a small waterfall, and especially love the rainforest area. At the lower level we find Eva’s Café which is set up in the old Wesleyan Methodist Church which was moved to the gardens for preservation. A broad deck has been built into the foliage which is where we choose to sit on this lovely warm day.

Next we head out of the city towards the Adelaide River where we’ve booked a Crocodile Jumping cruise for this afternoon.

After about forty kilometres, we turn left off the Stuart Highway onto the Arnhem Highway which, of course, leads to Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. We don’t have time this trip but it’ll be something to come back for.

Our first stop is Humpty Doo – gotta love that name! – which is really just a stopover town for people travelling between Darwin and Kakadu. Its main attraction is the Big Croc – one of the ‘big’ things towns use to try to attract tourists. The croc stands thirteen metres high and wears a pair of red boxing gloves. It was inspired by the “Boxing Kangaroo” logo used in Australia’s successful 1983 bid for the America’s Cup. We stop to pose for photos to send to the Dollies.

Another thirty or so kilometres is the Fogg Dam Conservation Reservoir. This is totally uninspiring but we do drive across the dam wall, stopping to check out the wetlands from the bird hides. Been there, seen that, so we hightail back onto the highway and head for the Jumping Crocodile Cruise place about ten kilometres further east.

I’m stressing that we’ll be late but Mark is calm as usual and we get there in time. At the entrance is another ‘big’ crocodile and a rustic café overhung with palms and bougainvillea. A group of us line up for the boat to arrive. This includes four intellectually disabled Aboriginal ladies with their carer workers – reminds me of my job at home.

On the flat-bottomed boat we set off down river while our guide, Davey, tells us what to expect and, more importantly, the safety rules including no arms outside the boat! We don’t go far when someone spies a crocodile coming straight for us. Great excitement especially when Davey holds a piece of meat on the end of a long stick. The croc leaps spectacularly in the air to grab it. Soon another one turns up and then another all jumping high right alongside the edge of the boat. Apparently the crocodiles know the boats and they leave their place of hiding, knowing they’ll be fed. And Davey knows them all individually – they even have pet names.



It’s thrilling to see these scary cold-blooded creatures so up close in their natural habitat. There’s supposed to be about 80,000 salt water crocs roaming around the Northern Territory waterways. Apparently this is a good thing after being declared a protected species in 1971 when they were facing extinction.

Now we make for Darwin and to return the car to Marion and Ross. At the Palms we have a last swim then dress for our last night.

We’d been talking to Marion and she’s given us a few options for dinner. One was Jimmy Shu’s restaurant, Hunaman, but because I’m a total bogan I’d never heard of him and elected to go somewhere on the Waterfront. Later back home, we find Jimmy Shu’s Taste of the Territory on SBS which is one of our favourite shows ever! Yet another reason to come back to Darwin!


At 6.30pm Mark and I walk down to the Waterfront and being early we stop for a drink at an Irish Pub near Chow which is where we’ll be all meeting. Obviously this is an Asian restaurant set up in an outdoor setting. And because Darwin is Covid-free it’s happily vibrant and busy.


We have a fabulous night with Margaret, Marion and Ross talking about our time here then Mark and I say our goodbyes before walking up into the city. The Darwin Festival is in full swing despite Covid19 and we wander in for a look. A big stage has local bands playing and food stall are dotted around. We don’t stay long but move onto the Darwin Hotel. Our local!

Friday 14th August, 2020
Darwin to Brisbane

Our last day in Darwin! Our main plan before we leave for the airport is to visit Margaret’s workplace because Marion has told us about the awesome view from her office. So at 9am we walk around to her building. Margaret meets us at the lift and shows us her office and the conference room. It’s like having a million dollar view of Sydney Harbour – she’s so lucky but we suspect that it’s because she’s doing a great job.

Back at Palms, we pack then order an Uber to the airport. This time in the Top End has been a wonderful surprise. Not only didn’t we expect to be here but we’ve loved both Darwin and our trips into the outback. There’s still much more we didn’t get to see and we know we’ll be back. That is unless we can get to Asia and then forget it!!! Ha!!

Landing in Brisbane we can’t wait to meet up with Kerrie and David. We’ve booked a room in the same cute boutique hotel as them and we’ll be catching up with Todd and Briny tonight.

Great excitement until we’re stopped by police and army to be interviewed. That idiot Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk still has the border closed between NSW and Queensland. But we’d crossed before she shut it and we’ve been to the Northern Territory for the last 8 days, which has zero Covid cases, so all should be good.

Actually no! A police woman asks “have you been in NSW in the last 14 days?” – yes we have but we crossed into Queensland three days before the border closed – too bad, sunshine – “you have to go into quarantine for 2 weeks!” Wtf?????

After a lot of negotiating we’re allowed to quarantine for 2 nights before catching our flight to Newcastle on Sunday. This means we won’t get to see Kerrie and David at all! For fuuuuck sake!!

Kerrie actually rings right now and thinks I’m having her on when I tell her we have to go into quarantine. She had some great plans for us and can’t believe this bullshit either. Mark tries to reason with the police and while they agree that it’s crazy, they’re just following the rules. They’re all pretty nice especially to a distraught NSW’s lady who I try to comfort as well. But, bloody hell, get a grip woman!

There’s also a group of four guys from Tweed Heads who have spent a week fishing in the Northern Territory. They’d driven their cars to Brisbane Airport and expected to drive straight home tonight. What they’ll have to do now though is fly to Sydney then catch another flight to Ballina and get picked up from there.

What we realise in the end is that there’s nothing we can do, so neither of us get stressed. Actually this is yet another first – never been in quarantine before so we’ll just think of it as an experience.

So after lots of organising there are about twelve of us who are frog marched through the terminal surrounded by police and army. If anyone comes anywhere near us they’re shooed away. Of course, people are staring and we feel like drug runners on our way to gaol – ha. A special bus has been ordered for us which will drive us to the Ibis just over there.

Off we go but speed past the Ibis and keep driving for another ten minutes. We think we must be going to another Ibis but then we literally do two laps of a roundabout and head back towards the airport. I’m nearly wetting myself laughing by now as the driver is obviously lost!

Finally at the Ibis, it takes ages to get allocated rooms – endless paperwork etc. The ‘distraught’ woman thanks me before being led off still crying. Our room is actually not too bad with a large window with a stunning view of the Brisbane CBD far away in the distance. So near but so far!

I have my Bacardi and Mark can order a six pack so this is not a total disaster! We order food, make phone calls, watch tv then get drunk.

Saturday 15th August, 2020
Brisbane

Not a whole lot is happening today. Just more food and more television. When the food arrives someone knocks on the door, dumps the tray in the corridor and runs away like we’ve got the fucking plague which we don’t have!



Sunday 16th August, 2020
Brisbane to Newcastle

Our instructions for this morning are to wait till police come to escort us to the airport but then we get a call to tell us to just walk over ourselves. What the fuckety fuck???!!! None of this shit makes any sense!

In the terminal we just mingle with everyone else spreading our non-existent Covid germs far and wide. Again, what the fuck! On the plane we do wear masks and I’m sitting next to a very friendly young Scottish guy who announces “we’ll be best friends by the end of this flight!” He never draws breath the whole trip.



At Newcastle Airport there aren’t any taxis and no Ubers in the area so we wait for a bus which will be heaps cheaper anyway. Lauren picks us up from the Interchange and we’re home to our three darling girls.

Another great trip!




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Kenya 2018

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Saturday 27th January, 2018

Newcastle to Sydney

We catch the 2pm train from Hamilton Station to Sydney where Jillian meets us at Central Station. She walks us to the new apartment she and Michael are renting in Chippendale. We all walk to the Everleigh Hotel in Darlinghurst sitting on the pavement for food and drinks catching up with our lovely mates. Home about 9.30pm.

Sunday 28th January, 2018

Sydney to Johannesburg (South Africa)

Up at 7am to shower and pack before walking over to Central to catch a train to the international airport. At check-in we don’t have any luck getting window or aisle seats so we’ll just have to sit up the whole way. Immigration is fast with the new Smart Gates then we buy duty free Bacardi before experiencing our first sushi train for lunch.

We board our Qantas flight at 11am to find that we’re in the middle section with a spare seat between us and a friendly South African/Indian lady. She tells me that she was hoping to sit near ‘someone who smile’. Sweet! We chat for hours. She has been visiting her son in Sydney for three months and has four children, eleven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Mark is happy to watch the whole Season 7 of Game of Thrones while I watch Goodbye Christopher Robin, Victoria and Abdul and the whole season of Big Little Lies – not like we don’t have the time. The food is good and I take a Temazapan to try to get some sleep – only half an hour out of the entire fourteen hour flight. I look a fucking wreck!

At 4.30pm we land at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa. There are long lines at immigration but baggage pick-up is quick. We’re not actually staying in Johannesburg tonight but our flight to Rwanda isn’t till 3am tomorrow morning which means we need to be back here at midnight.  Instead of hanging out in the airport, Mark looks up booking.com for somewhere cheap nearby where we can crash out for a few hours.

In minutes we’re off to the Aero Guest Lodge in Kempton Park, just a five minute drive. Our black driver drops us down a dusty side street where only coloured families only are walking around. It’s obviously a poor area but we like the feel of it anyway. Of course, like everywhere in Johannesburg, the guesthouse is protected behind tall metal gates where we need to use the intercom to get inside.

The nice girl on reception shows us around – a pool and a dining room but we’re too tired to do anything but fall into bed. Our room is just off the jungly garden – we have a tv, our own big bathroom and comfy beds. It’s also very quiet so for AUD$90 it’s worth it. I have a shower then we both sleep from 6.30pm until 11.30pm when we’re woken by the alarm.

Monday 29th January, 2018

Johannesburg to Kigali (Rwanda) to Nairobi (Kenya)

Mark has a shower then we meet the airport shuttle outside. At Terminal B we hang out in the coffee lounge for hot chocolate, coffee plus bacon and egg croissants. We text Lauren as Abi is going back to school today and Elkie back to preschool tomorrow.

At 3am we take off on Rwandair for the four hour trip to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. We couldn’t get a direct flight to Nairobi, needing to have a stop-over in Kigali on the way. Originally this trip was to be Rwanda and Uganda to see the gorillas but after endless research we realized we’d have to do a tour which doesn’t fit in with our dates. We decided to do Kenya this trip and do Uganda and Rwanda in a year or so.

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The Joburg/Kigali flight is a breeze with three seats each so we both manage to sleep for a couple of hours. Coming into land at misty Kigali International Airport, is quite an experience with the airport and runway seemingly built on top of a hill with its head chopped off creating a plateau overlooking the city. The terminal is small as we expected but we amuse ourselves people-watching for the one and a half hour layover.

At 8.30am we’re off in the air again with three seats each again meaning we both have a window seat for great views of Lake Victoria dotted with lots of small islands and the impressive Mount Kilimanjaro sticking up through the clouds.

I cry for Angie – just comes out of the blue sometimes.

Breakfast is croissants, yoghurt, tea and juice then we read a magazine article about Mali – add it to the list! The captain tells us to put our clocks forward one hour before we land in sunny Nairobi at 11am at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Mark withdraws enough cash to last us the next few days – 1AUD = 67 Kenyan Shillings.

So this is what I’ve learnt. Nairobi is Kenya’s capital situated in the south-central part of the country, on the eastern edge of the Rift Valley, 1661 metres above the sea level.

The city originated in the late 1890s as a colonial railway settlement then in 1905 it became the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate establishing itself as a major trading centre.

Today Nairobi is the home to 4.5 million people and they all seem to be on the road from the airport today. Only eighteen kilometres from the CBD, it takes nearly an hour and a half to reach our guesthouse through the horrendous traffic jams. This is Manyatta Backpackers which we love on sight although it’s hidden by a tall fence and gates – we are in Nairobbery, after all!

Even though it’s almost in the heart of the city, it has a rural feel with a tangled garden, crowing roosters and we can see chickens running around outside our window. Our $50 AUD double room is basic to say the least and the shared bathroom is a bit dodgy but we love it even more. The website boasts ‘a communal dining and living area’ with a fireplace, restaurant and bar located outside’. A bit of a stretch – ha – but the friendly Mum and her daughter at the desk just add to the appeal. When we ask for a key, the Mum has to rifle through all the drawers to find one.

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They do manage to book us a safari to the Maasai Mara for tomorrow – three days and two nights for $920AUD for the two of us. This is a budget deal and about what we expected to pay.

After showers and Mark washing some clothes, we ring a taxi even though I feel very jet-lagged and a cold coming on. Not going to miss out on anything and, anyway, I’m sure alcohol will help!

Our driver is Maxwell, a friendly local who takes us to a shopping centre as Mark wants to buy some boots. At the entrance, security guards with rifles look inside the car and the boot and even the glove-box. And we have to be body searched and our small packs scanned before entering the main entrance – so lucky not to have to put up with this shit at home. Anyway Mark buys his boots for $24 then a SIM card as we want to be able to book things ahead.

Even though we’re not far from the CBD, it’s another hour of nightmare traffic and choking fumes and me feeling even sicker. Finally back in the city, Maxwell drives us to the Sarova Stanley. This historical five star hotel was built in 1902 and still retains its gorgeous heritage character. We always seek out these colonial hotels – for the bar rather than the food – can’t afford to stay but love to hang out in luxury for a while.

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We make our way to the first floor Exchange Bar so-called because it was originally the site of Nairobi’s first Stock Exchange. With a polished dark wood bar, oriental carpets, old leather couches and luxurious drapes it’s a haven from the chaos outside. Grace introduces herself as our waitress – we order chicken drumsticks and a cheese platter – all beautifully presented and tastes awesome. But best is two margaritas for me and two Tusker beers for Mark. And, yes, I’m feeling one hundred percent better already!

Downstairs we visit the Thorn Tree Café. The original thorn-tree noticeboard in the courtyard inspired Lonely Planet’s online Thorn Tree travel forum so I leave a note – ‘Thanks for the memories, Lonely Planet’. We never travel without one.

Now it’s time to head back to Manyatta. Maxwell charges us $36 and we think he’s ripping us off. But then we ask him where he lives, ‘one hundred kilometres away’. So ‘where do you sleep?’ He says it’s in the car ‘but I lucky today. I can go home because I have you’. Oh shit, now we feel like total assholes and give him $40.

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At Manyatta, we sit around the fire pit which one of the staff has set alight. We order hot chips from the open-sided little kitchen as we’re not too hungry. The girls in the kitchen take forever – God love them.

Drink Bacardi and beer then bed at 8.30pm.

Tuesday 30th January, 2018

Nairobi to Maasai Mara

Both have a good sleep but woken by the roosters at 5.30am then the call to prayer soon after. After a snuggle and showers we order pancakes for breakfast sitting outside again.

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The tour company sends a van to pick us up about seven o’clock. The streets today are completely different. With barely any traffic we pass trucks of soldiers carrying rifles, police everywhere and a noisy demonstration of young men. We ask our young driver and his mate what’s happening? They try to avoid answering so we get the impression they’re too scared to say anything against the government or army or whoever is behind it all.

The city centre is almost deserted and we’re finally told that people have been warned to stay away from the inner city today as it could be too dangerous. So why are we here??

At a travel agent we wait half an hour for other passengers to arrive. So far we have an Asian girl called Leela and Rizzy, a friendly Turkish man. At another stop we pick up a handsome Italian couple who introduce themselves as Francesca and Eduado. Everyone seems really fun so we’re looking forward to a nice time with these people.

The only downside is our new driver called Jackson who is already giving off bad vibes. After an hour we stop at a lookout with fabulous views of the Great Rift Valley stretching forever into the distance. Down there somewhere is the Maasai Mara where we’ll be staying for the next two nights. We all take photos then drink tea in one of the little basic tea houses next to the market stalls.

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Here we also pick up two more people – a shy young Japanese couple called Kwan and Li. Poor Li suddenly faints for some reason but she soon seems to be okay. Meanwhile we’re all ready to leave but Jackson is having a lovely time hanging out with other drivers and gives us filthy looks when we ask if we can go now.

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Heading down into the Valley, the red soil must be very fertile – lots of greenery, bougainvillea, green houses for flowers and corn fields. We pass through small towns where women sell watermelons from the side of the road then tea pickers in the many tea plantations. Cows, donkeys and goats are a common sight but we’re especially excited to see our first real Maasai herding cows towards a large waterhole. More Maasai are herding goats as we head up out of the Valley.

Through lots of little dusty towns we eventually arrive in Narok Town, 1800 metres above sea level. It’s the major centre of commerce in Narok district with a population of around 40,000 people, mostly Maasai. It’s also the last major town before the Maasai Mara – we’re getting close!

But first we have a toilet and lunch stop at a roadside café. This is a buffet lunch paid for as part of the tour – rice, chicken, vegetables and dosa. While I just stick to soda water, Francesca buys beers for everyone to share – love this crew! Mark has another beer before we leave – why not!

On the road again, Jackson continues to spend the whole time either on the phone or on the CB radio to his friends. He’s so fake, pretending he likes us but he’s fooling no-one.

Half an hour later we turn off the paved road of highway B3 onto a bumpy dusty road leading towards the Maasai Mara Reserve. But things only get worse the closer we get to the Park. Jackson says, ‘everybody ready for a Mara massage?’ The road becomes a rutted mess as we bounce from one pothole to the next. Of course, Jackson is driving like a maniac so we ask him to slow down! And guess what, he’s pissed off and deliberately slows down to a snail’s pace – ass-wipe!  Everyone is pulling faces at him behind his back – ha!

Despite the horrible Jackson and the horrible road, the one and a half hour drive is fabulous as we pass Maasai herding goats, sheep and cows and even lots of wild life – wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, warthog and gazelle.

Relieved at last to reach our camp for tonight – the Miti Mingi Eco Camp which is located just five hundred metres from the Ololaimutiek Maasai Mara entrance gate. There seems to be a few other camps nearby and also a real Maasai village. We’re welcomed by Regina a jolly local lady who shows us our tents. These are permanently erected army green canvas types nestled under a canopy of indigenous trees creating a cool retreat from the heat of the plains.

Inside we have a painted cement floor, two single timber beds and a curtained off bathroom at the back. The bathroom is far from luxury with a cracked cement floor and a shower that’s supposed to be hot but isn’t. Regina has told us that lights are only available between 5.30am and 7.30am and in the afternoon between 6 and 8 – no electricity outlets in the tents so we’ll need to charge our phones etc at the dining hut.

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We’re given half an hour to settle in then we all meet Jackson in the carpark at 4.30pm for our afternoon safari. With the park entrance only five minutes away, we’re soon inside the Maasai Mara seeing zebra, gazelle, wildebeest, cheetahs, giraffes and, most exciting, lions!  Some are just lying around and others are eating a buffalo. And we’ve still got all day tomorrow!

Returning to the Camp at 6.30pm, we drive past groups of Maasai men wearing their traditional red checkered cloths wrapped around them and carrying long wooden sticks. We meet the crew for dinner in the dining hut but I can’t eat anything much – just prefer to have watermelon and pineapple.

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Later Mark and I find a table next to an open fire outside for a couple of drinks. We’re soon joined by Francesca, Eduado, Leela and Rizzy. We knew these people would be fun and they are – a good night sitting under the stars.

Finally chased inside at 9.30pm by the mozzies.

Wednesday 31st January, 2018

Maasai Mara

Up at 6am ready for our big day in the Maasai Mara. Breakfast is toast, baked beans, sausage, tea and coffee then we all meet Jackson at 6.30am.

‘We are team and I am the leader’ – we all just look at each other thinking wtf?  – ‘Ask me anything you want’ then ‘You all have water’ (a statement not a question).

We set off with Rizzy in the front seat next to Jackson. Soon Leela pipes up from the back, ‘What happened to the one litre of water we’re all supposed to get according to the itinerary?’ Jackson screams to a halt and turns to face Leela giving her death stares. ‘I tell you to bring water – here take mine!’ as he shoves a bottle at her. She’s totally unfazed and says ‘I have water. That was not my question.’ We love this brave little girl standing up to this pig. But now he’s even more pissed off especially when poor Rizzy tries to calm him down by saying ‘Sometimes you say things that upset people’. Jackson’s eyes nearly bulge out of his head, ‘Me? me? I am good! I am good!’ he yells. But then comes the biggy, ‘I can ruin your safari!’ Oh my fucking God, this man is a lunatic!

The rest of us are sitting here like stunned mullets but realise that this prick really could ruin it for us so we all try to brush it off and make out we’re all friends again – not! Like yesterday, we all pull faces behind his back – ha.

Setting off again sweet Rizzy tries to engage him in conversation by asking him questions but Jackson completely ignores him. On one of Jackson’s many cigarette breaks, Rizzy cracks everyone up when he says in his broken English, ’this guy, I give him zero!’

Soon the sun rises over the mountains and we can see how very lovely it is here. A seemingly endless green plain stretches towards far rolling hills. The landscape is more appealing than Kruger National Park that we visited in August 2007. It’s much greener here but maybe it’s just the different season.

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It’s thrilling to suddenly see three lions hunting a gazelle. They manage to trap one by forming a circle but it manages to escape – weirdly we were rooting for the lions. Nearby is a pride of lions and even some little bubbas wrestling – cute!

Of course, the goal of all safaris in these big game parks is to seek out the Big Five – elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino. So far we’ve seen buffalo, hundreds of them, and lions but now we see two rhino on the side of a hill. We drive closer for a better look.

Other trucks, lots of other trucks, are in the Reserve as well but because the Mara covers over one and a half thousand square kilometres, we’re not actually on top of each other. All the drivers carry CB radios so they tell each other if they spot something good. Jackson spends all his time on the radio talking to his mates mainly we think so he doesn’t have to talk to us. And he never tells us anything unless we specifically ask.

Whenever we come across a truck he stops to chat to the other driver for ages. One van is carrying a group of tourists who are all wrapped in Maasai blankets. Mark says, ‘looks like someone’s been to the gift shop’ – ha ha.

In the meantime, we see two gazelle fighting by locking horns while a group nearby are running around like maniacs – must be teenagers. Later we see ostriches on the side of the road then black and red necked Ground Thorn Bills as big as vultures.

Someone spots two big baboons who scarper up into a giant tree which sets off hundreds of them who drop down off the branches and make a run for it into a gully apparently to hide from us. Little heads keep popping up to check us out. This should be cute, but baboons are horrid things always screeching like they are right now.

Later we come across a herd of elephants with cute babies sticking close to their mums. Then we find three lions lounging around on a small rise. We drive up close to them but they still don’t move. Seeing lions is what we hoped we’d see here as we only saw one from a distance on our Kruger safari.

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Suddenly Jackson gets a call and off we fly in the opposite direction. In the distance are about twenty or so other trucks parked close together. Joining the crowd we watch five cheetahs walking stealthily in the long grass. We soon see that they’re heading straight for a small herd of gazelle and then the chase is on – thrilling!

About 1pm we stop to check out a pile of stones that represent the Kenya/Tanzania border then we all do wee wees in the bushes – no toilets in the Mara. From here we drive to a hippo pool on a bend of the Mara River. John, dressed in camouflage and carrying a very big gun, introduces himself as one of the park rangers. He tells us that the the hippopotamus is apparently the world’s deadliest large land mammal, that kill about five hundred people every year. They submerge themselves in the river water all day then come out to look for food at night. John said that they’ll kill you – bite you with their very big teeth – if you get between them and the water because that’s where they feel safe.

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Right now in the river are families of them, each group separated by about thirty metres. John says that the group nearest the carpark are accustomed to tourists but the further the group gets from here, the more aggressive they are.

So, with all this scary talk about hippos why are we now going for a walk through the bush? We are being accompanied by a couple of other rangers with rifles but I just hope they’re a good shot because apparently hippos can run really fast despite being big fatty boombas!

At a pretty spot under shady trees we come across Jackson who has spread out blankets on the grass. He hands us each a lunch bag provided by the Camp – apples, poppas, a chicken leg and a sandwich. While Jackson sits back in the truck and ignores us, Eduado juggles the apples. He’s actually a circus performer and performs all over the world!

Now Jackson gets another call that someone has spotted a leopard – pun, get it, leopards have spots!! We find it curled up in a tall tree so, yes, we’ve seen the Big Five once again – lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo and, the hardest to find, a leopard!

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On the way back to Camp we see a family of warthogs with lots of cute little ones, a family of giraffes and three rhino at the top of a hill. Jackson drives off-road to get closer and tells us he’d be in big trouble if a ranger saw him. Is he actually being nice to us?? Don’t believe it!

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At Miti Mingi, Mark and I have a cup of tea in our tent then meet the group at 4.30pm for our visit to the Maasai village next door. Our guide is Moses, a proud Maasai man who leads us over to a grassy area just outside the boma. This is a group of huts surrounded by a circular fence of thick, thorny bushes to keep out the wild animals.

Here we meet a group of about fifteen Maasai men carrying wooden staffs and wearing a sort of cotton tunic under a mix of striped or checked wraps all in different shades of red. The men also have long knives in sheaths hanging from a cord around their waists. Moses introduces us to Alan, the chief’s son. Alan will become chief when his seventy-five year old father kicks the bucket. He’s a gentle soul who explains the adamu or jumping dance which the Maasai are famous for.

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The men gather in a line away from the crowd. They make loud grunting throaty noises while pounding their feet. They move forward not as fifteen men, but as one. There are no drums, only their voices as instruments. They move in a steady rhythm – up, bend, forward. Mark, Kwan, Eduado and Rizzy are all good sports being wrapped in Maasai cloths and joining the men in the dance.

Now the men take it in turns to jump straight up, each time higher than before. Apparently the higher each warrior jumps, the less bride price that he has to pay when he finds a girl to marry – this is usually about ten cows. Cattle play a big role in Maasai lives – the more cattle, the wealthier the warrior and the more wives he can buy. Our guys try really hard but can’t match the height of the warriors.

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Seeing this Maasai jumping dance is a bucket list thing – it really has lived up to our expectations. And these people are really sweet. Alan takes us into the boma where some of the men show us how to make fire with a hard stick twirled on top of soft wood. Mark has a go, too.

Alan tells us that about two hundred people live here and that the houses are all built by the women. They use sticks, straw, mud and cow dung so they really are very primitive. He takes Mark and me into a tiny house where two adults and four children live in the most basic conditions imaginable. There are two bedrooms no bigger than a cupboard and a fire pit dug into the dirt in another miniscule space which is the kitchen.

It’s so dark inside we can hardly see until our eyes adjust. The hut has only one tiny window so the mosquitos don’t invade them at night. Besides these three rooms there is another ‘guest’ room (another cupboard) where we could stay the night. We really, really should do this but it looks flea ridden (sorry, judgemental) and anyway underneath is where the family will bring in the baby animals for the night. They need to do this so predators won’t kill them – mainly those horrible baboons.

A little boy comes home from school and we give him whatever we can find in our packs – lollies, pens and perfume for his Mum. Outside the other kids are playing in the red dirt then Alan takes us behind the hut to sell us crappy trinkets – we pay $70 and think of it as a donation. We find out later that everyone else did the same thing – ha ha.

Now we find the village ladies sitting outside the boma with more stuff to sell laid out on the grass – we buy more things we don’t want.

At our Camp, Mark has a shower but I don’t because it’s cold water only. We read, doze then meet the others at the dining hut at 7.30pm. Like last night we move outside to sit around the fire and have a great time bagging out Jackson. We all hate him with a passion!

Thursday 1st February, 2018

 Maasai Mara to Nairobi

Today we’ll be heading back to Nairobi but first we’re doing a nature walk with Moses. Mark and I have a snuggle then breakfast at six o’clock. We all meet Moses at 6.30am and set off on foot. The morning is beautiful with clear skies – the sun rising on our right and the moon going down on our left.

Moses shows us termite mounds that will eventually eat the village houses which means they have to move every three years. I stop to talk to another warrior who has huge holes in his ear lobes, then he twists the lobe up and over the top of his ear – gross!!!

Most of the men have their ears punctured like this but if you go to school it’s forbidden. We also come across a plaque for some poor man from Cambridge University who in 2000 came out of the Camp to take a photo of an elephant. It wasn’t happy and gored the guy to death.

Moses explains what all the wild plants are used for then we follow him down into a leafy gully where a small stream is the only source of fresh water for the village. After a group photo we head back to Camp. This group has been a lovely surprise and really made this little trip so much better – won’t mention Jackson.

Back at Miti Mingi we pack and set off at 8.45am. We pass lots of Maasai men herding goats and cows on this long bumpy ride. In one small village Jackson turns off the main road to detour along narrow dirt lanes behind local houses. He tells us that he’s hiding from the police who are after him for going off-road in the Park yesterday. He’s obviously made this up to make himself look like a hero – wanker!

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Another small town is having a cattle market on today and herds are being led towards it from both directions. Soon Jackson informs us that we’re having a toilet stop which is really just an excuse for him to have a fag. A tree just near our van is full of little yellow birds who have built perfectly cylindrical nests – the cutest thing! Pretty blue birds are here as well so we feed them our potato chips.

Later we stop again for lunch but I can’t eat anything. We ring Lauren as we haven’t had wifi for the last two days – 9pm at home. Kwan and Li go off with another driver as they’re not going back to Nairobi today. Hours later on the outskirts of the city we drop off Leela, Francesca and Eduado.

We’ve all noticed that Jackson has been trying to be friendly today – all gushy smiles and teeth. And we know why – he wants a tip! Kwan and Li had given him the equivalent of $2 – he was so disgusted that he refused to take it. We don’t know how much Eduado and Francesca paid but we know that Leela only gave him $5 – more disgust and he winges about it all the way into the city. We get out with Rizzy and hand over $25 for being good at finding animals and not for being an asshole! Goodbye and good riddance!

We decide to stay at the same hotel as Rizzy – $50 AUD a night right in the middle of everything. After hot showers we meet Rizzy at the hotel bar at 5.30pm where we sit out on the verandah overlooking a nice park. We have wifi again so Mark books a train for Mombasa on Saturday. We would have preferred to go tomorrow but the website says no seats available either on the morning or afternoon train. I should have booked days ago!

Never mind we’ll do some sort of day tour with Rizzy tomorrow. The three of us walk around to a Turkish restaurant (he’s Turkish remember) where we all order kebabs and then free drinks come out – hot and coloured either red, orange or green and all very sweet.

Rizzy decides to go for a walk which is good as Mark and I would prefer to be on our own now. Our plan is to find Fairmont The Norfolk for cocktails so Mark checks out the map. I’m not really sure we should be walking around here in the dark but we get there eventually. The hotel is gorgeous and we drink caipirinhas and margaritas, probably one too many. A taxi home to bed at 10pm. There seems to be more mosquitos here in our hotel room than in our tent in the Maasai Mara!

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Friday 2nd February, 2018

Nairobi to Mombasa

I wake at 5.30am to the sound of mozzies buzzing around our heads. Mark is up at 7.15am to shower then we meet Rizzy for a buffet breakfast at eight o’clock. This is great – French toast, bacon, sausages, baked beans, juice plus tea and coffee. We ring home to Lauren and our dollies. Abi is happy to be in the same class as her boyfriend Ollie – ‘that handsome devil’, she says! Elkie tells us a long story about pweschool and cockroaches that we can’t quite follow and, thankfully, Lauren sounds rested.

At 8.30am we check out then meet Rizzy outside with our driver for the day, Raphel. We’re paying $70 to have Raphel drive us to the main tourist sites on the outskirts of Nairobi – a good deal.

The first thing we need to do is to confirm our train tickets for the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa tomorrow. Raphel drives us to a shopping centre to look for a travel agent. As before, we have to go through strict security but then realise there isn’t a travel agent here anyway. Rizzy and I wander off to look at the shops while Mark and Raphel get on their mobiles to pay for the train tickets – it’s totally confusing! We end up buying two more train tickets just to make sure we can go tomorrow – Mark gives Raphel a generous tip for helping us.

All done, or so we think, but anyway now we can go ahead with our day trip around Nairobi. First on the agenda is the Giraffe House. Heavy traffic in the city slows us down until forty-five minutes later we reach the lovely leafy suburb of Karen – obviously named after Karen Blixen – more about this awesome woman soon.

This area is about gorgeous old houses behind tall vine-covered walls and the home of the very expensive Giraffe Manor. This is a plush guesthouse where the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes roam free and stick their heads into the dining room while you have your meals. Another bucket list thing but at $700 a night it won’t be happening for us – waaaay too expensive!

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But what we can do is visit the Giraffe Centre to check out the Rothschild’s giraffes for only $10 each. This is a lovely leafy area with an outdoor café and gift shop plus a raised platform where we can feed the giraffes at eye level. But the best bit is when we stick a pellet in between our front teeth and the young ones pick it straight from our mouths.

Here we see a glamorous woman all decked out in safari clothes – white blouse, khaki skirt, white safari hat and tan leather shoes – ha ha! She must have a stylist!

From here it’s only a fifteen minute drive to Karen Blixen Museum. Situated at the foot of the Ngong Hills, this is the former home of the famous Out of Africa author Karen Blixen, also known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen. She lived in the house from 1917 to 1931, where she ran a coffee plantation. The house is a bungalow-style colonial farmhouse in vast leafy grounds. We pay $12 each for a guide, Sharon, to show us around and explain the history of the house. We try to tell her that we’re in a hurry but it doesn’t seem to register as she slowly explains the Karen Blixen story.

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Back in the car we’re now off to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. This is an orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program set up by Daphne Sheldrick in 1977 in memory of her late husband David who was a former warden at Tsavo East National Park. The centre cares for young abandoned elephants and rhinos and works to release them back into the wild. Hundreds of people are here all crowded around an enclosure where a dozen or so baby elephants are rolling around in muddy ponds.

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More ‘on safari’ tourists are here as well including the woman from the Giraffe Centre. One man is resplendent in a pith helmet and long khaki socks. They must be Europeans as no self-respecting Aussie would bother.

Meanwhile, we’re given a long winded explanation about the elephants’ rehabilitation then get bored and leave.

Now we’re having some doubts about the train situation to Mombasa and ask Raphel to drive us to the train station. This was originally in the centre of Nairobi where you would expect it to be and the train to Mombasa was romantically called the Lunatic Express. But tragically for us this was replaced by a brand spanking new Chinese train called the Madaraka Express just a few months ago. The Lunatic Express was an overnight train taking over twelve hours to get to Mombasa while this new Chinese train only takes five hours. Obviously Mark and I are devastated to have missed out on the old train which would have been an awesome experience.

But for now we have to either fly to Mombasa, get a bus or get the train. We’ve opted for the train but the new station is way out of the city in an ugly industrial area out past the airport. We finally arrive at a huuge modern monstrocity amongst weedy fields and light industries. Hate it on sight!!

Even worse is that to just get in to the station to check out if there are any seats for today, we have to go through the weirdest security. In a shed we have to place our day packs in a row then stand opposite while station security paces up and down in front of us and sniffer dogs check our bags and then us. The bags then still have to go through a scanner and then we’re body searched. This is to get on a train, not a bloody airport!

Inside we’re told that, despite the website info, that we can actually buy first class tickets for this afternoon at only $30 each. Racing back out to the car we say goodbye to Raphel and our lovely new friend Rizzy. He’s flying back to England tomorrow where he’s been living for the last few years.

Now we grab our big backpacks and go through the whole sniffer dog/xray thing. The security people pull out our duty free Bacardi – ‘Is alcohol?’ – yes – ‘you cannot take alcohol on train’ – ok then it’s not alcohol, it’s water – ‘but you say alcohol’. They make a phone call and a new security guy arrives letting us take on our unopened bottle but then confiscates the opened one. Again this is to get on a train! Chinese rules, not Kenyan!

Mark lines up for a refund of our second class tickets that we’d bought this morning. Funny how huge and ultra-modern this train station is, but they can’t get their bloody online booking right!! And even more weird is that there isn’t anywhere to buy food and drinks. Over it – wish we’d just caught a flight.

First Class boards first but we’re held up having another argument when they put our bags through yet another x-ray machine and try to take our unopened bottle of Bacardi. They make a call to another guy who also wants to confiscate it until the original guy comes to our rescue and tells them we can keep it.

The platform rigmarole is a bit of a joke with female Chinese guards standing to attention as we board the train. On board is very clean and totally boring/featureless/soulless. Anyway we move to the dining car after an hour but can’t stomach any of the hideous food. We end up with potato chips, juice and Tusker Light for Mark.

At one stage, a recorded announcement tells us tell that we’re entering Tsavo National Park where we will see elephants, zebras, and giraffes – don’t see any! The scenery is generally forgettable but the five hours passes quick enough.

Darkness has fallen by the time we reach Mombasa about 7.15pm at another huuuuge train station. The train holds one and a half thousand people who are all trying to get into the city. Outside is very dark and the whole place has a bizarre, unreal feel about it. Passengers pile into buses and waiting cars while we’re left almost on our own until a guy in a car (a taxi he tells us) says he can drive us into the city.

His name is Joel and tells us ‘traffic impossible’. This is because the whole way in is convoys of trucks keeping traffic to almost a stand-still. It takes an hour of traffic jams, pollution, noisy trucks and police stopping people for nothing but to collect bribes.

So relieved to arrive in the city which is comparatively quiet. The first thing we see are the famous giant Mombasa elephant tusks crossing Moi Avenue. The tusks were built for the visit  of Queen Elizabeth in 1952. It’s hard not to think of McDonalds.

Joel drops us at the New Palm Tree Hotel on Nkrumah Road (old Fort Jesus road) in Old Town Mombasa. Inside the bland exterior is a cavernous busy space with a pizza oven and cake stand on one side and the hotel desk on the other. A lovely old timber staircase with fat carved posts leads to the next floor where the rooms are set around an inner courtyard. We’re pleased with our $40 room with air-con, television and hot water in the bathroom.

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It’s time to eat so we head down to the Al-Yosra Restaurant next to the main foyer. The hotel is Muslim run so no alcohol and all food halal. We order one chicken and mushroom pizza and a coke but end up with two chicken only pizzas and a water. What?  We give away one of the pizzas to a large local family then head straight for bed at 9.30pm. Sooo tired!

Saturday 3rd February, 2018

Mombasa

After a good sleep we have showers at 7.30am then breakfast is buffet style in the first floor courtyard – juice, tea and coffee while one of the staff cooks us eggs and sausages. Most guests are Muslim families with all the ladies and little girls wearing head scarves. There’s a nice old-world colonial feel with shuttered doors to all the rooms and lots of potted palms around.

Despite really liking it here, we plan to walk around to look for a different guesthouse for tonight – always like to experience different places to stay. But after checking out the area on foot we decide to get a tuktuk to the heart of the Old City. Our driver is Moses, a friendly local man who drives us to the only hotel in the old part of town but it’s just too dark and dingy.

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We really like the Old City, though, with its narrow streets, Arab houses and shops with carved doors. Moses takes us to the elephant tusks to take photos and then to check out the Lotus Hotel. Yes – we love it and book in for the night. Moses drives us back to the New Palm to pick up our bags then on to Lotus to book in.

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After a quick rest we’re up at 11.30am to walk to Fort Jesus which is the most popular tourist spot in Mombasa. But first we want to have lunch and run into Moses just near the Fort. We tell him we’re going to Rozina Restaurant first but apparently it closed down three years ago, obviously we’re using an old Lonely Planet – so Moses takes us to Fodorhani Restaurant on the water. At first we sit on the lower level but it smells like a toilet so we move to the top deck. Here the view is spectacular – clear torquoise waters at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and a lovely breeze to cool us down. We order prawns and fish in coconut sauce with rice.

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From here we walk with Moses to Jesus Fort which was built by the Portuguese in 1596 and today is a UNESCO World Heritage site. After the Portuguese left it was used by the Arabs as torture rooms and prison cells where slaves were kept before being shipped away – awful but we want to see it all. Moses acts as our guide because he’s probably brought tourists here hundreds of times. He shows us canons, a whale skeleton, Portuguese toilets, look-out towers and steps that lead down to the water where the Portuguese brought in supplies but later where the Arabs took the slaves out to the boats.

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Leaving Fort Jesus we walk down to the water to see wooden boats from Tanzania then through the narrow alleyways of the Old City where men wear long white robes and white kufi caps. Women are in the full black burqua with only slits for their eyes – so interesting!

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Other narrow streets wind between a mix of Portuguese and Swahili architecture while robed men pull wooden carts piled high with fruit, men and women sew on old treddle sewing machines right on the street and curbside stalls sell fruit and vegetables. Wooden balconies hang over the street some with flowering vines, arched doorways and heavy carved doors reminding us of Stonetown in Zanzibar.

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At the clothes market we watch people using sewing machines then we buy pineapples for the three of us – best we’ve ever tasted! At the spice market we buy a bag of passionfruit for $2 then ask Moses to take us to a bottle shop. Yes I need more Bacardi after having most of it confiscated on the train! And amazingly we find it!

Back at the Lotus we shower then sleep till 6.30pm, when we head downstairs for a drink at the bar. From here we tuktuk to Tarboosh Café that I’d seen on a traveller’s blog. This is a very local, busy and very interesting place – love it! We sit outside under fairy lights with metal tables and plastic chairs. Mark has a beef curry and chips while I order a shish-kebab sort of thing plus a passionfruit juice. I also have to embarrassingly kabumbah in the bathroom.

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From here we catch another tuktuk to the Casablanca Club over near the Tusks. This is a big, open-air place pumping out very loud doof doof music. A young woman is dancing by herself and all the other ladies are obviously prostitutes.

After one drink each, too loud, we meet a young woman outside who says ‘where you go madam. I did not dance with you’. What???

Back at Lotus we head straight for the bar where a guy is smoking his head off so we move to the dining area.

Bed at 9.30pm.

Sunday 4th February, 2018

Mombasa to Kilifi

Like last night I’m still shitting but I’m dosing myself up on Imodean and trying to ignore it. After showers and a snuggle, we have breakfast downstairs – juice, tea, coffee, sausage, bacon and eggs.

After packing we catch a tuktuk to the bus station as we plan to head up the coast to the coastal town of Kilifi. At the bus station we’re confronted with desperate touts vying for us to get on their bus. ‘Express Malindi’ and ‘we leaving now’. We head straight for the bus where a man with food all around his mouth sell us tickets at $1.50 each. As Mark throws our big packs underneath, we ask when will we be leaving – ‘in few minutes’ – ‘but the bus isn’t full’ (we know only too well the transport system in these countries, only leave when full to bursting) – ‘we go anyway’ – big fib!

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At least the bustle outside keeps us amused while we wait. Tall spreading trees shade makeshift kitchens and old wooden benches where people sit to eat. Other stalls sell drinks and local food while tuktuks buzz in and out the gate. Most ladies are wearing head scarves and wrap around sarongs while some wear the full burkas.

Half an hour later we’re still sitting on the bus and I know that even if we miss it I have to get off to look for a toilet. I’m frantic to find it and a nice man shows me the way.

This is not something I’m looking forward to as I know, without even seeing it, the toilet will be a horror chamber. And it is – a filthy squat type with a poo in the bottom! No choice but to go and ahh the relief. After much hand washing, I’m back on the bus swallowing more Imodean. Can you overdose on Imodean? The pains and urges keep coming in waves as we drive north up the coast.

We cross a wide, lazy river then pass corn fields, cows and goats grazing on the side of the road. The vegetation is lush – palms, giant flowering bougainvillea and coconut trees. Markets are busy in every village where ladies sell vegetables and fruit laid out on the ground on small squares of canvas – nearby is the ever present pile of rubbish.

Roadside villages are made from scraps of wood and all with rusty corrugated iron roofs. Village people come and go either on foot or on motorbikes, usually with the driver plus two more on the back.

People just flag down the bus any old where then unhurriedly climb aboard while I’m sweating it out trying not to poop. Going over road humps is the worst.

We pass signs to other beaches like Watamu and Nyali but they’re a bit close to Mombasa and so maybe a bit touristy. That’s why we didn’t head down to Diani Beach which is the most popular beach in Kenya probably because of its close proximity to Mombasa.

For kilometre after kilometre we drive past plantations of sisal as far into the distance as we can see. Sisal looks like a rosette of sword-shaped leaves only about a metre tall and is used to make rope and twine. There must be a huge market for it somewhere.

After a few hours we arrive in Kilifi which lies on Kilifi Creek at the estuary of the Goshi River. We’re dumped at the bus stop in town then desperately (me)
ask about a toilet – ‘come this way mumma’ a friendly guy beckons. The toilet here is worse than the one in Mombasa and I almost can’t go in there but I’ve no choice. Oh and no water here to wash my hands. Tip – never use a toilet at a Kenyan bus station!

Catching a tuktuk out of town, we’re headed for the Distant Relatives Backpackers – awesome name and the photos looked good on booking.com. The road out here is unpaved dirt and rocks, very bumpy so more urges to poop. Oh God, I’m frantic again but at least out here I could make a dash for the bushes.

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After ten minutes passing thatched villages we arrive at the entrance and we bounce into the dirt carpark. The path to the reception is just sand and tiny rocks that clog up the wheels on our backpacks so Mark ends up having to carry them. While Mark books in, I make a run for the nearest loo. Why isn’t the Imodean working?

The people here are lovely and one of the girls takes us to our hut called Guava Bungalow. This is made of tan mudbricks with a thatched roof and shaded by tall trees and surrounded by pretty gardens. Inside is a towering vaulted bamboo ceiling and a four poster bed draped with a mozzie net. With no glass on the windows and gaps between the roof and the walls, I think we’ll definitely need it tonight. We also have a roughly built table and chairs. Our private bathroom is an outdoor setup surrounded by a woven bamboo fence with a hand basin, shower and urinal under the eaves and the toilet in a little hut up five stairs. This toilet experienced is something new.

Distant Relatives in an ecolodge so the toilets are dry toilets meaning that your wee wees are caught in a cup at the front and the poopadoops drop into the dry leaves at the back. When you’re finished you scoop in crushed leaves from a big cane basket then shut the lid.

After settling in, we check out the volleyball court (no thanks), the sunbathing beds (no thanks) and the pool (yes please). This is a kidney shape with little bamboo cabanas and just outside the main chill-out room. This is a Portuguese style with arched windows with fancy metal grates, white stucco walls, cane lounges covered in colourful cushions, swirling ceiling fans, a What To Do blackboard and a bar. All we need for a fabulous stay!

We meet Steve the barman and Mwanase the female manager. Before lunch we decide to go to the beach which is four hundred metres down through the grounds along dirt paths overhung with thick vegetation. This is not actually a beach as we know it but a pretty sandy spot on Kilifi Creek. Some of the boat guys are being overly friendly but we’ll probably go out with them later anyway. We swim around with some African guys in the warm water – gorgeous.

Back up to swim in the pool then order lunch of a warm chicken salad for me and a beef curry for Mark. Bob Marley music is playing – ‘No Woman No Cry’ for Angie – and we do.

Later I have a massage in our room with a local lady called Josephine – one hour for $30. Her husband was killed in a road accident five years ago and she’s supporting four sons living in a mud hut in the neighbouring village. I love her.

After a rest, a sleep and reading on our Kindles, we walk over to the chill-out area in the dark. Dinner is fish and vegetables for Mark and nothing for me. Don’t feel like eating but I do feel like drinking. Mark has Castle Light while I have my usual duty free Bacardi.

We chat for ages with Mwanase who tells us that our plan to get a bus right up the coast past Malindi isn’t a good idea as the road is terrible and too dangerous as it’s still a hotspot for terrorist attacks. Last year, insurgents attacked passenger buses and even police vehicles.

She says we should fly from Malindi to Lamu and will help us book a flight tomorrow. Love these change of plans! Bed at 9pm.

Monday 5thth February, 2018

 Kilifi

I’m still shitting! I take Imodean then we have breakfast by the pool – fruit salad and yoghurt with passionfruit juice and a coffee for Mark. We’ve decided to stay here again today firstly because we love it and secondly so I can try and get rid of this bug.

Mark has a massage with Jospehine at nine o’clock and I book her for a half hour one this afternoon. We spend the rest of the morning hanging out on multi-patterned colourful mattresses and pillows in a big airy room with wide openings decorated with black ironwork.

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We book a dhow ride for this afternoon at 4.30pm as long as I’m feeling okay. For lunch Mark orders chicken wings and we share a cheeseburger and chips. Mwanase turns up to tell us that she’s booked us a 3.30pm flight tomorrow from Malindi to Lamu for only $30 each!

Josephine turns up late but still in time for both of us to have a half hour massage each. We give her the bag of passionfruit we’d bought in Mombasa to take home for her kids.

I’m still constantly on the loo so we have to cancel the boat ride but still have to pay 2,000 KS anyway. Later we chat with Mwanase who rings her parents who live in Lamu town. They own a guesthouse which she books for our first night on the island. Their hotel manager, Kesh, will meet us at the airport. She also gives us the number of the boat captain who can take us to Shela Beach. All a bit confusing but we’ll sort things out when we get there.

Tonight a movie has been set up outside where we all sit on the sand. Lovely here under the stars having our drinks but we’ve seen the movie before – Inglorius Basterds – and we can’t read the subtitles anyway. Besides that a Rasta guy is smoking a bong so we move to the pool.

Tuesday 6th February, 2018

 Kilifi to Malindi to Lamu Town, Lamu Island

I’m feeling heaps better this morning so after a good sleep, we have a snuggle then have20180131_132026250_iOSbreakfast by the pool. The weather is perfect once again – same blue skies and high temperatures every day so far.

After a swim we laze around next to the pool reading on our Kindles – monkeys are playing in the trees next to us. We ring Lauren – Abi has two new worlds in Minecraft and Elkie has two dummies in her mouth. They have a long talk to Pa about cockroaches.

Time to leave soon so we shower in our lovely outdoor bathroom then pack before paying our bill of $240 for two night’s accommodation plus all our food and drinks.

At one o’clock we set off in a taxi to Malindi with two French girls who are also on our same flight to Lamu. They are Constance who lives in Germany and Aminata who lives in Addis Ababa. Our driver is excruciatingly slow almost coming to a stop at speed bumps and crawling through small towns until we arrive at Malindi Airport forty-five minutes later. This has a small open-sided, pleasant terminal painted white and decorated with Maasai artwork.

Our plane to Lamu is small with propellars but looks ok. We leave on time at 3.30pm for the twenty minute flight. We have lovely views of the coastline and islands but the wind is a real worry and we come into land almost sideways. The tiny airport is actually on Manda Island which means we need to get a boat to Lamu. Kesh from Amu House meets us and we follow him to the jetty where about thirty of us cram into a small boat. The water is choppy because of the wind and we hope it dies down soon. Lamu is only fifteen minutes from Manda so luckily we’re not out on the water too long.

From the boat, Lamu town spreads out before us along the waterfront opposite. It reminds us of Stone Town on Zanzibar where we stayed in 2014 – palm trees, mosques, an Omani fort and crumbling Portuguese buildings. And like Zanzibar, Lamu is a Swahili island.

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The Swahili culture embraces all parts of Lamu’s society and is very appealing but very complicated. It’s not a single culture or way of life, but a mixture of traces from European, African, Arab and Asian traditions and cultures brought to the island by sailors and traders centuries ago.

At the busy wharf we jump out while our bags are handed up to us. We follow Kesh through narrow alleyways lined with coral rag walls and where people call out ‘jambo’ (Swahili for hello) and donkeys roam free. This is a different world, not feeling like Africa at all.

Amu House is a very old Swahili house which opens up inside a carved door off one of these tiny alleyways into a sort of courtyard with steps leading up to the rooms. We run into Constance and Aminata – they must have got the same deal with Mwanase from Distant Relatives as well.

Our room is huge with a sitting room between the bedroom and the bathroom. We have a beautiful carved Swahili bed with a mosquito net and louvred shutters at the windows.

On the rooftop terrace we find colourful woven day beds under a soaring thatched roof. All around are other thatched roofs and views of the water. We’ll come back in the morning but for now we need to find somewhere to eat/drink.

We head back down to the waterfront then the main square next to the Fort. Two huge spreading trees shade the square where lots of men are just sitting around chatting while fruit and vegetable vendors sell from wooden carts. The women wear the full burka with just slits for their eyes – they’re very friendly. And there are donkeys!

On dark, we find a locals-only rooftop restaurant called the New Mahrus which has a great menu but they don’t seem to have anything on it including seafood – but the water is just over there!!!! Also the menu has photos of succulent chicken drumsticks but they don’t actually sell them – ever. There is also no beer (Muslim) so we just order a pineapple juice each. These come out in huge glass tankards that we can’t finish.

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Down on the waterfront the wind is still up so we seek out the Bush Restaurant as recommended by Lonely Planet. This old place has been a favourite with travelers for years and we love it too. With a rough cement floor, a grass roof, cross beams made from the trunks of trees, cane light fittings and wooden tables and chairs, it has a rustic, unpretentious feel. A group of local men wearing white robes and caps are talking animatedly around a big table but otherwise we’re the only other people here except for Constance and Aminata. Mark orders calamari, salad and beers but there is only full strength coke for me so I don’t bother. Anyway, I’m still not feeling the best on the stomach so we go to bed early.

Wednesday 7th February, 2018

 Lamu Town, Lamu Island

We have a bit of a sleep-in as we plan to stay here in Lamu town today even though we will move guesthouses as we always do. Before breakfast we head up to the roof where we ring Lauren and the dollies – all good and we really miss our three darling girls.

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On the dark bottom floor we find breakfast set up for us in a windowless dining room – very atmospheric. Constance and Aminata soon turn up so we share stories over fruit, mango juice, toast poached eggs and scrambled eggs.

Next we check out Jannat House then a few other guesthouses along the waterfront. But it’s still windy so we decide on Jannat which is tucked away amongst the alleyways and so totally protected from the wind.

Returning to Amu House, we grab our packs stopping to chat to a local man just outside who says ‘wind make me crazy’. We’ve seen him every time we come and go and he’s always feeding the endless starving cats around here. Word has it that the feral cats of Lamu are the descendants of the ancient cats of the Egyptian pharaos – true story!

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We really love Jannat House and especially our room which is actually two rooms with bathrooms and decorated with wood-carved Swahili furniture and African/Arabic antiques. We also have our own private balcony overlooking gardens and the pool. The House is an 18th century merchant’s house, now a guesthouse apparently popular with writers. The rooms are up and down higgledy piggledy staircases with hidden away open-sided seating areas all over the place – it’s easy to get lost. All this for only $50AUD.

And because a pool is usually a luxury on our budget, we head straight for the water. This is heaven!

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On our way back out, we talk to Kara who works here. She tells us that she’s going to Shela this afternoon and if we meet her here at one thirty, she’ll take us there to show us around.

So now we decide to just wander around the Old Town with a list of things to check out but mainly to just take in the atmosphere of this exotic town. We make our way through the maze of narrow streets dodging donkeys laden down with anything that needs transporting around the town – rocks, boxes of soft drinks, bags of sand – we feel sorry for them.

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There are no cars in Lamu town at all so you have to either walk or ride a donkey. Cars wouldn’t fit through the winding alleyways anyway. Wandering the small streets, we pass Maasai men, more starving Egyptian cats, Muslim women in colourful veils and black dresses and the ever present donkeys. Of course, where you get donkeys you donkey poops so the whole place stinks – maybe we’ll get used to it.

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The tiny alleyways are lined with tiny shops usually with the owner sitting on a stool out front. Local people go about their day, shopping or talking in groups – it’s a nice feel here. We find an appealing outdoor restaurant on the harbour – leafy and cool as the day is heating up. We share an expensive hamburger and chips – sooo good.

Nearby is the Al Maawiya School where school girls in crisp white pants and veils with dark blue dresses are playing skipping games out front. Now we check out the Donkey Hospital then the Lamu Museum before meeting Kara at Jannat House.

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We follow her down to the wharf where she argues with a boat guy who is trying to charge her too much. She finds another boat but now another woman is screaming at the new guy saying that she sent us to him so he should pay her a commission – poor lady must be really desperate for money.

By the way, Lamu’s port has a horrible history. It was founded by Arab traders in the 14th century when the island prospered on the slave trade until the British eventually closed the slave markets in 1873 – similar to Zanzibar’s history.

The trip to Shela is quite scary with the water even bumpier and choppier today, still because of the dreaded wind. Kara and I are drenched by a couple of rogue waves that crash into the boat but we have a great laugh about it. In fifteen minutes we pull into Shela and jump out into the water – no wharf here.

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Most ex-pats live here at Shela but many locals as well so there’s a mix of really beautiful villas and family homes. Kara leads us through the same type of narrow laneways as in Lamu town but this is definitely cleaner although the donkeys roam free here as well.

She takes us to Pwani Guesthouse, an old Swahili house, where the owner shows us a room on the top floor with wonderful views of the water and Manda Island opposite. The room opens up onto a rooftop dining/chillout area sheltered by a grass roof. Oh yes, we’ll take it and book in for tomorrow night.

Just below Pwani is the very exclusive and very expensive Peponi’s Hotel – we never expected there’d be anything like this on Lamu. It’s run by a Dutch family who came across an abandoned Arab style house in the 1960’s and turned it into a small hotel. Today the hotel has expanded but still seem small and intimate with Swahili architecture and a tropical feel.

While Kara leaves us to go to a meeting, Mark and I have drinks inside and enjoy an hour of people watching – mainly Europeans. This will definitely be on the agenda over the next few days.

Instead of risking the boat ride back to Lamu town, we decide to walk. Luckily a couple of motor bike riders are going our way and give us a lift. The bikes can only be used out of Lamu town and Shela. They drop us near the Lamu Palace Hotel where we think we’ll stay when we come back from Shela.

Nearby we meet a lady called Zeena who tells she can do massages for $12 AUD an hour. She walks with us back to Jannat stopping on the way at a tiny shop to buy coconut oil. I go before Mark then we both have showers before heading out for the night. The first job is to find a supermarket to buy Coke Zero or Diet Coke – can’t do the full sugar thing. The supermarket is up a steep staircase but no luck. We’re told that there isn’t any on the island at all.

Tonight we’re back at the Bush Restaurant and because I’m feeling heaps better we order up big – Mark has fish fillets, vegetables and salad while I have calamari, chips and salad. The owner is really sweet and brings out a vase of flowers and lights a candle to put on our table – very romantic.

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From here we find Petleys Bar in a dark upstairs room. After a few drinks though we can’t stand the loud music and head back to Jannat to bed.

Thursday 8th February, 2018

Lamu Town to Shela, Lamu Island

Breakfast at Jannat is on the rooftop dining area – passionfruit juice, mango, pineapple, watermelon, eggs and toast. We’re serenaded to the sound of donkeys loudly braying in the laneway down below. We call Lauren who sends us gorgeous photos of Elkie in her new hot pink dance uniform

The guy on the desk arranges for a boat to take us to Shela. After packing we meet Mohammed downstairs at 9.30am and follow him to the wharf. Dodging donkey poop all the way we pass veiled women and white robed men shuffling by. Sadly we come across a group of army or police in camouflage gear and carrying big guns, who are escorting eight bedraggled men hand-cuffed together in pairs.

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At the wharf we hand over 5,000KSh to Mohammed for our ‘private’ boat but then a man and a lady jump in as well – whatever. Funnily we stop at a petrol station which is actually an old wooden hut floating in the middle of the harbor. Petrol is banned on the island as it’s too dangerous apparently.

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We’re dropped at Shela near Peponi’s and jump out into the water with Mark carrying our big packs above his head. At the Pwani Guesthouse we’re met by Mwini, the friendly, chubby owner. Before showing us our room he wants us to order food for tonight so he can go to the market.

But now we’re ready to settle into our lovely room. Our beds are the traditional hand-carved, wooden Swahili type with fancy wooden footboards and
headboards decorated with glass tiles. The bedroom is big and airy with windows along two walls plus a very big bathroom down two cement steps. The view from our window is picture-postcard – coconut palms, a white sandy beach, turquoise water and picturesque dhows sailing past.

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Outside our room is a sheltered sitting area with a palm roof and white stucco arches. Concrete benches are covered with thick cushions plus a big wooden table and chairs are all under the shade.

On the rooftop deck we meet Barbro and Alf who are staying in the only other room that opens up onto the terrace. They’re an elderly Swedish couple who come to Kenya for two months every year to help in a Maasai village. They build schools and do whatever else is needed then come to Lamu for ten days before going home. We love them already.

Now Mark and I walk down to Peponi’s for lunch sitting inside the posh dining room. After club sandwiches and lime sodas we wander back up into the labyrinth of laneways to explore this small Islamic village. Past white washed walls overhung with pink and orange flowering bougainvillea we come across the inevitable braying donkeys, howling Egyptian cats and cute school children walking to their madrassa (Islamic school).

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Dinner is downstairs at Pwani in a cool inner courtyard. Our host, Mwini, proudly brings out the dishes – fifteen king prawns for me and a whole fish for Mark plus a huge salad to share. We take our time before heading back down to Peponi’s for drinks.

We watch darkness fall sitting out on the terrace under a pergola dripping with a white flowering vine. People watching is excellent – a mix of wealthy Europeans (no Australians funnily enough) and hippy types – most people are barefoot. Later we move inside to the bar for more drinks – Cascade light for Mark and Bacardi for me. I’ve discovered that if I water down the full strength Coke with soda water it’s sort of like drinking Coke Zero – think I’ll do this at home as well – even Coke Zero is bad shit!

Peponi has a resident dog who spends his time dropping pebbles from his mouth onto our table so we can throw them for him. We don’t stay long but have another drink on our own terrace before going to bed fairly early – sensible!

Fri 9th February, 2018

Shela, Lamu Island

Breakfast is downstairs then we walk along the water’s edge towards the southern end of the island. This southern coastline is composed of mainly sand dunes and a deserted twelve kilometre beach. Of course, I’m not walking that far so we turn back to Shela. On the way we meet a guy with a donkey who gives me a ride. It’s only a few feet off the ground but I’m still scared I’ll fall off.

As we reach Peponi we find a guy tagging turtles in the grounds then we walk uphill to the little market area. Mark decides to have a haircut as he always does while we’re overseas – always a funny experience. Another customer waiting is a guy called Osman who says he will arrange for us to go on a dhow sail this afternoon. This is something we’d planned while we’re here so let’s do it!

Later we see a group of tiny school kids all dressed in white walking down to the beach with their teacher. They’re incredibly cute all holding hands and it makes us miss our dollies even more.

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After less than one day on Shela we’ve fallen Iove with it so we think we’ll stay at least again tonight. But while we also love Pwani we’ll have a look at a few other places just in case we’re missing out on something magical. We check out a couple of traditional houses which have amazing rooms but don’t have the view or the appeal of Pwani so we’ll stay there again tonight at least.

 

 

Around every corner is something to see – gorgeous white washed villas with thick tropical gardens, little local shops, people carrying baskets hanging from a stick over their shoulders and, at one corner, even a donkey jam. We sit outside a shop drinking soda waters to watch the local life go by.

We eventually come out at the water where Maasai men are selling trinkets and a donkey being dragged into the water to be washed. Lunch at Peponi’s is samosas and wine for Mark while I’m extra happy with a cheesecake.

At two o’clock we meet Osman down at the beach who shows us a motor boat – what?? No we want a traditional dhow so he makes a phone call and in minutes here comes a beautiful old dhow around the corner. We’re to pay 3,000KSh for an hour. Our captain and his mate are lovely telling us to chill out on cushions on the deck as we sail over towards Manda Island and then down to Lamu town and back. Tick this off our bucket list!!

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Before going back to our room for an afternoon nap, we stop at Peponi’s for Mark to have a wine and to share a mozzarella, tomatao, basil and ham bagel. The food here is always perfect. On sunset we’re back for hot chips, a beer for Mark and a margarita for me.

But we’re not staying as tonight we’re off to Manda Island with Alf and Barbro. They’d told us that every Friday night the Diamond Beach Resort puts on a movie and organises a boat to take people from Shela across to Manda. About twelve of us wade into the water and jump into a small boat that chugs across the Lamu Channel.

Not sure how safe this is with no life jackets so I don’t think I’ll have any more to drink till we get back. At Manda we again jump out into the water then walk across the sand to Diamond Beach Resort. Lots of people are already sitting in the dining/bar area which is a large open-sided space sheltered by a thatched roof. We sit with Alf and Barbro ordering pizzas and soda water. A nice lady hands Barbro and me little flowers to pin to our tops but they smell so strong I have to sneakily throw them away. The movie is ‘Hell or High Water’ which we’d wanted to see anyway.

Time to go, we all meet back down on the water’s edge but the boat doesn’t appear for ages – Lamu time. Finally we cross the channel under a million stars – have loved this night. At Pwani the four of us have more drinks on our shared terrace.

Saturday 10th February, 2018

Shela, Lamu Island

Today is Jackie’s birthday so we send her a message then have breakfast on the terrace with our lovely neighbours. They’re going to walk to Lamu today to buy wine but Mark and I think we’ll go back to Diamond Beach. So at eleven o’clock we meet a guy called Abdul who says he’ll take us across then pick us up when we call him.

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The water is calm today so it’s a pleasant crossing. The sand is red hot on Manda beach which has a few sunbakers lying around under roughly made shelters while a small herd of cows mills arund.

We share a baked chicken salad and a seafood pizza washed down with our favourite lime sodas then I wander around the grounds. I come across a small shop where I buy brass earrings and a glass bead necklace from an English woman who actually owns the resort.

We’re not sure if this was the place, but in 2011 a woman was kidnapped from a resort around here by Somali pirates who had been terrorizing communities along the Kenyan coast. She was returned okay in the end and things have been calmer the last couple of years.

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We both have a swim then Mark decides to walk to the point to see what’s around the corner. Not me, I spend the time lying on a comfy rattan cot under a palm shelter. When Mark returns he finds a hammock close by and we both read for an hour.

Mark calls Abdul about three o’clock and we have another swim before he arrives. Back on Shela beach we’re approached by a young guy carrying a reed basket. He shows Mark hot samosas which is very popular around here. We buy some.

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Nearby down on the concrete ledge near Peponi’s, a group of Rasta dhow boys ask if we want to go with them on a sunset cruise – no thanks, they all look stoned!

Dinner is with Barbro and Alf in the lower courtyard. They’ve also invited a friend called Momma Sophie who they met when they first started coming here. Momma Sophie is from Germany but lives here six months a year. She has brought along a big bottle of red wine to share and flowers for me and Barbro.

We all share garlic prawns, three whole fish, salad, rice and a big plate of vegetables while Momma Sophie never draws breath. ‘I have a story to tell you’ and off she goes again and again.

Have enough of her in the end so Mark and I escape to Peponi’s. We see Osman from yesterday and a crazy local who’s here every night making a total pest of himself. Fun! 

Sunday 11th February, 2018

Shela to Lamu Town, Lamu Island

Today we say goodbye to Alf and Barbro after eating breakfast with them on the terrace. We swap email addresses and hope we see them again one day but know we never will – just too far away. They’ve made our stay in Shela all that much better.

Mark pays Mwini then rings Yusf to pick us up in his boat. The water is calm today with blue skies above, so the fifteen minute trip to Lamu town is the best we’ve had since we’ve been here. At the main wharf we drag our packs down to the Lamu Palace Hotel where we hope to get a room for tonight.

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This Arabic style hotel faces the sea front and sits in the heart of town. Inside, tall columns support impressive arches and the spacious foyer has high ceilings with a wide staircase leading up to the rooms. Luckily they have one for us but it’s not ready just yet so we lie around inside on one of the antique lounges while we wait.

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We see Zeena walking by so we make arrangements to meet her back here at two o’clock for a massage. Until then we hang out in our room for an hour reading and repacking. At eleven o’clock we set off through the maze of streets in this busy little area that we hadn’t visited when we were here last week.

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Our plan is to visit the Fort but we know that we need to buy the tickets from the Museum. An old man latches onto us rattling off things about Lamu that we already know. At the Museum he says ‘you will need at least two hours’ – not bloody likely!

As we sort of expected, the Museum is pretty boring except for the interesting architecture. It was built in 1813 by the Sultan of Oman who was trying to suck up to the people of Lamu as he wanted control of the East African coastline. Now another man approaches us wanting to be our guide but we’ve had enough and take off.

We can hear singing coming from the church next door and stick our heads in to have a look. It’s packed with young girls all dressed in white and green, who all pile outside to buy ice blocks. We do the same then buy extras for two local ladies and their four children – a nice time hanging out with them.

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Lunch is in a basic restaurant on the waterfront but because it’s only local food, I’m not game to risk my stomach again. Mark is fine and hoes into rice with a fish soup. From here we walk back to the main square to visit Lamu Fort which served as a British prison from the early twentieth century right up until 1984. We climb up to the parapets for good views of the town and the Indian Ocean.

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The square is very busy at the moment with people coming and going to the market. This is tucked away next to the Fort and as fabulous as all fresh food markets all over the world. More stalls are set up along adjoining alleyways – fruit, vegetables and chickens for sale in cages.

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Zeena doesn’t turn up for the massage so we spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out in our room then come downstairs at 6.30pm. We decide to have dinner here tonight as the food is supposed to be good. We could have our meal inside the restaurant or out on the terrace overlooking the ocean. We choose inside to enjoy the wonderful Arabic ambience and also to escape the stink of donkey poop. I don’t think we’ll be able to get the smell out of our nostrils for a week.

Dinner is garlic calamari and a seafood pizza. Later we wander around the streets which are even busier and interesting after dark. More drinks at the Palace then bed at 8.30pm.

Monday 12th February, 2018

Lamu Island to Manda Island to Malindi to Nairobi

Sadly this is our last day on Lamu and we wake to a gorgeous day. We’re up at seven o’clock for showers and to pack then we have breakfast downstairs – passionfruit juice, fruit, tea, coffee and eggs on toast – same, same but good.

At 9.30am we catch a boat to Manda Island, flying out at 11.15am. We have a layover in Malindi then land at Nairobi’s Domestic terminal about one o’clock. We grab a taxi to a market where Mark buys a t-shirt and I buy earrings and bangles for presents. Even here there are armed guards who check the taxi inside and out.

From here we drive to Karen where we’ve booked a room at Milimani Backpackers where Julie and Steve stayed last year. This renovated house is set behind a big garden with leafy side and back gardens as well. After reading on couches in the big chill-out area we dress for a night out at Carnivore.

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It takes forty-five minutes to get to there through very uninteresting suburbs and lots of peak hour traffic which shouldn’t be as bad on the way back. Someone described the interior as a rustic setting with a medieval banquet hall which is spot on.

Carnivore is known as “the ultimate Beast of a Feast” where exotic meats like ostrich, crocodile, camel and venison are roasted over hot coals then brought to our table on long skewers. Mark tries them all but I stick to the normal boring meats like chicken, lamb and beef. We just choose what we want and how much we want.

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This is a fixed price menu which includes dessert and side dishes like soup and salad. It’s all a bit daggy but lots of fun and we’re glad we came.

Back home to bed for a very early start in the morning.

Tuesday 13th February, 2018

Nairobi to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) to Johannesburg

Our alarm is set for 1am to get a taxi to the airport for our 5am takeoff on Ethiopian Airlines. There are no direct flights to Johannesburg which means we now fly two hours north (not south) to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where we spent a few amazing weeks back in 2017. A two hour layover in Addis then a five hour flight (south finally)

to Johannesburg. Here we have a six hour layover before a fourteen hour Qantas flight to Sydney – a loooong day!

Wednesday 14th February, 2018

Newcastle to Sydney

Land in Sydney at 3.30 in the afternoon then a train to Central then a train to Newcastle to our darlings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jordan and Israel 2019

 

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    Our Itinerary

2/05/2019 Thurs Newcastle to Sydney
3/05/2019 Fri Sydney 6am to Dubai 2.10pm, Dubai 5pm to Bahrain 5.15pm, Bahrain 5.55pm to Amman 8.30pm
4/05/2019 Sat Amman to Jerash to Amman
5/05/2019 Sun Amman to Wadi Musa-Petra
6/05/2019 Mon Wadi Musa-Petra to Little Petra
7/05/2019 Tues Little Petra to Wadi Rum
8/05/2019 Wed Wai Rum to Aqaba
9/05/2019 Thurs Aqaba (flight to Amman ) to Jerusalem (Israel)
10/05/2019 Fri Jerusalem
11/05/2019 Sat Jerusalem to Masada to Dead Sea to Jerusalem
12/05/2019 Sun Jerusalem
13/05/2019 Mon Jerusalem to Nazareth
14/05/2019 Tues Nazareth
15/05/2019 Wed Nazareth to Bethlehem (Palestine)
16/05/2019 Thurs Bethlehem to Madaba (Jordan)
17/05/2019 Fri Madaba to Amman. Amman 21.55 to
18/05/2019 Sat Dubai 2.05am, Dubai 8.45am to
19/0/2019 Sun Sydney 7.40am

Thursday 2nd May, 2019

 Newcastle to Sydney

This morning we take the dollies to school then Mark heads off for work. I meet Chris and Kerrie at Café Inu for our usual Thursday lunch. Later I dye my hair then pack before Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station to catch the 4.20pm train to Central Station in Sydney. We’re staying at the Royal Exhibition Hotel – an old favourite in Surry Hills. Drinks and dinner downstairs in the bar then an early night.

Friday 3rd May, 2019

Sydney to Dubai to Bahrain to Amman

Our Emirates flight leaves at the super early time of 6am so we set the alarm for 2.15am to take a taxi to the airport. After checking in at 3 o’clock we buy Bacardi then eat McDonalds which is our usual airport routine. We also use the massage chairs – another Sydney airport routine.

So why are we going to Jordan? ‘Is it safe’ everyone asks us. Yes, even though Jordan borders both Syria and Iraq, it’s still a stable oasis. But it does have its own massive problems (I googled it). The Jordanian government often plays the role of mediator between neighbouring countries and has taken on enormous numbers of refugees – 2 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, many since 1948, and more than 300,000 of them still live in refugee camps. They’ve been joined by some 700,000 Iraqis, and most recently, one and a half million Syrians.  Since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Jordan has shouldered the impact of this massive influx of Syrian refugees with the Jordanian people paying the price as it places huge pressure on the country’s already over-stretched resources.

Another problem for Jordan is the Israeli/Palestinian situation which, God forbid, Donald Trump is sticking his dopey nose into. King Abdulla of Jordan met with Trump in April but couldn’t get a straight answer (who’d have thought) about the Israeli/Palestinian Peace Plan. The Jordanians need to know as it will impact Jordan because it borders the West Bank. If Jordan’s current stability depends on Donald Dump then God help them!

But back to the trip. Our Emirates flight leaves on time at 6am and we’re in heaven with a spare seat between us! And besides having three seats, the leg room is so much bigger than we’ve experienced in years. We usually fly budget airlines but even Qantas doesn’t have this much space.

So for the fourteen hours in the air, we read, sleep, eat, and watch the inflight tv. Mark is over the moon watching the last season of Game of Thrones while I watch The Mule, Crazy Rich Asians, Green Book and The Wife. The time passes quickly and comfortably.

Finally we see desert below and land in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. We only have three hours before our next flight at 5pm and need to get from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1. Getting there is confusing to say the least – up lifts, down other lifts, a train then a bus.

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Luckily, our Gulf Air flight is running half an hour late. This is good for this connection but we’re flying to Bahrain with an hour to spare before our flight to Amman in Jordan. In the end we take off on the same plane but allocated different seats. The flight is only two and a half hours but it seems forever since we left our bed in Sydney. Arrive at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport at 9pm where we take a forty minute taxi into the city.

Neither of us can keep awake, both nodding off most of the way. At last we’re dropped at Zaman Ya Zaman Guesthouse in downtown. It’s very cute and atmospheric but we’ll see it all tomorrow. For now, we collapse into bed.

Saturday 4th May, 2019

 Amman to Jerash to Amman

At seven o’clock we’re up for showers and to head downstairs for breakfast. Our room is tiny but clean and the shared bathroom is close by so we’re happy. Best is the view from the landing – directly across from the two thousand year old Roman Theatre – a huge amphitheatre cut into the hillside. It can seat up to six thousand people and is still used today for concerts. Funny how our cheap little guesthouse has the best view in town!

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We’re served breakfast in the foyer sitting on an old lounge and surrounded by very Arabic furniture and decorations. After scrambled eggs, baked beans, tomato, olives, sausage, hummus, yoghurt and pitta bread, we’re served hot mint tea.

Today we plan to visit the ancient Greco-Roman city of Jerash which, after Petra of course, is Jordan’s main tourist attraction. Mark organizes for a driver to pick us up at 9am. He’ll drive us there and back for $80AUD – this is not Asia!

Our driver is Ead, a friendly local man who drives very fast. Leaving Amman behind, we cross the fertile hills of Gilead (is this where Margaret Attwood took the name for the Handmaid’s Tale?) about fifty kilometres north of Amman – which, by the way, was once called Philadelphia.

The green countryside with olive groves, green-houses, goat herds and evergreen forests is a surprise as we expected all of Jordan to be desert. Actually only Eastern Jordan is characterized by desert terrain, dotted with a few oases, but here in the western highlands the climate is more Mediterranean.

After an hour we arrive in modern Jerash, a small town that has sprung up around the ancient ruins. These ruins are said to be one of the most complete examples of a provincial Roman city to be seen anywhere in the world.

We pass through a covered market and buy red and white chequered scarves worn by the local men. At the entrance, we’re given free entry as we show our Jordan Pass. We’d been advised to buy this on all travel websites. You have to buy it before you arrive in Jordan as you don’t need to buy visas on arrival and there’s free entry into most historical sited including Petra. For $140 AUD each, it’s a good deal.

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For the next two hours we wander through the streets of ancient Jerash made even more atmospheric with the rugged backdrop of the Gilead Mountains. The colonnaded streets, theatres, public baths and fountains are amazingly well preserved despite the passage of time.

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We especially love coming across young goat herders from the adjacent village watching over very long-haired goats. Music is coming from an amphitheatre above us where we find musicians playing traditional instruments.

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The sun and heat is finally getting to us so we head back to the entrance where we find a table under trees to drink orange juice and coffee.

Back in Amman, Ead drives us to the Jett Booking Office where we hope to buy bus tickets for Wadi Musa tomorrow morning. A young woman takes our passports and says ‘you wait here’. She ignores us for half an hour until Ead comes in to see what’s taking so long. The woman tells him ‘bus full’ – wtf? Why didn’t she tell us?? No worries about the bus, though – we’ll sort something else out later.

Now it’s time to eat so Ead drops us off near Zaman. The street is hectic with traffic on both sides of the road. We find a restaurant with a second storey balcony that overlooks the madness down below and the Roman Theatre opposite. Young couples are smoking sheeshas and Mark orders a beer.

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After a rest in the coolness of our room, we set off again at 3.30pm to find a taxi to take us to Al Pasha Turkish Bath. I’d found this on the internet after researching hammams (Turkish baths). The photos looked amazing and it doesn’t disappoint. The entrance is leafy and welcoming and the interior is awesome – like a huge Bedouin tent complete with real palm trees.

The main area is dominated by a large water fountain and surrounded by Ottoman couches, antique tables and chairs, mirrors, Arabesque tiles, coloured glass chandeliers and Persian rugs.

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A young man leads us to the changing area where we strip down to our swimmers before taking a shower. Inside, the hammam is other worldly – dark and steamy with stone floors and walls, arched ceilings and stone collumns.

First is the steam room which is stiflingly hot but made bearable by an ice cold hibiscus tea. Next is a hot tub with the emphasis on hot. I keep jumping out to sit on the side to try and cool down.

Next we’re taken to the scrubbing area where we’re loofa-ed raw then have buckets of water poured over us to wash away all the dead skin. Now back to the hot tub before an oil massage lying on old wooden tables – all so atmospheric! This is definitely the highlight but we still have more punishment to come.

We’re beckoned to a sauna which is so hot it’s unbearable and we don’t stay long. The final stage is to lie on our backs on top of a round marble slab for twenty minutes with our feet sticking up against the wall.

After dressing we’re given cold drinks near the fountain – loved it all! The cost was $50AUD each for two hours and worth every cent for such an amazing experience.

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Returning to Zaman we can hear music coming from the rooftop of a house next door. About twenty people are crammed into a tiny balcony, some playing traditional instruments while the others dance and clap – so lucky to have seen this.

Before dinner we decide to walk up to the Citadel but after climbing hundreds of steps we think we’re lost and decide to see it when we come back in a couple of weeks.

Finding an interesting restaurant we head up to the rooftop bit. The weather is perfect and we find a table right on the edge overlooking the street and of course the Roman Theatre. The city looks especially lovely at this dusky time of day – all soft creams and whites. All buildings in Jordan are covered with thick white limestone or sandstone and apparently limited to four stories creating a very appealing and harmonious view.

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While we eat pizza and drink Petra beer (Mark) and Bacardi with Pepsi (yuk) for me, we check out the locals – no tourists here – and the mini zoo. Ducklings, baby chicks, guinea pigs, bunnies and a tortoise run free under the tables and I’m scared someone will step

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Later we move downstairs to the very Bedouin bar for more drinks and tapas.

Bed at 9.30pm

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Sunday 5th May, 2019

Amman to Wadi Musa-Petra

Up at 6.30am to shower and have breakfast in the little sunny dining room. The same deal as yesterday and, as we’ll soon find out, will be the same breakfast every day and wherever we go – ha ha.

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Last night we’d organized with the desk for someone to take us to Wadi Musa but now we’re informed that the driver is sick. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else but we’re told that we can get a bus at the Southern Bus Station – what? – thought they were all full! One of the guesthouse guys comes with us because he says there are two Southern bus stations and he’ll have to make sure the driver takes us to the right one – what, again?

Luckily there’s one last bus to Wadi Musa today but we have to wait till it fills up before we can leave. Unluckily we’re the only takers so far. This means a two hour wait but in the meantime I seek out the ladies toilet and meet some lovely ladies from Petra who’ve come to Amman for the day. Mark walks across to a shop to buy coffee but it’s so thick and black he chucks it away.

At 10.30am we’re on our way for the 250 kilometres to Wadi Musa. Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) is the closest town to Petra which is our actual destination and where we’ll visit tomorrow. For the four hour trip, the scenery is flat and barren and nothing of interest to see but arriving in Wadi Musa is much more as we’d hoped. The town sits spectacularly on the side of a bare rocky mountain where our Rocky Mountain Hotel sits perched looking over the town.

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The man on the desk is very friendly and explains about getting to Petra tomorrow and we order packed lunches to take with us. It’s been fairly easy to converse with the locals because, after Arabic, English is Jordan’s second language.

This is probably because Jordan actually came into being in the 20th century as part of the French and British division of the Arabian Peninsula then became a British Mandate under the UN’s approval until 1946, when it became independent.

Our room has a wonderful view but we’re too hungry to hang around and walk up the hill in search of food. We buy hot chips – nothing else to buy around here – which we take up to Rocky Mountain’s rooftop Bedouin dining room which doesn’t serve food – ???

We lie around on woven, red Bedouin cushions. In fact the whole room – ceiling, walls and floor is the same Bedouin fabric! Back in our room we sleep till 6.30pm then dress up (sort of) for a ‘posh’ night out on the town. We catch a taxi to the Cave Bar – another great find on travellers’ blogs. Occupying a 2000-year-old Nabataean rock tomb, the bar claims to be the oldest in the world. It sits almost at the entrance to Petra itself.

Inside are rough sandstone walls, solid rock columns, dim lanterns and even little niches carved into the rock walls themselves with individual tables. We’re lucky to be able to grab one of these – very romantic and good to sneakily top up my coke with Bacardi. Because the bar was once a tomb, Mark says there’s lots of ‘spirits’ around. Ha, ha!  We order Caesar salad and chicken wings while Mark drinks Petra beer. Love, love it here!

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One thing I must add here is that today is the first day of Ramadan. Ramadan is Islam’s holy month of fasting celebrating when God revealed the Quran to Muhammed. Between dawn and dusk Muslims are obliged to refrain from food, drink, sex – bloody hell!

I should have researched Ramadan dates for this year which I always have in the past if we’re going to a Muslim country. This is a big boo boo on my part especially since Jordan is 92% Sunni Muslims. Anyway, we’re lucky to find anywhere that actually sells alcohol.

Also from now on we’ll have to be mindful that while it isn’t illegal to eat or drink during the day, it’ll be pretty rude to be scoffing our faces in front of hungry Muslims. We’ll see how this will impact on our trip.

Outside I buy a hat at a market stall then we walk across to Movenpick. Love this too! We hang out in the gorgeous central area decorated with Arabic lights and a huge blue glass chandelier. Tall palm trees and marble columns add to the Middle Eastern feel. We check out the restaurants and other seating areas – all beautiful.

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Outside we can’t find a taxi for ages but finally a young guy stops us and rings his brother-in-law to pick us up. Probably bullshit but soon Mohammed arrives and drives us to the Rocky Mountain for just a few dollars. We ask him if he’ll drive us to Little Petra tomorrow afternoon.

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More drinks on the verandah off the dining room – another perfect night with the lights of Wadi Musa twinkling below us.

Monday 6th May, 2019

Wadi Musa-Petra to Little Petra

Today we’ll visit Petra. The reason for this whole trip. Showers at 5.30am then upstairs for a buffet breakfast – same, same – olives, pitta bread, yoghurt, boiled eggs, etc. We leave our bags at reception then catch a taxi to Petra Gate.

All travel blogs recommend visiting Petra as early as possible to avoid the crowds and it seems to be good advice. With only a couple of other people around, Mark walks the one kilometer to the Siq while I pay for a horse. Ha ha love it!

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Even the ride there is fabulous – rock carvings and hand hewn caves dot the way while stark hills surround the path. Now we’re at the start of the Siq which is the main entrance to the ancient city. It’s a one kilometre dramatic passageway varying in width from three to twelve metres. We really enjoy the peace of the walk enclosed by the beautiful limestone cliffs and then suddenly, there it is! The Treasury! 

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The Treasury is the jewel in the crown of Petra and what everyone imagines Petra to be. It’s thought to have been constructed in the 1st century BC, but its purpose still isn’t clear. The façade is lit up as the sun rises above the cliff face opposite. Later it will glow pink which is the reason Petra is often called The Rose City.

Camels sit in the foreground with their Bedouin wallahs, creating picture postcard opportunities. Very few other people here so we take our time to enjoy ‘the serenity’.

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But Petra is much more than just the Treasury. The city was carved into the rock face by the Nabataean civilization, a nomadic Bedouin tribe who roamed the Arabian Desert and who established Petra as a major trading hub. It became the capital around the 6th Century BC but was hit by a major earthquake in the middle of the first century before being abandoned by all but the Bedouin who inhabited the caves and tombs – their ancestors still live here today (Googled).

From The Treasury we walk through a passageway where donkeys are tied up ready for the tourists to pour in later in the day. We walk past hand dug caves and tombs to emerge in a huge open area where we see the Royal Tombs just above the Lower Road. On both sides of the road are lots of decorated Nabataen burial facades.

Nearby we stop at a small open-sided café for tea then continue on past the amphitheatre to the Colonnaded Street. No point in describing it all – just as amazing as we’d imagined and we can see why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.  We can also see why it was immortalised in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the lost city in Indiana Jones’ hunt for the holy grail.

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The sun is scorching by now and shade is non-existent. So, completely unlike me at least, we decide to climb up to The Monastery – supposed to be a long hard walk but we’re only here once, as they say. I’d also promised Den that we’d do it after he watched a documentary on Netflix.

We decide to ride donkeys instead of walking and set off uphill. Ha, ha – Mark’s donkey is mental and careers off in the wrong direction bringing back memories of Egypt when it always happened to him. The donkey guy starts to lead us up the steep rocky path then tells us to go up on our own! But, oh shit, the edge is right there and all donkeys are fucking crazy so we scream at him to come back. He’s not happy but we throw him 5 Dinar and set off walking. Rather die of exhaustion that fall off a cliff on the back of a donkey.

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With 850 steps to the top we take our time and even stop in the rare shade of a cliff at one stage to drink poppas packed by our hotel. We notice a hole in the cliff wall high above us then out come a herd of about twenty goats followed by a lady goat herder. Some Bedouins still live here, living nearly the same as they would have a thousand years ago.

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Most of the way is stairs carved into the rock but they’re uneven and shallow and we also have to dodge the many donkey turds. Lots of other people are on their way up or back so it can’t be that hard. The worst thing is the heat, 34 degrees C by now and still no shade. The steepest part is towards the end but at last there are small Bedouin stalls lining the path and we’re at the top!

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But wait, the Monastery looks just like the Treasury although the setting is much less spectacular and the façade not nearly as ornate. All the same, it’s bloody awesome! So happy to see people sitting opposite on a wide rock ledge. Even happier to find a cave with lots of seating and we can even buy cold drinks and ice-creams. Our faces are as red as beetroots but we’re very proud of ourselves to have made it. We chat to a friendly English woman and her husband who can’t believe they reached the top as well.

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Of course, the walk back down is less strenuous but we still have to dodge donkeys, donkey poo and tourists. We feel very smug seeing other people still on their way up – ‘nearly there’ we lie – ha ha.

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I actually start to feel a bit weird and my skin feels clammy – think I’ve got heat stroke (just did my First Aid course so I’m paranoid!) At the bottom of the trail we stop to buy two big bottles of cold water that I pour all over myself to try to cool down.

Now we just want to leave so I talk Mark into getting donkeys back to the Treasury. The site looks very different by now with tourists crawling all over it. There are thousands! Apparently cruise ships pull into Aqaba which is only a couple of hours away and buses ferry the hordes up and back every day. I really don’t think we would have been so impressed if we’d come at this time of day nor had that wonderful first impression in the calmness of the morning.

We leave the donkeys at The Treasury and walk the one kilometer back through the Siq which is packed with people and so, it too, has lost all its atmosphere. I ride another horse to the gate because I’m lazy but a fabulous experience too – not going to miss out on anything! Hey, I’m riding a horse in Jordan!

Back in Wadi Musa we stop at a pizza place to buy cold lemon sodas plus hot chips and chicken wings – fun. Mark asks the owner to call Mohammed and we’re soon back at the Rocky Mountain Hotel to pick up our bags.

Now we’re off to Little Petra as we’d booked a tent for tonight at Little Petra Bedouin Camp. Little Petra is only about eight kilometres north of Wadi Musa on the edge of the Arabian Desert. The road follows the edge of the arid mountains around Petra then through the small Bedouin village of Umm Sayhoun. The Camp is just off the road and sits in a compact canyon surrounded by tall sandstone walls.

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The owner, another Mohammed, is very friendly and shows us to our tent – a double bed and that’s it. Showers and toilets are in a separate building behind the central fire pit. We love the raised chill-out area lined with the red and black Bedouin fabric we’ve come to expect. There are lots of floor pillows, Turkish rugs and sheeshas so we feel very at home.

After a read and a sleep – our afternoon routine – we’re up for dinner in the Old Cave Restaurant. It actually is inside a cave and the buffet meal is good – meat balls, chicken, coleslaw, tomatoes, hummus and lots of sweets to choose from – we try one of each.

Dark by now and the cliffs surrounding the camp are lit up like fairyland. We didn’t realise how many little caves there were in the day but tonight each one is lit up with a light inside. It’s truly magical.

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We sit around the fire while a local man boils water for tea which we’re served in tiny glass tumblers. I do have my duty free Bacardi so I just order a coke but no beer or any other sort of alcohol for Mark. I reluctantly share my Bacardi until one of the staff tells Mark that he can get him a beer. Heaven – until Mark reads the label – zero percent alcohol. Anyway we have a lovely time sitting out here on this warm, starry night.

Tuesday 7th May, 2019

 Little Petra to Wadi Rum

Our plan for today is to check out Little Petra then somehow get to Wadi Rum. We also need to book a camp at Wadi Rum but we’ll work that out after breakfast. This is back at The Old Cave Restaurant with the same breakfast we’ve had since we arrived in Jordan – olives, hummus, boiled eggs, tomatoes, flat bread plus coffee and hibiscus tea.

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Next we set off for Little Petra which the owner says is ‘that way’ as he points in a vague westerly direction. We ‘hike’ across rough ground, hills and dry gullies, past Bedouin tents and herds of brown Damascus goats. In the distance we can see a few buses so we must be going the right way.

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Little Petra or Siq Al-Barid, was given its name because of the similarities with the main site and is entered through a narrow opening similar to the Siq. But everything is on a much smaller scale – a mini-me. Besides tombs, temples, water channels and cisterns carved out of the rock we stop to watch a very old man playing a stringed musical instrument and a very old lady spinning goat hair. We like it here.

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Walking back to the Camp we pass a simple Bedouin tent and meet a young boy herding the family goats – not much for them to eat around here. He races back to his tent to bring a pack of dusty old postcards – we buy them.

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Seeing real Bedouins is a special experience. Some Bedouins, meaning desert dwellers, still practice pastoralism and still drive their herds of goats, sheep or camels across the desert for grazing. They camp in one spot for a few months until the animals eat all the grass then move on. This is probably why the camp looks so temporary.

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Back at our tent we ask the owner to ring Salman Zwaedh Camp at Wadi Rum – only $70AUD a night for the two of us including food, a jeep tour and camel ride. We still have a few hours before Mohammed (the first one) picks us up so we have showers, repack and chill out in the chill out area.]

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Right on noon, Mohammed arrives and we’re soon speeding back through Wadi Musa and on our way to Wadi Rum. The landscape is very uninspiring with ugly wind farms most of the way. Besides this Mohammed is on his phone constantly and even when I chat him he soon goes back to it. No more trips for you Mohammed – you’ve blown it!

As we near Rum Village we see box shaped houses which is where most Bedouins now live. Very unromantic compared to the black camel hair tents. Instead of leading a nomadic lifestyle these Bedouins have settled down and make a living growing crops.

At the Rum Visitor Centre we piss Mohammed off, ‘promising’ to call him to drive us from Aqaba to Madaba on Thursday – ha ha. We’ve been met by the very handsome Salman who piles us into the back of his jeep. Off we fly through the Arabian Desert passing dramatic sandstone and basalt mountains that jut out of its sandy floor and sometimes caravans of camels.

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We stop at an area of rolling dunes where a few other jeeps are stopped. Mark climbs to the top of a huge dune while I spend the time cracking up at a group of Chinese ladies posing for photographs. They’re having a ball and they even have the guides laughing.

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Off again to later stop at a Bedouin camp for tea. More handsome men are here all wearing loose white robes and the traditional red and white shemagh wrapped around their heads. A roaring fire in the middle is used to boil water in big blackened kettles then the guys dress Mark and I in traditional clothes – fun because we’re the only ones here. Soon though more jeeps arrive and out pile the Chinese tourists.

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At the entrance to the camp is a boulder with the face of Lawrence of Arabia carved into the rock. Wadi Rum was actually introduced to the western world by T.E. Lawrence, a British officer-turned-author, who was based here during the Arab Revolt of 1917. I’d just watched David Lean’s 1963 movie, Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole a few weeks ago. It’s why we’re adding Aqaba to our itinerary.

We don’t drive too much further as the wind has come up so we head for Salman Zwaedh Camp which will be our home for tonight. The camp is tucked into a protected natural niche in the orange cliff face with black goat hair tents forming a ring around a central area. The camp also includes a kitchen, a dining tent and an outdoor sitting space squeezed into a crevice in the rocks.

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We love our tent – very spacious and even our own bathroom. After a rest we prepare for our sunset camel ride. Our camel wallah is waiting for us and Mark is given a blonde beauty with a snooty expression. We’re led across the silent, red sand desert.

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Wadi Rum is named “The Valley of the Moon” because of its other-worldly landscape. But with reddish sand and mountains looking like the arid and red surface of Mars, Wadi Rum has also been the location of lots of films set on the red planet. We saw The Martian a couple of years ago but didn’t realise then that this is where it had actually been shot.

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We eventually stop at a rocky outcrop where we leave the camels to climb to the top to watch the sunset. This must be the best place to watch the sun go down as we can see jeeps and other tourists on camels heading for this same spot.

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Riding back to the camp the wind has come up and we cover our faces with our scarves – very Lawrence of Arabia! A brilliant experience!

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At camp we’re in for another unique experience. Dinner is zarb, a sort of Bedouin barbeque which is all cooked underground. A cylindrical metal cage with layers of chicken, lamb and vegetables is lowered into a pit of burning coal, sealed then covered with sand and left for about three hours. We’re just in time to see it being pulled up out of the ground. The sand is dug away and the metal cage lifted up. When the lid is removed, the smell is amazing!

We head for the dining tent and sit around the walls on floor cushions to chat to the others. About twelve other people are staying here as well and we recognise the lesbians who’d also been at Little Petra last night. They’re hilarious and come from Italy while a gay couple from France tell us how they didn’t make the climb to the Monastery at Petra. A very funny night. A young Norwegian couple talk about their adventures in Israel so we gather some good information. Later we all sit out near the fire and drink tea.

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No alcohol here so we don’t stay long. Before going to bed though Mark grabs a blanket each and we wander away from the camp to see the stars.

Out tent is warm and cozy.

Wednesday 8th May, 2019

 Wadi Rum to Aqaba

We’ve organized for Salman to pick us up at 7am so we’re up very early to pack and walk out into the desert to watch the sun rise. We climb up to the top of a sand dune to wait for the sun. As we look back at the camp, a caravan of camels passes below us. Oh, yes!

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It’s freezing up here and we’re glad when the sun finally rises and we can head back for breakfast. You guessed it – pita bread, tomato, olives, fuul, cheese and boiled eggs.

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The sky is especially clear today so it’s a nice drive to the Visitor Centre where we’ll catch a bus to Aqaba. But apparently the bus left at 630am but, of course, no-one bothered to tell us. And there are no more buses today and there are no taxis – ever. Mark asks a man leaving in a car if he can drive us to Aqaba and luckily he agrees for $40 – a good deal for him too.

The only issue is that he’s just as mad as Mohammed – spends most of the time ringing people on his mobile. Must be just calling everyone he knows!  We’re sick of these arse-holes!

We ask him to take us to Tana Bay which is where the best snorkeling is supposed to be. Snorkelling is one of the main reasons we’ve come to Aqaba after our amazing experience in the Red Sea in Egypt many years ago.

Aqaba is Jordan’s most important access to the sea and we see the city on our right as we head down the south coast. Our driver tells us that from here we can see three countries at the same time – Jordan, Israel and Egypt!

We’d booked a room yesterday on booking.com at Darna Village Resort for only $35. There seems to be a string of these ‘resorts’ along this road opposite the beach. Darna is a bit on the shabby side and our room is featureless but we do have a nice pool and pool area.

The temperature has climbed so we’re straight into the pool. Mark then walks down to check out the beach then we hire snorkeling gear from the Darna Dive section. Lunch first of chips and tuna salad then a quick nanna nap. We’ve been waiting for the breeze to die down and at three o’clock we set off for the beach. Not as spectacular as Egypt but we still experience the amazing underwater world that still blows me away.

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At Darna we have another swim then dress up for a night in a posh hotel further down the coast. Darna is Arabic so no alcohol – goodbye!!

Outside we find a funny taxi driver called Mamoud who invites us to his house to break the fast (it’s Ramadan – remember) with his family. We really, really should do this but since we’re both drunks we want to get straight to Movenpick.

We organize for him to drive us to the airport in the morning as we’ve decided to catch a plane back up to Amman then cross into Israel tomorrow.

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At Movenpick we’re in time for Happy Hour drinks so we order up big. We’re sitting outside on a second floor balcony overlooking the lovely hotel grounds and served by sweet waitresses – one from the Philippines, one from Thailand and one from Kenya. Mark has four beers and I have four Bacardi and cokes then we share a seafood platter. By now it’s very dark and we can see the lights of Egypt twinkling on the opposite shore. Sitting in the warm still night air, we really enjoy this place.

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Now we catch another taxi back to Darna but head for a bar next door. It’s very Arabic looking and the beer is non-alcoholic so Mark tops it up with Bacardi. Flashing coloured lights and loud music must be an attempt to draw a crowd but we’re the only ones here. Ha ha – lucky for us!

Thursday 9th May, 2019

Aqaba to Amman to Jerusalem (Israel)

We deserve our hangovers but it was worth it! At 6.30am we meet Mamoud outside as arranged. He’s asleep in his taxi and says ‘you drive’ when we get in – ha ha – he’s been up partying with his family all night. He said he’ll go home to bed after he drops us off. We give him a bag of children’s clothes we’ve brought with us.

We’re off now to Aqaba Airport, known as King Hussein International Airport. Mamoud stops at a petrol station – not to get petrol but to buy us drinks, biscuits and apples – ‘you miss breakfast’, he says. Oh, how sweet! A guard stops at the airport gate and asks ‘where you going?’. Mamoud turns to us and says ‘where he think we going – swimming?’

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While we wait for departure everyone stands at the windows to watch three bright red jets belonging to Royal Jordanian Airlines performing impressive manoeuvres then landing right in front of the terminal.

We take off at 8.40am for the short trip to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport. We stop at Starbucks for coffee, a hot chocolate and a cheese cake then catch a taxi to the border – $60.

It seems to be in a busy village area and we really don’t know where to go. We ask a few people and eventually find the right window – we think. There isn’t any signage and no-one is inside. People say ‘you sit, you sit’. Next we’re sent to another window and then back to the original. Finally we’re put on a bus to drive us to the Israeli border across the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge.

After much research I found that this is the only border where you can cross from Amman to Jerusalem and back on your single entry Jordan visa.

Even though we’re technically in the West Bank here, it’s Israel controlling the border crossing. Uniformed men with guns protect the border but it doesn’t take long to receive our piece of paper which is the equivalent of having our passports stamped. This is a fairly new thing as before if you had an Israeli stamp in your passport you were refused entry into any Arab nation.

Back in the bus we’re driven somewhere else where there is more stamping before we find a mini-van to drive us to Jerusalem. So far Israel looks very much like Jordan – barren, dry and rocky – as we hoped and expected. Soon we see The Dead Sea on our left as it actually straddles the border of Israel and Jordan. We see goat herders and small basic settlements before reaching the outskirts of the city which sits picturesquely high up on a plateau in the Judean Mountains.

Jerusalem is the capital of modern day Israel and said to be the religious and historical epicenter of the world. The city is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims but more about that later.

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The van drops us all off but we have zero idea where we are. We decide to try to get a room at Abraham Hostel which has a big rap on the net. We catch a taxi which costs a fortune and I hate the area he drops us on sight. It seems to be in a business district with no character at all.  I also hate the look of Abraham Hostel but we go in anyway.

The foyer is buzzing with backpackers so things are looking up. But, bloody hell, they want $140AUD for a double room! We settle instead for a dorm room on the third floor. It only has four beds and we’re sharing with a European guy who can’t speak a word of English so we just smile and nod to each other.

On the first floor is the vast dining/chill-out/bar where we find a seat near a friendly Canadian girl called Sarah. She’s very smart and here on some sort of work/holiday thing – a good night.

Friday 10th May, 2019

Jerusalem

While it’s been an experience staying here at Abraham’s we’re leaving this morning. First we have breakfast downstairs which is an all-you-can-eat buffet style.

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I check out booking.com and find a great hotel very close to the Old City. So after a quick pack we find another expensive taxi to take us to the Addar Hotel. When the driver tells us what the price will be, I whinge, “but it’s just over there!” He laughs and says “how many days you stay in Jerusalem?” I say “One!”. He laughs again. Very funny – this place is super expensive!

We like the Addar Hotel which set in a quiet side road diagonally across from the gorgeous old American Colonial Hotel – our destination for tonight, for sure! The Addar is an Arab Hotel – the real thing and decorated with brass urns, arches, mosaic tiles, velvet lounges and a huge blue glass chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling in the foyer. It has just the right amount of shabbiness and we love it. Our room is big with a verandah and all the trappings for the same price as a bunk bed at Abraham’s!

A quick shower and change and we’re ready to take on the Old City. Our taxi driver had warned us not to go today which is the first Friday of Ramadan and it will be packed for some reason. We’re going anyway.

We walk along Nablus Road past lovely old buildings, a school and churches all behind high stone walls overhung with vines. Nearer the Old City we walk through a market then come out near the very impressive Damascus Gate.

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There are seven gates in all but we keep walking to New Gate which is the main entrance to the Christian Quarter. By the way, the Old City is divided into four uneven quarters – the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters which all flow into one another. We’ll be able to visit them all today because the entire Old City is only one kilometer square. We plan to do a general walk around today then come back to see things more in depth on Sunday.

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Entering through North Gate we’re immediately transported back in time. The Old City remains as it was thousands of years ago and people still live and work here in these ancient buildings. It’s an exciting, exotic and spiritual world of narrow cobbled laneways. Thick stone walls and archways lead to dark alleyways lined by eateries and souks. We stop in a cave-like café for coffee and tea and love it here already.

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But this is the Christian Quarter and the star is without question the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We wind through narrow alleys to find the church fronted by a small square busy with tourists and pilgrims.

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Inside, the church is a beautifully ornate and cavernous structure with many small chapels and intricate art work. The church dates back to at least the 4th century and houses the site where Jesus was crucified at Calvary, the tomb where he was buried and resurrected and the last four Stations of the Cross.

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We light candles for Angie and for Grace who is very sick. I don’t know if there really is a presence here but I start to cry – takes me a while sitting outside to settle down. I don’t have a religious bone in my body but something unusual is happening here.

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On the funny side, I’d read about this thing called ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’. This can apparently happen to some people who get totally carried away with the religious thing after visiting the Holy City. They can be found roaming the streets of Jerusalem wearing biblical robes, taking on a different name and refusing to leave the city. Mark thinks I’m starting to show the signs!!

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Near Zion Gate is the Armenian Quarter which is the smallest quarter of the Old City. It’s the home to Christian Armenians who arrived in Jerusalem in the 4th century AD. We visit St. James Monastery and the Cathedral of St. James. The Jerusalem Armenians are known for their distinctive hand painted tiles and handmade ceramics and lots of small shops sell them – too hard to bring home, though.

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From here we follow the signs to the Jewish Quarter. We come across the excavated ancient Roman remains including the Cardo, which would have been the colonnaded main street during Jesus’ lifetime. But of course the major attraction in this quarter is the Western Wall also known as the Wailing Wall. This is the last remaining part of the 2nd Holy Jewish Temple which was destroyed in 70AD.

The Western Wall opens up to a large plaza and Jews come from across the globe to worship here. We’re supposed to be able to place a prayer note with a personal message to God between the large stones of the Wall but it looks like only Jewish people are here so we stand back.

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Traditionally, all Orthodox Jewish men wear black trousers and coats with a white shirt. They have short cropped hair except for long ringlets hanging down in front of each ear – very unsexy! Mark says eye glasses must also be part of the costume because they all wear them. As for the women, once they’re married, most cover their hair with a wig or scarf.

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Within the Old City are the most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites in Israel but we can’t visit Islam’s most sacred site today. Only Muslims can visit the Dome of the Rock because of Ramadan. We can walk through the rest of the Muslim Quarter though and we find a cool, dark restaurant for a late lunch.

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Later we wander around the Muslim area which suddenly fills with men returning from the Dome of the Rock. Thousands swarm through the tiny alleyways heading for Damascus Gate. We’re ready to leave as well so we join the mass.

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But once outside we can’t get out of the area which has been roped off as Israeli police herd people into lines to wait for a continuous procession of buses. These will ferry passengers to other towns throughout the country and possibly back to Palestine.

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We wait with the lines of people and we see a little girl of about three with hair growing all over her body – like a little monkey – heart breaking. Finally we get to the top of the queue and hightail it across the road and into the market.

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We both have showers after this very sweaty day then dress for another ‘posh’ night. This is at the American Colony Hotel which was built in the 19th century on the ruins of an older Ottoman style building. The outdoor seating area is lovely with tables set in a leafy garden with candles and a fountain. But we want to visit the Cellar Bar and are lucky to grab the only table left.

The Cellar Bar is small and intimate with a Middle Eastern ambience. The bar is still floored with the same warm pink stone that’s been here for the past one hundred and thirty years. Mark orders tapas while we drink beers and margaritas. Soon an English couple asks if they can sit with us. They’re hilarious and we have a fun night together – best friends already. It’s a shame they won’t be here again tomorrow night as they’re moving on.

Saturday 11th May, 2019

Jerusalem to Masada to Jerusalem

Yesterday we’d booked a day trip to Masada, so we’re up early to have breakfast in the sunny dining room. This opens up onto a small garden where other guests are smoking – we’ll stay in here.

We start to walk to the pick-up place but realise that we won’t make it in time and grab a taxi. A crowd of people are milling around outside a big hotel where tourist buses pull in to pick up passengers. We soon end up on a coach with about twenty other people.

We head out of Jerusalem driving south through the Judean Desert. Arid mountains are on our right with the Dead Sea on our left the whole way. The Dead Sea is actually the lowest place on earth and the water so salty that nothing can live in it or even on its shores. We’ve never seen anything remotely like this before.

After a couple of hours we arrive at the foot of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Masada. The fortress sits high on a flat plateau next to the Dead Sea.

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Off the bus we’re met by our guide, a young local woman who explains some of the history of Masada. It was built in 30 BC by the Roman King Herod. But in 68 BCE, there was a revolt against Rome and Masada was conquered by a group of Jewish zealots – Masada became their last stronghold. But more about this tragic story later.

There is a steep walking trail but most people including us, catch the cable car. We spend the next hour or so exploring the ruins and taking in the incredible views across the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert.

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Under a sweltering sun, we visit the Roman bathhouse with its colourful mosaic floor, the western palace, store rooms and watch towers. Now our lovely guide tells us of the terrible final days of Masada. In 72 BCE the Romans besieged Masada by building a huge earthen ramp on its western side. The Jews living on Masada chose to commit suicide rather than end up as Roman slaves.

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Down to the bottom in another squashy cable-car, we‘re back on the bus to stop at the Israeli oasis of Ein Gedi. This is not really our vision of an oasis! We pull into a crowded car park then cross into a sort of huge ticket office. From here we follow a path to end up at the most pathetic ‘oasis’ you could imagine – wtf? A few families are splashing around in a puddle then we walk to a ‘waterfall’ (it’s tiny) where we cool off but it’s pretty funny!

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Off again on the bus we head towards Jerusalem. We’re sitting behind a couple of Turkish guys – one has been annoying everyone the whole trip – always butting into the guide’s talk without a clue that her body language is saying ‘shut the fuck up!”

Now on the bus, as we follow the shore of the Dead Sea, he literally takes hundreds and hundreds of photos – clicking incessantly. But the scenery is the same the entire way, you freak – dry, barren, treeless – dead! We imagine his friends back home will be heading for the hills if he invites them over for a slide-night – ‘sorry, busy!’ – ha, ha.

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Finally our bus stops at a Dead Sea Resort. This has a sort of family café/restaurant/swimming pool feel but we by-pass all this and head straight for the water.

And, true to form, we see people floating on their backs and others covered in black mud. We want to do it all – a bucket list thing!! One of the good things about swimming in the Dead Sea is that there aren’t any sharks – actually there aren’t any fish at all, absolutely nothing can live in here – ‘dead’, get it?

So down on the shore, we find a place that isn’t too crowded and wobble our way into the sea. This isn’t easy because the sea floor is covered with not only sticky black mud but rocks, rocks and more rocks.

The Dead Sea rules include:-

  • Do not, I repeat, do not get any water in your eyes. Regular sea water burns enough and this is ten times worse.
  • Do not shave for a couple of days before your visit. If you do, it will burn.
  • Wear an old bathing suit as the mud and salt water combination can be a bit rough on the fabric.
  • Bring some reading material if you want a cool photo
  • Consider wearing water shoes or thongs in the water; the rocks and crystallized salt can be hard on the feet.
  • Don’t forget to lather yourself with handfuls of thick, black mud.

So okay we obey it all!

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It really is the weirdest feeling floating on my back reading a magazine. Mark does the same then I smother myself with the black mineral-rich mud which supposedly has near-magical healing properties. Hope so!

And we definitely make sure we don’t get any water in our eyes but finish with a wash under a fresh water shower. Everyone has to line up but then we all let people in who haven’t obeyed the rules and who are blindly heading for the shower with arms out-stretched – mostly Asians who are laughing their heads off.  So funny!

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Heading back up to the Resort, we join the crowds in the big swimming pool then shower before meeting our bus driver in the car park.

Back in Jerusalem we walk through the market to our hotel. The market is lively with carts laden with bread rolls and vendors shouting out to customers to come and buy. After showers we have a lovely night doing a sort of posh hotel crawl of our area ending up at our favourite American Colony.

Sunday 12th May, 2019

Jerusalem

We’ve decided to spend another day in Jerusalem but to also find a guesthouse in the Old City. Breakfast is in the sunny dining room again then we catch a taxi to New Gate. We drag our wheeled backpacks over the cobblestones to our little guesthouse sitting at the top of a steep staircase. The shabby lounge area is vast with a tall ceiling and arched coloured glass windows at either end. The building is very old with lovely features but has been left to rundown. We like it – the real deal!

Our room and bathroom are similarly shabby but we have two tall arched windows overlooking the Square and the Citadel – a million dollar view for a pittance!

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We set off through the Armenian Quarter passing nuns, monks and friars in their habits to reach Zion Gate (also called David’s Gate). In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, this area saw severe fighting when Israeli soldiers tried to breach the walls when the Jewish Quarter was under siege by Palestinian Arab forces. The gate’s exterior is pockmarked with bullet holes from that time. Today hundreds of Israeli soldiers, male and female, are milling around here, all carrying assault rifles, but they’re laughing and chatting in groups so no worries for us.

This place has so much history – besides the biblical stuff and the Arab-Israeli War, this area became famous as a gathering place of lepers in the 19th century.
And then of course there’s Mount Zion itself

And then of course there’s Mount Zion itself. Winding our way through paved alleyways lined with tall stone walls we reach The Cenaculum better known as The Room of the Last Supper. This is simple but very beautiful with carved columns, chandeliers and stained glass windows.

Below the Last Supper Room the tomb of King David sacred to the Jews. Mark has to wear a kippah (skull cap) and I’m given a scarf to cover my head. Later we climb the stairs to the roof for good views of Mount Zion and The Old City. Opposite we see the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane which is where Jesus went after The Last Supper. It’s where he was caught, handed over to the Romans and sentenced to die on the cross.

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Heading back into the Old City we have lunch in a pleasant square in the Jewish Quarter then shop in the Arab Quarter souk. Mark buys a herbal concoction meant to cure diabetes and made up by a local man. We then buy fresh orange juice made on the spot – find them everywhere here. We could spend days just wandering these tunnels and alleyways.

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Back in the Christian Quarter we find the monastery where Graz lived and worked back in the nineties – we send him a photo. Now we follow the directions in the Lonely Planet to follow the Via Dolorosa or the Way of Suffering. This is the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.

The Via Dolorosa is just under one kilometer long on a winding up and down path with fourteen stations on the way.

These Stations of the Cross signify events that happened on the way.

1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death.

2nd Station: Jesus accepts the cross.

3rd Station: Jesus falls the first time.

4th Station: Jesus meets His mother.

5th Station: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross.

6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

7th Station: Jesus falls the second time.

8th Station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

9th Station: Jesus falls a third time.

10th Station: Jesus is stripped of His clothes.

11th Station: Jesus is crucified.

12th Station: Jesus dies on the cross.

13th Station: The body of Jesus is taken down from the cross.

14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb.

A lot of other people are doing the same thing, some in groups singing or chanting and all stopping at each station. Exciting and moving at the same time.

Returning to our guesthouse is easy – we’re right here! We shower to cool down then have a read and nap before heading out for the night. We want to check out Downtown and the easiest way is by the light rail. This is a short, but uphill, walk from New Gate and we’re soon leaving the old area and into modern Jerusalem.

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Here we wander around the Mahana Yemuda Market then stop for tapas and drinks in a few trendy bars.

Monday 13th May, 2019

Jerusalem to Nazareth

Our plan today is to visit more of the Old City then catch a bus to Nazareth this afternoon. We want to see the Temple Mount before all the crowds arrive so we set off early.

First we stop at the Western Wall. This is the most sacred site in the world for Jewish people and thousands of pilgrims visit the Wall every year to pray. The prayers are either spoken or written on pieces of paper and wedged into the cracks between the stones.

The Wall was built by King Herod in 20BCE as an expansion of the Second Temple. But then the Temple was destroyed by the Romans fifty years later and now only the wall remains.

To get to Temple Mount we pass through Mughrabi Gate near the Western Wall. There are rules; dressed modestly, no weapons, no sacred Jewish objects and show our passports. The line is long and we’re glad we came early.

Inside is a vast peaceful space with lots of trees, arches, fountains and the imposing Dome of the Rock. We end up with a guide who explains it all – The Temple Mount is a holy site for Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. After Mecca and Medina, it’s the third holiest site for Muslims where the Prophet Mohammed made his “Night Journey” to the throne of God. When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century, they built the Dome of the Rock exactly on the spot where the Jewish First and Second Temples existed. It’s said to be the most fought over piece of land on earth.

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The golden dome can be seen all over Jerusalem and is much bigger than expected when we get up close. The exterior is covered with blue tiles with Quranic verses written all around it. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside so we don’t get to see the actual rock.

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Next we visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque but get bored so we pay off our guide and head back into the Old City. Before we leave I have to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just one more time to light candles for Angie – Mark really is starting to think I’ve got Jerusalem Syndrome! The truth is, it’s all been fabulous historically but I still don’t get the religious thing. I wish I did – for Ange.

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This morning we’d noticed a cute French-looking restaurant in an alleyway near our guesthouse so we head here for lunch. This is The Versevage, all dark wood with stone floors and tall iron and glass doors. We sit in the little courtyard and order a cappuccino for Mark and a tea for me. Mark also has an avocado and mint drink and we share a very fancy chocolate and cream dessert.

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Back at our guesthouse we pack then find a taxi to take us to the bus station. The direct bus to Nazareth doesn’t leave for ages so we decide to catch a bus to Haifa on the coast and then pick up another bus to Nazareth from there. We may as well see some of the countryside rather than sit here doing nothing.

The two hour trip passes through the Israeli countryside with small towns in the distance. We don’t go through Tel Aviv but we can see its tall buildings way off to our left. For the last hour we travel along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea then reach Haifa about four o’clock. At the bus station we need to catch a smaller bus to yet another bus station where we have time to buy a snack of chips and coke.

Haifa is built on the slopes of Mount Carmel so it’s a very hilly city. On our third bus today, we drive across the Carmel mountain range and arrive in Nazareth forty minutes later.

The bus drops us off on the side of a hill near the Old City which is where we booked a guesthouse online this morning. Nazareth’s Old City is no different to Jerusalem’s Old city – lots of narrow winding alleyways, cobbled or paved streets and stone buildings. It seems like a place where the clock stopped a few centuries ago. It’s an intriguing maze of pointed arches, ivy covered walls, old men smoking cigarettes, fragrant coffee houses and where the call to prayer echoes from the nearby White Mosque.

It takes a while but Mark eventually finds our guesthouse, The Vitrage, a yellow painted building with the exterior walls decorated with all sorts of kitsch like garden gnomes and Santa hats.

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Inside is much the same, a homey jumble of bits and pieces with a pond in the centre. A small waterfall spills into another pool with ceramic frogs and other animals perched on the rocks – a handyman’s job if we’ve ever seen one!

The friendly owner shows us around the building which is a rabbit warren of stairways and hallways. Our room is clean and okay for one night. We rest for a while then set off for a night out in Nazareth – never thought I’d say that.

We wander around the Old City but head for Mary’s Well where we’ll supposedly find cafes and bars. We do. A string of restaurants are all vying for business. All have tables and chairs outside and under the trees opposite. It’s really lovely sitting out here in the warm night air.

Tuesday 14th May, 2019

Nazareth

Breakfast is served in the tiny kitchen/dining room – all very kitsch like the rest of the place. And breakfast is the same as everywhere else – is this what the locals eat?

Anyway, we’d read that the Fauzi Azur Inn runs free walking tours every morning so we set out to find it. This is part of the Abraham Hotel chain in Israel but whereas the hotel in Jerusalem was in a featureless block, the Fauzi occupies a two hundred year old Arab mansion.

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Inside, the courtyard is an oasis of trees, hanging plants, wicker chairs and water fountains. A handsome young guy greets us and the two other people on the tour. We follow him upstairs to a beautiful lounge area with a soaring ceiling intricately moulded and painted. Arched stained glass windows, a marble floor and antique furniture add to the elegance. We wish we could stay here tonight but we’ve already booked a hotel online.

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Our guide explains the history of Fauzi house then takes us out into the cobbled streets of the Old City. We visit other old Ottoman-era mansions, some left abandoned, a market, a coffee house where old men are playing a card game and drinking coffee. The room is cave-like with stone walls and honestly the biggest chandelier we’ve ever seen.

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We explore the narrow alleyways lined with solid limestone walls then it’s time to check out of the Vitrage and book into the Antique Guesthouse. This sits on a bend in a twisty laneway with a welcoming entrance of plants and flowers. This is another cute place full of Middle Eastern atmosphere – we’ve picked well again thanks to being able to see photos on Tripadvisor. After settling in, we head off to explore the sights of Nazareth.

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This is where Jesus spent his childhood – Jesus of Nazareth, get it. Today Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel, with a mixed population of Christian and Muslim Arabs. It’s a city of churches and a place of pilgrimage for the world’s Christians, who believe it to be the site of the Annunciation – when the Archangel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. (Google)

But there are two churches here who claim to be built on the spot of the Annunciation. One is St. Gabriel’s Church (also known as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation). It was built over the village spring, where the Greek Orthodox say was where the Archangel Gabriel first appeared to Mary. We look down into a dark stonewalled well to see the spring below. Some people are filling water bottles from a tap fed by the spring. In the upper church are lovely frescoes and we light candles for our darlings here and gone.

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In the park outside we find Mary’s Well then head for the other Church of the Annunciation. In the floor is a large octagonal opening with a view of the lower level and the Grotto of the Annunciation. This church is really unappealing – I can’t like it.

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Next door to the Church of the Annunciation, within the same compound, is St. Joseph’s Church which stands on the site where Joseph once had his carpentry workshop.

So now we’re ‘churched’ out and head up the hill to the Shuk (market). After wandering around for a while we stop at a big restaurant for lunch but it’s soon invaded by a noisy group of pilgrims (everywhere on the Jesus trail) and leave to eat at a small place at the bottom of the hill near the fountain.

A rest in our cute stone-walled room then about six o’clock we set off in search of the Alreda Restaurant. We find it near the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Church and located in an aristocratic Palestinian family house built over 200 years ago during the Ottoman empire.

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I’d heard about this place and it’s even better than expected. With stone exterior walls and old brass coated arched doors and windows we love it already. Inside is one open space with a pink stone floor, natural coloured walls, an old timber bar and tables and chairs all in wood plus stacks of atmosphere – I take dozens of photos for inspiration.

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The restaurant is said to be the best in Nazareth serving traditional Nazarene recipes with a Mediterranean twist. We order small plates to share while being serenaded by Egyptian music playing in the background. At first we’re the only ones here but then a large dinner crowd arrives chatting loudly in Arabic and Hebrew.

Love, love this place but decide to move on to one of the bars we’d found yesterday. Another great night.

Wednesday 15th May, 2019

Nazareth to Bethlehem (Palestine)

Breakfast is help yourself in the dark downstairs dining room full of old world charm. The bus to Jerusalem is leaving in half an hour so, under sunny skies once again, we drag our packs down the hill to the main street. We wait for nearly an hour after it’s due and, seeing that this is the first stop, we realise that it isn’t coming.

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One strange thing about Nazareth is that it’s hard to get here and get away even though it’s high up on the Jesus Trail. I guess most people come here on tours rather than relying on public transport like us.

Now with our bus not turning up, the only other option is to hire a driver. We ask at a couple of places but they want crazy prices.

Then suddenly Mark sees our bus pulling up on the opposite side of the road. We’re so relieved and really enjoy the trip back to Jerusalem which is a direct route today meaning we get to see a different part of the country.

Back in Jerusalem we catch a taxi to the Arab bus station over near Damascus Gate where the buses to Palestine come and go. We’re off to Bethlehem for the night!

Even though Bethlehem is only twelve kilometres from Jerusalem it’s part of the West Bank so Israeli transport is banned from entering. Only certain Arab bus lines can be used.

We pay only 5ILS on the blue 21 bus which takes us on a route through nearby Beit Jalla. As we near Palestine we see the huge concrete wall that cuts off Jerusalem from the West Bank. The Israeli government officially refers to it as a “safety fence” to keep out terrorists while the Arabic name for it is the “apartheid wall”.

Even though I read up before coming to Israel, I still only have a minute understanding of the very complex relationship Israel has with its Palestinian neighbours in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Who’s right and who’s wrong??/ I’m totally confused!

There is even a border crossing where we have to show our passports.

Finally through, we’re on our way to Bethlehem. The bus drops us off at the top of a ridge where we catch a taxi to take us into the old city.

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We wind down through narrow streets into the Old City to find that the guesthouse we’d booked this morning is in Star Street just a few steps from Manger Square. This is one of the top attractions in Bethlehem being flanked by two other major attractions – the Church of St Catherine and the Church of Nativity – talk about that later.

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Our guesthouse is called Dar al Majus and entered off the street by a tall metal door. The guesthouse is inside a historical hosh, which is a compound of buildings surrounding a small courtyard. It’s a little oasis run by a friendly family. They don’t speak English but we manage to communicate anyway. Our room is located in the historical part of the building and overlooks the street and market stalls opposite. It’s huuuuge with our own bathroom, a queen bed, a single bed and a chill out area near the windows complete with floor cushions. But best of all is the architecture – stone walls, arched ceilings and rounded windows. It’s the best place we’ve stayed in this trip – plus it’s cheap!

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Now we’re ready to take on more Jesus sights. Not bad going for a couple of atheists! It’s all about history anyway and visiting places we’ve heard about since our days at Sunday School. So the first stop is the Church of the Nativity.

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Everyone associates Bethlehem with the story of the nativity; Mary and Joseph travelling on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census where Jesus Christ was born in a manger. The Church of the Nativity has been built on the spot where all this happened. It is one of the oldest working churches in existence today.

We enter through the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance that dates to the Ottoman period. The doorway was minimized to prevent Ottoman raiders from entering on horseback and pillaging the church. The wide nave is held up by forty four pink limestone collumns covered with paintings of Mary and Christ. On cue, a black robed priest with a long white beard crosses in front of the elaborate altar.

We’re just about to enter the doorway to the stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity when a group of pilgrims beat us to it. We leave them to it.  Back out in Manger Square we head off into the maze of cobbled laneways of the Old City. They say you can get lost here and we do. At one stage we hit a dead-end at a family home where three young children come out to talk to us. They sing ‘Johnny Johnny’ for us, the same song that Abi and Elkie sing at home.

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We love the traditional architecture of the old city with its curvy stone streets, sometimes topped by rocky arches, and domed houses with beautifully ornamented doors and windows.  We come across an interesting fresh food market where local Arab ladies shop for fruit and vegetables. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time a thousand years.

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On dark we find that Manger Square looks especially beautiful with the Church of the Nativity all lit up as well as the striking Mosque of Omar, which looks a bit tacky really, covered in strings of fairy lights.

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We sit in the crowded Peace Centre Restaurant – crowded because this is still Ramadan and now it’s time for the Muslim population to come out to play – and eat of course. Whole extended families are here ordering mountains of food and having a roar of a time.

After we eat we move on to the next street where we find a Bedouin bar – we’re the only ones here because I guess Muslim people and devout Christians don’t drink.

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Next is a big hotel which is packed with people eating and drinking so we sit ourselves up at the bar for some excellent people watching.

Thursday 16th May, 2019

 Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Madaba (Jordan)

We don’t sleep in because we need to get back to Jordan today which means crossing the border. This could be easy or it could take hours so we want to give ourselves plenty of time. Our lovely hosts have set up breakfast for us in the underground dining room. In fact their whole house is underground – awesome!

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We do the reverse of yesterday, getting a taxi to the top of the hill then wait for the Jerusalem bus to arrive. As we cross the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers climb on board to look at everyone’s passports. They stay on the bus the whole way. Back in Jerusalem we walk to a mini bus depot to get a lift to the Jordan/Israel border. This takes no time at all and we’re soon speeding towards Madaba in a taxi.

From the Dead Sea at 400 metres below sea level, we wind our way up and up to Mount Nebo at 820 metres above sea level. Mount Nebo is the site where the Old Testament says Moses saw the Promised Land. What he would see today is Jericho, Bethlehem, the hills of Jerusalem, the Jordan River valley and the Dead Sea. Maybe it wasn’t so ‘dead’ in those days because the Promised Land was also called The Land of Milk and Honey. Talk about climate change!

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We’re staying at Hotel Saint John which is a featureless place but the only one really close to the main attractions. We wander around the shopping area and find some interesting cafes and restaurants. We do have an afternoon nap before heading for Haret Jdoudna.

This very atmospheric restaurant is set in a restored Ottoman house with a leafy courtyard in the centre. Like our experience in Bethlehem last night, the place is packed to the rafters and we finally give up waiting to be served.

Instead we head up to the roof top restaurant at our hotel. This has lovely views of this ancient city and much nicer to be in the cool night air anyway. Young people are up here smoking sheeshas but we stick to our alcohol.

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Friday 17th May, 2019

Madaba to Amman to Dubai

We’re not leaving Madaba until five o’clock this afternoon so we have all day to check it out. It seems that everything we want to see will be in walking distance.

After breakfast on the roof, we walk up to Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist – sounds gruesome. Inside is a typical church but it’s the vault beneath the church that we’re here to see. Down a circular stone staircase we find the Acropolis Museum with a well dating back 3000 years – it’s still operational.

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By now Mark is becoming totally Christianed/churched out and I’m over it as well. But we do have one more to go. This is St George’s Church at the bottom of the hill. The church is home to the famous (never heard of it) Madaba Mosaic Map which is the oldest known map of the Holy Land – 6th century! It’s made up of more than a million pieces of coloured stone. Very impressive but we hightail it out of there. No more churches please!

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So now we wander around the shops and cafes but most are shut. Ramadan remember – but it’s also Friday so even less chance of anything being open in this mainly Muslim town.  We do find a few souvenir shops and buy an expensive hand-painted plate to remember this City of Mosaics. At another souvenir shop we buy Arab versions of Ken and Barbie for the dollies – funny.

Later we buy a small carpet from a Christian man who can open his shop today. And we’re lucky to find a tiny cave-like restaurant open as well. Lunch is fresh fruit juices, pitta bread and a vegetable hot pot.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon getting ready for home then catch a taxi to the airport at 5pm.

Saturday 18th May, 2019

Dubai to Sydney

We fly out at 10 o’clock arriving in Dubai at 2am. The problem is, this is Al Maktoum International, Dubai’s second International airport and 65kilometres from Dubai International Airport where our Sydney flight will leave. We’re just lucky that we have plenty of time to get there and extra lucky that a bus is ready to leave right now. Things always work out.

At 9.45am we take off for the fourteen hour flight.

Sunday 19th May, 2019

Sydney

Land in Sydney at 7.30 in the morning. A train home to our darlings

 

 

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New Zealand – North Island 2020

 

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                                                    Our Itinerary

13/02/2020    Thurs Newcastle 7.30pm to Auckland 12.25 am Fri  
14/02/2020    Fri Auckland to Waiheke Island to Auckland  
15/02/2020    Sat Auckland to Rotarua  
16/02/2020    Sun Rotarua to Auckland  
17/02/2020    Mon Auckland 6.15am to Sydney 8am  

Thursday 13th February, 2020

 Newcastle to Auckland

We both work today, me till noon and Mark till 3.30pm. We drive our car to Newcastle West leaving it parked in the street near the TAFE. From here we drag our packs to Hunter Street to wait for the bus to Newcastle Airport. It’s a different viewpoint sitting high up in the bus on this familiar route.

After booking in we buy horrible and expensive airport chicken then stop to chat to Jeff Leonard who is on his way home to the Gold Coast.

Our Virgin flight leaves on time at 7.30pm. We only paid $215 each for this direct flight to Auckland so we’re surprised to be served a full meal on this budget airline. Not long after takeoff, the sun sets, glowing a golden red as it dips behind the clouds – beautiful.

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Luckily the plane is only about half full so we have three seats each. And because the flight is less than two hours, I make the most of the space straight away. I try to sleep but it doesn’t happen. Anyway it’s good to lie down the whole way.

We can finally see the lights of Auckland below us, landing at 12.30 am on Friday morning. Surprisingly the airport is full as other planes must have landed around the same time. Through immigration and customs, we line up for a taxi. Our driver is a Middle Eastern man who must have farted all the way in from the city so the inside of the taxi stinks like a toilet – welcome to New Zealand!

Anyway, we fly along the freeway into the city where we can see the Sky Tower all lit up in gorgeous rainbow colours. It seems that our guesthouse is not far from it. We pull up at Frienz Backpackers in Victoria Street right in the city centre. The owners had sent us an email telling us how to get in as the desk would be closed at this late/early hour.

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No trouble getting in and finding our room on the fourth floor – there’s a lift fortunately. Our room is basic and shabby but ok. The bathrooms are shared and around a few bends in the corridor – a bit of a rabbit-warren as lots of these places are. It just adds to the appeal for us.

Straight to sleep.

Friday 14th February, 2020

Auckland to Waiheke Island to Auckland

Mark doesn’t sleep well in a different bed and I’m tired as well so we don’t get up till nine o’clock. We ring Lauren and the Dollies as they’re two hours behind and wouldn’t have left for school. After showers we check in at the desk on the first floor where there is also a chill-out area where young travellers are hanging out on their phones.

The first thing we want to do is hire a car for tomorrow and Sunday. The guy at the desk tells us of a travel agent they use in the city. Just walk down the hill to Queen Street which is just two short blocks away. Queen Street is Auckland’s major commercial thoroughfare running almost three kilometres south from Queens Wharf on the waterfront.

The travel agent is off a small side street, but when we ask about hire cars we’re told that there aren’t any. They’d apparently tried other places but they were all out – ‘it’s busy here on the weekends’. What the fuuuuuuuuck?

Ok, don’t panic just yet. What about buses to Rotarua? She said she’d see if there were any seats left? I’m just about to explode (quietly) but Mark says ‘let’s just go and have breakfast and ring around.’

So we do. We walk to the end of Queen Street till we come to the harbour. Lots of construction down here and we can’t find a café and I’m getting more cheesed off by the minute. Finally we see the lovely old port building right on the ferry wharf and where we find a nice café to sit down and sort things out. Mark makes a phone call and finds a car we can pick up in the morning. So the silly bitch at the travel agent was only talking about the car hire places they use – she could have told us!

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Anyway, all good thanks to Mark’s calm nature and we enjoy a coffee and a hot chocolate while we wait for our 11.30am ferry to Waiheke Island – $45 each return (this is not Asia!). Hundreds are lining up and we wonder if we’ll get a seat. No worries and we easily find window seats inside.

The forty minute trip is lovely. We leave the Downtown Ferry Wharf then head out into the Hauraki Gulf cruising past the coastline and the small islands of Rangitoto, Motuihe and Motutapu. It’s nice to have a different view of the city and especially nice to be out on the water on this hot sunny day.

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Waiheke’s ferry terminal is at pretty Matiatia Bay at the western end of the island. As we disembark we see ducks paddling on the shore – yes, very pretty here. We thought we might hire a motor bike but it looks like it’s just pushbikes or electric bikes and anyway the island is much bigger, and hillier, than we expected.

Waiheke Island is actually the second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf with the biggest population with 9,250 permanent residents – another estimated 3,400 have second or holiday homes on the island. Apparently it’s a playground for the rich and famous – well, not quite but it does seem to be fairly upmarket.

From the ferry wharf we catch a bus to the beachy village of Oneroa which is sort of the capital. This is lively with fashion boutiques, cafes, art galleries and designer shops. Day trippers and locals fill the street creating a happy holiday feel. We can see why this island is so popular.

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Lunch is at the lovely Oyster Inn, with its colonial/tropical feel – gabled roof, wide verandahs, louvred shutters, swirling ceiling fans and tall palm trees. We take in the great seaviews on the restaurant verandah while we order a beer for Mark and a champagne for me – it is Valentines Day after all. And being on an island, we must have seafood for lunch so Mark has fish, salad and chips while I have calamari and salad.

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Now we head back to the bus stop to catch a bus going who knows where. The island is only twenty kilometres long so we can’t get too lost. I sit next to a friendly lady from Wellington who has a holiday house here and a house in Auckland as well – yes, a wealthy person’s island. She tells us where to get off further down the hill but Mark has a map and we continue on. We get off at an intersection where we walk a long way in the sun to find one of the many vineyards around here.

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Now I hate wine, but visiting a vineyard is what everyone has to do on Waiheke. I don’t know the name of it but it has an open sided restaurant and bar – all very chic. We choose a wine tasting package with two whites and two reds. I hate them all so Mark has most of it.

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Back out on the road we wait for another bus to take us back to the ferry wharf. The scenery is very picturesque the whole way with a blend of vineyards, olive groves, beaches, farmland and forests.

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The ferry back to Auckland leaves every half hour but we manage to catch the one that is almost ready to leave. This trip we sit upstairs on the open sunny deck for even better views of the bay and islands.  Yachts and other boats sail past and we can see the city skyline in the distance.

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By the time we get back to Auckland, it’s four o’clock which means we still have time for a SCAN (Senior Citizens Afternoon Nap) or Mark’s favourite, SCAB (Senior Citizens Afternoon Bonk!). But walking up Queen Street we find a really cool first floor terrace restaurant. Pavement trees and lots of verandah plants create a cool and cooling atmosphere. Great people watching as we order tapas and drinks.

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On the walk back to our guesthouse we find a fabulous area behind Queen Street. The very narrow High Street neighbourhood is the best with lots of laneways lined with cafes, trendy shops, bars, book shops and coffee houses. We’ll definitely be back here tonight and it’s just a stone’s throw from the Frienz.

After showers, we do have a nanna nap – both exhausted after a very late night. At six thirty we head out for food and drinks in Vulcans Lane. Here is the atmospheric Occidental Hotel that we saw this afternoon but it’s packed out. Next door though we find a table at Vulcan’s Inn and settle in for a few drinks.

Never content to stay in the one place, we soon go in search of The Bluestone Room just a few streets away. We find it hidden away in an alleyway with lots of people milling around outside. They’re all males so definitely a gay bar. Lots of exposed stone and thick wooden beams create a rustic atmosphere in the dark moody interior. We snack on chicken wings then stay for a few more drinks.

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Walk home beneath the Sky Tower looking stunning as it changes colours like a kaleidoscope.

Thursday 15th February, 2020

 Auckland to Rotarua

Today we’re off on our road trip – the long way to Rotarua. After showers we pull our packs across the city to the hire car place. For some reason we can’t have the car we’d booked yesterday but if we wait fifteen minutes we can have an upgrade – okay.

At nine o’clock we’re packed up and heading south out of Auckland. The motorway passes from the city through suburbia then on to market gardens. Now farms dot the landscape which disappointingly isn’t lush and green as we expected New Zealand to be, but dry and yellow – no rain here for ages apparently.

We leave the motorway at the base of the Bombay Hills and head towards Hamilton. It’s time to find somewhere to eat as we still haven’t had breakfast. We like the sound of Te Kauwhata, imagining we’ll find an interesting little rural town with quaint cafes and shops. Wrong, it’s a sad, shitty place with a wide main street lined with empty shops and one take-away place.

I later googled ‘Best Things To Do in Te Kauwhata’. The only thing that came up was ‘There aren’t many things to do or attractions to visit in this town.’ No shit!

Anyway, we’re starving so we buy egg and bacon rolls from the nice Asian owners. Feels just like home.

On the road again we set off for Hamilton but we can see a long line of traffic stopped dead ahead so Mark does a quick u-ey at a roundabout and we take another route to Waitomo. Here we’ll visit the caves. The Waitomo Caves region seems much more fertile passing through prime Waikato farmland.

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At the entrance to the caves we line up for tickets. The next available tour isn’t for an hour and a half – sorry we can’t wait as we want to reach Rotarua in time to visit the hot springs, etc. Too bad but can’t be helped.

So far we’ve been on the road for two and a half hours and we still have a two hour drive to Rotarua. Despite the less than green landscape, what is really nice is the non-existence of the horrible eucalyptus trees we have in Australia – probably very unpatriotic of me but they’re bloody ugly! New Zealand’s vegetation is very different despite being ‘just across the ditch’ as they say.

Maybe it’s because of the cooler climate, just making this up, but the trees look more English – like the tall, sturdy spreading Tōtaras and the majestic Kauri.  Google says that the Kauri is among the world’s mightiest trees, growing to more than 50 metres tall, with trunk girths of up to 16 metres. They covered much of the top half of the North Island when the first people arrived around 1000 years ago. Māori used it for building waka (canoes) and burnt the gum for heat and light.

But if the vegetation is a nice surprise, the lack of sheep isn’t. Where the hell are they all? I thought we’d be beating them off with a stick but we haven’t seen one all day. Apparently the nation’s woolly flock has slumped to its lowest number since World War II as most sheep farmers have now switched to dairy farming – explains it all.

Finally we reach the outskirts of Rotarua. It seems to be the centre for lots of different outdoor activities – my worst nightmare – rafting, kayaking, cycling, walking, biking, zip lining …. We could also visit the Agrodome – a sort of huge fake farm where everyone has to go now to see a bloody sheep – ha.

Our accommodation tonight is at the Rotarua Thermal Park which is about four kilometres from the town centre but right next door to the geothermal park that we’ve come all this way to see. And because we’re right next door the smell is horrendous – like a gigantic fart that you can’t escape. What’s really cool though, is that we can see steam rising out of the ground all around here – why we came!

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At the entrance to the park we stop to get our key and to ask about the thermal pools inside the park itself. We’ll check them out later but first we need to dump our gear and head to Te Puia where we have tickets for this afternoon.

Thanks to Tripadvisor, where we can see photos of what we’re booking, we have the cutest little log cabin with a tiny verandah and a wood lined interior. No bathroom though which means walking down the hill to the communal showers and toilets – this could be an issue in the middle of the night.

Now we drive over to Te Puia. This is run by an extended Maori family and by the look of the place, they’re raking it in! The entrance is super impressive, dominated by a huge contemporary Māori artwork called Heketanga-ā-Rangi. Inside, we’re just in time for the tour which begins with a Maori ceremony in front of the marae, a traditional gathering place.

An elderly Maori lady welcomes us then people in traditional dress give us the customary pōwhiri. This was originally used to challenge a visiting party and find out their intentions so it involves stamping feet, thumping spears and sticking out of tongues.

Following the welcoming party inside the Te Aronui-ā-rua (meeting house), Mark and I make a dash to grab the front seats. This is a good move as the meeting house is huge. Inside features stunning carvings, intricately decorated panels and weavings with a stage at the front.

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For the next half an hour we’re entertained with Maori dancing, singing and, of course, the fierce Haka. This was supposed to show a tribe’s pride and strength but now it’s mainly seen at football matches. The actions include violent foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and body slapping while yelling in a scary voice. Mark and a few other poor suckers are dragged up on stage to join in.

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Next is the tour of the park. A young Maori woman tells us about her family who are guardians of the land here and about their history. We follow her to the Pohutu Geyser which is currently blowing its stack. Mark wanders off to take photos of bubbling mud pools – not so much bubbling as letting off little farts now and again. All around us we see clouds of steam coming out of the earth – all because Rotarua sits within the Pacific Ring of Fire where volcanic activity has created this very distinctive landscape. But to be honest, and to steal a quote from Oscar Wilde, ‘it is not as majestic as I expected’ (he was talking about the Atlantic Ocean – ha, ha). Anyway, been there done that.

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Another gem of Te Puia is the Kiwi House but, of course, they’re asleep/hiding/not there – whatever, but we don’t see any. Near the entrance is the fake Maori Village – mildly interesting but let’s go.

At the shop we buy a bronze kiwi and some fridge magnets – spent up big!

Before heading back to our cabin we decide to head into town. The four kilometre drive is along a wide, straight road lined with the most hideous hotels we’ve ever seen. God this place is ugly!

It really could be a contender for that hilarious Facebook site, Shit Towns of New Zealand. While I think of it I’ll add some of my favourite posts – best laugh I’ve had for ages.

** Richmond, a town so packed with insufferable wankers that the council recently delivered a letter to residents addressed ‘Dear cunts’. (True story.)

** Update: Our Big Poo crowdfunder has closed, narrowly missing its $20,000 goal by $19,777 – so unfortunately we will be unable to build a gigantic turd for Huntly

** New Zealand’s Shittiest ‘Big Things’  Under New Zealand law, for a settlement to officially qualify as a town it must feature a giant replica of a food item, animal or object alongside its nearest highway or main road, mainly so tourists can take photos of themselves pretending to have sex with it.

** If it’s the people that make a town, then Cambridge is a Superloo of epic proportions. Like its British namesake, Cambridge houses one of the most pompous populations in the country. This poncey Ponsonby of the Waikato insists on calling itself ‘The Home of Champions’ because of its knack of producing athletes capable of snagging silver and bronze medals, otherwise known as New Zealand gold – which automatically qualifies them to advertise meat on television

** Ragitikei shit pit Marton is best known for having tap water the colour and consistency of a post-vindaloo bowel motion.

** The Dunedin Marathon finishes in Port Chalmers, mainly because most runners are unable to continue any further after being stabbed by a mad fisherman or mauled by a rabid dog.

Anyhoo, on the way home we stop at Countdown (Woolworths in Australia) to stock up on Coke Zero, soda water, beer and nibblies for tonight. Back at our place we check out the thermal pools which are a series of small cement baths fed by hot natural springs. We change into our swimmers and submerge ourselves in the very hot water. At first we’re the only ones there but then more and more people turn up so we leave.

About 6.30pm, we set off for a big night in Rotarua – just kidding! The city centre is actually a bit of an improvement and we find an appealing historical pub/restaurant called The Pig and Whistle. We line up for a table but there aren’t any available in the lovely old building at the front but we can have a table in the cement floored add-on at the back. With metal chairs and tables and a colorbond fence we take off.

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Further down the street is an old Irish pub with a cosy atmosphere and we settle in for hearty pub food and drinks – this is more like it! Don’t stay for too many though as Mark has to drive. At our cabin we set ourselves up on the verandah, taking a doona off the bed to keep warm. Ah, the serenity – except for the poo smell, it’s really lovely sitting out here.

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Thursday 16th February, 2020

Rotarua to Auckland

This morning the sky is low and heavy with clouds and I can’t drag myself out of bed till 9am. I really should have got up earlier as we only have four hours to get back to Auckland where we need to drop the car off by 1pm – 1.30pm at the latest.

Throw everything into our packs we’re gone in minutes. Mark says we really should see Lake Rotarua before we leave so we do a quick detour down to the water. With still a slight drizzle, it’s a grey world but I’m sure it would look really nice when the sun is out.

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Soon we come to the quirky town of Tirau dubbed as the Corrugated Iron Capital of the World. Yes, you guessed it, it definitely qualifies as one of the Shit Towns of New Zealand which notes that Tirau’s star attraction is its roadside procession of metal monsters – the scariest thing on State Highway 1. A giant dog-shaped information centre, a wool shop shaped like two giant sheep, and a giant biblical shepherd all loom menacingly over the town. It’s hideous but entertaining and it seems to attract visitors who fill all the roadside cafes and shops – good on them.

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But Tirau is set amongst some of New Zealand’s most fertile farmland and we like this route much more than yesterday. And besides that, the weather is once again warm and sunny.

The next big town is Cambridge – a pretty town of tree-lined street, parks and gardens. It sits on the ‘mighty’ Waikato River and is surrounded by dairy farms and horse studs. We want to stop for breakfast but the main streets have been blocked off for some sort of event so we decide to head for Hamilton instead.

Hamilton, too, is situated on the banks of the Waikato River and seems to be a pretty place as well. Sadly, with still 130 kilometres to go we’re running late and race into McDonalds for quick takeaways and get back on the road.

Before we take the car back in Auckland we fill it with petrol – more money on top of the fucking ridiculous price we’ve already paid – $700 for less than two days – more than our return airfares! Never again!

For some reason, we decide to walk to our next guesthouse, a backpacker place called Tmacs on the other side of the city. Mainly uphill and in the hot sun, we finally find it in a sort of remodelled warehouse. It’s a slick operation compared to Frienz with several lounge areas, terraces and a busy shared kitchen.

We really should get back out and explore more of Auckland but we can’t be bothered and lie around reading for the next few hours. About five o’clock we call an Uber to take us to Ponsonby. This is the trendy area of the city so obviously we must see it.

Janet has told us of a restaurant we’d love called SPQR so we get dropped off outside. This is Italian so we order a pizza to share. Mark has a beer or two while I have a strawberry margarita – very expensive.  A lot of people are dressed in lurex and other over-the-top clothes – all off to the Elton John concert that’s happening here in Auckland tonight. A very tall tranny with a big bouncy wig, a mini-skirt and high heels is prancing around, rushing to the toilet every couple of minutes for some reason.

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From here we move on to Ponsonby Central recommended on the net. It doesn’t look much from the street but inside is a cavern of food stalls, restaurants and bars. We find an interesting spot for more drinks then cross the street to our next drinking spot. This is a mix of contemporary and vintage with lots of old fashioned lamps spread throughout creating a cosy atmosphere. We find an interesting nook surrounded by book cases and stay for a couple more drinks.

An Uber home at nine o’clock as we need to get up very, very early in the morning.

Thursday 17th February, 2020

Auckland to Sydney

Our alarm wakes us at 3am and we’re soon outside meeting our Uber driver. At this time of night the traffic is almost non-existent and we make record time to the airport.

Check-in only takes a few minutes. Mark finds some cute fluffy toy sheep so we buy one each for the Dollies as a souvenir of New Zealand.

Unlike our flight from Newcastle this Jetstar flight to Sydney is packed. This means no chance of extra seats so no chance of lying down. Somehow we both manage an hour or two sleep using the toy sheep as pillows! So by the time we land in Sydney three hours after take-off, we feel pretty good.

It’s now 8am and we’re in a hurry to get the train to Newcastle as soon as we can as we both have to get to work this afternoon. We eventually manage to catch the 9.15 am making it to Broadmeadow Station in time for Lauren to pick us up.

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Thailand and Singapore 2015

 

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Our Itinerary
Tuesday 13/10/2015 Newcastle to Sydney
Wednesday 14/10/2015 Sydney 13.40pm to Singapore 19.05pm
Thursday 15/10/2015 Singapore 17.35pm to Bangkok 19.05pm
Friday 16/10/2015 Bangkok
Saturday 17/10/2015 Bangkok to Amphawa
Sunday 18/10/2015 Amphawa to Kanchanaburi
Monday 19/10/2015 Kanchanaburi
Tuesday 20/10/2015 Kanchanaburi to Bangkok
Wednesday 21/10/2015 Bangkok
Thursday 22/10/2015 Bangkok
Friday 23/10/2015 Bangkok 20.05pm to Singapore 23.30pm
Saturday 24/10/2015 Singapore 01.45am to Sydney 12.25pm

 

1 Australian Dollar = 26 BHT

                                                                      What It Cost

Flights   

Sydney to Singapore return for 2                                           $904

Singapore to Bangkok return for 2                                        $431

Accommodation

Rucksack Inn – Singapore                                                        $43

O’Bangkok Hotel, Bangkok   2 nights@$26                           $52

Amphawa                                                                                    $60

Kanchanaburi raft hotel                                                          $24

Phon Peng Guesthouse – Kanchanaburi 2 nights @ $24   $48

Mango Lagoon Guesthouse – Bangkok 2 nights @ $28      $56

Extras

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market                                      $48

Tiger Temple                                                                            $48

Elephant Camp                                                                        $48

TOTAL                                                                                      $1,762                              

 

Tuesday 13th October, 2015

 Newcastle to Sydney

Today is Elkie’s second birthday – a two-year old dolly! Mark and Lauren are at work and darling Abi is at ‘pweeschool’ so I have the bubba all to myself. We have a bath together and, as I always do, I tell her that she’s ‘loving and happy and clever and pretty and kind and sharing’ – she loves it – dear little one. She ‘helps’ me mop and clean the bathroom then we visit Pa at work.

Back home she has a two-year-old temper tantrum – so cute – then Mummy comes home at one and puts her to bed.

Mark is extra busy at work, so we might not be able to get to Sydney tonight. Our flight doesn’t leave till 2.30pm tomorrow so we’ll still have plenty of time to catch a train in the morning. But we always prefer to stay in Sydney the night before we travel – takes three hours off the trip time plus it adds an extra day to our holiday.

About three-thirty he rings to say that he can do the rest of his work through his phone so it’s a mad rush to finish packing and for Lauren to drive us to Hamilton Station for the 4.30pm train. We don’t let the dollies get out of the car – they always cry when they see us leave which, of course, makes us cry as well. Darlings!!

We pull into Central Station at seven o’clock and nearly kill ourselves running across Hyde Park to reach Jillian’s by 7.30pm which is when the concierge knocks off. Jillian is in Perth but has left the key at the desk – she’s so good to us.

Dumping our gear in her apartment – beautiful night-time view of the city which always blows us away – and head off for the nearby East Sydney Hotel. The temperature has dropped and with a drizzling rain, the pub is warm and cosy inside. We have dinner and drinks but can’t stay too late as Mark still has a lot to finish on his laptop. While Mark works for hours, I have an early night – spoilt!

Wednesday 14th October, 2015

Sydney to Singapore

We wake at seven, snuggle and shower. Mark has more emails to get through, so I wash my hair and make breakfast. We always take our own food for the plane, so I walk up to the Woolloomooloo Woolworths – very upmarket and trendy compared to the Woolies at home that only cater to us Newie bogans. I buy salami, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and crackers to eat on the flight plus a coffee for Mark.

At 10.30am we walk across Hyde Park in warm sunshine to catch the airport train. After checking in our bags and passing through immigration we eat at McDonalds then Facetime Lauren and the dollies at Jackie’s – all there for lunch as usual on a Wednesday.

We have turns on the massage chairs before boarding for a 2.30pm take-off. We’ve scored three seats each so with a Triazapam we both sleep for at least three hours! Besides sleeping we have our picnic that we’ve smuggled on board – apparently bringing our own food is a no-no because when one of the hostesses sees Mark eating a big bag of chips she says ‘sir, not allowed. Just don’t let me see you’ – nice.

We’re actually flying with Scoot for the first time. It’s Singapore Airlines’ budget carrier costing us only $980 return to Bangkok for the two of us. And because Scoot is owned by Singapore Airlines we need to have a stop-over in Singapore itself. With no more planes to Bangkok leaving today, we’ll be staying here overnight. We could book any flight tomorrow so we decided to book one leaving late afternoon which will give us plenty of time for Singapore sight-seeing.

So, arriving at Changi’s Terminal 2 (the crappy budget terminal) at 7pm, we’re outside in the heat and humidity in half an hour. I’d booked a hotel through Trip Advisor after experiencing Singapore’s expensive accommodation before. It’s called the Rucksack Inn in Little India – a backpacker place but we’ve booked a double room so it should be okay.

A taxi takes us from the airport across the Helix Bridge where we have a perfect view of the cityscape and the incredible Marina Bay Sands Hotel on our left – that’s where we’re heading tonight!

We like the look of the Rucksack Inn – a small, colourful foyer with lots of young travellers lying around on lounges and travel posters lining the walls. At the desk the lovely young girl seems to find it ‘cute’ that we ‘old’ people are staying in a backpackers! She also happily announces ‘many people – you hab to be sep-ar-ate’ – apparently, we’re in a dorm instead of the double room I’ve already booked and paid for – whatever – she’s very sweet and it’s no big deal anyway.

Someone shows us the dorm which isn’t too bad with eight double bunks – luckily, we both have a bottom bunk each. Pulling out the only ‘posh’ clothes we’ve brought with us, we’re outside in minutes waiting for a bus. To save time, we decide on a taxi which only costs $8 to our destination – the Marina Bay Sands.

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This spectacular, futuristic hotel consists of three curved towers housing over two and a half thousand rooms but the piece-de-resistance is the three-acre SkyPark on top of the building with swimming pools, gardens, and jogging paths. It bridges all three towers with a segment cantilevered off the northern end. We’ve seen photos of the pool which is said to be the most famous and stunning infinity pool in the world but there’s no way we’ll be able to even look at it let alone swim in it – only accessible for hotel guests at a minimum of $500 per night.

No worries, our plan tonight is to have dinner and drinks at KuDeTa (now called C’est La Vie) on the top level but first we check out the bottom floor. A continuous lobby links the three towers and is itself spectacular – an atrium at least twenty floors high! We remember we’d watched a documentary on the hotel’s construction so it brings home how amazing this building really is. Inside are tall trees, giant Chinese lanterns and designer shops, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and huge underground casinos.

We make our way to the lift to take us to the bar but Mark is wearing shorts (very dressy shorts) despite which is still a no-no after 5.30pm. Ok we’ll come back tomorrow.

So now we catch a taxi to Smith Street – ‘eat’ street in Chinatown – a favourite old haunt. Actually, the whole Chinatown enclave is a favourite with us – it has an energy that the rest of Singapore, as lovely as it is, seems to lack. It reminds us of the Asia we love most – temples, food stalls, markets, bars, karaoke lounges and buzzing with people. Sitting at an outside table we order a feast of mussels, prawn balls, Tom Yum soup and a beer each.

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The temperature really doesn’t seem to have dropped that much and the humidity has sent my hair into a wet frizz.

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Nearby is the Sri Mariamman Temple where a loud festival is underway – Hindu temples always seem to have some sort of festival happening! Outside its colourful, intricate façade, we take off our shoes then watch women singing and dancing in bright saris while men in white dhotis and more saried ladies making offerings and burning incense – love it here!

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But now it’s time to head back ‘home’. Our taxi driver seems nice at first and we like that he’s decorated the entire dashboard with waving cats – a good luck Asian symbol. But when we reach the Rucksack Inn he wants $17 even though the metre reads $8 – ‘rush hour city charge’ he says – wtf?

Inside we head straight for our dorm to change in the dark. There are about eight other people but everyone is quiet and we both sleep well with earplugs anyway.

Thursday 15th October, 2015

 Singapore to Bangkok

I wake at 5.30am for a toilet visit then fall back asleep till eight o’clock. Mark is already up, showered and shaved so I quickly have a shower and make toast and tea while Mark works on his phone. Lahib, the same friendly girl on the desk from last night, explains the transport situation as we want to get back to the Marina Sands Hotel again this morning.

So, at 9am we’re heading towards the bay in one of Singapore’s very modern and very clean buses. The mixture of old and new architecture makes for an interesting ride – mosques, Hindu and Chinese temples, the old shophouses of Chinatown and the colonial Raffles Hotel, all with a backdrop of cutting-edge buildings and skyscrapers. It’s a mishmash that somehow works.

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It’s also a thrill to be driving along Serangoon Road after recently watching the television series of the same name on the ABC starring the gorgeous Don Hany. The series is set in the mid-1960s which was a tumultuous time in Singapore’s history. The country was in a mess – about to break away from Malaysia and gain independence as the British colonial rulers were gradually pulling out. Must watch it again now that we’ve actually been here.

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This is our fourth time in Singapore and we have a very different outlook to that first visit in 1999. Then we thought it too clean and sterile compared to the vibrancy of the rest of Asia but now we’ve learnt to appreciate that it’s much more than just shopping malls and tourist traps. Instead it has a fascinating cultural diversity which grew out of the country’s history.

And here it is straight from the internet – modern Singapore’s history is said to have started in 1819 when Englishman Sir Stamford Raffles was sent here to establish a British port to try and break the Dutch domination of shipping in the area. Raffles decided that it should be a free port and that no port duties should be collected.  As a result, migrants and merchants from China, India, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Middle East flocked to the island. Many Chinese and Indian immigrants came to work in the rubber plantations and tin mines, and their descendants later formed the bulk of the island’s population. Before Raffles arrived, there were around 1,000 people living in Singapore, mostly Malays – but by 1869, migration had swelled Singapore’s population to 100,000.

Each wave of immigrants brought their own culture, language, customs, religion and festivals. Intermarriage and integration created the very multi-cultural Singapore of today –  ethnic Chinese form 74.2%, Malays 13.3%, Indians 9.2%, plus many expatriates from all over the globe.

Raffles also didn’t want the island to develop higgledy piggledy, organising it into distinct ethnic neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street that still exist today.

Anyway, end of the history lesson and back to the present. We pass the beautiful colonial Raffles Hotel, named after you-know-who, but we won’t have time for a visit this trip. Our focus this morning is to explore the Gardens by the Bay which is adjacent to the Marina Bay Sands then hopefully have lunch at C’est La Vie.

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The bus drops us opposite the hotel where we catch an elevator to the sixth floor to where we look down into the vast atrium and the spectacular lobby far below. From here the overhead Lions Bridge leads us from the hotel to Dragonfly Lake dotted with fountains and tiny palm islands. On the Dragonfly Bridge, the views are amazing especially looking back at the space-age hotel and the alien forms of the Supertree Grove ahead.

 

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The Grove contains eighteen fifty-metre-high Supertrees that not only mimic the shape of trees with long trunks and fluted tops but also mimic the ecological function of trees. Solar cells inside the structures provide energy for lighting and the funnel-shaped top collects rainwater for irrigation throughout the entire Gardens. It’s environmental sustainability at its very best!

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And besides all the science stuff this place is stunning!! And besides that, it’s also swelteringly hot! This means our first task is to buy gelatos and drinks before paying the $5 entry fee to the OCBC Skyway. Here a friendly man tells us, ‘very hot, but lucky, no humidity’. What??!!!

The OCBC Skyway is a long walkway that connects two of the biggest Supertrees. At twenty-two metres off the ground we have a panoramic view of the Gardens as well as the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer (a giant ferris wheel like the one in London). Also, from the top we get to look directly into the ‘trees’. These vertical gardens are home to ferns, vines, orchids, bromeliads and lots more tropical plants –  lovely!

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Now, after a steamy ten-minute walk towards the Bay, we come across the Conservatory complex – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. These are the largest climate-controlled glasshouses in the world and look like giant misshapen bubbles. At the Visitor Centre we pay $20 entry then gratefully enter the coolness of the air-conditioned Flower Dome. This vast three-acre interior replicates the mild, dry climates of the Mediterranean, Australia, South America and South Africa.

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The adjacent Cloud Forest dome is even more spectacular this time replicating high altitude tropical plant life and is dominated by a cantilevered skywalk skirting a giant cascading waterfall. The entry opens directly onto these massive falls which spray cool water all over us – heaven! An elevator takes us to the top where we follow the spiralling Cloud Walk that encircles the mountain, densely planted with orchids, ferns, colourful Bromeliads and Begonias.

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It’s time now to head back to the Marina Bay Sands to hopefully have lunch at C’est La Vie. I’m worried about the price but Mark says we’re going anyway. At the hotel, he changes into a silk shirt and covered shoes to make sure he’s dressed appropriately this time. We’re told we have a half hour wait to get up to the bar so we visit the Casino where we’ll have a drink. Bizarrely there isn’t anywhere to buy alcohol – an Asian thing?

Anyway, after a wander around the designer shops (boring!), we’re allowed to enter the lift. I must say here that last week I found a great tip on a traveller’s blog. Apparently C’est La Vie is right above the Sky Park Observation Deck where people pay $22SGD to see the view. On the other hand, entry to C’est La Vie is free so you can have the same view and enjoy a few drinks for the same price!

The lift stops on the 56th floor where a pretty waitress directs us to a table inside the restaurant. Ordering mineral water because we’re so hot, we then splurge on crispy, sticky squid, a prawn salad and a chocolate fondant cake – feel very blessed. There seems to be a lot of business people here having ‘very important’ meetings over lunch while the balcony outside is packed with western tourists and ex-pats. We find a table that gives us a panoramic view of the city’s skyline, the Gardens By the Bay and Singapore Strait itself.

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To top off our posh meal, Mark orders an expensive beer while I order a cocktail that has a big green chili floating in it! In the end, the total bill only comes to $139 – cheap, really!

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At two o’clock we catch a bus back to the Rucksack Inn where we grab our bags and find a taxi to take us to the airport – quick and only $15. After checking in our bags, we eat chicken quesadillas washed down with beer and soda water then take off on time at 5.30pm on our way to Bangkok.

Mark has an aisle seat while I have a window seat with that precious empty seat in between. No time to sleep on this short flight but it’s always nice to be able to spread out. Mark reads while I watch the laptop before landing in the dark at 6.50pm at the old Don Muang Airport where all the cheap carriers have been banished.

The bus area is in chaos so we decide to catch a taxi which is also chaos. Six long lines of people take ages and we finally share a cab with a young Dutch couple also heading for Khao San Road. They’re giants as most Dutch people are and only one pack fits in the boot so we’ve got the other three packs on our laps – a very squeezy trip! We chat the whole way and tell them about the nicer soi area to find somewhere to stay.

We all end up getting dropped off at the entrance to Soi Rambutri, then Mark and I find a room at O’Bangkok next to Baan Sabaii where we’ve stayed a few times before. It’s nice to book into a different place for a change. Our room is on the second floor with a wide window overlooking the lovely tree-shaded soi. For $26 we have a big bed, air-conditioning and our own bathroom.

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We know the food at Wild Orchid is always good so we head there for dinner – chicken satay, chicken salad plus beers and diet coke to mix with my Bacardi. Ahhh!! Back in wonderful Thailand! And, of course, one of the first things we must do is have a one-hour foot massage in the laneway across from the temple. Great people watching and the massage ladies keep running off to bring us more beers and cokes while a young man plays beautiful tunes on a violin – heaven! By the way, my right foot is a ‘cankle’ and my right knee is so swollen that my knee cap has disappeared. Looks like I’ll be limping my way around Thailand.

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Bed at 11pm after a wonderful day.

Friday 16th October, 2015

 Bangkok

Roosters inside the temple wake us at 6am – our favourite alarm clocks. We quickly shower so we can walk around the sois in the peace of early morning. At this early hour, the alleyways are quiet with only a few locals starting their day. Near the temple entrance we sit on plastic chairs to eat fruit salad, muesli, yoghurt, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice – only $6 – no wonder we love it here.

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We’re staying in Bangkok again tonight but want to look for a different guesthouse so we wander over to the sois, about a fifteen-minute walk. We cross Phra Athit Road on the corner near the fort where old shophouses covered in flowering bougainvillea line the street then cross small klongs overhung with spreading trees. Love this residential area where people are cooking outside and with glimpses of the river between old teak houses. Over in Soi 3 most places seem to be full so we try an old villa in Soi 1 – a note stuck to the gate reads ‘manager gone to buy food’ – cute.

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Anyway, my swollen knee is giving me a lot of grief so we’ll be better staying where we are in Soi Rambutri as I won’t need to do as much walking – everything is right on our doorstep. Now it’s time for another massage – a full body this time. At Pink near our hotel we follow a little massage girl up a steep set of rickety wooden stairs to an airy room overlooking the laneway and the temple trees. It’s the usual simple set-up around here – a mattress on the floor and that’s it. Mark has a traditional Thai massage (250Baht) while I have an oil one (300Baht) – both excellent.

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From here we catch a tuktuk to the Amulet Market on the edge of the Chao Praya River near Wat Mahatat. We’ve been here many, many times before, lugging home great Buddhist and Hindu statues, ceramic urns and vases, and so much more I can’t even remember. Our house is full to bursting so we won’t be buying anything more today.

We mainly just want to hang out in this very traditional area. Even though we’ve bought lots of things here ourselves, this isn’t a place where tourists shop – it’s a true local neighbourhood where Thai people come to buy amulets and statues for their own homes.

Another reason for coming here today is to catch a ferry at the nearby Banglamphu Wharf but first we have another breakfast in one of the many simple waterside cafés that overlook floating beds of pretty purple-flowering water hyacinth and the river beyond. These are all family-run places with the cooking done in the back corner so I wander over to watch. Meanwhile a monk has turned up so I make Mark take photos of me with the monk in the background – I love monks!!

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From our table on the water’s edge we watch the endless stream of river traffic then head for the wharf. On a flat-bottomed ferry we cross the Chao Praya for Thonburi on the opposite bank. This is where we plan to visit the Siriraj Medical Museum situated within the grounds of Siriraj Hospital, the oldest in Bangkok.

I’d found out about this place when I was searching for something different to do in Bangkok. Nicknamed the Museum of Death, this is supposed to be a bit freaky but we’ll give it a go.

Off the ferry, we ask directions to find the museum in an old building with a wide wooden staircase leading to the third floor. Even the landing has a creepy feel with lots of dark wood and old faded portraits. Entering the Anatomical Museum, the first thing we see is a disturbing row of jars containing co-joined twin babies pickled in formaldehyde. Even more disturbing is that on the bench in front of the babies are present day toys, like fluffy teddies and tiny cars, obviously left by visitors – oh God, I think it’s been a mistake coming here!

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In another space we pose for photos with a row of skeletons then find pickled body parts in room after room. One entire area contains a person that we presume is the woman in the photo hanging on the wall – she’s been vertically sliced into thin slivers – like ham in a deli! Her whole body is displayed slice by slice in tall, glass cases!

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In more glass cases are bodies stripped of their skin and another that has the entire nervous system and nothing else – interesting but feeling a bit grossed out and decide to give the rest of it a big miss!

Back in the ferry to Banglamphu, we catch a tuktuk to Soi Rambutri and at O’Bangkok we pay for an extra night then rest for an hour in the coolness of our room.

Later we walk through the temple to Thanon Rambutri to see if Mumma Massage is back but we’re disappointed that it’s still only a guesthouse. Once this was the best massage place in Bangkok so we don’t know why it closed down. I can see Sharlo sitting inside but not game to ask after her husband in case something bad has happened.

From here we wind our way through the tiniest of alleyways till we pop out on Khao San Road – we’ve been here so many times that we know all the shortcuts and back alleys in this whole area. Mark wants to have a suit made so we cross over to Aziz Clothing on the bottom floor of the D&D Guesthouse. Mark has had all his business clothes made here for the last fifteen years and Alex has always looked after us.

We ask the lady on the counter if we can see him. A guy turns up a few minutes later saying, ‘I remember you’. But Mark says he can’t, because it’s not even Alex! Do they think that any old Indian person will do – like we wouldn’t notice?  Whatever! Alex is probably visiting relatives in India as he often does. Never mind, Mark is measured for a dark grey suit with an extra pair of dress pants, blue casual pants, grey travel pants and two business shirts – not bad for $430AUD.

Now Mark decides to have a haircut, so I walk back through the temple grounds to Pink for a one hour $6 facial. We meet in the room and I love Mark’s hair – the best cut he’s ever had I think. We take the laptop down to Sawadee Smile to sit in the open-air restaurant and upload photos onto Facebook.

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While Mark orders a green curry, I have a hair wash and blow dry at Pink for only $10 (being pampered today). Later we have drinks and snacks at Madam Masur which is a new place that’s sprung up on the corner since we were here five years ago. It’s one of the coolest places in Soi Rambutri with lots of cane and bamboo, a thatched roof, cobbled stone bathrooms, floor cushions and lots of ethnic pillows and wall hangings. Very laid-back Thailand without being too try-hard.

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It’s still only early (about 7pm) so we wander up Soi Rambutri past the original Sawadee Guesthouse before settling into a sidewalk table at The Green Café. We buy beers and cocktails (but 2 get 1 free) – a margarita, a tequila sunrise and a caprinia. A Lisu tribal woman makes name bands for Abi and Elkie for only 100 Baht before Mark has a fitting for his suit at Aziz.

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Home at 10pm – apparently being sensible for an early start.

Saturday 17th October, 2015

 Bangkok to Amphawa

Up at 6am to shower, ‘snuggle’, and pack. This morning we’re off to the canal-side village of Amphawa in the west of Bangkok which would only take an hour and a half by bus but we’re going the adventurous route which will take a lot longer. I read about this in an old Lonely Planet – a boxed section called The Long Way to Amphawa – and always planned to do it one day. That day is now!

By 6.30am we’re in the laneway waking up a guy sleeping in his taxi. He’s hilarious – never shuts up the whole way to Thonburi’s Wong Wian Yai Train Station. He cracks up every time he says something which sets us off as well. He points out statues and pictures of the King, ‘this one Rama 9’ and ‘this one Rama 5’. The taxi roof is covered with pictures of him and his family and he points out a photo of himself as a soldier fighting in Vietnam. We also have to look at his traffic fine for running a red light with an actual photo of his taxi on the fine – ‘traffic camera no good!’ – more hilarity!

After the best taxi ride ever, he drops us at the station where we buy tickets (50cents each) for the town of Samut Sakhon. We love this little station – very quiet with locals only and monks walking past. The train won’t arrive for thirty minutes so we have time for breakfast in one of the open-air cafes at the end of the platform.

 

The people are friendly as most Thais are and laugh as we try to order our food. No English here at all so we just point to someone else’s dish – Mark a noodle soup and I end up with chicken with rice plus a soup that I’m supposed to drink straight from the bowl. With green tea and coffee, the whole bill is only $3.60.

Boarding the train after breakfast, the carriages have open windows which we much prefer to air-conditioning. We get a better feel for the country when we can hear and smell what’s going on outside instead of looking through a glass pane. About half an hour after leaving Thonburi, the city buildings give way to small villages and towns where people live in small wooden houses built on the very edge of the tracks.

This rural area is especially green and lush with palm trees, rice paddies and ponds filled with pink water lilies. Stopping at tiny stations, there’s never a dull moment – always someone selling food, monks and the local people themselves. We’ve no idea how long this trip will take and just watch for the names on the platforms even though most of them are written in Thai. But after an hour and a half we’ve reached the busy port town of Samut Sakhon. It’s only a few kilometres from the Gulf of Thailand and that’s where we need to get to for the next part of our journey.

The train actually rolls right into the middle of a busy food market. The seafood is very fresh – eels, fish and frogs are still swimming around in buckets of water. For some reason one lady turns a frog inside out to show us how fresh it is – what??!! And beside fresh seafood, vendors are also selling dried fish so the air smells extra stinky.

From the market, we walk down to the main road in search of the pier where the Mahachai Canal meets the Tha Chin River. This is where the ferries cross to Ban Laem on the other side. Typically, the edge of the river is clogged with water hyacinth and old wooden fishing boats are tied up near the wharf. We board the flat-bottomed ferry taking a few motor-bikes with us as well as passengers carrying bags of fruit and vegetables from the market. The crossing takes a mere ten minutes – a lovely experience on this gorgeous calm sunny day with not another tourist in sight.

At Ban Laem we find a much quieter little town and hire a couple of samlors (bicycle rickshaws) waiting outside the ferry wharf. Firstly they take us to buy cold water on this hot and sweaty day then ride us out to Wat Chong Lom situated on the banks of the river. A sign outside warns of a serious dress code for women – no shorts, mini-skirts, bare bellies, tank tops, strapless tops or even tops with wide necks! Luckily, I always bring a sarong for such occasions to wrap around my shoulders.

Inside are beautiful wall murals and a statue of a monk wearing sunglasses for some reason. We light candles and burn incense for our precious Angie – yes, you’re with us here too my darling!

Across the road is Tha Chalong Station where we plan to catch a train to Samut Songkhram and the famous Mae Klong railway market (Train Market). But the station is deserted and a young girl at a market stall outside tells us ‘train finished, little people’ – meaning it doesn’t run anymore because of the lack of passengers. A shame but a couple of guys nearby offer to take us to the bus station on the back of their motor-bikes.

We’re dropped at a bus stop on a main road and are soon speeding towards Samut Songkhram in a packed mini-van. We arrive an hour later and head straight for the market. The Maeklong Railway Market is not just any old traditional Thai market, it’s located right on the train line and, a few times a day, the train runs directly through it. When the train arrives, vendors lower their umbrellas and move their produce off the tracks then as soon as the train passes, everything is moved back and selling goes on as usual.

So now we just wander around and I buy a blue and white polka dot dress for Elkie. A group of young school girls stop to talk to us and tell us that the train isn’t finished permanently, just closed for a few months for repairs. So maybe one day we’ll see the whole craziness really happen.

By now we’re feeling tired and ready to reach Amphawa, our final destination. Outside the market we meet a couple of guys with motor-bike taxis and off we fly for the one-hour trip – very exciting. Slowing down on the outskirts of the town we ask to be dropped at the canal so we inch our way through a busy market till we see the water.

Both sides of the canal are alive with cafés, restaurants and wooden shop-houses selling souvenirs, books and Thai sweets. A pedestrian bridge crosses the khlong (canal) to the opposite bank and the popular Amphawa Floating Market. Every weekend Thai people flock here from the surrounding region and especially from Bangkok. Vendor boats park along the two canal banks, ready to whip up a bowl of ‘boat noodles’, rice porridge, even grilled squid and river prawns, to order.

After our long hot bike ride, we stop for drinks at a table overlooking all the action then it’s time to find somewhere to stay. Apparently, this could be a problem because of all the Thai tourists but we really want to find a place right on the khlong and particularly in one of the lovely old teak guesthouses just behind us. The problem is we don’t even know for sure if they are guesthouses because there aren’t any English signs around here at all. I ask a man in a shophouse, ‘guesthouse?’ but he obviously doesn’t understand and calls over a teenage boy who nods ‘room?’.

I follow him up two flights of wooden stairs while Mark stays with the packs. The rooms are very Thai which is what we love but then they want $60 a night – way over our budget so I wander further along the canal looking for a cheaper option. I do find a room for $20 but it’s stinking hot so we decide to splurge on the expensive air-conditioned place – considering the heat and humidity we’ll really need it if we want to sleep tonight.

This guesthouse is also worth it for the wonderful traditional ambience – all walls and ceilings are polished teak while the floors are a cool dark slate. Old glass-fronted cabinets hold brass bowls, Chinese crochery and cooking utensils while potted plants hang from the ceiling. Verandahs on both floors overlook the canal and we even have our own side verandah that looks down onto the market on this side of the bridge. We’re very happy.

We seek refuge from the heat for a quick rest in the cool of our room then wander along the waterfront walkways towards the river. Here we come across a row of amazing massage places, all open to the khlong so we can lie back and watch Amphawa’s canal-side way of life at the same time.

Like our guesthouse, the massage place is completely lined with teak and has mattresses covered in colourful Thai prints spread out all over the floor as well as a few wooden massage chairs set up for foot rubs. This definitely has to be up there as one of the best massage settings we’ve ever experienced – and we’ve been to more than we can count!

So, for the next hour we both enjoy a full-body Thai massage each – a bit painful as they always are – while lovely Asian music plays in the background. My lady calls over her friend to look at my ‘cankle’ so they both have turns of working on it – it’s looking even more gross today!

Considering we haven’t eaten since breakfast at the station in Thonburi we’re starving by now. And it’s also time to head over to the floating market. This is the reason we’ve come to Amphawa and it doesn’t disappoint. Along the khlong is a long row of charming old wooden shops selling Amphawa souvenirs, and of course, lots of sweets, snacks and ice cream – Thai people have a very sweet tooth and seem to be nibbling all day long.
In front of the walkway are wooden benches built in tiers right down to the water’s edge. Here boat ladies congregate in their little canoes sheltered from the sun by faded old umbrellas. The boats are so close to each other, the umbrellas overlap.

Each lady has a sign explaining what she’s selling – all sorts of seafood (fish, prawns, shellfish and squid) as well as pork and chicken skewers. These are all grilled precariously in the bottom of their little boats. We perch on the top row of the narrow steps leading down to the water and order seafood noodles for Mark and pork skewers for me. We call out to one of the ladies who passes the food up to us.
Further down we find another spot to order chicken satay and king prawns to share – all eaten at tiny tables on the water-side stairs.

Also, along here, long-tail boats leave at regular intervals for scenic tours of the Mae Klong. Two tours are available – the temple tour and the island tour. Tour operators must number almost as many as tourists and we’re soon talked into a one-hour boat ride to visit the outlying temples – only 50Baht each (about $2)!

Typically, we can’t leave till the boat is full and, in the meantime, the skies have opened up and we’re in the middle of a tropical downpour. Our long-tail does have a roof but we’re still getting drenched while the boat ladies hang plastic sheets from beneath their umbrellas so they can keep cooking – this afternoon rain thing is very common here at this time of year. The funny thing is, we love it – the temperature is still high and we know the rain won’t last for long anyway.

Finally, we have enough passengers and pull away from the wharf heading back up the narrow khlong turning right as we reach the wide Mae Klong River.

Soon we veer off into one of the small canals that pass through a rural area dotted with stilt houses, fruit orchards and temples. We stop at a couple of lovely wats all surrounded by lush vegetation. My favourite temple is where I crawl on my hands and knees to be blessed by an old saffron-robed monk sitting cross-legged on a carved platform – my head can’t be above his for some reason. He rubs a white paste on my forehead then we tap brass temple bells with a wooden gong – I’m in Buddhist heaven!

Back in the boat, the rain has stopped and we float past Amphawa’s picturesque riverside scenery with its appealing laid-back ambience. The next temple is much bigger than the first ones and has the weirdest setup with statues of monks carrying alms bowls going around and around on a circular platform – Mark says ‘look, a monk-y-go-round’. Ha ha he’s made me laugh! This temple also has a few cows but the next temple (supposedly the highlight) has a zoo!!

Wat Bang Koong sits in the middle of nowhere and for some reason has a funny little zoo with a camel, crocodiles, an ostrich, a dozen deer, two goats, peacocks and ducks. It’s all a bit tragic but the Asian visitors are happily snapping away. We buy water and fruit at a little market just inside the gate then wait for ages on the pier watching catfish swarming in the river just off the bank. As expected, the tour has lasted much longer than the promised hour as we need to wait at every stop for everyone to get back on board so we’re all happy to dump the last temple and head back to Amphawa.

Just where the canal meets the river, we notice a lovely restaurant at the very end of the boardwalk and decide we’ll head there tonight. On dark we have a snack and a drink on our side of the khlong where we watch longtails chug past and people from a nearby restaurant washing their dishes in the canal.

Strings of coloured lights on both sides of the canal are prettily reflected in the still water. The stars are out and with no breeze at all it’s very lovely here at night although there’s still no escaping the heat and high humidity.

Crossing the pedestrian-bridge we wander through the floating market which is much nicer now that most of the day-trippers have headed back home. We chat with two friendly transvestites, one with a big white pompom on top of his head which he shows us is his actual hair.

At the end of the market we find the restaurant we’d seen from the boat this afternoon and settle in for an excellent seafood meal and lots of beers and bacardis. Longtail boats taking tourists on fire-fly spotting tours continually come and go from the canal. We’d thought of doing this but after our overly long temple tour we’ve had enough of boats for the day.

Bed at ten o’clock in our lovely air-conditioned room – an excellent day!

Sunday 18th October, 2015

Amphawa to Kanchanburi

Mark’s alarm wakes us at six o’clock as we want an early start – I have a lot planned today as always. After both showering, Mark packs while I put on my makeup sitting on our little verandah. Below I watch the market, busy already and see a monk loading up his alms bowl with goodies from different stalls – just helping himself to whatever he wants by the look of things as the stall-holders don’t bat an eye-lid.

Before we leave, Mark makes us hot chocolate and coffee on the canal-side verandah then we watch the boat ladies paddling towards the bridge and setting up their little floating kitchens for today’s market. From up here we also have a birds-eye view of the lamp-posts all topped with colourful figurines of a lady in a sampan filled with fruit and veggies – adorable. And fortunately, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it seems that we have another hot sunny day ahead of us.

Setting off with our packs through the market, one of the stall ladies asks, ‘where you go – Bangkok?’ – ‘No, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market’. She beckons a man in the street who tells us that we can find transport on the next corner.

All too easy and next minute we’re crammed into the back of a small songthaew flying towards

Damnoen Saduak.  It’s a cheap (150 Baht) and fun thirty-minute trip through little villages and green countryside until we pull into a dirt carpark in front of the ticket office. A young man quickly takes our packs to squirrel then away into storage while we check out the prices. A very eager lady shows us the price list on a large poster – 300Baht each for an hour – bloody hell!  – $120 for the two of us – we don’t think so!

We decide to dump the market, which is supposed to be a tourist trap anyway, and drag our bags out of the storage room. The young ticket woman isn’t giving up, ‘okay 2,000Baht’ but we keep heading for the carpark. Now it’s ‘okay, 600Baht’ (only $24) and we’re happy! Storing our bags once again we climb down into one of the small longtails tied up on the edge of the little canal.

Actually, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is a maze of these narrow khlongs that were built during the middle of the nineteenth century. There were over two hundred of these tiny canals around here and they provided the main form of transport for villagers carrying their wares to lots of little floating markets in this area. The main floating market here today is still a true market selling produce that comes directly from local farms but also lots of Thai souvenirs with the tourist dollar in mind.

So anyway, even though this might be a tourist trap, we love chugging our way through this lush little canal with tall shade trees overhanging the water. The banks are lined with palms and banana trees and every now and again we pass a teak house where the resourceful owners sell cold drinks, Thai food or local weavings.

At one place we stop so I can buy two polished wooden bowls from a very old man sitting on his verandah surrounded by large pots of flowering bougainvillea. The banks now are lined with local homes, so close we can almost touch them, and all very appealing with hanging baskets of orchids and ferns and little temple houses perched on carved posts.

Soon we enter a larger canal and the market proper. Here, mostly female, traders, wearing wide-brimmed straw hats, sell their wares from tiny wooden sampans. Locally grown fruit and vegetables are sold to people from the surrounding districts while tourists bargain for souvenirs and food cooked in the canoes themselves. A funny man with only one tooth sells us tiny coconut pancakes then coconut ice-cream both presented in green coconut shells as we float up next to him.

We jump out at an open-sided pavilion crammed with market stalls – we try on silly hats and do NOT buy any of the tacky souvenirs for sale. Back in the boat we chug through more little canals seeing monks in orange robes paddling by and a man with a hideously huge python wrapped around his neck. An old lady with white paste all over her face cooks us deep fried bananas in the bottom of her sampan – love it!

There’s so much to see and despite the ‘touristy’ thing it’s still real if that makes sense. These are real village people trying to make a living and their happy faces make this whole thing a lovely experience.

Back at the ticket office we retrieve our packs then ask the same eager little woman about getting transport to Kanchanburi. She tells us to wait on the road and wait for ‘yellow car’ and writes down instructions in Thai in case we need to ask for help. Outside, we escape the burning sun under a bamboo shelter where a couple of local men are playing draughts with bottle caps.

After twenty-minutes we decide to start walking then soon see a yellow songthaew speeding towards us. We’re not sure if this is the ‘yellow car’ but we flag it down anyhow and it stops to pick us up. Songthaews are as common as tuktuks in Thailand especially for longer trips outside the bigger cities. They’re a sort of modified pick-up truck with a roof and two rows of seats at the back which we share with about five other passengers. We talk to a couple of ladies who are off to shop in the town of Bang Phae which they tell us is where the songthaew terminates.

The language communication thing isn’t perfect so we hand our Thai-written note to a nice lady dressed in all-white who passes it around to the other passengers. After much animated conversing and hand-waving, everyone agrees that from Bang Phae we’ll need to catch a bus to Kanchanburi. A grey-haired man next to Mark says that he’s heading for Kan as well so he’ll show us where to catch the bus – lovely people!

Fortunately for me, we stop on the way for petrol and I race for the toilets for a kabumbah – no paper so manage the Thai way with a hose up the bum – cooling but now have wet pants!

Arriving in Bang Phae forty minutes later, the lady in white asks our driver what bus we should catch then moves her fingers to imitate walking and points across the road but the grey-haired man has already beckoned us to follow him – everybody wants to help.

The bus stop is sweltering with no shade at all so we buy water from a nearby shop. Luckily, we only have to wait ten minutes till our bus arrives because we’re about to drop dead from the heat. The bus is big and airy with open windows and little whirring fans attached to the ceiling. Our driver has no teeth and beams a big gummy smile the whole way while the lady conductor is super-bossy, ‘you sit here’ then seeing our red faces, ‘you drink water’ which she grabs from the top of our big pack and shoves it into Mark’s hand – ha, ha, this is fantastic!

The trip only takes an hour or so and before we know it we’re on the outskirts of town. We haven’t been to Kanchanburi for eighteen years when we were here with an Intrepid group. It’s funny to think how much travelling we’ve done since then but we’ve never lost the excitement for travel that we had all those years ago.

At the bus station we catch a songthaew past the War Cemetery to the Sugar Cane I Guesthouse at the southern end of Mae Nam Khwae Road. This is the backpacker area with lots of cheap guesthouses clustered along the river and we’re happy to see plenty of cafés, restaurants, bars and little massage places. Yes, this will do us nicely for a couple of days.

We’re also happy with the Sugar Cane Guesthouse which consists of cute wooden bungalows as well as an open-sided thatched restaurant perched high above the river, which is, of course, the famous River Kwai – more about that later.

But the real reason we chose Sugar Cane is because they also have raft-houses! This is something we’ve always wanted to do and Kanchanburi has them in force! We book in for only $24/night which gives us our own bathroom and a large bedroom lined with woven bamboo. And besides this we have our own balcony looking upriver with other raft-houses further along the bank.

We have a quick lunch in the restaurant overlooking the river then head up to Mae Nam Khwae Road to check out our surroundings. Of course, our first priority is to have a massage – a foot one for Mark and a very oily full-body for me.

Now we need a siesta after being on the go all day then shower ready for a busy night out – lots of bar hopping is definitely on the agenda. The view of the river in this early part of the evening is especially lovely with mirror calm water and lights twinkling from nearby raft-houses and other guesthouses and restaurants in both directions along the riverbank.

It’s dark by the time we make it up to Mae Nam Khwae Road which is even busier at night. We decide to check out a few other guesthouses as we want to move tomorrow – had the raft-house experience and want to find somewhere with a pool. We like the look of Pong Phan Guesthouse which is right on the river, has a cute reception/dining area and a pretty swimming pool – and it’s cheap at only $20 a night.

Now it’s time to find a way of getting to the night market. This was the first real Thai night market we’d ever experienced all those years ago and couldn’t believe what was being cooked up – crickets, bugs, things that looked suspiciously like rats and other weird creatures that I can’t remember.

We hail down a motor-cycle tuktuk (they all seem to be lady drivers tonight) and soon pull up at the night market – this is unrecognizable to the original! Bloody awful, full of crappy Asian tourist shit so we leave. We jump on the back of a couple of motor bikes to head straight back to Mae Nam Khwae Road and are soon set up in a laid-back restaurant run by a French guy.

After a quick dinner we hang out for a while in a noisy bar nearby. This is packed with aging Pommie men and aging Thai women (prostitutes?) plastered in makeup and dressed to the nines trying to pick up.

Most of these men live here and a sign on the wall announces the next monthly meeting of The Old Farts of Kanchanburi who apparently raise money for local children. We hope so anyway!

The next place has a band and unfortunately I’m a bit pissed and get up to dance and sing to Country Roads. Mark (who is also pissed) says it’s time for me to go home now!

Monday 19th October, 2015

Kanchanburi

Wake at seven, miraculously without a hangover, but feeling down. I dreamt about Sharon – poor darling will die any day now. I can’t stop thinking about her and Gary and Loretta but mainly Sharon – too terrible to imagine what it must be like for her.

While Mark showers, I sit on our verandah and see two huge monitor lizards only a few feet away in the water – gives me the fright of my life – hideous things! I have a cold shower as well as it’s already hot and sticky.

Breakfast is healthy fruit, muesli and yoghurt for Mark and yummy bacon and eggs for me washed down with fresh orange and watermelon juice. The river looks lovely again this morning as longtails whizz by on the still waters.

In the alleyway leading up to the main road we stop at a tiny travel agent to ask the owner, Dai, if he knows about an orphanage called Moo Baan Dek as we have children’s clothes and money to donate there. I’d asked the mums at Elkie’s playgroup if they had any clothes to give away and have almost a whole pack full. The money is from our Maggie May Children’s Fund named after Mark’s Mum that we and our mates all put in.

Dai says, ‘yes, I know’ and can take us there this morning. We also ask about Erawan Falls so it’s decided that for $50, he’ll take us to the orphanage, Erawan Falls then elephant riding – sounds perfect!

Can’t wait to get going so we race back to pack and check out of the Sugar Cane before checking in to Pong Phan. We’re back to meet Dai in fifteen minutes and soon set off in a big black air-conditioned van headed for the Sai Yoke District. Dai talks for the whole hour to Moo Baan Dek.

He’s originally from Ko Phan Ang, a beautiful island off the southern coast where we spent a few days in 2008. When he was young he’d met a crazy Aussie guy there who taught him to speak English so now he can make a living working with tourists. He tells us that he came here to Kanchanburi ten years ago and is now married with a six-month-old baby girl.

Apparently there’s a problem with ‘grandmother’. He says, ‘she like her very much. She won’t give her back’. Dai and his wife have to drive to see her at grandma’s village an hour away very two days! I say, ‘can’t you just take your baby back?’ but he laughs and says, ‘You have to know her!’. Bloody hell!

Then he tells us that Thai people don’t wear seatbelts or bike helmets like we do in our country. He says ‘you want to be safe’ but ‘Thai people don’t give a shit’ – ha ha, he’s so funny.

So, while Dai is happily chatting away, we’ve left Kanchanburi far behind and passed through fertile countryside, lush and green as well as the odd small village. Eventually we turn off the main road onto a dirt track that winds for a few hundred metres through a thick forest area till we come across the first of Moo Baan Dek’s many wooden buildings.

We’re greeted by the lady principal who shows us inside. We give her the bags of clothes then a $200AUD donation. She tells us that Moo Baan Dek is also called the Children’s Village School because it’s not strictly an orphanage. Children from poor or broken families are also taken in to give them an education and a life they wouldn’t have otherwise.

The school’s philosophy is spot on – the belief is that ‘by setting a natural environment as well as love kindness, freedom and encouragement, the children’s emotional stress and behavioral problems can be cured’.

A sweet young woman called Briell shows us around the grounds. Besides the school buildings, there are the accommodation huts – large gabled wooden houses that look perfect in this rustic setting within the forest. Each house has ten children and one adult, plus ‘more than two dogs and three cats’, she laughs.

Everything here is ‘eco-friendly’ and all run by the children themselves – solar panels to run all their electricity (no shortage of sun in Thailand), a small plant that recycles plastic bottles into oil and another plant that recycles paper/cardboard into paper that they can sell. And with all this self-sufficiency, it’s not surprising that they have a farm as well – vegetables gardens, cows, chickens, ducks, pigs, fish and frogs – yes, frogs!

But there’s even more to this place. A lovely river runs through the property and on the banks we find guesthouses for visitors and a huge open-sided stadium – all paid for by a Chinese benefactor.

Back near the office, Briell shows us where the kids learn weaving, batik and woodwork, extra skills they may need after graduation. Lots of them are also helped to start up their own businesses. We think this place could teach a lot to our stupid school system at home.

Some of the kids are sitting in an open-air room so we wander over for a chat. Even though they’re not with their families, for one reason or another, they at least have this amazing place to call home – just a handful of the lucky ones, I suppose.

With a warm farewell from Briell and the principal, we set off for Erawan Falls. After a half hour drive through the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we pull into the carpark attached to the Falls. Because this is a popular tourist attraction, we find lots of shops and restaurants as well as toilets and changing rooms. We haven’t eaten since breakfast so we find a big, dark place to order chicken and rice.

Now, with the high temperature and humidity, we can’t wait to get into the water. We both change into our swimmers and head off for the long walk to the Falls. Besides having a gammy knee, I hate walking with a passion so I’m very happy to catch a ride with one of the little buggies that ferry lazy tourists from the carpark to Erawan’s bottom tier.

There are seven tiers in all, the last one a steep two kilometre walk uphill, so I know we won’t be climbing to the top. The first pond is pretty but it’s the second one that’s the most popular with its deep pool and waterfall. Limestone in the water gives it a pretty milky aqua colour.

We reach level three along a series of trails and footbridges but decide to head back to the second pool. Getting into the water is no easy feat as we scramble across rocks and tree branches. But the water is lovely, cooling us down on this hot, clammy day.

The only problem is that the water is teeming with flesh-eating fish. We’ve experienced the fish-spas in Bangkok and Bali where you dangle your feet into a tank filled with these little monsters who nibble away at your dead skin. It felt more like a tickle than anything else but I’m seriously being eaten here and because of the colour of the water we can’t see the size of the fish – creepy! Get me out of here!!

Mark isn’t bothered, although the fish probably can’t munch their way through his hairy legs. He swims over to the waterfall and climbs up onto the rock behind. Meanwhile I’m trying to drag myself up out of the water – even harder getting out than getting in. When Mark swims back he helps haul a very plump Thai lady up onto the rocks. God love her!

Back in the cart we zip through the park back to Dai waiting in our van. Now we’re off to the Elephant Camp. This is another enjoyable drive through lush greenery and limestone hills to the camp set on the banks of a river with jungle all around – this country is gorgeous!

We pay 600 Baht each before being introduced to Phiphi, the mahout, and Thu his elephant. We climb onto Thu’s back from a tall wooden platform then Phiphi leads us down to the river. Thu wades out to the deep section and dunks us right under a few times – lots of squealing (Mark) and laughing. Back in the shallows, we jump off while Thu lies on his side. We all give him a good scrub then Mark and I have a water fight with Phiphi. Back on the platform we reward him (Thu) with a bunch of bananas. Set off now for the one-hour drive back to Kanchanburi after a brilliant day.

I decide to look for a hairdresser to have my hair washed and blow-dried. Would never do this at home but it’s cheap as chips here so why not? The first one says, ‘already have customer’, the next one ‘no hab shampoo’ (what?!) and the next one is shut – hilarious! We wander up the street and back again to find the shut one is now open and I have a cold-water wash and blow dry for only $5AUD.

We decide to eat at ‘home’ (Pong Phan) tonight so I order a tuna salad while Mark has a spicy Thai salad all downed with soda water and beer – very cheap at only $10 for the lot. Back up in the street we both have a one-hour massage – full-body oil for Mark and foot for me.

Settling into Pong Phan again, we hang out at one of the outside tables to drink beer and Bacardi then order fish, chips and spring rolls. In bed at 9.30pm – me to read and Mark to watch an episode of Game of Thrones.

Tuesday 20th October, 2015

Kanchanburi

It’s already hot by the time we wake at seven and the sky is a clear, brilliant blue once again. Mark has another healthy muesli and yoghurt breakfast while I have another unhealthy bacon and eggs. We eat at a table under a shady tree surrounded by flowering orchids – this place is very pretty.

Up in the street we hire a motorbike for the day and drive straight to Kanchanburi’s most famous attraction – the bridge over the Kwai River.  The building of the bridge and the terrible story behind it became legendary all over the world in David Lean’s 1957 movie Bridge On The River Kwai which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. I remember watching it for the first time with Mum and Dad when I was young and then, how many times since, I don’t know.

The original bridge was part of the Death Railway planned by the Japanese to run from Thailand, across into Burma and then on to India which they intended to attack as well. The Japanese forced over 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 prisoners of war to build the railway. It was the prisoners themselves (mainly British and Australian) who called it The Death Railway because of the thousands of men who died building it – 12,000 POW’s and many more thousands of Asians. It’s said that one life was lost for each sleeper laid in the track!

The only section that still remains is from Nam Tok to Kanchanburi and we actually did that trip in 1997. I remember finding it hard to imagine the horrors that had happened on that beautiful line of track.

After parking the bike, we set off to walk across the bridge. Side-platforms run next to the track to make it easier and we stop to take lots of photos of the river which is mirror calm this morning. On the opposite bank we find a lovely wat with a tall white standing buddha at the front with people chanting inside. Back to the city side of the bridge, we buy clothes for the dollies from a small market then check out the Train Museum.

Our next stop is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where over seven thousand POWs are buried – just some of the men who died building the railway. Another two thousand are buried at the Chungkai Cemetery where we plan to visit later. The cemetery is immaculate with manicured grass and small flowering shrubs planted between each plaque. We spend ages reading the names and ages of the young men who died here – I look for one who was twenty-eight when he died – the same age as when our darling Angie passed away. I find two next to each other, both died on the 9th July, 1943.

From here we drive south along the riverbank to the Jeath War Museum. We visited this place in 1997 and found it very moving but it doesn’t look the same and we leave disappointed. But happily, we find a busy wat right next door. People are praying, bringing baskets of goodies for the monks, more carrying bunches of lotus flowers and others burning oils. Monks are everywhere and I’m in heaven.

Across the street is a vast open-sided place where more monks are sitting in rows on a raised platform built all along one side while others sit on mats on the floor. Ladies dressed in all-white are also sitting in groups on the floor and everyone is eating from metal bowls. It looks like the ladies have supplied all the food.

And, as usual everywhere in Thailand, it has a friendly, welcoming feel with golden buddha statues, flowers and pictures of the Buddha’s life. We’d like to stay longer but we’ve more to see before lunch.

Taking off across the bridge, we ride out past the Chungkai Cemetery then through green countryside till we reach Wat Tham Khao Pun, better known as The Cave Temple. We pay 30baht each entry to a young monk then climb the rock-hewn stairs to the entrance. Now we descend into the cave which opens to a vast chamber. Here a fat sitting buddha is surrounded by golden buddhas in all shapes and sizes. I buy flowers from an old lady who also hands me three burning incense sticks. I present them to buddha as an offering for Angie – she’d probably laugh.

More caves deeper down and more buddha statues on the way. We reach a very narrow section and my knee is hurting so it’s a good excuse to head back to the top. Outside we buy ice blocks from a little cart then head back to the guesthouse.

First, we book a songthaew to visit the tiger sanctuary at 1.30pm then have lunch at Pong Phan – prawn curry for Mark and fish and chips for me. We still have time for a swim in the pool before getting ready for the tigers.

The songthaew picks us up directly on time. We’re sharing with a pretty Dutch girl and a freaky Aussie guy covered in tats, piercings, and wearing Doc Martens and a kilt made from camouflage material. Later we pick up a weird version of Mr. Bean before reaching the Tiger Temple in the Soi Yok District about an hour later.

I feel like a total loser writing about this place but at the time we weren’t to know that a year later in 2016, the Thailand Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) would shut the whole place down! They relocated one hundred and thirty-seven tigers, and tragically, the frozen bodies of forty cubs. I’m not sure what the cubs’ story is all about but I think it had something to do with the Chinese and their traditional medicines. Those idiots will pay anything for their fucked-up ‘remedies’ – like poaching rhinos for their horns as we experienced in Zambia last year!

And the worst bit is that this place did start out with the right intentions. It was founded in 1994 as a forest temple and sanctuary for wild animals, mostly Indochinese tigers, but obviously something went horribly wrong in the meantime.

But, oblivious to all this, we pay 600Baht each to get in then I’m given a polo shirt to wear over my singlet top – it’s a temple after all, but very hypocritical when you know the truth about the place – which we didn’t – have I said that enough yet?

Our driver leads us into the grounds and down into a canyon where twelve beautiful tigers are lounging around. Other tourists are here as well so we need to wait our turn. Each person has two Thai handlers, one to hold our hand and the other to take photos as we pose with the tigers. Amazing to see them so close.

Later we pay an extra 1000Baht to watch them play. About twenty of us are herded into a cage down near the water while a couple of handlers dangle toys on the end of long poles so the tigers will jump from rocks into the water to try and grab them. They frolic like kittens, chasing each other and wrestling – cute if they weren’t so big.

After the tigers are fastened to leads, we have turns walking with one of the biggest ones up out of the canyon. Don’t feel nervous but probably should – this is Thailand after all and safety probably isn’t too high on the agenda. Mark is next and he looks very biblical with a long line following behind him – like he’s leading his people to a better world – ha ha.

Back in the songthaew with the Dutch girl and the weirdo, we’re soon back at Pong Phan for a rest in the coolness of our room. Mark reads then I head off for a back massage.

Dinner again in the garden at Pong Phan.

Wednesday 21st October, 2015

Kanchanburi  to Bangkok

With another hot day dawning, we have a quick swim before packing and catching a motorbike tuktuk to the bus station. We’re heading back to Bangkok this morning but miss the 7am bus by seconds. We buy tickets for the next one which leaves in twenty minutes anyway. This gives us time for breakfast at a street stall selling pork soup and pancakes – there’s always an up side.

At 7.20am on the dot we set off with two seats each on the shady side of the bus. We both dose for an hour before reaching Bangkok’s Southern Bus Station about ten o’clock. Too hot to work out which bus to catch to Banglamphu so we grab a taxi to take us straight to Soi Rambutri.

Even though we’ve stayed in this alleyway more times than we can count, we want to try a different guesthouse. We like the look of Mango Lagoon and for only 700Baht it’s a great deal. On the first floor, our window looks out onto a thick garden filled with banana trees and palms – a little oasis right in the middle of Bangkok! Our room is clean, with a sitting area next to the window, cable television, air-con and our own bathroom. Another plus is the open-air restaurant downstairs that faces the soi and close to the temple entrance.

After checking in we walk through the temple grounds where Mark buys a bag of fresh pineapple from a little man pushing a fruit cart. And we can’t pass by without visiting the wat to watch worshippers praying and burning the inevitable incense and oil. Other people are sitting in front of a long line of orange robed monks but not sure what that’s all about – beautiful as always though.

Back out the other side of the temple grounds, we cross over to Khao San Road where Mark tries on his clothes at Aziz Tailors. All fit perfectly so he orders four pairs of shorts for $120AUD. Now I shop while Mark relaxes with a coffee in an open-fronted café. I buy two fabric bags for Lauren then clothes for the dollies at the busy Banglamphu Market a couple of streets away.

Now it’s time for lunch at Mango Lagoon – tuna salad and soda water – then up to the room for a rest and a snuggle. At five o’clock we’re back down in the restaurant for a couple of lemon sodas. While Mark works on his computer I relax with a half-hour foot massage at Pink. This has to be one of the funniest experiences I’ve had for ages.

I’m sitting next to a young Pommie woman having her hair bleached. Her friend is a pretty Nigerian girl who’s currently out front spruiking for customers. ‘She’s bored waiting for me so she’s gone to work. Nigerians are the best sales people in the world’, laughs her English friend. And she’s right – people are pouring in for massages whether they want one or not – hilarious!

On dark we wander around the busy alleyways stopping for a pizza at the wonderful old Sawadee then margaritas and beers at Madam Masur. This place has stacks of atmosphere including a fat rat in the ladies loo.

From Soi Rambutri we head down towards the river and come across Good Story, a trendy Thai bar with a guy playing a guitar and singing with a deep gravelly voice. Wonderfully moody here with dark green walls and ceiling – Bangkok has got it all!

Back to the Soi, we set up in an open-air bar that’s been here since our first trip eighteen years ago. Set on a corner it’s perfect people-watching – can never get bored around here. Ready for bed about 9.30pm, we can’t get anyone to take our money so we do a runner!

Thursday 22nd October, 2015

Bangkok

Today we plan to visit Ko Kret, an island in the Chao Praya River, that we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet. Mark wakes at seven but I snore till 8.30am. Breakfast is at a stall opposite Baan Sabaii. We chat to an Italian man who’s lived in Thailand for the last seven years. His home is a shack in the jungle just outside of Kanchanburi – no electricity or water.

From here we walk out to the main road where a local man tells us we need to catch the number 33 bus. Once we’re on the bus a young couple explains to the conductress where we want to go so she’ll be able to tell us when to get off – everyone is helpful!

An hour later we’re dropped at a busy intersection and clueless on how to get to the river or even where it is. But we soon flag down a couple of motorbike riders who drive us a couple of kilometres to the water and we’re soon crossing to Ko Kret on a small river ferry.

Ko Kret is unique for its inhabitants of Mon people. The Mon tribes dominated central Thailand between the 6th and 10th centuries and retain their distinct identity through their version of Buddhism and, particularly at Ko Kret, their pottery. This is why Ko Kret is often referred to as the Pottery Village.

Also unique to Ko Kret is that there aren’t any roads, only a system of concrete paths and wooden walkways which connect the temples, pottery villages, riverside hamlets and restaurants. One path runs around the entire island, about a two-hour walk, but my knee won’t be up for that. Instead we wander through the temples then on to the pottery village where we buy a teapot, an elephant statue and tiny crochery animals for the dollies from a old smiling couple.

At another place Mark buys a beautiful traditional teacup for work from another sweet couple who have their little grandson translate for them, ‘you come back. Bring your family’.

Near the pier, we order pork noodle soup then cross back to the mainland on another little ferry. We find motorbike taxis to take us to the main road then catch a taxi back to Banglamphu – not much quicker than the bus as we’re caught up in the never-ending traffic jams.

It’s a relief to return to our quiet little haven and we head straight for Pink. I have a manicure, a pedicure and a leg massage while a horrible German woman complains about everything. She won’t even rest her head on the pillow – ‘not hygienic’ she whinges – until they give her a free leg massage. I can just imagine what the girls are saying about the old bag in Thai – ha ha.

Meanwhile Mark is having a lovely time on the verandah having a foot massage while drinking a ‘big one’ Chang. All this pampering is for our night out on the town. We’ve seen photos of Bangkok’s amazing rooftop bars and tonight we’re headed for The Vertigo Bar. We dress up for the experience but then can’t find a taxi driver to take us there. They all say it’s too far and the traffic is terrible but one guy says he can take us to the closer Baiyoke Tower which is the highest rooftop bar in Bangkok anyway.

So off we go to the Pratunam area where the eighty-four floored Baiyoke Tower is an unmissable towering landmark. The hotel was built in 1998 and is unfortunately showing signs of age. We pay $24 each to take the lift to the roof which apparently also get us one drink. Rip-off!! The bar area is fucking horrible with bogans walking around in shorts and thongs! So much for our posh night out!

But our hostess is lovely and the view is worth it! Floor length windows give us sweeping bird’s eye views of Bangkok alive with coloured lights and ribbons of headlights on the freeways snaking all over the city. After cocktails – a strawberry daiquiri for me and a margarita for Mark – we hightail it back in a tuktuk to Soi Rambutri.

Up to our room to change out of our posh clothes and back into t-shirts and thongs – heaven. We find a cute bar near the temple gate and love, love, love being back here.

Friday 23rd October, 2015

Bangkok to Singapore

Our last day. Up at seven for breakfast at the Green Café in Thanon Rambutrithen then wander around to Khao San Road but nothing is open yet. Back in our room we start to pack then head out later for a massage at a new place we hadn’t noticed earlier. It’s set in a lovely garden with massage beds curtained off from one another with long sheer drapes. The massages are the best we’ve had so far but are still the same cheap price as everywhere else. Sweet Thai music is playing and we’re given warm tea and water afterwards.

Later in Khao San Road we buy presents for home then I have a one-hour facial for $8 – making the most of being pampered while I can.

At 3.45pm we’re off in a taxi for the airport arriving about five o’clock. After checking in our bags, we pay $40AUD each to hang out in the CIP Lounge. Free food and drinks – it’s good value if you think how much we’d spend on dinner and drinks in the terminal anyway. Mark makes the most of it with five drinks and we both stuff ourselves. We also steal muffins, sandwiches and drinks to eat on the plane so we really must come out in front.

We take off on time on Scoot Airlines for the two-hour flight to Singapore. It’s now that we realise we should have booked our bags straight through to Sydney so I talk to the male air steward – who’s wearing foundation and lipstick, by the way – who says he’ll bring us up the front of the plane before we land so we can race to Transit Lounge E.

Off the plane we make a run for it but Transit E is miles away so we decide to leave the airport then come back in – this is crazy! Luckily immigration is quick and our bags come out early as well. From Baggage Pickup we race two floors up for check-in to find other people still lined up. No worries!

With a Temazapam each, the eight-hour flight is quick and comfy with a spare seat between us.

Sydney

Land on time in Sydney then train home to our three darling girls.

 

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Ethiopia and Dubai 2016

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Thursday 13th October, 2016

Newcastle to Sydney

It’s Elkie’s 3rd birthday! ‘I a big girl. I fwee” she says. Little darling! Lauren is at work and Mark takes Abi to school so I’ve got our baby all to myself. She’s already had two different birthday parties and cakes and she’ll have another cake with Daddy tonight. I still have last minute packing to do and it’s raining anyway, so we’ll just have a nice morning at home.

Chris Mostyn brings Issy over for a play with a present from Kylie so Elkie’s birthday is still happening. Mark is home by 2.30pm and Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station for the 3.17pm train to Sydney. I sleep for an hour so it seems no time till we pull into Central. Another train to St James and a walk across Hyde Park to Jillian’s.

Michael is here but isn’t staying tonight as he has to drive to Newcastle early in the morning to take his mum to an appointment. He’ll come with us for dinner then drive home to Turramurra to save time tomorrow.

So now the four of us head down to the East Sydney for a pub meal in the little dining room then Michael drops us at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. Jillian’s friend, Gita, is singing tonight. She’s vivacious and tiny with a great stage presence and a great voice. A few other women sing as well – all talented!

A taxi home then Mark and Jillian have more wine – I’ve run out of Bacardi, thank God!

Friday 14th October, 2016

Sydney to Dubai

Our flight doesn’t leave till late this afternoon so we all sleep in. Mark works on his computer after breakfast while Jillian and I talk for hours. At eleven o’clock we all walk up to the Art Gallery for lunch. We sit outside in the courtyard to make the most of the gorgeous day.

At 12.30 Mark and I catch the airport train to the international terminal feeling super excited about this trip. Ethiopia will definitely be an adventure – our favourite way to travel!

Booking in our bags with Qantas is quick and the new Smart Gates at Immigration means we’re through in no time. The only problem is with Mark’s new insulin pump which the staff won’t touch in case it’s a bomb – Mark the suicide bomber!! Ha ha. He has to be scanned for explosives but we’ve both been through that process before.

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Pass the time checking out watches and other things we can’t afford and don’t want anyway then seek out the massage chairs – our new favourite airport thing! Mark calls Lauren and the dollies while I Viber Jackie and Den in Thailand. Then after stocking up on magazines and junk food, we board on time for our 4.50pm take off.

As we’ve managed many times before, we have three seats for the long flight which will make a heap of difference. I try to sleep but not feeling tired for some reason. Mark watches five episodes of Game of Thrones so he’s very happy. He’ll finish the season on the flight back home in a few weeks time.

Saturday 15th October, 2016

Dubai to Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa to Harar

After fourteen hours we land at midnight at Dubai’s International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. For a long time now, Dubai has been a major airline hub but Mark and I have never been here before. Most people don’t seem to like it but we want to check it out so we’ve planned to have two nights here on our way home. Now, though, we only have a four-hour layover before flying out for Ethiopia at a quarter to five this morning.

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The terminal is huuuge and very impressive – all shiny with glass and mirrors plus full sized palm trees amongst white fluted columns. It’s not surprising given Dubai’s over-the-top reputation. Arab women in black burqas and men in long white robes and ghutras make for exciting people watching – we are in the Persian Gulf after all!

Through immigration we catch the fast-train to baggage pickup then a shuttle bus to Terminal 1 which is the original old airport still used by the crappy airlines – what???!! Actually, Ethiopian Airlines has a good reputation. Really, truly, it does!

And yes, Terminal 1 is a far cry from the very glamorous Terminal 2 – but heaps more interesting! I think it has a lot to do with the passengers as well – no wealthy package tourists on their way to Europe here. Instead it’s packed with African people having a great time pushing trolleys towering with luggage as well as more burqas and ‘towel heads’ as Dad used to say – ha ha.

After booking in our packs we eat McDonalds then try to grab a quick nap on the floor in the boarding area. Again we have three seats on the plane and we both manage to sleep for an hour. I pass the rest of the time doing a sudoku while Mark reads the Lonely Planet then breakfast is served. Ethiopian Airlines is surprisingly good – a stylish new plane, gorgeous hostesses and nice food.

Even though it’s still dark outside it’s exciting to be flying over Oman and Yemen. The sun rises as we cross the waters of the Gulf of Aden before reaching the Horn of Africa made up of Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and, of course, Ethiopia. Now we look down on the spectacular Great Rift Valley that stretches six thousand kilometres from Lebanon to Mozambique then later the wild terrain of Ethiopia’s Ahmar Mountains as we head towards the capital, Addis Ababa.

Now just a bit of interesting guide book info. Besides being the capital, Addis (see, a local already) is also the country’s biggest city of almost four million people and is the third highest capital city in the world. Addis’ other claim to fame is that it’s often called the ‘African Capital’ because of its historical and political significance for the whole continent.

Landing at Bole International Airport we pay $52 each for our visas then look out for a guy called Omara who should be holding up an ETT sign. I’d arranged this over the net through emails to a woman called Sunight at a local travel agency. The story is that because we’re on a tight schedule and because we plan to visit far flung places in different directions we really need to fly in between towns. Booking online the flights added up to around $1,600AUD although booking within Ethiopia itself is about half the price. The problem is that we don’t have days up our sleeves to wait around in case any of the flights are booked out.

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But that was until I lucked on a traveller’s blog about booking domestic flights through ETT. The deal is that if our international flights in and out of Ethiopia are with Ethiopian Airlines, we can get the domestic flights for only $700AUD – saving $900AUD!! We’ll see if it actually happens.

A good start is that Omara is actually here waiting outside in the warm sunshine. We follow him to a car with an Asian man but we can’t leave until someone called Juan turns up. He doesn’t so Omara sends us off with another guy who is actually a tour guide which means we get the sight seeing rundown on the way into the city.

It appears that monuments are very popular here – in every public square or within the many large roundabouts. A lot of the bigger buildings were built by the Italians who invaded Ethiopia in 1936 but were then booted out by the British and the Ethiopian army in 1941. Actually, Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only country in Africa to defeat an invading European power and so escaping colonization. The best thing about this is that the culture remains strong.

We pass museums, Orthodox cathedrals and busy markets as well as featureless modern office blocks. There seems to be a lot of construction going on and our driver proudly tells us that the economy is booming!

In twenty minutes we pull up at a tall building which houses the ETT office on the fifth floor according to emails from Sunight who also said that she’d meet us here at 9 o’clock. Well it’s now ten o’clock and the office is locked! But this is Africa and we don’t stress but call her mobile number – ‘Hello, you already there?’ (why is she surprised?). ‘I come in five minutes!’

I sit on the stairs to wait and a young woman walking past says ‘cold’ then asks one of the security guards to give me a piece of cardboard to sit on – kind. Soon a cheery lady called Maria turns up and lets us in. Sunight soon arrives and orders us small cups of cinnamon tea to drink while she sorts out the paperwork and Mark withdraws cash from an ATM downstairs. The local currency is the Ethiopian birr with an exchange rate of $1AUD to16.33 Birr.

Amazingly all is soon sorted and we leave with our super cheap air tickets. Downstairs we’re about to withdraw more money but decide to wait till we get to the airport – big mistake!

Out on the street we easily find a taxi. The driver is friendly but has serious road rage abusing anyone in his path so we reach Bole International in record time for our one o’clock flight to Dire Dawa.

Checking in we’re told that the flight has been put back an hour so we head back outside which looks much more appealing than sitting inside the terminal. Here in a grassy garden area are lots of small stalls and shops surrounded by tables and chairs shaded from the hot sun by bright yellow umbrellas. An eager young waiter rushes towards us to guide us to one of ‘his’ tables.

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Mark orders his first Ethiopian coffee – super strong – while I order another cinnamon tea. We share an excellent egg roll then spend a lovely hour watching the locals especially the cutest of babies. Back inside we find there aren’t any ATMs in the whole airport – wtf??? We do have a bit of money left after paying the travel agent so we’ll just have to hope we can get some cash in Dire Dawa.

To pass the time, we lie around on lounges in the basic but appealing waiting area filled with souvenir stalls and a simple restaurant. Mark then says, ‘look down there’ – a ‘massage’ sign! I make a bee-line for it and we spend a pampered hour having neck massages and foot massages all for only $23!

By now the plane has been delayed for another two hours and won’t leave till 4.40pm! So more reading and dosing till four o’clock when we decide we’d better head for the gate. Oh shit, there’s no-one around and the staff say ‘you be fast’ as we race towards Gate 17 and across the tarmac. ‘Where you be?’ ask the frazzled stewardess as we make it to the plane just as they’re about to pull up the stairs. Ha ha – don’t you hate those arseholes who hold up your flight!!!

Of course, we think it’s hilarious – did we sleep through the announcements or could we just not understand what they were saying? Anyway, we’re on our way with only one hour flying time to reach Dire Dawa. From there we’ll make our way to the ancient, fortified, desert city of Harar which apparently is only an hour’s drive. We don’t know how we’ll there which is exciting and, because of the delays, it’ll be dark when we do arrive which is even more exciting.

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Flying west, the area around Addis Ababa is cultivated and green until we cross over the deep arid canyons of the Great Rift Valley. For some reason, it’s a rocky ride and we scream to a halt on the tarmac! The airport is tiny so we have our bags in no time and drag them along a garden-lined path to an area outside the terminal busy with touts in waiting tuktuks and taxis. We agree to go with an old man to the bus station. His car is falling to bit with rust, broken seats and missing door handles – we couldn’t be happier!

Speeding into town we really like Dire Dawa. Past the now-closed railway station since the line from Addis to Djibouti ceased running a few years ago, our driver finds an ATM and we have money at last!! Horse-drawn carts, roadside stalls and tree-lined streets look pretty in the fading light.

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We soon drive into the grandly named bus station which is just a few rundown vans milling around. Mark bargains one of the drivers down to a 400Birr fare at which time he drags everyone else out of the van and tells us to get in! Oh no, we don’t want to do this but no-one seems to mind and we’re shoved in anyway with other touts yelling at our driver for money.

One says he saw us first so he wants a share of the fare then someone else says he put our bags on the roof so he wants his share as well. They won’t give in so our driver finally chucks money at them then off we roar with a few hangers on squashed into the front seat. It’s all pretty funny and just part of the Africa experience.

By now it’s almost dark and we really enjoy the first half hour of the journey as we cross the mountainous roads in the soft evening light. In some spots the road is lined with mud brick homes while cows, camels, goats and donkeys wander past. But for the most part, the countryside is just empty space with long vistas of mountains and deep valleys.

Later we’re held up by trucks and more trucks that slow to a snail’s pace on the steep uphill climbs and we can see headlights far into the distance crawling up even steeper climbs. Small towns here and there are jam packed with people coming and going to busy markets especially the hectic chat market in the village of Adequay. Again, we’re slowed down as we inch our way through the chaos. This means that our one-hour trip becomes two hours – who’d have thought??!!

Finally, we reach the outskirts of Harar – the newer, uninteresting bit that sprung up at the beginning of the 19th century – so not so ‘new’ – and then through into the ancient walled city of Jugal. This UNESCO World Heritage site was once a prosperous, independent kingdom and now lives a strangely insular existence – why we’ve come all this way!

Six gates penetrate the thick stone wall that runs for almost four kilometers around the Old City. Five are16th-century originals with one car-friendly Harar Gate.

Through the crumbling city wall we stop in a dark, potholed yard surrounded by a few dimly lit stalls and tuktuks jammed in amongst old vans. Touts rush out of the darkness and our bags are spirited off the roof and onto the shoulders of the luckiest ones. We say ‘Zabedas’ and off they race with us scurrying to keep up.

Down dark, narrow alleyways we just hope they know where they’re taking us. The guy in the lead finally knocks at a tin gate and a young girl lets us into the guesthouse courtyard. There isn’t a sign outside so we’d have no chance of finding it on our own.

The young girl, whose name is Effor, takes us to an old crone dressed in a white sarong thing and veil – this is Zabeda, the grandma. ‘You have room?’ we ask – blank stares and no answer. She can’t understand a word of English but, wtf, can’t she guess what we mean?

She eyes us suspiciously then yells something to Effor who rushes out the gate. Effor soon returns with a young woman called Rashida who we find out later comes from a nearby guesthouse. She can speak English and Zabeda wants to use her as an interpreter. The whole issue is that Zabeda won’t let us stay unless we’re married!

Finally, Zabeda is grudgingly satisfied except to sternly warn us not to take photos of her – I deliberately do behind her back – ha ha. Now we follow her from the courtyard to two tall carved doors which are ceremoniously opened to reveal a sort of Aladdin’s Cave.

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Leaving our shoes at the door, we enter the nedeba or living room. The niched walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and multicolored glassware. I’ve read that the series of platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at some ancient battle and each level is covered in reclining pillows. Where you sit depends on who you are. The male head of the family sits on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound then the lesser beings, like us, sit on the lower platforms

The horrible Zabeda points to a tiny steep staircase which apparently leads up to our room. We’re to find out later that this is the honeymoon chamber – the newly weds would hold up here for a week, never leaving. Food would be passed in through a latticed sliding screen that is still here but then what about wee wees and poopedys?

But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that tonight. We’ve been shown the outside toilet which looks okay but will still be a mission to descend the ladder-like stairs in the middle of the night. Anyway, we’re definitely not going to bed just yet – too much to explore and we want to find somewhere to eat and, of course, to have a drink.

Outside, we set off along what seems to be the main alleyway and where we soon see Shoa Gate sitting magical at the top of the hill. Passing people on the way, it’s nice to see that everyone is friendly but we do stick out like two western people in a remote Islamic town. The women are eye-catching in colourful head scarves worn over long patterned dresses or skirts while most of the men dress in red, purple, and black.

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Through Shoa Gate we find the remnants of the daily market with a few locals still squatting on the ground hoping to sell the last of their vegetables. Looking back at the gate, a full moon sheds a soft pale light over the scene which now looks almost biblical – like something out of one of those old Easter movies. I can’t believe we’re in this dream-like place only two days after leaving home – this is another world, this bizarre, fairy-tale town.

Back down the hill through the winding alleyways we walk past the entrance to Zabedas and make sure we memorise where it is. From the Lonely Planet, we have the name of a bar and ask a couple of teenage boys for directions. We follow one through more alleyways then pop out on the main street but still within the old walls. A few prostitutes are pacing around – poor girls – then our new friend points to a doorway across the road. No sign again so we’re glad we’d asked. It looks dingy and very local – just what we’d hoped for!

Near the doorway a pretty young woman is actually cooking chips so we order a bag then head inside for a drink. The interior is almost pitch black until our eyes become accustomed to the dark. Now we can see that there is a bare cement floor with the cement walls painted a bright blue. Both men and women are in here drinking with a few couples hiding in corners or in the adjacent small room. We assume they’re having illicit affairs but I don’t know if that can happen in such a full-on Muslim town.

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A friendly man points to a fridge and we nod for beers and cokes. Arabic music is playing to add to the wonderful atmosphere and we share our hot chips. And how nice is it to finally relax??

After forty hours traveling, we can finally sit down and not get on any sort of transport for another thirty-six hours – luxury! We only have a couple of drinks though – just too tired so we walk back home in the dark and collapse into bed.

During the night, I do have to descend the dreaded stairs to use the loo, we’re kept awake for hours by mosque music and the call to prayer blares at us from all directions. Love it here!

Sunday 16th October, 2016

Harar

Jolted awake at six o’clock by the muezzins once again calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Oh well, time for an early morning ‘snuggle’ before showers then breakfast in the sun-filled courtyard.

The house looks even better in the daylight. As a traditional Harari home, Zabedas looks inward – the rooms surround the inner courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other the tall ornately carved wooden doors that lead into the main building. With thick stone walls and small windows, these traditional homes stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day.

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While we wait for our food, little Effu is washing the ground with a bucket of water and a dirty rag while Zabeda is being her usual grumpy self. That’s until she and another old woman beckon me into a dark room opposite. All smiles and gushy, they have woven baskets for sale. I say okay I’ll buy one for 100Birrr. I don’t want it but say I do anyway just to make them happy.

The warm, sunny day is a nice surprise. We were expecting much cooler weather but without a cloud in the sky, we’ll hopefully miss out on the expected rain as well. Breakfast is a flat crispy pancake thing served on a metal plate and covered with a colourful woven lid plus cinnamon tea for me and thick black coffee for Mark – he’ll be bouncing off the walls!

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Now we set off in search of Rewdas Guesthouse as we’ve had enough of Zabeda. Because we know there won’t be a sign, we ask directions and find Rewdas only a stones’ throw away. Our knock on the gate is answered by Rashida, the tall beauty who we met at Zabedas last night. Luckily, they have a room and when we ask about a guide for the day, she calls ‘Ayisha!!’.

Out comes a teenage girl still half asleep. She has a gorgeous smile and speaks English amazingly well. We plan to meet her back here in an hour after we check out the market at Shoa Gate.

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The laneway outside is lined with colourful façades of turquoise, pink, mauve. We pass groups of pretty women sitting on the ground selling cabbages, potatoes and tiny tomatoes then we stop to watch a guy cooking scrambled eggs in an over-sized pan. Women walk past carrying all sorts of things on their heads and we see lots of cute babies.

Through Shoa Gate the market is just starting with all sorts of fruits and vegetables for sale – chillis, limes, red onions, carrots, beans, leeks and heaps more. Fresh bread rolls are piled high in cane baskets – hope to have one later. With all the women wearing bright head scarves, it’s a colourful scene. Apparently, it’s at its busiest after three o’clock so we’ll be back later.

Meeting Ayisha again at Rewdas, we all walk around to Zabedas to check out. ‘Grandma not happy’ Ayisha says – ha ha. Zabeda is so pissed off that she now is charging us 500 Birr for our room (100 Birr extra) and she wants 200 Birr for the basket that I promised to buy. Keep it – I wave it away. Ayisha keeps saying ‘she not happy’ and I say ‘that’s why we’re leaving. She’s never happy!’

Such a relief to move into Rewdas where Ayisha introduces us to a friendly middle-aged woman with a beautiful face. I wonder if she’s Rashida’s mother. The guesthouse is much the same set-up but this time our room is just off the nebeda which looks exactly like the exotic living room at Zabedas – the same split-level seating and the same plates and baskets on the wall.

Our room is much bigger here plus we have our own sunny bathroom. I open the window the let in the air as well as the sounds from the laneway just outside – nice.

Now we agree to pay Ayisha 500 Birr to show us around the old city. She seems very happy although it doesn’t seem much – $32 probably goes a long way here, though. Our first stop is a weaving shop to show us the traditional styles that are unique to Harar. I guess we’re supposed to buy something but, no, the family is squatting on the floor and all seem more interested in eating than making a sale.

As we follow Ayisha through the spaghetti-like maze of lanes and alleyways, she points to a small, simple building that looks like any other around here. ‘Mosque’ she says. Actually, Harar is said to be Islam’s fourth holiest city on account of its eighty-two mosques – it’s the largest concentration of mosques in the world! But only a few are very impressive with most of them like this little non-descript place.

Up into the main street, we come across Oromo women walking in from the surrounding rural areas leading donkeys laden with firewood and sugar-cane. These they’ll sell then spend their earnings in the Jugal markets on food and household goods to take back home.

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Every shop or house is painted in the brightest colours and even the nearby Cathedral is a brilliant blue. Because she’s a Muslim, Ayisha can’t go inside. We’re very lucky to have come across a ceremony happening right at this moment. About a hundred young women wrapped in white robes are sitting on the ground shaded by spreading trees just outside the main chapel listening to prayers given by a line of men also dressed all in white.

In the centre of the square outside the cathedral is a weird looking monument called Feres Megala. It honours the seven hundred Harari Martyrs who were slaughtered here in the 1887 Battle of Chelenko when Moslem forces lost to the Christians led by Menelik II.  He later became Emperor of Ethiopia – more guide book info.

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Close by we stop to watch groups of old men playing board games while cheeky little boys play up for the camera. In fact, all morning we’ve been the attraction for lots of excited kids calling out ‘faranjo! faranjo!’ (‘foreigner’) or sometimes just ‘you! you!’.

 

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Now Ayisha leads us down another cobbled laneway to Mekina Girgir – a narrow, atmospheric street packed with tailors’ workshops where old men bend over sewing machines. Apparently only the males do the sewing in Ethiopia. From here we zigzag among more pastel-colored alleyways with me having to stop now and again to click my knee back into place – been having trouble with this for months now. Ayisha says ‘I bring old woman’ to fix it – I can’t wait for this!

But first she wants to take us to Ras Tafari’s House. Along more sun-filled alleyways we enter an arched gateway into a pretty garden in front of the lovely old home which is now a museum. We love the architecture which looks very Eastern. It was built by an Indian trader which explains the Ganesh carving above the door. But it’s actually closed just now so we’ll come back later.

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Setting off along the main laneway we stop to talk to men who look very red-eyed and spaced out – a common sight here in Harar. They’re chewing chat! Chat is king here and an obvious social problem – like alcohol or ice at home. Young men and even some women are high on the natural stimulant that comes from the fresh foul-tasting leaves. Whole markets are dedicated to selling it!

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So now we check out Arthur Rimbauld’s House which is also closed but will be open later this afternoon. Around here are more Oromo women and their donkeys looking like something straight out of a Charlton Heston movie. These people are seriously dirt poor!

At the camel-meat market Ayisha asks if we’d like to hand-feed the falcons which are a common sight in Ethiopia. For 10 birr (.50 cents), one of the camel-meat vendors will let us feed scraps to the hawks, who are patiently waiting for any opportunity. Some glare down from rooftops while others circle creepily above us. Their eyesight and accuracy is pretty amazing – just missing our heads by a few centimeters as they swoop down towards the small chunk of camel meat we hold in our hands. Ayisha goes first then Mark. I’m last and I don’t know if my meat is too fatty or I’m just too scary but they won’t take it – fun anyway!

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From here Ayisha leads us to a church which is also closed but we hear music from a neighbouring building and find a group of children dancing and singing with an older girl playing a simple piano type of instrument.

Nearby is the Tomb of Sheikh Abadir, the patron saint of Harar.  Non-Muslims are usually refused entry but there’s no-one around so we step into this very important pilgrimage site. For something so special it’s very simple but then again most Muslim places of worship usually are. The actual tomb is a tall rounded blob painted a vivid blue and white and still attracts worshippers hoping for solutions to their daily struggles. If their prayers are answered they return with gifts of rugs, incense or even the very expensive sandalwood. Nice.

Next Ayisha wants to show us ‘the view. Very beautiful’. We’re not convinced but we cram into a bajaj (tuktuk) anyway and head off out of the old city and up a long steep road to a half-built mosque that’s bellowing out what sounds like a constant call-to-prayer. Our driver and his companion (there’s always at least one extra person squashed in the front) get out as well to admire the view. What?? It’s pathetic but Ayisha seems very proud so we try to look impressed for her sake and pretend to take lots of photos. On the way back into Jugal we stop to inspect two of the other ancient gates then jump out to take pictures of the busy Harar Gate. Here a topless old woman is sitting on the ground completely stoned on chat, poor lady.

We’re dropped just outside the gate at a restaurant from the Lonely Planet called Fresh – we have visions of ‘freshly’ squeezed fruit juices and salads. No such luck but the open-air terrace is a great people-watching spot and the menu looks good anyway. Mark orders goat (blah!) while I devour the best hamburger I’ve had for a long time.

But Ayisha’s meal is the most interesting – it’s Ethiopia’s national dish called wat – a hot spicy stew accompanied by injera. Haven’t heard of wat but I saw Joanna Lumley eating injera on her ‘Nile’ documentary (more about that later). It’s a large spongy pancake made of teff, flour and water. We’ll definitely try it but I must say it looks pretty disgusting. Joanna said ‘Mmmmmm…’ so for that reason alone I’ll give it a go.

But the best part of Fresh is seeing a guy dressed in a traditional red costume tear past on a very short white horse. Apparently he’s the groom who’s followed by the bride and the wedding party in speeding tuktuks. Close behind are the guests, also in speeding tuktuks, all blowing their horns and trailing bunches of balloons – it’s the funniest thing we’ve seen for ages!

Back now in another bajaj to Ras Tafari’s House. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s most famous emperor, spent his honeymoon here so the house bears his pre-coronation name. The garden now is filled with men and women busily dying leather for the covers of the Koran. A guide takes us through each room explaining all the weaponry, coins, jewellery, household tools, old manuscripts, cultural dress and finally portraits of Haile Selassie and his family – phew!

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All very interesting but by this stage we’re feeling overly hot and tired – jet lag catching up, I think. We tell Ayisha that we’ll head back to Rewda’s for a rest then continue with the tour in a couple of hours. We crash out on the bed stripping down to our undies – I take photos of Mark – ha ha.

At 4.30pm we’re showered and changed. Ayisha returns after visiting a family of ‘man dead today. He very old so he dead’. A bit hard not to laugh. She’s still concerned about my knee so she brings ‘old woman’ who will apparently fix it. And she’s seriously old – 102 we’re told. Not too sure about this as the Ethiopian calendar is different to our Gregorian calendar and has thirteen months instead of twelve. This means that Ethiopian year is almost eight years behind ours – good in a way because it means that I’m only 56 and Mark is only 41! But then does that mean that the old woman is 110?

Anyway, she roughly inspects my leg from all angles then rubs oil behind my knee and gives me a gouging massage – fuuuck!! The finale is spitting saliva on either side of my knee cap then she sticks her head back through the curtain as she’s leaving to spit twice more onto my chest – wtf? I give her 50 Birr.

I ask Ayisha if she can take me to a beauty salon as I want to have my hair washed. I always do this in Asia – a wash and a blow-dry for next to nothing and saves me doing it myself. The hairdresser in the tiny rough-walled salon is brutal and with a cold water wash it’s not really a pleasant experience. Add to that the fastest blow-dry in history and I don’t come out looking too special.

But now we sit in Rewdas courtyard with a group of pretty little ones. One older girl teases Ayisha by trying to rip off her veil – can’t understand what they’re saying but we can tell it’s all in good fun.

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By now it’s late afternoon so we want to revisit Shoa Gate market which should be in full swing. It’s teeming with women busily gossiping, bartering, buying grain, choosing colourful fabrics or stocking up on aromatic spices. They’re all dressed in extravagant colours, although the flowing styles differ according to each ethnic group – Oromo, Argobba, Somali or Adares. They squat beside neat piles of onions, tomatoes, green peppers and bananas, some cooking samosas on small stoves while the sweet smell of incense wafts about us adding to the mood.

 

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Just on nightfall as we pass people chewing chat. Ayisha asks ‘you want to try?’ – yes, definitely! She takes us to her aunty’s place which is another old Harari house with the same setup as the guesthouses but not as dramatic – we like it better in a way because it’s the real thing.

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Ayisha’s sister is here and the old grandma who owns the house is sitting cheerfully stoned on the floor smoking chat in a sort of shesha thing. We both have turns before chewing the foul-tasting chat leaves as well – bitter! We love this experience and something we’d never have done if we hadn’t met Ayisha – of course, I want to give her more money.

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But now it’s time to seek out the hyena-feeding man. We find a bajaj to take us outside the walls to experience Harar’s strangest custom. We bump our way along rutted tracks to pull into a very dark space where a few people are watching a lone man sitting beside two large baskets of meat scraps and bones. Apparently, the custom started when villagers began feeding oatmeal to the hyenas so they wouldn’t bother to attack their cattle.

This actual Hyena Man is the sixth generation of a Harari family to have done this every night. He calls them individually – yes they all have names – in a strange throaty sound. Soon we see a movement in the darkness and here is the first to materialise. Then two more of the creepy dog-like creatures slink out of the darkness. He holds out a piece of meat on the end of a stick for each one to inch forward and snatch it in their deadly jaws.

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Ayisha is the first to have a turn then Mark and I are next – not scared at all – much too excited to think about it. Probably should be – they are wild animals after all!

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On a real high now, we take the bajaj to the Hirut Restaurant on the other side of town. From what I’d read, I expected something a bit upmarket but instead we turn onto a dimly lit dirt street to find the Hirut also dimly lit and full of local character. We can sit in the little garden alcoves or in the cozy area inside. We choose the dark interior decorated with weathered wooden furniture and traditional woven baskets. This is our first real chance to try traditional Ethiopian food so we ask Ayisha to order for us.

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On a large flat tray we’re given a selection of wat (a spicy vegetables stew), tibs (meat with vegetables) and kwanta firfir (dried strips of beef rubbed in chilli) all eaten with the spongy injera bread. The custom is to tear off a piece of injera with our fingers then mop up the rest of the food with it. Mark of course loves it all!

Bajaj home to bed at 9.30pm – an amazing day and all thanks to Ayisha.

Monday 17th October, 2016

Harar to Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa to Gondar

Up at 6.30am to shower and pack. We’re leaving Harar this morning – we’ll catch an early bus to Dire Dawa where we’ve booked a 10 o’clock flight back to Addis Ababa then an afternoon flight from Addis to Gondar. Again the day is warm and sunny – so lucky with the weather so far!

Rashida cooks us the same breakfast that we had at Zabeda’s yesterday. We want Ayisha to come with us to the bus station but she rushes out the door saying, ‘I be back soon’. We can’t wait for her, though, so Rashida leads us through the hectic alleyway up to Shoa Gate then across the busy road to the where the vans and buses are congregating in the usual chaotic mess.

I feel sad that we can’t say goodbye to Ayisha and can’t understand why she isn’t here to wave us off. But she suddenly appears, out of breath and with a ‘present’ for us. The dear little one had spent part of the money we’d promised her to buy us a woven basket – ‘I love you’ she says. She didn’t have to do this and I feel a bit teary-eyed. We give her 500 Birr plus another 100 Birr for Rashida.

Meanwhile time is marching on and we’re still not moving. It’s already eight o’clock and even if the trip is the promised one hour we’ll only arrive in Dire Dawa an hour before our ten o’clock takeoff – and then we’ll have to get to the airport from the bus station as well! Oh shit!

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As usual the driver won’t leave till all the seats are full so Mark is trying to tell him that we’ll pay for the extra fares – let’s just get the fuck out of here! And finally we’re off!

Leaving this magical old town, the drive to Dire Dawa is much easier this morning with none of the dreaded trucks to slow us down – they must only travel at night. We pass through the chat market village and see lots of women walking along the roadside leading donkeys carrying all sorts of provisions. Through more villages we love the buzz of the local markets then we’re crossing the barren mountains before descending into Dire Dawa.

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Even though the trip has been quick we’re still running seriously late. To make things worse, the bus station is a nightmare with crazy people throwing themselves onto the top of the van before we even stop. Mark almost ends up in a tug-of-war with our bags but manages to stuff them into a bajaj while we both jump in afterward.

But one tout won’t let our driver leave until he pays him for ‘helping’, then as we roar off two more lunatics leap onto the side and won’t get off till we give them something as well. They yell at our driver threatening him that they’ll follow us if we don’t pay them. He eventually stops and chucks them a few coins – these guys are either seriously poor or seriously arse-holes!

With all the drama, it’s 9.15 by the time we reach the airport but because it’s so small we can still check in our bags and we fly off into a clear, blue sky at ten o’clock. By 11am we’re back in the same departure area at Addis’s domestic, waiting for our flight to Gondar – very deja vous! The flight is supposed to leave at 2.20pm but this time we have no expectations – better that way.

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To pass the time we have another head and neck massage from the same lovely girls from two days ago. I splurge on a hand and foot massage as well while Mark sets himself up with his Kindle at the café.

Later we both attempt to order lunch – I say ‘attempt’ because we can’t seem to get anyone to even hand us a menu because all the waitresses are standing around chatting and laughing. Then, when we finally do order, the food takes forever – again lots of ladies in the kitchen but weirdly no-one seems to be cooking! Our soup finally arrives but the vegetables are still raw – bloody hopeless!

All morning we’ve experienced constant blackouts and now as we’re ready to go through the x-ray machine for our surprisingly ‘on time’ plane, another blackout knocks out the whole system. Two flights are leaving at the same time so a big crowd is waiting at the doors. We meet four very short and very cute Columbian ladies who are also on their way to Gondar so we hope to see them there.

We also talk to three handsome diplomats from England who’ve obviously been in Ethiopia for a while. Shaking his head at all the locals trying to cram themselves into the doorway, one of them says ‘they see a nice orderly line and they just want to destroy it!’ – ha ha!

It’s amazing to watch people doing everything they can to sneak into the x-ray room – the machines aren’t working anyway, you idiots! One nutcase is especially manic and when the power does finally come back on he’s first through. Later, at the departure lounge we find him waiting to board like everyone else.

But back at the x-ray machine, we just wait till the end with the diplomats and the Columbian ladies. Now one of the diplomats is stopped taking a parcel through even though it has official stamps all over it. They want him to go back downstairs and sort it out with someone else – good luck with that mate!

More confusion once we board, an hour and a half late by now. A smelly, old man in long white robes is sitting in my seat. When I show him my boarding pass he gives me a disgusted look and shoos me away with his hand then waves to another seat – like, ‘you sit there!’ – what??

A young, local guy in front of us looks at the old fart’s boarding pass and points to a seat across the aisle where, not surprisingly, another old fart has already planted his fat arse. Soon the young guy sorts it out and we’re ready to go. The one-hour flight is smooth in a clear, blue sky and the scenery is very green compared to the barren west.

I must say that all this greenery and cultivation isn’t something we expected. I think we all still remember Ethiopia’s terrible famine of 1983-1985 when over four hundred thousand people died and imagine the whole country to be a dustbowl.

Gondar itself is nestled in the lush foothills of the Simien Mountains and was once Ethiopia’s rich and powerful capital during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the seventeenth century. It was Fasilida who built the first of five castle-like palaces which has given Gondar its nick-name of the ‘Camelot of Africa’. But we’ll learn more about that later because that’s why we’ve come here!

But back to the plane – as we all stand in the aisle waiting for the front doors to be opened, the first smelly old fart is just behind me. He now shoves me backwards where I bang my head on the overhead locker so he and his ugly wife can push past us all to get to the front of the plane – bizarre how these people are so desperate to get on and off anything that moves! Maybe it’s a cultural thing but this guy is a serious arse-wipe!

Outside the touts are here in force and we agree to go with a guy in a van until we see the arse-wipe and his wife already parked in the back seat – goodbye! We notice a bajaj driver and much prefer to ride in a tuktuk anyway. But, of course, the van driver goes nuts and is yelling at the bajaj driver for stealing his fare – let’s get out of here!

The airport is in a rural area with lots to see on the thirty minute drive into town especially children herding sheep, goats and cattle alongside the road. We putput through a few small villages where the only type of transport seems to be horses pulling carts – this is amazing! On the outskirts of Gondar we pass Fasilada’s Bath which is definitely on our to-do list.

We haven’t booked accommodation as usual but we’ve picked a cheap place out of the Lonely Planet. It’s on the busy main street but I hate it on sight. We ask our driver to take us to Lodge Fasil which is more expensive but totally worth it – in a quiet dirt laneway right behind the castle wall with a leafy entrance and an outdoor café. Market stalls, people leading donkeys and kids playing ball games are just outside the tall gates. We do notice a guy guarding the gate carrying a large gun (rifle?) – good security, we suppose.

Inside we find lovely gardens and spreading trees with lots of little sitting areas. The very helpful Daniel books us into our comfortable room with a wide verandah, our own bathroom and a view over the garden. At US$60 it’s a lot more than we wanted to pay so maybe we’ll look for a cheaper place tomorrow.

We ask him about wifi but he tells us that the government has shut down the internet over the whole country because of political unrest. This means no Facebook so we’ll just have to ring Lauren – heaps more expensive, though.

We knew there’d been some sort of unrest before we came. A few weeks ago it was reported that a stampede killed dozens of people at a religious festival after police threw tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The violence was triggered when some of them crossed their wrists above their heads, which is a symbol of the anti-government movement. But witnesses began posting the truth on social media that there were actually hundreds who died and that the police started the whole thing in the first place so the government decided to cut the internet altogether.

After that happened, on the 8th October a state of emergency was declared in Gondar as well, so schools and businesses were shut down but most were re-opened just this week. And Gondar has the added problem of territorial disputes that have been simmering for a long time between the elites here in the Amhara region and those in neighbouring Tigray.

This is from an internet article. Tigrayans have been accused by opponents of wielding undue influence over Ethiopia’s government and security agencies since 1991. In recent months, these and other grievances have led to protests, strikes, vandalism and killings in Gondar, causing a drastic reduction in foreign visitors to the tourism-dependent city and an exodus of fearful Tigrayans.

Gondar’s predicament is a microcosm of Ethiopia’s: a toxic brew of uneven development, polarized debate amid a virtual media vacuum, contested history, ethnic tensions, a fragmented opposition and an authoritarian government. Ethiopia’s rulers show few signs of being able to solve the morass of problems, which many believe the government itself caused.

Anyway, at least the problems are internal and not directed at westerners for a change. But now it’s time for a drink so we set up in Lodge Fasil’s thatched café. Mark orders Dashen beer which is brewed right here in Gondar and I order Ambo, Ethiopia’s equivalent of soda water.

On dark, we dress for our night out at Four Sisters Restaurant. This has received great reviews on Tripadvisor so, like last night in Harar, we’re surprised to be bumping along a rutted track in the pitch dark – are we lost? But no, here is Four Sisters, a little glowing oasis in the darkness.

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As they do here every night, the staff and the four sisters – Tena, Helen and Senait and Eden Atenafu – greet us at the door wearing long white embroidered dresses – the traditional costume of Gondar. We can’t sit in the main restaurant building because it’s already full but we like the outdoor garden area better anyway. I wear one of the coloured ponchos that they provide for everyone to get in the mood.

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No diet coke so I’ll have to go for the full-on sugary shit to drink with my smuggled-in Bacardi. If I have to drink this full strength coke for the whole trip I’ll go home a big fatty boomba! We also have to try Tej, a honey wine still made here by Mama Seraw – the family matriarch. The waiter shows us how to swig it backwards from a small glass flask. Mark goes first and gags! That’s it for me then!

The food, though, makes up for it – a spicy soup for Mark and a tuna salad for me. Meanwhile the dancing has been going off inside – women clap and jump up and down, Masaii-like, and make that funny high-pitched trilling sound called ululation. The style of dance in this Amhara region is called “Eskesta” which has weird jerky movements of the neck and shoulders. At one stage the dancers crowd around a scared looking European woman who’s celebrating her birthday.

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Time for bed now after a busy day. Someone calls us a tuktuk and off we fly through the dark laneways back to Fasil Lodge where the guy with the gun lets us in.

We’re staying here in Gondar tomorrow with lots of things on our list including markets, churches and especially the magical castles. Loving this country!

Tuesday 18th October, 2016

Gondar

Up for breakfast at seven in the hotel’s dining room. It looks out onto the garden and the food is good. Now we set off for the castles.

The laneway is busy already with locals going about their daily life – people leading donkeys, ladies toting babies on their backs, other ladies with colourful shopping bags, a few bajajs and a guy carrying a chicken. Small hole-in-the-wall shops sell buns and doughy things we don’t recognize as well as coffee cooked over coals with tables made of crates set up on the footpath.

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We follow the tall stone walls of the Royal Enclosure which holds the so-called Ethiopian Camelot, Gondar Castle. But the ‘Castle’ isn’t just a single castle – it’s the name given to the entire complex of five castles and palaces built by a succession of kings beginning in the early 17th century.

Inside we pay a small entrance fee then pick up a guide so we’ll understand what we’re looking at. The grounds aren’t perfectly manicured but covered in tall grasses with beaten paths winding between the castles. Lots of tall trees create a ‘foresty’ atmosphere – I think I’m getting the ‘Camelot’ thing.

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Our smiley guide is knowledgeable and explains the history – Gondar became Ethiopia’s capital during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas (1632-1667), who built the first of the palaces here. The next four kings did the same but none are as big or elaborate as the first.

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Walking through the banqueting halls and looking down from the balconies, it’s easy to imagine what it was like during the time of emperors and warlords and courtiers and kings. We spend two peaceful hours visiting all the castles then decide to look for the market.

Outside we find a bajaj driver to take us to Kidame Market – the biggest and oldest in Gondar. The streets are alive with people, goats, sheep and donkeys and becoming more congested the closer we get.

But, what the hell, it looks like a rubbish dump with piles of rubble everywhere. Something serious has happened here and we later find out that a fire completely destroyed all four hundred and twenty stalls that made up the market about six weeks ago. People are convinced that the fire was caused by arson and the government is behind it all!

So now these poor people are trying to rebuild their stalls with rows of ugly concrete shops – at least they won’t burn down but it will never be the same. We leave this tragic place to hightail it back to our hotel.

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Some very interesting sights on the way – the outskirts are remnants of the original marketplace with women selling piles of chilies and spices on the ground and men herd goats and sheep along side streets all heading towards the saleyards.

But now we just want to make our way back to our little laneway where we hope to find a cheaper place to stay for tonight. We ask our bajaj driver to stop at Lodge du Chateau     where the price will be a lot cheaper and the photos on Tripadvisor look very appealing. But it’s cramped and unkept so we decide to stay where we are at Lodge Fasil.

I’m very happy to be back at this lovely guesthouse for two reasons – it’s the best place in Gondar and I also need to kabumbah, fast!!

We tell Daniel that we’ll be staying again tonight which makes him very happy even though he’s not the owner. I ask him about the wall clock that reads 6pm because I’ve noticed this in a few other places – are they all broken? He tells us that, like the weird calendar, Ethiopia also has different time cycles. The 12-hour clock cycles don’t begin at midnight and noon, but are offset six hours. So Ethiopians refer to midnight (or noon) as 6 o’clock. Very confusing!

Now we set off in search of an ATM as we need money for today and for the next few days as well. We walk down the path to the main street where we easily find a bank. Mark manages to withdraw some cash while I wait outside on the main street.

Our plan now is to visit some of the other major sights of Gondar but we’re not sure where to go first. While checking out the Lonely Planet, a young local boy approaches us. He introduces himself as Yusf – we love him immediately!

He asks ‘where you want to go?’, then announces ‘I take you!’. Okay, we’ll just follow you, you little cutie! He hails a bajaj and the three of us manage to squeeze inside. Under Yusf’s instructions, we speed off to the church of Debre Birhan Selassie. On the northern side of town we climb up cobbled streets to find it set behind a tall stone wall with circular turrets at both ends. The church, also called the ‘Light of the Trinity’, is a rectangular structure set on raised ground.

Because Yusf is a Moslem he says he’ll wait for us in the tuktuk. Just inside the gate we run into the lovely Columbian ladies we met at Addis airport yesterday. Their hotel was booked by a travel agent and I don’t think they’re very happy with it – too far out of town and probably expensive – never trust a travel agent!

The church itself is relatively small and fairly plain except for a columned stone verandah on three sides. Here women dressed in all-white are praying while an old priest in a black kufi cap and wrapped in thick yellow robes reads from an ancient book. – another scripture moment!

If the outside of the church is simple, the interior makes up for it. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with painted images. The beamed ceiling has the faces of over a hundred winged cherubs representing the omnipresence of God while the walls show biblical scenes and saints.

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And besides the paintings, above the two doors are icons of the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion. But, wait there’s more! At one end of the chapel, two curtain-covered doors lead to the Holy of Holies where the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant is locked away! Bloody hell!

All very impressive but being atheists we don’t hang around long especially after I’m chased by the priest for wearing my shoes inside – settle, mate!

Back out on the road we’re met by a beaming Yusf. ‘You like it?’, he asks, bursting with pride. ‘Now we go to Fasilada’s Bath’.

This is another of Gondar’s ancient attractions and, like the Castle, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we’re the only ones here – this political unrest has really fucked up Gondar’s tourist industry. Yusf leads us through a grassy field to the huge two-storeyed deep pool with a battlemented palace sitting smack in the centre. For health reasons it’s empty most of the time, like now, but can be filled via a canal from the river.

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This happens on January 19th every year when the pool is flooded for the re-enactment of Timket which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Yusf borrows a picture from the tuktuk driver to show us how it looks during the celebration. Amazing! If only we could have been here!

We all crawl around the walls that are continually being strangled by the roots of trees from the surrounding forest – just like Ta Phrom near Angkor Wat. We walk around the palace but can’t get inside for some reason.

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No worries because we’re starving and Yusf wants to take us to ‘the best restaurant in Gondar’. We’re a bit dubious because when a local wants to take you to a restaurant it’s usually a boring modern place that they think is what westerners like – not this time! It sits in a laneway not far from our guesthouse with a hand-written sign – ‘Master Chef Kitchen’ – and made from bamboo and woven grass walls.

And considering the amount of people here, the food truly must be good. Mark orders a local dish while I have meat with spaghetti. Yusf orders injera with a fish dish and asks for the left-overs to be wrapped up so he can take them home to his Mum.

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He asks if we’d visit his home this afternoon to meet his family. Oh yes, we’d love to! His house is nearby so he races off excitedly to tell his Mum and give her the food.

Apparently she’s very happy to have guests and we arrange to visit her at two o’clock. Now Yusf wants to take us to a village on the outskirts of Gondar. The village women weave and make pottery to sell to tourists and we can watch them at work.

All day we’ve seen soldiers carrying big guns around the town and as we leave the city we’re stopped by more soldiers who check us out while the driver has to hand over his papers. No problems and we’re soon at the pottery village.

On the roadside, a wonky hand painted sign reads, WELL COME TO FILASI SINAG VILLAGE and a couple of rough shacks sell gourds and hand-made shawls plus the woven baskets that we’d seen everywhere in Harar.

At first we’re greeted by a young woman and her son but in seconds we’re swarmed with little girls all holding up white pottery chickens decorated with coloured dots. We don’t want any of them but try to be nice. They won’t give up though and follow us up through the trees to the village. Yusf nicely tells them to leave us alone but they don’t listen to him. One very pretty girl about thirteen introduces herself as Hannah and is an expert saleswoman. Of course we end up with four of the bloody things. Yusf is very impressed with Hannah and I say ‘maybe she could be your girl friend’.

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We visit a very old round hut with a thatched roof and the inside walls painted in crude designs. A village lady shows us ancient cooking pots and other kitchen implements while the crowd of girls selling the pottery animals wait patiently outside. Back down the track, we’re swarmed again – had enough and can’t wait to escape.

Across the road we visit a centre that’s been set up for local woman to learn pottery-making (something besides the chickens would be good) as well as weaving with wooden looms.

Back in the tuktuk we’re stopped again by soldiers as we reach Gondar. We’re not really worried but we hear later that a young English woman had been mistakedly shot and killed right here a few weeks ago. Then not far from Yusf’s house we pass the shell of a burnt-out coach torched during the unrest in August. So, maybe we shouldn’t be so blasé about this whole political thing?

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Finally back in Gondar, we pull up at the side of a dirt road where we climb over a little fence made from tree branches to scramble down a short slope to land at the front door of Yusf’s house. ‘House’ is rather a grand name for this little shed made of bits and pieces of iron. Inside is very dark – no windows – with an earthen floor partly covered with off-cuts of lino and rattan mats.

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But Yusf is as proud as punch especially when he introduces his Mum and his sister. They’re squatting on the floor wearing striped shawls that cover their heads and coloured dresses underneath. Yusf’s sister is picking out the bad bits from a tray of peanuts that they’ve just roasted. These ones are for us but this is how his Mum looks after her five kids. The dad ran off with another woman years ago so this poor little lady has to do it all on her own.

We find that Yusf is actually eighteen years old although he looks about twelve. He’s the youngest in the family with two sisters and two brothers. The second sister comes to the door to say hello and his brother, Adem, sits with us. The ‘house’ is just one room with a lounge and two chairs jammed together and the ‘kitchen’ at one end. Here a metal kettle is boiling over hot coals so the mum can make us coffee. This is more than humbling especially when Yusf proudly hands her all the money we gave him earlier – about $30. She’s thrilled!

I ask Yusf if his Mum would like the sarong I have with me – she’s thrilled again and wraps it around her head for everyone to admire. I have a similar one in my luggage so I’ll give it to Yusf later.

Hugs all round as we leave then I tell Yusf how lovely he is for giving his Mum all the money he’d made. ‘I don’t need money. Maybe she make me something nice to eat’, he says rubbing his tummy. What a darling!

We make plans to return to our guesthouse now for a rest then see him later for dinner. On the way one of his friends walks along with us. His name is Mickey and he and Mark chat about soccer – his passion. Mark asks him if he plays – ‘yes but our team have no ball. Three weeks. Ball broken.’ Now their training sessions are just running around to keep fit.

Of course, Mark asks where he can buy a ball for his team and in one of the little market stalls near our hotel we find one. Mickey is very excited and wants to take us to his coach’s house tonight so we can see the trophy they won last year. So now the plan is to meet Yusf and Mickey in the laneway at six o’clock.

For the next couple of hours we shower, sleep, read and pack ready for an early start tomorrow. We’d asked Daniel about buses to Gorgora which apparently leave around five o’clock in the morning.

At 6pm, we’re ready and meet the boys just outside the gate. The light is fading and it feels lovely walking around at this time of night – always with the smoke of wood fires hanging in the air as families cook their evening meals. At the coach’s house we follow Mickey and Yusf inside where a display cabinet holds crochery and the prized soccer trophies – under 16s and under 17s. We peer closely to show them how impressed we are.

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After taking photos of the boys posing proudly in front of the trophies, I visit Mickey’s house. It’s a lot flasher than Yusf’s but still very basic with sagging wooden floors. He shows me photos of his four brothers, his grandmothers, his parents and his beloved sister. She was married in May this year which seems to be a big deal. Soon, Mickey’s Mum rushes in from the yard and wants us to stay for coffee – it’s the thing to do here.

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Outside we watch one of the local ladies making injera on an open fire. A lot of neighbours are hanging around – not sure if it’s to watch her or because of us. They’re all friendly with gorgeous white smiles. That’s one thing we’ve noticed – everyone has beautiful teeth – no money for junk food I suppose.

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We watch the injera making for a while then Mark asks if he can have a try. The lady gives him a demonstration – he’s not bad but the crowd thinks it’s hilarious!

Dark by now, we head off with the boys back to Master Chef for dinner. Yusf wants to sit inside this time where it’s a bit ‘posher’. Again, it’s packed with lots of families then after ordering we ask the boys about Facebook. They have a friend called Imeral who works in an internet place and thinks he might be able to help. They give him a call and he turns up in fifteen minutes. He tries all sorts of ways to hack into Facebook but apparently it can only be done with Samsung phones, not our iphones. Nice try anyway and we give him a tip. Imeral’s phone is working so we borrow it to put up a couple of photos onto my Facebook page.

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The food is excellent – I have tuna salad, Mark an Ethiopian meal while Mickey and Yusf both order chicken curry with injera. Now we move next door to what they call a draught place which is a sort of very basic pub. We sit on benches in a dark room painted deep blue and chat with a few local men. They tell us that they come here every night – just like the locals at home. We show them pictures of Lauren and the dollies then have photos taken with all of us. One even gives me his email address. The boys don’t drink at all but Mark has draught beer while I drink my Bacardi and coke – love it here!!

On the way home, we talk to Mickey and Yusf about coming with us for a couple of days. We’ll all think about it overnight and meet them at 3.30am – love those early starts!

Wednesday 19th October, 2016

Gondar to Gorgora

The alarm on Mark’s phone wakes us at 3am so we shower and do the last minute packing before meeting Yusf and Mickey out front. The boys haven’t brought anything with them but without even saying anything, we all seem to have assumed that the four of us will be leaving for Gorgora today. What will happen after that we don’t know!

This very early morning walk through the dark laneways and streets is one of those travel experiences we always love. The moon is full and the air still and calm although Mark thinks he sees lightning on the horizon.

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Outside the bus station is busy with people milling around the gate and a few makeshift stalls selling over-ripe bananas and thorny skinned oranges – looks awful but we do buy a bag of oranges for the bus. Later we’re to wish we’d bought the spotty bananas as well.

At 5.30am the gate is opened and, not surprisingly, the crowd charges through. If the passengers appear frantic the touts are much worse. We can’t find the Gorgora bus and we’re told by a very aggressive tout that it’s not running and we’ll have to buy tickets for his mini-van. He abuses Yusf who is trying to sort things out for us then comes back a few minutes later to abuse him again – poor little Yusf.

We hate the nasty prick but have to swallow our pride when we realise that the Gorgora bus really isn’t happening. So Mark buys tickets for the boys who sit in the front seat next to the driver while he buys four seats for us so we’re not jammed in like sardines which will definitely happen. The van naturally can’t leave until it’s full so we wait for half an hour while the driver bullies anyone he can find to take his van.

Meanwhile the man sitting behind us is wrapped in white robes with a white headscarf and blows his foul breath all over us. And, the poor little lady next to me stinks so it’s going to be an interesting drive.

Outside our driver is becoming more agitated trying to fill the van while other touts lie in wait for customers at the gate and a few fights break out – this isn’t a nice place to be. Finally we have enough passengers and pull out of the bus station just as the sun rises.

For some reason, we stop for fifteen minutes on the edge of town where we see people living in ‘houses’ seriously not much bigger than a dog’s kennel. At seven o’clock we’re on our way and it’s a relief to be out of the city.

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As usual people walk along the edge of the road sheperding cows and sheep while donkeys are laden down with fire-wood. Men carry wooden staffs or crooks depending on the animals they’re herding. The countryside is a green patchwork of cultivated fields growing corn and tef which is the grain used to make the much loved injera. We pass through small villages where people live in houses made from rough tree branches with grass and mud shoved into the cracks.

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As the temperature rises the smell inside the van is reaching rank proportions and Poo Breath is still on board. Somehow we’ve also been invaded by flies and pick up more at every stop. In one village, a lady with a baby strapped to her back squeezes in and the poor little thing has them all over his face.

At first the road had been optimistically good but has now deteriorated into a pot-holed dirt track – is this a road at all? After bouncing around for another hour we’re relieved to see the blue waters of Lake Tana in the distance. We’re excited to reach Gorgora where we’ll spend the night before catching the boat in the morning. That’s the plan anyway.

Sadly, while Gorgora looked a tropical haven from a distance it’s a shit-hole up close. Can this be the place I’d read about? We’re dumped in the main street which is actually the only street – a dusty stretch of road lined with shacks – no cafes, no shops, no nothing – maybe there’s another bit.

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Anyway we ask a young man for directions, then the four of us set off down the road towards the water where we hope to find rooms at the Gorgora Port Hotel. This is described by Lonely Planet as ‘an old, rather than historic, hotel … tired and the epitome of government-hotel neglect’ – in other words, a dump!

But we feel hopeful that things might not be too bad when we reach the gates that lead into the Lake Tana Transport Authority compound which is where we’ll find the hotel. The gates are impressive stone structures flanked by tall trees and clipped hedges. A wide path winds through flowered gardens all shaded by spreading trees with glimpses of the lake close by.

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But finally, here is the hotel – yes, a real dump! Inside is in a similar state of disrepair with grubby walls, filthy windows and cheap spindly furniture. The building itself still has some remnants of a more prosperous past and Mark and I sort of like its seediness but we feel a bit sorry for Mickey and Yusf.

Neither of them has ever been outside their own city of Gondar. Of course, this means that they’ve never stayed in a hotel but this place must be a disappointment – we’ll stay somewhere nice in Bahir Dah to make up for it.

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Reception is an old-fashioned box-like structure with the female receptionist sitting importantly up high behind a glass screen with a hole in the bottom to stick your hand through. She takes her own sweet time taking our details – a taste of things to come – then orders an old man to show us the rooms – he grudgingly drags himself up out of a chair to lead us down a path near the lake for what is supposedly the ‘piece-de-resistance’ – the Family Suite!

It’s a dark bungalow that stinks of mould and is literally falling to pieces – no thanks! He unhappily trudges back up the path to show us rooms in a long building with cracked cement verandahs off musty double rooms. They do have attached bathrooms but, holy shit, it’s the stuff of nightmares – cold, smelly, dark, dank cement cells with cold-water showers and suss looking toilets. Welcome to hell!

But with no other options, we head back to reception to spend another eternity booking in – our room is $7 and the boys’ room is $5 – they should be free! Now we all walk down to the water which is a special experience for Mickey and Yusf as they’ve never seen a lake before! We take lots of photos of them posing on the water’s edge before heading for the port office.

While a young man ambles past with a couple of donkeys, we buy tickets for tomorrow’s boat – $12 each for me and Mark and only $5 each for the boys. We’ve noted that there are two sets of prices in Ethiopia – one for the locals and one for us faranji. But I don’t think anything is going to break the bank.

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The plan is to catch the MV Tananich which is the weekly ferry that runs between Bahir Dar and Gorgora. It makes a few stops en route dropping off and picking up passengers, animals and goods with an overnight stay in the small village of Konzula. I’m super excited about this part of our trip – in fact, I’d organized our whole itinerary around the boat’s timetable. It’s definitely off the tourist trail – a real adventure!

But back on the wharf there’s more posing for photographs before we watch tankwa boats being hand-woven from papyrus the traditional way by three old men – nothing touristy here, mainly because there aren’t any tourists! We’re not even sure if anyone else is staying at the hotel.

It’s eleven o’clock by now so we head for the dining room for brunch. Again the staff members are very unhappy to have customers and the waitress shuffles over to take our order. With no menu, we’re told we can have eggs, injera and bread (stale, of course) – all hideous.

A television is playing in the room off reception and here is the same Turkish movie that we’ve seen in a few different places. Mickey tells us that Ethiopian people love this film so it’s played constantly. He wants to stay and watch it.

But I just want to have a read and a nap in our room because I’m really hating this place. Mark and the boys head up to the village to seek out food for the boat. I knew from travelers’ blogs that we needed to buy provisions before we left Gondar but stupidly I forgot. Hopefully they can find a shop but I don’t hold out much hope. I do have a packet of Scotch Finger biscuits that Graz gave me last week so at least we won’t starve.

Not surprisingly, Mark and the boys return empty handed – fucking nothing to buy! My fault!

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On dark, we meet in the dining room to find four other guests here for dinner. This looks promising until we receive the same bored/slack treatment from our new waitress – it’s like we’re ruining her night! I order spag Bolognese (can’t stomach injera), Mark orders goat tibs (with injera) while the boys order fish curry with, guess what, fucking injera! All disgusting!

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And what’s more disgusting is that I end up with food poisoning – hate people who claim to have food poisoning but I become violently ill so quickly that there can’t be any other explanation.

I spend the night spewing and shitting in our bathroom – the black-hole-of-Calcutta – where the toilet has decided not to work so I need to fill a bucket under the cold shower to pour down the loo to wash away the poopedys and vomit – not a good night!

Thursday 20th October, 2016

Gorgora to Konzula

The day begins with stomach cramps and nausea but the pooing and spewing have stopped for the moment – nothing left! I take an Imodeon anyway then Panadol to help a filthy headache – will be better soon.

Worse still, Mark then discovers that our precious biscuits are being devoured by a million ants so it looks like we’re going to starve as well.

But on the bright side, the boys are super-excited and Yusf has a smile from ear to ear. We all walk down through the gardens to the lake as the first light of day breaks across the water in front of us. Luckily, I’ve had no romantic notions of a luxury ferry because the MV Tananich is anything but. It’s obviously more about transporting cargo than passengers but despite its ugly exterior, it looks sturdy enough.

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The lower deck is loaded up with sacks, mud bricks and reed boats while we find a small, enclosed cabin at the bow. No other passengers so far so Mark piles our packs on top of each other at the end of a bench seat to make me a sort of bed. He covers the hard, wooden bench with one of our blankets and with our bed pillows that we take on all our travels, I’m surprisingly cosy.

A few locals take up seats outside on tall raised platforms on either side of the deck and I hope to hang out there later. Meanwhile Mark and the boys play cards with the crew crouching on sacks on the bottom level. We seem to be the only farangis (foreigners) on board but there still seems to be something of a community feel on the boat. Everyone is friendly including the captain.

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At seven o’clock we set off from Gorgora for our two-day trip across the lake to Bahir Dar. Lake Tana is super special as it’s the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river, and Bahir Dah is where the river begins on the lake’s southern shore. And yes, Joanna Lumley came here on her ‘Nile’ documentary so I’ll be trying to sniff out anywhere she went.

The first few hours pass pleasantly and I’m feeling a lot better although I couldn’t eat even if we did have any food. I share the cabin with a few local ladies who stare at me for a while then smile when I give them a wave from my ‘sick bed’.

Our first stop is Delghi, a small settlement rich in agriculture and fishing, where cattle are loaded on board before we set off again for a few more hours.

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At Ereydbir, we disembark at a small, wooden wharf then follow some of the other passengers up to the village. It’s as basic as all the other towns we passed through yesterday with roughly made homes of coarse tree branches strapped together for walls and rusted corrugated iron roofs. The homes line either side of a hot, dusty street although there isn’t a vehicle in sight. Cows and goats are tied to posts with long ropes so they can chew on a few sad blades of grass while chickens scratch around between the buildings.

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Ladies are doing chores outside their homes and some walk past with mountains of freshly cut grasses on their heads. Others balance big metal bowls filled with wet washing and all seem to have a child in tow. Most have their head covered in a veil or a wrap and all wear long colourful dresses or sarongs

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As soon as we start taking photos we have a large audience of kids and women with babies strapped to their backs. They’re so lovely and don’t ask for anything except to have their photos taken. The girls are shy but the boys play up for the camera and I even get a few hugs from the ladies.

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Meanwhile Mark, Yusf and Mickey have found a ‘restaurant’ which is a miniscule green painted room with an earthen floor and wooden benches. They’re all wolfing down injera – I can’t even stand the smell of it so I take a chair outside to sit in the sun and talk to the ladies. Actually, even saying the word ‘injera’ makes me want to throw up!

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Back on the boat, the cabin is almost full but Mark still manages to make me up a bed. I dose for the next few hours because everyone in unashamedly staring at me. One young girl in the seat directly in front has turned fully around so she can check me out for the rest of the trip!

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All afternoon Mark and the boys play cards again with the crew until we arrive at Konzola about three o’clock. This is where we’re to spend the night and apparently the hotel isn’t the best. Surely it can’t be as horrible as last night.

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Anyway, we trudge up a long stony path past herds of cows to the village which looks almost identical to Ereydbir except that there are a few trucks and rusty cars around. We pass women sifting grains in wide flat cane baskets then laying them out to dry in the sun as well as the usual wandering cows, goats and chickens.

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Here too, are ladies with babies on their backs peeping out of brightly patterned pappose-style wraps while others balance baskets of heavy washing on their heads. Woodsmoke from evening fires hangs in the air as we walk past the tatty row of dwellings – very harsh living conditions here.

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We have no idea where the hotel is supposed to be so we ask more staring locals. With no signage we find it behind a mud hut that has a sports game blaring from an old tv in the room off the street. And, yes, it’s much worse than Gorgora but it’s not a huge surprise and we’re only here for the night anyway. Our room is a cell with a corrugated-metal door, filthy walls and a filthy tiled floor – at least it isn’t dirt – and furnishings consisting of a bed and a grimy plastic chair. Oh, and there’s a cow at the door.

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I head straight for the bed not caring if it’s filthy as well while Mark and the boys hang out outside. Even though they don’t sell water, Mark is actually able to buy a few beers so he’s happy. We’ve decided to dump the last day on the boat and get a bus directly to Bahir Dah – I just want to get there as fast as we can in case I still feel sick tomorrow.

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Mark makes arrangements with the ‘hotel’ owner who tells us that the bus driver will meet us here at 5.45 in the morning. Mark has also found the toilet which is a hole in the ground inside a shack that looks like it’s about to fall over – and it stinks like all hell! Of course, there aren’t any bathrooms at all, just a tap in the yard.

Amazingly we both sleep ok.

Friday 21st October, 2016

Konzula to Bahir Dah

Up at 5.15 am and no need to dress as we both went to bed in our clothes. Mark uses the toilet first then I’m next – I miss the hole and poop on the dirt next to it – oh God, I’m sorry.

Mark wakes Mickey and Yusf who also don’t need to get dressed because they only have one set of clothes. Yusf then wakes the owner so Mark can pay for last night’s drinks. It’s lucky he did because the bus driver doesn’t turn up so the owner walks us to the bus in the dark.

This is sitting in the middle of an empty field and, predictably, is an old rust bucket but we love it. Crawling inside it’s just about full but the four of us manage to get the long back seat. It’s surprisingly a bit chilly so everyone is wrapped up in shawls and head wraps.

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Before long, the bus splutters to life and we’re soon heading out of town. As the sun rises over Lake Tanna, we bounce our way along rutted roads stopping to pick up passengers until soon there’s standing room only. We’ve also acquired crates of chickens to make things even better.

Driving through small villages, we see the same, same dung and wood houses while kids run outside to wave frantically at us. Donkey carts plod on the edge of the road while women struggle past balancing massive bundles of sticks on their heads. At one point we cross a wide brown river then rumble through fields of corn, sunflower and tef.

Despite passing no other traffic at all, it’s still a slow trip as we inch past deep potholes and dodge cows, goats and donkeys. I love watching women drawing water from wells but feel sorry for others working in the fields.

For some reason, maybe the dust, all the windows are kept closed so the body odour is starting to take hold but we must be getting closer to Bahir Dah as the road has turned to tar and we start passing trucks. No point in getting too excited, though, as we now have a flat tyre. Most of the men get out including Mark and the boys while I stay inside to be stared at by the rest of the passengers who don’t smile back this time.

About ten o’clock we reach the outskirts of Bahir Dah. It’s described as a pleasant lake-side town on the edge of Lake Tanna and where we would have arrived later this afternoon if we’d stayed on the boat.

Already it appears to be very different to Harar and Gondar – a laid-back place of wide avenues lined with palm trees and a popular holiday destination for Ethiopian tourists. It’s main attractions are some outlying monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls. Since we’d need to take a boat excursion out onto Lake Tana to reach the monasteries we might give it a miss because we’ve experienced the lake already – been there, done that. But we’ll definitely visit the Blue Nile Falls because, guess what, dear Joanna went there!

Anyway, before we get to enjoy all this loveliness, we experience another mental bus station with more mental touts. After tug of wars with our bags, Mark and the boys shove them into a bajajj with the four of us squeezing in as well. Mark agreed on a fare with the driver but some of the touts are hanging onto the outside and won’t get off even when we take off up the street. They want money for ‘helping’ get our bags off the roof which they didn’t do anyway. It seems that even if they just touch someone’s bag they think they can lay claim to it. The argument gets even nastier until our poor driver finally throws them some money and we’re free at last. Not a great first impression of a place.

From the bus-station we ask to be driven to BB The Annex, a guesthouse I’d seen on Tripadvisor. It seems to be away from the main shopping area and the lake but we have a look anyway. It’s behind a tall vine covered fence in a dusty side street of a residential area. So we’re not too disappointed when we can’t find anyone inside who can speak English and we’re not even sure if it’s still a guesthouse at all.

Back in the bajajj we head for the next choice – the Summerland Hotel out of Lonely Planet. It turns out to be a modernish high rise which we don’t usually like but it’s in the middle of town near the water. Besides that, we think the boys really like it.

Booking in, we’re happy with our rooms – clean with hot water, a television and big windows. It’s a far cry from our accommodation of the last two nights. Mickey and Yusf are very excited – they’ve never stayed in anything like this before.

We all meet in the dining room for a late breakfast/early lunch. The menu is great and we can’t wait to get stuck into decent food for a change. But – why are we surprised? – the clueless waiter tells us that there is no steak, cheese, milk or any fruit! Well, go outside and get some, you idiots!!! Don’t say it but, seriously, what the fuck?

So once again the boys order a fish curry with injera (please don’t let me throw up) while Mark has an omelette with toast and I have a chicken salad with two slices of bread an inch thick. I can’t eat any of it!

Now while Mickey and Yusf go off to find a friend who lives here, Mark and I head back to the room to clean up. After showers, Mark washes our clothes while I search for the tv remote which is nowhere to be found. Down at reception, I ask the guy on the desk who says, ‘I will look for them’. What???

The boys still haven’t come back so Mark and I walk up to the 12th century St. George Church on the next corner. It’s an interesting place busy with Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims, who all wear white. It’s one of the monolithic churches in this Amhara region, this one carved from a volcanic tuff. We’ll see many more even spectacular monolithic churches when we get to Lalibela in a few days time.

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From the church, we wander past market stalls lining the track down to the water. Here we find bench seats built in tiers under spreading trees, all facing the lake. Apparently, this is a popular spot for local families, teenagers and courting couples who come to sit on the shore of Lake Tanna. The benches are all taken as well as the rickety old chairs lined up behind them.

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Following the water’s edge, we pass more market stalls and even see the MV Tananich ferry docked and already emptied of its cargo. Further on we find a few interesting restaurants built in a sort of elevated circle. Mark orders a beer while I make friends with a tiny girl and her mum sitting next to us.

While we’re here a guy approaches us about trips to the Blue Nile Falls where we plan to go tomorrow. We may as well book now and get it organized while we can – easy! We’ll be leaving at two o’clock from a pick-up point nearby.

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From here, we set off in search of the Kuriftu Resort & Spa which we’d noticed on the way in on the bus. It looks very ‘tropical island’ with lots of stone, thatched rooftops and palm trees. Inside we have lunch in the big dining room overlooking the lake then ask the price of rooms – too expensive but we decide to bring Mickey and Yusf back here for dinner tonight.

Now we head back to our room as Mark is feeling a bit off and wants to lie down for a while. We now have our remote and the television is reporting the latest ISAL atrocities as well as the upcoming US election – both fucked!.

Mickey and Yusf are here by now so, while Mark sleeps, the rest of us catch a bajaj outside to visit the beginning of the Blue Nile as it leaves Lake Tanna. From here it will hook up with the White Nile, which itself started its journey in the mountains of Rwanda, near Khartoum in Sudan.

So only a few kilometres through town, we come to the spot where the famous river flows out of the lake. This is predictably called the Blue Nile Bridge, and is underwhelming to say the least. No photos are allowed from the bridge for security reasons – don’t know what that could be about.

On dusk we all walk to the Kuriftu Resort where we have dinner in the posh dining room. It’s an atmospheric space with rough stone walls and a soaring ceiling lined with bamboo. The tables are covered in white cloths and we have linen serviettes and lots of cutlery which I don’t know what to do with let alone Mickey and Yusf.

The boys order injera and curries because that’s all they know really. We thought they might want to try something different but they’re happy and that’s all that matters.

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From here we walk back towards our hotel then find a traditional bar/nightclub in the backstreet behind. Here we sit in the dark while local dancers and singers perform. It’s the second time we’ve experienced this strange long-established way of singing called Ululation since the Three Sisters in Gondar. This is a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound resembling a howl with a trilling quality commonly used by women to give praises at weddings and other celebrations.

Meanwhile, the dancers specialise in energetic shoulder and neck movements and I’m pulled up for a go. Why does this always happen to me? I’m hopeless and it’s not just a ‘whitey’ thing because the western guy next to us is doing okay.

Race back to the hotel in the rain!

Saturday 22nd October, 2016

Bahir Dah

The skies are clear and blue this morning so we’re blessed again with great weather. We don’t bother with the hotel restaurant for breakfast because they won’t have anything we want anyway.

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Yusf and Mickey want to visit the market to buy presents for their Mums so we give them spending money. Meanwhile Mark and I wander up to the Church of St George. It’s busy as usual. Inside the domed gateway, the yard is crowded with women and men segregated to separate sides. The women cover their heads and shoulders with thin white scarves while the men are all wrapped in long white robes. Even the kids are draped in white and look especially cute. On the ground outside, people sit cross-legged in rows – not sure if they’re begging or it’s a religious thing.

Later at the hotel we say goodbye to the boys as they’re going to the Blue Nile Falls before catching a bus back home to Gondar. We hope they’ve enjoyed their little trip with us.

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Now Mark and I check out of the Summerland and into a cheaper place just up the street. It’s weirdly elaborate inside with red velvet seating and carved furniture and the most unusual ceiling we’ve ever seen – paneled in polished wood with inserts of painted faces like you’d see in a church – love it. Our room is small but sunny so we like it better.

We’d seen a Massage sign at the front entrance so we ask at the desk if we can book in. But first we want to have something to eat so we wander up to the main street where it seems that the main thing to do is have a shoe-shine.

One thing we’ve noticed since we arrived in Ethiopia is that males hold hands or walk with arms around each other’s shoulders. This is common in lots of Asian countries as well – wouldn’t happen in macho Australia. It’s nice and so is the way men greet each other by shaking hands then touching opposite shoulders.

Back towards our hotel we stop for pineapple shakes at a small shop that also sells Ethiopian coffee. Like everywhere that sells traditional coffee, it has freshly cut grass spread all over the floor – haven’t got to the bottom of this yet.

Now it’s time for our massage. At the hotel’s front desk we’re introduced to a man who takes us out the back to a sort of carpark with cheaper rooms on the opposite side. A lady soon turns up and tells us to undress and lie on the raised massage beds which are covered in what were once white sheets but are now a sort of yellowy-grey and almost dripping in oil. They’ve obviously never been washed – a bit grossed out but what the hell and the massages are pretty good!

About one o’clock we decide to do a bit more sightseeing but as soon as we walk out of the hotel, the guy we’d booked the Blue Nile tour with yesterday rushes up to us in relief. Apparently, they’ve decided to leave an hour early so we would have missed out – what?

So off we go with four friendly American guys for the thirty-five kilometre trip south. The road deteriorates even before we leave Bahir Dah. For the next hour, we bounce from one pot-hole to the other over a bumpy rock-covered road. But there’s never a dull moment as we pass a continuous line of people walking past – men herding cows, young girls slapping the rumps of donkeys with long sticks to shoo them along and people farming in fields of sorghum and teff.

Our destination is Tis Abay town, a market settlement of the Amhara people, and the closest village to the Falls. By the way, I’m still tragically walking in the footsteps of Joanna Lumley who visited here as part of her search for the origin of the Blue Nile. She’s fucking heaps older than me but she was once a model in the 1960’s and is still stunning with fabulous blonde hair and a great jawline! Smart, intelligent and charismatic – every woman’s fantasy!!

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So okay, enough about Joanna! At Tis Abay, will quickly find ourselves surrounded by a retinue of enthusiastic young guides who, for a small fee, will lead us to the Falls. We follow them along a slippery, muddy path between village houses then across open fields till we reach a pretty river bank. A small open-sided boat with a faded canvas canopy is tied up on the shore with a crowd of locals hanging around. We all crawl on board and chug downstream to be soon deposited on the opposite bank.

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From here another long, hot walk leads us to the famous Blue Nile Falls which is also called Tis Abay (means Smoke of the Nile). We’re quite impressed although, apparently, it’s not a patch on what it was before the installation of a hydro-electric plant. Most of the water is now being diverted, and appears again a little further downstream, from a massive pipe system.

Anyway, Mark makes his way down to the bottom of the Falls which throw up a continuous spray of water. And, by the way, there aren’t blue at all but a very dark brown! So, why…..?

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Meanwhile I sit on a rock in the shade at the top and fend off local kids trying to sell me the usual souvenirs. I buy a couple but can’t please everyone. On the way back to the river, we pass tiny children herding goats with long sticks then wait in the shade of a tree for the others to turn up to fill the boat before heading back to the village.

Another long, bumpy ride back to Bahir Dah, we’re happy to rest in our room before heading out for the night. We find a strange place with the usual grasses spread all over the stairs to find a table in a sort of semi-upmarket restaurant. It’s very dark inside with candles on each table. I don’t want to drink again tonight but we still have fun bagging out the whole Ethiopian scene – God love them! Mark has a few beers before an early night.

Sunday 23rd October, 2016

Bahir Dah to Lalibela

Today we leave for Lalibela which we expect to be the highlight of the trip although we’ve loved so many places already. The guy where we bought our tickets said that it’s only about three hours to a place called Ganesha and then another hour to Lalibela – sounds good.

At six o’clock we’re awake for a snuggle, showers and last-minute packing. Downstairs to the dining room for breakfast, we find that it’s just as elaborate as the bar but we also find that the food and the service is just as bad as everywhere else – a shuffling waitress, no menu, no eggs and no tea or coffee – ‘barista not here’! We buy bottles of water instead.

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From the verandah we watch an endless stream of people wrapped in white shawls heading for the church while the early morning sun is rising through the date palms opposite. Another clear sunny day seems to be on its way.

On the bus at 7am I find a window seat and Mark manages to nab the whole back seat. The bus isn’t too decrepit and only about half of the twenty-five seats are taken by the time we leave Bahir Dah. The inside is decorated with Jesus pictures and a large wooden cross hangs from the rear mirror. The Christian theme will continue for the rest of the trip.

Another nice surprise is that the road is flat and well maintained so we have a much smoother ride than we’ve had in the last few days. After passing Lake Tana we speed past green fields, then notice the unusual sight of cows, donkeys, goats and sheep all grazing together in the same paddock.

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Farmers holding long staffs tend their animals and we feel sad for donkeys carrying loads that are obviously much too heavy for them. We cross wide muddy rivers and ponds covered in flowering water lilies.

After a police checkpoint, we stop on the edge of the road in a small village for everyone to pile out to buy red onions – seems to be a big deal here. Back on the bus people talk on their phones at the top of their lungs and music is blaring but luckily we find a way to kill off the speaker next to us.

In the small town of Wereta, an argument breaks out between the driver and a guy who wants commission for getting people on the bus – he’s going off so the driver throws him out the door.

Turning right off the Gondar road, we stop just past the junction to let on two young girls dressed in traditional white costumes who collect money from the locals for their church. After giving a donation, each passenger takes some corn from a bowl and eats it.

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This road is very scenic with mountains on our left and the opposite side a patchwork of dark ploughed fields, bright green vegetable fields and bright yellow fields of flowers. The road is windier here and one poor lady has her head out the window throwing up. The body odour is also increasing as the temperature rises.

After a non-existent breakfast we’re feeling extra hungry but have to do with the cheese and bickies we always bring with us. We’re also not game to drink too much water as there isn’t a toilet on board. By this stage, our bus is travelling unspectacularly up the mountains and slowed down even more by animals wandering all over the road.

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A pretty lady gets on with a baby strapped to her back and Mark has to share his seat with some stinky men who stare at us. We smile and say hello but they just stare.

At another police checkpoint, all the male passengers are told to get off while the police search the bus – under seats and bags in the overhead racks. The men are allowed back on board after being frisked and off we go again with them still staring at us.

We’re trying to work out how long we have to go and decide we must arrive in Ganesha soon where we need to get another bus to Lalibela. We’re not happy when we pull into Debre Tabor at 9.15am because we realise that we still must have another three hours till we reach Ganesha! Those arsewipes in Bahir Dah told us it was only three to four hours to Lalibela itself let alone half a day to reach the turnoff.

But nothing we can do and it’s not a huge problem anyway – love the adventure. In Debre Tabor town we notice a lot of police armed with machine guns so we’re happy when we keep sailing through. From here the landscape is dominated by circular thatched huts built up on mounds of rocks, grains laid out to dry in the sun, people carrying bundles on their heads as tall as they are plus long views as we climb higher and higher.

Later we pass forests of eucalyptus trees introduced from Australia in the 1890’s due to massive deforestation around Addis Ababa caused by a growing appetite for fire wood. The great advantage of the eucalypts is that they’re fast growing and are now used all over the country for building houses.

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Further on we overtake a man galloping along the road at top speed. He’s completely dressed in white and riding a white, stocky horse decorated with red tassles and pompoms. He’s also brandishing a long spear. We soon find out where he’s going because up ahead is an amazing sight. Spread out in the countryside, we come across hundreds of people – also wearing white – congregated in groups around white teepee looking tents with a big red cross on each one.

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At eleven o’clock we arrive in another town which we again expect to be Ganesha but, no, this is Nefas Meewcha where we’re stopping for something to eat. We pull off the road into a grubby, muddy area where we all get out. Here are more people in white just standing around in groups. A friendly man from the bus tells us to follow him up a narrow laneway to a ‘restaurant’ but it’s filthy and we only manage a few mouthfuls of scrambled eggs each. Naturally everyone else is tucking into injera – bluhhhhh!

I need to use the toilet, a horrific experience that will probably scar me for life – ha ha – so we’re glad to get back on the bus and get the hell out of this dump. Now we’re driving downwards through deep valleys cut through with brown rivers. Scary steep drops appear on either side of the road – Mark’s nightmare and I’m not too happy either. Funnily we see Donkey Crossing signs, something you don’t see too often at home.

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Later, three men wave us down. They’re straight off the fields wearing rags for clothes and carrying long sticks and sacks of something on their backs. One of them turns around to stare at us for the next hour.

Another town ahead and another disappointment when Mark see the town’s name – Flikat, not Ganesha! Still a long way to go. Oh, and now it’s starting to rain.

Finally, at 1pm we arrive in Ganesha – six hours instead of the promised three. The place is a shithole, busy with trucks and cars and we’re not sure how to get to Lalibela. The friendly man from breakfast is headed there as well so we follow him to a row of little shops. A bus is parked nearby and we ask if it’s heading for Lalibela.

Apparently not, but just then a mini-van roars up the street and screams to a halt right in front of us. Very cool guys are hanging out the windows and the driver is too cool for school as well. This is supposed be our transport but I say ‘no, you drive crazy’. ‘I drive slow’ he laughs, ‘bus not go’. Bloody hell, we’ll just have to go with this weirdo. We drive around town looking for more passengers then end up back where we started. Now he gets out and starts a loud argument with another guy who turns out to be the driver of the bus which really is going to Lalibela. A debacle, as Jack would say.

We jump out and Mark pulls our packs off the roof. We wait in a tiny open-sided café with grass all over the floor and talk to a lady breast-feeding her little boy – he must be about five years old! Anyway, we’re told that the bus will leave in ten minutes which is great news as we just want to get out of here.

We manage to grab the whole back seat again mainly because, for some unknown reason, everyone else sits as close as possible to the front. The bus does stink of urine but it has to be a better option than going with the crazy mini-van driver. But we haven’t seen the last of him yet. Now he’s pissed off that the bus driver ‘stole’ his passengers – us – and they’re at it again in the middle of the street.

It takes an hour to get everyone on board, fill up with petrol and load a mountain of sacks onto the roof. At last we’re ready to go but then one of the sacks falls off and bursts open on the road spilling the precious grain that they try to scoop up by hand.

Finally, after two horrible hours in Ganesha we’re on our way. At first the road is horrendous but then becomes even more horrendous. This is going to be a long rough ride. We bounce through large corrugations and crawl at a lumbering pace around endless road works. It seems that the road between Ganesha and Lalibela will be much better in the future.

But right now we jolt from one crater to the next. But it’s not all bad. We’re surrounded by lovely families and cute kids. One little boy comes to stand in front of us babbling away and his little sister is adorable with little pompom pigtails all over her head. Opposite is a grandmother and grandfather with four older kids – all very bedraggled (my new favourite word that describes most things in Ethiopia). We give toy koalas to all the little ones. A very weird looking person in the seat right in front of us stares and asks questions for two hours. We give him/her a koala to shut him/her up.

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Meanwhile we’re still limping along at 20kph, going even slower as we crawl up the mountains. We pass through occasional sleepy villages and even see tree-climbing goats!

Inevitably we now have a flat tyre – everybody out! It doesn’t take too long to change and we pass the time talking to a man who lives in Lalibela. Back on the road, late afternoon shadows create an other-worldly sight in this dry, bare landscape.

We’re now in the Lasta Mountains in the eastern highlands so we wind up and up with terrifying drops on either side – Mark hates me! – especially when darkness falls and we’re still rumbling upwards. After eleven hours on the road, we finally pull into the little isolated town of Lalibela.

The township sits on a mountain ridge at 2,600 metres and with a population of only fifteen thousand it’s very appealing. What’s also appealing is that we have three whole days here to soak up the culture and the history of this UNESCO World Heritage site – the eighth wonder of the world according to some.

The reason for all this are the eleven rock-hewn churches built over nine hundred years ago. But lots more about that tomorrow. Right now we want to find somewhere to stay and then somewhere to eat. We’re dumped on the side of the road where we’re typically swarmed by touts but quickly jump in a bajaj to take us to the Asheton Hotel. One of the American guys we met on the Blue Nile Falls trip yesterday said he’d stayed here a few days ago and it’s okay.

The hotel is just off the main square in a quiet, wide street so we’re happy with the location. Mark stays with the bags while I go inside to see if they have anything available. The owner shows me a nice white-washed room and gushes – ‘all other guests pay 450 but for you, only 400” – bullshit, but we take it anyway.

Mark is happy with the room as well – clean with local art on the walls, hot water in our own bathroom – but not so happy with single beds. We can change tomorrow. In the dining room, Mark downs two Dashen beers while we wait an hour for my macaroni with meat sauce and his vegetable soup – it’s all horrible!

We decide to wander around outside and find the wonderful Unique Café just across the road – if only we’d come here first! It’s a basic little place down off the street with rough mud walls and a cement floor. The faded sign out front reads ‘Recommended by Farangi’ and it’s even in the Lonely Planet. The warm-hearted owner is Sisco who welcomes everyone into her house which is what it looks like – a series of little rooms with bench seats and low tables all covered with cloths of different patterns. Colourful ethnic weavings hang on the walls as well as a few animal hides.

And the food is great even though we’ve only ordered salad and chips. Mark has two more beers while I stick with water – my liver and kidneys must be virginial by now.

Bed at nine o’clock – Mark sleeps while I watch an episode of Scott and Bailey on our ipad. Another great day!

Monday 24th October, 2016

Lalibela

Not surprisingly, we both sleep soundly and don’t wake till seven o’clock. We text back and forth to Lauren. While Abi is at kindy she took Elkie to Revolution – ‘me go there’. Good news is that she had drinks with Jordan last night – a huge relief she’s gotten rid of that fuckwit Gino.

We plan to visit the churches this morning so I shower and get our day pack ready while Mark showers then rings Steve at JSA sitting in the garden just outside our room (Mark not Steve). Then in the sunny dining room, he checks his work emails and orders pancakes and coffee. I don’t feel like anything and have a toothache. I wish I’d seen the dentist about it again before we left home but it comes and goes so hopefully it won’t last long. Apparently there’s nothing wrong with the tooth itself – so why does it ache?

We tell the sleazy owner that we’re going to the churches so he rings a guide for us. Soon a nice man called Joseph turns up and will charge us 700Bir for the whole day. Sounds good!

Last night we were happy with the area around our hotel but seeing it in the daylight is even better than we expected. Under a perfect blue sky, red-flowering poinsettias and pink bougainvillea hang over fences all along the cobbled road and ladies walk past in groups, all carrying sacks on their backs. Further up the hill we pass teenage boys playing hand-soccer on those old machines you used to see in pinball places.

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We notice that in this area of town there aren’t any cars at all, just a few bajajs – quiet and easy to walk around. From the square we follow Joseph downhill past market stalls and local shops to a church near the bottom where hundreds of people have congregated under trees. Apparently, this is a funeral so everyone is once again dressed in white. Most are carrying wooden staffs with metal curly bits on the end – amazing stuff.

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Nearby is the ticket office for the ancient churches where we pay $50US each plus 300 Bir for the video camera. There are eleven rock-cut churches here, the complex being made up of the Northern Division and the Eastern Division plus Bet Giorgis also called the Church of St George. The plan is to visit the Northern Division and St George this morning then come back this afternoon to see the rest.

Joseph leads us to the first church, Bete Medhane Alem, and while we’re looking around he explains the amazing history of Lalibela. During the 12th century, King Lalibela wanted to create a new Jerusalem for people who couldn’t make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land so he began the construction of the rock-hewn churches. Local legend has it that while he and hundreds of labourers worked during the day the angels worked at night helping him complete the project. After laboring for twenty years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. Even now, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.