Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Part 1: Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Windhoek to Helmeringhausen, Namibia.

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

Day 1, October 11: Dar es Salaam to Windhoek.

Our flight from Dar es Salaam to Windhoek, went via Johannesburg.

It was on this first leg of our flight that I read Australia had been thrashed by the Proteas in their fourth ODI.

The article was in a South African newspaper, and were they gloating. It looked like the series could be a whitewash and as it turned out it was.

I certainly wasn’t going to enjoy discussing cricket with the South Africans, once we reached there in a months time.

Having been up since 3am, for our flight to Windhoek, we needed an early night. We found an Italian restaurant a short walk from the hotel.

It was full of Western faces.

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Day 2, October 12: Windhoek.

Namibia, well at least Windhoek, is very German. The faces look German, they speak German and everything has a German efficiency about it.

Even the breakfast at our hotel, Palmquell Hotel Pension, was typically German with fruit, bread, cold meats and a selection of cheeses.

We were served by a very pleasant, but serious, woman with a very German accent.

Most of the hotel guests were also German. In fact 80% of tourists to Namibia are German.

Getting a new SIM card was the easiest we have experienced.

MTC (Make The Connection), the local provider, put Vodaphoney to shame.

Picking up the car was also very efficient. They knew our name as we walked through the door and then they proceeded to take us through a very thorough process of legalities and responsibilities. We were then passed on to another person who briefed us on the vehicle.

Our rental vehicle was a rather large, white, Toyota Fortuner 4X4, equipped with two spare tyres, an air compressor (for inflating and deflating tyres), towrope, two jacks and jumper leads.

Hopefully I will never have to use any of it.

After picking up the car we drove to Maeria Mall to get some supplies.

We were told not to leave anything visible in the boot of Fortuner. This was made difficult as there was no cover supplied, so we decided to buy a black sheet to put over our luggage. Plus we need a good supply of water and snacks for our days on the road.

The meal on our second night was at a Portuguese restaurant.

The food was very basic.

We decided to have some of the local meat and chose Oryx. It was an island of overcooked meat in a lake of rich, salty sauce and lacking in taste.

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Day 3, October 13: Windhoek to Kalahari.

Before driving south towards the Kalahari Desert we spent some time motoring around Windhoek.

With a population of less than 400,000, it’s a bit like a large regional town, rather than a capital city.

But then the entire population of Namibia is only 2.2 million.

As we drove south the geography changed to a semi-arid red sandy savannah.

The road was good and it was only when we reached the turn off at Kalkrand did we hit the gravel.

It was only 262 km from Windhoek to Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge, so our first drive in Namibia was relatively easy.

The lodges sat along side a dry lake bed, or vlei and there was a small water hole about 150 metres from our veranda.

We were expecting wildlife to visit the waterhole in the evening but they didn’t come until the next morning.

There were four large blocks, that looked like concrete, scattered around the waterhole. When a family of Eland came to drink at the vlei, we discovered that these were blocks of salt.

They are there to give the animals extra minerals.

Late in the afternoon, when the temperature had dropped below 30°C, we went for a bike ride.

The lodge has a number of ‘Fat Bikes’ that they encourage you to take out into the dunes.

The super large tyres make it easier to ride on the soft sand.

Unfortunately my bike didn’t have an adjustable seat. It had been set for someone far taller than me, which is most people, so I struggled.

We returned just on sunset and managed to get some hero shots of the sun setting behind the ubiquitous Acacia tree.

The evening meal at Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge was a fixed menu.

Oryx filet was our only choice.

Having had the very badly prepared Oryx steak in Windhoek, I wasn’t happy.

I needn’t have worried, as our meal was in total contrast to the one the previous evening.

It was a small portions with just the right amount of a creamy pepper sauce and plenty of fresh vegetables.

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Day 4, October 14: Kalahari.

Even though we had our own 4X4 we decided to take the afternoon game drive, provided by the lodge.

Jonathan was our driver and guide for the drive, which started at 4pm, when the heat of the day had subsided.

We were out for three hours, meandering around the park, but not really straying too far from the main camp.

As Jonathan explained, there are no predators in this part of the Kalahari so the animals can wander around in small herds without fear.

And so can the visitors.

There are many walking and hiking tracks around the lodge, which the Germans, being great walkers, love.

We saw oryx, Blue Wildebeest, Common Springbok, Ground Squirrels, ostriches, Black Springbok, Common Zebra and a Yellow Mongoose.

Apart from having an excellent knowledge of the animals, Jonathan also knew about the flora and especially its relationship with the famed Bushmen of the Kalahari or San people.

The San are believed to be the first inhabitants of Botswana and Southern Africa and were traditionally nomadic hunter gatherers.

There were eight guest from the lodge on the drive, all of them spoke German, except Thea and me. Of course they also spoke excellent English. Jonathan’s, sometimes amusing commentary, was in English so everyone could understand.

We ended the drive with drinks and snacks, watching the sun set over the Kalahari.

Our first Namibian ‘Sundowner’ experience.

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Day 5, October 15: Kalahari to Quivertree Forest.

We continued our drive south on the B1, which was arid with sparse vegetation.

We could be forgiven for thinking we were anywhere in the world that was dry and rocky. That’s until we came across three largish black baboons crossing the road.

We knew we were still in Africa.

Then, just after we arrived at the Quivertree Forest Rest Camp, a warthog wandered past.

It seemed to know its way around, as it headed straight for the restaurant kitchen.

Apart from the warthog there were three Border Collies and a very large, black greyhound hovering around the common area.

Two of the Border Collies like to chase dragon flies around the pool.

The next morning we discovered another three collies, now there were six.

That wasn’t the total menagerie as their was also at least one black cat and two small dogs that seemed to control the inside.

The Quivertree Forest Rest Camp is on the Farm Gariganus, which is 13 km north east of Keetmanshoop. It’s a very large working sheep station and like any farm, domestic animals are always present.  However I don’t think any of these animals did much work around the farm.

Just on sunset we went for a walk in the Quivertree Forest.

The Quivertree or Aloe Dichotoma, got their local name from the San people who used to hollow out the branches to make quivers for their arrows.

The tree is native to Southern Africa and protected there. There are fears of it becoming extinct due to climate change.

Isolated trees are spread around Southern Namibia but only three areas of forest are left in all of Africa.

Quivertree Forest in one of them, the others are a different variety of Aloe Dichotoma and on the east coast.

The forest is set in a Luna landscape of rocks and boulders and in the twilight the trees looked prehistoric.

Once we got over our excitement of the trees we started to see small brown creatures scurrying over the rocks and bounding up the trees.

We had seen rock rabbits, dassies or rock hyrax, as they are variously known, but certainly nowhere near as many as were here.

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Day 6, October 16: Quivertree Forest.

The next morning we had an early breakfast as we wanted to visit the Giants Playground before it got too hot, which it never did.

As we arrived at the restaurant we were greeted by the local cheetah who had wandered in for a feed.

She was 18 years old, which is a great age, even for captive cheetah.

Abandoned as a cub, she has lived on the farm all her life. Once rehabilitated she couldn’t be reintroduced back into the wild, as she would have posed too big a risk to the domestic livestock.

She wouldn’t be much of a threat now, as she has hardly any appetite and only eats small portions.

That evening she returned but this time she brought a friend – a seven year old female.

And she could eat.

She finished off both her dinner and that of the old cheetah.

The Giants Playground displays impressively weathered dolerite dykes which form part of the Keetmanshoop Dolerite Complex or Dolerite Swarm.

They were formed when volcanic magma rose to just below the earth’s surface. This was in the form of hundreds of individual dikes or sills that radiated from a single volcanic centre.

Over time, erosion has revealed these columns and blocks of basalt to create an unearthly landscape.

From the Giants Playground we drove a further 25 km to the Mesosaurus Fossil site.

Here the owner of the farm Spitzkoppe, Geil Steenkamp, discovered the fossils of an ancient crocodilian type creature named as a Mesosaurus.

The Mesosaurus came from the Early Permian period and became extinct over 299-280 million years ago.

The Mesosaurus Fossil site is convincing proof to support the theory of drifting continents. The same genus of Mesosaurus, in the same rock formations, can also be found in South America.

Geil was an old bushman who could spin a good yarn and told many stories about discovering the Mesosaurus.

Half of which were believable.

He could also play a tune on the Dolerite rocks that were on his property. These rocks are so dense that they resonate like chiming bells.

Adjacent to the Mesosaurus Fossil site is the grave of J. Splittgerber, a German soldier killed in action on November 13, 1904.

More evidence of Namibia’s colonial past.

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Day 7, October 17: Quivertree Forest to Fish River Canyon.

The owner of the Quivertree Forest Guest Lodge suggested we take the more scenic route to Ai-Ais Hot Springs on the D545.

We stopped at Naute Kristall for coffee. This is a small vineyard and distillery with a newly installed espresso machine. It’s just next door Naute Fruit Farm, a huge government complex that grows dates, pomegranates, prickly pear and pecans.

Some of the fruit from the farm is used in the distillery. And apparently the dates from the farm are of such a good quality that they are exported to the Middle East as well as Europe.

Not far from Naute Kristall is the Naute Dam, a lunar landscape of rugged rocks and an acacia tree that looks very similar to Australian Wattle.

Water from the dam is used to irrigate the Naute Fruit Farm.

On the way to Ai-Ais, Thea decided that we should make a detour to the premier viewing point of the Fish River Canyon.

This was a great decision as the views were spectacular. The Hobas View Point is situated 820 metres above the canyon and was very well designed with excellent facilities for picnickers.

The formation of the Fish River Canyon started about 350 million years ago.

Measuring 90 to 160 km long, 27 km maximum width and 549 metres maximum depth, is cited as the second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The Mexicans might disputes this as the Copper Canyon is reputed to hold that honour.

There was a dispute between the TomTom and MapsME on how far we needed to travel to get to the Ai-Ais Hot Springs, which is at the southern end of the Fish River Canyon.

The travel phone with MapsME won, as the TomTom was 50 km out.

There were hardly any guests at A-Ais Hot Springs at Fish River Canyon. However there was plenty of enthusiastic staff waiting to please us.

We decided to have a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, overlooking the campground and the river.

Our waiter had the dinner menu in front of us before we took our first sip.

They had a Hansa Draught on tap, which was very good and a pleasant change from bottled beer.

There is very little draught, let alone craft beer, in Namibia, it’s all bottled. The big brewers have a stranglehold on production and distribution. It’s a familiar story of the large breweries trying to restrict competition and then buying out any craft brewery that makes a success of it.

The camp ground was one of the best I have seen. Every site had a solid fuel BBQ, or braai, running water and electricity. Plus there were full camp kitchens and shower blocks every 50 metres or so.

All this was set in a garden area with a huge thermal swimming pool at one end.

The entire area of Ai-Ais is set against a backdrop of rugged mountains, that border both sides of the Fish River.

The dry river bed is etched with footprints, human and animal.

It’s interesting trying to identify the animal ones.

The trip, so far, has been very relaxed and that’s probably due to the fact that we are spending thirty days in Namibia, not five to fourteen as most people do.

We are seeing the ‘A’ sites and probably the ‘B’ and ‘C’ sites as well.

On some days there is nothing to do but relax and see no sites at all.

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Day 8, October 18: Ai-Ais Hot Springs, Fish River Canyon.

It’s great to be greeted by irony first thing in the morning.

There we were, staying at the Ai-Ais ‘Hot Springs’ and there was no hot water for our shower.

At breakfast almost everyone sat on the terrace, yet all the tables were set inside. It was the same with dinner the previous evening.

Either the guests are silly or the hotel hasn’t noticed where most people prefers to sit.

The customer is always right – allegedly.

Having spent many hours in the car over the last few weeks, Ai-Ais Hot Springs was a good opportunity to go for a long walk.

About 300 metres from the hotel is a dam wall across the Fish River. I fully expected it to be full of water behind the wall. However it was a sandy base with a intermittent springs along the edges.

How could such a relatively dry river have carved out the mighty Fish River Canyon we had seen the day before?

Namibia is in the grip of drought, but when it rains it must really pour down.

There wasn’t much wildlife on our walk but we did see a few family groups of baboons, one lone stallion, a pair of very frightened Kudu and a couple of talkative German tourists.

In the afternoon we took advantage of the hot springs, that were just below our room, and wallowed for a while.

Pale-winged Starlings were everywhere, especially around the restaurant. They have shiny blackish-blue plumage with fiery orange eyes.

I thought they were a member of the crow family at first, that’s until they opened their beaks.

They were definitely not crows as their call was much more melodic.

In Africa there are two types of tourists. The bird watchers and everyone else.

We have constantly run into ‘Birders’ as they are known. They have binoculars as well as cameras and always carry a complete field guide to the birds of whatever country they are currently travelling in.

We met a delightful South African couple in the Quivertree Forest Guest Lodge. They had only been birding for three years but had managed to sight over 700 of the 900 birds species in South Africa.

They were very proud of this achievement.

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Day 9, October 19: Ai-Ais Hot Springs, Fish River Canyon to Helmeringhausen.

We left Ai-Ais and headed south towards the Orange River, the border between Namibia and South Africa. There was much more water in this river than we had been used to seeing.

The roads were all gravel but excellent and we could drive up to the 80kph speed limit quite comfortably.

The locals drive much faster than that.

Just near the ferry crossing, to South Africa, we headed north, onto a sealed road – this was still on the C13. About 105 km from Helmeringhausen, it reverted to gravel.

Strangely we found our next sealed road again at Helmeringhausen. It was a stretch of about 400 metres that ran through the tiny village, past our hotel.

Helmeringhausen Hotel is on the 11,000 hectare farm, Helmeringhausen. The farm was established during the colonial period, in the early 1900s, by Mr Hubert Hester of the Schutztruppe or German Colonial Infantry.

It was famous for Karakul sheep which originated in Central Asia.

We were certainly made to feel welcome an the Helmeringhausen Hotel, as our names were on the door to our room when we arrived.

Most hotels have their idiosyncrasies, the Hotel Helmeringhausen was no different.

All the staff are chefs, with a chef’s uniform of hat, jacket and checked pants.

Thea was greeted at reception by a chef. All the wait staff, apart from the sons of the owners were chefs. Even the cleaning staff are chefs.

I think they were trying to promote their culinary expertise.

The sea and the city – Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam.

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

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Zanzibar.

Vasco da Gama visited Zanzibar, or Unguja as it was known in 1499. This was at the end of his epic journey that linked Europe and Asia, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans.

His voyage of discovery gave the Portuguese access to the Indian Spice routes and led to the age of globalisation by the European powers.

Spices became an important industry in Zanzibar, so much so that they are sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands.

The Portuguese took control of Zanzibar from the Arabs in 1504, making it part of the Portuguese Empire.

If remained under their control for nearly two centuries.

In 1698, Zanzibar became part of Oman, under control of the Sultan. In 1840 Said bin Sultan, the Sultan of Oman moved his capital from Muscat, in Oman, to Stone Town, in Zanzibar City.

Britain took formal control through the 1890 Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty. In 1896 there was an slight altercation, known as the Anglo-Zanzibar War. After which Britain put Hamoud bin Mohammed into power.

This was known as shortest war in history, lasting only 45 minutes.

In 1897 Hamoud bin Mohammed yielded to British pressure and brought an end to Zanzibar’s involvement in the slave trade.

And to add to the magic of Zanzibar, there was even a British administrator, named Harry Potter who was in control from 1954 to 1959.

Zanzibar became an independent nation in December 1963 but it didn’t last long.

A revolution took place in January, 1964 and in April it signed an agreement of confederation with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Zanzibar is officially part of Tanzania but it is very different.

We stayed at Hotel Al-Minar, in the heart of Stone Town and only a few minutes walk from most attractions.

It’s was a quaint Arab styled building with carved timber beams and heavy wooden furniture and doors.

The staff were fantastic and even tracked down a lost sock, that vanished from our laundry.

Having spent the last few weeks in the Kenyan and Tanzanian bush, it was great to be beside the seaside again.

There are a number of rooftop bars, along the waterfront, that take advantage of the views and the balmy evening air – we took advantage of them.

We were in Zanzibar for some R&R but with so much history to explore, we doubted that would be the case.

After all Stone Town in Zanzibar City was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, so there is plenty to see.

Stone Town is the largest, living, Swahili stone town in the world. There are over 1000 coral ‘stone’ buildings with architectural significance.

The features that make this city unique are written on a sign at the door of the House of Wonders Museum.

“It is the confluence between Africa and the Indian Ocean. 

From a fishing village at Shangani, it developed as a cosmopolitan society with a unique architectural synthesis. 

This was based on Swahili building technology, the elegant simplicity of Arab tradition and ‘saracenic’ features imposed by the British.”

Coral stone isn’t as robust as granite, marble or even concrete and the city had a distinct feeling of being in decay.

Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim with over 50 mosques on the island.

Each morning we were woken to the sound of the Imam calling the faithful to prayer.

A majority of the women wear modest clothing and there are even some full burkas.

The big difference is that the clothes are much more colourful, compared to Arab countries, especially the headscarves.

The first morning was spent on some housekeeping. Firstly we extended our stay by another night, then it was off to find an ATM and after that, down to the ferry office to buy tickets to Dar es Salaam.

I was well overdue for a haircut, so that was another challenge we had to face.

I eventually did find a barber and paid more for a cut in Stone Town than in Barcelona.

They saw me coming.

In Zanzibar there are more taxis than passengers and more guides than tourists.

It’s the low season but at every turn you are expected to part with your money. It can be a bracelet, a selection of spices, a taxi or a full day guided tour.

There are even people hanging around cafes, restaurants and the ferry terminal. They are waiting to guide you, those last metres, to where you were heading anyway.

Of course they are expecting a tip from you or a commission from the business, of both.

After our chores were done we headed off to do some exploring.

The Old Dispensary, was formerly the Jubilee Hospital, built by a wealthy Ismali Indian, in 1887, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It is currently the Stone Town Cultural Centre.

It’s a testament to Zanzibar’s diverse history.

The wooden carved balconies and stained glass are of Indian influence. While the walls were made from Zanzibar coral rag and covered in European neo-classical ornaments.

We visited a private museum that was dedicated to Emily Ruete (1844-1924). Born Sayyida Salme, Princess of Zanzibar, she was the youngest of 36 children, born to Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman. Emily is the author of ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar’ This is an autobiography describing her love for a German merchant, Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, and her subsequent elopement to Europe. She then converted to Christianity and married him.

The Anglican Christ Church Cathedral is built on the site of the old slave market. The only remains of the market are the holding cells beneath one of the church buildings.

There is a well designed display giving a full history of Zanzibar’s involvement in the slave trade.

Many slaves that were freed were put into Christian missions. They were educated and indoctrinated into Christianity. This caused problems, once they left the mission, as they could not assimilate into a mainly Muslim society.

Zanzibar was one of the largest slave ports in the indian Ocean slave trade. It was dominated by Arab traders and originated before the creation of Islam.

Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873) was a missionary, explorer and an important activist in pushing for Britain to ban the East African Arab-Swahili slave trade.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Was the famous greeting by Henry Morton Stanley when he located David Livingstone in Africa on November 10, 1871.

One of Livingstone’s life goals was to find the source of the river Nile.

After his death Livingstone became a national hero in Britain. His exploits were a catalyst for the British and European’s rush to occupy Africa.

“It is not worth the while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” 

There is some conjecture as to whether this quote, from Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, is literal or metaphorical. 

I do however believe there is a lot of truth in the passage.

Zanzibar is a city of cats, they are everywhere.

The House of Wonders is one of six palaces built by Barghhash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar. At present it houses the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar. It was built in 1883 and at the time a pinnacle of modernity, having electricity and even an elevator. It again used traditional coral rag but this was combined with concrete slabs and cast-iron columns, allowing for exceptionally high ceilings.

The Museum was as dusty and in need of upkeep as most of Stone Town’s historic buildings.

The Old Fort or Arab Fort was built around 1700 and is the oldest building in Zanzibar. It was constructed with materials obtained from a Portuguese chapel and ironically was designed to defend the island from the Portuguese.

There’s not much to see inside as it’s totally occupied with souvenir stalls.

However in one part an amphitheater has been built, this is home to the annual Zanzibar Film Festival.

Considering the heritage of Zanzibar it seemed only reasonable that we embark on a spice tour.

We engaged a driver through the hotel and travelled north, on Malawi Road, out of Stone Town, we then turned east towards Kizimbani.

The Ziti Spice Farm was a slick operation.

Our tour was three hours door to door but we did see and learn a lot. It was a show farm, just for the tourists and the only things they sell are to the visitors.

Apart from spices, Ziti sells soap and a perfume they call Chanel No. O. This is because it contains zero chemicals.

The main spice grown and exported from Zanzibar are cloves. These were introduced by the Omanis as a way of creating wealth. There is very little in the way of indigenous fruits or spices in Zanzibar. Everything comes from somewhere else.

The Omanis were also involved in the export of ivory, which was tied to the slave trade.

All the important exports in Zanzibar are controlled by the Tanzanian government. This seemed to be a pattern in eastern and southern Africa.

We finished our tour with a fruit feast. The fruit was excellent as it has been in all of our African travels so far.

In fact all the food in Stone Town was excellent. We had modern cuisine, local Zanzibar fare, Indian and on our last night we even had Ethiopian at Abyssinian Maritim. This had been recommended to us by the manager at our hotel.

We ordered lamb and beef, as well as an avocado salad.

When the meat dishes arrived they were ceremoniously poured onto a large woven basket. This was covered at the bottom with a very light pancake. We were also given a roll of the pancake to help us soak up the gravy.

The meats were infused with all sorts of spices.

It was interesting to taste the spices in our evening meal, that we had seen growing in the morning.

This was all washed down with a very pleasant Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa.

I am sure that this wouldn’t feature with normal Ethiopian fair.

We checked out late from the hotel on our final morning as we were booked on the 12:30 ferry to Dar es Salaam.

This was a two hour journey by high speed catamaran.

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Dar es Salaam.

On our first morning in Dar es Salaam we were again woken early, this time by Gospel music, not prayers. They were coming from the Azania Front Lutheran Church, which was right next door to our hotel.

Dar es Salaam is the largest city in Tanzania and the largest in eastern Africa. There is a decidedly German influence in the city, which is probably due to the establishment of the German East Africa Company in 1887.

Even though it’s not the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam has the bulk of its people, wealth, industry and commerce.

The Chinese influence on present day Tanzania goes back to 1965.

The first President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Mwalimu J. K. Nyerere (1922-1999) had a strong bond with China and its system of socialism. He is still controversially regarded as the Father of the Nation, yet he left it one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Africa.

Like the late Fidel Castro, Nyerere created a brand of socialism that was more a dictatorship than a benevolent state.

By eliminating any opposition, from political rivals or unions, he managed to control power for twenty years.

We only had one full day in Dar es Salaam before we flew to Namibia so we decided to visit the National Museum of Tanzania.

We needed to put a cultural and historic perspective on all that we had seen and the museum was within walking distance from our hotel.

When the Portuguese visited Kilwa, an island of the southern coast of Tanzania, they were impressed by the wealth of the indigenous upper class. They wore silk and cotton with jewellery of gold and silver.

They subsequently returned to conquer the people and reap the rewards.

When the first Europeans visited Australia, the indigenous people would have appeared very poor.

There was no gold, silver or fine clothes, which is probably why they turned around and went somewhere else.

The museum exhibition included African rock art, European settlement, contemporary Tanzanian politics and human evolution.

The exhibition of human development was my favourite as it provided us with the other bookend to our trip to Ngorongoro Crater. There were some excellent illustrations depicting the path of evolution.

This was one of the best TSh13,000 (Aus $8) we have ever spent.

Kenya and Tanzania, hakuna matata.

Monday, December 19th, 2016

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Day 1, September 21: Nairobi, Kenya.

Hakuna matata means “no worries” in Swahili.

This saying, popularised by the 1994 Disney movie The Lion King, is so profound it’s frightening. As we found out on our 15 day tour of Kenya and Tanzania.

Our flight from Madrid to Adis Ababa, via Malta, was uneventful.

Except we didn’t stop in Malta.

We were expecting the worst, especially with our luggage, as the flight change was only meant to be 30 minutes.

We never did stop in Malta and the turnaround in Adis turned out to be two hours.

On arrival in Nairobi our driver, from Kenya Walking Survivors Safari Tours (KWSS), yes that’s the company name, was well over an hour late.

After two phone calls our driver arrived, he blamed the traffic. I had the feeling that our problems were far deeper than that.

We were driven to the office of KWSS, where we met Mr. Otieno Lysaniash, the owner.

He suggested that we change our itinerary and spend more time in Kenya and less in Tanzania. This was to make the most of the Wildebeest and Zebra migration which was happening while we were there.

Everything seems to move at a very different pace in Kenya.

It took us one and a half hours for Thea to get a toasted sandwich for lunch.

It’s a bit like Vanuatu and Fiji time – back in the 70s.

Another interesting aspect to Kenyan dining is that you never get a bill with a total.

You have to do the calculations and it’s only when you get your change do you find out if you were correct.

The population of Kenya is over 45 million and the official language is English. The common tongue is Swahili and there are 42 different tribes, each with their own language.

Kenya is named after Mount Kenya and is a combination word from the Kikuyu, Embu, Kamba and Kiinyaa languages, meaning ‘God’s resting place’.

Our driver and guide was David Mwendwa Kasau. He described the tribes in Kenya as being like football sides. They are fundamentally the same but fervently support their own origins and traditions.

In general the Kenyan population is very poor, with a third of people incomes going towards paying bribes, which averages 16 per month.

The largest contributor to Kenya’s GDP is tourism, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of dodgy practices in this sector.

We were to discover this first hand.

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Day 2, September 22: Nairobi to Samburu National Reserve.

On our first full day we took Thika Road out of Nairobi where the traffic was light, however going in to the city was a car park.

As well as languages there seemed to be a mixture of religions, as we passed Buddhist temples as well as many Christian churches and church schools. There were also Mosques in certain areas.

Saccos are everywhere.

These are privately run mini busses, about the size of a small VW van. They have a driver and a ‘conductor’. The conductor’s job is to open and shut the sliding door, collect fares and direct the traffic so his Sacco gets into the best position.

The area north of Nairobi is the ‘fruit bowl’ of Kenya. On the roadside everything is sold, especially fruit and veg.

The fruit and juice beverage company, DelMonte, has a very big presence in Kenya and their pineapple plantations lined the roadside.

Greenhouses growing flowers for the European market, were also everywhere. Kenyan flowers make up 35% of the flower sales in the EU.

We moved from the very fertile red earth of the rain shadow area between the mountains to the black soil of the more arid valley. As we were told, Kenya is blessed with good soil but not enough water.

Furniture production replaced agriculture, with tables, chairs, sideboards and timber ornaments now dominating the roadside stalls.

Acacia trees started to appear, a true sign that we were in Africa.

We hadn’t seen a Caucasian since leaving the hotel in Nairobi – that’s until we made our first stop.

It was a souvenir shop and toilet break. This ‘opportunity to buy’ was full of whites.

I was sure that there would be lots more buying opportunities to come.

These souvenir places are called curio shops and in order to get the tourists in they provide clean washrooms (we call them toilets) and many either have food or at least a place to eat your packed lunch.

Even though we were happy to pay KSh10, (AUD13 cents) to use the toilets in other more convenient places, David insisted that we went to the curio shops.

I am sure that there was a reward involved somewhere.

We then passed over the equator. Here you could pay to see water turn clockwise on one side of the equator and in a anticlockwise direction on the other.

This is a complete con as this phenomenon doesn’t occur that close to the equator.

After a very long day on the road we arrived at Samburu Game Lodge.

No sooner had we got into the reserve, than we started to see animals.

Squirrels at first, then baboons and then they got larger – gazelle, giraffes and lions.

Plus there were birds everywhere we looked.

Our vehicle was equipped with a two way radio, which David put to good use. As soon as an animal was spotted, by the driver of any safari vehicle, he would radio the location. Before no time at all, other vehicles would arrive on the scene.

We were the first to spot a couple of lions and their cubs.

Once we retuned to the lodge and checked in there were even more animals. Monkeys, Baboons and a pair of Grand Gazelles.

After dinner we were heading back to our room, when we were stopped by one of the lodge staff.

He told us to wait as there were two elephants grazing in front of our lodge.

After they were chased back across the river we were escorted by two staff members and the chef, back to the safety of our room.

We locked the door, as instructed, because the Baboons often barge in unexpectedly.

What an eventful day.

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Day 3, September 23: Samburu National Reserve.

We were now into the serious business of touring with a guide. When you travel on your own you set your own schedule.

This doesn’t happen when you are under someone elses control.

They have a plan and you basically need to follow it. After all they know the local environment, where the best photo opportunities are and how long it takes to get from place to place.

We were away for three months, so 15 days of regimentation wouldn’t hurt.

We were up early for breakfast then on the road in the Samburu National Reserve.

There were two game drives planned. One in the early morning and another in the late afternoon.

These are the best times to see the animals, as it’s not too hot and they are active. It’s also the time they head to the river so they are concentrated into a smaller area.

Our lodge in Samburu National Reserve was very comfortable and the food was excellent. Original recipes, that used fresh and tasty ingredients. The presentation was just as good.

For most of our time in Kenya we got full board at the hotels, guest houses and game lodges. This means that there is more food, than one person could possibly eat, at every meal.

Our guide, David and the staff at the Samburu Lodge were shocked that we didn’t have all three courses for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The roads in most game parks are dirt and as this was the end of the dry they were also very dusty. In Sumburu it’s called Talcum Powder, not dust.

Once in Africa I found I was using my telephoto lens far more than I had done in Spain. In Europe the wide angle was the lens of choice as it better captures the architecture and scenery.

In Africa it’s all about the animals.

The Big Five are what most tourists come to see in Africa. They are the Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Leopard and Buffalo.

There is far more than that, as the place is alive with life, on the ground and in the air.

The animals are only part of what is there. The birds, reptiles and flora are also unique. We were constantly asking David to stop in order to get a snap of something small and seemingly insignificant.

He soon realised that we were in Kenya to see much more than just five animals.

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Day 4, September 24: Samburu National Reserveto Lake Nakuru National Park.

After a short game ride following breakfast, where we again found elephants, giraffe and lions, we got onto the A2 Trans-East African Highway.

Our driver wanted to see how our Tom Tom worked, so we plugged it in and set the destination to Nakuru, where we were to spend the night.

It was interesting to see David’s face as the GPS gave directions, our speed, turns right and left and then it spoke to him, with a very English accent.

It was very entertaining.

What we did discover after a few days with the Tom Tom on, was that it’s no replacement for local knowledge.

It directed us up roads that David said were impassable.

We headed towards Lake Nakuru National Park. Much of the way we were retracing the route we took coming from Nairobi.

We then turned off on the C75 at Kiganjo.

Just past the turnoff we went through a coffee growing region.

Red onions were also a popular crop and the locals lined the side of the road selling bags of them. Then tea plantations took over.

It was a roller coaster ride as the road climbed then descended through the mountains.

We stopped for a quick boxed lunch at the equator and then continued on to Thompson Falls and Nakuru, in the Great Rift Valley.

We were told that there are many ‘Equators’ in Kenya. Each one is trying to separate the tourists from their money.

We must have been in ‘God’s Country’ as there were so many churches.

Names such as The Redeemed Gospel Church, Deliverance Church and the Higher Life Christ Church were all advertised with hand painted signs.

Many of the Saccos also have a connection with the almighty and they proudly display their faith on the sides of their vans.

Addicted to Jesus, Fruit of Faith and Miracle Child were some.

The best one I found was: I hope you are following Jesus Christ as closely as you are following me. 

Our last stop for the day was at Thomson’s Falls.

It was named, in 1883, after the Scottish explorer and geologist, Joseph Thomson’s.

It is rather a spectacular cascade of 74 metres, spoilt by the residential apartments right next door.

As our guide, David, pointed out Thomson would not have been the first human to have viewed these falls, surely that would have been a Kenyan.

Our hotel in Nakuru wasn’t a patch on the lodge we stayed in at Samburu National Reserve. Fortunately it was only for one night.

The dinner was a buffet. There was a reasonable choice of meat, fish, salad and vegetables. The problem was that the ‘buff’ was set up and there were only four people there to eat it.

We were outnumbered by the staff two to one.

Á la carte would have been a simpler and more economic option.

Then the staff came into the restaurant to have their meal. I think the buffet was mainly for them.

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Day 5, September 25: Lake Nakuru National Parkand Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Our schedule had be altered to spend more time in Maasai Mara, rather than the Serengeti.

They are both part of the great migration route and in the same geographical area. The only difference is Maasai Mara is in Kenya and the Serengeti is in Tanzania.

This required a change of plans and there was some confusion between the tour operator, our guide and us.

After the discussion over breakfast we went to Lake Nakuru National Park and spent a couple of hours on a game drive.

All the changes were in Mr. Otieno Lysaniash’s head and everything seemed to be very fluid and the detail was scarce.

Hakuna matata.

Overnight it rained and the temperature dropped. There was a feeling in the air that more rain might follow.

The Lake Nakuru National Park is much lusher than Samburu and there are different animals there.

The one we came to see was the White Rhino, we also saw Buffalo, Common Zebras and Rothchild’s Giraffes. These are a different species of zebra and giraffe to the ones in Samburu.

Place names and business names are a strange dichotomy in Kenya. On one hand cities, towns and geographic locations seem to all have Kenyan names. To our English speaking ears most are unpronounceable.

However, business names seem to have a very Anglo Saxon flavour.

George’s Resort and Coffee Shop, was where we had a lunch stop. Surprisingly they had an espresso machine and made us a good short black.

Other names we encountered were, Club Berry Lounge, Father’s Choice Butchery, Ribbons Café, Great Stars Academy, Spring Valley Machinery and one I particularly liked, Threads of Hope Sewing Centre. 

We then had to try and get our tongues around local names such as, Nyambururu, Kamirithu and

Empopongi.

It was a long 277 kilometre journey from Lake Nakuru to Maasai Mara and again I sat up the front to keep David company.

I noticed that a lot of vehicles have their registration number engraved on their windows and even the plastic weather shield.

Apparently this is a deterrent to cars being stolen and then wrecked for the parts.

On the country roads and even some of the urban ones, cattle, sheep, donkeys and goats wander across without care.

Even wildlife like baboons and zebras have free reign in the more remote areas.

About 65 kilometres from Maasai Mara the road changed from being sealed to a corrugated, bone rattling ribbon of red earth.

Driving on the left seemed only to be an option, as the drivers chose the path of least resistance.

This could be on the left or right.

The verge seemed to be the smoother ride but it was sometimes on an acute angle. I found myself wondering at what degree of tilt would our van topple over.

Apart from the road changing, so did the weather – at least the rain settled the dust.

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Day 6, September 26: Maasai Mara National Reserve.

We were told that our solar shower would take two or twenty minutes for the hot water to come through.

We weren’t quite sure which time was right

After twenty minutes it still hadn’t got much beyond lukewarm.

Our 15 day safari in Kenya and Tanzania had been paid for in advance and everything was included. Hotels, meals, our driver/guide, his van and petrol.

David seemed to have to go cap-in-hand, on a daily basis, to ‘Mr. O’, as he became known, to get money for petrol, water and our lunch.

This came via the M-Pesa through his mobile phone.

The M-Pesa is a bit like a bank, where you go to withdraw money that’s been put into your account. Your phone is your pass book.

It was a long day in the office. We spent nine hours snaking our way around the rough roads of Maasai Mara National Reserve. Our only break was to have our boxed lunch under a tree.

Here we we joined by a variety of birds as well as flying ants, who seemed very anxious to share our lunch.

We saw many animals, some we hadn’t seen before, like hippos, crocodiles, wildebeest and a hyena. The highlight was getting a close up look at a Leopard.

The Wildebeest and Zebra migration was passing through Massai Mara, so there were many thousands of them in the reserve.

Massai Mara National Reserve was established in 1961 and is 1,510 square kilometres in size. It is in the north of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem which covers 25,000 square kilometres of Kenya and Tanzania.

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Day 7, September 27: Maasai Mara National Reserve.

We started a bit later on our second day in Maasai Mara as our guide had to again get money from Mr. O, through the M-Pesa.

It seems that our guide was only being drip fed his spending money.

This meant he had to buy a new ticket to the reserve each day we visited, rather than getting a three day pass. This meant running the gauntlet of Maasai ladies who stood guard at the gate selling souvenirs.

They were very persistent.

The circle of life was evident everywhere, as carcasses littered the roadside. We even spotted a leopard’s kill up a tree. She had dragged a small wildebeest high into the foliage to escape a pair of lions.

One of the most interesting sights that day was a Secretary Bird landing. These huge long legged raptors are like A380s and have to run when they come into land – this can take metres.

Again we had lunch under a tree. The spot was right on the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

Fortunately we didn’t have to share it with any critters.

We had crossed over the Mara River and were in the Mara Triangle. This is between the Tanzania border, the Mara River and the Oloololo Escarpment.

David left us to walk along the Mara River with crocodiles and hippos. Fortunately we were accompanied by by an armed game warden. Although I wasn’t that sure how effective his aged .22 rifle would have been against the predators.

No GPS was required In Maasai Mara, as David, with the aid of his mates and a unique sense of direction, seems to be able to find animals in the remotest of places.

The word goes out, over the short wave radio, and in no time at all we have crossed creeks, climbed hills and wended our way through a labyrinth of small tracks to find our prey.

Then the tourist vans gather like Vultures at the site.

At one point we were following a lioness stalking a zebra. No sooner had the call gone out we were surrounded by 10 tourist vans anxious to get a closer look.

The mornings were clear but by the afternoon the thunderstorms were back. This was a sure sign that the rains were on their way.

My iPhone app, ‘Health’, is doing strange things. On September 27 it told me that I had walked 10.01 kilometres. This is hard to believe considering I only got out of the van once to do the river walk.

This was only about 500 meters.

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Day 8, September 28: Maasai Mara National Reserve.

The Maasai village visit was first stop on the agenda on our third and final day in Massai Mara.

This was an hour spent being escorted around the village by one of the chief’s sons. The chief was at the entrance to greet us, but more importantly collect the money for our visit.

We were told this would go to buy food for the village as their only income comes from animal husbandry.

They don’t grow crops or vegetables and graze their herd in both Kenya and Tanzania.

Passports or visas aren’t needed for the herdsmen as they can move freely across the border.

The chief’s son was a teacher and seemed very progressive in his attitude to the world, conservation and education. He told us that he had personally pushed for girls to get an education as well as boys.

This normally doesn’t happen.

In the Maasai tradition the role of chief is handed down to the oldest son. Our guide hoped that his work in education would put him in a good position to leapfrog his older brother.

We were given a demonstration of jumping by the men and then the women sang two songs for us. After that we were shown around a typical mud and straw house.

It was a tiny space divided into three small areas. A cooking space and two bedrooms. One for the parents and the other for the three children.

Then came our opportunity to buy. An entire area of the village was set aside as a shop for souvenirs.

We did buy a couple of necklaces but that was the extent of it.

Then the tour was over.

It was very staged but interesting and we were allowed to take as many snaps as we liked.

This made it very worthwhile.

This was our day of grizzly experiences. We came across a lioness with a domestic cow that she had just gorged herself on and was resting. Apparently the Maasai graze their cattle in the reserve, even at night.

They become easy prey for the predators.

A cow is worth a lot of money and this would have been a big loss to the owner.

Not long after that we witnessed a cheetah stalk and then run down a Grant Gazelle. She was accompanied by three juveniles. They kept a respectful distance from their mother, that’s until it was time to feed, then she stood back and let them get stuck in.

We then came across the leopard, from the previous day, who had hung her kill in a tree.

Now she was enjoying her catch.

It was much busier in the reserve on our third day than for the previous two. It took time to find a ‘Lunch Tree’, as most of them were occupied.

Within the reserve there was a constant threat of getting bogged. There were many small creeks to cross and I was very surprised just where the HiAce could go.

Everything is a trial in Maasai Mara, even getting fuel. We dropped into Sarova Mara Lodge to fill up but it was just past 4pm and the generator had been shut down. We then had to go into the Maasai village near our lodge and buy ‘Bush Fuel’, which they pump by hand. The problem with this is that you have no guarantee of the quality.

Only time and kilometres will tell how pure it is.

While we were filling up and having the oil checked the bonnet cable broke. This required repairs by the local mechanic.

This took time.

We have spent three, long, nine hour days in Maasai Mara and each one has been full of different experiences.

Time spent waiting for repairs was yet another.

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Day 9, September 29: Maasai Mara National Reserveto Lake Naivasha. 

Living in tented camps can be a trial.

Hot water is solar and very unpredictable. On the first morning the water was cold, while on the second it was perfect, on the third and fourth it ran out.

You also spend your nights engulfed in a net cocoon, to protect you from malaria carrying mosquitoes.

Some mozzie nets are better than other and each one was different.

The ride back to the sealed C12, from the reserve, was yet another body shaking experience.

Over four days we had what’s described as a ‘Maasai Massage’. The roads are so corrugated and the surface so uneven that you need to get back your land legs whenever you stop.

This also had a detrimental effect on the vehicles that use these roads, especially the tourist vans.

On average they last about three years before they need replacing. They also need constant maintenance and repairs during that time.

Each morning our vehicle would arrive to pick us up looking like new, having been washed the previous night.

It’s what was happening beneath the surface that was concerning.

On the road to Naivasha we stopped to go to an ATM. I wasn’t fast enough retrieving my card and the machine swallowed it up, without an explanation and without having coughed up any cash.

It was panic stations.

Normally if this happens you have to wait for the bank to return you card by post.

Fortunately the bank manager understood our dilemma and opened the ATM and I got my card back.

Our driver banks with KCB, the same bank that swallowed my card. This also helped us, as he could go guarantor, just in case we were up to no good.

We tried again, under the watchful eye of the assistant manager and this time it worked.

He thought the whole incident was hilarious and told me to be faster next time.

Travelling has its adventures.

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Day 10, September 30: Green Crater and Lake Naivasha.

At Lake Naivasha we were ‘upgraded’ to the Fish Eagle Inn from Carnelley’s Camp, which was right next door. I think this was a bit of spin by Mr. O to put us into a hotel that he had an account with.

It was a hotel rather than a lodge and had 24 hour power and reasonable WiFi all set in a beautiful garden.

However it was old and had seen better days.

And to Thea’s annoyance they couldn’t even provide a hair dryer.

We met a New Zealand couple in the AA Lodge in Maasai Mara, they were also traveling with Kenya Walking Survivors Safaris and we’re having similar financial issues with KWSS. By now we all realised that Mr O was in a bit of financial strife.

Like us, this Kiwi couple had paid their money up front to Mr. O. Unfortunately for them they had also asked him to arrange their flights from Kenya to Zanzibar.

He hadn’t done so early enough and there were no flights available when he went to book. This meant they had to drive hundreds of kilometres to another departure point.

Mr. O was taking the money and spending it on other things – he was, in fact, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The word “Survivor’s” in the company name was now making sense.

Staying in this KWSS friendly hotel meant that David didn’t need to go to M-Pesa to withdraw money to pay our room bill.

There are seven lakes in the Rift Valley in Kenya, only Lake Naivasha is fresh water. Our hotel was right on the shores of the lake.

The main trip for the day was to the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary. This, as its name suggests, is a lake in a volcanic crater.

Anthracite, which looks like broken glass, littered the pathway around the lake.

I souvenired a small piece.

Crater Lake is unusual, in that it’s brown and salty. It has no exit for the water and is only fed by rain and a subterranean spring.

It changes from brown to green according to the seasons and the level of algae.

Anna was our guide and she was to take us for a walk around the rim.

Unfortunately Thea was having an off day and didn’t feel up to the walk in the heat.

So Anna and I did it alone. She was knowledgable about the area, the animals and especially the bird life.

The highlight for me was seeing the striking black and white Colobus Monkey. These are what’s called Old World monkeys in that they are native to Africa and Asia. However they may be related to the Barbary Macaques that we encountered in Gibraltar.

Anna had studied mammals at college but was really interested in birds. All kinds were pointed out to me but I only managed to see about half of them.

After our walk we had lunch on a pontoon by the lake. It was all very pleasant, especially the opportunity to get out of the van and have a good walk.

Mount Longonot, overlooking the Rift Valley, is still an active volcano and geothermal power is generated in the area that was near our hotel.

We had yet another Mr O interruption. This time David had to wait to have money transferred so he could pay for our lunch. In the end we paid the bill as we didn’t want to miss out on the afternoon boat ride on Lake Naivasha.

Peter was our guide and boatman for the afternoon trip and his first question was “What do you want to see, birds, hippos or both?”

We opted for both.

We then spent the next hour buzzing around the lake, sneaking up on birds and gingerly creeping up on hippos.

It was a lot of fun and every time we saw another bird Peter would yell out its name.

It was far too confusing so all the bird shots on Lake Naivasha will be annotated with ‘Birds on Lake Naivasha’

The boat trip was also a good opportunity for Thea to get out in the fresh air, especially after her morning malaise.

We did get uncomfortably close to many Hhppos. They float just beneath the surface, like giant black semi deflated rubber tyres.

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Day 11, October 1: Lake Naivasha to Amboseli.

To get to Amboseli we had to take the highway back to Nairobi. About an hour into our journey we were forced to make a detour, as the road was blocked by a broken down truck. We were onto yet another dirt track.

Another massage.

The dust was so bad in some spots that David had to use his windscreen wipers to remove it.

Once we returned to the main road we had a brief stop at a the Big Five Lookout to get the obligatory shot of the Great Rift Valley. Then we were on the relatively smooth, divided tarmac road into Nairobi.

The Great Rift Valley was once believed to run from Lebanon to Madagascar. It is now confined to Tanzania in the south and extending to Ethiopia in the north.

Once we were through the city we headed south on the Mombasa Road.

This is meant to be a motorway but there are still pedestrians, speed humps and hawkers.

It has a 120kph speed limit with commercial vehicles restricted to 80kph. We got nowhere near either of those speeds.

The road soon changed to a single lane and we slowed down to a sloth’s pace.

The GPS calculated that the trip from Naivasha to Amboseli would take around four hours. David’s estimate was for at least another two hours more.

We had lunch at Emali and then turned off the A108 towards Amboseli. There was still 113 kilometres to go.

I wondered how long it would take.

The landscape was now semi-arid and cement factories seemed to be the only feature on the landscape.

There is a new railway line running from Nairobi to Mombasa.

This, like a lot of other infrastructure in Kenya, was built by the Chinese. I am sure the cement factories are also part of China’s expansion plans in Africa.

With about fifty kilometres to go we had our first, very hazy, view of Mount Kilimanjaro. The snow flecked peak was just visible through a gap in the clouds.

Views of Africa’s highest mountain was one of the main reasons for visiting Amboseli.

We were hoping the clouds would soon shift.

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Day 12, October 2: Amboseli National Park.

In Amboseli we stayed at the Kimbo Safari Camp. It is regarded as a luxury tented camp. It’s tented only on the fact that the rooms are under canvas.

But the canvas is under a roof.

Dinner was the usual buffet in a large dining room.

To our surprise it was full.

This is the first time we had seen a crowd anywhere in Kenya. David explained that being a weekend many locals had come from either Nairobi or Mombasa for a break.

Amboseli National Park is in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Many in Kenya regard the mountain, the tallest in Africa, as the sixth main sight to see – even though it’s in Tanzania.

So now we have seen the ‘Big Six’. 

Apart from Kilimanjaro, the other attraction of the park is the large swamp area. This is like a magnet to the elephants, hippos and birds of all varieties.

Discounting the swamp, Amboseli National Park is very dry and dusty. Willy-Willys swirl randomly across the dry earth. Some of them spiral hundreds of metres into the air.

The park is more natural, in that there only a few roads to drive on, unlike Maasai Mara. The drawback is that you can’t get close to the action, when you need to.

The flamingos were hundreds of metres away.

Amboseli is for the animals while Maasai Mara is for the tourists.

We were witness to three kills on the game drive that were far less gruesome than we had seen previously.

A Saddle Billed Stork and a Purple Heron catching fish and a Yellow Beaked Egret scoring a frog.

We saw death and also creation as we watched two Ostriches mating.

I felt a little like a perve.

We had lunch at Observation Hill View Point.

It obviously had great views of the park and there should have been good views of Kilimanjaro, except it was still hidden by cloud.

Overall Amboseli seems to be a lot more peaceful reserve. If the lack of carcasses are anything to go by.

In the afternoon the Wili-Wilis all but disappeared and a dust storm took over.

Visibility reduced dramatically.

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Day 13, October 3: Amboseli National Park to Mto wa Mbu and Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania.

We were up very early to drive to the Tanzanian border.

This was our last morning in Kenya and as a farewell gift we got a good view of the ‘Big Rock’ (Kilimanjaro) and a sighting of two cheetahs.

As we left the Amboseli National Park the clouds rolled over Mount Kilimanjaro. It was like the curtain coming down on the final act of an MTC play.

We crossed over the border into Tanzania at Namanga.

It was very smooth, except we were stopped three times by police within our first fifteen kilometres after leaving passport control.

As we passed through small towns and then arrived in Arusha, my first impression was that Tanzania was more developed than Kenya.

This was confirmed when we found Msumbi Coffee, at our pick up point in Arusha.

We immediately ordered two espressos.

Other signs were better roads and public toilets. Even the villages were set back from the road and life seemed calmer and more ordered.

We passed the Tanzania Military Academy. This prestigious institution trains officers from across the region.

There was yet another change of plans. Our new driver/guide, Chris, told us we weren’t staying in Arusha but going to Mto Wa Mbu. There we were staying in the Fanaka Campsite and Lodges for two nights and travelling to Ngorongoro Crater from there.

Hakuna matata.

Our new vehicle was a heavily modified Toyota LandCruiser. It seated six on a raised platform at the back that also had a pop-up roof for game viewing.

These seemed to be the preferred tourist transport in Tanzania.

It was an ageing vehicle that could barely reach the 80kph speed limit.

Tuc Tucs were everywhere, replacing the Saccos we found in Kenya.

On the road to Mto Wa Mbu we stopped at Mbuyuni for a very colourful Maasai Monday market.

Everything was on sale from fruit, vegetables and meat to beds and sandals made from car tyres.

Memories of my hippy days in the 1960s’.

There were giant Boab trees along the way, a reminder that Africa and Australia were once joined.

There they are called a Boabad in this part of Africa.

There are more that 120 tribes in Tanzania, with English the official language. The common language is Swahili, however there are over 100 different other languages spoken.

Before independence in 1961 it was known as Tanganyika. In 1963 Zanzibar and Tanganyika merged and the country became known as Tanzania, a combination of the two names.

As we moved south the temperature warmed up and the humidity got higher. Then we arrived at Lake Manyara National Park, which is just near Mto Wa Mbu, Chris’s home town.

The lake is huge and surrounded by jungle, which explained the humidity.

As we wended our way around the park, there were plenty of baboons and birds hiding in the heavy undergrowth.

Once we reached the lake the undergrowth vanished and there was a flat open marshland filled with pelicans, Egyptian Geese, Marabou Stork, wildebeest and zebra.

The pelicans dominated the scene.

There were thousands.

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Day 14, October 4: Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater is regarded as the ‘Cradle of humanity’

For us it was a void of whiteness, as the rim of the crater was shrouded in mist. When we descended the 600 metres to crater floor we were below the cloud.

Only then did we fully realise it’s grandeur.

Ngorongoro Crater measures between 16 and 19 kilometres across and has an area of 264 square kilomteres.

It is in part fed by water from Lake Victoria and is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. It was formed between two to three million years ago.

It’s a very diverse eco system that has supported life for millions of years. It changes from arid grasslands and swamps to a verdant green, undulated Acacia forrest.

The animals that are in the crater, stay there and don’t migrate, except for some zebra and wildebeest.

Being a natural enclosure the lion population suffers from inbreeding. Any male lion that migrates there gets a very hard time from the indigenous lions of the crater.

We came across two lionesses asleep on the road. They had obviously had a big lunch and were sleeping it off.

It seems that siestas are also popular in Africa.

On leaving the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area we had a baboon experience.

There were a number of them hanging about at the gate. Thea had her side window open and in a flash one was through and snaffling leftovers from the lunch box on the back seat.

The baboon left as quickly as she came.

Not far from the Ngorongoro Crater is Laetoli. Here footprints were discovered by archaeologist Mary Leakey in 1978. These showed evidence that bipedalism (walking upright on two legs) preceded enlarged brains in hominids.

From this area modern man developed and populated the world.

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Day 15, October 5: Mto wa Mbu to Zanzibar.

Our final day was spent travelling. We drove from our hotel in Mto wa Mbu to the airport, on the outskirts of Arusha, to catch a 3:30 pm Precision Air flight to Zanzibar.

On the drive back we saw Massai boys dressed in black. We had seen many similar groups on the drive down.

These youths are partaking in their initiation into manhood. They paint their faces white, with a rather spooky mask and wander the roads on the tourist routes. (They also do more serious things like kill a lion).

If you want to take a snap you have to pay them. If you try and take one from your car, they will throw stones at it.

I kept my camera in its bag.

It had been an amazing 15 days, made even more interesting by the continually shady dealings of our tour operator.

In the end we saw what we came to see and got a wonderful insight into Africa and it’s vagaries.

There was even a Msumbi coffee shop at the Arusha Airport.

Hakuna matata.

Granada, a special city for a special event.

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

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The main purpose of our trip to Granada was for Hayden and Andrea’s wedding.

We had been to the city twice before in 2012 and had experienced its marvellous history in both summer and winter.

I was also in Granada way back in 1972, but that’s another story.

Our tourist adventures were very modest and mainly confined to walking trips around our hotel.

The Hotel Reina Christina is right in the heart of Old Granada so there was still plenty to see, even if it was done very casually.

While Thea was off having a manicure and pedicure with Kate; Evan, Stephanie and I spent an hour or so visiting the Granada Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

The construction of this cathedral was a long time in coming as it had to wait for for the acquisition of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada from its Muslim rulers in 1492. As a result it was designed in the Spanish Renaissance style. It was started in 1518 and built on top of the city’s main mosque, a common practice when one culture replaced another.

It took 181 years for the cathedral to be completed.

As part of the admission fee you get an audio guide to help you negotiate this very large and ornate place of Cristian worship.

I wished that I’d had a dictionary of architectural and ecclesiastical terms to help me interpret the very verbose descriptions.

We did venture, one hot afternoon, to the El Albaicin area, which is on the opposite of hill to the Alhambra, near Sacromonte.

This area features narrow winding streets that reflect Granada’s Medieval Moorish past. It was made a UNESCO World heritage site in 1984.

The group staying at the hotel for the wedding started with Thea and me and grew to fourteen over a ten day period.

We soon discovered the best coffee in Granada and possibly Spain. Visits to La Finca Coffee, or Plantation, soon became a daily ritual.

There were a number of other Australians in Granada, who were also there for the wedding, and they also discovered La Finca.

Thea and I hosted a cocktail party at the Hotel Vincci Albayzin. The idea was to introduce Andrea to those overseas guest who hadn’t already met her and to also give everyone a chance to meet Andrea’s immediate family.

It was a great success, going way beyond the predicted time.

The Spanish know how to party and so do Australians.

The wedding itself was a fabulous event, set in a spectacular location, on Sacromonte, overlooking the Alhambra.

The formalities started just before sunset, so everything was bathed in a magic evening light. Apart from a professional photographer and videographer, there were more cameras snapping than a frenzied pack of paparazzi at the film festival in Cannes.

I kept my camera in its bag.

The next day was to recover, not surprising considering we had been at the wedding for over ten hours and didn’t get back to the hotel until 6.30 am.

We weren’t the last to leave.

Olives are not tapas.

On our last night in Granada we went out for a drink and then a meal. Now in Granada the tradition is that for every drink you have you get a free tapa.

This didn’t happen.

At the first bar we got a very small bowl of sweets. And because we were waiting for our chosen restaurant to open, we were compelled to visit another bar.

Here we only got olives.

Sadly the partying is over and now it’s time for the serious touring to begin.

Barcelona old and new.

Friday, September 30th, 2016

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Barcelona was the first stop in our latest adventure.

Over the next three months we will be travelling to Granada, for Hayden and Andrea’s wedding, then on to the White Villages of Andalusia, down to Gibraltar and back north to Madrid. From there we fly to Nairobi in Kenya to start a two month tour of Southern Africa.

Barcelona seems to have become our second home and we are here to relax and acclimatise ourselves to the last warm breath of the northern summer.

It’s also a great opportunity for me to get used to my new Olympus camera, without the stress of missing any vital shots in new places.

Barcelona, while very familiar to us, is also constantly changing, so there is always something new to see and do.

Much to my delight the craft brew phenomenon has come to the city. There was in fact a craft Brewhouse right next door to our Air B&B in Raval. Ølgod has 30 taps, on a long white tiled wall. Surprisingly 25 were active, pumping out a variety of local and imported brews, with many from Denmark. Which is not unusual given that it’s named after a Danish railway town.

The ones I sampled were very good.

Barcelona has traditionally been the home of the big beer brands. Local brews such as Estrella and Moritz dominate while other European brands like Amstel, Heineken and Stella Artois satisfy the tourist tastes. It was exciting to see a move towards craft beers.

Over the first couple of days we had a number of déjà vu moments visiting familiar sites. We took the RENFE up to Badalona and had tapas in one of the temporary beach restaurants or Chiringuitos.

To get our legs ‘match fit’ for touring again we walked for hours around the city. Up the Rambla, through the Gothic Quarter to El Born and back from Gracia where the annual street festival was in its final days.

Looking for a completely new experience we took a return trip on the Port Vell Aerial Tramway to Montjuïc. The funicular isn’t new as it was built in 1931 and offers spectacular views over Barceloneta Beach, Port Vell and the city. We took the tramway from the Port to Miramar, which is halfway up the hill to Montjuïc.

After our funicular ride over Port Vell we walked along Barceloneta Beach towards the casino and the giant sculptural fish by Frank Gehry.

Barcelona has always been a creative city.

From the grand, Gothic inspired, Art Nouveau architecture of Antonio Gaudy to the small businesses, creating interesting and original craftwork.

We discovered Camino, selling handmade Spanish shoes and clothing. Effecto Limón making quirky dresses and bags all built around zips. And the Barcelona Duck Shop that has hundreds of different designs of rubber bath ducks.

We bought ‘Bat Duck’ a masked avenger version for Bruno, Andrea’s nephew.

Barcelona seems to be about two hours out of kilter with my body clock, or more probably what I’m used to.

Breakfast doesn’t start until ten or eleven, while lunch is at three and dinner isn’t till nine.

In keeping with the locals we walked down to Born and had a late lunch in one of the many outdoor restaurants close to the old market.

El Born CCM is a museum, where the ruins of 1700 Barcelona have been unearthed below the market area.

I get the feeling that Spanish dining times will become the norm once we reach Granada.

Following the plan to do something different while in Barcelona we took the funicular up to Vallvidrera Superior. This is a high point in Barcelona and has some spectacular views of the city and port. Overshadowing the sleepy hillside village, on Tibadabo Hill, is the Torre de Collserola or Collserola Communications Tower. Built for the 1992 Spanish Summer Olympics it stands 288.4 meters tall. It was designed by the British architect Norman Foster.

Kate, Mark, Alex and Sarah arrived in Barcelona and we had arranged to spend a few days with them before heading to Granada.

They would follow a few days later.

Sarah and Alex had arranged for us to go on a tapas tasting trail. This started in the Barceloneta district and then proceeded to El Born. We visited a mixture of four tapas bars and restaurants, each with a distinctly different style of tapas.

The first was La Bombeta, a bar that has been credited with inventing the bombeta. A round, deep fried ball of potatoes and minced meat, served  with a garlic and hot chilli sauce.

Next bar was Jai Ca, which was predominately seafood. It was a local place and our group of tourists stood out.

Next was my favourite, Cerveceria el Vaso de oro, a gastro pub serving their own craft brews – meat was their featured food.

This quaint establishment, with its long narrow bar, was brewing its own beer well before the craft beer revolution.

Our final stop was at Tapeo AMB Daniel Rueda, a very Catalan establishment. Here we were served a variety of dishes, including Ox Tail and a Catalan variation of paella made with noodles, not rice, and squid ink.

Next stop was Granada, this is Andrea’s home town and where Hayden and Andrea will be formally married.

Don’t worry, they’re English. 

Monday, March 14th, 2016

Richmond Bridge

The Twelve Apostles

We have recently spent 2 weeks travelling around Tasmania and then along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. This was with our English friends, Pat and Graham, from Dorset.

Being a tourist in your own country is an eye opener, as you start to see you home from a different perspective.

Not as a local but as a visitor.

We met Pat and Graham in Launceston and had intended to travel west towards Strahan, via Cradle Mountain. We had never seen that side of the island and we knew that they wanted to see some of Tasmania’s wilderness areas.

This was not to be.

In the week leading up to our visit bushfires had developed right across the north and west coast areas. Spring 2015 was the driest on record and the conditions were described by farmers as the worst in 70 years.

So after a night in Launceston we headed east, away from the fires, through St Helens and down the coast to Bicheno.

It was in Bicheno that the Tasmanian drought broke.

The temperature plummeted and the rains were torrential. So much so that our apartment in ‘Bicheno By The Bay’ flooded.

Pat and Graham had come to Australia for warmer, dryer weather. After all this was the land or oranges and sunshine.

On that particular day the temperature was higher in London than on the east coast of Tasmania.

In Bicheno we were told that there was a colony of Fairy Penguins (for politically correct reasons they are now called Little Penguins) just near the hotel, so we went out in search of them. It was raining and we were out in the dark, getting wet and cold. Pat and I decided to return to the apartment but Graham was undeterred so he and Thea stayed out in the foul conditions a little longer.

The penguin sightings were few and far between.

The next day we headed further south and spent hours walking around the Freycinet Peninsula. This stunning 18km hike took us to Coles Bay and then over the peninsula to Wineglass Bay.

Despite the rain Pat and Graham always carried their bathers. This was Australia and they were determined to swim whenever there was an opportunity.

We didn’t worry, they’re English.

Port Arthur was our next destination.

I have been to Port Arthur three times and on each visit the somberness of the place is reflected by the gloominess of the weather.

This time was no different.

What was different however is the development of this historic site. This is now a truly world class tourist attraction that showcases the brutality of the convict settlement – this was slavery in the guise of a penal colony.

Hobart Town was thriving, Van Dieman’s Land needed workers and prisoners were a cheap, available labor force.

The rain alternated between drizzle and downpour but we continued on our discovery tour. Pat and Graham seemed unfazed by the rain and by the end of the day we were all soaked to the skin.

They didn’t worry, they’re English.

Hobart was next, and as our hotel was very close to Salamanca Place, visiting the Saturday market was placed on the agenda.

This is a huge market that almost takes up the entire length of Salamanca Place. It’s sells everything from local arts and crafts to plush toys like Tasmanian Tigers and Tasmanian Devils.

Surprisingly most of these were made in Tasmania and not China.

That afternoon we visited the Cascades Female Factory. Again we found the whole tourist experience professional, enlightening and very confronting.

In many cases the women were treated more harshly than the men, and again were nothing but slave labor for the fledgling settlement. And even worse, any child that was born to a convict in the Female Factory had little chance of survival, as the mortality rate was almost 100%.

If by some chance a child did survive they would have been mute, as there was a strict code of silence in the gaol – so language skills were never learnt.

The Cascades Female Factory and Port Arthur, along with nine other convict sites form the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. These sites highlight the growth, through forced migration, of the Australian nation.

There was an exhibition of photography at both Port Arthur and the Cascades Female Factory by Mine Konakci, titled ‘A convict in the family?’ This was inspired by the fact that from 1787 to 1868 over 160,000 convicts were transported the colony, and many Australians have identified a convict in their family history. Mine posed the descendant with props, directly relating to the crime that had been committed.

This was a very creative way of connecting the past with the present.

Later that day we drove north east to Richmond. This is a well preserved tourist town, best known for its bridge that was completed in 1825 and is the oldest in Australia.

On our last day in Hobart we took the catamaran up the river to MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). The current exhibition was a Gilbert and George Retrospective – 97 pictures painted from 1970 to 2014. To my mind Gilbert and George are a well oiled ‘art factory’. Via a controlled form of graphic design, they use their distinctive style to make social commentary.

It’s not to everyone’s taste but you wouldn’t expect anything that David Walsh does at MONA to be main-stream.

Having had enough of art, culture and history we left Hobart and headed north to Pine Lake on the Central Plateau. This is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. It was here that the sun finally broke through and we got to see some blue sky.

On the road to do the Liffey Falls walk we met a group of ‘Firies’(male and female firefighters) heading back from a week in the state’s north west.

It was great to chat to them and get a small insight into their battle with the Tasmanian bushfires.

That night, at our motel in Deloraine, there was another group of sixteen firefighters, this group from New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

It was an interesting encounter for Pat and Graham, after all there aren’t that many bushfires in Dorset.

On our final day in Tasmania we drove from Deloraine to Springlawn Lagoon in the Narawntapu National Park.

Just off the track in the National Park is Bakers Beach, a long stretch of sand and surf that opens out into Bass Straight.

The beach was deserted and the water cold, but it was here that Pat and Graham finally got their only dip in Tasmanian waters.

They didn’t mind, they’re English.

We flew back to Melbourne for a week of sightseeing on home soil.

Graham discovered Sandringham Beach, which is less than 200m from our front door, and a dip before breakfast briefly became part of his daily routine.

After two days exploring Melbourne we made the trip down the Great Ocean Road to Lorne and then Port Fairy. On the way down to Lorne Pat and Graham had a swim at Urquharts Bluff. There was a surf class finishing up on the beach as we arrived. The young girls looked frozen, even though they all were well insulated with their winter wet suits or ‘Steamers’.

As Pat and Graham plunged into the surf, with nothing but their togs on, I got a strange, questioning, look from one of the instructors.

“Don’t worry”, I said, “they’re English.”

Lorne was a bit of a nostalgic journey for me, having spent two summers working there while I was at college. We had a drink in the Pacific Hotel, where I worked and breakfast at the Arab, which was the ‘cool place to be’ back in the 60s.

Graham again found the beach and while we had breakfast he went swimming.

One of the main reasons for the drive along the Great Ocean Road was to visit the Twelve Apostles.

We weren’t the only tourists with that idea.

Every vantage point was crawling with them. They came by the coach load and by private vehicles. We later discovered that the reason for the swell in numbers was Chinese New Year. The coaches were full of Chinese tourists while the private cars were local Chinese getting out of town for a couple of days.

They were all there to celebrate The Year of the Monkey.

On the way to the Twelve Apostles we passed through Separation Creek and Wye River. Evidence of the devastating Christmas Day Bushfires lay as a black carpet along the roadside.

However the rejuvenation had already started and the were patches of green sprouting from the charcoaled tree ferns.

We spent that night in Port Fairy, a delightful seaside resort town with an abundance of good pubs, restaurants and accommodation.

Taking the inland route back to Melbourne we briefly stopped off at Ballarat and gave our visitors a quick glimpse of this product of the gold rush.

Much to our visitors delight we got to see, and photograph, a couple of rather sleepy koalas. They were high up in a gum tree on the Hopkins Highway, south of Mortlake.

Once we were back in Sandringham we did the usual walk to Half Moon Bay, again Pat and Graham has a splash. While the next day we drove around the Mornington Peninsula, visiting the Merricks General store for a coffee and Arthurs Seat for a view. Then it was down to the bay and into Sorrento. There we did the ‘Millionaires Walk’ past the homes of the rich and famous.

Needless to say Pat and Graham’s togs got wet again, this time at both the front and back beaches of Sorrento.

While Pat and Graham swam at every opportunity, our bathers never got an airing – it was far too cold for us.

Don’t worry, we’re Australian.

Back to the Old World.  

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

It was a long flight from New York City to Europe, via Reykjavik, with Icelandic Air. This was the last few weeks of our adventure and it was a packed itinerary, with Switzerland, Malta and Germany on the agenda.

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Switzerland.

Jet-lagged from the Trans Atlantic flight we stretched our legs with a walking tour around the old part of Zurich. We wandered along the Limmat River and down to the Zurich Lake, through the narrow streets lined with cafes, restaurants and trendy boutiques.

The next morning we had another stroll around the old city centre. Our first stop was the train station to sort out our tickets for the next few days.

We then caught an afternoon train to Schaffhausen, where we were met by Heinz and taken down to the Rhine Falls, or Rheinfall. These are the largest plain water falls in Europe and were formed in the last ice age, somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 years ago.

In the late afternoon we were joined by Mieke and she guided us around beautiful old Schaffhausen. The city has a long history, being first named as Villa Scafhusen in 1045. We visited the Allerheiligen Convent which was constructed between 1049 and 1064. Mieke insisted that we then make a brief stop at the local gaol, the venue of Thea’s famous indiscretion some 43 years earlier.

That evening we had a very pleasant meal of raclette, wine and conversation with Heinz and Mieke.

The next day we caught the train to Bern where we met up with Denis and Martine. The intention had been for the six of us to spend the weekend walking in the Bernese Oberland. Unfortunately the weather forecast was for storms, so we opted to spend a day in Bern and then drive back to Arnex and stay at Châteaux Barclay.

After a stroll around the main areas of Bern we caught the bus to the Paul Klee Centre. Klee is one of Bern’s favourite sons and the museum houses about 40% of his oeuvre. Completed in 2005 it was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano and features a wave formation roof line.

The current show was a joint exhibition, featuring the works Paul Klee (1897-1940) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).  Both these men are considered to be the ‘fathers’ of Classical Modernism. As the curators notes said: “ …their friendship was one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century. Their relationship was shaped by mutual inspiration and support, but also by rivalry and competition.”

After an educational and entertaining few hours we then drove to Arnex, where we spent a very pleasant few days in this delightful Swiss/French village.

We had lunch at a restaurant on Le Chasseron, a peak in the Jura Mountains. It overlooked the Swiss Alps on one side and Sainte-Croix on the other.

Heinz and Mieke returned to Schaffhausen and we spent our last day with Martine’s extended family, at a Morel family picnic.

Denis then drove us to Yverdon, where we caught the train to Zurich.

Our next destination was Malta.

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Malta.

Just 38 years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the Knights of Saint John were putting down their roots in Malta.

The Knights of Saint John or Knights Hospitaller or Knights of Malta as they are variously known, are so important that the call sign for Air Malta is KM or Knights of Malta.

Currently Malta is a country under renovation. Everywhere you travel there are construction cranes and works in progress.

Huge scale building projects are being carried out on the Island of Malta and to a lesser degree on the smaller island of Gozo. It most cases this work is being 85% funded by the European Union.

On our first night in Malta we went to the nearest restaurant, Kalkara Regatta, it was right on the marina and only 100 meters from our guest house.

We sat outside and enjoyed the fireworks display that went on for nearly two hours.

It was part of a celebration to commemorate the end of the Great Siege of Malta. In 1565 the Ottoman Empire tried to invade Malta but were held off by the Knights Hospitaller, 2,000 soldiers and 400 Maltese citizens.

There are a number of peninsulas that go to make up the greater city area and each one has a self contained township.

We were staying on Kalkara which means ‘lime’ in Latin. In fact the motto for Kalkara is ‘A Calce Nomen’ or Lime is my name. Kalkara is only two peninsulas away from Valetta, and offers relatively easy access to the capital.

Malta has been inhabited since 5,200 BC and in prehistoric times was once part of a land bridge that joined Africa and Europe.

Malta is bi-lingual.

English is very common, with the local language, Malti, being a real mixture of Italian, Arabic and English. This is understandable considering Malta’s close proximity to Sicily and North Africa.

It’s a weird accent and hard to place exactly what it’s origins are. The locals gesticulate and shout like Italians. Yet there is a seriousness that is more Slavic than Arabic.

The English influence manifests itself in the Zebra Crossings, red telephone and letter boxes and the fact that they drive on the left.

However the Maltese drive like Italians, not Brits.

There is a very old joke that goes something like, “How do you make a Maltese cross? Answer: “You poke him in the eye.” The Maltese Cross is so rooted in history that it’s found everywhere. Apart from the national flag, which uses a George Cross.

Due to its strategic position in the Southern Mediterranean, Malta has been subjected to more than one siege. From 1940 to 1942 the Axis forces, of Italy and Germany, blockaded Malta’s supply lines. They were determined to either bomb or starve the population into submission.

The WWII Siege Memorial commemorates the award of the George Cross to Malta, hence its proud position on the flag.

I had to work most of the day, so it was a late start to go sight seeing. At about 4pm we took the bus into Valletta. If took half an hour to wind our way around the three peninsulas. I am sure the water taxi would be faster as it’s only about 1 kilometre, as the crow flies.

In the evening the fire works were exploding again, and for a second night running we got a glimpse from our table. This was much to Thea’s annoyance, as she is a pyromaniac and anything that has flashes of fire, smoke and goes bang is a must see.

She would have rather been in the thick of it.

There must be at least 365 Saint’s Days or days of commemorations celebrated in Malta, as there was festivities, with flags, fireworks and festivals every day we were in the country.

The 16th Century city wall of Valletta was built, in the local honey-coloured limestone, by the Knights of St John. Recently the entrance and the square, that’s just inside the wall, have been dramatically redeveloped by Renzo Piano, using the same materials. This innovative Italian architect is also responsible for the London Shard, a new city landmark and the Paul Klee Centre that we had visited just a few days earlier in Bern.

Renzo is certainly getting some work.

After another day working we headed to Birgu. This is one of the other peninsula towns that’s adjacent to Kalkara. It had rained most of the day, so the time spent in front of the computer had kept us from getting soaked.

Day three and still working. This time we walked to Birgu and got the water Taxi to Valletta. It was a much faster and more pleasant trip.

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky. All of Valletta and the surrounding towns are built from the same limestone as the walls, so come sunset they glow.

Valletta gets its name from Fra’ Jean Parisot de la Vallette (1495-1568) who was famous for his gallant role in the Great Siege of 1565 and the building of Valletta.

The peninsulas are serviced by a good bus service, which we had previously used, unfortunately it runs infrequently after 8pm.

We had to wait for an hour to get the last bus back to Kalkara.

As usual the taxis were being parasites and wanted €30 for the twenty minute ride.

We waited for the bus.

After four days the work was finished so we hired a car. The tiny black Peugeot 107, looked very smart but couldn’t pull the skin of a rice pudding.

Our first stop was Mdina, a beautiful walled medieval city. From antiquity until 1530 it was the original capital of Malta, it was then moved to Birgu and finally to Valletta.

One of our first stops was St. Paul’s Cathedral, built between 1697 and 1702. Here, under the intricate marble inlayed floor, we found the tombs of many Maltese luminaries, including some Mifsuds. We have some good friends in Australia with the same name, we later discovered that they have a connection to the Mifsuds of Malta.

Just over the road from the church is the Mdina Cathedral Museum. This compact museum contains Christian and Pre-Christian artifacts, including paintings, ceramics, pottery, coins and silverware.

The coin collection started with the Carthaginians, Phoenicians and Greeks. It then went through the rise an fall of the Roman Empire to the Byzantium, Arab, Norman, Spanish and French periods of Maltese history. The collection highlighted the churches power during the Maltese Middle Ages, culminating with the British period. It ended with a contemporary Maltese commemorative collection.

It was a who’s who of Maltese conquerors.

There was also an excellent collection of woodcuts and copper plates by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) the German engraver. Dürer is one of my favourite artists of the German Renaissance, so this was a real find.

We then went for a drive down to the coastline south west of Mdina around Dingli. This is the highest point in Malta and still only 13km from Valletta – Malta isn’t very big.

Dominating the Dingli Cliffs is the MATS Area Radar Station. Constructed in 1939 it was the first radar facility to be build outside of the UK. It was part of an early warning system designed to defend Malta during the Second World War.

Not far up the coast is the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. The chapel was originally built in the 13th, century, restored in 1646 and restored yet again in 2007. This area is on the tourist route, so there were busloads of travellers trying to get a snap of the famous chapel.

Dingli is less than 400km from the coast of Libya, yet there appears to be very few refugees coming from North Africa. In fact only 105 of the estimated 1 million that have arrived Europe in 2015, passed through the islands of Malta.

Having started with fireworks on Monday night, we ended the week with a live music performance, titled, Music Under the Stars.

The show was put on by the local Kalkara Council and staged in front of Saint Joseph’s Church, which was just 100 meters from our hotel.

We ate at the Supernova Heights Restaurant, which is next to the church, and had front row seats.

It was dinner and a show, for the price of a dinner.

The first band was the Copenhagen Brass Ensemble.

They played a collection of popular tunes which included the theme song to the Bond movie, Skyfall.

Then the local folk dancers took over. They were all in traditional costumes which looked surprisingly Swiss. Strange considering we were in the middle of the Mediterranean and very close to North Africa. But not surprising when you see how the Italians have influenced Malta and the fact that Italy does go as far north as the Alps.

Then there was a marching band from Estonia, again playing many popular melodies. The band master was a real character and produced a range of of miniature instruments to accompany each song.

My favourite was his use of a train whistle in ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’

The final band of the evening were Maltese. They were young and very serious – as was their music.

They did play a medley of American Western themes followed by another one of ABBA songs, including Dancing Queen, Mama Mia and Fernando. This brightened up their performance considerably.

All-in-all it was a very cosmopolitan night.

We had heard about the Sunday market at Marsaxlokk and decided to drive there to see what it was all about.

The market consisted of fresh fish, fruit, veg and an over abundance of souvenirs.

Marsaxlokk is a fishing village and port in the south eastern part of the Island of Malta. It was here during the 9th Century BC that the Phoenicians first landed and set up a trading post. It was also the main anchorage point for the Ottomans during the Great Siege of Malta.

Within the Marsaxlokk Harbour are many brightly coloured traditional fishing boats or Luzzi.  Each one has a pair of eyes painted on the bow. The eyes are believed to date back to Phoenician times and are said to protect the fishermen at sea.

From Marsaxlokk we drove to Saint Thomas Tower, via IL Kalanka Beach. There was no beach just a rocky outcrop, very reminiscent of the ‘beaches’ we saw in Croatia.

Not far from Saint Thomas was an abandoned hotel, with some rather stunning graffiti painted on the crumbling walls. The Jerma Palace Hotel closed in March 2007 and the area is now derelict. The hotel owners have walked away from the site and there is now an ongoing argument about who is responsible for cleaning it up.

In much better condition that the hotel, is Saint Thomas Tower. Built in 1614, this is the largest watchtower in Malta. The tower was built in response to the Raid of Žejtun, when the Ottomans landed in Saint Thomas Bay.

This was the last attempt by the Ottomans to conquer Malta.

We then drove back to Valletta, this time entering from the western side through Silema. It was here, looking across Marsamxett Harbour, that we got some great views of Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

We enjoyed the view over a cooling lemonade, at the Hotel Fortina, before heading back to our hotel in Kalkara.

Transport costs in Malta are erratic, to say the least.

The bus from Kalkara to Valletta is €2.00pp, while the water taxi from Birgu, which is closer to Valletta, is €2.50pp. A taxi wants the extortionate price of €30.00 and the most reliable trip, by ferry, only asks 50 cents.

On our third day with the Peugeot we drove to the top of Malta Island and took the car ferry to Gozo.

Gozo is the second largest island in the Maltese Archipelago, next to the island of Malta. It is far more rural and less developed. Gone were the ever present construction cranes, high density housing and traffic.

One of the main historical attractions on Gozo are the Ggantija Temples. This Neolithic site is believed to be over 5,000 years old and amongst the world’s oldest free-standing religious structures. They are in fact older than the pyramids of Egypt. Ggantija means giant in Malti, as the temples were believed to have been built by giants. They were made a UNESCO site in 1980.

In 1928 Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) visited the site. Which is ironic, as here was a pioneer of modern architecture visiting one of the world’s most ancient structures.

After three days with the car we only drove 204km, over two islands and got into fourth gear once, – the Peugeot had five.

As I have mentioned earlier, Malta is very small.

On our last day we went walking in Valletta.

The first stop was Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. Built by the Knights of Malta between 1573 and 1578 it is regarded as one of the world’s finest examples of Baroque architecture.

The facade was being restored so their was little to see except scaffolding.

The interior is very ornate, with crypts containing elaborate frescos as well as the remains of many of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta.

Much of the artwork was done by the Calabrian artist and Knight, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Preti was a follower of Caravaggio, which is evident in the late Baroque style of his work.

This cathedral is as much about the Knights of Saint John as it is about Catholicism in Malta.

The cathedral’s architect, Geralomo Cassar (1520-1592) would be horrified to see that these days most visitors enter the cathedral from the side. The front door offers a grand view and shows off the architecture to its best advantage. Now with many churches charging for entry, the side door is the easiest place to put the ticket office.

Another very interesting church was the Basilica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The architect of the original church was also Geralomo Cassar. It was rebuilt, adding the oval dome, after it was bombed during WWII.

There is a very Italian feel to most of the architecture in Valletta, such as Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral and the Grandmaster’s Palace. Yet there is also a touch of England, like the statue of Queen Victoria that’s sits outside the Valletta Library.

There is so much history in Valletta, it’s little wonder that the entire city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

On our last morning we wandered over to Birgu again, to kill a few hours before catching our flight to Berlin. Most of our time was spent in the the Inquisitor’s Palace, which was originally built in 1530 as a law court for the Order of St John.

In 1574, following the establishment of the Roman Inquisition, the palace became the residence of the inquisitor.

Today it houses the National Museum of Ethnography, focussing on the inquisition and its impact on Maltese history.

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Berlin.

Hayden and Andrea have now moved from Barcelona to Berlin and their new apartment was going to be our base for our final days in Europe. They are living in the old eastern sector and very close to Alexanderplatz. This is a newly developed part of the city with many restaurants, bars and apartments popping up to cater for the expanding population.

This area of Berlin is home to many of the tech companies that have moved to Northern Germany.

English seems to be the default language.

Hayden had taken a couple of days off to show us around the city and our first stop was Bernauer Straße. This street was originally in the French sector of West Berlin and all the buildings on the eastern side of the street, in the eastern sector, were emptied and their windows and doors bricked up. When the wall was constructed in 1961 they were pulled down.*

There is now a memorial and a walk with displays, describing the wall and its history. This is the only remaining section of the wall and a big tourist attraction for visitors and locals.

We then did a walk around some more of the Berlin sites like the Cathedral, DDR Museum, Neue Wache or new Guardhouse, Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

On Saturday we all went down to Kurfüstendamm which was in West Berlin, when the wall was up.

We had been there in 2005 and noticed a big change. The area had returned to its previous upmarket style and was again full of designer boutiques and luxury car showrooms.

Even the hotel we had stayed in ten years ago was now boasting four stars – it was only three when we were there.

On Sunday we all went to Wedding for lunch in a traditional German beer garden. The weather had turned cold so the coats were pulled out of the bags.

Our long northern summer was finally over.

While Hayden and Andrea were at work on Monday we walked down to Checkpoint Charlie at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße. We were last there in 1972, when the wall still divided the city and the eastern sector was a barren wasteland of bombed out buildings and vast open spaces.

In 72’ the streets were empty and so were the supermarkets shelves.

Now it’s an outdoor museum complete with actors, dressed in WWII uniforms, posing for the tourists. There are also many restaurants, apartment buildings and well-to-do shops in the area.

There’s no shortage of wealth there.

On our last day we took the train to Potsdam, which is about 24km from Berlin. Until 1918 Potsdam was the home of the Prussian kings and the German Kaiser.

Much of the city is designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has only been accessible since the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1990.

We caught the bus from Potsdam Station to Sanssouci Palace.

This was built between 1745 and 1747 as the Summer residence of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The literal translation of Sanssouci is ‘No Worries’. Frederick II wanted a place that was an escape from life in the Berlin Court.

Frederick the Great was a lover, not a fighter like his father, and the Sanssouci Palace reflects this. He was interested in art, music, poetry and a good time.

The building’s Rococo style certainly suited the King’s romantic tendencies.

A popular and regular visitor to the palace was the French philosopher Voltaire. Surprisingly Frederick was such a Francophile that he spoke better French than German.

While we were waiting to tour Sanssouci Palace we did a quick trip around the Renaissance inspired Orangery Palace. Built by Friedrich Wilhelm IV between 1851 and 1864, it was designed to be part of a much larger complex, but politics and lack of funds got in the way.

One of the grandest yet strangest rooms was Raphael Hall, containing over fifty copies of famous Renaissance works. According to our guide this was a way of bringing these masterpieces to the public. Albeit a very exclusive public that were guests of the King.

In this room the art had a religious theme, in keeping with the king’s conservative Christian beliefs.

For the rest of the afternoon we wandered around the Sanssouci Gardens.

We did stumble across the Chinese House, which was built between 1755 and 1764. It was built in the Chinoiserie Style, a mixture of ornamental Rococo elements and Chinese architecture.

From what little we saw, Potsdam was an interesting place, further exploration is certainly warranted.

But that will have to wait for another trip.

That evening we had dinner Pasternak, a Russian-Jewish fusion restaurant, just near Hayden and Andrea’s apartment. It was our 42nd wedding anniversary and great to be able to share it with some of the family, especially now that they are spread across the northern hemisphere.

It was a fitting end to our stay in Berlin. We had seen so much of the former Eastern Sector, that the Russian influenced cuisine seemed rather appropriate.

The next day we were on the flight back to Australia – our thirteen month adventure was at an end.

* I have just started to read Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. It will be interesting to explore more of this dark period of Berlin’s past.

N’York. 

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

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We drove into New York City at midday and went straight to Ev and Steph’s new apartment in East Harlem.

It was then time to return the car to Dollar Car Rental. Given the problems we had had in Seattle and the time it took to get a new contract and car – we feared the worst.

After presenting our heavily modified Thrifty contract to the Dollar staff, we were greeted with confused looks, lots of head shaking and eventually a smile of inevitability.

Everything was resolved and we were sent on our way.

I can’t help thinking that this wasn’t the first time this problem had occurred.

We had spent the last two months on the road, in rented cars. Then once we hit NYC we were on our feet.

We seemed to walk everywhere.

This was good and much needed exercise after all the time sitting on our bums.

One of our first tasks was to get a bed and a few essentials, so we headed for K-Mart. We had planned to stay with Ev and Steph, rather than a hotel so it was only fair to help them out and get what was needed. After all we were saving on a New York Hotel, which wouldn’t have been cheap.

On our first full day of site seeing we explored some of the parks, especially Central Park and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.

Central Park was first opened in 1857 on 315 ha and in 1873 is was increased to its present size of 341 ha. It attracts about 37.5 million visitors each year, so we were not alone.

On 5th Avenue, very close to the eastern easter edge of the park, is the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. This day we just looked and took some external snaps. Built in 1959, this is one of Frank Lloyd Wrights masterpieces. We planned to come back and explore the museum further in a few days time.

Ev and Steph’s apartment was a stones-throw from the West 125 Street Metro Station. This was on the ‘A’ line which runs both north and south through Manhattan.

We had bought a Seven Day Metro Pass and headed south of Harlem into Downtown.

I was commenting to myself about the lack of buskers on the Metro, that quickly changed at the next station. A group of four middle aged African Americans hopped on and proceeded to croon the carriage. They weren’t that good and didn’t get much money but they did brighten up the subway ride.

Evan had tracked down some good coffee, so we headed to one of the Bluestone Cafes. This chain of Melbourne inspired cafes was started in 2013 by Nick Stone, an ex VFL player, banker and now coffee shop entrepreneur. Nick is hoping to have 6 or 7 of his Bluestone Cafes open by the end of 2015.

After a few days of exploring, we escaped Manhattan and boarded the Staten Island Ferry. Our main objective was to get a good look at the Statue of Liberty as we sailed past.

Back on the island we did more sight seeing, visiting the September Eleven Memorial and One World Tower. The last time I was in NYC was in 1986 and the World Trade Centre Towers were still standing. The September Eleven Memorial is a very poignant reminder of how much the world has changed since 2001.

The remainder of that day was spent exploring some of New York’s older architectural landmarks.

Some of my favorites were: the Manhattan Municipal Building (1914); Surrogate’s Court (1907); Emigrants Industrial Savings Bank (1912); the Chrysler Building (1930) and the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building (1913)

We then walked to Times Square and the famous neon signs. One particular LED display was an animated logo sequence for the Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M.

We completed our architectural jaunt with the Rockefeller Centre (1939) and the Art Deco General Electric Building (1933) in the Rockefeller Plaza.

I believe that it’s these early to mid 20th century buildings that really gives NYC its charm.

New York is a city full of tourists, even this late in the summer.

The one thing I have noticed, both in NY and in most other tourist destinations, is the scarcity of Single Lens Reflex Cameras (SLR).

Ten years ago most travellers carried an SLR or at least a small digital camera. Now it’s all smart phones, tablets or GoPros on a Selfie Stick. I can’t help but wonder if a smaller camera isn’t a better way to take my snaps, rather than schlepping 9 kg of camera gear around all day.

There is always an exception and that came from older Japanese gentlemen, who still maintain the tradition of toting around large SLRs with the accompanying big bag of accessories.

We had set aside the next day to visit the Guggenheim, but we hadn’t done our homework as it was closed.

Unperturbed we wandered down 5th Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another venue that was high on our list of ‘must does’.

Many international luminaries of modern art were in this exhibition such as Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Miró and many more.

Plus there were the home-grown artists like Pollock, Warhol, Hopper and even Rockwell. Norman Rockwell (1894-!978) was a popular painter and illustrator who became famous with his reflections of American culture during the first half of the 20th century. For nearly 50 years his iconic illustrations could be found on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post.

Apart from the wonderful collection of art, the highlight for me was finding a 1937 Purma Special Camera in the industrial design exhibition. This was designed by Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) an American citizen who was born in France. It was manufactured by Thomas De La Rue and Beck for Purma Camera Limited, England from 1937 to 1951.

The reason for my excitement, was that I own one of these quirky old Bakelite models.

New York City consists of five boroughs or council areas. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island.

We had been to Staten Island so still had a few to go.

We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and walked into Brooklyn and then took a ferry ride up the East River from Brooklyn to Williamsburg.

Williamsburg is a neighbourhood of the borough of Brooklyn and sometimes referred to as ‘Little Berlin’ due to its large hipster culture. There is also a big music culture and it’s here that we found the Rough Trade Record store. Rough Trade originated in London in 1976 and specialises in post-punk but these days has a range of genres. The store in Williamsburg was opened in 2013 and is now one of the largest music stores in NYC.

We finally got to the Guggenheim Museum and stumbled into their current exhibition titled ‘Storylines’ This was a collection of over 100 works from the Guggenheim’s contemporary collection and themed under the idea of storytelling.

I must admit that I didn’t understand much of the exhibition.

It seemed to reflect a disjointed, almost fractured approach to art that uses many disciplines – all at the same time.

Much like contemporary adults and children who can text their friends, follow Facebook and ‘Google’ on their laptop, all while watching TV.

My biggest criticism of much of the work was that it lacked an aesthetic.

To my mind art should engage the audience and tell a story, but do it in a way that’s rewarding and artistically stimulating.

Apart from the art there’s the Guggenheim Museum’s architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the gallery with five floors, built in a seamless circular spiral, allowing the visitor to descend from the top floor via a gently sloping ramp. Wright was initially approached in 1943 to design the building but it took him 15 years to complete the project.

As with much of Wright’s other work, a repetitive theme appears. Not surprisingly in this case, it’s a circle.

This simple motif is seen throughout the gallery, which even includes the typography on the exterior of the building.

The High Line is a 2.33 km stretch of the disused New York Central Railroad. Similar in concept to the Promenade Plantée in Paris which we visited at the end of 2014, this aerial greenway is a wonderful way to get an elevated view of parts of NYC, along the Hudson River.

Along the way there are many art installations and attractions, such as Manhattan by Yutaka Sone and Spencer Finch’s “The River That Flows Both Ways’. This Window installation features coloured glass that is a symbolic representation of the Hudson River.

One of the last exhibits we discovered on the High Line was Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Collectivity Project’ This is a cityscape, made from white Lego, that is built and re built by the public.

On the Sunday all four of us had lunch at Cipriani Restaurant, Downtown, with Sean and Michele Cummins. This was a great opportunity to catch up with Sean and Michele since they moved to New York.

Sean has taken the brave step of setting up an ad agency in what must be one of the world’s toughest markets.

This Soho restaurant was very New York with great food and a multi national clientele. There was even a table of rather drunk Australians misbehaving in a corner.

We tried hard to avoid them.

On our last full day we visited the American Museum of Natural History. This is one of the world’s largest museums with over 32 million exhibits, covering the gambit of nature and all housed in 190,000 square metres of elegant classical architecture. Only a small percentage of the exhibits are on display at any given time.

Even so the exhibition is vast, so we restricted ourselves to a few areas and concentrated on North American animals and birds.

The Hall of North American Mammals was built in stages between 1936 and 1963. It was restored in 2011-12.

The dioramas all contain expertly painted backgrounds. These depict famous locations, such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and even the Devils Tower, at a particular season and time of day. This is accompanied by a story describing the action taking place within the scene.

The Hall of North American Birds is on a smaller scale and again features beautifully painted dioramas.

That night we had dinner at the Spotted Pig, a gastropub in the West Village. Unfortunately it has the annoying practice of not taking reservations. This means you just turn up and wait.

Their specialty is gourmet burgers and the thinest shoestring fries I have ever seen.

Unfortunately the red wine was served cold, as was our waitress.

Apart from that if was great.

On our last morning in NYC we had brunch, then wandered around the Columbia University Campus. It was great to see where Stephanie will be studying for the next two years and get a first hand look at this highly regarded institution.

Boston to New York and the end of the road trip. 

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

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Our hotel in Boston was some distance from the down town area. It was here that we found the Tavern at the End of the World. It was ostensibly an Irish pub but more like a drinking, eating and music venue for the locals in Charlestown.

Like so many of these small establishments that we have found, this one also served great food, excellent beer and wine, all at an affordable price.

The music was Rhythm and Blues but sadly lacking the rhythm.

We discovered that there was a train line very close to our hotel and took a ride into Boston. We initially bought the wrong ticket but after some help from the locals and a reluctant railway employee we were on our way.

Founded in 1630 by Puritan settlers from England, Boston, Massachusetts is one of the oldest cities in the USA. It played an important role in the American Revolution, hosting such significant events as the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Boston Massacre and the Siege of Boston.

The sites of many of these incidents can be seen by following the Freedom Trail. This is a 4km brick path, created in 1953, that links all the local historical landmarks.

We stated in Boston Common and meandered past such sites as the Massachusetts State House, Granary Burying Grounds, King’s Chapel, the Old City Hall, the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House and Samuel Adams Park.

It then stated to pour down, so we took refuge in the fruit and vegetable market and waited for the deluge to subside.

An hour later we were back on the Freedom Trail and chasing history through the streets of Boston.

Next was the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church. From there we walked to the Charlestown Navy Yard where we discovered, in dry dock, the USS Constitution or ‘Old Ironsides’ as she is affectionately known.

Built in 1797, for the fledgling US Navy, this wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate was named by George Washington after the Constitution of the United States of America. Old Ironsides was most famous for her actions agains the British in the War of 1812 where she defeated five British warships.

The last stop on our walk through history was to the Bunker Monument.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, in 1775, actually took place on Breed’s Hill which is a lot closer to Boston. There is a popular belief that the Americans intended to set up their defenses at Bunker Hill but chose Breed’s Hill by mistake, thus surprising the British by their error.

It was then back onto the train for an easy trip back to Charlestown.

The next day we drove to Milford, our last stop before The Big Apple.

As we neared the end of our road trip across the US, I can’t help but recall the miles and miles of roadworks we have had to endure.

This is in part due to the poor state of many highways, that lacked funding following the GFC.

It’s also a result of the road building method. When freeways were first constructed in the States they followed the German method of laying them in concrete. Over time the concrete cracks, breaks down, leaving huge gaps between the concrete sections.

Rather than pull them up and replace them, with the much more elastic bitumen, most repairs are done by just covering over the concrete sections, breaks and all. After time the same problems reoccur, resulting in the large stretches of roads now under repair.

Henry Ford, while revolutionising the motor industry, could also be accused of being the single biggest cause of obesity in America.

The auto industry, that developed in Detroit, spawned a total reliance on the car.

The cities swelled leaving essential services such as shopping, banking, public transport and even hotels spread out over a large area. People have no choice but to hop into their car just to get a pint of milk.

All distances are measured by ‘minutes in the car’ not on foot. There are no strip shopping streets, like we found in Canada and the sort that are also an essential part of many urban Australian communities. Many towns don’t even have footpaths, so it becomes dangerous to walk from place to place.

The automobile rules.

The old public transport systems such as rail, trolly bus and trams that were set up at the end of the 1800, have been dismantled and replaced with freeways.

Many of the downtown city areas have been given over to parking, admittedly much of it is now under ground. While pedestrian streets are few and far between.

The average American rarely walks – they are forced to drive their car.

Hand in hand with the auto industry are the petrol companies.

Buses replaced trams and trolleys in many cities and the electrification of the train network only exists in the large urban areas. Except Milford that had an electric train, probably coming from NY.

All national rail and goods-trains are diesel, with no electrified railways between major cities.

All this reliance on the car means that in order to get any exercise people have to make a conscious decision to run, visit the gym or go to the park.

From what we could see this wasn’t happening in many places.

Lack of exercise isn’t the only cause of obesity, there are a lot of other factors that come into play.

The proliferation of fast food outlets, portion sizes and food type all have a part in adding to the problem.

My concern is that most Americans are forced to drive their car if they want to go anywhere.

And this situation was deliberately engineered to benefit the oil companies and car makers.

The last meal before getting to NYC was at the Stonebridge Restaurant in Milford, which not surprisingly was right beside an old stone bridge.

This was a real find with live music, excellent food and a pack of Cougars (forty plus, single women looking for action) on the prowl.

My first beer was unfortunately served in a plastic cup. I then asked for a second beer, this time in a glass, and was told: Oh, you want a ‘Big Boy’ glass.

An establishment that clearly separates the men from the boys.

Montreal and Quebec, a slice of France
in North America.  

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

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Quebec's Fairmont Le Château Frontenac

It was another long day’s drive to Montreal, mainly on freeways, but even there, the traffic was frustratingly congested.

The speed limit in Canada is 100kph, but everyone drives much faster than that. Many of the secondary roads are also capable of higher speeds than the limits allow.

The signs on the side of the freeway indicate the fines if you speed. They start at 20kph above the speed limit, which seems rather lenient.

The Canadians drive more like the French than Americans, which is understandable, yet disconcerting, if you have just crossed the border.

Another big difference between Canada and the USA is the tipping regime. In the US you are over serviced and under pressure to tip. In Canada the service staff are payed a decent wage and don’t need 18%+ as a tip.

The entire experience is much more congenial.

A strange thing happened while we were in French speaking Montreal.

I have a T-Shirt with, “I used to be indecisive but now I’m not quite sure” on the front. I wore it throughout the US and never received a comment. Over two days I had three people openly laugh at it.

I can’t explain why.

It is even more interesting when you consider that Montreal has been a mono lingual, French speaking society since 1977 and 300,000 English speaking citizens left between 1980 and 1995.

I was so amused by the reaction to my T-Shirt that I wore a different one the next day. This one had, “Oh no, not déjá vu again” The reaction was similar with people laughing out loud and making comments.

At least this T-Shirt was bi-lingual.

Apart from the Westminster parliamentary system, the Queen and plastic money, it appears we also have a sense of humor in common with the Canadians.

As with the Mourning Ceremony of Aman Hussein in Iran and the 75th Anniversary of the Sturges Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, USA, we again fell into the middle of an important event. This was Montreal’s Gay Pride Parade or Défilé de la fierté gai. It was originally started, in 1979, as a symbol of solidarity with the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York.

After spending an hour watching the weird, wonderful and strangely bizarre spectacle of the Gay Pride march, we headed off to explore the other parts of Montreal.

The city was incorporated in 1832 but the first European inhabitants were French explorers and trappers around 1611.

We walked past the Christ Church Cathedral, consecrated in 1867 and the Sun Life Building, which was opened in 1914. It was then on to the Basilica Marie-René-Du-Monde Cathedral, a minor basilica that was consecrated in 1894.

Next was the Place d’ Armes with the Notre-Dame Basilica and the two delightful Marc A J Fortier sculptures of ‘The English Pug and the French Poodle’

Erected in 2013 these sculptures seem to be a comment on the French/English dispute that bubbles beneath the surface of Canadian society.

Also in the Place d’ Armes is the statue of Paul Chomedey Maisonneuve. Built in 1895 it commemorates the founding of Montréal in 1642.

On our second full day in Montreal we headed out to tame the Metro.

Panhandling was as popular in Canada as anywhere.

There was one woman standing on a Metro platform pleading for money to buy a bus fare home. In the time we were there she had raised enough cash to purchase a first class airline ticket to New York.

The Biosphère at Parc Jean-Drapeau is a museum dedicated to the environment. It’s housed in the  former United States pavilion, originally used for the 1967 World Fair Expo and designed by Buckminster Fuller.

The original geodesic dome was covered by a transparent acrylic bubble but was destroyed by fire in 1976. Now all that remains is the steel truss frame.

Inside the dome was a 360° Eco presentation and an exhibition of diverted waste called, ‘O.N.E. Outfits from a New Era’ This showcased costumes, created from waste, by local Canadian artists and designers.

It was a relatively easy 2.5 hours drive from Montreal to Quebec. But before we left we drove to the top of Mount Royal, the mountain that gives Montreal its name. We were there to get a better view of the city.

Unfortunately the trees got the best vista as they completely blocked our view.

We had a coffee break at Le Trois-Riviéres, which is the half way point.

Quebec City celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008 and is the oldest French speaking city in North America.

And it shows.

It was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, an explorer and diplomat, and contains the only remaining fortified city walls north of Mexico.

We took the bus into the city but had no idea where to get off. Quebec City is built in the European style, with winding narrow streets and history at every turn.

There are quaint old pubs, restaurants and the town hall or Hotel de Ville. Originally home to the Jesuit Barracks in the 1730s it was inaugurated as the town hall in 1896.

There are many other elegant buildings in the city, such at The Price Building (1930) and the Hotel Clarendon (1858) but one literally stands above them all. The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac dominates the city skyline.

It was built in 1893 for the Canadian Pacific Railway and designed by the American architect Bruce Price.

It is regarded as one of the most photographed hotels in the world.

I would certainly agree with this, as it’s almost impossible to take a snap of Quebec City without the hotel being in the shot.