Here Comes The Planet 66 – Kenya 07

If you’re on a Dragoman overland tour, one thing you’ll quickly become accustomed to is the regularity with which you must set up and pack down tents, at all times of the day and night. Your tent skills are highly important – they can make or break your enjoyment of the trip!

As such, one of our Dragoman tour mates, Pete, has decided to make an instructional video on how to pack down your tent in the most efficient manner. Well. Maybe not the most efficient – but certainly the most effective!

Thanks once again to Pete for giving us his footage to use. I am glad we could immortalise such epic tent packing skills for future generations. 😀

Belfast Bits and Pieces

Belfast is certainly a different city to the place I visited in 2003. Admittedly the amazing weather and longer time I’ve had to see it have played apart, but it can’t be denied that there is a much more cosmopolitan vibe to the place now.

On our last day of driving around we kept things low key and stuck to Belfast, seeing Danny’s new house and a few tourist attractions, starting with a ‘Melbourne breakfast’. Obviously it was avocado with fancy bits on sourdough but also a smidge of vegemite too. Very nice!

Ulster Museum was on my to-do list after I’d seen it online and it was a great place to get a feel for Northern Ireland’s history, from prehistoric times to the current day.

They used to have dragons!

On the very top floor of the museum is a display dedicated to Ireland’s current #1 tourism drawcard – you guessed it – Game of Thrones.

An enormous tapestry (currently 84 metres and growing) tells the story in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. Having seen all but the most recent season, it was interesting walking along and picking out the plot points.

The signs warning people not to touch the cloth were also in keeping with the theme.

The Museum also has a partially-unwrapped mummy. Danny said it gave him nightmares as a child. I can’t think why.

The Belfast Botanical Gardens are worth a visit if you like that sort of thing, and if you’re there on a cold day I’d definitely recommend a stroll through the heated Ravine building, which contained tropical plants from around the world.

There’s also a Victorian glasshouse with some very interesting specimens.

We took a stroll around the gardens of the big building (um… parliament? Danny, help!) in the very first photo and also drove up to Belfast Castle. It was built in the Scottish Baronial Style in 1862 by the Marquis of Donegal.

A little bit Hogwarts?

It is always nice to see historical buildings being in regular use and this castle is now a function hall and restaurant. The gardens contain sculptures, topiaries and mosaics of cats. We walked around and found a few after having a drink and a sit in the sun.

A post about the sights of Belfast would be incomplete without some photos of the murals that can still be found in various places around the city. Since my knowledge of NI history is far from complete I won’t comment on the political situation except to say that many of the more violent murals we saw years ago have been replaced but there are still a few giant paintings of men in balaclavas with machine guns in hand.

In the city centre there is plenty of (what I think of as) Melbourne-style street art. Beautiful and quirky images that go well with the new bars and restaurants.

The last bar we had a drink in was The Sunflower. Years ago people had been shot in this bar, hence the gate at the door. Now it’s a gay friendly meeting place with ukulele jam nights.

How things change!

I was sorry to leave Belfast but felt certain I’d be back.

Thanks so much to Danny and Peter for their outstanding hospitality and I look forward to repaying you in Australia!

Next stop: Carlisle and finishing off The Cumbria Way. But just before I go, a last Ulster Fry…

Northern Ireland

I have come to Belfast primarily to visit my old friend Danny, who I knew when I lived in the UK in the early 2000’s. We used to go to music events all over the country with other like-minded friends and, fortuitously, he had a spare ticket to a two day BBC festival this weekend so here I am.

Danny picked me up from the airport and we set straight to sightseeing, following directions that a friend of his had written for him.

First stop, Glenariff, also known as The Queen of the Nine Glens.

It was quite a dramatic valley and my photo does not do it justice.

After a bit of havering we found the walk down a valley to see some waterfalls.

This one has a name that means ‘grey mare’s tail’. The walk was lovely and at the bottom was a bar where we had a pint and Danny unsuccessfully tried to make me taste his Guinness.

The walk back up was slightly hampered by the pints but we made it eventually, admiring the swathes of bluebells along the way.

Next stop a little town called Cushendun. The whole town looked freshly painted and the main street was delightfully colourful.

There was also a large mural about hurling.

Next up were the Dark Hedges. Featured on one early episode of Game of Thrones, these beeches are very old and very dramatic. Unfortunately quite a few have been storm damaged and the large numbers of tourist buses are affecting the roots around the ones that still stand.

There were only a few people there and we managed to walk down the road and get some people-free photos.

By then it was getting on so we headed back to Belfast and had dinner and a couple of drinks, during which we were joined by a handful of random people. One of whom told me I ‘sounded like someone from Neighbours’. As I’ve said in previous posts, there’s nothing like travelling to make you aware of your national stereotypes. Could be worse I suppose?

Cambridge: Gardens, Churches and the Beer Festival

I’ve made an effort to see a few things that I didn’t do when I lived in Cambridge. So before I get into the Beer Festival here’s a couple of things I did when I wasn’t taking advantage of Andrew’s washing machine, tv and couch.

Kings College Chapel

Despite the fact that this is one of Cambridge’s most iconic buildings I didn’t even consider going in until one of my co-workers, Tim, came here a few years ago and I saw pictures of the inside.

It’s £9 to have a wander around. There are side rooms with informative displays but the main attraction is the long room and it’s astonishing fan ceiling.

The big dark thing in the middle of the first photo is an oak room divider that was donated by Henry VIII. I think it’s awful but my opinion seems to be in the minority. It houses the pipe organ and keeps the riff raff in the back half of the chapel out of sight.

When visiting these kinds of edifices it always pays to look for amusement in the small details.

I don’t know what led up to this scene, but this guy’s thinking ‘I have made a terrible mistake.’

This guy looks like the textbook definition of ‘chief executor’. Or possibly ‘grand vizier’ .

The Cambridge University Botanical Gardens

I wandered down here before our first Beer Festival session. Beautiful.

The gardens were much bigger than I expected and full of students, draped like cats over every available sunny bench and table.

The gardens have lots of ‘rooms’, as well as actual rooms in glasshouses. All are well-labeled and interesting.

The chronological bed was a concept I’d never seen in any other gardens.

I had two favourite parts to the gardens. The first was the lovely scented garden, which is a bit hard to share on a blog page.

The second was the way that grass/meadow plants had been left to grow into islands and borders around perfectly manicured lawns. The contrast of soft meadow and smooth green was delightful. Also difficult to really convey in photos but you’ll just have to trust me.

I sat for a while and read my book – Great Expectations. If anyone had told me how funny Charles Dickens was I would’ve read it years ago. Although perhaps I wouldn’t have appreciated it then? Who knows.

The 45th Annual Cambridge Beer Festival

One of the longest-running beer festivals in the UK (and probably the world.. outside Germany maybe?) it is put on by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale society, who are a group that works hard to promote small scale brewers and keep traditional English Pubs out of the hands of criminals who gut the insides and replace all the dark wood with IKEA pine board or worse – turn them into offices.

The Cambridge Beer Festival is no small deal. It runs for six days, two sessions a day (12-3 then 5-11) and costs £3 to get in (per session), unless you’re a CAMRA member, which costs £20 per year and gives free entry to all their events.

I attenedd the festival with Andrew, who is thrilled to have my company.

This year we’re here on Tuesday evening and then both sessions Wednesday as I’m off to Belfast on Thursday.

I decided to approach my cider and perry choices this year (beer is revolting) in the same way I choose horses at the races – amusing names.

So far I’ve had ciders called ‘Virgin on the Ridiculous’, ‘Weasel’s Wevenge’ and ‘Monk and Disorderly’. I also tried one called ‘Ghandi’s Flip Flop’ but it was revolting.

Of course it’s not all about drinking. There’s an outstanding cheese counter too.

And don’t forget the pork pies. There’s also terrific curries, roasts and fish and chips.

Could anything be more British?

We were even first in line on Wednesday – and what a line it was.

If you’re ever in Cambridge at the end of May, and particularly when the sun is shining, I highly recommend going, it’s a great day (or six) out.

Why Travel Sucks And Is A Waste Of Time

A friend of mine asked me to write about the down sides of travel, and after the day I had yesterday it will be slightly less difficult than usual (I stepped in mud up to my knees, got my first blister and dropped my phone in a river). Please keep in mind I’m collecting all the negatives here in one place for entertainment and not because these items weigh heavily on me and are ruining my trip. I don’t need advice (unless it’s really innovative) about saving money on food or how to find cheap train tickets. Also, all the photos for this post have been taken in my bedroom, partly because I think it’s funny but mostly because my shoes are still soaking wet and I can’t go outside without putting my feet in my wet shoes, blurgh.

Money

I don’t like thinking about money all the time and I certainly don’t like spending money all the time. Travelling is like getting stuck with a pin 20 times a day. Every time you want to eat, sleep, see or do almost anything, your hand goes into your pocket. I have set myself a tentative budget of $100 a day but I know I’m going over it. I have enough savings to cover this trip but it is always a little stab when I check my bank balance or my envelope of currency and it has noticeably dropped. Obviously this is inevitable and there are ways to mitigate it (camping helps, so does being able to cook my own food) but after a while it gets oppressive.

Most of our accommodation in Europe and London has been booked and paid for already so I’m hoping that helps too. Also stuffing myself with a hearty B&B breakfast means not having to eat until early evening. Still, the money thing can be a big downer at times.

Food

Obviously food is a highlight of travel, but it can also be a real pain. After travelling for a few months I start to resent the amount of time it takes to find a decent place to eat, read the menu, wait for our order to be taken, worry if I forgot to ask an important question (for example: “sorry, when the menu says the steak comes with beans, do you mean green beans or baked beans?” – it turned out to be BAKED BEANS. What the heck), wait for the food, eat the food (the best part of the experience), wait for the bill, wait for the waiter to take the little plate with the money and bring back change and then collect your coats and bags (check under the table or you’ll be back in 30 minutes for your scarf or shopping) then finally leave.

It exhausted me just typing all that.

Obviously you don’t need to eat in restaurants for every meal and Luke and I have streamlined our process by only eating two meals a day and staying in self-catering places when possible and we do buy sandwiches and eat them in parks etc, but restaurants can be a better option. They are a place indoors when they weather is bad, they usually have wifi and they often serve the kinds of national dishes (like pork knuckle in Germany or fondue in Switzerland) that you would have trouble eating on a park bench. Also the restaurant in itself can be a destination, like the Austrian cafe where Sacher-Tortes were invented. All I’m saying is that it doesn’t take long for me to miss my well-stocked kitchen and toasted-sandwich maker.

Accommodation

I love a fancy hotel as much as anyone but sadly I can’t afford to stay in luxury all the time. Even if I could there’s annoying things about all hotels, no matter how humble or Hilton-esque. Like light switches. Where in god’s name are they? You will find yourself asking this at least once a day. Also, how does the shower work? Where is the plug? Why is the sink hole closed and how do I open it? I have had a door handle fall off, trapping me in my room all night when I was up at 3am to go to the toilet. This was many years ago but the memory of my terror and desperation will never fade. I have been in hotel rooms where I can hear neighbours vomiting, where there are no windows, where the windows open onto an indoor pool, where the air conditioning is like a waterfall running onto the floor.

This is one of those tricky sinks. Took me a few minutes to work out that it spins, you have to press down on one side to open in.

Hotels are like those lucky dips you get at school fairs. Theoretically if you pay more you should get a better bag of treats but often paying more just means a bigger disappointment when you realise what you’ve got. I’m not saying this happens all the time, but I have learned not to get my hopes up after looking at the hotel website photos.

My current bath-in-room arrangement is very fancy looking but the water insists on coming out of both the tap and shower head at the same time.

Company

Well, I could get myself into trouble here so I won’t mention any names, thereby leaving everyone I’ve ever traveled with suspicious and offended. Don’t worry, I’m obviously not talking about you! You were great!

First, traveling alone. It’s been better than I expected but there are two times when I really want company. The first is when I’m looking at something amazing and want someone to appreciate it with me. The second is when I have a decision to make and I’m not sure what to choose. I’m not a particularly indecisive person but I like input from others and Luke is particularly good at looking at things in a different way and offering another perspective. I miss having him here but I also know he’d be miserable sleeping in a tent or walking through a bog. For something I didn’t really anticipate encountering, bogs have featured pretty prominently in my experiences here, but that should fall under a different heading I guess. Are bogs worth their own heading? Probably not.

Of course, traveling with other people can also be a real pain in the proverbial. When planning to travel with others there’s so much to take into consideration. Do you have similar budgets? Do you want to see similar things? Do you get up and go to bed at the same time? Do either of you snore? There’s no one in the world I’d rather travel with than Luke but we still had a few epic fights when we did our last really big trip. I learned a lot about myself through that. I need time by myself at least once every few days, even if it’s just a walk for an hour or two or an evening reading in bed. If I don’t get a bit of solo time I can rage out at the most unassuming and trivial things… it’s kind of like travel PMS or something. I’m not even sure why it happens.

I have traveled with all kinds of people on all sorts of budgets and with all sorts of interests. Sometimes I think traveling with a huge group is easier than with one or two people – a variety of people to talk to and possibilities for splitting into smaller groups to do different activities rather than feeling like you have to stick together – which leads to my least favourite thing about traveling with other people. Waiting. Waiting for people to pack, to find tickets, to finish eating, to arrive, to shop. I don’t mind waiting for people to arrive if a bus or plane is late, I mind waiting when people are disorganised and I hate waiting when it seems someone is going to make me late for anything. I am quick in the shower, quick to pack, quick to walk and quick to eat. Waiting for people who can’t get going in the morning until they’ve had their coffee/breakfast/whatever drives me crazy. I’m sure my impatience is just as unpleasant for them too but let’s be honest, it’s entirely their fault (and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise).

The company we don’t choose can also be a nightmare. Like the guy on the train who chews with his mouth open, the people with the screaming child in the breakfast room, or the lady who harrumphs and won’t stop talking. At least these people are usually easy to escape, even if you have to wait until morning.

Getting Lost

I don’t think I really have to elaborate here.

Living Out Of A Suitcase

I quite enjoy living out of a suitcase/backpack in the beginning. Fewer choices to make and I keep everything in small bags so my pack only takes a minute to pack and I know where everything is.

This lasts about a week until everything somehow gets rearranged and impossible to find. Then another week later I’m sick of my clothes. Another week in and all my leggings and undies have developed holes, which is what happens when a normal six months worth of wear happens in three weeks. Then one sock from every pair disappears, then I start looking like a hobo. Right now I’ve been away for three weeks and my shoes stink and look like they’ve been through a war, plus they are soaking wet from yesterday’s bog encounter. My two new pairs of leggings both have holes in them, the trousers I bought are so loose around the waist (but tight around the thighs, so no cause for celebration there) that I have to pull them up every few steps, and I am thoroughly sick of hand washing things. I rarely use laundromats because I have so few clothes that paying £3 to wash six items at a time hardly feels worthwhile, but if I don’t wash every three or four days it means I stink. Fine if I’m camping but not ideal when sitting in a breakfast room with polite families at a B&B.

Waiting

I always have a kindle, iPad and phone but waiting is inevitable if you’re like me and don’t enjoy the adrenaline rush of arriving at an airport or bus terminal with only moments to spare. If you are like me then you will spent at least 10% of any holiday waiting. A good reason to start a blog. There’s only one thing worse than extended periods of waiting, and that is missing your boat/bus/plane. This happened to me in Japan once and I hope I never again experience the sensation of running through an airport in tears, filled with adrenaline, dragging a heavy bag and barely being able to converse with the people at check in.

Weather

Depends on the type of holiday I suppose, but weather can make or break any holiday. I’ve been inordinately lucky this time around but walking any city or stretch of countryside in the rain isn’t huge amounts of fun. If you’re in the city then it means having to deal with raincoats and wet things every time you go in or out, your photos don’t look great (if you can take any at all) and you have to put up with ducking and weaving past other people’s umbrellas on narrow footpaths when you’re at the added disadvantage of not knowing where you’re going. Wet weather walking in the country just means a greater chance of bogs.

Sunny weather, as I’ve seen on this trip, also has its disadvantages. Namely, crowds. In a country where a sunny long weekend can be headline news, you can bet every scenic spot will be rammed with people if the temperature is over 14 degrees (balmy!). We’re heading to Italy, Croatia and the south of France in July and August and I’m already worried that we’ve made a terrible mistake as all of Europe will be on holiday at the same time. Plus I feel sapped of energy when it’s actually legitimately (+30C) hot, so I am a bit worried I won’t make the most of our time there. I was utterly useless at Angkor Watt years ago when it was 40 degrees and chucked in the temples for the hotel pool and bar. I still don’t regret it.

Coming Home

There are two main problems with coming home. The first is when no one expresses the slightest interest in anything you’ve been doing. My Dad is offender #1 in this department. I can write this because I know he doesn’t read this blog, only Mum does. (Thanks Mum! You’re the best!). The other main problem is when too many people express an interest and you get tired of relating the same stories over and over. The way to get around this is to write a blog so that the people who are interested can come along for the ride with you and then ask pertinent questions (not just ‘what was your favourite bit?’) when they see you in person. Or better yet, leave a comment on the blog. Hint hint.

Actually, coming home has many down sides. Returning to work, having to live in a space where someone else isn’t changing your bedsheets and towels every other day (let alone dusting… I am always appalled by the amount of dust in my house after I’ve been away… or any other time really), not eating out, having to do boring things like get your car serviced, pay bills and so on. All the things you don’t have to worry about on holidays. Oh and don’t forget that your bank balance has, at the very least, been halved.

On the other hand, it is nice to know where the light switch is when you get up in the middle of the night.

So this was my nowhere-near-complete list of Why Travel Sucks And Is A Waste Of Time. If you have any more reasons that I could add please list them in the comments, I’d love to read them!

Canada and Alaska: Banff Springs Hotel and a Helicopter Flight

The town of Banff is named after Banffshire in Scotland and the influence is easy to see. Our hotel, the Banff Springs, looks like a cross between Hogwarts and a country club.

Although you don’t find Ferrari’s parked outside Hogwarts.

Banff itself is about 1km away and look like a movie set for an alpine village – a little too clean and perfect to be real. The whole town is ringed by mountains and I can only imagine that it would look like a fairytale in winter. We had two nights here, with a helicopter ride over Canmore in the middle.

The hotel is a sprawling pile of stone with tartan carpets and leather couches. Lots of expensive boutiques and and a range of restaurants.

On our first night I met Mum in a small wine bar in the hotel and she had been watching the chef behind the bar make charcuterie plates, one of which involved smoking tuna tartare under a glass dome. Very fancy! Also, here is my first video addition – I hope it works.

We didn’t stay up too late though, because in the morning we had an item to cross off our bucket lists – the helicopter flight!

The thing about heights is, I never know if I’m going to be terrified or thrilled. I love hot air balloons, hate ladders, love boats in rough seas, hate high balconies. I didn’t know how I was going to go on the helicopter but if it was awful I could always close my eyes.

We drove to Canmore and had a safety briefing (essentially, try not to annoy your pilot by screaming if you go down) then were asked if any couples minded splitting up as the helicopters took five people in each. As an incentive it also meant sitting in the front so I volunteered Mum and I straight away. She was happy to do it too, of course.

We waited for a bit watching the helicopters come and go then jumped in and put our headsets and seat belts on. There is something innately exciting about wearing a headset, I wish I had an opportunity to do it more often – imagine going through life being able to just listen to specific people and block out everything else!

I don’t really have the words to describe the flight, but of course I have the pictures. I didn’t feel too anxious, just felt my stomach drop when we went over the top of ridges. I wish we’d been able to go for longer!

Next: I make Mum walk ten miles (actually one kilometre but you wouldn’t know it from her complaining) and we have a nice dinner. Thrilling!