Travel Fun

I’ve just been travelling. I love visiting new places, seeing new things and particularly experiencing new cultures that challenge my way of thinking. I have been fortunate to visit Nepal, Tanzania and Morocco and each one brought new adventures and challenges and a completely different attitude and approach to doing things. I’ve been to various places in Europe and America and while the culture is general familiar, there are always little characteristics that make a place special. I love that. But there was one common element to each of those trips that I hated. Getting there.

We can fly across the world. It is now possible to fly non-stop to Australia thanks to technology. I can check the weather in the High Atlas, chat to friends over the internet from the top of Kilimanjaro and send electronic postcards almost instantly from Everest Base Camp. But it still takes 6 hours to get to Gatwick, via a bus and I still have to walk several hundred yards to get me and my baggage from bus to check-in. And at the other end, I have to walk the same amount again to get my bag and drag it out of the airport. And lets not talk about airport transfers.

In Nepal, the airport at Kathmandu was an experience I wasn’t keen on repeating. I had to queue for a visa and for the 30 minutes I was there, I was subjecting to the same repeating jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant. It had an annoying jingle followed the the statement “There are two steps – one leads to Everest, the other leads to Rum Doodle”. By the time I had my visa, I had been subtly brainwashed, as had all the trekkers on my trip. We successfully got to base camp, and on our return to Kathmandu, we ate at Rum Doodle.

Outside the airport, we were assaulted by a chaos of Nepali boys and young men all trying to carry our baggage. Fortunately, we were being met by the hotel transfer bus but in the few minutes it took to identify and make contact with the bus driver, several boys had tried to pick my bag up (it was very heavy, so they couldn’t whisk it away) and I’d managed to grab it back from all of them. I loaded my bag and helped load others and still they asked me for tips and money for carrying my bag. And all the while, A Nepalese policeman with a rifle on his back almost as long as he was blew a whistle to try and regain order.

To get to the start of our trek, we had to take an internal flight to Lukla. Google ‘Worlds most dangerous airport’. It’s usually Lukla. The flight was an event in itself and while I wouldn’t quite lump it in with the nightmare of ‘getting there’, it is definitely not for those who dislike flight. The little plane climbs constantly to lift itself over the mountains that surround Kathmandu, and then continues to climb in amongst the lower Himalayan mountains until, weaving through a narrow valley, the pilots line up with an elongated postage stamp of a runway for which there is no ‘go-around’ procedure and land. If the clouds swirl up, obscuring the runway at the last minute, it’s tough. And in many cases, its tough and fiery.

On the way back, if the weather is good, the take-off is only marginally less challenging. As the air heats up during the day, it gets thinner and less able to support aeroplanes, particularly ones loaded with trekkers and heavy trekking gear. At the end of the runway is a steep drop of some 2000 feet. I watched one aircraft, late in the morning, drop off the end of the runway and only reappear 20 seconds later as it struggled to gain height to clear the mountains beyond. And the next flight out was ours.

Flying to Tanzania was via Nairobi airport. Nairobi had been bombed the year before and although security was tight, more than half the airport was closed due tot he damage caused by the bomb and subsequent fire. So transferring, we were crammed into a dark and dingy semi circular corridor that looked as if it had been built in the 70’s and promptly forgotten again, only to be rediscovered when they need ed the space. “What’s behind this door?” “No idea, lets see…”

The flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International airport was via a large twin prop passenger plane. It looked modern and inside the cabin was clean and spacious. But then I watched them loading the luggage – by hand through a door in the side between us and the pilot. The bags were stacked haphazardly behind a curtain in the front bulkhead. I didn’t see my bag being loaded but when I picked it up at the end of the flight, it had been ripped at the seams and was unusable.

The transfer from Kili airport to Arusha was an exciting hour along the main road, fairly busy with slow buses and lorries and our minibus, only slightly faster. But the driver insisted on overtaking everything, even if it took 5 minutes. We stopped looking in the end as oncoming traffic got closer and closer. We passed overturned lorries and buses and this should have been enough to warn the driver. But we survived, and turned off the main road to get to the hotel. It was along a track that had never seem any form of tarmac and was, instead, created entirely from potholes creatively linked by ruts.

The transfer from the hotel to the start of the trek was equally adventurous. After leaving the main road, we drove on rough tracks for a while before leaving roads completely and driving along what I could only describe as a muddy river bed. The ruts in the mud, enlarged by flood water which had mercifully drained since, were deep enough the the bus grounded several times on the drive up to the park gate. At one pint, we passed another bus coming the other way and only just avoided rolling down a bank into a field.

In Morocco, I flew in to Marrakech airport and after a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.

You could argue that these experiences are just part of the fun of travel, and I guess you’d be right. But sometimes, after a long flight crammed in to the seat, dehydrated and tired, arms aching from carrying bags and brain frazzled from trying to understand what the passport checking police man has just asked you, you just want a gentle transfer and to wake up in a comfy bed ready for the adventure. We’ll get there one day.

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A walk on the common

Bank Holiday Monday. Sunny but with rain coming in around lunchtime. No surprise there, but what should we do? I had a meeting with Rufus, my outdoor pursuits consultant, and he suggested a walk on the common while the good weather lasted. There may have been some bias in his coming to that decision, but I trust his judgement.

I decided to write a lighter blog after yesterday’s and it seemed a good idea to base it on a typical walk in Gower – one of the ones we do all the time and take for granted. So here it is. You have been warned.

Where we go on Fairwood Common is dictated by the location of the livestock there. Farmers get free grazing on this land and in that past we have encountered one several times who believes the land is his own personal possession. As I like to let Rufus off the lead as much as possible, I always look for the cows and sheep and avoid them. Today the cows, along with some horses and foals, were at the top of the common so we had free range. I parked the car off the road and we set off along an old and overgrown access road built for the airport when it was an RAF fighter station. Near here were a dead badger and a dead fox – I’d seen them before so I kept Rufus on the lead until we’d passed. Further along the road was the corpse of a dead cow, but that had been moved since we were last here. It was safe to let Rufus off the lead now and he went trotting ahead as we weaved through bushes and tree branches, all the while the birds singing from the cover of the branches.

At the perimeter fence, we usually see rabbits beyond in the airport. There weren’t any today; maybe we were a bit late. But Rufus picked up their scent and spent a few minutes trying to squeeze himself through the chain links. Giving up, he padded along the fence heading north along the line of the main runway. Two planes were flying, taking turns to land and take off before circling around again.

This part of the common is littered with the remains of WW2 buildings. Most of them are little more than concrete foundations; some are raised above the level of the ground and one or two have several courses of red brick poking above the marsh. Today, Rufus passed all of these and made for the end of the runway. I let him choose the route as he has an uncanny knack of finding trails and paths.

Fairwood Airport was built as a fighter station at the beginning of WW2. Thousands of tons of ballast and slag from the local steel and copper works were deposited in the marshy area known as Pennard Burch. Time was found to excavate two burial mounds in the area before they were covered by the runways. The airfield was open in 1941 and played host to a number of squadrons and aircraft types. It now hosts one of the Wales Air Ambulance helicopters, which was taking off as we walked, as well as the Swansea Skydiving Club and a number of private planes.

At the far end of the runway, we watched the planes coming and going, including the large aircraft used to take skydivers into the air. A smaller aeroplane had to dodge out of the way as the big plane taxied to our end of the runway. Beneath out feet, the marsh land was in evidence and I though that it was amazing how they were able to build on this type of ground. According to the records, damp and drainage were constant problems throughout the war at this base. Rufus disappeared in the long marsh grass but I was able to follow his progress by the splash and squelch noises he made as he explored. He wasn’t worried by the low flying aeroplanes.

We turned back and went onto firmer ground slightly above the level of the airfield. From here, it’s clear that the airfield is built in a dip in the ground. Not an ideal location, but it is the flattest part of the common and the only suitable place to site the runway. We were walking through the remains of the buildings now and Rufus climbed on to every foundation raft to make sure it was clear of local critters. We made our way further from the perimeter fence to a point that would have had a clear view of the whole airfield. Trees now block the way, but they are recent additions. Years ago, I found the half buried entrance to what I thought was the Battle HQ for RAF Fairwood Common. A recent check of a site map proved me correct. Nearby are the filled in remains of two infantry trenches, and between them is the holdfast for a small gun, possible an anti aircraft weapon.

It was all downhill from here and the car was visible from this part of the common. It’s at this stage that Rufus normally slows down. Not because he’s tired but because he doesn’t want to go home. Today, he was too caught up in the smells of the countryside and he ranged either side of me until I eventually had to put him on the lead when we got close to the road. There was a lot of traffic as people took advantage of the sun to get out into Gower.

Then we were back at the car and our walk was over. We’d done just over two miles in about 80 minutes. No records were in danger of being broken today, but that’s not the point of our walks. It’s all about enjoying and having fun. And that we did.

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Italy VII – Just when you thought it was safe to come out…

Aaaaahhhh! You thought I’d finished the blog about Italy yesterday. Well, there are a few loose ends to clear up. All the stuff that doesn’t really fit into the individual days.

Map of Italy

Red dots show where we went. From the top: Riva, Verona, Venice, Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Assisi, Chianciano Terme, Rome.

I love the travelling part of travel. Admittedly, some mornings it was hard to enjoy the coach journey but there were other mornings when I enjoyed just staring out of the window watching the world go by. I tried taking photos from the coach and although the contrast was a little low, and there was some blur from the movement, I was pleased with the results. On the way back to the hotel from the cities, the air conditioned coach was most welcome, along with Andreas’ (the driver) supply of chilled water. For most of the trip we had the coveted front seats (although we didn’t realise exactly how much they were coveted until the complaints on day four led the tour rep to say ‘It’s a free for all tomorrow and I don’t want to be involved’. And indeed, she hid in the hotel that morning until just before the coach left. The ensuing fuss was entertaining to watch from our new coveted seats half way down the bus, by the middle door.)

The people on our trip, with a few exceptions, were an odd bunch, most of whom seemed to want to complain about something. I have no problem with that; as a nation we don’t complain enough when it is justified. But many people seemed to use it as a means to get attention. I don’t care if your room isn’t perfect (ours wasn’t on the first night). Don’t tell me, tell the hotel staff (as we did – no fuss, we were moved, we were happy). There were a few complaints (or mutterings or whatever) about the walking and distances involved. Given that some of the group were a little unsteady on their feet, this was inevitable. I was impressed that people coped with the heat and the distance as well as they did, but ultimately, this was a trip that very obviously would involve a lot of travelling and a lot of walking. It was not suitable for all.

I think the worst bit for me was the journey home. Our flight from Milan was scheduled for 14.35 and we had to be in the airport at 12.30 for check-in. Our coach left Chianciano Terme at 5am to rendezvous with another from Lake Garda at Verona airport at 10am, from where there was another 2hr transfer to Milan. Fair enough. A long journey, but so be it. But when we got to Milan, it turned out that the flight had been ‘rescheduled’ to depart at 4pm. Only if I were cynical would I dare to suggest that the early departure from Chianciano was actually to allow the tour rep to pick up her new tour group from Verona airport at 10.20 without having to go through the hassle of putting on a second coach so we could leave at 7am. Only were I to be deeply unimpressed with the rep’s performance throughout the trip would I suggest that maybe she should have been aware of the rescheduled flight times, and perhaps she was but chose not to tell us.

All this makes it seem that I didn’t enjoy the trip. I did, and very much so. It helped that I was in fantastic company (thanks Em), and that early on we met a couple of like minded souls who helped made the evening meals and, particularly, the last night at Chianciano a special (and at times, hysterically funny) experience. Together, the four of us overcame the inflated Vatican Museum Tour Priority Ticket prices and conquered the queues. Em and I avoided the obvious during most of the city tours and tried to find the hidden in most of the places we went to, which paid off.

For the geeks (amongst whose number I include myself), I took 913 photos, mostly on my little compact camera. If I was going again, I wouldn’t pack so much and I’d leave more room for souvenirs. I’d think again about the camera I took. If I wanted to do the tour again, I’d concentrate on Riva del Garda, Venice, San Gimignano, Assisi, Chianciano and Rome. We discussed this after we got home and the ideal tour would be at our own pace with our own transport. We’d build in days with no firm plans so that we could just sit in a cafe and watch. I would like to spend a bit more time looking at the Roman ruins in Rome, but the rest of the city doesn’t interest me.

I have to mention the food and drink. For me this was the underlying pleasure that everything else rested on. The food, every bit of it, was of superior quality compared to what we are used to here in the UK. The simplest snacks were richly tasty and well presented. The coffee was superb. The wine was wonderful (and I’m not a red wine fan). The ice cream was thick and creamy. And despite what I’d been told (and not counting the Florence Ice Cream incident), the prices were not excessive. I’m prepared to pay for quality, but I was surprised at how little I did pay for it.

Italy gets a tick from me.

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