Top of the south adventures (Gregs guide)

9 November, 2014

Hey friends,
To help you plan the big 40th birthday party trip, here are my collected thoughts on road tripping around the top of the south island:
First a map showing my two suggested possible routes, and most of the bigger destinations (click to see it in full detail):

Top of the South Map 2 routesFirst lets cover the red route (total distance is 1041km)


The biggest town on the south island, probably where you will fly into. Its most famous for the earthquake and the crusaders.
Its worth stopping here to see the impact of the earthquake on the city, take a drive through the CBD and stare in wonder at the wide empty open spaces – and visit the shipping container shopping centre and other objects of interest. Also take a drive out into the suburbs (head for Avonside Drive), to see what happens when an entire suburb is abandoned to nature!

Avonside drive (from ODT)

The other thing that’s worth doing in Christchurch is the International Antarctic experience – its even as cold as the Antarctic inside there!
antarctic centre

A lot of people go from Christchurch to Akaroa – a small “french” settlement just outside Christchurch, I havent been there, but people seem to like it.

Hanmer Springs
A delightful spa town – in the NZ style, lots of hot pools and good eating and resting places. If you want to go jetboating while in NZ and you are not getting to Queenstown, this probably is the place to do it.  There is also lots of other outdoor pursuits to enjoy in Hanmer, think of it like a scaled down Queenstown.
Hanmer Springs

Between Hanmer and Murchison is a secret set of free hotsprings, called Sylvia Flats, its marked on google maps, if you want to visit them, the hot springs come out of the Boyle River, so you have freezing cold mountain streams and spots of boiling hot water, its a real kiwi experience, just remember to bring mossie repellant!
Sylvia Flats

Also check out the Alpine Fault Wall at Springs Junction (geologists and rock lovers fun).

Maruria Springs thermal resort, is a small japanese style thermal resort tucked at the bottoms of some mind blowing mountains and could make an alternitive overnight stop.

Maruria Springs
The traditional halfway spot between Nelson and Christchurch, the town is developing as a bit of an outdoor pursuits destination, but otherwise just a place to stop and fill the car, and the family.
Molesworth Station Road
If you are interested in getting off the beaten track, and don’t mind a bit of dust – then this might be the detour for you, this is a dirt road that runs through New Zealands largest farm, from Hanmer to the South of Marlborough, its NZ high country at its finest, and its relatively undiscovered, it is a 2wd drive road, but its no autobahn! Have a look at photos of Molesworth station and you will see the beauty.

Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa.
Two beautiful mountain lakes and accompanying villages, Rotoiti is the more developed as a destination – and the best place for some hiking/tramping/rambling/swimming.
Lake Rotoiti
The lakes have walking tracks around them and into the surrounding mountains, from half hour walks to the two day return trip the clearest lake in the world, known as Rotomairewhenua or Blue Lake, its a two-day hike from the park boundary or, for an aerial view, there are scenic flights with Reid Helicopters. Once you get there, you cant actually enter the water, but you can gaze at in wonder, or google it to see how clear it is.
Between Murchison and Lake Rotoiti, is the area where I did most of my tramping with school, known as Matakitaki Valley, if you want to do some challenging hikes through dramatic, isolated, unspoilt scenery, this my top pick. Let me know if you are keen and I will help you out with specific details.
My home town, famous for its sunshine and good food, wine and beer, its a good base for exploring the top of the south island, you should visit the local museum to see how the town was formed, and the Greg Newman memorial rooms etc, also the World of Wearable arts, is a slightly odd museum of strange and eclectic clothing/fashions, that are gathered from an annual competition that was originally held in Nelson. Nelson has some great swimming beaches, in town Tahuna is nice and shallow and good for kids, a bit further out of town, Rabbit Island is another popular swimming destination. In NZ swimming in rivers is just as popular, so in Nelson I would head to one of the many swimming holes in the nearby Maitai Valley.
Maitai Valley
The best beers is either at Macs on Main Road Stoke, or at Founders Bewery, in the Founders historical park near town.
From Nelson you can visit the many vineyards spread between Nelson and Motueka, there is good food and drink spread all over the hills.
You can also catch a boat over the to the Abel Tasman national park, its a good option if you have limited time, rather than driving over to the park, then catching a boat from Kaiteriteri. Either way, your boat will probably leave from Kaiteri, some do leave from nearby Marahau as well.
The Fresh Choice Supermarket in richmond has the best selection of NZ beer in the country, its worth visiting, just for that reason!
Fresh Choice Ricmond
Its a good place to buy pot – but that’s about it. Actually that’s not true, you can charter a plane to fly over the Abel Tasman, its amazing!
Abel Tasman National Park
Catch a boat into the park (from Kaiteri or Marehau) and then walk out – take your swimming trunks, food, and lots of sun block, if you can stay longer, do, even when its busy in the middle of summer, its still not really busy, the beaches are the best in NZ (IMHO).
Abel Tasman
Kahurangi National Park
I personally think this park is more interesting than the Abel Tasman, if you like the outdoors, this is the dictionary definition of it! Amazing peaks, lush sub tropical greenery, definitely worth at least a day walk – let me know if you want to do it, and I will point you to some tracks.

Takaka and Golden Bay
We spent our early years in Takaka and I think its one of the best parts of NZ, its still relatively untouristy, so it has a real proper kiwi feel – if you know Byron Bay or Kynsna, then you can picture the kind of place.
Golden Bay
The bay has loads to do, you could easily spend a week here, from beautiful Golden Sandy beaches, to mountain top hikes, to exploring caves, the famous pupu springs, old gold workings, the massive sand spit, entering the Abel Tasman from the quieter side. There is tons to do. Its a 2.5 hour drive from Nelson, over a very windy road, but that road is right through Lord of Rings scenery, with Harwoods hole (a massive sink hole), one of the many great walks on the Takaka Hill enroute, also look out for Parafanta snails, the massive land snails that inhabit the area (and I mean massive).
Up the Cobb valley, you can get to the edge of the Kahurangi national park, go fossil hunting and see one of the most famous bush huts in NZ, Asbestos Cottage (4 bunks), home of Annie and Henry Chaffey, who lived in the isolated hut right up till the 1950s.
Cobb Valley
On the very west of Golden Bay, there are more lord of the rings scenery, dramatic beaches and rugged coastline, you can also enter the start of the Heaphy track.
Marlborough Sounds
They look like fjords, (but technically they aren’t), but they are very dramatic none the less! Windy roads and beautiful steep hills dropping straight into the water, amazing scenery, plenty of good swimming and fishing, famous mussels (try green lip mussels at the many restaurants that specialise in them stop in Havelock, at the start of the sounds). Everyone has their favourite bit of the sounds, mine is Double Bay in Queen Charlotte sound, a lovely little sandy bay, where you can swim, pick oysters off the rocks for dinner and camp over night (it has a toilet).
Double Bay

Spend a day driving between Havelock and Picton, along the side of the sounds, dropping into little bays for a swim.


Its a great place to go wine tasting – and get into a fight (well maybe that was just my teenage years), no joking its a very boring town, but there is plenty of good wine to be drunk – but a do a bus tour of the vineyards, or ride a bike, don’t ttry drinking and driving – you wont last long!


It only exists because the ferry to the north island stops there, its not worth a stop in its own right.


See you there!

The Blue then Red loop (total distance is 1173km)

Again leaving from Christchurch, then

Arthurs Pass National Park, across to west coast:
Arthurs Pass
One of only four crossing points for the southern alps, beautiful scenery, highlights of this section include Castle Rock limestone formations, cave stream  – a one hour expedition through a cave, with a stream, awesome mountain scenery – this section can also be done on the breathtaking Tranz Alpine train, and you can pick up a rental car on the west coast.

Then North on SH6

Check out the Point Elizabeth walk just north of Greymouth. A one-way walk of a few hours, but the person who drives to the far end gets to hang out at an awesome pub on a stunning beach.
Point Elizabeth
This coastline is continuous stunning windswept coast and rugged beaches (and baches), think “The piano” without Harvey Kietel nude.

Check out Barrytown, if you are interested in knife making and greenstone/jade carving lessons

The famous Punakaiki pancake rocks and the Pororari Gorge kayaking.
Pororari River
Then Buller Gorge – takes you back onto SH6 and rejoins the red route south of Murchison
Buller Gorge

Books to read;
The Bone People by Keri Hulme – won the Booker Prize in 1985, set on the West Coast
The Exiles of Asbestos Cottage by Jim Henderson – about the Chaffeys, living up the Cobb valley.
Outsiders by Gerard Hindmarsh – explores the stories of some real characters living in the remotest parts of NZ
The Plumb Trilogy by Maurice Gee – a big book – but an amazing work of historical fiction

We’re back!!

11 October, 2014

Day 14 of our Singapore adventure! And we thought it may be time to re-start the blog.

We returned from Brasil to London at the end of 2009. After almost five years, one cat, one child, one house purchase… Cath’s work gave us an overseas posting offer and using our usual decision making criteria of “why not” we packed our growing bags and headed off to Asia. Singapore to be precise.


Day 14 – and I wish that all my project status reports could read like this. The RAG status is “Green” with only a grey hue, representing the pollution in the air. But going on to my positive things…. So far we have achieved:
–         1 Employment Pass and 2 Dependent’s Passes in the air conditioned comfort of the Ministry of Manpower (even as a woman I get to register here)

–         1 house rented, with a new pool, 4 bedrooms, 4 years old, on the East Coast. Real Estate agents work hard here (and long hours). We have been blessed to have been recommended a lady who knew her stuff.


–         1 bank account, with internet banking, an ATM card and self-decided PIN number in – 45 minutes!!!! Absolutely, freaking, amazing. Imagine?????

–         And Cath has started work. In 2 hours with a new laptop, new blackberry, security pass, desk, working chair (bonus!) etc….

–         Reggie the cat has arrived, safe and sound, the shift to an apartment and the jetlag has been interesting for him, but we are hoping that he is treating it like a long holiday!!!


All in all, big thumbs up. I’m constantly wondering what is the catch?

But the biggest joy is seeing our daughter adapt to a new country. For months I agonized with having to dress her in layers of clothes, worrying about her stepping outside the front door and running onto a busy road, wondering if a restaurant “allows kids”, wondering if we can get onto a tube with a pram etc… I love London and I love the many friends we have made in London,  but having kids in London – it’s hard work.

Singapore welcomes children. From the unrequested non breakable plates / cutlery in restaurants, to the people (of all generations and gender) wanting to touch / play / entertain our daughter with genuine fondness and to watch Josephine swim everyday has made it worthwhile already.


Oh – and yes – it’s hot. It’s 33 degrees. At all times. Did I mention 33 degrees? This  won’t change. You just gotta deal with it.

So next week, we get to head back to Australia and New Zealand for a mini break…. and work for Cath …

2012 in review

1 January, 2013

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 25,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

I fear I am falling in love with Rwanda.

20 May, 2012

After two nights in Addis Ababa, we left for the main event, Rwanda and the gorillas.

Land of 1000 hills

But before we got there, we had another “remember you’re in Africa” moment…. While still at Addis airport, we noticed that our slightly delayed flight had suddenly changed to showing as departed… as the other passengers around us also noticed, there was a short panic, then we were assured it was just the board that was wrong. Of course, we were fairly relaxed, but the poor folks who had already been waiting 24 hours since the day befores flight had been canceled failed to see the comedy in the event! Then we were given 30 seconds warning for a gate change… Quite hilarious, about 100 people running to the gate.

Between Addis and Kigali, we were lucky to have a brief stop over in Uganda. On the tarmac at Entebe, on the edge of the stunning Lake Victoria we parked up next to the very fancy jet of Nigerian President (who was boarding with 20 henchmen), and with 2 giant Russian UN heavy lift jets flanking us, I was pretty sure this would not happen at Brisbane airport. We were then politely asked not to smoke while the plane refueled – with us in it – unsurprisingly we all agreed…


For those of you (like us), who know little or nothing about Rwanda, here are a few facts about Rwanda:

– Kigali is the safest capital city in Africa. We felt more than safe walking at 10pm & searching for an ATM in the dark.

– Plastic bags were banned from 2007. That’s right, no plastic bags, or bottles (except water bottles), and it shows, the countryside is clean and stunning

– The last Saturday of each month is community day, which means every person must spend the day contributing to the community – usually in the form of garden clean up / litter collection

– Rwanda has committed to the 1 laptop: 1 child scheme, the 8th country in the world to do so. It now boasts one of the highest school attendance rates in Africa

– Everywhere you look you see signs denouncing corruption, promoting ease of business and statement such “we need to learn from our history to build a bright future”.

– Rwanda is known as the land of 1,000 hills, there is very little flat land, with small hills and beautiful river valleys covering most of the land.

– Oh, and in 100 days in 1994, over 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered – by fellow Rwandans – generally without guns or bombs. 100 days of the brutal decapitation and mutilation of men, but mainly women and children in every town, village and hamlet in the country, the perpetrators’ intent was to systematically exterminate the Tutsi population – some 10% of Rwanda’s population of 8 million. They almost succeeded.

This all occurred whilst the UN was on the ground and whilst the French military were providing strategic advice to the perpetrators. Whilst the UN, US and Belgium have since apologised for the deplorable lack of activity- the French never have apologised – no wonder the Rwandans still can not stomach the thought of diplomatic relations with the French.

So, the first day of Rwanda trip see’s us arriving mid afternoon in the small and cute international airport in Kigali, Rwanda. For UK citizens, there was no visa fee. It was all processed at the airport, no bribes, no queues, no trouble, easy peasy!

As soon as we got through immigration, we saw a smiling tall black man, Amon, our guide, driver, host and friend for the duration of our trip. Amon loaded our gear onto the roof of his trusty Landrover defender and we headed off across town. First impressions of Kigali were very positive, with good roads, beautiful gardens, new cars and smiling people, but as with everywhere in Rwanda, the recent history isn’t far below the surface, the parliament building is pock marked with shell holes from the fighting, a lasting reminder of those horrible days.

Our first night, we glammed it up at Hotel des Milles –the place that Hotel Rwanda (the movie) was based on. For those who have seen the film, the real building is a lot more modern than the colonial looking building used in the film, but still it was eerie to know that lives were won and lost at the hotel. If only walls could talk – I guess I’m glad in a way that they didn’t.

Checking out the pool at Hotel Rwanda

Day 2

We had breakfast at the hotel, looking out from the rooftop across the many hills of Kigali. We were surprised to see tamarillos a plenty in the breakfast. Tree tomatoes (as they are known) are plentiful here and delicious, that combined with fresh passionfruit juice at breakfast made it feel a little bit kiwi!

Then we headed for the genocide museum, wow, double wow, what an experience, it probably can’t be summed up. Once you get over the fact that there are 250,000 people buried in the grounds of the museum, next you follow the story of the Rwandan genocide, from the seeds sown by the French and Belgians – who turned an arbitrary socio economic grouping into a not very scientific or logical ethnic profile and then used it to divide and rule the country.

under these concrete slabs, 250,000 people are buried

So many emotions were felt. Sadness for the families who lost people, anger that those Rwandans who committed the murders, mutiliations and rapes, are still alive, frustration as to why the international community did absolutely nothing and bewilderment as to how the French Govt got away with complicity to murder. However, the greatest feeling was disbelief as to how anyone who survived this could possibly live a “normal life”.  But as we saw, Rwandans are a people who are hard to beat, so they are working hard at building a “normal” country….

You can read some of the background and some survivors stories here on the memorial website:

Eventually we composed ourselves and we headed east from Kigali towards the Tanzanian border to the Akagara National Park for a safari adventure.

Leaving Kigali

so much scenery

So much scenery…

Its the largest park in Rwanda at 2,500km square, but half of the park was given to the Genocide Survivors in 2000 – with various NGOs building houses, wells and schools in attempt to restore some Normality to the returning refugees.

Rwandan house and farmland, everything that can be, is farmed!

Driving towards the park (in a feeling that reminded us of travelling around in  Cambodia) we were greeted in the streets by laughter, smiles and genuine hand waving. These people were not begging they seemed interested in us. We reciprocated with some serious hand waving back – but so quickly after the visiting the memorial, we couldn’t help feel tinges of guilt, reminding ourselves what anyone over the age of 17 must have endured during the 100 days.

So much to see, and feel..

We had three days on safari in the park, we stayed at the main hotel in the south of the park and pretty much had the place to ourselves!

We did two full days of game drives, they were fun, but the park is still being restocked and restored, so though we did see some game, it wasn’t in the quantities that we have seen on previous trips to Kenya or South Africa. But, as a side tour to the main event of trekking for gorillas, its still a great adventure.

Family fun

Wheres the mozzarella?

are you having a giraffe?

One member of staff who definitely deserved a mention was the chimp guard – a man who had the sisyphean task of trying to stop the chimps from annoying the guests. His challenge was as funny as it was pointless, after many years of battles, the chimps hated him and he hated the chimps, so they tormented each other continually, but largely left the rest of us alone!!

The chimp guard

Day 4

We broke camp and headed towards the town of Ruhengari, the base for gorilla trekking. It was a journey from the very east, to the north west, a journey that didn’t quite take all of a day. To give some perspective of size, Rwanda is about half the size of Switzerland, or the same size as the Solomon Islands.

Every inch of land is dedicated to food


The travelling distances are not great which is great is definitely in Rwandas favor, there cant be many other places where you can go from African savannah to sub tropical rain forest in one easy day.

The daily water run, its your turn today!

Bananas anyone?

On the drive we stopped for a special treat, a roadside stall that served baked potatoes and goat skewers, we bought some banana wine and settled in for a feast fit for a king!

Best baked potatoes…. in the world!

How many times have you thought… i could kill banana wine?
Probably a good idea, before it kills you!

Day 5  – The gorillas….

The volcanoes…

We had a wealth of good advice from Mel and Aaron (who introduced us to Amon), so I think we were better prepared that most for our trek.

The top tips that we would pass on are:

Take some gardening gloves; the track is cut fresh every day and the day we went was muddy and slippery, so some gloves enable you to grab hold of anything to keep your balance

Take something to eat and drink, the guides make it clear that the target is a moving family of gorillas, so a two hour trek could easily turn into a five hour trek if the target group are moving away from you. So we had some super snack bars, plenty of water and lunch, which we had provided for us by the lodge.

Take wet weather gear, proper wet weather gear – without our jackets, over trousers, and solid boots, we would have been like drenched rats – they do call it a rain forest for a reason.

So, well prepared and raring to go, we had a big breakfast and headed to the national park headquarters where we were matched with our gorillas.

There are 18 groups in the park, 10 of which are visited on any day.

To visit the gorillas, you need to buy a USD$500 permit, the permits are rumored to be going up soon, but as they are quick to point out, when they put the price up from USD$300 per day, there was no fall in demand, so they will keep putting up the price until the demand stops rising. The money is well spent, it provides each family with a full time 24 hour armed guard, stopping poaching and ensuring they are safe. The remaining money goes into the park maintenance and also provides services for the villages around the park. Having spent the money, I am happy to say the experience is so amazing, I would spend it again in the blink of an eye!

The big difference between trekking for the gorillas and doing a safari or going to the zoo to see the animals is that trekking for the gorillas means going into the animals environment and seeing them on their terms. This is so totally different to seeing them in a controlled and somewhat sterile environment, where you are your comfort zone and the animals are there just for your viewing pleasure!

The permits need to be bought in advance, but contrary to the rumor, if you go outside the peak season, permits are relatively easy to get, just get your tour organizer to get the for you. We managed to get two extra passes for friends who were driving by (literally) with only one weeks notice!

At the park headquarters, the rangers matched the locations of the 10 families (which are radioed in every morning) with the fitness and appetite for adventure of the various groups. The day we visited it was raining heavily, so we didn’t push the envelope to far, stories of 10 hour treks returning in the rain and Gregs dodgy knee meant that we were probably assigned a group in the not too hard, not too easy middle ground…

We also found out that for just USD$200 extra you can arrange 16 porters who will carry you up the mountain! We were disappointed to hear that this was most commonly taken up by Americans and Australians who are too unhealthy to do the trek!

So, with a cool Spanish couple, our group were assigned a guide, a bloke with a machete to cut the path and provide a helping hand and a guard with an AK47  (to protect us from the buffalo apparently)?!?!?!?

Clean, fresh and dry……

And we headed off up the side of the volcano.

It starts off easy, walking through the farmland at the foot of the volcano

Then we started climbing

Somewhere in the mist

The trek was amazing, amazingly tough, amazingly beautiful, amazingly misty and amazingly exciting. After about 2.5 hours of solid climbing we met the blokes who were guarding our family. We dropped our back packs and got our cameras out and headed off to where the family had stopped for the day, we thought we still had a kilometer to go, but our guide cunningly tricked us, and before we knew it, he suddenly stopped, turned around to us and grinned, we quickly realized that we were surrounded by gorillas….

Sitting all around us, munching on leaves, playing with mum, sitting in the rain, the whole family was there. The feeling of amazement, awe, fear, excitement and shock was almost amazing, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life, one I am sure we will remember until we die!!

Here they were, the 300kg silver back and his family….

Well good morning..

Being watched by 300kgs of gorilla, this is totally safe right?!?!?!

Mum and baby

So, we had an hour @ $500 (or $8.33 per minute) and we totally soaked it up, snapping photos, sitting and watching, taping video, sharing stupid grins and looking in complete wonder.

he was looking at us, like we were the ones in his zoo!

The minutes flew by and then after 55 minutes the silverback got up and shuffled around, turning his back on his and signaling that our time was up.

Its time for you to go… I am bored by you….

We headed off down the mountain, it was just one hour, I cant imagine many other experiences that could create such an impact so quickly.

By the time we got down the mountain, we were soaked, elated, muddy and buzzing.

Gorilla trekkers in the mud

Amon, our every present guide and guru knew just what we needed to forget our weary bones, so after a quick shower back at our hotel, he took us to see his own little secret. Amon the quintessential entrepreneur has been working on his own mountain lodge and we were lucky enough to visit the work in progress. After doing the royal tour, we settled downin the bar to enjoy some awesome bbq’d goat, roasted potatoes and corn on the cob, all washed down in the full moon light, at the foot of the volcanoes with a cold beer in hand.

Amons bar and Amon and Deb!

Best goat skewers…. in the world!

The evening was another magical experience that will leave us all with a lasting memory of true spirit of Rwanda, a country where anything is possible, where people don’t just talk about their dreams, but they work damn hard until their dreams are a reality.

Day 7

After a big nights sleep, we got up (some of us feeling more like an old man than normal).

Carrots heading for market – they tasted like the ones from Grandads garden!

After breakfast we jumped in the landrover and headed west, to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the lakeside town of Gisenyi.  The DRC (formerly Zaire and the Belgian Congo) with its population of 71,000,000 is another of Africa’s failed states, a war, known as the African World War has been raging in and around the DRC since 1998 killing 5,400,000 people. The war in the DRC appears to be settling down, but the East (the corner we were heading to) is still a bit random, but in parallel its quickly developing as a tourist destination. Amon our driver raved about the scenery and the people, and assured us it was safe for a visit.

But day 7 for us, was also the 7th of April, 18 years to the day since the genocide begun. So across the country in every city, town and village people were gathering for memorial services.  Where we have a war memorial ont he edge of our towns and villages, Rwandan towns have a mass grave, some of which are still being filled as bodies are uncovered and found in the countryside. Kids play football on fields with bodies beneath them..

For a country and a people to face up to the fact that a genocide happened in their midst is a big thing. And it appears, not always a perfect thing,  so not surprisingly there was a real palpable tension in the air, their was a heavy military presence, with many check points, armed patrols and  lots of nervous looking men in uniform holding big guns.

All of the places we drove through were holding services, memorials or just chats and though we were initially keen to share in this experience, we soon realized that this was not an experience for tourists, so we left them to it.

School kids gather as a service starts at a village school

The people of Rwanda have been through some horrible, terrible shit, a level of terror, fear, guilt and anger that most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom, and this was there day to continue the slow path to healing.

On the road to the border we passed a massive UN refugee camp, the camp has moved from being originally on the DRC side for Rwandan refugees, its now on the Rwandan side, for refugees from the DRC. The site of the blue UN tarpulin buildings stretching off into the distance added another level of feeling into what was already a very somber day.

So we drove all the way to the border with the DRC, then we got of the car, and after Amon worked his magic with the border guards, we headed across the Rwandan border and had a quick photo in the no mans land between the two countries…

Hanging out in no mans land

The town of Gisenyi is a very strange place, on the edge of a massive lake, with white sandy beaches, it’s a cute little resort town, complete with luxury resorts and deck chairs, but only 500 metres across the border, the DRC is a largely lawless country full to the brim with mineral wealth – a blessing and a curse on the DRC. We could see from our side of the border, that the local airport on the DRC side was buzzing with flights arriving every 20 minutes, businessmen, entrepreneurs, fortune hunters and all the flotsam and jetsam that operate in land with too many minerals and not enough security.

Across the lake to the DRC… 

One the return journey we stopped for the now obligatory haircut, stopping at a random village and a random barbers shop, Greg went in and got his hair cut. Rwanda is now officially the cheapest place in the known world to get a hair cut – just 50p for a smashing haircut! Our stopover in a random town in a random barber shop caused quite a stir, with the local police commissioner eventually arriving to see what all the fuss was about!

50p, you cant beat that price!

Some drunk guy, my new barber and me!

We then drove back to our hotel, again passing through countless towns and villages where groups of people gathered to share their stories, their experiences, their tears and their hopes as they tried to come to terms with genocide.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local store and bought ourselves some drinks and junk food. Then when were back in our room we lit a roaring fire, sat in the comfy chairs and spent the night discussing all that we had seen, read and heard, none of us expected Rwanda and its recent history to have such an impact on us.

Day 9 – this is the end.

Before we started on our trip Ruhengari à Kigali à Addis Ababa à Rome à London, we started our day with a last walk around the base of the volcano.

The ever present crowd of kids

So much harder than could ever be imagined!

The hotel staff provided us with a guide, one of the hotel Porters who escorted us for our wander. We spent two magic hours wandering through the farms, villages, markets and schools that ring the national park. On an earlier day as we drove around the country, Amon had told us that when a local brewer makes a fresh brew of beer, he will put a tree branch on his roof, to show that he has fresh beer to sell. As the tree branch wilts, the customers will know that the beer is no longer fresh. I had stored this vital piece of local wisdom away and for nearly a week I had been looking for a fresh looking tree branch, and then low and behold, on our last day, on our last walk, I spotted the vital branch. The group of kids that were following us and practicing their English as we walked thought it was hilarious that a big white guy wanted to go for a beer. But this was a chance of a lifetime, so I made my way through the door into a very dark mud hut.

Rwandan pub

Happy hour, Rwandan style

Inside, it was pretty basic, some wooden trestles, some low tables and at the back of the room a bar with a smiling barman. I bought two beers, a sorgum beer and a corn beer, all for the princely sum of 50p. The beers came, two old, one served in used milk bottle, the other an old tin cup, both filled to the brim with beer!

There was no clean glasses, no straws and no option (with the assembled crowds watching), for us to do anything but to smile and drink!


The beers were amazing, the corn one was much more like our beer, the sorgum one was another flavor completely. But despite the dirty vessels, the floating bits, the few bubbles and the amazing surroundings, it was definitely beer – and you know I love beer!

After our great walk, we headed off to back to Kigali, stopping at road side stalls, enjoying street roasted potatoes and more meat skewers while soaking up the never ending scenery.

What a trip, what a country, I don’t know how anyone couldn’t fall in love with Rwanda!

Land of 1,000 hills, and 20,000,000 smiles!

If you would like to help make Rwanda an even better place, then we think a good place to start is

Its a micro-finance portal enabling first world people to loan money to people who want to work to make their lives better:

Kiva – Loans in Rwanda

North Korea is a time machine.

2 May, 2012

As part of our trip to China for Nick and Catherines wedding, we decided to visit North Korea. We booked a four day tour, which turned out to be one day getting in, two days there and one day getting out. Only about 1800 tourists visit North Korea in any year, this isnt because its hard to get to, its just that no one wants to go…

Inside the secretive state

But we thought, we should go and see if we could find out what one of the most secretive states in the world was all about…

Before we left for North Korea, we did some reading, so we knew a little about the regime, the cult of personality, the famine, the lack of electricity or infrastructure, the 3 inch height difference and 10 years less life expectancy compared to south korea, the  long running blockades and sanctions, the surveillance,  the disappearances, the labour camps, the ongoing starvation, the isolation of country whose main supporters have turned their back on them, the fifth largest army in the world and it’s megalomaniac leaders, but none of the words or books we read prepared us for the experience we had in three days in the DPRK.

Day 1

The moment we crossed the river we stepped back in time, from showy and shiny China with all it tacky glitz and glamour, straight back to landscape that was more iron age than Internet age.

We caught the international train from Dandong, meeting our first NK security agent in the departures lounge! He was an overly friendly chap with a fantastic set of gold teeth, who spoke 5 languages, casually chatted to us, them after confirming what we did for a job and why and where we we going in DPRK, disappeared into one of the station offices, and didn’t get on the train.

Trundling across North Korea

As foreigners we were put in the first class sleeper carriage and we werent allowed to walk into the “real” section of the train, the 3rd class carriages. But that wasnt such a bad thing as we had two bunk mates, the first a North Korean business man, who imports Aussie wine into NK. The second a one man NGO machine, a guy who grew  in SK, but now lives in the USA, his one man charity runs program’s in both china and NK.

We knew that it was a 9 hour journey with no food on board, so we bought a few snacks, to keep us full, but both our bunk mates bought enough to feed the NK army!

First the business man opened his bags, beer (from Japan), coffee in a can from Singapore, biscuits and cakes from china, and two whole dried squids (from the nearby harbour), so we started of our trip with a toast and a dried squid leg! A truly surreal start to the day.

Mr NGO spoke pretty good English, so he translated for us, the NK business man was keen to know our industry, and once he heard we had lived n Brazil, he wanted to know if we knew any Argentinian wine growers he could buy cheap stock off!

He was well known to all the train staff and immigration and customs officials, probably because he stuffed something into each of their pockets when they stopped by at our berth. He was a great bloke who smoked outside and only snorted when absolutely necessary!

Mr NGO was also a real character, he was doing gods work in mysterious ways, baking bread and making feminine  products in two charity factories in NK.

We had read on a blog somewhere: do You know what NK stands for? Answer:

Not Known, because every day in NK you don’t know what is going to happen, or work, or appear, or disappear! Wise words I think.

The border controls were amazing, smiling helpful people, going through the many processes and forms that their great leader and his government require.

On the way out, we also spotted these customs blokes burning some dodgy material on the train platform and i like a junior james bond snapped off a shot of them:

NK border guards

Ok, we have no proof that this is anything dodgy, but it was a very strange thing to do!

They checked our electronics goods, flicked through our iPad and it’s contents, turned off our phones, stuffed them in a Manila envelope and wrapped that in half a ton of sticky tape and handed them back to us, apparently we can open them when we get out.

Can i phone a friend?

Our customs agent also checked that neither our camera or our IPad had GPS functionality (not that well though) and read all our magazines, not surprisingly  he was more interested in Caths trashy celebrity magazine, than my copy of the New Yorker!

He quizzed Mr NGO over his laptop and had a good poke around, checking out his files and going through his stuff.

He  reappeared half and hour later, shut the door smiling, and had a chat with Mr NGO, he got him to reopen his laptop, then plugged in a memory stick and copied 500 songs off him!!

All done with a lot of laughter and good humour.

Border controls and customs took approximately 3 hours, which we spent drinking beer and meeting the strange collection of tourists on our train, some East Germans (told you it was time travel), a Finn and a Belgian, all as you would expect nice friendly, curious people! Both the Finn and the Belgian were satisfying long held desires to visit NK, but neither of them could convince their wives to come with them, so they were both travelling alone!

Then after just three hours, the train was hitched to a much larger domestic service and we trundled off towards Pyongyang. Trundle being the key word here.

Here are some shots we got on the way into Pyongyang, i think they pretty well sum up the condition of the counrty side we passed through.

First sights:

the socialist paradise

NK train station

Every inch of land was used for food production

A child out collecting, and one “classic” tractor hard at work

One of many villages we saw on the way to PY, with a new seasons growth just starting to show

It is worth noting that upon arriving in PY, we were told by our tour guides that its not considered polite to take photos of folks from NK, so we stopped taking anymore without their agreement, but these ones we got before we met our guides.

For those of you not up on your NK history and politics, the country has been run since the end of WW II (after the Japanese lost) by a father, his son and as of last year, his son, the three Kim’s. There is no political parties, no Internet, one TV station, one radio station, a small mobile phone network, but no phones and not much else.

There is no private enterprise, no shops, no bars, no restaurants, no signs, no ads, no graffiti, just slogans extolling the genius of the three Kim’s. It’s pretty hard to imagine or comprehend, but we must be clear here, this is not a dynasty, because as good socialists, we know that dynasties are inherently bad, this is just a co-incidence that the socialist party elected three people from the same family to lead the country!

The country side reminded us instantly of Rwanda, there is different attitude to farming when the farmers are hungry, every spot of land is used for food production, we were told that the average farmer eats 300gms of food per day and earns 50c (US) per month.

No one has their own land, so all work is for their local collective, but the collectives are just big enough, that the farmers can’t link effort to output, so everyone just does the minimum. Thus the continue to be poor and hungry.

Here is a photo of Greg enjoying a “typical meal”, clearly we didnt go hungry while in NK.

The tools and vehicles were from another age, mangy cattle pulling plows, hand planting and steam powered trucks. Here is an old truck, converted to run on steam, with a fire and boiler built into the back tray

The roads were totally empty, not just quiet, but totally empty, with virtually no private vehicle ownership, the only traffic was trucks, buses, military vehicles and the odd new shiny, big expensive 4x4s (say no more, say no more).

We arrived at the station and were met by our guides, all tours have two government appointed guides and one driver, ours picked us out of the crowd and led us to our car, then onto our hotel.

It’s one of three hotels that tourists can stay in, but people are hesitant to confirm just how many of the three are actually open at any time!

Our hotel, on Alcatraz Island

So at the hotel, which is on a island that you can’t leave – We ran into a couple of the other passengers off the train and joined them for dinner and beers.

The dinner was suitably surreal, like the rest of the hotel, someone has visited a nice hotel and had a nice silver service restaurant, then repeated that over a bad Skype line to someone else who wrote it down in, then translated it and sent it to someone else who tried to recreate it here in sunny North Korea!

The 47th floor of the hotel has a revolving restaurant on it, so we settled in for what has to be smallest three course meal we have ever eaten, we were of course revolving around the whole time, but as it was dark and virtually none of the buildings in the capital had electricity on, so all we could see was darkness!!

It’s worth noting that the NK folks only refer to it as Korea, as they don’t believe the separation of the two states and they always refer to everything in terms of “the great leader” or the “the great president”, as in:

Can you see that building there? The great leader designated that building…. Etc etc etc..

The main square of PY, including the library and square where the big parades roll by. The new housing towers on the right of the shot are complete, on the outside at least..

Anywhere we went, that one of the three leaders had previously visited, we were given another enthralling story about the great leader and the wisdom they imparted while at that place, apparently the leaders are famous for imparting practical advice and philosophy to places they visit, one of my favourites was at a park we drove past in a small town. I pointed out what a nice park it was, apparently the great leader had also visited the park, and told the workers…… Wait for it….. You know this is going to be important….

That they should build more parks like this in NK…

He was clearly a genius!

Some more impressive feats by the countries glorious leaders included, Kim 1 composing several operas while fighting the Japanese, Kim 11, knowing how much his people like fireworks, created software that for the first time ever, allowed the release of  fireworks to be controlled by a computer, then Kim 111, upon finding out that Kim 11 had died on a Saturday, decided in his wisdom (which he gained from his father) not to announce the death to the NK people until the Monday, so that the people would not have their weekend ruined.

Now I realise that Kim 111’s achievement pales in comparison to his dads and granddads, but he has only been in power for six months!

They also don’t let you touch the local currency, you can pay for anything you need in Yuan, USD, EURO etc, it’s as if they need hard currency!

Prices are dirt cheap with two beers in the hotel bar costing just £1.40!

But as usual, the bar experience was just weird, the fridge had Heineken, strawberry milk and something else with just Korean writing on it. So of course i tried to order the mystery Korean drink, the bar man said ok and got it out of the fridge  but he couldn’t explain what it was,  but then the waitress refused to bring it to me, telling me it wasn’t for sale, despite there being 12 cans of it in the drinks fridge!

Day 2

We got picked up at 7am by our guides, both of whom were awesome, friendly, helpful, well informed.

We headed directly south to the border with South Korea, we were heading for the demilitarized zone, and hopefully to spot the American imperialist occupiers preparing for an invasion!

The trip down was amazing, directly south, about 150km, it took us three hours though, because though the roads were massive and wide, with virtually no other traffic, the condition of the roads was terrible, so we continually swung from one side to the other as we avoided the potholes and the small teams of workers filling in the potholes with the most basic tools.

The main road north/south across North Korea

One of the many “widened” bits of the road, roughly the size of an airport runway perhaps??!?!?

We weren’t really sure what we in for with the visit, we got the usual bizarrely biased version of the events, but to be honest by now (like all the tourists we met) we had already learned to tune out when the propaganda began. But we didn’t realise that we would go right to the edge of the border, in the middle of the DMZ, where peace talks where conducted.

The DMZ, from the goodies side, looking at the baddies side

Leaving the DMZ

We learnt that the peace talks were conducted between the NK army and Imperialist Americans, no South Koreans were present, just those evil imperialists….

Here we are, smack in the middle of the DMZ, with two NK army guards making sure we dont defect to the south!

Inside the DMZ, note the list of official participants on the wall extends beyond just the “imperialist americans”

Guarding the border of North and South Korea, the concrete line represents the actual border between the two countries

From there we went to see some old stuff, from pre revolution Korea, then some historical village with some rather odd collections of historical artefacts.

We also visited a stamp shop, full of NK stamps and post cards, we bought some post cards to send home, of course it’s well known that any post cards that don’t contain complimentary information about the country are not posted, so we made sure that ours we gushing with compliments, for the glorious country and even more glorious leadership! But of course its not as easy as just posting your postcards, when I went to the post shop in our hotel to post them (of course we could not go to the post office)! But the hotel staff wouldn’t post them until I told them my room an number and name, do,please let me know if you got yours!

We then got to see the American armed spy ship that was captured by the great NK people’s Navy, the small naval boat with a single 30 calibre machine gun was clearly something that NK is very proud to have captured, the 15 minute “informational” video that explained the story of the USS Pueblo was one of the funniest videos I have ever scene, I am sure it was the inspiration for “Team America World Police”.

The extent of the armory on the USS Pueblo, one rear facing 30 cal machine gun

Here is the full video for your informational pleasure

Whilst captured, the US imperialists tried to add a little humour into the whole affair. Whenever they were photographed, at least one of the crew would do “the bird”, this small gesture of defiance led to some smashing phots:

You can read more about the digit affair here:

The digit affair

For dinner that night we had Korean hot pot, the restaurant of course only had other tour groups in it, and there aren’t many tourists in the country (like 2,000 people per year) so we were getting to know the other tourists on our circuit. The food was great, the restaurant was in the embassy district, we could see the embassy’s of Iran, Syria, Romania and Switzerland, which was only as odd as the rest of the country! We dubbed it the”Axis of Evil Avenue”.

As with every evening there was a power cut while we were eating, which was a good thing, as it relieved us of the constant presence of north Korean TV – as well as pictures of The Great Leader and The eternal president, every restaurant room had a tv in it, with the only NK tv station blaring loudly at us. A weird mix of montages of war footage, homages to the countries leaders and eastern European opera performances….

To try and explain the level of propaganda we heard is pretty hard, It felt to me like a 6 year old kid telling lies, you know they are doing it, you can tell by their delivery that they know they are doing it, but you both smile and nod. What was impressive about our guides was that they stuck to their guns, repeated their Governments version of any story, and refused to be drawn into questioning what they had been instructed to say.

You can never be too prepared for an impending invasion by those pesky imperialists..

We constantly needed to remind ourselves that we were guests in this country, and that we chose to visit here, knowing all that we knew of the regime. Our tour guides were doing a great job of telling the official story that they have to tell, so it wasnt really  up to us to correct things according to the version of history that we were taught. But there was an awful lot of tongue biting and leg squeezing as we resisted the urge to correct what were often ludicrous stories.

Like father like son, and son of son… all geniuses!

As a tourist in NK, you are not allowed to go anywhere without your guides, you cant get hold of the local currency, and even with your guides there is a very small list of approved restaurants and shops that you are allowed to stop in, so for a beer, there are very few choices. It wouldn’t really matter if you could leave the hotel on your own, there are very few shops or restaurants, and we only saw one pub the whole time we were there.

Traffic control, NK style

This was highlighted one afternoon, when we asked our guides to stop at a shop for a can of ice coffee, instead of stopping at one of the official government food stores, we took a 15km detour back to the place we had just eaten lunch, to buy one from the hotel restaurant! Despite seeing at least one counter on the road that did have them.

Our  hotel had two bars, one with local beers, so at night in the sanctuary of the bar in the roof top revolving restaurant, we debriefed with other tourists over cheap beer and plenty of laughs. We all shared the same frustrations, we were being lied too, from the morning to the evening, which is fine, we are tourists and we know what we are in for, what was annoying, frustrating and ultimately saddening was that these same lies are repeated to the citizens of NK, they are bombarded with the need to be prepared for an impending invasion from the imperialist Americans from the south, and the never ending stories about the wisdom of their three leaders.

Day 3

A full day in Pyongyang, we started off with another random breakfast, this time including raw onion and hot water, but at least from our 46th floor restaurant we could see it was clear and almost sunny.

Our guides picked us up and we went sight seeing for the day around the city, we saw towers, monuments, buildings, parade grounds, parks and many other odd things, all except one were tied into either the great leader or the eternal president.

Mural outside parliament

There is definitely nothing wrong with the fundamental ideas of the north Korean ideology, where as the Russians had the hammer and sickle, the DPRK has the sickle, for the farmers, the hammer for the merchant class and the calligraphy brush for the intellectuals. The great leader and eternal president was at least smart enough to bring all the groups of society into his vision.

Monument to the founding of the workers party

The idealogy is based around something called juche, which means that man is his master of his own destiny, and no one is his master.

So far so good, it’s all pretty decent human stuff, we are all equal and need a balanced society to achieve happiness, sadly the implementation of this ideology has fallen far short of its ideals.

So, we visited the juche tower,  then the memorial to the founding of the party, then the massive memorials to the eternal president and his son the eternal leader (or vice versa, I still can’t tell which is which). For the record the massive statutes were definitely not solid bronze, they looked more like spray painted fibreglass, but we decided not to raise this, as there were constant streams of NK folks laying flowers and bowing to the dudes. Which we did too (through very gritted teeth).

Looking back across PY from the library towards the monument of the juche idea thingy…

Kim 1 and Kim 2, with their ever present admirers

Some lucky young kids enjoying all the fun of a school trip to visit the two Kims

Then it got interesting, we visited a massive nationally library, got to see the books, the teaching rooms (with classes running in English and maths), plus the music room (with tapes of music from all around the world). They tried to find us a tape from new Zealand, but sadly I am not sure what language they found, but it wasn’t kiwi! Like everything else it was elaborately stage managed, all the way down to computerised, electric book delivery system, which wasn’t computerised and wasn’t even electric, with a mysterious hand pushing the cart through a hole in the wall towards us with a randomly selected set of books, huckleberry finn, Shakespeare and a sailing manual!

book delivery, NK style

We also visited the humble house that the eternal leader grew up in, it was definitely humble, I don’t know what more I can say, but when a country lies about so much, you start to doubt even them most simple things, did he really live there? was it really the families noodle press? Did he really have two brothers? Is any of this even remotely true? Looking at the thousands of ordinary Koreans who were queuing for hours to see this distinctly suspiciously humble site are going to be mightly pissed if the find out any of this is a lie!!!

We also drove down the street of 50,000 families. Housing like everything else is owned by the state, you dont get to buy your house, it is given to you by the state, and if you dont like, you lump it! We were told that everyone in the state lives in the same quality and size house, which sounds great, but we are not sure if it is true.

the street of 50,000 families

Like home ownership, the ownership of vehicles by private individuals is also against the rules, so the roads were virtually empty most of the day.

Rush hour (around 9am) in Pyongyang city

We saw a massive fun park complete with rusting rides and machines, we were informed that the park was only closed for the day as  the workers needed a day off….

Then we got to do the most “real” thing of the whole trip, we rode four stops on the PY metro system.

The “fireworks” station, all the stations we saw were beautiful

We also visited the museum of the great war, their version of the war was suitably entertaining, apparently NK defeated the Imperialist Americans and signed a cease fire while they had the upper hand. The NK troops did it all single handedly, with no support from either Russia and China (despite rooms full of Russian weapons) and the imperialist Americans seemed to be invading on their own, no mention was made of the UN mandate of the other countries involved (not even the South Korean army got a mention).

A gentle reminder of Kim 1’s role in the war

North Korean tank (dont even think its a russian tank, you damn imperialist)

Then we went to the children’s palace, I suppose it’s a socialists idea of an after school club, with room after room of kids playing instruments, doing takwondo and every other after school thing a young socialist could imagine, we went from room to room and the kids put on an amazing show in everyone.

Kim 1 regarded the accordion as the peoples instrument and encouraged its use. Surely this is one of his most evil tortures imposed on his country

I am really not sure what this “instrument” is…

Hilariously we headed to NK’s “tourist shop” we got to the pottery section – and surprise surprise – the electricity went off – AGAIN!

Then we headed for dinner, another tourist only place, this time for a lovely Korean duck BBQ, cooked at the table, delicious stuff!

We headed back to Alcatraz, in time for a final fitting of Greg’s new Kim Il Jung suit (coming soon to a BBQ near you)!!

Or is that Greg Kim Jong Ill’n?

Then up to the roof for more beers and another debriefing sessions with our fellow tourists. All of us where shell shocked at the end of each day, amazed at what the NK citizens lived with.

The next day we traveled backed to Dandong, China, the border crossing was again full of searches, numerous bribes and the customs officials burning something ceremoniously on the station platform. I never thought I would be glad to return to the relative freedom and liberty of China!

Despite the fact North Korean businessmen who filled our Dandong hotel and its bars and restaurants, who spent their evenings drinking and eating like kings, the average North Korean citizen people are the most isolated people in the world, with  no access to independent news, a state media that is sadly comical, no private tv or radio stations, they are unable to travel or even make phone calls outside the country, they are not allowed personal email addresses and have absolutely no access to the Internet at all. They are a country who has no idea about Facebook, wifi, Wikipedia or any of the things that we take for granted.

Thanks to the ideology of their leaders (and i am sure the long running international sanctions) they are dirt poor, poorer than any other we have seen on our travels. They also looked hungry. We saw women pick weeds from the side of the road – we knew they would be used for cooking. Of course we were not allowed to take photos of this – for a country where people are told they have nothing to envy – they sure had a lot to cover up.

But whats most depressing is how sad they seem, we have been to plenty of countries where people dont have much in the way of material wealth, but you still see kids playing in the streets, and a smile is always returned, but in NK, a smile is returned with nothing, people look worried, then look away, and for us, each time that happened, the feeling of sadness grew.

The country is looking backwards, the battle for independence from Japan, the battles against south Korea, the USA and the UN forces were all amazing events and they can definitely be proud of some of them, but that was nearly 60 years ago, but the leadership has continued to make these events the sole focus for the country and to justify their repressive regime.

I think that until NK starts to look forwards, nothing will change and that’s really sad for the people of North Korea.

We travelled to NK with Young Pioneer Tours, they were great, cheap and always helpful and quick to reply to any questions we asked:
Young Pioneer Tours

Addis Ababa, hot coffee and cool jazz….

15 April, 2012

A 5 hour flight leaving Rome at 1am kicked off the journey for me. I met up with Greg, Gio & Deb at the airports cafe – where a doughnut & espresso set them back £1 each…

Straight away – the ruins of planes littered the sides of the runway and the randomness of the immigration process (visas bought on spot with USD 20 & handwritten in triplicate) was a reminder I was back in the developing world.

The car journey to the hotel was the final slap of reality that I needed. Addis Ababa is poor, very poor. Out of all the places we have been – immediately it feels the least developed.

Driving in Addis Ababa, through the market

We stayed at the Ghion hotel, which was as random a hotel as you could imagine, complete with extensive grounds and a set of Olympic diving boards on the edge of the worlds largest swimming pool!

We came to Addis to listen to ethio-jazz, of course we new nothing about this until (our much cooler friend) Gio told us that as we had a stop over in Addis, a night of ehtio-jazz was a must do!

The other thing that Ethopia is probably most famous for (except for LiveAid and Bob Geldof) is coffee, Ethiopia is believed to be the original home of coffee, and perhaps the only benefit of the Italian invasions is that they take coffee very seriously:

Coffee at Tomoca, Addis Ababa

Gio as always, has done his research well – and after lunch in an Italian restaurant, we make a bee line for St George Church. At 70% orthodox Christian there was some serious wall kissing, artifact worshipping and general finery to be witnessed.

The Ethiopian church is a wonder to behold, they are old school orthodox, so old school that they haven’t adopted the Gregorian calendar, so it’s still 2007 in Ethiopia now!

Built to celebrate yet another victory over the Italians.

The orthodox influence also created their writing script, which is more like Russian than roman script.

Dude i think you made a spelling mistake there.

Walking around the city itself was a mission. Closed toe shoes are a must. The city was dirty, dusty and generally a little mean. The most common enterprise was shoe cleaning and selling banana chewing gum. Not the stuff great economies were built on. People did look desperate and afflicted. It was not a happy place to be and yet another reminder of how amazing life is for most of us.

By 5pm it was raining, and we bundled into the nearest taxi – Greg informs me it was 1970s Lada – fresh with Dutch number plates underneath the Ethiopian plates. Our driver was Ayele (phone number 09 11 204045) after a few minutes it was clear that Ayele was no normal taxi driver. He was articulate and passionate about Addis Ababa and a great impromptu tour guide. His role in life was to save enough money to get his only child into private school. I’m pretty sure he will succeed. Thus we asked Ayele to drive us the next day. So a flat rate was arranged – £25 for 8 hours.

Ayele and his trusty Lada taxi, he is a top bloke!

The next day we went to see “Lucy” in the Ehtiopian Museum; she was looking pretty good for 2.4 million years old. She has been described as the link between chimpanzees and humans – the first example where we walked on two’s not four’s.

Ethiopia, the home of coffee, and walking upright, i wonder if the two are related?!!?!

Then we headed to the Ethnology museum. I love Ethnology museums, for me they bring cultures to life as they tried to provide a glimpse of the 13 clans that exist in Ethiopia from birth to death and beyond.

The Ethnology museum is in the university grounds, as usual the grounds were full of students hanging around and generally avoiding classes, but the highlight of the grounds was definitely, Mussolini’s stairs, for the brief time that the Italians occupied Ethiopia, Il Duce had a spiral stair case built in the university grounds, a step for each year of his reign, when the Italians were thrown out of the country,  a lion (the symbol of Ethiopia was plonked on the top step, sitting looking calm, relaxed and permanent!

the problem with creating monuments to your own genius, is often you arent really a genius...

We tried to head to the market but as it was Sunday – it was closed. We decided to drive through anyway – from what I could see and from Ayele described, I’m not in a hurry to go back! We asked Ayele if he shopped at the market for his fruit and veggies, he replied with a laugh, “no, I shop at the supermarket”!!

So the three highlights of our short break in Ethiopia were definitely the coffee, the food and the music.

We have loved Ethopian food for a while and there is some great restaurants in London, but that was blown away by the food we had in Addis, the eating hightlight was definitely Habesha Restauarnt , where we loved the sharing, communal focus that a giant shared dish of mixed dishes, eaten with your hands and with an edible plate made of sour pancake like dough.

Defiitely one of the worlds great cuisines!

We spent two nights listening to ethiojazz, if you like me don’t have a clue what ethiojazz is, just have a look on youtube, there is tons of it, and I have to say its pretty magic stuff.

If you can imagine sitting in an easy chair (stolen from your grandmas house), in a room so dark you cant see where the floor begins, then add copious amounts of meta beer (the local draft) and one of the tightest musical groups I have  ever seen, then you are starting to get a feel for the evening, I have to say, though initially skeptical, its definitely worth visiting Addis – just to see the jazz!

Finally, the main event we soak up Ethio-jazz!

So, our brief two day stopover was really just a teaser, there is clearly lots more to see in Ethiopia, from the hidden churches, to the great rift valley, and to see the home of Rastafarian movement, so when the security situation is sorted out, I think we will be back here to see more of what was obviously a friendly, welcoming and amazing country!


11 September, 2011

So after four great days on safari near Mt Kenya, we made the seven hour cross Kenya journey including cars, 2 flights on 8 seater planes and a grass landing to get to Kiwayu Safari Village. So much fun!!!

The Kiwayu airport terminal and shuttle bus.

Kiwayu beach resort is everything we wanted it to be. Quiet, very quiet.

The beach at Kiwayu

6 hours by road to the nearest shop, no running water, generator electricity, but thanks to a phone executive who fell in love with the place – the best wifi I have seen travelling in Africa! The resort is right on the beach.

The resort at Kiwayu

It used to be a safari site as well, however with poaching this sadly ended in the 70s. All that is left are some pretty cheeky monkeys and the friendly locals.

We arrived mid way through the afternoon, and were greeted with a team of resort workers who soon wrestled our bags from us and took them straight to our banda’s.

Mums bag being delivered!

Our Banda

The view from our banda

We then gratefully devoured huge bowls of fresh pasta with tomato sauce and basil – just awesome. This set the scene for many of the other culinary delights that were yet to come. The resort used to be owned by an Italian family who entrusted the running to his daughter and son in law George.

The place is now run by George, a softly spoken gent I suspect from deepest darkest Surrey who has found the way to live! Like all cool people in life, George use to be an Insurance Broker.

The resort consists of 18 banda’s, most of which have a capacity for 2-3 people. There are no walls, no windows and no real floors on the banda’s. Each have to be re-made every 10 years and the team from the local village take the opportunity to re-model them each time. From the main bed, there is a direct, unobstructed view on to the beach. The toilet / shower is attached to each of banda’s and remembering there are no windows, walls etc, let me say “showering” in the open, was an interesting, er-hum, “liberating” experience.

Our magical bathroom with ocean views from the shower and toilet!

Our walk to dinner became a hop, skip and a jump as we literally had to dodge the thousands of crabs scutterling across our path. Our head torches soon became essential apparatus for any night time endeavour. I have never seen so many it was like the sand had changed colour.

Speaking of food, our first dinner consisted of piles of lobster and sparkling Rose – being allergic to most things in shells, the team were fantastic in preparing awesome alternatives for me, including the freshest turbot with ginger, herbs & coconut rice. With flambéed bananas to end, we were given yet another reminder that life was pretty bloody good!

The restaurant and lobby

The bar

Sleeping at night was difficult at first. You become accustomed to walls, windows, a defined space that is only yours. To hand yourself back to nature and into the arms of moonlight and stars was difficult. It was hard to put my mind at rest for what was out there, but soon the sound of the ocean came swirling in and I found myself woken by sunlight.

Our bedroom

Our days consisted of walking along the beach, heading to the island (just 10 minutes in a speedboat), walking through the village, lounging on day beds, reading and sharing each other’s company. We also devoured endless amounts of fresh pasta, lobster, crab, prawns, salads, cheeses, fresh sorbets, fruits. Not too mention cocktails, bubbles, wines, cold beer, coconut juice etc …

The sun room at the back of our banda – just perfect!

In summary, it was a terrific place, to just get away from it all. Thoroughly enjoyed and no doubt will be recommended to friends and family.

NOTE: We were at Kiwayu between 31 August to 3 September. On 11 September it was reported that a British woman was abducted and the husband were killed. Our thoughts go to the family and to George and his family.

Birthday Bash in Beautiful Bordeaux!

9 February, 2011

Well happy 2011!

To make up for a lack of blogging last year, I promised myself that this year I would blog every adventure that we go on.

So here goes…

As most of you know, January 20th is Cath’s birthday, so we try and have a mini adventure to celebrate her big day.

This year we decided to go to Bordeaux France, to see what its all about.

As a kid, Bordeaux seemed to be a very exotic place, where cheese eating, striped top wearing bicycle riding French people living in giant chateaux making garlic necklaces and the most expensive wine in the world. I definitely hadn’t ever seen or drunk any of this famous stuff, and I didn’t know what “Bordeaux” was, or why it was so special, but probably thanks to the movies and British TV shows, i knew it just was!!!

But then after cutting our teeth on new world wines in Australia and New Zealand (and a glass or two of Brasilian wine to give us some perspective), and nearly 8 years living in England , we did get to drink some Bordeaux wines, and after the easy drinking, bold flavours of the new world wines, there really wasn’t enough (to my uneducated palate) to make me bother with Bordeaux wines, but with prices so high, and all the hoopla that goes with great bordeaux we thought we should go and check it out.

Now first for those who haven’t visited some background on Bordeaux:

Bordeaux is here:

They have been growing wine in Bordeaux since the about 48AD, and the English liked the wine (known as claret in England) so much that in the 12th century thanks to the marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Aleinor d’Aquitaine, the region became part of English territory and they established a free trade zone between England and Aquitaine!

There are 60 appellations that make up the region of Bordeaux, some of them (like Margaux and St Emiliion) are really no bigger than a standard kiwi farm, others like haut medoc are pretty decent sized. One of the chateaus we visited explained that 1 hectare of land in a good appellation planted with grapes generally sells for about €1,000,000!!!

The châteaux don’t actually sell their own wine, they sell all of their output to a “negociant” or wine merchant who then sells it on their behalf, this is believed to be why many chateaux still don’t sell any wine at their vineyard door, or in neighbouring shops or wine stores, one staff member told us that they don’t even know who their customers are, as they have no contact with them!

Bordeaux isn’t having an easy time at the moment, exports are falling (in 2004 sales to the USA fell 59% and in the UK, Australia has overtaken France as the largest importer), so they are trying to reduce the glut in Bordeaux, removing about 10% of the grapes to try and recover the price.

A traditional Bordeaux bottle doesn’t actually tell you what it contains, just the chateau that made it, the classification (ie how fancy it traditionally is) and the appellation (or region within Bordeaux) where it was grown, whether or not it was bottled at the chateaux (lots of chateau’s now share trailer based bottling plants, allowing them to share the bottling plant between their chateau’s)!!!, and the vintage.  It is now believed that this complex naming convention is hurting their export sales as almost all of the rest of the world now gives the consumer what they want, the grape variety, the region and the year!

So i hear you scream!  “what is a Bordeaux wine?”

It’s normally a blend of at least a couple of the following varieties: Cab Sav, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

* thanks wikipedia!!!

Whites are also grown in smaller amounts including Semillon, Sav Blanc and Muscadelle (generally blended to make a sauterne).

So armed with all small bit of knowledge we headed off for the weekend to Bordeaux, we flew into airport and picked up (very optimistically) a fiat 500 convertible  – hoping that we could get some cold crisp winter sunshine!

The first thing to realise is that its very different to visiting vineyards in the new world, first most of the chateaux* are closed for the winter, then they may only open on weekdays, not weekend, then if they are open (many don’t accept visitors), then if they do accept visitors, you need to book ahead, (our hostess told us of people who arrived 4 minutes late and were turned away)! Then once you get in the door, you cant just taste the wine, you need to do a tour first, as you can imagine the visible parts of the wine making process is exactly the same in every place, so after the first tour there isn’t much to keep up the interest up – except the wine at the end!! Even after you have tasted some of their wines, they may still not actually have any for sale, so if you liked it, you cant buy any at the cellar door, and the wine maker may not even be able to tell you where you could buy it, because they are not involved in the selling process – its an amazing set  up!

But I have to say our host’s at the chateaux we visited were all very accommodating and very well informed on their product, so they made the trip worthwhile. Plus even though it was the off season, we still ate at some amazing restaurants and set a new record for consuming foie gras three times in 48 hours!

* double thanks wikipedia for teaching me that chateaux is the plural of chateau!!!

So here are some snaps from our trip:


It was cold, clear and really really windy!

It’s a bit quiet around here (wandering around the village near Château Lynch Bages in the appellation Pauillac)

Really quiet around here!!

They really don’t make wine like this anymore, but stainless steel tanks don’t make such great photos..

Sadly they no longer press the grapes with their feet in these large trays either, they use a whiz bang motorized presses instead!

Barrels and barrels in the cellars – each one containing approximately 300 bottles of wine!

The biggest most beautiful chateau we saw, reminds me of the house i grew up in back in Nelson!

Us at Château Giscours in the appellation of Margaux – not only is this place stunningly beautiful, it has a cricket oval and really friendly staff!

French oak barrels, apparently american oak is not held in high regard here!

Our chateau for the weekend, Chateau Beau Jardin our hosts Jean and Michele were totally awesome!

Grapes growing, you can see nicely rounded river stones poking through the thin layer of soil…

Just in case you thought all the houses were grand chateaux, here is one very cute little cottage

But, some of the chateaux were truly amazing!

Winding our way through the villages of the left bank!


Thats all for now folks!

May 2007 – How long do you think it would take to drive to the arctic circle?

17 July, 2010
And of course, the answer to that is that there is only one way to find out, so we packed up our car, our picnic rugs, sleeping bags and some warm clothes and headed off to find out……17 days, 4600 miles (that’s about 7400km to folks from the modern world), and one headlight bulb and just two litres of oil later, we knew….

Heres the route we took, and where we stopped, thanks to the new google maps thingy:

Our plan was to whizz north as fast as we could, then have a nice relaxing drive home. So having zoomed through France, and really, really zoomed through Germany (the Alfa sitting on 190km/hr on the Autobahn) here we are about to cross the bridge between Denmark and Sweden,
The Nordic countries were everything we had heard about them, from what we saw everyone up there has an amazing quality of life, great public services, beautiful cities, great education, public transport…. and really really expensive… well everything!Our third night was spent in Stockholm, a really beautiful city spread over 100’s of small islands:
Stockholm has the oldest open air museum in the world, its packed full of ancient houses that have been collected from all over the country, like this traditionally grass roofed farm house:
We headed from Stockholm up the the east coast of Sweden, stopping in camping grounds overnight, because as with everything else in Scandinavia accommodation is really expensive, its not often you have to pay London prices outside London, but we paid London prices almost everywhere we went.
So it was a holiday of home cooked evening meals and packed lunches, as advised by the locals we even bought our alcohol with us from Germany!
Here we are heading across the mountains from the coast of Sweden up into the wilderness in the mountains:
On our last night before crossing into Norway we stayed in the village of Tarnaby, a massive skiing town in the winter months, it was practically deserted when we were there, so we got a whole ski chalet for ourselves.And yes that is snow you can see falling from the sky!
This far north we were in the land of 24 hour sunlight (which is very interesting experience when combined with alcohol) so here we are standing outside and enjoying the somewhat chilly mid night sun – thus the chilly toe curls:
The road from Tarnaby to the Arctic circle is one of the most dramatic drives we have ever done, beautifully mountains, massive snow drifts, ski field after ski field and here we are beside yet another massive frozen lake:
And here we have a couple of reindeer looking for some fresh spring grass to munch on – we also saw a massive Elk but unfortunately he didn’t hang around to have his photo taken:
It may have been lovely and sunny when we were there, but you can imagine in winter it would be pretty grim with 22 hours of darkness and even more snow  – enough to justify metal spiked tires and a snow plow this big:
Finally after over 2000 miles, we were almost there:
But of course as it was 7th of May everything in Norway was closed for Norway’s National Day, unfortunately this included the Arctic circle visitors centre, which is why none of you got a post card and we didn’t get to pick up a prized fridge magnet!So here we are at the pole:
After reaching our destination, we began the much more sedate trip home – it had to be sedate as the maximum speed limit is 90km/hr and the speeding fines range from 1,000-10,000 euros!Here is one of our first glimpses of the famous Fjords, even in the rain the scenery was absolutely breath taking:
We stopped for three nights here in Sogndal, a cute little village with a lake in one direction and the dramatic  Sognefjord (the worlds longest and deepest glacier – over 200km long) on the other and of course the standard snow capped mountains all around:
Here is our little cottage on the edge of the lake, we stayed on the Svedal farm which was just magic, as well as cute cottages, stunning lake views, an art gallery – Hans and his family also had a barn full of little lambs and kittens for Cath to play with!Here’s the link to their website if you are looking for magic accommodation in the middle of the fjords:

Svedal Hytter

Here we are settling in for nice quiet night of crappy magazines, baileys and a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle:
And heres the view out the window and back up the valley at around 10pm – even down here, theres not a lot of darkness:
Ok to be honest, the weather wasn’t perfect the whole time, so here we have Cath standing at the end of a rainbow (trust me, she is there) Unfortunately the traditional pot of gold at the end of the rainbow never got translated into Norwegian so when Cath got to the end, the pot was empty!
Another day, another beautiful fjord, its a tough life heh?
Another day, another grassy hill, soaring mountain, dramatic waterfall and sheepies and lambies with bells ding-donging and gamboling everywhere:
Luckily for us, if this global warming thing keeps on getting worse, we will be able to tell our grandkids that we actually got to see the rapidly retreating Nigards glaciers before they disappeared completely:
With so many massive mountains, fjords, snow and lakes, you need about 1,000,000 ferry’s and some mighty fine tunnels to get anywhere in this place, here we are about to drive into worlds longest road tunnel:
And after 15 minutes driving straight into the mountain here we are stopped 12.25km from daylight in either direction:
Next stop was Oslo, again another beautiful, civilized, crime-free, litter-free, child and wheel chair friendly Nordic city full of massive carvings of writhing naked people shaped like a giant pencil
Then back into Sweden, and onto Goteborg – another clean, crime free – yeah you get the idea, its a very nice part of the world….
Next stop was Germany, and after a great night and a lovely lunch in Koln as guests of the ever lovely Pitze clan we headed back to Gregs favourite European city (Brugge) for more Belgian beer.We then filled the car to the brim with super-duper cheap french booze, and jumped back into the Eurotunnel..
then, wham, bam, 4600 miles later we were back home safe and sound…
Till next time, see ya!

Venice Carnival 2010

2 April, 2010

After enjoying Carnival 2008 in Rio de Janeiro:

Carnival in Argentina

Then escaping Brazil for Carnival 2009:

Carnival in Rio

For Carnival 2010, we decided it was time to sample a European Carnival.

So with Ana, Piero, Deb and Robert-Michael we headed to Venice to celebrate Carnival 2010 at a masquerade ball.

Now we were all masquerade ball novices so we didn’t really know what to expect, we attended a ball at  Luna Hotel Baglioni:

Hotel Luna Baglioni

A bit of research quickly showed us that you could literally spend as much as you wanted on a ball – from around €150 per person for the evening to well into the €1,000’s of Euros!! Our ball was in the lower middle of the price range, but included a live performance of Opera to start the evening, performers during the evening, a buffet meal and most importantly all we could drink and dance!!!

But the big question was, would anyone actually dress up for the ball?

Perhaps coming from the southern hemisphere, we were a bit sceptical about dressing up, sure we wanted to – but we didn’t want to be the only ones there who did! In the end we figured that with the seven of us dressed up it wouldn’t really matter if anyone else did, so we went ahead and found our costumes.

We looked at costume hire in Venice and were literally blown away at the prices – most hire places we contacted were asking around €400 for a costume, so after a bit of research we found out that for the men, the minimum was a mask, black suit, bow tie and a cape, so we boys agreed to go with that option and to hire our capes in London (for about £30 each)! The girls also found their outfits in London, so we packed up our costumes, wigs and masks, jumped on various planes and met up in Venice.

Looking back on it now, and seeing the amazing costumes that were available in Venice, if we went again we would probably try and scrape together enough cash to hire a costume from Venice, the elegance of the outfits, with matching shoes and stockings, the beautiful luxurious wigs and amazing masks that people hired in Venice certainly put our costumes to shame – but heh, you live and learn!

So here we are cruising into town on Friday night in a beautiful water taxi, RM took the mask theme to the extreme, and he wasn’t seen without a mask the whole time we were there!

Now, Venice is always beautiful, here are some snaps we took on this trip, that hopefully give an impression of the beauty of the city:

Please admire Gregs new top hat, not quite sure when he will ever wear it again!

But Venice takes on a whole new angle when the streets are full of carnival goers, it really is totally surreal:

So we wandered around the city all day Saturday, marvelling at the beauty of the masks and costumes on display

You literally never knew what was going to be around the next corner, including this rather scary group who we were walking silently through the city:

We got ready in our apartment and with an amazing lack of fuss and time, suddenly we were transformed and ready to go to the ball:

We walked across Venice to the hotel, it was about 20 minutes walk and it was pure fantasy, crowds of carnival dressed people filled the city admiring each others outfits as they passed and having an amazing time.

Here we are at the start of the evening, before the opera started:

Straight after this photo was taken, we were approached by a Spanish television crew who were making a show about carnival and the next thing you know, Piero and Ana were doing an interview in Spanish for the show, while we non Spanish speakers sat around like very well dressed extras!

We then sat down and watched the opera, for us it was our first experience of opera, and it was very nice to see it in such a small intimate venue. It was a very pleasant way to start the evening – especially combined with a bellini cocktail or five!

We then moved into the ballroom, which was just amazing, from our research we saw that a lot of the balls in Venice are held in conference centres or new hotels, but the nice thing about our hotel was that it was seriously old, with a beautiful ballroom covered in frescos with chandeliers and portraits, and as you can see below full to bursting with people dressed in the most beautiful costumes:

So we settled in and made the most of the evening, apart from a near brawl with some very hungry elderly Austrians who tried to push into the food queue, the evening was perfect, we quickly made friends with our waiter who spent the whole evening sneaking jugs of bellinis to us and dancing with the girls!

As a group of seven we were the largest group in the ballroom and we were obviously having a ball of a time as people were constantly coming over to join us, talk to us and comment on how stylishly we moved after we performed a group moon walk up to the buffet for desserts….

But seemingly suddenly, the evening was over (it was  actually after 1am), the ballroom was empty except for our group, the DJ and the waiters clearing up the tables, so we headed off home, exhausted, happy and wonderfully over dressed!