Safari 2018: Chapter 6 – Family matters

Safari 2018:  Chapter 6 – Family matters

Wanderlust runs deep in our family.  Robyn & I love travelling and it was always an extra treat (well worth the challenge) to take the children on trips even from their youngest ages.  Now all grown up, the next generation are probably bigger travellers than we ever were and, for many years now, we have seldom found ourselves all living in the same country.  This is why, every two years or so, we try to bring the clan together in one interesting spot or another.  New York in 2013, Finland in 2016 … and Sri Lanka in 2018.  Caroline, Jordan and Stef came in from London and Kate, Lewis, Sam and Aruna came in from Sydney, all meeting up with Robyn & me en route home from Africa.  There’s a strange and wonderful chemistry to these reunions.  No group of nine adults, living in close proximity will ever all see everything the same way but this family has learned the fine art of accepting and loving each other’s quirks and foibles and of letting things pass without dudgeon.

 

 

It helps if we stay in a memorable place and Claughton House, our home for the final week of this ‘safari’ trip, is truly remarkable, sitting just above a deserted beach 10 minutes ride by tuk-tuk from Dikwella on Sri Lanka’s southernmost tip.  The villa was designed by Geoffrey Bawa who is something of a celebrity architect in Sri Lanka, responsible for public and private buildings throughout Sri Lanka and overseas.  The doyen of ‘Tropical Modernism’, even I could see how his style brings together form and function ideal for his environment:  large rooms, open to the outside, sheltered by huge, overhanging eaves;  high ceilings, wide rooms and cool air moving all around;  extensive use of polished concrete on floors and walls;  you feel like you’re living outside, yet the heat and humidity is somehow gone.  Of course, you have to be ready to share your space with birds, bats, geckos, monitor lizards, giant earthworms, the ubiquitous street dogs and the biggest flying cockroach you’ve ever seen, but there is plenty of room for everyone.  Certainly there was room for the nine of us to relax, eat, swim and play cards and board games.  Everyone had brought their duty free allowance so it was cocktails every night and the food (always local) was beautiful (although the final night BBQ, our only western-style meal, did leave some casualties the next day).  These family holidays are to be treasured, they keep the old young and the young connected and always leave me with a face sore from smiling.

 

 

Dikwella, 5km down the road is a busy little market town, prototypically colourful and chaotic.  It was also pretty much wiped out by the tsunami that devastated coastlines around the Indian Ocean in 2004.  The impacts of this disaster can be found everywhere, but you need to look for it.  Almost every building in Dikwella and the other towns along the south coast is new – no quaint fishing cottages here, none of the mud bricks and palm thatch that we found in the north.  It’s concrete and it’s functional and it’s the sign of the survivors rebuilding their lives after a random catastrophe that took the lives of 35,000 of their friends and relatives.  You take the time to talk to anyone here and they have all lost family – they tell their story with a gentle smile and the resigned acceptance that it happened and that there is no point in asking why.  YouTube has terrifying footage:  the waves were fast, remorseless and violent;  they levelled towns and cleared coastal plains … of everything;  people were utterly unprepared;  no one had seen the ocean behave like this – it hadn’t for hundreds of years.  It staggers me that it has all been rebuilt so quickly – apart from the suspicious newness of the buildings you’d hardly know it had happened.  It’s a privilege to see human resilience so close up and on such a scale.

The aftermath of the tsunami was one of two sobering lessons from our last days in Sri Lanka.  The second was that politics can poison even paradise.  In chapter 5, I rhapsodised about this peaceful, pleasant and welcoming Buddhist island.  And, throughout our two weeks in this beautiful country, this is exactly how it was … until it wasn’t.  Until, on our very last day, there were riots in Kandy and shooting deaths in Colombo.  It seems Australia isn’t the only democracy where prime ministers can be replaced on a whim without any reference to the desires of the voting public.  In a nutshell, Sri Lanka’s president – himself a previous prime minister who, in 2009 presided over the defeat of the Tamil Tigers to end the 26 year civil war – decided that the sitting, Tamil-friendly PM had lost the confidence of the parliament and sacked him, placing the opposition party in government and its leader (an old mate of the president) in Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence.  We had seen celebrations in villages as we drove through the south of the country with opposition supporters garlanded with flowers, singing, dancing and waving posters of their leader.  However, people further north, better disposed to the incumbent PM, were not so pleased and dancing was replaced by riots.  In Colombo, where north and south meet, the two sides clashed.  On Sunday evening, outside Temple Trees, which we had driven past just two hours before, crowds gathered, fighting broke out, police were called, shots rang and at least two people lay dead.  As we flew out of Colombo, the sitting PM was barricaded in Temple Trees, refusing to leave office, claiming a constitutional breach on the basis that there had been no vote in parliament … a precarious stalemate.

It’s not the first time we have been in countries with tense and violent political undercurrents.  We were in Egypt months before the Arab Spring, Turkey is constantly simmering just on the edge of military take over and Fiji is in a state of more or less permanent coup.  In none of these countries did we witness strife or even feel threatened.  It seems that most citizens don’t want to fight and just want to get on with life.  This means that, when the active few get together, they don’t take up much space and violent protest ends up being concentrated around specific hot spots.  Strangely, of all of these countries, it is gentle Sri Lanka where we have felt most vulnerable and we were quietly relieved to be leaving when we did.  It’s a shame.  I’d like to think that we will be back again one day.

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Safari 2018: Chapter 5 – The Resplendent Isle

Safari 2018:  Chapter 5 – The Resplendent Isle

What a contrast. After southern Africa’s thrilling wildness, its open spaces, wide, clear skies and iconic wildlife, Sri Lanka serves up human history and culture, daily tropical thunderstorms and an almost overwhelming verdancy.  After fourteen days of watching animals and gazing at waterfalls, our first week in Sri Lanka was filled with temples, monasteries, ancient fortresses, manicured gardens, gem mines and tea plantations. Sure, there are elephants, leopards, deer and plenty of other unique animals but this week has been more about how Sri Lanka has grown to a population the size of Australia in an area a quarter the size of New Zealand. (For a European comparison, consider that SL is about the same size as Ireland … with five times the people!)

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Strangely, it actually doesn’t seem crowded.  I think this is partly because Sri Lanka’s people are so evenly spread, with 80% of the populace in rural areas.  Towns and villages seem to merge into one another and the roads feel like a daisy chain of main streets, lined with a never-ending flow of shops, schools, businesses, temples, houses and small gardens.

I don’t think we’ve been anywhere yet where you can’t see another human being, but I also don’t remember ever having to jostle through crowds.  Even the roads flow smoothly:  they are chaotic, narrow and bumpy, with no traffic lights and crammed with cars, vans, buses, bikes and tuk tuks, but we’re yet to see a traffic jam.  Drivers overtake and push in and everyone just makes room for them.  It’s like a rocky stream:  pebbles tumble, bump and roll and the water simply flows around them.  In a week of this anarchic driving, we have seen no aggro and just one crash.  People are just patient and understanding and manoeuvres that would see you attacked with a tyre iron in some western countries and trigger a chorus of abuse and horns in most eastern ones we’ve been to, attract no more than a shrug here.

This is the national personality:  patience, accommodation, and helpfulness.  I haven’t heard one raised voice since arriving.   Everyone is just so friendly.  Even at the cricket, when England hit the winning runs in front of a 98% local crowd at Kandy, all the Sri Lankan fans around me came up and shook my hand.  Decency and sportsmanship – they were more English than the English.

Naively, maybe, I want to attribute this to Buddhism, which, to my surprise, is followed by 70% of Sri Lankans (with the remaining 30% more or less split between Hindu, Islam and Christianity).  Buddha is everywhere you look:  temples, stupas, bodhi trees, statues and images.  It seems very personal and people perform their devotions undemonstratively.  With no deities, or priests wielding the power of intercession, Buddhism isn’t strictly a religion;  it is more a system of guidelines to help you achieve your own enlightenment, or at least to live a good life.  Great value is placed on wisdom, purity, honesty, moderation and compassion.  This seems to me to be reflected in the gentleness and politeness we’ve met everywhere.

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Sri Lanka means ‘resplendent island’ (more or less). This seems a good name to me – it is certainly resplendently green.  There is truly a riot of trees and plants: palms, vines, eucalypts, figs, coconuts, orange coconuts, bananas, mangoes, avocados, mangosteen, rubber, coffee, tea, rice (everywhere), tobacco, pepper, passion fruit, papaya, bamboo, and a thousand species I don’t know. All in a mad tangle.  We learned that families are entitled to a patch of government-provided land and can, and do, grow whatever they like, for personal use or to sell. Cultivated fields, tropical woodland and dense forests surge up to every roadside and you feel that there’s more than enough for all of 22 million people with plenty to spare.

Beyond the plant life, this particular isle is resplendent also in history, culture, religions, birds, geckos, gems, beaches, cricket and, especially, food.  We’ve had some delicious meals on this trip, including a la carte, BBQs and even degustations in Africa.  But, for me, the most memorable have been Sri Lanka’s rice and curry.  Basically street food, this is a plate of rice with a massive smorgasbord of curries to add.  Select from brinjal, daal, coconut sambal, red rice, murunga, okra, green chilli, chicken … or just have the lot.  My next project:  learn how to make curries.

Safari 2018: Chapter 4 – African round-up

Safari 2018:  Chapter 4 – African round-up

So, let’s round up by going back to the wildlife.  Yes, we’ve seen the Big 5 – in fact, we met them all in our first three days in Africa.  But how have we gone on the other ‘5’s?

Not so well on the Small 5 or the Secret 5, as it happens.  Turns out they’re, well, rather small and very secret.  We did see a flock of buffalo weaver birds, which are indeed small and also speedy and shy, so no photo to share.  And no sightings at all of the ant lion, the leopard turtle, the elephant shrew or the rhinoceros beetle.  As for the Secret 5, we have seen a couple of porcupines – but, again, I was too slow on the shutter – and we did just miss a honey badger, but no sightings of aardvark, pangolin or caracal.

20181002_174656416_iOS 2The fourth ‘official’ 5, is the Ugly 5 and we can tick off all of these.  Top of the list is the warthog, which is definitively ugly, with its shovel-shaped head, wicked tusks, dense whiskers like big toothbrushes and the eponymous large warts on its face.  Thing is, they’re actually quite cute (from a distance … I’m not sure I’d want one charging at me) as they fossick around in the brush before scampering off, tails held high like a tour guide’s flag, or collapsing in the shade of a bush.

20181011_130215000_iOSSecond is the hyena, which is truly ugly, in face and personality.  We saw a couple of hyenas in Kapama and it may have been the same one twice:  a lone pregnant female who, the first time we saw her, was lying by the side of the road catching her breath.  When we drove closer, she moved off through the bushes.  We saw a third hyena on our last morning in the Okavango Delta:  she actually looked rather prettier in the dawn light.

20181001_151049000_iOSThird is the wildebeest, or gnu, an impressively large antelope with a face that looks like it has a badly broken nose.  Despite these being most often pictured in mighty herds, sweeping across the plain, we only saw them standing friendlessly in ones or twos as if no one wanted to be seen with them.

 

 

20181004_125936620_iOS20181004_125936622_iOSFourth and fifth are the birds:  the vulture, especially the hooded vulture, with its bald and wrinkled head, like a burn victim, and the marabou stork, also bald, all the way down its scraggy neck, adorned only with wispy hair and large and unsightly livid pink wattles and lumps.  We have seen many of both of these individually and in groups but most memorably en masse in a vulture feeding demonstration at Vic Falls.  There must have been 50 vultures and a dozen storks all fighting over unused bones from the hotel kitchen.  It was brutal and smelly.  If you’ve seen the Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones, just add clouds of dust and you get the picture.

We thought there were too many animals missing from the official 5s, so we decided to make up our own 5s, defined carefully so that we can claim to have seen (almost) all of them.

20181011_131318810_iOSIntroducing the Grumpy 5, the animals with reputations for being bad tempered and unpredictable.  Best not to get too close, is the general advice.  First amongst the Grumpies, we have the hippopotamus, aggressively territorial and, surprisingly, the most dangerous animal in Africa, with more humans being killed by hippos each year than by any other animal (if you don’t count the mosquito, which I read somewhere has caused the death of more people in human history than any other creature). 

20181006_085407750_iOS 2Second, we have the baboons, who you definitely don’t want to tangle with.  They go about in menacing gangs, and will steal anything they can lay their hands on and show you seriously sharp teeth if they don’t like the look of you.  One evening, we came across a troop of baboons perched up and down the stanchions of an electricity pylon, picking each other’s fleas and looking for trouble:  they reminded me of the Jets in West Side Story.

 

 

20181006_184420598_iOS 3Two reptilian grumpies are the crocodile, prehistoric and savage, and the monitor lizards, who will steal your eggs and eat your babies right in front of you … and don’t get close to that whiplash of a tail.  20181007_092753154_iOS 2

 

 

For our fifth grumpy, we picked the ostrich, which always looks like someone has insulted it, or has farted.  Sadly, we didn’t get to see an ostrich on this trip, but I’ve come across them before and can vouch for their membership of the Grumpy 5.

 

Then, finally, we have the Cute 5, which are animals that, strangely, haven’t made it into any of the other 5s.  There were so many candidates for this, we felt bad about the ones we left out (imagine being an animal that couldn’t even make it into the group for animals that didn’t make it into a group).  But we had to pick and we went first for the giraffe and the zebra.  We saw so many of these in South Africa, we got positively bored of them.  As if in response toour disdain, we saw none for the next week or so but then were very happy to find many more zebras and a few giraffes in the Delta.   

Next is the vervet monkey, who is probably no nicer or more law-abiding than the baboons, but is seriously cute, so all is forgiven.  Fourth, we have the African wild dog, which is actually quite rare and very hard to find;  in Chobe, we were lucky to come across a large pack of maybe 20, from very young pups to mature adults.  They looked like brown dingoes, with big ears, big eyes and wet noses and they let us come really close before they padded off into the bushes.  You wanted to take one home with you.  Lucky last is the quirky hornbill.  It has a surprised, almost disapproving look and hops about fussily as if it’s looking for sloppy housework. Of all the animals we have met, this is the one that most resembles its Lion King character.

When we arrived at Stanley’s Camp in the Okavango Delta, we were given little booklets to check off the animals we had seen – like the ‘I Spy’ books from my childhood.  The first two pages were for the mammals;  there were 49 listed and I’m proud to report that we have seen 30 of them!  Buoyant with success, we moved on to the bird section.  Go us:  we have seen 39 of these … out of 401 in the list.  The Delta is truly a twitcher’s paradise.  Then you get to the sections for reptiles, amphibians, fish, trees and plants and you realise you’ve barely scratched the surface.

I think we’re going to have to come back.

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Safari 2018: Chapter 3 – Into Africa

Safari 2018:  Chapter 3 – Into Africa

Over the first four days of our trip – covering three countries, two lodges and 6 game drives – I found myself becoming increasingly aware that our experience of Africa so far was in something of a bubble.  A remarkable, fascinating and often beautiful bubble, but a bubble nonetheless.  We were enjoying some of Africa’s most iconic sights, which most native Africans will never dream of seeing.  We were surrounded by people like us – wealthy white folk.  On our first game drive in Chobe National Park, we were in one of 30-odd cars, each crammed with nine white people, being driven around by locals.  The only Africans we had met were tour guides, drivers and hospitality staff.  Were we, are we, really getting ‘into Africa’?

No, we’re not.  And we’re not going to in a two-week trip.  But we are making an effort to get to know the locals we meet – learn a little about the real Africa.  I’m always surprised how happy people are to tell their stories.  Here are some of them.

IMG_4116[1]Riaan was our guide at Kapama Private Reserve.  A ranger at Kapama for four years, driving tourists around is actually only part of Riaan’s job.  He’s also part of the team that manages the animals on the reserve.  In the two weeks before we arrived, the reserve had completed their annual survey of all the animals in the park.  This is a massive exercise and, by the time we arrived, Riaan had worked 24 days straight.  It didn’t show.  He’s a man who loves his work.  He’s actually quite well travelled, but not so much in his own continent.  As a younger man, he spent a couple of years working for Emirates Airlines as a tourist guide in a resort outside Dubai.  He trained as a falconer so that he could give falconry demonstrations.  On returning to South Africa, Riaan moved into ranger work.  He doesn’t go well in big cities and is happiest in the bush.  He hasn’t heard of Uber or AirBnB or Tesla or Elon Musk.  I think I envy him.

Edward drove us from Kapama to the Kruger airport.  Edward grew up locally and we drove through his village.  He showed us where he was born.  He was one of nine boys; his mother eventually gave up trying for a girl.  He speaks eight languages, which we’ve found is not unusual.  The porter at Johannesburg airport told us he speaks eleven.  Edward’s first language is his local tribal language, English is his second, then there are five other tribal languages and finally Afrikaans, which he speaks reluctantly.  He told us that the six tribal languages are all quite different:  different vocabulary, different sentence structures.  For me, it is beyond imagining how you can hold so many different languages in your head.  Edward has experienced violence and is strangely philosophical about it.   He has a 20cm knife wound on his left arm.  He got this at school:  another boy wanted his pen.  He finished school and wanted to be a political journalist.  His parents couldn’t send him to university so he became a ranger instead.  Maybe he was lucky.  Two of his friends did go into journalism.  They’re both dead now:  one was shot, the other died when his brakes were sabotaged.  Edward is still passionate about history & politics.  He’s very critical of government in South Africa, especially education and health:  ‘we need another Mandela;  we’re still waiting for one’.

20181004_071157003_iOSZulu showed us around Victoria Falls.  50-odd years old, burly and gap-toothed he took us to each viewing spot in turn and delivered his lines as if he’d learned the script the night before.  He was more natural when telling his own story.  His father was from Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa and, as a young man, went north to Zambia for work.  He met Zulu’s mother there and they came back down south to settle in Zimbabwe.  He became a ranger and actually built much of the existing infrastructure (paths, steps, walls) around the Victoria Falls site.  Zulu didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps to begin with:  he got a job at one of Zimbabwe’s major banks.  10 years later, he decided he couldn’t spend any more time in an office and reinvented himself as a tour guide.  We asked him his views on the end of the Mugabe years.  He was very careful:  ‘Everyone has good points and bad points;  Mugabe did some good things for the country, but lots of people didn’t like other things he did.’  We couldn’t tell if he was for or against.  Which is probably clever of him:  apparently there are still penalties for speaking out against the government.

Muffin took the three of us on a private boat up the river into the Chobe National Park.  He was actually born and raised in the Okavango Delta in the heart of Botswana.  He was a ranger and boat driver there for many years and came to Chobe a year ago to broaden his own experience and to train up the local guides in boat driving.  Quietly spoken but friendly and fond of a chat, he was content to let us drift quietly for 15, 20 minutes along the river banks, just taking in the peace and the birds and talking about his life.  Muffin speaks 6 languages – his own, 3 from tribes in his village, Setswana (Botswana’s common tongue) and English, which his generation (unlike his parents’) learned at school.  He has travelled around southern African countries but is yet to travel outside the continent.  He did have a chance to go to the US, to see Disneyland, but he got a ranger training place and decided to stay and build a career.  He seemed happy with his choice

20181007_145453 1Emmett showed us a glimpse of real Africa.  He isfrom Namibia, born and raised in a little village over the Chobe River from our hotel in Botswana.  Maybe 25 now, tall and gangly, he wore a hoodie in 35 degree heat.  He reminded me of Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch.  He’s one of five children, who have all finished school and gone on to other studies.  Emmett is studying tourism.  He took us across the river to another tiny village.  28 people live there in mud houses – literally.  The homes are typically one or two rooms, with walls of packed mud supported every couple of metres by wooden posts cut from trees growing nearby.  A stand pipe provides water for the village, installed as a gift by the altruistic owner of a small resort down the road.  There is no toilet.  Incongruously, one of the small houses has a satellite dish;  another had an iPhone charging from a solar panel the size of a paperback book.  It was two o’clock and the heat was fierce.  The village was almost entirely deserted.  We met three women and two very young children.  I took pictures of the children and, when I showed them the pictures, they giggled.  One of the women smiled.  A little later, as we left the village, another four or five women had assembled under a vast, 180 year old baobab tree in the village centre.  They had laid out baskets and carved wooden animals.  We bought two baskets as a thank you.  I don’t think we’ll be allowed to take them into Australia.  Other than the laughing children, we didn’t see much joy in the village.  My memory is of sand, a weary heat and a very hard life.  Is this condescending?  They have much of what little they need, they live from day to day and strive for a better life for their children.  Not so different, when you look at it like that.  But I know which life I’d prefer.

IMG_8000[1]And then there’s Prof Ice, or just Prof.  Prof was our guru, our teacher and our guide in the Okavango Delta.  The Delta is huge, wild and untamed, and wonderfully diverse.  You venture out each day and encounter new sights, sounds and smells.  You may see a little or a lot – if you open all of your senses, it’s always a lot.  For three days, morning, afternoon, pre-dawn and post-sunset, Prof drove us across the bush and through deep waters and thick brush, enriching all that we saw and all that we missed until he pointed it out to us,  Prof’s given name in his own language (which I wish I’d written down) is ‘Frost’ because he was born on a frosty morning.  This became ‘Ice’ as his westernised name.  Today, everyone knows him as the Professor, or ‘Prof’. IMG_8604[1]To us, Prof’s knowledge of the Delta seemed bottomless:  animals, trees, plants, terrain and the environment.  And birds – especially birds.  Prof sees a blur of wings – no more than a smudge in the corners of our eyes – and knows exactly what the bird is.  He then points us to where it has alighted and there it is … exactly as he said.  There are 401 birds in our Okavango Delta spotters’ book – I swear he knows 601 of them.  A bushman to his core, Prof knows the ways and habits of animals, the properties and uses of plants and trees, and the turns of the seasons that breathe life into the Delta.  And he shares this knowledge with the gentle passion of a man who knows how vital it is, and the quiet resignation that this lore is not passing to the next generation.  His grandmother still makes baskets from plants that she gathers but his own children are ‘more interested in computers’.  Prof has seen the Delta change dramatically just in the last thirty years.  The rivers that feed the Delta are reducing, the wetlands are shrinking, salt is killing the trees and plants and animal numbers are falling.  Prof is one of several people that we have met on this trip who despair of our leaders’ ability (or intent) to reverse the destruction of habitats but have committed themselves to help the animals that are victims to our negligence.  They are inspirational.

While occasionally uncomfortable with being a privileged white person flying in only to fly out again, I remind myself that, by visiting, I’m doing my bit.  Tourism is Botswana’s second biggest industry – 11% of GDP and growing at 14% per year.  And they are investing in it:  most of the guides we have met have studied tourism, sometimes for three years or more.  It’s a profession.  Their knowledge is broad and deep and they take pride in giving their customers a personalised, enriching and memorable experience.  I’d like to believe it’s a win-win.

 

Safari 2018: Chapter 2 – the Smoke that Thunders

Safari 2018:  Chapter 2 – the Smoke that Thunders

The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa, behind the Nile, the Congo and the Niger.  It rises in northern Zambia and flows 2,500km through seven countries to the Indian Ocean.  It forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and it’s at the western end of this border, close to ‘corner country’, where Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia come together, that the 1.7km wide river crashes over 100m cliffs to form Victoria Falls – one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

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It’s the largest unbroken curtain of water in the world.  Our guide, Zulu (truly), said that, at full flow, 3,000 cubic metres of water flow over the falls every second.  The hydro engineer in me couldn’t help but do some rough calcs in my head.  3,000m³:  that’s 3,000 tonnes of water, which is 6 jumbo jets … every second.  (Or two Trump Towers every minute.  Sorry – it just amuses me to picture that.)  That’s more than two Dinorwic power stations, enough to power New South Wales … all in one waterfall.

IMG_7188[1]We saw the spray from the falls in the distance as we flew into Livingstone airport.  Seeing it up close, it boils up from the bottom of the gorge, thrown 400m up into the air by the sheer force of the crashing water.  Looking along the gorge from its western end, the other end is lost in a turmoil of falling water and swirling clouds of spray.  In the local language it is known as Mosi-oa-Tunya:  the Smoke that Thunders.

 

 

 

 

IMG_7236[1]As further testament to the mighty power of the falling water, there are eight confirmed previous sites for the falls.  I needed a minute for that to sink in.  20,000 years ago, the falls were some 6km downstream from where they are today.  Over time, the water simply demolished the cliffs they were pouring over, the rocks collapsed and were swept away and a new set of cliffs – and a new waterfall – was created.  Reset and repeat another six times.  In another 10,000 years this will happen again:  the falls will destroy themselves and set up again a little further upstream.  This goes on all the time in geological terms … a mere blip.  But it impresses the hell out of me.

 

Later that evening, we took a boat cruise a little upstream of the falls.  It was an impossible contrast.  Wide and placid, the river slowly meanders along, seeming hardly to flow at all.  This gentle giant of a river must be really deep to generate the vast volumes pouring over the cliffs just a couple of kilometres away.  Indeed it’s deep and slow moving enough to be a safe playground for pods of hippos and to allow an elephant to swim happily across, submerging now and again, holding its trunk as a snorkel until finally sauntering out nonchalantly on the other bank.  A crocodile lazed on the beach of a small island as we drifted by and the sun set behind the thorn trees.

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Safari 2018: Chapter 1 – Kapama and the big 5

Safari 2018:  Chapter 1 – Kapama and the big 5

So, we’d heard about the big 5.  We could even name them – well, maybe 3 of them, plus educated guesses for numbers 4 and 5.  What we didn’t know, until our first game drive at Kapama private reserve, was that there is also a little 5, a secret 5 and an ugly 5.  We’ve decided to add another couple of 5s:  the grumpy 5 and a special, ‘fun’ 5 for our favourite animals that haven’t made it onto any of the other 5s.  That makes 30 animals altogether and, by the end of our first day at Kapama, less than 24 hours after arriving in South Africa, we had already seen 10 of them.  By the time we left for Victoria Falls, we had seen 17 plus genets, a civet, a bush baby, squirrels and countless birds,

But no rush.  Let’s start with the big 5.  There’ll be plenty of time for the other fascinating animals over the next couple of weeks.

The Big 5

20180930_163452000_iOSLeopard

The leopard is notoriously the hardest of the big 5 to find.  So, of course, it was the first one we found.  Riaan, our friendly, burly afrikaaner guide with a mean line in dad jokes, and Edwin, a tracker from a nearby village, skinny and quiet with a dazzling smile, picked us up in a converted LandCruiser, open-topped with raised seats in the back where Robyn, Jo & I enjoyed amazing views.  We plunged into the surprisingly dense bush, down twisty tracks past thickets and waterholes.  Riaan wore a small earpiece and muttered quietly into his CB from time to time while telling us about pretty much everything we could see:  animals, birds, trees … even the stars when they came out towards the end of this evening drive.  We realised pretty soon that there were several vehicles out and about in the reserve although we almost never laid eyes on them.  Riaan’s radio connected him with all the other drivers so they could exchange tips on where animals had been sighted and make sure that the vehicles didn’t all crowd into the same space.

In the first couple of hours of this, our first drive, we saw herds of antelope:  impala, nyala, kudu, duiker, steenbok, plus towers of giraffe (towers when they’re standing, we learned;  journeys when they’re walking), dazzles (yes) of zebra and welters of warthog (OK, I made up that last collective noun).  Each time we saw something new, we’d stop for two, five, maybe ten minutes, learn a little or a lot and just generally take it all in.  We didn’t feel impatient to see any particular animals … we just knew that, with time, we’d see everything we wanted to.  Over the next three days, we more or less did.

After a couple of hours of driving, we stopped on a small ridge, looking west where the sun had just set behind the Drakensburg Mountains.  This vast range rises hundreds of metres out of the plain, reminding me of the walls of Mordor, darkened as they were by the setting sun behind them.  They mark the boundary between the high veldt to the west (and the high altitude much feared by visiting rugby teams) and the low veldt to the east, where we were.  Veldt, it turns out, simply means ‘area’ and Riaan described many of them around southern Africa:  the high, the low, the sweet, the sour and the mixed.  Sounded like cocktails to me.  We were never quite sure if Riaan was telling us the truth or having a laugh.  He usually admitted it when he was spinning a yarn … at least he did when we caught him out.  As dusk fell, we gazed at the mountains and the emerging Milky Way and Riaan and Edwin laid out a small picnic table with a large array of drinks.  Robyn & Jo had gins and tonic;  I had my first Amarula, a delicious Bailey’s-style creamy drink made with the fruit from the marula tree.

Warmed up against the cooling evening, we got back into the car and Riaan got back on the radio.  Edwin, perched on the bonnet of the car, shone a torch from side-to-side looking for tracks and reflected glints of eyes.  Five minutes later, we veered suddenly off the road onto a tiny track.  Edwin pointed his torch upwards and we saw the broken body of an impala wedged in a forked branch.  The torch swung back down and we saw our leopard.  She was just lying there at the foot of the tree where she had dragged her kill, guarding it until she felt hungry enough to go up and eat some more.  She was completely unperturbed by five humans in a LandCruiser, or by the torch shining at her.  She did look at us, then looked around for any threats to her supper.  Her ears twitched at sounds in the brush but she never got up or moved from her spot.  She was less than 10 metres from us and we could hear her breathing.  After a while, she yawned widely and rolled onto her side.  We had been dismissed.  We withdrew respectfully and headed back to the lodge.  We had been in Africa for less than 24 hours.

 

20181001_063241560_iOS

Buffalo

Day two and we were up at 5:30 for a 6:00 start.  Back into Riaan’s LandCruiser with Edwin up front on the bonnet, and we headed into another sector of the park.  Kapama Private Reserve is named after a chieftan of a local tribe.  Bordering the much larger Kruger National Park in the north eastern corner of South Africa, it’s 15,000 hectares which makes it roughly 30km north to south by 5km west to east.  Each of our game drives over the three days went to a different sector but never much more than 10km from the lodge.

This morning we saw more antelope, giraffe and zebras.  We also saw a lot more birds, which are much more active in the early morning than they are in the evening.  We saw grim vultures, pompous herons and busy oxpeckers hitching rides on the large mammals, feeding on their ticks – a win-win for both parties.  The best bird of all, though, is the quirky hornbill.  We saw three different types of hornbill.  The yellow bill is the most common and the red bill a little rarer.  The ground hornbill is much less common, but we did see one on one of our drives.

Rounding a corner, to our surprise (but not Riaan’s who know exactly what we would find there) we came up against a herd of buffalo meandering across the track just like a herd of milk cows in a Devon lane.  They’re truly bovine:  big, slow moving, chewing the cud.  They wear their splendid horns like vikings.  The horns actually come together over their brows to form an impenetrable helmet.  Riaan has seen buffalo crush lions with that battering ram of a head and he told us that, if we were ever charged by a buffalo, to make sure that (1) you’re carrying a gun and (2) you hit him just below the horn because if the bullet hits the helmet it will just bounce off.  Seems a little off-colour to talk about shooting one of the big 5 (even the buffalo) but it turns out that the big 5 are so-named as they are the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt on foot.  History isn’t always PC.

 

20181002_064940000_iOSLion

We saw lion a couple of times, three females on the evening of day 2 and then two more females in the morning of day 3.  We searched for some males on our last evening but without success.  These animals may be protected in a reserve but they don’t know this;  they live wild as they should and they don’t come out to play just because we want them to.

Our first sighting was a little like the leopard story.  The three females – a mother and two daughters, Riaan thought – had made a kill earlier in the day and were unhurriedly working their way through the carcase.  By evening, they’d only finished half their nyala and weren’t going to be moving anywhere else any time soon.  Thanks to the rangers’ bush radio, Riaan know exactly where to find them.

The first we knew that we were getting close was when we saw maybe a dozen vulture sitting high in a leafless tree.  You couldn’t help but think of the vultures in Jungle Book.  Apparently, it’s a committee of vultures, when they’re sitting like this;  it’s a kettle of vultures when they’re soaring up on thermals (quite an impressive sight) and a wake of vultures when they’re feeding.  Sure enough, about 100m from the tree, we found the kill and the three lions making sure the committee didn’t become a wake until they were good and ready.  Again, they let us get astonishingly close and weren’t put out at all when Edwin shone his torch on them as they crunched through their supper.

The next morning’s sighting was much more opportunistic and was a score for Robyn.  Our mid-drive stop for coffee was under a large tree (with a large and colourful lizard half-way up the trunk).  About 50m away, there was a line of bushes and Robyn glimpsed the shape of a lion moving behind them.  We all peered hard in to see if we could spot it again and we did, enough for Riaan to guess where it was heading.  We jumped into the car and tried to get ahead of it.  We came across another ranger who said he hadn’t seen the lion but had seen a herd of impala running fast and had guessed what was going on.  We crept on down a small track and … there it was.  Another female 10m to our right in the bushes.  And, suddenly, there was a second, sauntering straight up the track right behind us.  It’s funny how confident we get in our guides in these environments.  Riaan told us to sit tight in the car and that we were perfectly safe.  We believed him … maybe we simply had no choice.  The second lion padded right up to the back of the car then passed us on the left no more than 3m away.  Crossing the track in front of us, she joined her sister (Riaan had identified them by now) and they moved down to a dry stream bed.  We drove on past the pair, into the stream bed and then back towards them, stopping just 10m from where they had settled down to wait to see what might come their way.

A minute later, we saw four giraffe about 100m away along the stream bed walking our way.  We don’t think they knew the lions were there (they were upwind of us and the lions) and wondered if we were in for a David Attenborough live-action episode.  50m away and the giraffe suddenly spotted the lions and froze.  We were then treated to 10 minutes of a suspenseful game of statues.  The giraffe would take it in turns to edge closer and closer to the lions, freezing for a couple of minutes and then moving again.  We couldn’t work out why they were doing this.  The lions were showing very little interest.  Occasionally they’d look over, then yawn and look away again.  Other than that, they didn’t twitch.  The giraffe got maybe 20m away from the lions and then climbed up out of the streambed and into the bush.  The lions remained unmoved.  Maybe they weren’t hungry – at least not enough to go after something as big as a giraffe.  In any event, an anticlimactic finish but I’m not sure we really wanted to see two lions bring down a giraffe.  Giraffe are really quite beautiful and have eyelashes to die for.

 

20181002_053118560_iOSElephant

When I visited Namibia with Kate, Jordan, David, Caroline and Rupert some 19 years ago, we saw more elephant than we ever thought we needed to.  Certainly, they’re not rare and poachers are less interested in them with much of the world going off ivory.  (Not true, sadly, for rhinoceros, more of which later.)  Kapama has almost 200 elephants and Kruger National Park actually has too many and are having to relocate them to manage the damage they do to the bush.  So, when we came across elephant on day 3, it was like seeing an old friend after a very long time.

This was a family group of maybe a dozen, mostly females, ages ranging from a couple of years to maybe 30 or 40.  It was fascinating watching them forage for food.  It’s been a long and very dry dry season and most leaves have long gone.  The wet starts in a few weeks so no one is partcularly worried but, meanwhile, the elephants have turned to eating roots.  We watched them pushing over trees with their foreheads to expose the roots, and using their feet and trunks to dig up and haul out buried roots.  Didn’t look very tasty to me but the elephants didn’t look too undernourished so it seems to work for them.

 

20181002_174656413_iOS 3Rhinoceros

After the leopard, rhinos are probably the hardest of the big 5 to come across.  This is partly because there are so few and partly because the rangers are very careful about divulging where they are.  The reason for both of these things is the same:  poachers.  Ivory may be off the menu in an increasing number of countries, which has strangled the trade in elephant tusks, but this isn’t yet true for rhino horn.  Rhino horn is made of the same material as fingernails and yet is attributed various medicinal, aphrodisiac and magical powers by several, otherwise modern, cultures.  Who would have known it – fingernails have aphrodisiac powers … maybe nailbiters are onto a good thing after all.  Authorities in Africa are striving strongly to stop the poachers.  Every game park has poaching police and penalties for convicted poachers are severe.  Botswana had a shoot-to-kill policy (and almost eradicated poaching) but their new president rescinded this a year ago (and poaching is already back on the rise).  Kruger lost 500 rhinos in 2017 and has lost 560 more in the first 9 months of 2018.  Controlling supply isn’t working.  It’s demand that must be controlled.  Governments must be persuaded that the last thing the men in their overpopulated countries need is stronger erections.

Riaan wouldn’t tell us how many rhinos there are in Kapama.  It’s policy not to announce to poachers just how much of their prey is in the park.  However, I can report that there are at least two white rhinos, who we came across, ambling down a path by a waterhole.  A mother and a daughter, they weigh around 3 tonnes each … ambling is pretty much the best way to go.  We watched them for about 30 minutes as they wandered down to a small dam, had a drink and then rolled luxuriantly in the mud.  Gentle, amiable animals that shouldn’t have an enemy in the world.  I hope we see more this trip.

DGB tribute – ‘What would Dad do?’

DGB 02

A friend said to me the other day that funerals are for the living not the dead.  It’s so important for those who are left behind to know that others share their sadness for their loss and their gratitude for the gift of having known the one that they have loved.  To see all of you here today is overwhelming and, on behalf of our family, thank you for showing the love, friendship and respect you have for Dad.

Thank you so much to Jenny for helping us to recall so many of Dad’s achievements.  And there is so much more we could tell.  We will all talk often and long of our favourite stories.  And they will never grow stale.  Even in the last two weeks, I have heard stories I have never heard before and I know I can and will share new stories of my own.  Stories of his great loves:  family, friends and faith, the LibDems, cricket and wine … although not always in that order.

Today, however, I want to keep it simple and personal.  I want to talk about some of the ways I have benefitted from Dad’s life:  what I’ve learned;  lessons I’ll keep with me.

The other day, Rupert told me how, when he’s wondering which path to take next, how to respond to a situation, how to achieve something important, he will ask himself:  ‘What would Dad do?’  This was so good to hear, because so often over the years I have found myself asking exactly the same question.  And, guess what, it turns out that Melanie does this too.  No coincidence, this.  When in doubt, you look for a role model.  Someone who knows what’s important and how to get it done.  No fuss, no fanfare.

So, ‘what would Dad do?’  He’d seek always to help:  offer a suggestion here, ask an insightful question there, or make a call to someone who knows someone who knows someone who can help.

‘What would Dad do?’  He’d empower you, not direct you.  He’d respect your opinion and help you feel good about the decision you make.  He’d make sure the right people get the credit, seeking none for himself.

‘What would Dad do?’  He’d ensure everyone was heard and only then, at the right time and in the right place, argue his own point of view, firmly, clearly and, when necessary, passionately … and never making it personal.

‘What would Dad do?’  He’d do the right thing, even if it was hard or unpopular.  He would hold fast to his principles.  He’d be faithful to his family, his community and his God.

And, in the face of adversity or misfortune, ‘what would Dad do?’  He would continue to live by these values undeterred.  This have we seen in the last few months.

This time last year, Dad was sleeping rough and hiking in Australia’s wild Pilbara.  In the following months he was helping grandchildren with university assignments publishing his history of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and, with Caroline, writing and publishing the Story of Leyborne Park.

Six months ago he was on his travels again, cross-country skiing and driving husky sleds.  Back in England he was back at his work with the Richmond Local History Society and the Barn Church, enjoying Messiah at St Annes and Shakespeare at the Globe and playing tennis twice a week in all weathers.  And all of this not knowing this terrible disease was already inside him, preparing to take him away from all of us.

Then 5 months ago, he saw the enemy.  He understood what lay ahead, looked that enemy in the eye and said ‘I’m not going to stop just because of you’.  And he simply got on with it.  He delivered a landmark presentation on the Star and Garter Homes to a packed Richmond Local History Society, presented also to Rotary, continued tennis twice a week, toasted Caroline’s newly upholstered dining room chairs and made his annual pilgrimage to the Lords test.  All this time, nobody knew how little time we had left with him.  They didn’t need to.  It would just get in the way of all the important things that needed to be done.  It wasn’t about him.  It was never about him.

These are great lessons for me.  Dad has truly been a role model for how to live a good life;  how to make a difference;  how to make the world a slightly better place.  I know I should do these things and I know I don’t do them often enough.  I will try to do them better and more often.  I can’t think of a better way to honour Dad’s legacy.

Before I close, I want to offer my personal thanks and maybe, in absentia, Dad’s:  to Mel and Rupert for being there for Mum and Dad while I’ve been distant, and for their honesty in sharing their emotions and forgiving me for hiding mine;  to our glorious friends & family for their unreserved love, understanding and support in recent months, now and in the future;  to Rob, Matt, Geraldine and all of the grandchildren for allowing Mel, Rupert and me to focus our time away from them in the last few weeks;  to Mum for being everything to Dad and us for 57 years.

So, to close, I say vale, David Guy Blomfield, vale.  I choose to share your belief that you’ve gone to a better place and I hope one day to see you again there.  But not yet.  There is so much more life to live, places to see, friends to make, people to help, family to love.  Oh yes, there’s a lot of living to be done before then.  And that’s what Dad would do.

Northern Lights Ch9: 7 weeks, 25 airports, 1 hell of a trip

Northern Lights Ch9:  7 weeks, 25 airports, 1 hell of a trip
By James

Some statistics to close with:

Weeks away:  7

Distance travelled:  50,000km

Countries landed in:  8 – USA, Turks and Caicos Islands, England, Finland, Norway, Scotland, UAE, Australia

Airports visited:  25 – Sydney; Dallas Fort Worth; Miami; Miami; Providenciales; Providenciales; Miami; Miami; Heathrow; Heathrow; Heathrow; Helsinki; Helsinki; Ivalo; Kirkenes; Heathrow; Heathrow; Heathrow; Heathrow; Glasgow; Glasgow; Heathrow; Heathrow; Dubai; Sydney.

Aeroplanes travelled on:  13

Hotels stayed at:  8

Time in the air:  64 hours

Delays:  13 hours

Bags lost / delayed:  4 (all recovered)

 

Average size of Miami Beach cocktail:  1/2 pint

Alligators seen:  3

Most common ‘must have’ convertible on the Florida Keys:  a toss-up between Ford Mustang and GM Monaro

 

Cats seen:  55

Cats seen (not in Hemingway’s house):  1

 

Times we sang ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in London:  6

 

Huskies per sled:  6

Total huskies at Kirkenes:  200

Huskies that stole Caroline’s camera:  1

King crabs ‘caught’:  6

King crabs eaten:  4 1/2

Nights Jordan and Stef slept in the Snowhotel:  2

Nights everyone else slept in the Snowhotel:  1

Price of a pint in London:  £5

Price of a pint in Finland:  £5

Price of a pint in Norway:  £20

Most canasta wins:  Jordan, James

Most Carcasonne wins:  Kate

Times we saw the Northern Lights:  4

 

Family members & friends living in each other’s pockets for over a week:  9

Rows had:  0

 

Number of people who organised this epic trip:  1.  Thank you, Robyn!

Northern Lights Ch8: Finlandia

Northern Lights Ch8: Finlandia
 By James

 

OK.  Let’s get the main story out of the way first.  WE SAW THE NORTHERN LIGHTS (4 TIMES!) AND THEY WERE BRILLIANT!  Green, cerise-tinted, swirling and winding and quite the most photogenic natural phenomenon we’ve ever seen.  Yes, the Aurora Borealis can be seen in Scotland and Canada, and its southern cousin can be seen in Tasmania, but the opportunity to see the Lights in the highest latitudes under cold, clear skies was more than worth the effort to get up there.

Mind you, we almost missed them.  Our first night in Lapland, we spent getting ourselves organised:  Who’s sleeping where?  What are we likely to need to wear tomorrow to keep warm?  Where is the duty free gin and vermouth?  Having sorted out these important questions, we settled down to a game of Carcasonne.  Then we noticed people bustling about outside with tripods … hmm, I wonder what’s going on out there?  30 seconds later we were all outside – half of us in pyjamas – gawking at the Aurora floating serenely above our cabins.  For the next 15 minutes we gazed at the Lights as they slowly swooped and looped until, at last, they faded away without a backward look at the silently awed crowd of watchers.

We have met people who have made this trip and not had the luck to see the Aurora and this is easy to understand.  At least two things need to happen for you to see the Lights:  the solar winds need to hit the Earth’s atmosphere just right, and you need clear skies – and there’s no guarantee of either of these.  So how blessed were we to see them on each of our first four nights in Lapland.  The third night was the best, having taken a ride in reindeer-drawn sleighs half an hour away from the resort and its modest lighting.  In a large snowy clearing amongst towering pines, and under clear, cold, black skies, the Lights came out to play.  Different from the whirling dance of our first night, this time we were treated to a slowly waving curtain of green, with a wash of pink sliding in from the east after a few minutes.  Once again, the display lasted some 15 minutes before gently fading away leaving us to go back to our bonfire, drink warm berry juice and compare photographs.

And the photos are wonderful … even better, in fact, than the naked eye.  A bit of a cheat maybe, but at long exposures, the gorgeous colours just pour into the camera, creating even richer and more vibrant pictures, instantly overwriting your own memories of the event.  Yes, we did see those luminous greens and pinks, spangled with glittering stars.  Of course – that’s exactly how we saw it … at least, that’s how we will always remember seeing it.

Having seen the Aurora (mission accomplished and bucket list duly updated), we can now be blasé and say that, even if we hadn’t seen the Lights, our Lapland adventure would still have been a memorable success.  The good thing is that this happens to be true.  So many new experiences:  snowmobiling, husky sledding, reindeer sleighing, ice fishing, ice hotel sleeping, king crab fishing, snow shoe hiking and cross-country skiing … not one of which had we done before.

And the cold … oh my God, the cold.  If you’ve not experienced it, it’s hard to describe.  Each morning we’d spend 15 minutes applying the layers:  two lots of thermals, fleece, jumper, thick socks, gloves, scarf, beanie (matching beanies from the exclusive label, House of Robyn), boots and ski jacket.  Your first step outside – your nose hair freezes.  After a few minutes, you have little icy diamonds perched on the end of your eyelashes … girls pay a lot of money for that look in London and Sydney.  Before getting on snowmobiles, sleds, skis, you apply still further layers:  bigger boots, bigger gloves, balaclava and humungous snow suit over the lot.  Plus you stuff chemical hand warmers into your gloves and toe warmers into your boots. I once remarked when struggling under the weight of a full scuba kit, ‘you know you’re about to go where humans just don’t belong.’  It was just like that in Lapland … except humans have lived there for millennia.  A question we would find ourselves asking each day was why did the Vikings stop up there?  They were resourceful and warlike – they could have settled anywhere they wanted – the Med, the Caribbean.  Which of them was it who said ‘this looks like a nice spot to stop a while and bring up the kids’?  And why didn’t anyone say ‘bugger that, I’m going south to drink cocktails and get a nice suntan’, brain the first idiot and feed him to the polar bears?

The coldest we experienced was -40° … C or F, take your pick, it’s the same thing at that temperature.  That was the day we went ice fishing.  A 30 minute snowmobile drive straight across a frozen lake, drilling 10cm holes through half a metre of ice, letting drop a lure from a laughably tiny fishing rod and then patiently waiting.   After 3 minutes, we’d had enough of waiting and retreated to the toasty warmth of a Parks and Wildlife cabin, nestled amongst the pines, where Markko, our guide and saviour, had a wood stove roaring away, with warm berry juice (they do like that stuff … and it is very nice) and reindeer sausages on sticks for us to toast … way better than a fish, even if we had caught one.  We asked Markko where were (i) the fish and (ii) the other fishermen.  The answer was the same for both questions:  only tourists are stupid enough to be out in those temperatures.

But you can and do get more or less used to the extreme cold … even to the point that you’re ready to sleep in it.  We arrived at the Snowhotel at Kirkenes after a nerve-wracking bus ride, in the dead of night (well, 9:00 in the morning, but pitch dark, nonethelessless), -33°C outside, headlights barely penetrating a howling blizzard and the road quite invisible under feet of fresh snow.  We were cooking up plans B and C in the event that we didn’t make it, or became snowy roadkill for the local wolves.  Our driver, on the other hand, was quite unmoved, calmly chatting to his pals on his phone in the gravelly triple-bass that Finnish men all seem to have, punctuated with rumbling Jabba-the-Hutt laughs.  This was clearly an unremarkable run for him and, without fuss, he deposited us at the Snowhotel as the sky lightened and the snow eased.

We truly didn’t know what to expect at the hotel.  How was it built?  How many storeys?  Do you sleep on the ice?  How do you not wake up in a freezing puddle of melted bed?  Will we even last a night, and what would be our escape route if we couldn’t stand it?  We quickly found the hotel to be simple in concept, beautiful in design and yet another unique experience amongst so many on this trip.  It was bigger than we had expected – 24 ice rooms all on a single level.  Simply put, it comprised two lines of a dozen igloos, doorways facing each other with a long corridor tunnel spanning the two rows.  All this was made from densely packed snow, lined with ice sculptures and magically lit in gently changing colours.  Each room had a different theme – Viking scenes, Arctic animals, Disney’s Frozen (of course) – all carved into the walls and ice-sculpted at head and foot of each bed.  The beds themselves – no, they weren’t solid blocks of ice;  they were perfectly normal divan beds, sitting in the middle of each room.  No bed linen, though – you sleep cocooned in your Nordic army sleeping bag, in your thermals, socks and (if you really need them) gloves and beanie.  Hardly romantic, but snug and warm and, boy, do you sleep well.

The Snowhotel was the finale of our Lapland safari.  300km deep into the Arctic, with unique experiences and dreams made true.  Nine of us converged from all points of the globe to live in each other’s pockets in sometimes extreme conditions … and we’re still all talking.

Northern Lights Ch7: A tale of five Christmases

Northern Lights Ch7:  A tale of five Christmases
By James

In Sydney, Christmas began this year on November 7th.  That was the day that the Double Bay Woolies put up its Christmas tree.  Cue mince pies on the shelves, Santa ho-ho-ing from product packaging and carols everywhere you go.  It may have been 6 weeks early and pushing 40C outside, but it was definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Arriving in Miami, it was a surprise how un-Christmassy it felt.  There were a few desultory Chrissy trees and you’d occasionally hear Dean Martin or Bing Crosby crooning about white Christmases and chestnuts roasting, but that was about it.  We had Christmas in New York 2 years ago, so we know Americans can and do get into it … but not in Miami, it seems.  Perhaps Santa is too busy flexing his pecs on South Beach.

Compared to the Turks and Caicos Islands, however, Miami was a hotbed of unbridled celebration.  I think we saw a total of two Christmas trees in all of TCI and maybe one piece of tinsel listlessly draped along the customs and immigration desk at the airport.  But no carols, no Dean Martin and, despite having a church (sometimes several) on every corner, no obvious signs that one of the year’s most significant Christian celebrations was just a week away.  Yes it was hot and beachy, but so is Australia;  and, like Australia, TCI still has strong ties to its British roots, but the Christmas tradition was nowhere to be seen.

Back in the US, Key West was at least making a bit more of an effort than Miami, but really only down the southern end of Duval Street – the more olde worlde end.  Our B&B had gone to particular trouble with their lights and looked brilliant.  The northern end of Duval Street was already tacky enough and there was no room for any additional gaudiness.  Again, not even a sign of Santa … maybe he was dancing on the bar in Coyote Ugly’s.

So, arriving in Heathrow, it was like a picture at last coming into the correct focus. All of a sudden, even at a truly unseasonable 18C, Christmas was everywhere. Immigration officials were wearing santa hats, everyone was wearing Christmas sweaters and girls were wearing sparkly festive tights – all without a hint of embarrassment. Complete strangers on the towpath were wishing you happy Christmas, and Christmas carols – proper carols not ‘happy holidays’ crooners – were being played everywhere. It just felt right. All totally unselfconscious … it’s just what you do at Christmas.

Jet lag or no (in fact we didn’t have any, or our body clocks were so scrambled by now that we’d given up caring), we got straight into it. The very first night (after the obligatory reacquaintance with Torelli’s), we went to see Messiah at St Anne’s church on Kew Green. Small format (12 voices and another 12 in the orchestra), this is how Messiah would have looked and sounded 270 years ago when it was first performed. It sounded brilliant with, maybe, only the Hallelujah Chorus wanting the oomph of a 500-strong choir in full throat. The audience were enraptured and inspired to join the choir in a communal encore of O Come All Ye Faithful … the first of, I think, 6 times we have got to sing this since we arrived.

The first couple of reprises of ‘O Come’ were the very next night, when I had been press-ganged (willingly) to join the Barn Church choir at their carol service, and then again the next evening (making it three-for-three), when a number of friends were singing carols to home-coming commuters as they arrived at Kew Gardens station. Again – just so British.


That Monday evening, we headed into Kew Gardens itself to see the Christmas lights. These were sensational. I won’t even try to describe them … just enjoy the pictures.


Eventually, Christmas Day itself arrived, with the quietest (and most relaxing) Christmas I can remember.  Church in the morning (‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ #6) and then lunch at the Ma Cuisine restaurant round the corner.  Back home in time for the Queen!  It was really nice but we did miss the kids.  Kate and Lewis arrive in three days’ time … perhaps we’ll miss the peace!

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