Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Dear readers,

It has been almost a year now since we returned to the UK from New Zealand, and in this time we have spent many wonderful weekends and holidays exploring the island that we now call home. The bank holiday weekends are a perfect opportunity to venture a little further away from home without having to take any extra days off from work, and this post is all about our trip to Portsmouth and Winchester during the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in May. It was only about a week before the actual bank holiday that we realised that we hadn’t yet booked anything, and I quickly went about searching for places we could visit. Originally we set our sights on Durham, I had found available accommodation and knew that it is a beautiful city to explore. However, on the very next day, the news headlines were full of stories claiming that the bank holiday weekend was set to see some excellent sunny weather, and the weather forecasts were all similarly upbeat. So that was all it took, the plans were quickly changed, and we found and booked accommodation in Portsmouth instead, ready for our first British seaside weekend. Unfortunately, with about two days to go, the outlook changed and it seemed that the prospect of an early start to summer had been a little optimistic. The weather forecasts, as they invariably do, had made some swift u-turns and were now predicting a very wet weekend. Still, it was now too late to change our plans again, so we prepared for the worst and devised some plans for making the most of the weekend.

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A final check of the weather report before we left home showed that the wet weather wasn’t due to hit the south coast until mid-afternoon, so we had a brief window to try and fit in as much “seasideness” as possible! A trip to the British seaside could never be complete without tucking into some fish and chips on the beach, ideally without being washed away! As we would be arriving around lunchtime, that looked like the perfect way to start the weekend. After much research, a suitable fish and chip shop had been found and we made a beeline straight there after having checked in at our accommodation. Only a short walk to the seafront, it gave us plenty of time to arrive at the beach before the storm, which was now visibly approaching on the horizon. Although I’ll never turn down the opportunity to have fish and chips anywhere, it always seems so much better at the seaside. I’m not even sure that the quality of the fish is any different, it is the smell and sounds of the sea that just makes it seem like a more authentic experience. Juggling the tasks of eating and guarding your food from greedy seagulls, accompanied by the soundtrack of screams from individuals brave/stupid enough to go into the sea, brings back so many memories from my childhood, and I was extremely happy to be able to now share this experience with Ms Lust. We managed to finish our lunch on the beach without any sudden downpours or unwanted attention from the local seabird population, but it was now very clear that the rain wasn’t far away.

South Parade Pier was just a couple of hundred metres further along the beach so we decided to head there for another British seaside tradition, the amusement arcades. Happily we are both suckers for the two-penny machines and we were content to spend an hour or so playing with these while the weather battered the coast. Once we had become bored of the amusements, we ventured back outside to find the rain still coming down heavily. As there was an ice cream shop conveniently located next door, and under the same canopy so there was no need to go out into the rain, we popped in here for an ice cream, we were determined to stick to seaside traditions even if the weather wasn’t! It was clear by the time that we had finished our ice creams that the rain wasn’t likely to stop any time soon, so we donned our waterproofs (another British tradition, never leave home without them!) and walked back to where we were staying. Both tired from the day spent travelling and a heavy lunch, we ended up falling asleep for a few hours and were delighted to find the sky a lot less foreboding when we woke up.

Up until this point, having spent all of our time in the suburb of Southsea, Portsmouth hadn’t felt any different to me than just another generic British seaside town with nothing to really set it apart from anywhere else. However, as we walked along the seafront to Portsmouth harbour, and its plethora of bars and restaurants, it was clear to see that I had been wrong. The first glint of hope had come as we walked past Southsea Castle, a coastal fort dating back to the 16th century. We didn’t have time to visit the castle but the walk past was pleasant enough for it to stick in my memory, the surrounding parkland provides an excellent distraction from the nearby reminders of the tackier side of the British seaside. The real treat was still yet to come, and as Portsmouth’s harbour came into view I immediately realised I had been too quick to judge. The area has clearly been recently modernised and redeveloped, into a vibrant waterside complex. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, but not in any way overwhelming, and the most impressive of these is the Spinnaker Tower, which must have incredible views from the viewing decks and restaurant at the top. We also weren’t able to enjoy this ourselves as we had a dinner reservation to get to, and the weather still wasn’t great and would have limited the view, but it is definitely something I would like to do if we went back to the area. As I said, we had reservations, at the Loch Fyne restaurant. Being a national chain and fairly well known, I won’t go into too much detail about it, all I will say is that we had a fantastic meal and would definitely eat at Loch Fyne again whenever we get the chance.

After dinner, we went for a bit more of a stroll around the harbour before deciding on a suitable place for an after dinner drink. Although we weren’t too sure whether it was a pub or a brewery from its outside appearance, we decided on The Old Customs House and we couldn’t have made a better choice. The exterior was fairly plain and unimpressive, hence our confusion, yet the interior felt more like something that should be found in a stately home. A large double staircase greeted us as we entered and we made our way through to the bar. The bar area is separated into a number of rooms, each resembling a library or a drawing room. The room we chose had only four tables in it, with armchairs and stools dotted around, which made it feel very cosy and homely, and it was the perfect place for a relaxing, after-dinner drink. As we left, we had to decide whether to walk back to our accommodation and brave the weather, or to see if we could figure out where and when to get a bus back. In the interests of simplicity we decided to walk, and fortunately it only rained lightly during the half hour or so that it took. We took a more direct route back, through Portsmouth’s university area, which gave an interesting insight into the nightlife of Portsmouth. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but it actually seemed like a really cool place to go for a night out, and there didn’t appear to be much trouble or fighting going on. Certainly not what I had anticipated from a naval town such as this!

The following day, we decided that we had probably seen the best of Portsmouth already and that, as it still wasn’t ideal beach weather, we would head to Winchester after having had breakfast. We looked up where would be best for breakfast in Portsmouth, and on arrival to The Parade Tea Rooms the queue suggested that it had a well-earned reputation. Unfortunately, the food didn’t live up to the hype and I can only really judge it as satisfactory, certainly not anything to write home about. This wasn’t helped by being seated directly under the air conditioning and next to a very loud, large group, and we were quite happy to be leaving once we had finished eating. Refuelled, we then hit the road again and made the 50 minute journey to Winchester, of course taking the more scenic route through the South Downs National Park.

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On arriving in Winchester, we found somewhere to park and set about exploring the city. There are a number of suggested self-guided walking tours of the city and we initially began with one of those. The first stop was the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, which houses the equally magnificent Winchester Bible. Believed to have been commissioned in 1160, it is considered to be the greatest Bible ever made in England. Each page features vivid, detailed illustrations and historiated initials, although the illustrations were never completely finished. At the time of our visit, the area of the cathedral where the Bible is usually housed was undergoing restoration, and a temporary home for it had been provided. It was still possible to see the Bible behind its glass casing, and some of the most colourful and impressive illustrations had been recreated on wall banners around the room. Its new home, when completed, will provide visitors with even more information about the Bible and a better viewing platform for it, while the Bible itself is also undergoing restoration and rebinding.

The cathedral’s other claim to fame is that it is the final resting place of Jane Austen, she passed away in July 1817 after travelling to Winchester to seek medical help. At the time of her death, she was mostly unknown as a writer and many of her novels were still yet to be published. Because of this her funeral was a very low-key affair with only four attendees, and her original gravestone makes no mention of her writings. This has now been resolved with a brass plaque on the wall opposite her grave, paid for by her nephew in 1870 from the proceeds of his memorial to his aunt. Above this, a stained glass window was also erected in her memory in 1900, which was paid for by public donations.

The one feature of the cathedral that has really stuck in my mind is the crypt, one of the earliest sections of the cathedral which would have been built in the late 11th century. The crypt itself isn’t open to visitors, but there is a small viewing platform which can be reached via a few stone steps. You are then presented with an eerie scene, as a sculpture of a man looking into his hands has been placed in the middle of the crypt. Due to the cathedral having been built on land which is very prone to waterlogging, the crypt often floods during rainy periods and the water can reach as far up as the waist of the sculpture. Fortunately it was dry when we visited and it was possible to see the full extent of the crypt, despite the rain that had scuppered our beach plans! In the early 1900’s, the cathedral was in danger of being completely destroyed due to it’s waterlogged foundations, and is only standing today due to the immense efforts of a diver named William Walker. Brought in to help with work to underpin the cathedral’s foundations after large cracks started to form throughout the cathedral, he spent six years working underwater to excavate the existing foundations and to place concrete sacks to strengthen and seal them. Only once he had completed this task could the water be pumped out and further work completed to safeguard the cathedral from subsidence and subsequent collapse. In honour of his efforts, there is a statue of William Walker in the cathedral along with his diving helmet.

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On leaving the cathedral, we had a quick walk around the Dean Garnier Garden. Situated just beside the cathedral, it was a pleasant distraction for about fifteen minutes but as neither of us are particularly horticulturally-minded we didn’t linger for too long. We continued our stroll and then came across Wolvesey Castle, also known as the Old Bishop’s Palace. Built for one of the old Bishops of Winchester, it has now been reduced to ruins and is in the care of English Heritage. Entry is free and there are some information panels dotted about to help understand the functions of each room. There isn’t too much to see here, but it’s definitely worth spending an hour to visit.

Following this we felt that we had managed to see the major attractions in Winchester, so we continued our walk along the river until it brought us back into the city centre. All that walking had given us an appetite, so it was definitely now time for lunch! We found a nice pub for lunch, which was then followed by a final walk through the rest of the city centre to bring us back to where we had parked the car.

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So that basically brings us to the end of our trip to the British seaside. Unfortunately it wasn’t as ‘seasidey’ as we would have liked, but I think we’ve both been in the UK long enough now to not rely on the weather too much. We still managed to have a great weekend despite the rain, and I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this part of the country again at some point, hopefully with the sun shining!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

A very famous Italian song says something like “winter at the beach is an concept that the mind cannot conceive”. I find my strength in water, but I have never understood the beauty of visiting the seaside in winter and I have always quoted this song to those that claim that the beach in winter is extremely romantic. If you go to the beach, you need to be able to dive, snorkel, pretend you know how to do synchronised swimming, and all those things of the same style that tell everyone that you are an adult only according to your passport.

With this introduction, please feel free to ask what on earth I had in mind when I suggested to go to the seaside for May bank holiday when I knew it was going to rain. The answer will be that I have no idea. The previous week was incredibly hot and that, in a Sardinian brain, equals going to the beach, and so we did. We packed our flip flops and sandals, our strapless tops and dresses (or whatever Mr Wander’s version of that is), and we drove down to Portsmouth for the weekend to have a full British seaside experience. Of course, that also includes torrential rain. Anyway, let’s not go that far yet.

As usual, Mr Wander took care of the booking and found one of the best places we have been in so far. According to AirBnb, it was a lucky find as it is usually booked. The room was huge, with a very tall but comfy bed and all one can wish for, namely a dresser with mirror and a majestic bow window. The bathroom was tiny, more reminiscent of the ones that you find in a boat than of anything else, but it was brand new and with a decent size shower enclosure, so no problem at all. There was also a small separate kitchen with all the essentials and, in hindsight, we should definitely have had breakfast there, as the place we choose was disappointing to say the least.

As we arrived just before check-in time, we just left the car there and left for exploring. Lunch was sorted, if we want to say so, as we were planning on having fish and chips on the beach just before the storm. We headed to the Southsea roundabout where our research said we could find one of the best fish and chip places in town. Well, all I can say is that:

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While waiting for the food, just in front of the shop is a mural with the map of the city. it is an interesting project that was unveiled in 2012 and uses the technique of the trompe l’œil (literally, trick the eye). From a balcony at the top, a few people unroll a map of the city with some of the business listed. Around the map, more characters that are famous for the city (the founder and other renowned people), pop in from the windows or the street. Some important British people, such as most recently Henry VIII and Robin Hood, are painted in the likeness of Portsmouth residents. I say most recently because the peculiarity of this mural is that it is an ongoing work of art, with characters and places added every year.

We got our lunch and we headed to the sea, as the sky seemed to be holding off for the moment. We had time to enjoy our fish and chips while trying to understand what the huge platforms were that we could see offshore, but we had to leave soon after as it was starting to rain. We went to the arcade, the seaside quintessential attraction. We tried to win a cuddly toy, we played at the 2p machines for a while, and we left with some tokens in our pockets that were not even enough for a Chupa Chups. At this point, it was raining without mercy and we just walked next door to have a handmade ice cream at the Ice Cream Emporium. We chose it because we didn’t want to get wet but we didn’t regret it. The place is tiny, with a decent choice of flavours. All in white and aquamarine tones, it is decorated with ropes and boat-like gizmos that make it quite happy. At the back there are a few tables in perfect 1970’s American diner style. We could have probably stayed there for a while longer but the rain was not showing any sign of wanting to end soon, so we gathered all our courage and left anyway. We were less than 10 minutes walk from the accommodation and we tried to be as fast as we could. We were a bit tired after the trip and the undesired shower and we just fell asleep for the whole afternoon. We may have not explored too much, but we woke up to a sort of clear sky.

We decided to try our luck again and we walk to the harbour for dinner, also because we wanted to see a bit of this island city. Oh, yes, do you know that Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city? We hadn’t planned any cultural visit, we are not ashamed of admitting it, but now we feel we should go again for a bit of visiting rather than just relaxing. We just went for a walk along the coast and had a glimpse of the castle while walking to Gunwharf Quays. We had booked a table at Loch Fyne and we had plenty of time. The Quays are pretty distinctive, as they are modern and crammed with restaurants and pubs, but the most surprising feature is the Spinnaker Tower that makes you feel like you are in Dubai for a moment. Almost in front, is a huge figurehead from the HMS Marlborough. This figurehead represents the Duke of Marlborough and was used on the ship built in the second half of the XIX century. After being the flagship of the fleet for many years, the ship passed to be used for training engineers and then for the Torpedo School. When the ship was broken up in 1924, the figurehead was placed in its current position and, with the Spinnaker Tower on its side, it provides a perfect shot in perspective.

I have to admit that I often avoid restaurant chains and I usually prefer to go to local pubs. Probably because I have worked in a few places of this kind and I know that quality doesn’t come automatically with the name of a chain, I’d rather try small businesses and independent restaurants. For this reason, I had never been to any Loch Fyne in all my years in the UK. I am glad I trusted Mr Wander this time, because we had a really nice dinner. As it had stopped raining and it was not supposed to start again before 10 p.m., we wanted to sit outside, but we had to go inside anyway for dinner, and that was the only downside of the night, I would say. Before actually ordering for dinner, we had a Spritz outside enjoying the nice quiet between storms.

The dinner was good in general, but I have to say that my happiness arrived with dessert. By rule, you know, I don’t trust pubs that don’t offer sticky toffee pudding, but I am more flexible with restaurants, they can offer Eton Mess instead. Well, they did and I loved it, the cream was simply scrumptious! Mr Wander opted for whisky instead, in preparation for our tour of Scotland.

After dinner, hoping for a longer truce from the weather, we went for another drink at the Old Customs House, a pub just in front of the restaurant with a huge terrace and also plenty of space inside, definitely our choice as it was starting to become quite chilly. The building was used as the administrative headquarters of HMS Vernon until the late 1980s and dates back to 200 years earlier. When it was acquired by Fullers, it was not refurbished until 2012, when it went through a massive renovation in record time. As it is now, the place shines without having lost any of the old style fashion. With a huge double staircase to go to the toilets and a few small rooms with comfy sofas and armchairs apart from the main rooms with the bars, the pub makes you think of one of those gentlemen clubs that you imagine when reading Sherlock Holmes adventures. The atmosphere, together with their selection of beers, made us immediately agree that we made the right choice, judge for yourselves:

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The walk home was not bad, even if it started raining, as it was not much. Despite the cultural offer, we were not keen on staying in Portsmouth the following day after breakfast, and we decided to go to Winchester. Before leaving, we stopped for breakfast at The Parade Tea Room and we regretted it quite a lot. The place was full with a queue at the door but, as everyone was waiting for big tables, we could sit down immediately because they had one for two people. After all my work in restaurants I should have known better: If a place is full, don’t stay, the service and food will be bad. I didn’t listen to my experience and we ended up with a horrible breakfast. The room does not receive enough fresh air, therefore the air conditioning was trying to compensate by blowing cold air in the corner. The result was that the quality of the air was still bad and we had to eat with our jackets on. The wait was as we were told but the food was far below average. I had the vegetarian breakfast and the sausage was dry and tasteless, probably reheated a few times, definitely not fresh. The toasts came already buttered, which is a horrible habit. I understand you don’t want to waste your butter by putting some on each plate, but I don’t want butter on my toast, so I should be informed and given the choice. The egg was dry and overcooked. The cutlery was dirty, with old food stuck all over it, and after changing two knives and a teaspoon from the self-service desk, we gave up. To complete the picture, the need for tables was so bad that they were obviously trying to take stuff away as soon as possible to make people leave. Overall, definitely a thumbs down and I place I would never suggest!

We drove to Winchester without really knowing too much because, as I said, we didn’t really plan to go there. The place was a great surprise, I loved it very much and I was quite relaxed at lunchtime when we chose a pub that seemed not too bad but, as the rest, seemed to have suffered from a shortage of staff during the bank holiday. The main feature of the city is the Cathedral without any doubt, and a visit to it won’t disappoint you in the least. The cathedral is undergoing some major refurbishment but even with some parts being closed, it still takes your breath away. Pure Gothic style, the building dates back to XI century and is the longest Gothic Cathedral in Europe. The stone vault is more recent as it replaced the wooden ceiling in XIV century and it creates an incredible perspective that goes from the main nave to the choir, a beautifully chiselled wooden structure that, at the time of our visit, was used by the Danish choir for practice for the evening concert. We sat for a while, listening to them, before resuming our visit. Several famous people are buried in the cathedral, but no one deserved in my eyes more interest than Jane Austen. The author moved to the city hoping to find a solution for her condition but passed away soon after and was buried there. Her nephew, later, dedicated a plaque to her recognising her talent and her work.

One of the most important features of the cathedral is the Winchester Bible, a precious copy of the Bible in four volumes that dates back to XII century. Written by a single scribe, it was decorated by several artists with illuminations, which are decorations made with gold and silver leaves, and precious stones. For the fact of being the largest and best preserved example, the specimen is extremely precious and it is kept in special display cases that keep constant temperature and light. To protect the volume on display, photography is not permitted, but you can find out more about it and the rest of the cathedral on their website. The Bible is usually on display on the right side of the transept but that area is currently closed for refurbishment and the book now has its installation on the left, near the crypt. Here, a modern exhibition features a life-size statue of a man looking at the water in his hands. The crypt gets submerged during rainy months and offers a peculiar mirror effect.

Next to the cathedral and offering a beautiful view of it, there was a monastery and what was the monks’ dormitory is now the Dean Garnier Garden, a walled garden maintained by volunteers and open to the public. A short walk away from the cathedral is Wolvesey Castle, also known as Old Bishop’s Palace, a medieval castle that was the residence of the Bishop of Winchester for a few centuries up to the English Civil War. The building doesn’t exist anymore and the ruins of the ground floor are now an English Heritage site that can be visited for free. As the ruins are near the river, a short walk along the water will take you to the city centre again and took us to our late lunch at about 4 p.m.

That was all for our first trip of the year to the glorious British seaside and we are still waiting to repeat the experience. I am actually longing for some sea water on my feet but the weather doesn’t seem keen to cooperate. Will we be able to repeat before we go to Cornwall? Stay tuned to our profiles to find out!

Ms Lust

WPC – Bridge

Dear readers,

It’s time once again for the weekly photo challenge, and this week’s topic is ‘Bridge‘. Having just come back from our trip to the Isle of Skye for Ms Lust’s birthday (which you can read all about here), it seemed too much of a coincidence not to include a photo of one of the many beautiful old bridges that are to be found on the island.

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However, it’s unlikely that anyone will be going to Skye just to see the bridges, as the landscapes themselves are the main draw and the bridges simply add to the aesthetics. 

That’s not quite the case for my next subject, which is also my favourite bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridge may not be the main attraction in Sydney Harbour, as it is next to the famous Sydney Opera House, but it certainly was for me. 

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This is the first photo (of many!) that I ever took of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, after having walked through the city in order to see the Sydney Opera House. I hadn’t even given the bridge a moment’s thought, but as soon as I saw it dominating the views of the harbour I was instantly awestruck. Ever since then, this has become my favourite place in Sydney and I always try to visit no matter how short my stay in Australia is. 

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This photo was taken during Vivid Sydney, a light festival which sees many of the city’s famous sites being lit up at night. At this time of the year, the bridge really does live in the shadow of the opera house, which is lit up with colourful artwork projected onto the famous sails. However, the bridge does get a light show of its own and it is still a part of the festivities. The bridge’s time to shine comes at New Year’s Eve when it becomes the showpiece of Sydney’s New Year’s firework display, and then it really does get a light show to be jealous of!

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I couldn’t find any good quality photos of the bridge during the firework display, so I chose this one of the last sunset of 2012 forming a beautiful backdrop for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I never get tired of this wonderful view, and I can’t wait for our next visit to Australian shores and to this fantastic piece of engineering.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

As a translator, the concept of the bridge is something important. For those of you who don’t know, the etymology of the word “translation” is the latin for “bearing across”, and a bridge is the perfect image of what a translation does, because it bears the meaning of a text from one language to the other. It is not surprising then that, when I needed to clear my thoughts while living in London, I would go walking from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and just make sense of things, or at least try to.

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Tower Bridge is impressive both from a distance and from up close. If you are lucky enough to be walking on it when a tall boat is passing, you can see it opening in front of your eyes. You can also visit it and walk through the history of its construction. I enjoyed the visit a lot and I even managed to look like I am not regretting standing on the glass floor on top of the road!

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In our post about Rome, you may have noticed not only my love for the city, but also how strongly I feel the internal contrasts of this capital. There could be many examples of this, but just think of how the metropolis, capital of the Italian State, contains in itself another capital city, actually a city-state, the Vatican City. Many bridges are famous and impressive in the Eternal City, but the sunset starting to paint Saint Peter in pink behind Ponte Sisto makes this spot and this bridge one of my favourite sights of our trip.

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Thank you for travelling with us, see you soon!

Ms Lust

 

 

Scottish fairies, Islands, and Highlands

Dear readers,

If you have read the post about our trip to Rome, you’ll know that we like to buy holidays for each other rather than presents for our birthdays. So in June, I have the pleasure of planning and taking Ms Lust on holiday for her birthday. As I did in January, Ms Lust had given me a shortlist of three destinations, and it was then left to me to choose which of these we would go to. Although they had been given in no particular order, it was clear that Ms Lust’s top choice was to go to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. This was more due to a particular place on Skye rather than the island itself, but we’ll come back to that later. I’d wanted to visit here myself for a long time too, so it was an easy decision to make in the end and I was soon looking into our options for visiting the Isle of Skye.

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As it would just be me driving, I had decided to book a flight to Glasgow and then hire a car to drive the rest of the way. It didn’t really make it any quicker or cheaper, but I didn’t fancy 10 or 11 hours of driving each way, especially with only a few days to make the most of or in which to recover. So we arrived in Glasgow after our morning flight from Stansted, and went to pick up the hire car. I was pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have to wait too long, but my delight soon faded. Why is hiring a car in the UK such an arduous and complex process? I don’t want to start moaning already though, we had a fantastic time and I’d rather be talking about that!

With the hire car sorted, we set off on our way to Skye. We still had approximately five hours of driving before we would get there, but we also had plenty of time to stop and go exploring along the way. I’d planned a rough route to take, not the most direct in order to take in as many sights as we could. After leaving Glasgow, we first made our way through Loch Lomond National Park. I had visited here before on holiday many years ago as a child, and was curious to see how much I would remember. We found a place where we could park and eat lunch, and we were able to walk down to the loch from here.  In all honesty it reminded me of standing by the lake in Queenstown more than anything else, the landscapes are so similar although I have to say that Loch Lomond is a lot more peaceful!

As we drove further through the national park, we then found an unexpected treasure, the Falls of Falloch. Located on a river that feeds into Loch Lomond, a short walk from the car park past some smaller falls led us to this amazing place. I always prefer places which require a little bit of effort to reach, rather than simply parking the car, stepping out to take a few photos, and then getting straight back on the road again. I feel that it makes you appreciate it more and that the destination is somehow improved by the journey to get there. Definitely worth the walk, the falls erupt from the surrounding woodland and provide some stunning views. A viewpoint has been constructed at the end of the track, but there are plenty of other spots which give spectacular views of their own.

Back on the road and continuing our journey north, there were so many places that we wanted to stop at but it simply would not have been possible to stop everywhere. The weather was also beginning to turn on us, with the frequent showers becoming heavier and heavier, and we didn’t want to risk getting caught in a downpour so early in the holiday! We did manage to fit in a few quick photo stops before reaching Glencoe however, where we would also stop to see the famous Three Sisters.

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At this point I realised that we would be unable to complete part of my planned route, which created more decisions to make. Although we weren’t going to be staying on the Isle of Skye itself, I had wanted to take a ferry from Mallaig to the island and to drive through the Sleat peninsula on our way. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and strong winds had meant that the ferry had been cancelled. As for our route, this now meant that we would have to stay on the mainland and leave Skye until the following day. However this meant we would not now be going past a couple of places that I had wanted to visit, and we had to decide whether to take a detour to still be able to visit them or not. In the end we compromised to make sure we wouldn’t be arriving too late at our accommodation, and we would drive out to Glenfinnan and back but the coral beach at Morar would have to wait until our next trip to this area.

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Glenfinnan is originally famous for being the site where the Jacobite uprising began, when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard here in 1745. The Glenfinnan Monument was built in 1815 to memorialise those that lost their lives in the battles that ensued, and it is still standing today by the banks of Loch Shiel. Today however, it seems it is more famous for its viaduct, used as a filming location for the Harry Potter films. Fortunately the two sites are a stone’s throw from each other, and we were able to see both in between the increasingly frequent rain showers.  Now time was starting to run out and we set off for the last leg of the day’s journey to our accommodation in Craig, near Plockton and a 10 minute drive from the Skye Bridge onto the island.

Another one of my AirBnB finds (click here for a signing up discount), we were staying in a lodge on a farm that seemed to be used more for tourism purposes rather than agriculture. We didn’t have much time to see the animals, but the setting was incredible and made for some fantastic views as we were leaving and returning each day. We arrived with time to spare and took the opportunity to freshen up before heading out again to find somewhere for dinner. As I mentioned before, Plockon was the nearest town and we had been told that it has a good reputation for food. This was to become our destination for dinner a couple of times, and we were never disappointed. Most of the restaurants in this area take advantage of the local produce available, especially seafood, and we were able to try some wonderful Scottish dishes during our stay (including the odd haggis here and there!).

The next day would be the start of our explorations of the Isle of Skye, and also the first of two days that I had planned more thoroughly. For this day, we would be travelling around the most northern peninsula of Skye, the Trotternish peninsula. A huge, 30 km long landslip here has created some of Skye’s most famous and dramatic landscapes, and it was our intention to try and see as many as we could. Our first stop was the Fairy Glen near Uig, probably the least well-known of the day’s excursions and therefore the least crowded. Located a few kilometres down a single-track road unsuitable for tour buses (hence why it was so quiet!), I was glad I had looked up directions before leaving as there were no signs for this attraction until we actually arrived and I would never have found it otherwise. Fairies feature heavily in Skye’s folklore, and there are many sites on the island that are attributed to these magical creatures. The Fairy Glen doesn’t really have its own story, it is simply named due to the landscape found there looking like something straight out of a fairy tale. Everything in Skye, and the Scottish Highlands as well, is incredibly green. The mountains, lochs, and waterfalls make the scenery so beautiful anyway, but I guess living in New Zealand had made me a little less awestruck by this than I otherwise would have been. What is different to New Zealand is the greenness that covers absolutely everything. It may have been because we visited at the start of summer, but it really does make every landscape look magical. And with the unique shape of the land at the Fairy Glen, it really is easy to see how it got its name.

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This was our only stop on the west side of the peninsula, so we made our way eastwards to our next destination, the Quiraing (I have yet to find out how this is pronounced, any help is greatly appreciated!). This is the first of the landscapes created by the famous landslip, which has exposed some wonderful geological features. When seeing the sign directing us over ten miles down a single-track road to such a well-known tourist spot, I had horrifying images of having to stop every two seconds to let the constant convoy of hire cars and tour buses past. Luckily I was worrying for nothing, and the road was reasonably quiet. I had been tempted to continue on the main road around the top of the peninsula, in retrospect I am glad that we didn’t as I would probably have missed the Quiraing altogether! There is a car park just on the side of the road, with a walking track starting on the opposite side. How far you go and how long you stay here is entirely up to you. The main features of the Quiraing are actually visible from the car park, and after walking approximately 200 metres down the track the landscape really opens up into some stunning views. For the more adventurous the track continues, and there are walks of various lengths and difficulties that can be completed from this starting point. For us, our itinerary was too busy to stay for too long, and we were content with just completing the first section of the walk before heading back and continuing down the east coast.

Our next stop was our first real experience of how busy Skye can get, and the car park at the Kilt Rock viewing area was jam-packed when we arrived. Kilt Rock is a cliff where the unique geology has created a sheer face that resembles a kilt. Also just in front of the cliff is a small waterfall called Mealt Falls. There isn’t much here to keep you too long, just a couple of viewpoints which are only about 20 metres from the car park. So after taking a few photos from each, we were soon back on the road and feeling like it was time for something to eat. My biggest piece of advice for anyone travelling to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is this: plan everything as well as you can. Unfortunately in terms of when and where we would eat, I hadn’t done so and left us with very few options. Skye is a very rural area and although it has become a busy tourist destination, some things still operate at their own pace. As such, not realising that everything would be shut on Sundays, we were left with nowhere to have lunch until finishing our trip around the peninsula and returning to Portree.

So we carried on and proceeded to our next stop, Rubha nam Brathairean or Brothers Point, another often overlooked beauty spot. Again this is probably due to the lack of signs, we also only found it due to my earlier research. Basically just a layby on the side of the road with a footpath on the other side, it would be easily missed. I even missed it on the first pass, noticing the footpath sign just as it was too late to stop and we had to turn around to go back. We were very glad that we did go back, as after a walk along the footpath we were rewarded with some great views of the Skye coastline. It would have been easy to have spent a few hours here exploring, but our stomachs were becoming angry and encouraged us to head back.

The last stop on our itinerary was possibly the most disappointing, the Old Man of Storr. Similar to the Quiraing, this is a landscape formed by the landslip. The Old Man of Storr itself is a natural obelisk that was left protruding from the landscape. This is another of the main tourist spots in this area, and even when we arrived late in the afternoon it was still very busy. The footpath up to the Old Man of Storr is a long, steep slog which we were told would take two hours to reach the top and back. With no time nor inclination for a walk of that length, we decided to start and see how far we would get or if we would find a good viewpoint on the way. The truth is, the view from the footpath is particularly disappointing. The whole way up you are directly in front of the ridge and the Old Man of Storr, which makes it very hard to identify where it actually is. To be completely honest, the views from the road both before and after the car park were much better, thanks to being able to view the landscape from a different angle. It may be that it is truly wonderful once you reach the top, but we weren’t prepared to spend so much time and effort to find out and after about fifteen minutes of climbing we decided to head back down.

After this we really did need to find somewhere to eat and we parked up in Portree, unfortunately it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea. Every restaurant we tried was full, with waiting times all being about an hour, so in the end we gave up and drove on to the next town, Sligachan.  Here we were more fortunate, and we found somewhere to satisfy our haggis cravings on only our second attempt. It had been another very long day, but we had seen some fantastic landscapes and we were ready for more!

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The next day was Ms Lust’s birthday, so she was in charge of what we would do. I had made some suggestions but there was one place that was absolutely non-negotiable. The place that Ms Lust had wanted to visit, and basically the whole reason we were visiting Skye, was the Fairy Pools. Another of Skye’s enchanted areas, this is a cascade of waterfalls on a stream of incredibly clear water that has run down from the mountains. Again this isn’t very well signposted from the main road (I think the locals are trying to keep some of these spots to themselves!), it really is worth doing your homework beforehand to be able to find these places. The Fairy Pools really are spectacular, and one pool is particularly beautiful. Two pools, one with a waterfall dropping into it, connected by an underwater arch, provide reason enough for the name. These were the pools we had also earmarked for a swim, which we had brought wetsuits along for. The climb down to the pools is fairly dangerous, especially once the rocks have become wet and slippery, but the advantage of this is that you get the pool more or less to yourself if you are willing to make the descent. We did, and instantly were thankful that we had. It is such a beautiful place and, despite the water being so cold, swimming here is something I will remember forever.

After our swim, we dried off and continued a little further up the path. It is possible to walk all the way back to Sligachan, marked as a 4.6 kilometre walk. We didn’t go that far, even just a few hundred metres further gave us the chance to see so many other pools that were equally as beautiful. Plus we hadn’t started the day as early as planned so we now needed to get back on the road. Our next stop was to be Dunvegan Castle, after Ms Lust had decided she would prefer a cultural stop to break up all of nature and landscape stops we had been making.

Dunvegan Castle was originally a medieval castle built in the fourteenth century, and the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan. Since then, various clan chiefs have made their own additions and, although they have been made in the same style as the castle, it now seems more like a stately home. The castle sits on the shores of a loch and offers great views of the loch and the surrounding countryside. Inside there wasn’t too much to see, the main draw is the infamous Fairy Flag which is said to bring good luck. An heirloom of the MacLeod clan, it is said to have been raised in battle at times when defeat seemed inevitable, and every time the clan have gone on to be victorious.

Included with the ticket is access to the castle gardens, which we had a short walk around. With neither of us being particularly interested in horticulture, we were there mainly for the views it offered of the castle. As a result, the price of the ticket seemed a little expensive as we were only there for about an hour, but it was an interesting visit nonetheless. Once we had finished at the castle, we only really had time to head back to our accommodation to prepare for dinner. Naturally we made a couple of quick stops along the way, one of which was to finally take a photo of this bridge that we had passed so many times already! As we made our way back, we said our goodbyes to the Isle of Skye as the next day we would be heading back south.

After going for breakfast at our new favourite cafe in Kyle of Lochalsh, we set off on the road back towards the lowlands of Scotland. We hadn’t gone too far however before it was time for our first stop of the day, at Eilean Donan Castle. I had found out about this castle while researching the holiday, and as soon as I saw it I decided we had to go. I instantly recognised it as the castle from The World Is Not Enough, and later found out it had been used in the filming of Highlander as well. A truly iconic, typically Scottish castle, it just had to be worth a visit. And it really was, a lot more of the castle is open to the public than at Dunvegan Castle, and it is wonderful to be able to explore both the inside of the castle and the ramparts. I guess the fact that it costs only just over half as much to get in as well is what makes the ticket for Dunvegan Castle seem a lot.

The location of Eilean Donan Castle is just perfect, protruding into the water at the meeting point of three lochs. The piper playing by the shore to greet visitors finishes off this perfect setting, it felt like a true Scottish experience. We spent a lot longer here, but we had to be wary of time to make where we would have enough spare for some stops on our way to Stirling. So after exploring the castle to its extent, it was time to continue heading south.

I had made a slight detour in order to be able to see Loch Ness, which didn’t really live up to my expectations. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it really is just like all the other lochs we had seen on the trip. I guess I was always going to be disappointed unless I had actually seen Nessie’s head poking out of the water! With my curiosity satisfied, our next port of call was one we had been putting off since the first day on Skye. We had decided we should visit a whisky distillery while in Scotland, and our first choice had been to visit the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. With all the other visits we wanted to make here we simply hadn’t had the time, so out next choice was to stop at the Edradour distillery near Pitlochry on our way to Stirling (I came here with my parents and it has been my father’s favourite whisky ever since, so felt I needed to get it for myself!). Unfortunately we weren’t going to make it here before closing so we had to find another option, which turned out to be the Dalwhinnie distillery. I had never heard of this whisky before, but I’m certainly glad we stopped here. After a tour around the distillery and the storage sheds it was time for the important part, the tasting session. I personally prefer the pasty taste of west coast whiskies, and after smelling the malts of both Dalwhinnie and a west coast whisky I wasn’t expecting too much. I was pleasantly surprised and have certainly found another whisky to add to my drinking list, it is very smooth and flavoursome, give it a try!

After a brief stop in Perth for dinner at a great restaurant, we finally arrived in Stirling and found where we were staying. I had some reservations about the place I had booked, as I knew it was part of the university’s halls of residence, but it really was a great place to stay for the night. Considering it was also basically free as a package with our flights to Glasgow, I can’t praise it enough!

So our final day in Scotland was to be spent in Stirling, and I have to admit I hadn’t planned too much. Apart from the National Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle, I didn’t really know what else there was to see here. So we began the day at the National Wallace Monument, a huge tower that was built in 1815 in memory of the great William Wallace. It sits on top of a hill overlooking Stirling Bridge, the site of Wallace’s famous battle with the English, and there are fantastic views to be had of Stirling and the surroundings after climbing the 246 steps to the top of the monument. We were also lucky to have gone on a day when they have presentations to explain more about William Wallace and how he came to be the symbol of freedom in Scotland. Another very interesting visit, I really thought I would only be taking memories of fantastic landscapes away from this trip, however I learnt a lot about Scottish history and whisky as well!

After getting a bit lost waking back down through the woods from the monument, we had to decide where to go next. Stirling Castle seemed a bit expensive, and warranted more time to visit than the couple of hours we had left before having to head back to Glasgow for our flight home. So we ended up exploring the old part of Stirling city, and discovered some more interesting places to visit. Unfortunately the Old Jail was closed, but we had a look inside the Church of the Holy Rude which is the only church in Britain to have held a coronation other than Westminster Abbey. We also walked up to the castle for a walk around the grounds, and then by this point it was time to be grab some lunch and head to Glasgow.

So after battling our way through Glasgow’s rush hour traffic to reach the airport, it was time to say goodbye to Scotland for now. We have seen so many amazing places while we were there, and also so many more that we need to come back for. But by this point we really were weary travellers, trying to fit so much in to only a few days had left us very tired and, although we had had a fantastic time, the call of home was becoming very strong!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear readers,

Or should I say travellers? I guess I should, I take you on a new trip with me, so… dear travellers, today I want to tell you about our most recent trip, so I want to apologise for overwhelming you with details, but everything is incredibly fresh in my mind. Two years ago, in July, I read one of those articles about holiday destinations, you know, one of those “10 holiday destinations out of a fairy tale” or similar. There I saw the Fairy Pools and I started dreaming of visiting them. As they are in the Isle of Skye and not too easy to access, I postponed the visit until now. I know, there are tours available, but I honestly could not find the information about them. I actually emailed some of the touristic websites and was basically discouraged about doing it without a car. The situation might have changed in the last two years, but now there were groups exploring Skye, so I cannot understand why this lack of information.

Anyhow, when I said that to Mr Wander, he started looking up our options and planning everything. Living in Cambridgeshire, driving up to Skye would have taken about ten hours, so we decided to fly to Glasgow and then rent a car there. The time was about the same, but a lot more relaxing. Also, with all our love for our Delilah, a brand new car, even of the same size, was a much better experience for a trip like ours and all the hours of driving involved. Not to mention that I have no idea how much we would have spent in souvenirs and memorabilia if we had not had the limit of a hand luggage allowance to keep us at bay!

So, landed in Glasgow and collected our car, we immediately headed towards the Islands. The weather was not great but it was so quintessentially Scottish that we cannot complain. Actually, it rained a lot while we were driving, which made it perfect for exploring during moments of rest. Monday, the day we had planned for the Fairy Pools, was dry and nice, and our experience was perfect, but I will go back to that soon. On Saturday we drove from Glasgow to our accommodation in Craig with a few random stops on the way, first of all in Loch Lomond for a quick bite, we got our lunch at the airport but we were anxious for being in the road so we hadn’t eaten yet. It was only about 11 a.m., but we were up since 4 a.m., so it was more than fine to have lunch then, and that spot was a perfect excuse for a stop.

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Soon after that, another unplanned stop came up when we saw the sign for the Falls of Falloch. We had no idea what was there (well, falls, of course, but what to expect) but we had a nice surprise, as you can appreciate from our shots. As this was at the beginning, just after a bit of rain, the paths were a bit muddy and required a bit of care sometimes, but some people were there with simple trainers, so our beloved trekking shoes that accompany us since Australia were not afraid of sinking in there. Something we realised there was that the water in Scotland has a distinctive yellow-reddish colour, not just there but in the other waterfalls and rivers we saw during our five days there.

Something we wanted to do on our way to our accommodation was to see the steam train going over the Glenfinnan viaduct as this is the one that was used for Harry Potter’s Hogwart Express, but we were a bit late. We still managed to take a shot of the viaduct from the National Trust parking as then is when it started raining heavily and we decided to give the walk a miss.

We arrived fairly early in Craig and we had a bit of time to settle in before going for dinner. We were staying in a farm that has a few cabins rented through AirBnb. The place was overlooking the sea and it was beautiful to look out of our terrace every day. They had plenty of animals that we could feed. I don’t find this activity so incredible because of my origins, so we gave it a miss as well. Coming from a small town in Sardinia, it is nothing special for me, as we always had farm animals at home. Hens and rabbits were always there, and we often had geese and turkeys; we even had a baby goat and a lamb for a few months.

For dinner, we went to Plockton, one of the bigger towns near us, and we had some haggis and fish at the Plockton Hotel. I was not too keen on haggis, but as a starter, and accompanied by whisky, I decided to give it a try, and I was not disappointed. The fish was obviously good, as there is always fresh supply around there. As a matter of principle, I don’t really trust a British pub that doesn’t include sticky toffee pudding in its menu, and  I was happy to see that all the places we chose for our dinners had it at the top of their list. Of course, as a result, we had had it every night apart from Sunday. I am sometimes disappointed when they warm it up too much and the sponge becomes a bit bitter because it is slightly burned, but I have to say they were all quite good there. If I had to choose, I would probably say that I preferred the first one, because the sponge was quite soft and not dry at all and there was so much caramel sauce. Here is a collage of the three, sorry for the bad quality of some pictures, when tasty food is involved I can’t focus (pun intended!).

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Sunday was all dedicated to exploring the natural beauties of the Isle of Skye and we were lucky enough to arrive at the different locations in between rain showers, although it was quite windy the whole day. Our first stop was in Kyle of Lochalsh for breakfast at Hector’s Bothy, a place so nice and with such a good quality of food that we repeated on Tuesday as well, while we got take away cakes on Monday. We then headed to Fairy Glen, where there actually was a girl dressed like a fairy posing for a photoshoot, or something like that. All we know is that it took her and the photographer half an hour to choose the spot and then they were gone immediately, I didn’t even see her without a coat, but maybe they only needed one shot and I missed that exact moment. We went hiking a few hills and I started climbing this rock that from a certain perspective, looks like Harry Potter’s sorting hat. Of course, when I arrived to the top I realised that the path was very narrow and I had to look down to climb down and I regretted my choice. When I pointed out to Mr Wander that I am an idiot and he shouldn’t follow an idiot, he wisely said that at least he is not afraid of heights. Taking in all the wisdom of that reply and realising that I am actually a bigger idiot than I thought, I started climbing down pretending I was fine.

Our second stop was the Quiraing, a mix between the Monument Valley (from what I can see from pictures) and the Sella del Diavolo in Cagliari. Then it was really windy but we fortunately only had planned a short walk to see it from the distance and we were not planning on going through it and doing the whole walk. All along the way there are several scenic spots that were on our list, so we stopped at Kilt Rock (you can easily guess the reason behind the name just by seeing the photo with the layers of rocks and sediments), Brother’s Point (Or Brothers’ Point, can’t find a definitive spelling), where we went on a short hike down to the rocky beach surrounded by sheep eating grass and seaweed, and the Old Man of Storr. Here is where I gave up, the walk is too long, I am not fit at all for walking up a mountain, and all we could see from there was a rock blending with the rocky slope behind it and disappearing to our eyes. It was actually a lot more impressing from the side of the road where it was distinctly visible.

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Dinner time saw us in Portree, where the restaurants were all booked and the waiting time for a table was one hour. When at the last place we were told that we could sit at the bar and grab a table when someone got up, I had two seconds to imagine myself fighting with people to sit down first as in musical chairs and I just walked out with a frowned face and a scorned “No, thank you!”.

Monday was the day we had planned for the main thing of our trip: Swimming with the fairies! We had a quick breakfast at home and we headed towards the Isle of Skye once again. The walk to the Fairy Pools is short, but then we had to climb down a little cliff to reach the famous location. I was not pleased with that, but there are worst things done for a lesser reward, so there I went, screaming while sort of jumping down, but immediately happy when down. As always when I see water, I have to rush, so I put on my wetsuit as fast as I could, I tried to rush Mr Wander to stop taking pictures and to come, and I went in. The water was freezing, so much so that I had to go in twice and go back out before actually finding the strength to go to the end. As I explained in an earlier post, I don’t know why my body floats so much, but between that and the freezing water, I didn’t feel too comfortable going under the arch, so I decided to climb on top of it, and there I was, swimming with fairies under the waterfall. The legend says that, as I am clumsy and I had a mouthful of water while swimming, I am now slowly becoming a fairy as well, or so I like to tell myself.

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Call it hypothermia or nice weather, getting dressed again and walking back to the car was not half as hard as I expected it to be. I forgot to mention that, on our way to the pools Mr Wander managed to take his longed for picture of a Highland coo in all its beauty and fluffiness, see his profile here for it. After the pools, we headed to Dunvegan Castle, a building that is a mix of an actual castle and a stately home. As it is still inhabited by the owner, just a small part of it is open for visits. It is very nice, with some interesting pieces of furniture and the fairy flag. This is a piece of silk that, according to the legend (not one I just made up, a real legend, forgive the oxymoron), was used by the fairies to cradle the baby of the chief of Clan MacLeod when the nanny left him in the room to go partying. The gardens are also very nice with different styles in different parts of it, but I have to admit that half hour is more than enough for the visit, which makes the price of £13 a bit too much for a ticket.

Back home, after a quick shower, we headed to Plockton again for a delicious dinner with langoustines, seabass, and salmon cakes… and sticky toffee pudding, of course! Only bad side was that we thought we had to wait half hour for our table and we got a beer for the wait but our table was available in five minutes and we had to stick to our beer instead of wine to accompany our seafood.

Tuesday we left our accommodation and we headed to the Highlands as we were going to spend our last night in Scotland in Stirling. On our way, we stopped in Eilean Donan Castle, the castle that featured in Highlander and 007 – The World is not enough. Totally in love with Queen and Sean Connery, you can imagine how happy it made me to be able to visit this place. As in Dunvegan Castle, photography is not allowed inside, but there are plenty of beautiful spots outside for great shots, and the visit is absolutely worth the price. You can hear about the reconstruction, as the castle was in ruins until the beginning of the XX century, and of the history of the MacRae, the owners of the castle, and their allied. Outside, you can see Lea MacLeod playing the bagpipe and it is wonderful with the castle as a background.

Driving to Stirling, we quickly stopped in Loch Ness for a few shots, and then we tried to arrive on time for a whisky tour at Dalwhinnie Distillery. As it closes at 5:15 p.m., the last tour starts at 16:30 and we were spot on. I have recently discovered whisky as a nice drink, because I finally tasted some good ones. As any other alcoholic drink, when we are young, we start with the cheap, commercial stuff and we decide we dislike it a lot. It happens with beer, initially too bitter for young taste buds, especially when confronted with common lager (that was my experience). I had a similar experience with wine, hating red wine for a long time, until I realised that it is not just about pairing it with food, which is extremely important, but also about finding the ones you like. In my case, it is mainly Cab-Sauv. With whisky it is the same, Jack Daniel’s is cool, and it was the one the guys I liked in school liked, but it is nothing special if not mixed with something else. I know, JD is whiskey, but that makes little difference, both words were used in the beginning and then whisky settled in the UK while whiskey is the one used in the US and Ireland. Anyway, in this visit I found out something else: Mr Wander and I totally disagree on whiskies, as he likes the more peaty ones (the one from the West Coast, we learnt at Dalwhinnie), while I like the smoother ones, like Dalwhinnie itself for example, but we both enjoy the visit greatly and we loved the tasting with chocolate truffles. We learnt the dos and don’ts when drinking whisky and we also got our tasting glass as a souvenir, so we happily headed to dinner.

We stopped in Perth in a fancy restaurant called The Bothy in which we were not ashamed at all of walking in with our hiking shoes and our gym bags. The service was a bit slow, but the food was of incredible quality, so we had more haggis with neeps and tatties, some meat, and our beloved dessert, of course. Dinner was quite relaxed and gave us time to plan a bit what to do the next day in Stirling before heading to the airport. Our accommodation was a room in the halls of residence of Stirling University, a compact, brand new room that was perfect for the night.

Wednesday morning we had a filling breakfast at Café 33 before going exploring. check this place out if you are around, it is small but the food is delicious and the staff very friendly, like everyone else we encountered in these days in Scotland. The walls are covered with motivational and funny messages that are for sale and it feels kind of crammed, but the place was not too busy. After breakfast we went to the National Wallace Monument, where we learnt more about the Battle of Stirling Bridge and William Wallace. If you watched Braveheart, you must know what I am talking about. Every 45 minutes on specific days, you have an actor in costume telling you the history of the battle and then you can climb up the monument. There, confronted with one of my not so natural enemies, a spiral staircase, I climbed up all the levels up to the crown to enjoy the view of the actual battle grounds. There are four levels in total, with history boards, memorabilia, and activities for kids (and us). To reach the monument we took the complimentary bus shuttle, but we walked down through the parks before doing some final shopping.

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As it was still a bit early, we headed to the city centre and we visited a few more spots, the Holy Rude Church, where you can find an interesting panel about King James’s Bible, Mar’s Wark, a building in ruins in front of the cemetery, and Stirling Castle. As we didn’t have time to visit this one, we just enjoyed a quick walk around the entrance and one of the guards shouting: “GET OFF THE WALL, SIR!” to someone that we couldn’t identify.

Our time was over, not just the parking ticket, but in general, and it was time to go back to the airport and fly back home. I have to admit that this trip was a wonderful treat and that Mr Wander spoiled me more than he usually does, so I will always treasure these memories, but the celebrations were not over, as my self-present was a ticket for Shakespeare’s Comedy of errors in the forest on Thursday, so the holidays may have ended on Wednesday night, but partying was still on the rest of the week!

Thanks for travelling with us, see you in two weeks,

Ms Lust

The Rock Tour

G’day readers!

I really hope you enjoyed our post When Wander met Lust, however we have to be honest and say that this wasn’t the first time we met. This was the first time we met intentionally and started travelling and living together, however the very first time we met was almost four years earlier in the remote outback of Central Australia. In fact it was almost five years ago to this day in June 2012, hence the reason for posting this now. We had both been living in Australia for a number of months already, just not in the same place. I had spent the previous four months living with my sister in Newcastle and my travels so far had mainly been limited to New South Wales, in particular the Newcastle, Central Coast, and Sydney areas. But I hadn’t come all the way to Australia just to spend two years working in Newcastle, there was a whole continent-sized country out there waiting for me to explore. So in an effort to avoid anything resembling wintry weather, and as the six month limit on my job was approaching, I decided to book a trip through Central Australia from Adelaide to Darwin. On the way I would be stopping at Alice Springs in order to take a tour to Uluṟu and the Red Centre, and this is where the story begins.

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I’d booked the tour before leaving Newcastle, and would be taking a three-day camping trip with The Rock Tour. A couple of days after arriving in Alice Springs, and already having exhausted most of the sightseeing opportunities, it was time for the early morning pick-up from my hostel. Patiently waiting with the small group of other backpackers that were also congregated outside the front of the hostel, it was soon my turn to leave as the bus pulled up. I was one of the first to be picked up for this tour, so after the introductions with our tour guide, Myles, we were soon on our way to collect the rest of our travel companions for the next few days. I’d like to take the opportunity now to say how awesome Myles was as our guide. It was obvious that he really enjoyed his work and that he had a true passion for the area and its culture, and this made it so much more enjoyable as a whole. The stories he would tell, not only on the long journeys between stops but also at the sites themselves, were entertaining as well as interesting and informative, and I really did learn a lot from him in those three days. Not only about Uluṟu and the other places we would visit, but also about their importance to the indigenous people, the issues caused by tourism on these sites, the local flora and fauna, and much more. I believe he is still in Alice Springs working as a tour guide, so if you’re planning to visit this wonderful place I’d definitely recommend booking a tour with him as your guide.

After a quick tour around the hostels of Alice Springs, we were soon all loaded up and ready to begin our journey. I’m sure many of you will have already guessed this by now, and yes, Ms Lust was one of my travel companions for this tour. But please don’t expect this to be a deeply romantic post about our first enchanted meeting, as you will be sorely disappointed! There was nothing too extraordinary about it, sure she had grabbed my attention, but she was travelling with her boyfriend at the time and there was nothing more to our interactions than friendly chit-chat. In saying that, she must have made a good impression on me as nearly four years later she was still on my mind and it was then that it started to become romantic!

So there we were, 14 eager backpackers on a bus embarking on our journey across the outback and into the heart of Australia. I had always thought that Uluṟu was reasonably close to Alice Springs, and it is true that Alice Springs is the nearest town. The term nearest tends to take on a different meaning in Australia however, particularly in the outback, and this translated into a six-hour journey, covering over 450 kilometres (280 miles), to get to our first destination, not so close after all! After having spent over 24 hours travelling across the outback by train just to get to Alice Springs, the prospect of another six hours in a bus was less than exciting. The Australian outback, like most deserts, is incredibly barren and there really isn’t very much to see. But I have to say that the bus trip was a lot more interesting than the train had been a couple of days prior, and I was pleasantly surprised. We made a couple of stops along the way, at a service station to stock up on fuel and other necessities (mainly beer!), and at a place called Mount Conner. Often referred to as ‘Fooluṟu’, you can see how easy it would be to confuse the two landmarks. It is believed to be part of the same geological formations that include Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa, and it is almost as tall as its more famous relation. Mount Conner is visible from the lookout just off of the highway, however there are private tours available organised by the landowners of the cattle station it is located on (that’s right, farms in Australia are large enough to have their own mountains!).

After a brief stop to unload supplies and set up camp, our next destination was the one that we had all been waiting for, Uluṟu. Nothing can quite prepare you for the wonderful moment that you first see Uluṟu with your own eyes. Being one of the most famous landmarks in the world, there is no shortage of images out there showing its magnificence and beauty. But none of these manage to capture its remoteness, something that you only truly appreciate after a six-hour journey across the outback with very little else to disrupt the emptiness, natural or man-made. If Uluṟu had formed in the Amazon Rainforest or in England’s Lake District for example, it would barely have raised an eyebrow. And that’s because it isn’t just Uluṟu’s size, colour, or shape that makes it so extraordinary. It is the location that it finds itself in that makes Uluṟu so unique, something that can only be fully appreciated by physically being there. Seeing such a huge, natural landmark erupting out of such a barren and infertile environment forces you to accept that nature really is in charge here. After this, Uluṟu takes on an even greater sense of significance and it becomes incredibly obvious why it is sacred to the aboriginal people of the area, the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu. I think visiting Uluṟu affects everyone differently, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could come to this special place and not feel moved by it in some way.

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There were still plenty of daylight hours left in the day, so the iconic moment of seeing Uluṟu at sunset would have to wait. In the meantime we drove right up alongside the great monolith, and set off for a walk around a section of the perimeter. This was where we had the opportunity to see Uluṟu for more than just a rock in the desert, and to explore some of its smaller details. There are some unique areas of Uluṟu which showcase how the area has been able to support the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu for so long. There are numerous waterholes around the base of Uluṟu, although these were mostly empty as our visit was during the dry season. These have been formed by rainfall draining off the rock during the wet season and forming gullies, waterfalls and pools. As there was very little water in these pools at the time, this gave a perfect opportunity to see the results of the erosion that the water has caused. Cascades where the water would flow are easily identifiable, even more so due to the black algae deposits that have been left on the rock face by the flows such as here at Mutitjulu waterhole. Other rock formations have been created by further erosion, such as an area known as Wave Cave (pictured above) which has been created by wind erosion. This was also the moment when I had been hoping to see some of Australia’s desert animals as we made our way around the perimeter. Unfortunately although it was still reasonably warm for us during the day, it was obviously too cold for any reptiles to be out and about and the only animals I saw during our walk were a rabbit and a cat! Luckily we had seen a few camels and plenty of eagles on the bus journey so I wasn’t completely disappointed.

We finished our walk at the area where the Uluṟu climb starts, which I’m glad to say our tour did not allow us to do. I’ve never seen the point in climbing Uluṟu, it really is in the middle of nowhere and I struggle to fathom out what it is that people are hoping to see from up there. There is very little to obstruct views of the horizon even from ground level, so anything that can be seen from the top of Uluṟu can probably be seen from the ground anyway. After having been there, I now feel even more strongly about not climbing. Not to mention the dangers of climbing (the rock is like sandpaper and will shred the skin of anyone that slips), this is a sacred place for the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu so what right do we have as tourists to desecrate it by walking all over it? You wouldn’t try to climb onto the roof of the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel, and I don’t see how this is any different. There are many reasons why I believe the climb should be banned, but fundamentally none of my opinions really matter. I read an article that summed it up perfectly, which stated ‘The way I see it I am on someone else’s land and therefore respect the owner’s wishes’. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I don’t think there was a single person on our tour that was disappointed that we couldn’t climb. I really hope the wishes of the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu are honoured soon and the climb is closed for good.

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With our walk completed, it was time to drive over to the sunset viewing area for the main event. The viewing area was a lot less crowded than I had anticipated, and it was easy to get a good view of Uluṟu as we waited for the Sun to descend. The way that Uluṟu changes colour as the Sun becomes more and more intense really is a treat for the eyes. It looks incredible in photographs, yet it is a hundred times better to see it with your own eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photographs of a rock in the desert, and I doubt I ever will again, but I couldn’t stop in an effort to capture it at its best. It truly is an amazing experience and one that you simply have to see for yourself to fully appreciate it.

After the excitement of sunset had subsided, and dinner had been digested, it was time to head back to our campsite for the night. This was the first real chance we had in the group to bond and get to know each other properly, and it was great to hear everyone’s stories. I went on quite a few similar tours during my stay in Australia and I have to say that this group was definitely the best of them all, even more so now that it brought Ms Lust and myself together. Most groups have become a bit blurry in my memory except this one, and I can still remember every single person on this trip. There was also a fantastic mix of personalities and nationalities, which made it much more interesting than the usual mix of solely English and German backpackers (no offence intended, but it’s nice to mix it up now and again!).  Everyone got on really well together as well, which gave me the added bonus of having people to meet up with on the days I had left in Alice Springs after the tour.

Eventually it was time to get some rest, and we all prepared for our first night under the stars in the freezing desert. We each had a sleeping bag and a swag, which is a thick canvas outer sleeping bag. After building up the fire as much as possible, and placing our backpacks to use as pillows, we all turned in and hoped we’d drunk enough beers to get a decent sleep! I still remember waking in the morning to find my bag covered in frost, but luckily the beers had done their job and I was ready for our second day of exploring.

We had woken up early to catch sunrise, and it was just as incredible as the sunset had been the day before. Although the colour of Uluṟu didn’t change too much, the sky put on an equally impressive light show of its own. After breakfast, we then went back to the base of Uluṟu to complete another section of the base walk. This section included Kantju Gorge, where the rock sides are almost vertical and have created a natural gorge. Eager now to head to the second stop on our tour, we all made our way back to the bus for the journey to Kata Tjuṯa.

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Kata Tjuṯa and Uluṟu are part of the same national park, and the journey between the two was a lot shorter than getting to Uluṟu from Alice Springs. I hadn’t heard of Kata Tjuṯa before booking the tour, so I wasn’t too sure of what to expect. It had been visible in the distance from Uluṟu, yet it wasn’t until we got close that I was able to see how beautiful it is. Part of the same geological formation as Uluṟu, yet formed by different processes, Kata Tjuṯa looks like a grouping of domes of which some almost look like ancient houses. We only had half a day to spend here, as we had to drive to our second campsite near Kings Canyon before nightfall, which gave us enough time to complete the Valley of the Winds walk. This walk took us through one of the gaps between the domes to reach the other side of Kata Tjuṯa. It was fairly hard work but also good fun to be able to be so close to this magnificent place without feeling like we were trespassing. This is still a sacred place however, which is why we haven’t included any photos from here in keeping with the requests of the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu.

The walk is one-way, so after retracing our steps we boarded the bus for a short trip to a viewing area. Situated to the side of Kata Tjuṯa, this gave us the opportunity to see it from a different angle which was a complete contrast to the usual views of this wonderful place. Unfortunately that is all I can really recall of the time we spent here, it seems very short but as I said the walk was quite long and tiring. So we were soon back on the bus again, and on our way to Kings Canyon.

After a long journey we arrived at our second campsite, on a camel farm near Kings Canyon. We would have to wait until the following day to see the canyon itself, so the rest of the evening was spent setting up camp and preparing dinner. I had been allocated the job of Fire Marshall for the second night, so it was the responsibility of myself and two others to light the fire and keep it burning. We decided to take this honour quite seriously and nearly stayed up the entire night, although at one point we decided to wander off into the distance a little way for some stargazing. It was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but there was something incredibly peaceful about laying in the grass, staring at the stars, and listening to the dingoes howling in the distance. Again the beers may have had a little part to play in that, and their effect soon led us into a few hours sleep. Ms Lust told me that she found the second night a lot warmer and had slept a lot better, so I’m glad that out efforts were not in vain!

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Kings Canyon was our last stop before heading back to Alice Springs, and I’m sorry to say that this is where my memory starts to get more and more patchy. Kings Canyon is part of Watarrka National Park, and has walls approximately 100 metres high which have been formed by Kings Creek. There are three walks that can be done here, and we were to complete the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. This is a three- to four-hour walk which combines paths along the top of the canyon walls with some leading into the canyon itself. The first part of the walk has been aptly named Heartbreak Hill (or Heart Attack Hill, depending on the source), a steep climb up to the top of the canyon wall. From here we walked along the canyon wall, being careful of the sheer drop into the canyon just metres away. The views from the top were spectacular, with some very interesting stopping points along the way. My personal favourite was Pride Rock, reminiscent of its namesake in The Lion King. Myles had even brought Simba along with us, so we took turns having our photos taken recreating the famous scene!

Further along, the path dropped back down to the bottom of the canyon, and an area called the Garden of Eden. It is easy to see how it got the name, it really is an oasis in an otherwise barren environment. Again it becomes clear why places such as this are so sacred to the local aboriginal people, not just for their beauty but also for the life-giving resources they provide. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and for us that was true just in reverse. So we made our way back up to the top of the canyon wall to complete the rest of the walk.

Weary and tired, we all clambered back into the bus for the final leg of our trip back to Alice Springs. After the long journey back it was nice to arrive at the hostel, but also sad to say goodbye to the friends I had made over the last few days. Luckily our tour also included meeting for dinner at a local pub, so we all met up once again before going our individual ways. We had a great evening sharing the plans for where our next travels would take us, but at the end of the night it really was time to say goodbye. As I said before, I still had another four days in Alice Springs and it was very nice to now have some people to spend that time with. Most of our tour companions were leaving almost immediately however, and it wasn’t too long before I was the last one left in town. But then my turn to leave also came, and I was honestly very doubtful that I would see any of my new found friends again. Fortunately I was wrong, and four years later I would be picking Ms Lust up from Christchurch Airport, another wonderful day that I will never forget (Sorry, I couldn’t finish without being soppy at least once!).

So that’s pretty much it, my story of an incredible three days in the remote outback of Australia which gave me the greatest gift ever. Before I sign off, I just want to say hello and a massive thank you to everyone I met on this tour, it really wouldn’t have been the same without you all. Special thanks also to Myles for being such a great guide, and most importantly to Ms Lust for putting her faith in the skinny English guy she met all that time ago in this magical place.

Happy travels 🙂

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

I have already told you that there are some places that have been in my dream holiday list since I was a kid, and more and more are added almost on a daily basis. In fact, I would like to visit every single place on the planet, so what makes some places more special than others? There are many reasons, it may be a book that made me dream of a city or a site, it can be a movie, sometimes a song, and even a comic book. In this case, it all started in 1992, with a story in Topolino, the Italian comic strip about Disney characters. In one of the episodes, Uncle Scrooge rents Uluṟu to win a competition with his rival John D. Rockerduck.

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This is the reason why, in 2011, when the plan to visit Australia started getting some shape, two things were listed as unmissable: Swimming with dolphins in the wild and visiting The Red Centre. If you are wondering why it is called The Red Centre, here you can see why. Australia is a country that has seen an extremely fast development and, as a consequence, a terribly fast deterioration of its natural resources. In response to this, in recent years, a lot has been done to repair as much as possible, and the companies that offer tours and activities are often very respectful of the environment and the well-being of the animals. But let’s go back to 2012, ten years after the reading that triggered the desire to visit Uluṟu. Soon after arriving in Adelaide in March, I found a job, but as I already had a return ticket to Europe for July, I decided not to extend my stay. I was going to leave this beautiful country after only six months there. I still had three months to make the most of it and I started planning the final tours. Adelaide is one of the most common starting points for those who go to The Red Centre, so it was not difficult to find something interesting. My eye was immediately caught by The Rock Tour, which seemed to offer everything I was looking for at a great price:

– Bus journey. I had already travelled by plane (Sydney-Melbourne) and by train (Melbourne-Adelaide), and I was only missing a bus journey with Greyhound to call it a full experience.

– Things that scare me. I am acrophobic and mysophobic, but I try overcoming these fears every time I can. Mountains, hiking, two nights camping in the desert. It was going to be the perfect test.

– All details covered. One booking for everything, the bus, the hostel before and after the tour, the swag, the sleeping bag, the food, all included and planned for me.

Check it out, you have several options for starting and finishing locations and you can also add a night in the underground mining town of Coober Pedy. I opted for a direct trip without stopping in the opal town and I am glad as I ended up with a horrible fever two days before leaving and fortunately I arrived in Alice Spring without any delays. I guess fate helped in this case and made me end up in the right place at the right moment to meet Mr Wander. I have to admit that the twenty hours in the bus helped me sleep off the fever and I arrived feeling a lot better. The hostel was quite nice, also because after that trip a nice shower and a clean bed are the best things in life.

The tours start early, at 5:30 a.m., and there are actually two groups that follow two opposite itineraries, either seeing Uluṟu first and then Kata Tjuṯa (that was mine) or vice versa. As I said, the bus picked us up quite early and was ready for everything. Myles, our guide, was the best we could hope for. Of all the good things, what I admired the most was his incredible respect for the place and the local people. As for the group, we were a colourful bunch of guys from a good mix of countries and we started immediately getting to know each other through a few games. Well, immediately… let’s say as soon as we started really waking up. Our first stop was in the last outpost before getting completely lost in the desert. We filled up and bought beers for the whole trip. Back then, I would not drink much, so it seemed easy to decide how many beers to buy for the next three days, but it was not. In that case, it is like going on a weekend trip: You still over pack just in case! Anyway, in perfect Australian vernacular, here are the toilets we found on our way, for sheilas and blokes.

The Rock Tour

A few tips to be shared that I learnt while on tour:

  • As we said, we went in June, which is the beginning of winter in Australia. It was a great choice because, although it is cold at night (it was 0⁰ C for us), during the day it is a pleasant 25⁰ and allows you to explore without suffering too much from the heat. Some hikes are tougher than others and require you to be fit, such as Heart Attack Hill in Kings Canyon. We climbed it at around 9 a.m. and the temperature was already reaching 20⁰.
  • Again, the nights are pretty cold, and you will be sleeping under the stars so some things are worth keeping in mind. You will have a swag, the Australian symbol of camping, a sleeping unit made of a mattress and canvas. The sleeping bag goes inside. Apparently, the secret is to sleep naked in the sleeping bag because the thermal material keeps the temperature released by your body, while clothes prevent this from happening. As I rented the sleeping bag for the tour, I preferred not to do that and I ended up freezing the first night, when the fire was 50 cm high and, therefore, far away from us. The second night was a lot better because the fire was on ground level and the earth underneath our swags was also warm.
  • It may seem obvious, but pack wisely: sunscreen and insect repellent, hat and sunglasses, wet wipes and wound wash, layers of clothes from t-shirts to fleece hoodies and a wind-breaker, trekking shoes. Bring a small bag for your belongings for the whole tour and a small backpack to carry water and essentials on the walks.
  • If you just bought them, use your trekking shoes before the tour, let them shape around your feet and let your feet get used to the sturdy material, you won’t want blisters.
  • Make sure you have enough charge on your devices and possibly a spare battery, you won’t have too much access to electricity but plenty of pictures to take.

There could be so many things to say about this tour and The Red Centre, but let’s see what I can show you through my eyes. Having lived in Adelaide for almost three months, I had time to get in touch with aboriginal culture before arriving to Uluṟu, but I investigated further just before taking the trip. The landowners of Uluṟu and the surrounding land are Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, or Aṉangu, and they ask visitors to respect their land and traditions. This means that they also ask visitors not to climb the rock. Uluṟu is their sacred mountain and they ask everyone to respect the cultural importance of the monolith. Climbing is not forbidden, but this must be seen from the point of view of Aṉangu to be understood. The lack of ban apparently comes from a lack of use of negative sentences in their language and culture; this does not mean that they are pleased with people doing it, just that they won’t directly say don’t do it. Respecting the local culture should be reason enough to make people stop climbing, but there is more. The climb is extremely challenging, we are talking about a rock that is steep, over 300 m high, and beaten by strong winds; the temperature can easily go over 40 degrees and the climb is dangerous. As Aṉangu people mourn and feel responsible for everything that happens on their land, accidents and fatalities are a heavy burden for them. Moreover, there are no facilities at the top, which means that some climbers have no respect and do their necessities when they arrive, then the rain washes it all down. It is disrespecting the site twice. Due to the extreme conditions, the climb can often be closed when it is too dangerous but the day we went it was open and I was really glad to see that we were surrounded by like-minded people and none of us wanted to climb anyway.

The walk around the base of Uluṟu is 9.4 km long and includes water holes, incredible geological formations, and caves with ancient graffiti. Some parts of the rock are not to be photographed because they are dedicated to gender-related rituals, so the opposite sex is not allowed to see them. As you can imagine, photographs would violate this taboo. In the same way, people’s name are not to be written because aboriginal people do not name someone who has passed away, but writing the name would invalidate this point as the name would be pronounced every time it were read.

The first night we watched the sunset over Uluṟu, and there are no words that can fully describe the sight. The monolith changes colour so many times until the sky actually becomes dark and it is a breathtaking view, only compared to sunrise the day after. We collected some firewood, prepared our dinner, and stayed around the fire for as long as we could before going to sleep. The second morning was another early rise as we had to catch Uluṟu before sunrise, another experience that has to be lived because it cannot be explained.

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This place is sacred to the owners of the land, but visitors can feel the magic and power as well. It may be special to me now because there I found my soul companion, but it has always been special, with an inexplicable feeling of divinity that simply comes from the earth and that permeates everything. During those three days the concept of time was a bit relative and it is hard to recall exactly what we visited before and after.

After leaving Uluṟu, we went to Kata Tjuṯa, the other rock formation that is part of the national park. We are not talking about a monolith as in the previous case, but of domes. The era in which both were formed is the same but the materials are different. The materials created by the erosion of mountain ranges ended up underwater and being compressed. In the case of Uluṟu, it was sand and that is why now we see a solid rock; Kata Tjuṯa, on the other side, was originally gravel and that is why it is now a conglomerate that just looks like a gigantic group of pebbles.

Mother Nature is usually a genius but she seems to have worked her best in Australia. The landscape is mind-blowing, the animals are unique, and the plants are able to survive impossible conditions. I had already learnt how some trees grow branches and leaves all over their trunks to use all their surface to breathe when they have been attacked by fire, but climbing to the Valley of the Winds we found a tree that had a black branch that seemed burnt and I learnt something even more incredible: In the desert, when a tree senses that there is not enough water to provide for its whole body, it just cuts a branch out from the supply in order to have enough for the rest. This part is not dead, the tree can resuscitate it when there is more water available. Animals are also amazing. We all know about marsupials, but reptiles are also perfect machines. Some of the Australian lizards are quite big in size but pretty slow, which makes them easy prey for any predator. Some of them, like the blue-tongued skink, drop their tail to fool the predator while they keep fleeing. The tail of the blue-tongued skink will grow back until they reach a certain age, but it is not nice when they lose it, which is why at reptile centres they ask you to handle them carefully and not to touch the tail.

Talking about reptile centres, plan your tour wisely. Alice Springs is not that big, as Mr Wander must have told you already, but there are a few interesting things to see. I was glad I had my plane to Cairns in the evening on the day after coming back from the tour, as it gave me time to visit the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, a place dedicated to indigenous reptiles and that also works as an educational centre and as a snake call centre for those who may need to remove snakes from their houses. There I had a chance to see many wonderful specimens, including the thorny dragon (see below). I first heard of this animal on the tour, as it was our guide’s favourite. This creature is able to drink from any part of its body so, if it needs to drink, it just needs to step into a puddle of water or drop its tail in it. Isn’t that amazing?

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A part of the tour that is blurry in my memory is Kings Canyon, I guess because it involved a lot of heights and precipices. Nonetheless, it was worth it, the views are stunning and some spots are pure heaven. Well, actually, one of them is called the Garden of Eden, so I am not exaggerating. None of us swam in this beautiful place, as it was the beginning of winter and the water was freezing, but we all took our pictures down at the lake and up the rock with the little lion cuddly toy in pure Lion King style. Even I did it, but standing far enough from the edge and unable to bend my knees even a tiny bit!

On our way back, we stopped to find witchetty grubs, a type of larvae that used to be part of the diet of Aboriginal people. I think we only found one that half of the group shared. We then headed to the camel farm, where we rode racing camels, and that is not a good idea, read more about that in comparison to my Egyptian experience in our previous post about the Red Sea.

Once back in Alice Springs, we separated for a while to get ready and then meet again in the pub for our farewell dinner. I was heading to the Great Barrier Reef the next day and Mr Wander was going to stay in Alice Springs a while longer. No worries, as you may guess, after lots of chatting we met again and we have many more trips to talk about in our future posts.

Ms Lust

 

WPC – Order

Dear readers,

As our regular readers will be aware, we like to include some of our own photography in our blog posts. So when I came across a weekly photo competition by The Daily Post, it seemed like a great opportunity to exhibit more of our shots.

This week’s topic is ‘Order’, very relevant during a general election week but we’ll leave the politics to the newspapers. In keeping with the spirit of our blog, all of the photos that we post for the competitions will have been taken on one of our trips together, whether locally or further afield.

As soon as I saw the topic for our first week, the image that immediately spring to mind was the columns at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. There are 142 columns on each side, which were placed in such a way so that they all appear to be perfectly aligned when viewed from a particular spot in the square. You can check out our post about our trip to Rome here for more details.

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After a little more thought, and with the current events in the UK playing on our minds, we then remembered a photo taken of the EU’s Berlaymont building in Brussels on our trip there in October last year (more details to come later in the year!). The façade of the building is a very utilitarian affair, constructed of a mass of identical looking offices made up of nothing but straight lines. Outside there are 28 flagpoles flying the EU flag to represent each member state, orderly standing evenly spaced in a row. We couldn’t think of anything that would represent ‘Order’ better than this, especially when considering the purpose of the building as well!

We hope you have enjoyed our first entry for the weekly photo competition, as there will be plenty more to come!

Mr Wander and Ms Lust

Egypt – Luxor

Dear readers,

We left you last time with a gap about what happened on Friday. Well, Friday was the day we booked for Luxor. Before we go back to our trip, a few notes in the interest of housekeeping: As I only did half of the visits, this time my post is exceptionally preceding Mr Wander’s, so I could give you some historical details before you enjoy his photos and his stories from the temple; also, there is a slight change in colours in Mr Wander’s post to create some contrast and hopefully make your reading easier.

Now, back to business! With our private car picking us up at 4 a.m., it was obviously going to be a hard day. Almost five and a half hours drive before we met our guide, and a lot of different sights, from the confusing roads in the middle of the desert with police check points from time to time, to the lively towns along the Nile and scenes that, with different outfits, seemed to be straight out of De Sica’s movies such as Pane, amore e fantasiaWe left the hotel when it was still dark and we drove along the coast for quite a while, with the sun that slowly rose on the sea creating beautiful strokes of orange and pink on the horizon. It is that kind of thing that you don’t even try to capture in a photo from a moving car, or maybe just we don’t. We chose not to, it was too early and we were too sleepy, we just wanted to take mental images because real pictures cannot be that beautiful.

We arrived to our last town before turning inland, El Quseir, to pick up our second driver, and we started our way into the desert. It is a lot of the same scenery and yet it is incredible, hypnotising, to see how empty it is. I don’t say quiet, New Zealand is quiet and you can drive for hours without seeing another car. Our road was surrounded by the emptiness of the Egyptian desert, but it was not quiet. Many buses were going towards Luxor, and trucks were going both ways. We started encountering several police check points and we almost got used to them. In the end, although we could not understand the conversation between the driver and the policemen, we started hearing the same words repeated and we got what they meant: a quick check of the papers and the confirmation that we were British.

Once we reached the Nile, the scenery changed completely, with little towns one after another. It was already past 9 a.m. and everywhere was extremely lively. As in all places that have such a hot weather and where the main activities are related to field work, life starts early in order to avoid the heat of midday. Egypt is not different, and this last part of the trip was a real window into day-to-day life in the country. With speed bumps every 200 m, the last 30 km took forever, and we had time to catch a glimpse of the little shops by the road and the colourful driving rules that are a mystery to us but that everyone seemed to respect by following a code of flashing lights.

We arrived to the city at about 10 a.m. and we had to find our guide. I was surprised because our drivers had no idea where they were going, but I got to see later that it was their first time there as well, and the guide ended up explaining many things about the ancient history and the monuments to them as well. We met the guide and we were immediately immersed in history and symbolism with all his explanations along the way. We were still on the east side, the City of the Living, and we were heading towards the west, the City of the Dead, where the sun sets literally and figuratively. Crossing the Nile by car, you can appreciate the surrounding fields mainly of banana trees. The presence of the Nile is the main reason behind the greatness of Ancient Egypt, but the dam now prevents the flooding that used to provide the soil with all the nutrients, and now the agricultural production is not enough for the population.

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When we arrived near the Valley of the Kings, we started seeing how things were different from what we were expecting. A big fan of Agatha Christie, Wilbur Smith, and more commercial Christian Jacq in my teenager years, and with my best friend who wrote a novel about Tutankhamun’s wife, Egypt has always fascinated me. I have always admired many aspects of the culture of Ancient Egypt and I had a very romantic image of the diggings and everything about them. It is quite different from that. Before entering the Valley, there is a stop to admire the Colossi of Memnon, two impressive sculptures that were made of one single block of stone (one cracked during a earthquake) and represent Amenhotep III. The name Colossi of Memnon,  was given later because of the sound that is sometimes heard coming from the statues at dawn. When the guide explained this, he was quite vague, so I had to look this up when we got back, and I found this page that gives a clear explanation. Driving further, leaving on a side the alabaster workshops, is the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. The most surprising thing about the Valley is that people are still living there, with their houses built on top of the pharaohs’ tombs and with little wish to move. Apparently, there is a relocation plan that hopes to move everyone to new houses in five to ten years but it is encountering a strong resistance by those who have always lived there and who feel that it is their home.

The entrance to the Valley feels like a long way to visit a mine, and the site is pretty much that, a huge mountain in which the ancient Egyptians have been digging their tombs and the archaeologists have been digging again to uncover them. Arriving to the site there is nothing to see, just slopes of stone and Carter’s house on the top of a hill. It is only after passing the gates and walking a short distance towards the entrance of the tombs that we were presented with a beautiful sight, a mountain the shape of a pyramid that may be the reason why they chose that location, which reminds of the actual pyramids in Giza, or so our guide said. Photography is not allowed in the Valley of the Kings, you are kindly asked to leave your cameras in the bus and not to take pictures with your smartphone either. It seems fair, those paintings have survived millennia and need to be preserved; also, the official photographer somehow needs to sell his photos+DVD. Again to preserve the paintings, the guides are not allowed to give explanations inside the burials in order to avoid excessive breathing and condensation, so they do it outside, using the same photos+DVD that, to be honest, are very cheap. Bear with me while we visit the three tombs included in our ticket and we see the beautiful paintings of Nut, the starry sky, the Book of the Dead, and the Pharaohs cartouches, all seasoned with a bit of history. The three tombs we visited were those of Ramses IV, Merenptah, and Ramses IX. We decided to skip Tutankhamun’s tomb, which is only £3 extra but apparently very disappointing, in our guide’s words. The child pharaoh didn’t have time to build a majestic tomb in his year of reign. Again in our guide’s words, the paintings are just sketches and the treasures are mainly in Cairo. What is sure is that Tutankhamun only reigned for a short period of about ten years and died when he was 19, suddenly, of what is probably a complication of a fracture worsened by his constant health problems, and that the burial was hurried, in a tomb originally built for someone else. His father was Amenhotep IV, also remembered as the heretical pharaoh, who abandoned the old gods to worship a single deity called Aten, changed his name to Akhenaten, and moved the capital to a new city called Akhetaten. Tutankhamun’s wife was his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (here you can see a picture of their statues taken by Mr Wander). At the beginning, he was called Tutankhaten (Living image of Aten) but changed his name to Tutankhamun (Living image of Amun) when he abandoned the cult of Aten to go back to the old deities. In the same way, his wife Ankhesenpaaten became Ankhesenamun. These changes meant that the short interlude in Akhetaten was also terminated and the capital moved back to Thebes. Due to Tutankhamun’s young age, it is possible that Ay, grand-father-in-law and Grand Vizier, was actually the one ruling the kingdom. Tutankhamun died without an heir and Ay married Ankhesenamun, becoming the next pharaoh.

Going back to Tutankhamun’s tomb, KV62, we have to say that this one is the only one ever discovered sealed and untouched. Worshipped as a god on Earth while still alive, that was not the reason: Thieves could not find the tomb because it was buried under the debris caused by the construction of KV9, the tomb shared by Ramses V and Ramses VI. Of course we should have visited it, but now, in the tolerable heat of a British spring, everything seems a lot different. Back then the heat was affecting us quite a lot, I am not sure I was making too much sense at that point and I definitely was not making any sense at all by the time we arrived to the restaurant two hours later. I found myself too unfit for Egyptian spring. Born in hot Mediterranean, I am now too used to British weather and I didn’t resist an afternoon in the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

Although it may seem obvious, I should maybe say that what we call Luxor is actually Thebes, capital of Ancient Egypt. During the First Intermediate period, Thebes was the capital of Upper Egypt while Lower Egypt had Herakleopolis. When the two kingdoms were reunited, Thebes became only capital. Probably, the best known time of Egyptian history is the New Kingdom (XVI-XI century BC), also the time in which the Valley of the Kings was used.

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Going back to what we visited, Ramses IV’s tomb (KV2) is a wonderful example for paintings. Beautifully preserved, they feature all the traditional images: The sun and the scarab, the starry sky, the curly snakes that would prevent a dirty soul to cross the river and achieve peace, and Nut, goddess of skies. It is said that the sun would travel over her starry body during the day, to be swallowed by her at sunset, then travel down her belly during the night to end up being born again every morning. Her image was often painted on the vault of tombs over the sarcophagus. There is an interesting virtual reality video here that shows you KV2 if you want to have a look.

Merenptah’s tomb (KV8) has a different structure. The corridor is extremely steep, with the first chamber half way down. This room was probably sealed and laced with traps to prevent grave robbers. Apparently, skeletons probably belonging to thieves have been found in the pit surrounding this chamber. Going further down, we reach the burial chamber and its four annexes. Paintings are more damaged in this case and there is not too much to see in the burial chamber, while the ones on the walls of the corridors are still pretty well preserved.

Ramses IX’s tomb (KV6) has a simple structure, if I may say so, compared to many others, a wide entrance, and beautiful paintings according to the tradition: Rituals, life of the king, litanies, the books, and so on. The colours are incredibly lively, as if painted recently, although often a lot darker than those found in the previous tombs, especially in the case of the starry sky and the painting of Nut in the burial chamber. You can appreciate them in this video.

After leaving the Valley of the Kings, we drove a short distance to the Valley of the Queens. What we visited here is basically only Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, an impressive building that is undergoing a huge restoration by Polish workers but that already gives an idea of the beauty of the original structure. The second female pharaoh in Egyptian history, Hatshepsut reigned for a long time and gave the kingdom stability and peace. Her temple is majestic, the structure that we can appreciate outside is just part of it. Badly destroyed, with a handful of columns still standing, it is now going back to its ancient glory thanks to the restoration process.

The country has limited funds and relies mainly on foreign countries and associations to finance the works needed to discover more tombs and to restore what time has damaged. Of the over 150 pharaohs buried there, only about 60 tombs have been found. According to our guide, the EU and Japan funded some of the works in the Valley of the Kings, while the UK donated machinery for the works needed in Karnak temple. An interesting project is the mapping of the Valley by the Theban Mapping Project, where you can also find technical information about each tomb as well. The codes I indicated for the tombs will help you find them in there, KV stands for Kings’ Valley while the number corresponds to the order in which the tombs have been uncovered. As I said, over half of the Valley has not been uncovered yet, and the projects aims to protect this treasure from natural and human destruction.

After leaving the valley, we were forced to take a little detour to an alabaster workshop with the most abusive, annoying salesman encountered to date (and in these ten days we had plenty to choose from!). Just before arriving to the restaurant, we did a quick stop at the Nefertari Papyrus Institute, where we had a demonstration of how papyrus sheets were made in ancient times and still are (although many souvenirs are instead just banana leaves that crumble very soon) The guy there was extremely friendly, which felt quite refreshing compared to the horrible experience at the alabaster workshop. We arrived to the restaurant shortly after and at this point I was completely dehydrated and sick, and I didn’t touch anything. I had to lie down on our boat trip on the Nile and I called it a day. I could not risk visiting Karnak Temple and feeling even worse. So I stayed at the visitors’ centre while Mr Wander and the guide went exploring.

I left Luxor with a bittersweet feeling for not visiting something that I dreamed of for so long, but it is always like that, even completing that visit we would have still missed Luxor Temple because one day is not enough. Nonetheless, it was an incredible experience and it left me with a desire to visit more, although maybe not that soon. When I heard about the cruise on the Nile down to Abu Simbel I had already decided that we had to go back in the future, so I left with a bit of sadness but knowing it is only a goodbye for now.

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

Following on from our last post about our trip to Egypt and the Red Sea, we now bring you the final piece of the puzzle – our day trip to Luxor. Barely into the day following our quad-biking tour, we awoke in the early hours and waited for our 4 a.m. pickup. Luxor is a considerable distance from Marsa Alam, taking approximately five hours to drive there, so the early start was necessary to give us enough time for exploring once we were there. The journey itself was fairly boring and uneventful, just a lot of desert broken up by a lot of checkpoints along the way. Once we got nearer to our destination, the road turned and run alongside a river which seemed too small to be the Nile. Now this part of the trip really did seem to go on forever. Every crossroads with a road coming from over the river, and they were incredibly frequent, was accompanied with speed bumps on both sides. Egyptian speed bumps really aren’t like anything I’d seen before, they are absolutely everywhere and more like speed mountains than bumps, so negotiating them requires a lot of care, time, and patience. Eventually we arrived in Luxor and, once our drivers had figured out where to go, we picked up our Egyptology guide and set off for the Valley of the Kings.

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Any of our regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for ancient architecture, especially if it’s particularly grand, and Luxor was the perfect place to indulge that side of my personality. Not only surrounding the city but within it as well, there are huge statues, obelisks, and temples everywhere. Bearing in mind that most of the statues and obelisks were carved from single pieces of stone, the craftsmanship and ingenuity of their creation is just as impressive as their enormity, if not more so. Our first stop was at the Colossi of Memnon, two huge statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that have been standing in the same spot for 3,400 years. Admittedly they are a little weathered and earthquake damaged, but hugely impressive nonetheless. The statues are 18 m tall and are estimated to weigh approximately 720 tonnes each, bare that in mind when considering that the blocks used to create them were transported overland from a quarry near present-day Cairo, a journey of around 420 miles. Mind boggling isn’t it! With my archaeologist appetite suitable whetted, we were back on the minibus and about to discover another equally impressive feat of Ancient Egyptian craftsmanship and construction.

After passing the home of Howard Carter during his discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, we entered the Valley of the Kings. Dug into a natural pyramid, over 60 tombs have been discovered although there are estimates of up to 150 tombs possibly having been created here. We were able to visit three of these tombs, after deciding not to take up the option to add on a visit to Tutankhamun’s tomb as well. We were advised by our guide that the tomb is small in comparison to the others we would see due to his short reign, and also that all of the treasures found within it have now been removed and are housed in museums. The tombs themselves are tunnels dug into the mountain, with numerous chambers along the way to the burial chamber where the sarcophagi were placed. Two of the tombs we visited still had the sarcophagus inside, although almost all of the tombs in the valley have been victims of grave robbers over the years. The things that really caught my attention in all of the tombs were the carvings and paintings that covered every inch of wall and ceiling, and how well they had been preserved. Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed in the Valley of the Kings, so you’ll have to go and visit yourself to see them!

It was beginning to get very hot, and our exertions exploring the valley were starting to take their toll. However there was plenty of places still to visit and no time to rest, so we made our way to the Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Hatshepsut. In a completely different style to the tombs we had seen just previously, this was a temple designed not only to house the dead but to worship them too. The temple is currently being excavated and reconstructed by a Polish team of archaeologists, who have been working at the site for over 50 years. As a result of all their hard work, the two lower levels are now near completion and work has started on the third, top level.

As soon as you disembark the small tourist train that brings you to the temple, the view is simply awe-inspiring. The temple is greatly impressive just on its own, even if it has not been fully reconstructed yet, and the backdrop of the mountain it was built in front of adds even more magnificence. Most of the statues in the grounds have yet to be excavated or replaced into their original positions, so the temple itself really is the main draw. The two huge ramps provide a focal point (and a decent workout on a hot day!), splitting the temple down the middle. As was most often the case we didn’t have a lot of time to linger at the temple, in hindsight a two-day trip may have been a better choice, but we were able to have a look around the upper level, which is still under reconstruction, and to admire the architecture of the two lower levels on our way up. As would be expected, the temple is full of an incredible array of statues, obelisks, and columns, many of which are in extremely good condition for their age. On the way back down the ramps our guide pointed out to us what looked like an Ancient Egyptian scrapyard just over to one side, a collection of statues and pieces of the temple that have been excavated but have not yet had their original location discovered or decided.

It was now time to leave the temple and, despite our guide’s best efforts, we made it through the obligatory market parade unscathed. He told us at the start of our tour not to talk to or even make eye contact with the market vendors, as we didn’t have time to get stuck negotiating with them or trying to get rid of them. There seemed to be different rules for particular vendors though, and our guide corralled us into a shop where we were forced to go through the usual motions of being offered almost every single item in the shop before being allowed to leave. This was annoying, that our guide had done the complete opposite to his advice just to get a few extra tourists into his friend’s shop, but what was to follow really made my blood boil.

On the way to the Valley of the Kings, our guide had shown us some of the local alabaster workshops as we drove past. Now on the way back, we were told that we would be visiting one of these workshops to see the traditional methods that are still being used today. After an awkward sideshow purely intended for tourists, with old men demonstrating various parts of the process on command like puppets, we were ushered into the shop for what would be the worst experience of the entire trip (including getting food poisoning!). The workshop employee quickly turned from a reasonably amicable, informative guide to the pushiest, rudest, and most aggressive salesman I’ve ever met. At this point, Ms Lust was starting to feel the effects of having been walking around for too long in the heat, and my main focus was making sure that she was ok. This was made especially difficult by our salesman friend constantly trying to drag me away to look at his wares, with absolutely no regard or compassion for the fact that she obviously wasn’t well. It soon became apparent that I was going to have to either get very rude and aggressive or cave in and buy something, otherwise we were never going to be allowed to leave! I was also starting to feel exhausted from the heat and was in no mood for a confrontation, so in the end I purchased a small item so that we could escape. Still not satisfied, the salesman still kept dragging me away from tending to Ms Lust to try and coerce me into tipping him, needless to say he remained empty-handed. Eventually, once he felt I was adequately angered and annoyed, we were allowed to go and we set off for our lunch appointment at a local restaurant, and I have to say that my excitement for the rest of the tour was really beginning to wane.

The lunch isn’t really worth writing about, a simple all-you-can-eat buffet with similar offerings to the resort, in a back-street restaurant overlooking the River Nile. Neither of us really felt like eating at this point but I forced myself to one plateful, a decision I was going to regret later that evening as I spent the next few days being incredibly unwell. We had been told that we would be taking a boat across the river to return to Luxor, and we could see the small jetty just at the end of the restaurant’s grounds. Soon we saw a boat ambitiously named Titanic and made jokes that it was probably for us knowing our luck, and as we finished lunch we found out that it was in fact waiting for us and the jokes started to seem a lot less funny! So, boarding the Titanic, we hoped and prayed for an uneventful crossing of the Nile, and that we wouldn’t end up like the many sunken boats that were visible on both banks. Crossing the Nile wasn’t as romantic as it had originally sounded, however it was a nice change from being driven around in the minibus. It was surprisingly quiet, I don’t remember seeing any other boats crossing nearby, and quite possibly the most relaxing part of the tour. Happily we made it across without incidence, and made our way back to our minibus for the journey to our last stop, Karnak Temple.

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Unfortunately by the time we got to Karnak Temple Ms Lust was really suffering with the heat, so it was decided that I would go for the guided tour while she stayed behind in the air-conditioned visitor centre. Karnak Temple is one of the largest ancient religious sites in the world, second only to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, so it’s really not the kind of place to explore if you’re not feeling 100%. Unfortunately this does mean that you’re going to have to rely solely on my memory for information here, so I will apologise for that now! Building at this site went on for approximately two millennia, with each pharaoh adding their own temples and monuments, and as a result the area covered by the temple site today is around 200 acres, depending on the source. This is split into many smaller temples dedicated to various gods and pharaohs, surrounding the great Hypostyle Hall. This is a 5000 m² room filled with 134 columns, all of which are completely covered in hieroglyphics carved into the stone. The most impressive of these are the 12 central columns, built to resemble the papyrus plant.

Before you even enter the temple itself, your way is paved with incredible statues and the larger monuments from inside the temple are already visible. The entrance way is lined with an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, leading up to the impressive, yet unfinished, first pylon. Each sphinx holds a miniature statue of Ramses II, who ordered their construction, and this is a good introduction to what awaits inside. Once there, everywhere you look there are statues of pharaohs and their wives or other family members. This even went as far as Ramses III building an elaborate temple, lined with statues of himself on both sides. Two fine examples of these are the statue of Ramses II and his daughter Bent’anta, and the statues of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun (see Ms Lust’s post for a photo of these ones). To be honest, I was just happy to have seen a likeness of Tutankhamun that isn’t his famous golden funerary mask.

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After exploring a couple of the temples here, we progressed through into the Hypostyle Hall. The largest, and most impressive, area of the whole temple, this room really does highlight their dedication and skills in constructing such an awe inspiring place. As I mentioned before there are 134 columns making up the hall, with huge blocks placed on top. These blocks weigh approximately 70 tons each and there is still speculation over how they managed to place them onto the columns. Areas where the carvings have been protected from sunlight have kept their original colour, although not as bright and impressive as the paintings in the tombs at the Valley of the Kings it is incredible nonetheless. We moved through the hall to an area behind where three great obelisks once stood. Unfortunately only the base of one of these remains, but the other two are still intact. For me, these were the most impressive monuments in the temple. The largest of these two was constructed for Queen Hatshepsut and still remains in excellent condition. Originally two obelisks were constructed (the other one has fallen with only the base still in situ, as mentioned above) and they were the tallest obelisks in the world at the time of their construction. Standing at over 28 metres and weighing over 340 tons, the one that remains intact is the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth. Carved out of one piece of stone and likely to have been quarried in Aswan, it is still a mystery how the ancient Egyptians would have transported and raised this huge monument.

As we made our way further through the temple, we came to the Sacred Lake. This is a man-made lake used by priests for ritual washing, and still remains in the same condition today as it would have been when it was first built. Daily sound and light shows take place in this section of the temple, in various languages to satisfy most visitors. This was the point at which we turned around and started to head back through the temple. One interesting fact that our guide explained on our way back was that after the Romans conquered Egypt, many of the temples were used as stables or barracks as a way of demeaning and eradicating ancient Egyptian religion and traditions. Karnak Temple was no exception, and there are sections of the temple where evidence of this is still apparent. Holes drilled into columns to be used for tying up horses and deep grooves carved into blocks as soldiers sharpened their blades, are all reminders of this disrespect.

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Walking back out of the temple, I was still in total awe of everything I saw. This place is so huge that it’s impossible to see it all in one go, so we have a perfect excuse for a follow-up visit so Ms Lust can also see it for herself. Our guide and I hurried through the obligatory marketplace (I think at this point he had realised how irritated we were getting) and I was reunited with Ms Lust, who I am glad to say was already feeling much better. As I said before, Karnak Temple was the last stop on our tour, so all that was left to do now, after driving around for what seemed like ages to find water and an ATM, was to make the long drive back to Marsa Alam. Again this was fairly uneventful, especially as there were not too many hours of daylight left. Arriving back at the resort, tired and incredibly weary, I think I was still trying to take it all in. With so much history and magnificent architecture all crammed into or around one city, it becomes easy to imagine what it may have been like when it was originally constructed but still so difficult to comprehend how it was achieved in the first place. So on these thoughts we drifted off to sleep, and that seems like the perfect place to leave you now as well.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

Egypt – Red Sea

Dear readers,

I really hope you enjoyed our last post, about our first trip together. On the anniversary of this wonderful event, not content with just a blog post about it, we also decided to celebrate it with a holiday. However this trip was planned to be a little longer and in a much warmer country, Egypt. So, as you may have guessed already, this following post is all about our most recent trip together, and our first explorations into the great continent of Africa.

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Due to Ms Lust coming to meet me in New Zealand at the end of autumn in the southern hemisphere, and our decision to return to the UK as summer was drawing to a close in the northern hemisphere, she had unfortunately been subjected to three winters in a row with no summer in between. Being Sardinian and more accustomed to climates at the warmer end of the spectrum, I’m sure you can imagine that this wasn’t much to her liking! As a result, I promised her a beach holiday as compensation and we decided that our first anniversary would be the opportune time for this trip. After a lot of deliberation we finally decided on visiting the Red Sea area of Egypt, and we were soon booked up and counting down the days to go.

When looking for accommodation on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, there really only seems to be the option of staying in one of the many all-inclusive resorts. This was a whole new world for both Ms Lust and myself, and my head soon became filled with expectations. Unfortunately, soon after arrival, it became apparent that these expectations may have been a bit too grand for the Royal Tulip Beach Resort. I don’t want to grumble about it too much, it was still a nice hotel and the room was excellent, it was just a little rougher around the edges than I expected a 5* resort to be. Like I said, the room was excellent with the only exception being a slightly leaky basin, and the staff were generally very good (except for the spa employees, who I shall come back to later). The food, an area where I was expecting to be very disappointed, was actually a little better than I was expecting, obviously not restaurant quality but probably about as good and as varied as mass catering can be. There were drinks available for almost all tastes (although the coffee was very poor) however the quality of these seemed to vary quite a lot. Some days the juice seemed to be watered down to almost nothing whilst the alcohol seemed to be almost too plentiful in the cocktails, on other days it could be the opposite, consistency really wasn’t their strong suit.

One area where I was both a bit disappointed and relieved at the same time, was with relation to the on-site entertainment. I was dreading being stuck having to watch, and join in with, countless cabaret acts akin to something from Butlin’s or children’s birthday parties. The reality was quite different, there were a couple of acts like this but in general the entertainment was lacking and there seemed to be very little to do in the evenings. A beach party was held one evening where for the ticket price (originally €5 each, but their unique exchange rate soon turned that into almost £6!) we were entitled to the same free drinks we already got in the resort, and to watch the animation team’s cringeworthy efforts to get people dancing. Needless to say, we didn’t stay for long.

I guess now is the best time for my biggest grumble of the holiday, and that is the sales techniques used by the vendors, not only in the resort, but almost everywhere we went. Everyone you see wants to sell you something, and they really don’t like to take no for an answer. It becomes very tiring and almost stressful, and you quickly learn to do everything you can to avoid and ignore them. I was fully expecting it to be like this in the touristy places like Luxor, where it also isn’t too difficult to avoid their advances, but I had really hoped that it wouldn’t be a similar scenario at the resort. I really couldn’t have been more wrong! Here you are almost a captive, and they use this fully to their advantage. Every day we had to spend at least an hour being constantly harassed by the barrage of salesmen prowling up and down the beach, trying to push us into buying massages, beauty treatments, tattoos, tours, and all manner of things from the resort shops. The only way to get rid of them in the end was to be very assertive and unapproachable, and even then they became angry and scowled at us as they left. This really wasn’t the way I expected to be treated as a guest at a 5* resort, and the sole reason why I would neither recommend nor go back to this resort ever again. But that’s my rant over, now let’s get back to the holiday!

Now that I have the ‘grumpy old man’ out of my system, it’s time to tell you all about the wonderful things we got to see and do during our time in Egypt. The first of these experiences, barely after having dumped our luggage in the room, was to get out and see what the Red Sea had to offer. Although we didn’t even really touch the surface on the first day, we were hooked already and snorkelling soon became our favourite activity while at the resort. The sea bed here is exceptionally shallow, going out for approximately one kilometre until you reach the reef and water deep enough to swim and snorkel in. The resort, along with all the other resorts along the coast it seems, have built a long jetty to make getting out to the reef a lot easier, which also provides a nice place for a pre- and post-swim stroll. As for the snorkelling itself, it really was incredible. Although not as colourful and varied as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the only other place I have ever been snorkelling, it is a lot more easily accessible which gave us more chances to see everything it had to offer. Personally, snorkelling makes me feel very claustrophobic and as a result I generally don’t like to venture too far away from my way in and out of the water. Ms Lust certainly doesn’t suffer from the same affliction, and she was able to venture much further and explore much more of the reef than I did. Despite this, I still saw an incredible quantity and variety of marine life and there was always something new to see every time we went.

As is my nature, as soon as we had booked our flights and accommodation I started to look into tours and activities that were available in the area. Ms Lust had already expressed her wish to go to Luxor and visit the Valley of the Kings, but I also found out that this area of the Red Sea was home to two of the best locations in the world for swimming with dolphins in the wild. Anyone that knows Ms Lust will know that she has a huge passion for dolphins, and, despite the fact that she had swum with them before in Australia, I knew this was something she would dearly love to do as well as being a whole new experience for myself. The two reefs are called Samadai Reef and Sataya Reef (I apologise for any spelling errors here, there seems to be so many variations out there that it’s impossible to know which is correct!), and we opted to book a trip to the latter as it was described as being the least overcrowded of the two.

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So after a few days relaxing on the beach and snorkelling the reef at the resort, it was time for the first of our early starts. Waking at the crack of dawn, we were picked up and taken on the 90-minute trip by minibus to Hamata Port, where would board our boat for the day, the Qulaan Hopper. A two-hour boat trip then followed to get us to the reef, where we then anchored the boat in the beautiful blue waters that you only find around tropical islands and reefs. We got our snorkelling equipment ready, and waited for the boat’s inflatable dinghy to take us out to the section of the reef where we would be allowed to swim. It was when we arrived there that it became apparent why it had been described as the least overcrowded rather than the quietest, there was nothing quiet about it. Reminiscent of a scene from Titanic, the water was full of people treading water, anxiously waiting their guide’s instructions for finding dolphins. The number of people allowed to visit the reef each day is controlled by permits, but I think they should review the number of permits that are being issued. This wasn’t the best scenario for helping with my snorkelling claustrophobia, but I tried to make the best of it and carried on. We had been told by our guide that the best chance of seeing the dolphins was to stay relatively still, and not to try and chase them and certainly not to try and touch them. Unfortunately as soon as dolphins were spotted, everyone seemed to forget these instructions and set about trying to swim after them and even diving down to get as close as possible. This was a bit unnerving to watch, as it did seem very intrusive towards the dolphins and wholly unnecessary. Who really thinks they would be able to swim as well as a dolphin and keep up with them anyway??

Despite this, it was a truly wonderful experience and one that won’t be forgotten easily. During our time in the water, we were told we would have one hour but it seemed to go a lot quicker than that, we saw a lot of pods coming past below us and many of these even came back around for a second pass. It really was incredible to see them in their natural habitat, although it would have been better if other swimmers had been more respectful of their environment. Being able to hear them underwater is also something very special to me, even if it does sound like they are laughing at the silly humans with their plastic breathing tubes and fake flippers! I first encountered this while snorkelling in Australia, and being able to hear whalesong in the distance while underwater. I have to be honest and say that hearing dolphins is a lot less scary, I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I had turned around and been confronted with a sperm whale in front of me!  

There was also another snorkelling opportunity included as part of the trip, at a different part of the reef. We both decided to opt out of this one, as I had had my fill of snorkelling for the day and it was also too soon after lunch. We didn’t feel like we were missing out though, as the reef at the resort was providing plenty of opportunities for snorkelling a similar environment. Added to that, it was obvious that the water here was quite shallow and there was a risk of damaging the reef, which one snorkeller did whilst also damaging themself. Again we were left a little concerned about the way the environment here was being managed and the impact that tourism was having on it.

In fear of my post becoming too long and wordy, I’m going to hand you over to Ms Lust now. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to finish my story later, but for now let Ms Lust enthrall you with her take on our Egyptian adventures.

Mr Wander 

***

Dear readers,

We are just back from ten days in the Red Sea, a holidays that was longed for like few before and for which we had great expectations. As usual in this case, it was a bit disappointing. We planned a lot and yet we arrived there feeling we were not ready for it at all. To begin with, from the internet and the people we contacted for booking activities, it seemed like all main currencies were accepted, but actually it is mainly euros; we thought the problem was that we had sterling pounds in a place where everyone was either Czech or Italian, but no, even if you have Egyptian pounds you struggle to get change in any place, which cannot be good for any economy.

As for the kind of holiday, I have to say that for a long time I dreamt of cruises and resort holidays as the best possible experiences. That was when I was a kid and I was influenced by silly TV series that made them sound like heaven on Earth. I slowly changed my mind, but I still wanted to give resorts a shot, especially because that is basically the only option if you want to go to the Red Sea. Some aspects of resort life are not too bad but some others really make me want to say never again.

When we first decided what to do, I said I wanted to go to the beach and do very little else. Not one who likes sunbathing and tanning, my only purpose was to swim while enjoying a nice temperature outside after almost five years without going to the beach and, yes, as Mr Wander said, three winters in a year. With shallow clear waters, a reef for some snorkelling at the end of the jetty, a bar on the beach, we didn’t care about the pool and we just saw it because it was in front of our patio and we stopped there once for a drink. I love swimming. I love water. It is my element, so much so that I am terribly clumsy and scared on land but I feel perfectly at ease in deep water. If faced with the choice between a pool and the sea, it’s a no-brainer, the natural environment will always win, maybe because I was born a couple of km away from the beach. I am not one of those who say that there is nothing as beautiful as Sardinian beaches, probably because I have seen other places, or maybe just because I am not that parochial. Whatever the reason, I liked the Red Sea, but let’s start with the bad sides of this experience and leave the best for the end.

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The Red Sea, or maybe Marsa Alam, doesn’t seem one of Britain’s favourite holiday destinations, so much so that no British flag was at the entrance of the hotel with all the others, and people really struggle speaking English or can’t be bothered when they can. They all speak Italian though, which felt strange at first and annoying after a while, with everyone ignoring the fact that Mr Wander doesn’t speak Italian and, although I don’t mind interpreting for him, I was not mentally ready for that on this holiday. This widespread Italian knowledge is, of course, due to a huge Italian presence, with all the bad sides that come with it, mainly the kind of treatment offered to tourists. Mr Wander and I are extremely independent when it comes to travelling and we don’t like the babysitting treatment that many people seek on holidays. For that reason, we were glad that the waiters were not oppressive in general apart from one or two exceptions. The same can be said for the animation team, my biggest fear, because I really thought they would drag us to all their random activities. They didn’t, they were very relaxed. As a result, though, the only two activities that we bothered taking part in were bland to say the least, especially the beach party. It was on the beach, but it was not a party, just people sitting on badly arranged chaises-longues.

Biggest no are all the people trying to sell you stuff, from beauty treatments to activities. I know it is their culture and I should be more open-minded and respectful of traditions, and that was what I tried to do in Luxor. Inside the resort, where everything is adapted to clients, and where some of activities (actually the interesting ones, such as diving and kitesurfing) are not forced onto you, some vendors were just unbearable. At some point, I really wanted to shout in their faces that my nails look like that because I don’t like them coloured and because I hate people touching my hand, let alone my feet; that massages are not more expensive in England; and that I don’t think it is a great idea to be covered in chocolate, coffee, camel milk, and honey to have a tan like the one of the promoters. I don’t even want to have that tan without all that sticky stuff, I usually use a foundation two tones lighter than my natural colour, that is how much I care about tan! To sum up, if I disliked lying on the beach before, being constantly annoyed by a queue of vendors that belonged to the resort definitely increased my dislike. The only exception was Aladino, the guy from the souvenir shop on the beach who makes coffee with cremina Italian style and doesn’t bother you to buy at all. Good marketing technique with us, we bought all our souvenirs there but one.

We left England with two day trips already booked, snorkelling and swimming with dolphins in the wild, and Luxor, but once there we added a quad trip to a Bedouin camp. Those activities, even with their downsides, were incredible. There is a lot to say about swimming with dolphins, and you can find plenty of material online on why you should not go to water parks, you can find plenty of videos on Youtube (such as this one) and must listen to Ric O’Barry and his battle against mammals in captivity (here is a link to his channel Dolphin Project). I already swam with dolphins in Melbourne with Polperro Dolphin Swims, but each experience is different. In Australia they are extremely aware of the animals’ welfare and we could only swim along the boat. It was a great experience, we learnt a lot and we didn’t feel like we were intruding in their home. That is very important. This time it was different. We went to Sataya Reef, which is not supposed to be crowded but it was. We were not told anything, what to do and what not to do in order to respect the dolphins. The result is that people go crazy when they see the animals, they don’t care who they have in front and if they hurt you on the way, they start following the dolphins, and try to touch them, all without our guides saying anything. It is open sea and the animals can go away as much as they want, and also they are playful animals who sometimes enjoy company, but I still felt like we were invading their space too much. I think in hindsight I feel sorry we went although the day out on the boat was very nice.

That was on Wednesday. On Thursday afternoon we went out with the quads, and I was the only one who didn’t want to drive her own and got on Mr Wander’s one. As I said, I am too clumsy in general, let alone on a bike in the desert. I must admit that my teenage years reading Clive Cussler didn’t help too much, although I know that the rocky desert around Marsa Alam is not exactly as tricky as the sandy dunes in Sahara. It was cool anyway, at least for me. As per Mr Wander, he’s used to driving me around by now! Tea, shisha, great food, and some dancing before heading back to the hotel. In between, a ride on camels that I was totally not keen on. Scared of camels and heights, it was not a good idea, especially because the previous time I did it I was in Australia and the animals were racing camels. Then, I promised that never again. I did it nonetheless, it was less traumatic but still scary, and I can’t help feeling like we are mistreating them when we ride them. Shame on me for doing it anyway! We got back to the hotel without rolling down a dune and having to build our own sailing boat (seriously, Cussler’s books traumatised me, let’s see what happens if I go to Japan!). As this was not planned, I had no clothes fit for it. Once again, in hindsight, I feel like a lot could have been done better and in a more respectful way.

Friday was the day we booked for Luxor, we will tell you more about that on a separate post that will follow this one. The remaining days were just for snorkelling and relaxing, as we were already tired even of the extremely alcoholic cocktails at the hotel. That is a funny feeling: When you pay for a  drink and it has more alcohol than expected, you are happy, but when it is all free and can have as many as you want, you just want a regular piña colada. Or a mojito. You actually want a mojito at first, but when you have a sip of the most horrible one ever made you quickly change your mind! After all, we were not there for the food and drinks, which were sort of average apart from few exceptions. For me, that was mainly one dessert that reminded me of what I used to eat as a kid and was called flan di latte. I didn’t taste it again until now. It was my Proustian moment and I was glad I could share my own madeleine feeling with Mr Wander.

As I said earlier, the water near the beach was very shallow and it was impossible to swim there, so the only option was to walk the short jetty up to the reef and enjoy not only deep water but also a lively environment full of colourful fish, purple harmless jellyfish, and random visits from turtles and dolphins. It was a wonderful experience, probably the best one because the most natural of all. With snorkels, action cameras, and t-shirts always on us, we were there every afternoon until sunset. My videos are of awful quality, not just because of my camera but also because I couldn’t bother too much recording still, I was there to see and enjoy and I often forgot I was recording. I forget a lot when I am in water, I even forgot I am scared of turtles. So much so that, when the staff shouted “Turtle!” from the jetty, I swam towards her without a second thought and I managed to take this video. Don’t they say that good things happen when you least expect them? Well, it must be true, because on Sunday afternoon, already tired of all those silly things, I left the snorkel and camera with Mr Wander, who was outside, and jumped in water just to enjoy swimming, no Dorys, no Gills, no blue clams, just me in water. Well, not just me, as dolphins started swimming around us. It was the perfect closing of the holidays on our special day and I think the perfect closing of this post as well!

Ms Lust

***

Welcome back!

Now where were we? Ah yes, out in the middle of the Red Sea… 

The boat journey back seemed to pass a lot quicker than on the way there, as we spent the time checking our recordings and taking advantage of a few more photo opportunities. Before we knew it, we were back on the road and on our way back to the resort. The following day we had another excursion booked, but thankfully this one wouldn’t require such an early start! We’d booked ourselves onto a ‘Quad Safari’ which would take us out into the desert for dinner with a Bedouin tribe. This trip was timed to coincide with sunset, so we didn’t set off until approximately 4pm and could spend the day relaxing on the beach and fitting in some more time on the reef. I can assure you that this was much needed after our early start the day before, especially as we had an even earlier wake-up call scheduled for the following day.

This was a self-drive tour, although Ms Lust took the option to share my quad-bike as she didn’t feel confident driving herself. This may have been a good decision, as you really did have to keep up with the person in front of you to not risk getting left behind, and there were a few tricky areas to navigate through. This was especially true for the return journey, which had the added difficulty of having to be made in darkness. So, after having scarves tied around our heads in the shemagh style to keep the sand out, we jumped on our chosen quad-bike and were ready to go. The journey to the Bedouin camp was really fun, about an hour’s drive with a few obstacles and bumps along the way. A brief stop halfway allowed us to get a few photos out in the desert, which was a lot more hilly and rocky than I had been expecting. We then arrived at the Bedouin camp, where we were treated to traditional Egyptian tea before being taken for some camel rides.

Now this was the part of the tour that Ms Lust had been dreading. We had both ridden camels before, and had our own ideas of what to expect. For Ms Lust, who already has a fear and deep mistrust of any large, hoofed animals, her memories of riding a racing camel in outback Australia were enough to put her off ever riding a camel again. My only memory of riding camels prior to this was that it is incredibly uncomfortable, and again I wasn’t too keen to revisit the experience! However, we were assured that these camels would be friendlier and we were coerced into giving camel riding another go. And as it turned out, they actually were friendlier and, thanks to them being led by a tribe member, the ride was more sedate and a lot less uncomfortable than I had remembered it. The moment when the camel sits down again to allow you to dismount is a little terrifying, luckily I was one of the last people to go so I had seen what to expect!

After this, we returned to the camp for more tea and a shisha while dinner was prepared. As this was a tour that had been organised by the resort, they had ensured methods were used to keep the food safe for European stomachs and there was no need to worry about how it had been prepared. And I have to be completely honest, the food was even better than what we had become used to at the resort. I suppose they had the added benefit of cooking for just 15-20 people rather than hundreds, but the food seemed a lot more flavoursome and enjoyable. Maybe I was just getting bored of the food options at the resort, nonetheless this was the best dinner I had during the entire holiday. After dinner, we stayed for a while longer for some dancing (I’m sure this has to be the only Bedouin camp with its own dance floor!) and then it was time to head back. As I said before, this journey had to be made in darkness which added another element to the experience. We took a more direct route back which would only take about 45 minutes, although it was certainly more interesting trying to find our way through the dust clouds of the quad-bikes in front of us. I’d also had to take my sunglasses off to be able to see as well as possible, and the dust blowing into my eyes sent memories flooding back of my time as a sugarcane farmer in Australia (this is a separate story all in itself, and one I’m sure that will be told soon). So, after a fun-filled evening, we arrived back at the resort and took an early night in preparation for the next day’s excursion to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.

We have decided to give our day trip to Luxor a post of its own, to be able to do it justice. So for now all I’ll say is it was an incredible place to visit, although in retrospect a bit too much to try and fit in just one day. We were exhausted by the time we got back to the resort!

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After Luxor we didn’t have any other trips planned, so the rest of the holiday was to be dedicated to more relaxing and snorkelling. Unfortunately I’d picked up a bit of a stomach bug in Luxor, so I stayed out of the water the next day. The following day, Sunday, turned out to be our last day out on the reef, as I became very sick that night and was bedridden for the rest of our stay. And what a day we ended on! As we got to the end of the jetty, the lifeguard told us that there were a few turtles that had been spotted recently. So, eager to try and see them for ourselves, we got into the water and headed in the direction he had given us. Again, my snorkelling skills leave much to be desired, and I ended up not venturing too far away from the jetty. Ms Lust on the other hand, was much more comfortable with swimming further out and eventually her efforts were rewarded. Contented she came back to the jetty, where I had been watching after becoming tired in the water. Not quite ready to head back, Ms Lust took the decision to go for a quick swim which turned out to be an excellent choice. A small pod of dolphins came by soon after, and I’m sure you can imagine what happened next! This was a real highlight for me, even though I wasn’t even in the water at the time. It felt like a perfect way to sign-off our time in the Red Sea, and left me with a real sense of gratitude for the chance to witness what a truly wonderful planet we live on.

So that’s about it for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our Egyptian travels. We really did have an amazing time, despite our criticisms, and I’m glad to share it with you all. Stay tuned for our next post, where we will spill all the details of our day in Luxor.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander