Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Time Filler Edition

I found myself in London with a couple of days to kill before I get on a plane and return to my real life.  Once again I had skilfully selected a hotel convenient to Paddington railway station since this is where the express to Heathrow leaves from.  The Pilgrm Hotel has a modest frontage on London Street which belies the lunatic rabbit warren of rooms and corridors beyond.  I was informed that breakfast would be served in the lounge.  For a while it looked like I wouldn’t find my room much less anything as rarefied as a lounge.

One advantage the Pilgrm had (apart from geography and a relaxed attitude to spelling its own name) was its shower.  Showers are something the British or at least British hotels don’t seem to do well but at the Pilgrm I gloried in a hot spray that came from a shower head instead of a lukewarm dribble that seemed to emanate from a repurposed garden hose.  This alone was worth the very real danger of getting lost on the way to your room and starving to death before a rescue party could reach you.

Freshly showered I wandered from Paddington down to Holland Park for little better reason than I had already planned to go there and like a lot of indecisive people I have difficulty changing my mind once it’s finally made up.  So to Holland Park I went strolling past Kensington Gardens in the general direction of Notting Hill and St John’s Wood.  Strangely I didn’t get lost on the way although I tried quite hard.

Holland Park has childcare facilities, an adventure playground, a cafe and a baby changing area although the signs were silent on what you could change your baby for.  Also a lot of the trees are fenced off to prevent them leaping out and frightening visitors.  I had an apple juice at the cafe as experience has taught me not to risk coffee at such establishments unless I’m utterly desperate.

Being disinclined to do any more walking I caught the tube back to my hotel and, giddy with my success at navigating London’s premier transport facility, I decided to do it again the next day.

This is the good thing about London, there are so many things to see that you can find them just by sticking pins in a map at random (the map does have to be of London though).  I did the modern equivalent of this by bringing up my immediate vicinity on google maps and looking for attractions.  On the spur of the moment I decided to visit Marble Arch and the Wallace Collection.  Marble Arch is as its name implies.  A large arch, presumably of marble which serves the purpose of preventing Hyde Park from leaking into the adjacent streets.

The Wallace Collection is a museum/art gallery containing paintings, armour and weapons from previous centuries.  For reference it’s just a block away from Asian Erotic Massage London and the Spanish Evangelical Church.  I shall leave it to your imagination as to which of these I spent most time in.

Anyway the Wallace Collection is housed in Hertford House, former home of the Marquesses of Hertford and later one Sir Richard Wallace (likely an illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess) who collectively built up the collection.  After Sir Richard’s death his widow bequeathed it to the nation probably seeing the loss of a gorgeous home in the middle of London as a small price to pay for not having to clean out all her late husband’s junk.

The Wallace Collection is free to enter so you know what that means.  Increasingly hysterical signs demanding “donations” met you at every turn.  Unfortunately I had given all my available cash to a woman earlier in the day in exchange for her not selling me a flower.  When I left the Collection I could feel the hate filled stares of the staff following me down the street.

The Collection itself is well worth the price of entry.  It may be the first time I laid eyes on porphyry which was interesting as I keep reading about it in histories of Byzantium but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before.  There was armour, there were weapons and paintings by people such as Rubens and Canaletto among others.  There was also porcelain and wildly over decorated furniture.  I spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around ignoring the strategic coughing of the staff and meaningful glances at the collection boxes.  

The first floor housed much of the artwork but was also home to a repeated banging noise which had no visible provenance.  The staff studiously ignored it and, fearful that they had bricked the last non donating visitor up in the walls, I made my escape while they mustered their forces.

Tomorrow I get on a plane to return to the land of my birth and officially declare my holiday over.  Which probably won’t stop me milking my experiences for a couple more blog entries.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Half an Otter Edition

So my choice of accommodation on Dartmoor turned out to be little short of inspired.  I stayed at The Tors pub in the village of Belstone which itself is on the moor.  The pub’s “beer garden” was literally just open space which led directly onto the moor.  The view was only improved when a bunch of Dartmoor ponies wandered up in the evening to hang out on the open space just past the pub.  The staff were very understanding and nobody asked them for ID.  Incidentally the ponies aren’t tame but they are habituated to humans.  What this means is they will let you get close to them then they will bite you.  Don’t get close to them.

Sadly I only had one full day in Belstone which conforms to pretty much every narrow streeted, stone housed stereotype you can imagine.  It’s charming, picturesque and at least on the surface tranquil.  They may have an entire “Real Housewives of Belstone” thing happening behind the scenes but if so they keep it well hidden from visitors.  Services consist of the pub, a tearoom and the village hall.  If you want anything else you need to shop further afield ie about two kilometres down the road.

Despite its almost aggressive quaintness Belstone was not my principal interest.  That would be Dartmoor itself.  Despite being a national park a decent chunk of Dartmoor is privately owned and the military also takes advantage of a lower than usual population density to undertake firearms practice on some of it.  Everybody seems reasonably relaxed about strangers wandering around photographing things however.  Even the military land is open to the public except when they’re actually conducting a live fire exercise and one suspects that’s more because the army doesn’t want to get sued rather than because they’re worried about random strangers catching bullets.

The land from the pub sloped down to a wooded river valley.  Despite the best efforts of Britain’s water companies the river managed to look crystal clear and inviting.  I padded across a brand new rustic looking bridge and began to climb the other side.  The trees rapidly vanished and soon the vegetation was scrubby with a significant amount of gorse.  The gorse was adorned with tufts of wool.  This wasn’t a fashion statement but testimony to the fact that sheep roamed the area.  Further testimony to this was the presence of sheep roaming the area.

I didn’t see an actual farm but sheep were in abundance.  Unlike the ponies they will get out of your way if you approach them.  As I climbed the scenery became more spectacular until finally by climbing up onto a stone wall (I guess there was a farm there somewhere) I was able to gaze out over a generous amount of rural Devon laid out before me.  From my vantage point I could see the farms I hadn’t noticed before and also rougher land leading upwards to a hill which glowered down on its surroundings as if it bore them a grudge.

I didn’t climb the hill, I would have liked to but by this stage of my holiday physical stamina was a dwindling resource to be carefully husbanded.  Or to put it another way I couldn’t be arsed.  The views even from my modest climb rewarded the lazy more than we deserved.  I tramped across the gorse (ouch) encountered streams, brilliant blue dragonflies and blue sheep although in the latter case this was the result of a sloppy paint job.  I presume it’s an identification technique, either that or the farmer has a kid who wants to be a hairdresser when they grow up.

I didn’t actually walk too far and my Dartmoor cup ranneth over.  The day was warm, the sun was bright so I returned to the river valley and then weaved my way through the ponies back to the pub where I sat in the sunshine and enjoyed half an Otter.

Otter is the name of a local ale.  When I ordered half a pint of it it was presented to me with the phrase “half an Otter” which made me hesitate slightly before drinking it.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Messing About in Boats Edition

From Bryher I had to make my way back to St Mary’s so I could catch a ferry to Penzance so I could catch a train to Plymouth so I could catch another train to Exeter St David’s so I could catch a train to Okehampton so I could catch a taxi to Belstone.  Fortunately I insisted on strict separation of transportation methods so all the sea travel happened on one day and all the rail the next.

There was time before my departure to stroll around the one hill on Bryher so far free from my attentions and have a cream tea at a (or possibly, the) local cafe.  A black dog wandered in, sat down next to me and stared until I shared my scones with her.  Just when I was afraid I had adopted a dog she decided she wouldn’t get any more food out of me and wandered off.

The boat which collected me from Bryher was the Firethorn.  It was significantly larger than the other boats I had seen or been on travelling between the islands.  This was apparent from the wincing care with which it approached the landing.  Obviously draft was an issue.  On the other hand it had an enclosed luggage storage area which is pretty fancy shit for an inter island boat.

Despite its size the Firethorn carried me efficiently from Bryher to St Mary’s where it was immediately dwarfed by the bulk of the Scillonian III which was waiting to take me (and a few hundred other people) to Penzance.  The Scillonian III is the imaginatively named ferry that trundles back and forth between Penzance and St Mary’s but not for much longer.  An excited notice on the wharf informed the world (or at least St Mary’s wharf) that a private funding arrangement had been reached and soon the Scillonian III would be replaced with a brand new ferry to be called (you guessed it), Scillonian IV.  Incidentally I don’t quite know what they mean by “private funding arrangement” I suspect they launched a GoFundMe campaign.

I said goodbye to my bag which was tossed into a shipping crate.  It did say Penzance on the side which reassured me we were heading in the same direction a reassurance that became more important when I realised I had left my passport in there.  I’m not saying I spent the entire sea crossing in a state of panic but I did hurl myself on my bag like a long lost relative when we were finally reunited.

The sea voyage itself was uneventful.  I ate a sausage roll and borrowed an elderly (ie about five years older than me) lady’s nail scissors to open the accompanying sauce packet.  From the number of sick bags provided it would appear that the crew were gearing up for wall to wall vomit but the weather was good and nausea was absent as the Scillonian III chugged through relatively calm seas.

The next day I hopped on a handsome eight carriage train that deposited me in Plymouth.  From there I got on a presentable five car train that took me to Exeter St David’s.  There after a bit of a pause I clambered onto a disheveled looking two car train that deposited me in Okehampton possibly just before falling to pieces.  Finally an obliging taxi driver took me to a pub in the small Dartmoor village of Belstone which was to be my home for the next couple of nights.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Bryher Edition

Bryher is another of the Scilly Isles.  It’s inhabited; a total of seventy four people proudly call the island home.  I decided to stay a night on Bryher mainly because I couldn’t resist accommodation called the Hell Bay Hotel.  As hotel picks go this was one of my best.  Given Bryher’s rather modest dimensions it’s virtually impossible to be anywhere and not have a great view.

The views from the hotel were particularly special however.  So of course the first thing I did once I hopped off the boat and flagged down a passing Land Rover to take me to the hotel was go for a walk in search of even better views.  As a lesson never to be satisfied with what you have even better views presented themselves for my delectation the moment I stepped away from the hotel.

Forget the small pond with a couple of resident swans and the heather and gorse covered hill directly across or the small group of handsome cattle grazing in a desperate attempt to prove Bryher’s economy is slightly more diversified than just catering to tourists.  Just past the hotel was rugged coastline, cliffs and seawater in an amazing variety of blues.  Waves crashed as waves tend to do when rocks get in their way and the occasional small boat plied the sea doing whatever it is small boats do.  Also present was a hulking liner called the Deutschland but I managed to avoid photographing it for the most part.

Bryher has Bronze Age burial grounds because of course it does.  All the evidence suggests that the Bronze Age population spent most of their time burying each other.  Speaking of burying there is also a small stone church of more recent origin.  I did a quick count of the grave markers in the church yard and can report that the dead comfortably outnumber the living on Bryher even before we take the Bronze Age corpses into account.

Across the water almost close enough to touch is the island of Tresco which is privately owned but open to visitors who want to come and admire the gardens.  I admired the gardens from a distance and didn’t have to pay anyone to do so.  At least I assume they were gardens, they could just have been random vegetation.

Having wandered across more than half the island in only slightly more time than it to to write this blog entry I headed down to the Fraggle Rock pub for a ham and mustard sandwich and a half pint of ale for lunch.  Have I gone native or what?  Not really as the poorly disguised look of contempt on the barman’s face when he heard I only wanted half a pint can attest.

Having fought off a bunch of pushy sparrows who thought the ham sandwich was for them I managed to escape the pub just before it resembled a scene from The Birds and headed into town.  Thirty seconds later I was heading out of town.  “Town” consists of a single street with a few houses bracketed by the Fraggle Rock and another food and drink establishment on the other side.  Somewhere in there is the Bryher shop; just the one.  It’s also the local post office and quite possibly a cottage hospital as well.

Escaping the bright lights of bustling, downtown Bryher I walked a couple of hundred metres up the road and found myself at the entrance to the hotel.  The lounge is sun drenched, the view is beautiful and I see no reason to do anything more for the rest of the day than wallow in comfort.

Right, that’s it.  Move along please, you’re blocking traffic.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Seal Edition

 With a triumphant circumnavigation of the island under my belt I gazed a little farther afield for the next day’s activity.  Actually I didn’t so much gaze farther afield as farther a sea.  If you actually want to look at something that isn’t on St Mary’s you have to get on a boat.  This is the only way of getting to most of the other islands.  Only St Mary’s and Tresco have airfields, to get anywhere else you need to catch a local boat.  The St Mary’s Boatsman’s Association posts details of what boats will be going where and the associated times on various notice boards around Hugh Town each morning.  I had my eye on a trip that would take me out around the Eastern Islands, the lure of seals was dangled as an incentive to leave dry land in a not particularly large boat.

Tickets were sold from a kiosk at the pier which was just large enough to cram a single person inside with the application of a certain level of cruelty.  I trotted along there at 9am to learn it didn’t open until 9.30.  I returned at 9.31 and joined a long queue of people clamouring for tickets.  The victim shoehorned into the kiosk sold me a ticket and gave me the name of the appropriate boat.  Where would it turn up?  Probably at the No 2 Steps unless the captain changes his mind.  Men, the undeniably female kiosk dweller informed me, tend to do that.

The legendary unreliability of men notwithstanding I found it easy to identify my boat.  I just looked for the smallest and least consequential looking vessel jostling for space at the wharf.  Yep, that was it.  It was proudly named Britannia and in defiance of the ticket sellers dark prognostications the captain brought it into the No 2 Steps.  The fact that there was already a boat tied up there (the unfortunately named Golden Spray) didn’t bother him at all.  My fellow passengers and I clambered over the Golden Spray and onto the Britannia.  The Britannia’s crew consisted of the captain, the bloke who sat next to him and a girl who appeared about fourteen who did all of the tying the boat up at various moorings work.  There were also two dogs.  One had its own facebook page the other didn’t.  I’m unaware as to whether this created any tension between them.

Detaching ourselves from the Golden Spray we headed out to sea or at least that bit of the sea surrounded by the Scilly Isles.  The journey allowed us to gawp at sea birds (helpfully identified by our captain) and beautiful outcrops of rocks and islands which collectively make one of the most visually appealing hazards to navigation I’ve ever seen.  Seals were the big draw but seabirds were also on some people’s agendas and cameras were plied vigorously as we cruised slowly past.  I did take a photo of a shag on a rock but apart from that I saved my powder for the seals.

Then we hit St Martin’s or at least we tied up alongside the island of St Martin’s long enough for those who were alighting there to get off.  Those of us who were getting more obsessed with seals by the minute dug our nails into the gunwhales and refused to move.  For the record St Martin’s seemed nice at first glance.  Leaving the island behind us we headed out to the Eastern Isles a collection of  rocks projecting from the sea.  Not projecting from the sea were a collection of ships from various periods in history that got a little close to said rocks and have found new homes on the seabed.

We cruised out past the Eastern Isles.

“There might be seals here,” announced the captain; there weren’t.  “But they’re far more likely to be on the other side which is more sheltered,” continued the captain recovering magnificently.  We puttered along the more sheltered side, the captain pointed out a seal.  The boat was in danger of swamping as we rushed to photograph it.  Then the captain pointed out another seal and another and another.  Finally he stopped announcing and allowed the seal covered rocks to speak for themselves.  There were seals draping themselves over every sea accessible piece of stone they could find.  In the water seal heads (presumably attached to seal bodies otherwise this blog has suddenly taken a dark turn) bobbed in the waves.

Have you ever noticed that a seal on a rock bears an uncanny resemblance to a giant leopard slug?  Thoughts such as these ran through my head as I burned through my camera’s battery taking photos of seals (or possibly wet rocks).  In my defence I would also take photos of giant leopard slugs although I might not hire a boat to go out and find them.

With Sealfest 2023 concluded the Britannia turned its nose for home.  Or rather it turned its nose back to St Martin’s to pick up people who wanted to get back to St Mary’s.  On arrival the captain announced that if anyone wanted to get off and take a look around there would be another boat along in an hour.  I decided I did and bade the Britannia farewell.

St Martin’s has not one but two moorings for boats.  On our way out we had stopped at High Town but due to the dropping tide had pulled in at Low Town on the way back.  With the attractions of Low Town being confined to a resort I wasn’t a guest at I strolled up what appeared to be a footpath but was actually the island’s main road.

There were farms left and right with the occasional cow but the principal crop was flowers.  Until tourism took off in the fifties flower exports were the Scillies main source of revenue.  Given the profusion of wildflowers it’s a little difficult to tell whether the locals farm the flowers or just build walls around ones that were already there.  Which leads me to another drawcard for the Scillies.  Bumblebees!  They have got to be the world’s cutest insect and the Scillies are crawling with them.  I made my way to High Town which is the urban centre on St Martin’s (it has a church and a cafe) and enjoyed a Cornish tea with views over tiny little fields covered in flowers and an island studded sea beyond.

What with the lingering I was late getting back for the two o’clock boat but that didn’t matter because the boat was late coming.  We eyed each other up and mutually agreed not to mention it again.  The boat was the Golden Spray of course.  So I spent the last bit of my day out sitting in a Golden Spray.  Normally I have to pay extra for that.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Getting a Little Scilly Edition

 My hotel was in bustling downtown Hugh Town the largest settlement on the largest island of the Scilly Isles.  It is small, very small.  There are a couple of good reasons for that.  Firstly of course the Scillies aren’t exactly swarming with inhabitants and secondly “largest island of the Scilly Isles” doesn’t mean it’s particularly large.  What that means is that you can live on the most “remote” farm on the island and still only be a five minute drive from the centre of “town”.

The result is that Hugh Town is a collection of of shops, pubs and holiday lets.  No doubt some locals live there too but there isn’t a specific need.  It isn’t like they have much of a commute.  The town itself was familiar to me from my time on St Pierre.  A small collection of closely packed stone buildings without too much in the way of external adornment.  Narrow streets wind around enabling you to get lost in a town you can walk across in literally ten minutes.

Hugh Town is all about the harbour.  The best quality harbour was selected and the town was jammed onto any convenient land nearby.  The fact that there was a hill you can build a castle on probably helped the town planners make up their minds.  Now an expensive hotel I couldn’t book a room in sits there instead.  Well I say instead it’s the same building it’s just been repurposed.

My first full day on St Mary’s (aforementioned largest island etc) was a Sunday and I assumed, correctly, that there wouldn’t be much in the way of tourist pandering going on.  I considered going for a walk.  Then a shop woman told me that a cruise ship with seven hundred passengers was arriving today.  I was definitely going for a walk.

I set out without any particular destination in mind but walking along the coast.  This is the useful thing about islands.  If you stick to the coast and keep the sea on the same side all the way you will eventually return to your starting point.  This is useful for the geographically challenged such as myself although it’s a little less practical if the island is Australia.

The day was pleasant without being hot and I strolled roughly along the coast or at least at the top of the cliff next to the sea.  I think it still counts as coast even if the water is a couple of hundred feet straight down.  My immediate destination was Old Town, St Mary’s second city.  About half an hour’s walk from Hugh Town it consists of a handful of houses, a cafe, a beach and (for some reason) a Thai restaurant.  The restaurant was closed but the cafe was open, just and I paused for refreshment while I considered my options.

A little guide I had bought told me that the island was only about nine miles in circumference which seemed doable so I set out to return to Hugh Town via the rest of the island.

The Scillies aren’t exactly wilderness, they have been inhabited since the Bronze Age.  At least there are burial mounds dating from that time which implies people lived there since the Scillies are a long way to cart a corpse.  Most of St Mary’s is farmland with the exception of the rocky bit around the coast.  And of course the High Moor.

I found my way to the High Moor after negotiating my way around the airport (I guided myself by the “keep out” signs).  The High Moor is home to the only patch of open fresh water of any size on the island.  Given the dimensions of the island “of any size” still doesn’t mean particularly large.  It is apparently a haven for bird life and there is a walkway (so our shoes don’t bruise the moor) and a couple of hides that you can sneak into and gaze across a not particularly large patch of water and reeds to see the frenetic mass of bird life competing for pond space.  I walked along the walkway and popped into a hide.  There was precisely one bird on the water, as I watched it left.  I hovered for a little but nothing else avian came to take its place.

So I walked across the moor, transit time about ten minutes and realised I had completely lost sight of the sea and had no idea where I was.  Fortunately there was a road so I followed it until I found a sign directing me to a Bronze Age burial mound.  Apparently the Bronze Age dead liked to have a view and as the burial mound came into view so did the sea.  Bearings restored I continued on my way.

At some point I had come to the decision that I would walk around the island a decision assisted by the fact that I now had very little choice unless I wanted to slink back the way I came.  On I went, a beautiful sea on my right, flower farms on my left and a very narrow footpath under my feet.  I came round a headland and found the damn cruise ship I had been trying to avoid sitting smugly in a bay waiting for me.  Fortunately there was no sign of the threatened seven hundred passengers.  What there was was a sign directing me to a tea house apparently sitting alone in the middle of the island.  I popped in there for a cheddar and onion toasted sandwich.  On balance it was probably a good thing that no one was sharing my bed tonight.

Replete with cheese and onion I continued on my way.  Eventually Hugh Town appeared in front of me and I went into a small orgy of self congratulation at my achievement.  Then I realised that there was still a lot of wiggly coastline between myself and my destination.  Onward I plunged but with the final destination firmly in view.  Having traversed the High Moor it was only appropriate that I also cross the Low Moor (I thought it was a duck pond) and eventually wound up back in Hugh Town tired but triumphant.

Along the way I saw a large number of red tailed kites or as I called them, birds.  I only know they were red tailed kites because I overheard a conversation in the cafe in Old Town waxing lyrical about the red tailed kites.  Up until then I had assumed they were high flying gulls.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - En Route Edition

Having skilfully contrived to have a hotel next door to Paddington railway station I was in good shape to catch my train to Penzance.  In fact I was in such good shape that I was able to spend a part of the morning wandering around a strip of canal embellished parkland near the station.  There was water, there were ducks and narrow boats some of which served as cafes.  I wandered down the canal as far as an area called (I presume with a healthy dose of irony) Little Venice.  It appeared to be closed.

Canal experience completed I returned to Paddington and waited patiently to be allowed onto my train.  I was early and managed to get on, find my seat and secure my place.  This turned out to be very wise as it rapidly became obvious that there were significant problems brewing.  More people piled into the carriage, yet more people attempted entry loudly proclaiming their possession of a first class ticket and demanding the location of their seats.

That was when the train staff announced that the booking system had collapsed and it was effectively every person for themselves.  Much screaming and wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.  I gripped my seat harder and waited for the train staff to toss barbecue forks into the seething mass to speed the resolution.

With an accompaniment of mass swearing, hysterical weeping and screaming by children the train, oblivious to the human drama on board slid out of Paddington and headed southwest.  The train manager made the first of a series of announcements apologising for the screw up and also apologising for the fact that the train was so crowded that the snack trolleys couldn’t get through the crowd but maybe they could do so later once some people had got off.  Almost simultaneously with this announcement I overheard a conversation between two of the staff as to where they would put the two wheelchair bound passengers they were expecting at the next stop.

At the next stop the crowding got worse not better and the general mood wasn’t improved when a wheelchair was somehow wedged into the mass of humanity.  What happened to the associated passenger I don’t know, possibly they tied him to the roof of the train.  This set the tone for the remainder of the trip although once we got past Plymouth people started thinning out and they were able to get the trolleys through to serve the couple of dozen passengers they had left.  I asked for a muffin and got one that was carrot and sultana flavoured.  

What really amused me was that at each station the automatic announcement finished by stating “this is a Great Western Train” a claim that was no more than two thirds correct.

Finally the train arrived at Penzance where the few remaining passengers (and quite possibly the staff) fled shrieking into the gathering darkness.  Fortunately I didn’t have far to flee as my hotel was just across the road from the station (that part of my organisation worked well).

Penzance appeared to be closed except for a bookshop that informed me it was just about to close when I walked in.  I wasn’t too disappointed as Penzance was merely a pit stop.  The next day I took a taxi to the heliport for a rather expensive flight to St Mary’s, largest of the Scilly Isles.  The helicopter company had less than impressed me by sending me an email several weeks after I had booked (and while I was hobbling around Morocco) informing me of their baggage restrictions which it became obvious would exclude both my bag and my day pack.  I managed to buy an acceptable bag in Gibraltar and dumped anything that wouldn’t fit into it along with my bags at left luggage at Paddington.  The dubious gaze I received from the man behind the counter makes me almost certain that my stuff will be destroyed in a controlled explosion shortly after I left.

Bag requirements belatedly complied with I and five other people were bundled onto a smart black and orange helicopter (they’re disguised as bumblebees) and we were transported swiftly and efficiently to the Scilly Isles.  We passed over Cornwall on the way.  It looks quite appealing from the air.

St Mary’s airport isn’t exactly large.  In fact St Mary’s airport is exactly small.  Fortunately we were the only aircraft present so we managed to get through in a hurry and a convenient shuttle bus dropped me at my hotel.  My hotel is full of birdwatchers, average age about three hundred.  There’s an ambulance parked out the back, I’m amazed it isn’t a coroners van.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Hopefully - Inadvertently Spanish Edition

 The taxi dropped me at Gibraltar airport in plenty of time.  It was cool and overcast but generally pleasant.  By the time I checked in my bag it was pissing down rain, thunder rumbled overhead and visibility had reduced to the point that the Rock was barely visible.  For context the Rock is literally across the runway from the departure lounge.  At that point I knew I was not going to be flying out of Gibraltar that day.  It did however take some time for BA to acknowledge the obvious.  The penny finally dropped when the plane I was supposed to be catching couldn’t actually land at Gibraltar and had to be diverted to Malaga.

Without a plane to herd people onto the staff seemed a little lost.  Eventually someone remembered that the plane was at Malaga no doubt racking up the landing charges for every second it was on the ground.  Inspiration!  Buses would be procured and the hapless passengers shipped north into Spain for a belated encounter with the aircraft still patiently waiting to take somebody, anybody to London.

First we had to retrieve our luggage and carry same through the rain to Spain which was fortunately only a five minute walk away.  Once through passport control we could find our Spanish buses, drive the hundred or so kilometres to Malaga, recheck our luggage, go through security again, go through another version of passport control and finally mount our metal pegasus for the journey to London.  The BA staff at Gibraltar gave us a nose bag with some crisps, a bottle of water and a Boost bar to ward off unfortunate headlines about passengers starving to death on buses and waved us goodbye with every sign of relief.

My flight had been due to leave Gibraltar just after 3pm.  It was after five when somewhat damp and with a totally unexpected stamp in my passport I settled down amidst a crowd of my peers and lunged into Spain.  This part of Spain actually reminded me quite a bit of Australia only more Spanish.  It was a little difficult to see much what with the rain, mist and a recalcitrant fellow passenger who point blank refused to let me sit in his lap to take photos or look out the window.

We went through many tunnels and past so many toll stations that I got nostalgic for Sydney and always we headed north deeper and deeper into Spain.  I saw a sign that informed me that I only had 1033 kms before I reached Barcelona.  The Spanish certainly believe in early warning.  It was a while before I saw any signs that mentioned Malaga.  I’m assuming the bus drivers just aim at Barcelona and look out for signposts on the way.

Our flight was supposed to be leaving at 8pm a time fast approaching.  In a controlled panic I hurled my luggage at the check in staff and dashed for the exit.  When I was nearly at the exit I stopped and turned around as I was actually looking for Security Control but had misread the sign.  Despite these little dramas I made it to the gate where another bus drove us out into the far outskirts of the airport (we may actually have been back in Gibraltar).  Finally we boarded the plane and a smooth voiced individual welcomed us on board, apologised for the delay and announced we would be leaving soon.  He also told us smoking, including e-cigarettes was forbidden even in the toilets.  He must have thought we were deaf because he repeated the bit about not smoking another half a dozen times over the next forty minutes while our plane sat on the tarmac and stubbornly refused to move.

Finally another bus turned up and disgorged two more passengers.  This was the cue for the steward to welcome us onboard again and promise that we would really truly be leaving soon and of course that smoking, including e-cigarettes was forbidden even in the toilets.  Then we waited another forty minutes or so until another bus appeared and deposited a single passenger next to our plane.  They must have hitchhiked from Gibraltar. This time we really were leaving and the pilot announced as much and promised to get us to London in double quick time (too late).  A safety briefing was held the highlight of which was the warning that smoking, including e-cigarettes was forbidden even in the toilets.  I swear the steward is going to incorporate that phrase into his wedding vows.

Sometime later we finally arrived at Heathrow, the captain apologised for the headwinds which had delayed us.  We didn’t care, we grabbed our bags and charged for the exits, which remained stubbornly closed.  Apparently all of the ground staff had left for the night and we had to wait while they were dragged from their sleeping pens and herded back to the airport to release us from our metal prison.

Eventually we were set free and were able to depart the airport with the airline’s final farewell message ringing in our ears.

“Smoking, including e-cigarettes is forbidden even in the toilets.”

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Can You Smell What the Rock is Cooking Edition

OK so not only is that a bad joke but it also dates me horribly.  Nevertheless I’m sticking with it as I might never get another chance.  Gibraltar is after all a rock, a massive limestone extrusion sticking out from Spain into the Mediterranean.  Clustered around the edge of the rock is a very thin bit of flattish coastline which is the location of the port and the bulk of the buildings.  The rock looms over all, there is virtually nowhere where you can’t see it if you look up.  In fact the only place you can’t see it when you look up is if you’re standing on top of it, then you see it if you’re looking down.

The British captured the Rock from the Spanish during the War of the Spanish Succession.  This was in the early 1700s when rulership of Spain was something worth going to war over.  In the subsequent Treaty of Utrecht Spain ceded sovereignty over the Rock to Britain in perpetuity (none of this 99 year lease crap) which didn’t stop them trying to recapture it later in the century after the British had spent a lot of blood and treasure trying to hold on to its American colonies.  The Great Siege lasted for several years but finally the Spanish gave up and Gibraltar remains British to this day despite a lot of snide comments from Spain.

Nowadays the Rock is famous for being a place where you can get your pocket picked by a monkey.  Eager for a brush with animal larceny I set off early the next day.  A cable car offers a viable alternative to climbing the Rock (other viable alternatives are suicide and developing a serious drug habit).  

Having spent a lot of the last few weeks wandering through small crowded towns Gibraltar was quite familiar to me albeit with a British touch.  The walk from my hotel at the edge of the territory to the centre of town took about five minutes and the cable car was only another five minutes or so further.  Pubs and places selling “traditional” British fish and chips abounded.  Basically the Gibraltans went from servicing the crews of Royal Navy vessels to British tourists without having to do much in the way of transition.

As with all such places I find it difficult to believe that people actually live here but later in the day I would walk past genuine dwellings for, no doubt, genuine people.  For right now I bought a return ticket for the cable car and tossed in access to the Rock Nature Reserve (ie those bits too vertiginous to build on) but before I could hop on the cable car I got distracted by Gibraltar’s modest botanical gardens, the Alameda Gardens which were right next door.

I spent a happy hour wandering through the garden and dropped in on the mini zoo tucked into one corner.  Given the size of Gibraltar, the gardens and the zoo itself small animals are pretty much the norm here.  There are few places on Gibraltar where you could put an elephant where bits of it wouldn’t dangle over the side.  The conservation park (as it calls itself) sources its animals from illegal pet seizures at customs and various breeding programs it’s involved in with other zoos.

I saw little monkeys (breeding program) a decent sized python (abandoned pet) a bunch of exotic birds (including a cockatoo) and an otter (provenance unknown).  A sign promised that the turtle habitat was coming soon.  I looked at the time and decided I probably couldn’t afford to wait.  Surfeited on semi exotic animals I presented myself to the cable car and demanded to be taken to the top of the Rock.

Locked in a small metal cage with a number of like minded other human beings I took the journey to the top, some four hundred odd metres above the ground I had previously been standing on.  I stepped out and was immediately offered the choice of viewing platforms or a walk through the reserve.  I took option A and gazed out over the city, the Mediterranean and Spain depending on what direction I was pointed.  I had hoped to be able to take a photo or two of the macaques actually I found the major difficulty was getting the camera hogging bastards to get out of the way long enough to take a photo of anything else.

Once my taste for scenic shots had been sated I set off through the nature reserve.  At the top of the Rock there isn’t a lot of space and views from all directions were breathtaking.  It was also possible to see exactly how small the flat, inhabited part of Gibraltar is.  I could see land reclamation activities going on in the harbour so a little more space will soon be available but even so once you subtract the Rock and the port there isn’t a lot left.

Despite being a nature reserve there is little natural about the vegetation on the Rock.  All the trees were cut down long ago to provide fields of fire for the garrison and the current scrubby bush is due to a security fence built in the 1800s that prevented shepherds from herding their flocks up there to graze.  Still whatever the reason the top of the Rock is pleasantly green and is apparently a haven for butterflies according to signs dotted about the place.

The signs were somewhat less forthcoming when it came to giving directions.  Nevertheless I toiled along until I came to O’Hara’s Battery.  Or rather I came to a locked gate with a sign sorrowfully announcing that O’Hara’s Battery was currently closed.  Somewhat miffed I climbed a little higher and came to another locked gate with a sign announcing that the Ministry of Defence would be very happy if I went no further.  Guard dogs were mentioned.  I retraced my steps and headed for the northern end of the Rock where the Great Siege Tunnels were located.

The day was hot and I was panting somewhat.  Foolishly I had packed nothing except a camera and a stuffed camel.  The truth is that I didn’t realise exactly how much space the Rock occupied or how much distance there could be between points of interest.  The constant up and down I should at least have guessed at.

On my way to the siege tunnels I found a small tunnel all on its own.  More out of a desire for shade than anything else I followed it and emerged on the other side of the rock with a small ledge giving amazing views of the eastern shore of Gibraltar a disturbing distance below us.  I say “us” because the ledge was already occupied by a young American couple who promptly recruited me to take a photo of them.  Since they were there I got them to return the favour before returning through the tunnel to the western side of the Rock.

Despite the up and down the prevailing trend was down.  The siege tunnels were on the north face of the Rock facing the Spanish border, unsurprisingly since it was the Spanish (with some French help) who were conducting the siege.  The tunnels were dug to boost the defences of the Rock with cannon positions dotted in carved out rooms along the way.

Having finally reached the runnels I wandered through them and gazed out of the holes carved for the cannon.  Once glance was enough to convince me of the military importance of the tunnels.  The gun positions were located so that cannon fire could be brought down onto the airport runway.  No duty free shop would have been safe.  No wonder the Spanish eventually gave up.

After the tunnels I was so far down the Rock that climbing all the way back up simply to take the cable car down again seemed less appealing than just continuing my downward journey.  Besides according to the less than satisfactory map I had been provided there should be a Moorish castle a little further along.

Some more hot and sweaty trudging later I encountered the “castle” still bearing the marks of Spanish artillery from the aforementioned great siege.  As castles go it wasn’t terribly large.  I guess when it comes to castle building less is Moor.

The town was just below and after climbing down more steps than I care to imagine I found myself on the main street imaginatively named Main Street.  There were only two more things I wanted to do in Gibraltar, buy a local football shirt and a soft bag for helicopter related reasons which will become clearer in a future post.  I got the bag and the man I bought it from pointed me in the right direction to buy the shirt.  Flushed with success I promised to reward myself by spending the next day reclining in the sun sipping cocktails by the pool at my ship/hotel.

The next day it was grey and chilly with a spattering of rain.  Of course it was.

Travelling Hopefully - Unexpected Plague Edition

 Our last day in Morocco was greeted with the news that one of our number had contracted Covid.  Some hasty testing increased that number to two.  Tearful farewell embraces were abruptly replaced with vague expressions of good will shouted at each other from opposite ends of the largest rooms we could find.  The hotel staff got quite annoyed when I lit a purification fire in the lobby but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it in the long run.

One by one those of us who could feign good health slunk off towards the airport or other means of egress from the country.  My own flight wasn’t due to leave until late afternoon but a warning from an early leaver that the airport was crowded prompted me to bring my departure forward.

As it turned out when I arrived at the airport in the early afternoon I was pretty much the only person there.  The security guards intercepted me not because I was being suspicious but because they had nobody else to talk to.  After some polite chit chat I was graciously permitted to check in.  Which is when I discovered my flight had been delayed by fifty minutes.  This was a concern as I had a connecting flight in Lisbon only about an hour or so later.

I needn’t have worried.  TAP Air Portugal put me down on the runway at Lisbon with fifteen minutes to spare and then the plane taxied so far away from the building I suspect we were halfway back to Marrakech.  Despite this and a slight security glitch I managed to hurl myself onto my connecting flight about thirty seconds before they locked the doors in my face.

I spent the entire flight in a state of mild panic about my luggage.  Surely they hadn’t had time to transfer that from one plane to another.  It turns out they had and by 10.30 in the evening I was standing outside Heathrow wondering why it was so cold.  After a couple of false starts I found my hotel and settled in for a few hours sleep.  The next day I would fly to Gibraltar.

Or would I?  While sitting at the departure gate waiting for my aircraft to be rubbed down and readied for service an announcement came that there was the possibility that the plane wouldn’t be going to Gibraltar at all.  Gibraltar airport isn’t exactly huge and if the wind was problematic then we would divert to Malaga instead.  I hastily googled Malaga to find out where the hell that was.  It seemed to be a discouraging distance from Gibraltar.

Fortunately when I was onboard the plane the captain spoke reassuringly from the cockpit.  We were definitely going to Gibraltar, the announcement had been a bit alarmist.  The wind was an issue but he was confident of putting us on the ground at Gibraltar.  This assurance kept me calm and happy right until the last moment of landing when the pilot slammed on the power and headed us skyward again.  Turns out the wind was a bit trickier than anticipated.

We would wait a little the captain announced and try again.  If he couldn’t put the plane on the ground this time we would indeed have to head for Malaga.  Fortunately for his reputation the pilot did indeed manage to put the plane on the runway at the second time of asking with enough of a bang to assure us that he had been serious about the difficulties.

Customs and security at Gibraltar can best be described as light touch and soon I was waiting for a taxi to take me to a small cruise liner now doing service as a hotel.  Ahead of me not one but two separate people were having difficulties persuading the concierges to give them rooms without apparently having booked or paid for any such thing.  I made it past the front desk in about thirty seconds and settled down for a brief stay in Gibraltar.

Travelling Hopefully - Pornstar Martini Edition

Somewhat reluctantly abandoning our palace for our minibus (at least one member of our group had to be dragged screaming to the vehicle) we set off on our journey to the coast.  Today there would be a “picnic” otherwise known as a “buy your own damn lunch you good for nothing freeloaders” down at the beach which necessitated a stop at a convenient supermarket where I failed to make myself understood in three languages including my native English but still managed to leave with something edible.

Nourishment obtained all we needed was a beach.  The town of Agadir is one of Morocco’s premier beach resorts so naturally we weren’t staying there.  We did stop long enough for us to get sand in the food we had bought and for my Advil supplier and myself to enjoy one of the worst cups of coffee we had encountered in Morocco.  Once lunch had been, for want of a better word, enjoyed we returned somewhat thankfully to our minibus and pointed our collective noses at Essaouira our destination for the next couple of days.

Essaouira is on the coast and has a handsome beach but there is no danger of it becoming a beach resort anytime soon.  The reason is because it is possessed of a microclimate and that microclimate involves wind.  You don’t lounge on the beach in Essaouira unless you want to swallow a goodly amount of it.  Still the wind makes for a somewhat cooler temperature than in most of Morocco and made the obligatory walk through the Medina pleasant.

Said walk took place the next morning and we wandered through the old town looking at old fortifications, old buildings and brand new sand.  Sand is starting to pile up in the streets because the trees which used to act as a windbreak have been cut down to facilitate development.  So far said development has proved less effective as a windbreak than the trees.

Our tour also took us to places where we could buy stuff, sorry, admire local handicrafts.  On the shopping list today were a wood inlayer who was incredible to watch (although not so incredible that I bought anything) and a silver jewellery workshop.  Here we were in danger of losing the female members of our tour group permanently and I’m pretty sure they single-handedly revitalised the local economy.

The allure of silver notwithstanding there was another siren song calling to some of us.  A traditional Moroccan Hammam or scrub bath/torture session had been dangled in front of us like a carrot for much of the trip.  Now with the tour coming to a close the time had come.  My Advil supplier, myself and Kira a former swimmer turned teacher presented ourselves at a Berber hammam and demanded attention.

Since we arrived together the staff assumed we wanted to be served together which is how I wound up in a steam room having the top ten layers of my skin removed in the company of two semi naked women.  I didn’t feel the need to register even a token protest at this turn of events.

Once the scrubbing and sluicing had been completed we were given massages and sent giddy with relaxation on our way.  I can heartily recommend such a procedure should you get the opportunity.

On our last night in Essaouira we dined at a seafood restaurant (seafood is big in Essaouira due to the proximity of seafood’s natural habitat).  There was music and dancing.  At least there was dancing once we arrived.  After dinner our guide took us to a rooftop bar which had music, dancing and pornstar martinis.  Apparently a pornstar martini consists of passion fruit juice, lemon vodka and a dash of vanilla.  The correct way to drink one is to fake swallowing it, spit it out off camera and pretend that you liked it.

We drank and listened to music until midnight when the younger of us went to bed (strangely this included me) while the older and more experienced guzzled pornstar martinis and caroused until the early hours.

The next day a large tour bus returned us to Marrakech where Morocco discreetly indicated that while it had loved having us it was time for us to leave.  We thanked Morocco for its hospitality and particularly our two guides Brahim and Mustapha who were nothing short of amazing and made our separate ways to the exits.  The rest of my trip would be alone except for a stuffed camel named Humpy.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Palace Edition

 Leaving the desert behind us we returned to the edge of the desert and reunited ourselves with our minibus which didn’t look overly pleased to see us.  Once we had crammed ourselves in every available space we turned our backs on the desert and headed north-west I think.  We were aiming for the coast although we wouldn’t reach that until the next day.

The big excitement for the day was the possibility of seeing goats in trees.  Argan trees grow here and so do goats.  Apparently the latter can’t resist the temptation to scramble all over the former.  Our guide told us to keep an eye out for tree dwelling goats just in case they decided to do their party trick by the side of the road.

About ten minutes later excited cries announced that the local goats were being accommodating.  The minibus juddered to a halt and there was the human equivalent of a volcanic eruption as we poured out the side like lava down Vesuvius and charged madly at the goats which being perched in trees were not well placed for a speedy getaway.

Photos were taken (mine weren’t terribly good) and much cooing over goats ensued.  The cooing reached pigeon coop levels when the goatherd charged up and threw a newborn goat at us and by newborn I mean the umbilical cord was still attached.  The baby was surrounded and almost photographed to death on its first few moments in the world.  I suppose the positive side is that for this goat at least things can only get better.

I stood aloof from the baby pestering because I was still trying to get a decent photo of a goat in a tree.  Unfortunately the goats took advantage of the distraction afforded by the newborn to make their escape.  Here’s an interesting fact.  Goats may be good at climbing trees and they’re certainly great at balancing on the branches once there but they are absolutely shit at getting out of trees.  If it wasn’t for gravity I suspect most of them would still be up there.  As it is the goats essentially point their noses at the ground and then fall.  I’m not sure if I got any good “goat in a tree” photos but I have any number of “goat on its back thrashing helplessly amongst the roots” photos.

Finally with all the goats out of trees and the baby returned to the goatherd (hopefully to be passed on to the new mother) we piled back into the minivan and continued our journey.  Our destination this evening was a town so nondescript that our guide didn’t even make a token attempt at organising a walking tour but that didn’t matter because we were staying in a freaking palace!

Yep, a genuine palace once owned by a Danish prince who sold it to a French billionaire who gave it to his Moroccan gardener.  He must really have liked the way the man trimmed edges.  The family of said gardener still own the palace and they have converted it into a hotel (because seriously what the hell else can you do with a palace?).

We dined in the most extravagantly decorated hotel restaurant I’m  ever likely to see and frolicked in the pool and generally rinsed some of the desert dust from our bodies before retiring for the night.  The next day we visited a supermarket!

Monday, May 15, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Whale of the Desert Edition

 We swapped our minibus for a collection of four wheel drives and headed into the desert.  There was no fanfare, there wasn’t even a sign.  At some no doubt predetermined point we simply turned off the road and suddenly desert was all around us.

For the next two hours we bounced over rocks and our location gradually changed from remote to the sort of area that makes remote look lively and accessible by comparison.  At first there were quite a few bushes and the desert appeared quite green.  Then these petered out and we were left with stone, sand and sky.  As our journey progressed stone gave way more and more to sand and just when I was wondering whether we’d be able to continue much further we came to a halt at our “camp”.

I use inverted commas advisedly as camp to me means tents, crappy self provided food and huddling around a wretched badly lit fire.  In actual fact there were smart little cabins, electric lights and a handsome outdoor dining area.

“This is the life” I thought and entered my little cabin.  As second later I was outside again drenched in sweat.  The temperature inside made the afternoon desert air seem cool and refreshing by comparison.

“You can pull your mattress outside to sleep if you like,” said our guide.  Immediately the camp descended into chaos as fourteen people systematically disemboweled their sleeping quarters.  Once the frenzy was over the smart little cabins were hollow shells trembling at the outrage visited upon them.

With the camp rearranged to our convenience it was time to meet the camels.  Camels are frequently called the whales of the desert due to the fact that they have an affinity for water and die if you harpoon them.  These camels were thoroughly un harpooned and unlike real whales I could actually see them.  They sat on a convenient patch of sand and viewed us with the sort of suspicion that indicated they knew our presence meant their sitting time was almost over.

Getting on a sitting camel is easy.  Staying on it while it gets up is less so.  Every leg seems to operate independently and the camel hurls itself in multiple directions at once as it struggles to get all four feet underneath its torso.  Finally ascension is achieved and we gained an understanding of why camels like to be sitting down, standing and walking seems like something they haven’t quite mastered.

Nevertheless standing our camels were and with varying degrees of reluctance they set off across the dunes with their human cargo.   Camel riding is definitely an experience, at the end of it all the women agreed it was fun while all the men surreptitiously rubbed tender parts of their anatomy and were somewhat more ambivalent.

What cannot be denied is that camels are superbly equipped for crossing soft desert sand.  We discovered this when we dismounted and attempted to climb a dune for the obligatory desert sunset shot.  Some of us only made it up on our hands and knees.  Finally though we made it up while the camels snickered under their breath at our awkwardness.

Once up though we could gaze across an endless panorama of dunes which stretched until cut off by some bleak, arid looking mountains in the distance.  For someone who doesn’t have to live there the desert is a beautiful and enchanting experience.

That night I had the best sleep in several nights despite the occasional beetle bunking down with me.  It grew quite cool and I snuggled into my blanket while inside my cabin it was still hot enough to fry eggs on the floor.

The next day we returned to the edge of the desert past a region where we were told we could have seen gazelles if a corrupt politician hadn’t eaten them all.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Pain Amongst the Palm Trees Edition

 The next day our gallant little minibus pointed its nose towards the desert and we piled on board if only because the alternative was to be abandoned in rural Morocco.

The sun beat down but the A/C did a noble job of ensuring we were merely hot instead of boiled in our own fat.  Our destination was Zagora a town touted as being on the edge of the desert.  Actually the term “edge of the desert” turned out to be a reasonably fluid one.  We would reach a few other towns on the edge of the desert as well before we actually hit the desert.

But first, Hollywood!  Or at least the hot, dry Moroccan equivalent.  We stopped at a movie studio along the way where we had the option of doing a tour.  Those who didn’t take the tour were reduced to sitting in the shade drinking coffee while they waited for their comrade’s return.  It wasn’t bad coffee either.

Other things happened along the way, I vaguely recall a library stuffed with ancient books and an Islamic school but I was gobbling Advil like tic tacs by this stage and was barely aware of the fact that we were moving at all.

On arrival in Zagora our guide informed us that due to the heat (about 40 degrees) we would put off the walk among the date palms until the cool of the morning.  Those of us who could barely walk at all greeted this news with delight and promptly went to bed.

The next day however there was no avoiding the palm trees (literally they were everywhere) and off we set to learn about all things date.  Many interesting facts were learnt about date palms by those capable of paying attention.  For the others there was just an awareness of lots of trees and some confused impression that the date farmers had to get somewhat more intimately involved in their charges sex lives than I would have expected.

Once our knowledge of dates had been improved to a disturbing level we piled back onto the bus and headed towards the desert.  No more “on the edge of” stuff for us, now we were aiming at dunes and camels etc.  We tiered our journey so that we arrived in the late afternoon when things had begun to cool down a bit ie it was merely very hot as opposed to actually boiling your eyeballs in their sockets. 

Four wheel drives would take us to our camp where four legged camels awaited.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Fuck That Hurts Edition

 OK it has to be admitted that I pushed my flabby, aging body a bit far with the shrine walk.  It was only eight kilometres but it was mostly up and down on unstable ground and the next day (and for a number of “next days” after that) I was in a goodly amount of pain.  Also pretty much every muscle from my diaphragm down seized up.

The next day started with a happy jaunt from our accommodation down to where we left the bus.  Once again mules did the heavy lifting which was convenient as I could barely lift myself.

Somehow I made it to the bottom.  The same young members of our group who had breezed up to the shrine now breezed down to the village while the halt and lame hobbled behind them.  As a charter member of the halt and lame I cursed them with every breath or at least I would have had I possessed sufficient breath to do so.

Eventually we arrived back at our bus where a group of recently unloaded mules stared at me with smug contempt.  The bus trip was a blur.  We went up things and down things, possibly the same things.  Gradually the scenery changed as we left the Atlas Mountains and entered the Ounila Valley, our destination was the village of Ait Benhaddou once an important stop on an ancient trade route leading to the Sahara.  Salt from the surrounding countryside was traded for gold coming out of the Sahara.  According to our guide the exchange rate was one kilo of salt bought you one kilo of gold.  I was surprised as I didn’t realise they had the metric system back then.  It’s an indication of exactly how valuable salt was back in the day particularly in the Sahara where supermarkets are thin on the ground.

Nowadays of course that trade is gone and Ait Benhaddou seems to make a lot of its money simply from being picturesque.  If you’ve seen Gladiator or Game of Thrones for example then you’ve seen Ait Benhaddou.

There was a walk through the old town when we arrived because of course there was.  A tall imposing building sat alone on the top of a hill and without even asking I knew that would be the destination of the walk.  Given that I could barely move I was going to give it a miss but Pam who is a few years older than me and also did the shrine walk filled me full of Advil which brought a temporary spriteliness to my creaking limbs and enabled me to do the walk.

Over the next couple of days it was the presence of Pam and a packet of Advil that allowed me to walk at all.  She took pity on me because in her words “I looked like death.”  Thanks Pam.  

So we walked, we climbed the hill, took sunset photos from the top of the hill and then descended again.  After which I had just enough energy left to eat dinner and crawl into bed.

Incidentally the imposing building at the top of the hill was once the bank.  It was built at a time when banks needed more in the way of security than silent alarms and chaining the pens to the desk.  Here a dominant hilltop position surrounded by a defensive wall was considered the minimum necessary to protect depositors funds.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Inaccessible Shrine Edition

 Having imbibed more culture than a pot of yoghurt left out in the sun we left Marrakech just before I decided to launch my own fashion line.  Our destination; the Atlas Mountains.

Our gallant minibus ground up hills and around hairpins, climbing ever higher until it shuddered to a halt in a small village.

“We’ve arrived,” I thought.

“We walk from here,” announced our guide.

Apparently the village we were staying at was further up and could only be accessed by foot.  Our luggage was loaded onto mules (they were on foot too) who set off at a deceptively slow pace.  They would comfortably beat us to the destination.

The path upward started at a deceptively gentle gradient.  Irrigation channels carried snowmelt past us and through what looked like bush but was probably farms.  Walnut trees were one of the crops grown.  We weren’t the only ones making the trip, our route was essentially the only street leading in our direction and so there were others also making their way up.

After teasing us which gentle slopes and smooth surfaces for the first few hundred metres the path got rougher steeper and rockier and the gasps of the less fit (me) grew louder as we struggled ever upward.  Finally our guide pointed at an imposing building at the top of a particularly vertiginous climb.

“Is that where we’re staying?” I asked more in hope than expectation, I know how this works now.  The guide pooh poohed such a naive thought but did acknowledge that the gite we were staying at was just behind it.  With the salt of my sweat mingling indistinguishably with my tears of despair we continued.

Eventually we arrived at the village of Aroumd where we would be staying for the night.  We were just in time for lunch.  To add some context another tour group arrived at 2.30 in the morning and they were just in time for dinner.

We were staying in a gite, a family run home stay/guesthouse which afforded spectacular views of the High Atlas.  While there I felt something I hadn’t felt before in Morocco, cool.

With lunch disposed of the question arose of what to do with the rest of the day.  Some four kilometres further up the same mountain was the shrine of Sidi Chamharouch.  Visiting it would be a four hour return trip.  The younger and fitter amongst us were keen and some of those who were older and putatively wiser decided to go along as well. For reasons I can’t begin to explain I was one of them.

Off we set pointing our noses at the heavens while our feet tried to avoid the mule crap.  The path was narrow, rocky and mules had right of way which required a certain amount of cliff hugging from time to time.  The aforementioned youngsters capered ahead bounding from rock to rock and finding the time to chatter amongst themselves the while.  The only reasons they weren’t murdered by the older travellers were a) they were out of reach and b) sheer physical incapacity.  The journey was gruelling but the scenery was stupendous, the air was crisp and there was a guy with an espresso machine partway up the mountain.  I visited on both the outward end return journeys.

The shrine itself was a little underwhelming but its location, high in the mountains with a stream gushing through was superb.  I allowed myself a feeling of triumph and took photos to prove I had made it.  Then it came time for the trip back down.  This was if anything even worse as much of the path was loose rock and needed to be taken with extreme care if you didn’t want to descend the mountain at a rate unconducive to good health.  One of the other shall we say, more mature travellers and I helped each other over the difficult bits (most of it) and eventually we arrived physically exhausted in the village of Aroumd for the second time that day.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Cultural AF Edition

We arrived in Marrakech after a hot, semi sleepless night rattling through the Moroccan countryside.  Hot, grimy and weary we were delivered to our hotel which cheerfully stored our bags but refused to let us into our rooms until the day was a little older.

“Who wants to go on a four hour walking tour of Marrakech?” asked our guide.

“No” I whimpered.

“Yes,” said everybody else.

So off we went into the depths of Marrakech.  We passed by the oldest mosque in the city which is right next to the ruins of what would have been the oldest mosque in the city if they hadn’t demolished it immediately after construction.  Mosques are supposed to be aligned so that the faithful can face towards Mecca when they pray.  Unfortunately the architect got his calculations a bit wrong so they replaced it with a new one.  Unfortunately the architect overcompensated for his original mistake and this one isn’t properly aligned either.  Rather than build a third they redesigned the interior so that prayers could be accomplished appropriately.  They also stuck an iron structure on the roof pointing in the appropriate direction.  Local legend also claims this is what the Sultan hung the architect from after botching his calculations twice.

Once past the geographically challenged mosque we headed into the old town.  While we were there I broke a palace.  In my defence it was a very small break and the palace was very large.  We managed to leave before anyone noticed.

For the record the palace was a beautifully laid out structure with exquisitely decorated ceilings.  There were handsome gardens and open courtyards with fountains (one of which may now be a little bit damaged).  It was truly a palace fit for a king.  It will probably come as no surprise to learn it actually belonged to a grand vizier.

Having been hastened away from the palace before I could do any more damage we returned to the Medina presumably on the assumption that any damage there would go unnoticed.  People tried to sell us things, sweat rolled into my eyes (and pretty much everywhere else) and I stumbled blindly on.  Eventually the tour ended and we caught a bus back to our hotel which graciously deigned to let us enter.  

That evening we had dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the main square.  Above street level it was confusingly chilly a situation which lasted precisely until we returned to ground level.  Our dinner was enlivened by the call to prayer as it turns out there was a mosque literally next door.

After my introduction to both Marrakech and heat exhaustion I planned a lazy day but eventually wound up accompanying one of my tour comrades to visit the Jardin Majorelle a beautifully created garden right next to the Yves Saint Laurent museum.  Saint Laurent didn’t create the garden but acquired it and essentially turned it into a design showcase.  I took a photo of frogs in one of the ponds.

Being more of a performance piece than an actual park you can’t just wander around.  You have to follow a specific set path that will take from the entrance to the inevitable gift shop at the end.  Any deviation from this route would see you set upon by park security who were significantly more numerous and fitter than the park employees I’m used to.

At the end of the park was a small museum housing Berber jewellery which I popped into because it was included in my ticket.

What was not included in my ticket was entrance to the YSL Museum.  This was by design as my interest in Yves Saint Laurent pretty much begins and ends with the garden.  My companion took herself along to be immersed in all things fashion while I repaired to a convenient cafe for an appropriately overpriced sandwich.  

As far as culture goes Cindy I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - A Train From Tangier Edition

 Tangier is legendary to people of a certain generation.  A haven for artists, beatniks, deviants and the sort of people you generally boast are part of your cultural heritage while simultaneously refusing to let them into your home.

On the negative side there was a depraved, drug addled degeneracy living side by side with all this creativity and free expression.  On the positive side there was a depraved, drug addled degeneracy living side by side with all this creativity and free expression.

The cause of Tangier’s status as a free wheeling, anything goes location was the fact that for several decades during the twentieth century it was ruled by a combination of several European countries who used it to experiment with policies they could never have got away with at home like absolutely free trade and minimal taxation. 

Or to be blunt Tangier’s status as an artistic Mecca completely depended on the sort of colonial occupation that is now considered quite a bad thing.  The Europeans handed the place back to Morocco in the 1950s and Tangier sank to a squalid crime riddled hole.  Which is pretty much what it always was but now without the artists.

However Tangier is now on the up.  The government has invested a lot of money giving the waterfront a facelift and setting up industries in the city and now nobody needs to make a living robbing, selling drugs to or ripping off tourists unless they really want to.

Into this freshly rejuvenated city came our little bus load of tourists.  Those who had been here before marvelled at the improvements those who hadn’t simply assumed it had always been like that.  We would get the opportunity to get lost in the Medina later but first there was a picnic in a park stuffed so full of eucalyptus trees that you could have imagined you were in Australia.

After a stroll around a suspiciously clean Medina we made our way to Cafe Hafa which is famous as a place where artists hung out when artists hung out there.  It opened in 1921 and doesn’t seem to have been renovated since.  The views over the harbour are stupendous and the over sweetened mint tea is free.  At least it’s free if the waiter plonks it in front of you and then wanders off.  Apparently he returned demanding payment about fifteen minutes later but we’d left by then.

But the real attraction for us was the Tangier train station where an overnight train waited to take us to Marrakech.  I bunked in with my guide and the only two other males on our tour.  As we waited for the train to leave we were entertained by a Frenchwoman having a meltdown because she thought booking a berth entitled her to a compartment by herself.  Both our guide and the train conductor agreed that the French are irrational, demanding pricks (sorry Alison) and on that note of agreement we rolled into the night.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Blue Edition

The next day our guide approached the group with tears in his eyes.  Between sobs he announced that he had been unable to book us tickets on the local bus to Chefchaouen and had been reduced to hiring us a private minibus instead.  We bore up nobly under this disappointment and wrestled the gun from his hand as he attempted to expunge his shame in the traditional way.

Once we had dried his tears we piled into the hired minibus with an almost obscene enthusiasm.  A few hours of thundering privately down the roads of Morocco later and we arrived in Chefchaouen a name which means “we found a bunch of vowels lying around and decided to use them all.  

We’re now in the Spanish portion of Morocco which is to say that bit of Morocco that was once ruled by the Spanish.  Ironically Chefchaouen was settled by refugees from Spain fleeing the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moorish population.  Apparently the only thing they managed to take with them was a supply of blue paint.

At some point the inhabitants of Chefchaouen decided to paint their houses blue and white.  Our guide suggested that this may have been inspired by the Jewish population but the remaining locals picked up on the idea enthusiastically and now the city is a blue beacon in the Rif Mountains some of which are a little close to the town for comfort.

Naturally Chefchaouen has an old town complete with casbah, mosques and shops, so many shops.  All in a haze of blue.  Here I bought Humpy the camel who will probably feature further in this blog and managed to get a shave.

The barber had a TV broadcasting stories from the Quran (helpfully subtitled in English).  While I waited for my shave I listened to the story of Joseph who was betrayed by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery but gained the favour of the pharaoh and wound up as a high ranking governor and was reunited with his grief stricken father praise be to Allah the All Merciful and Compassionate.

Much of the remaining time I spent in the company of two of my fellow travellers who turned out to have a serious blue door fetish.  We roamed the Medina photographing blue doors.  Every single door in the Medina is blue.  I diverted them temporarily by pointing out some nearby goats which led to a flurry of goat photographs but pretty soon we were back to doors again.

The next evening we went up to the Spanish mosque which overlooks the town.  The Spanish built this to pander to the natives when they took over however the locals showed their disdain for the occupiers by never using it.  Now it serves as a convenient place for tourists to take photos of the city and for the locals to try and sell them hashish.  I got five offers in the time I was up there including two from the same guy.  We were in Chefchaouen for two days and I was offered drugs eleven times.  Maybe it’s something about my face.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Travelling Hopefully - Fes edition

Replete with camel burgers we hopped on a train to Fes.  Fes is one of the old royal capitals of Morocco and is famous for the age and size of its Medina or old town.  It also has a new town and then an even newer town.  This is the trouble with naming things “new”.  By the time you get around to naming them “new” they aren’t any more.  The “new town” in Fes dates to the fourteenth century, it was plenty new back then but time passed as time has an annoying habit of doing and now Fes has a large collection of buildings that date from well after the fourteenth century.  Some of them are even new although they won’t be by the time you read this blog entry.

We went past the royal palace which is right next to the New (ie Old) Town and admired a handsome door.  This door is recent (I hesitate to say “new”) and was a gift to the king from the city of Fes.  He spent a couple of years here while Covid was at its height.  Now things have died down a little he’s out and about showing the royal visage in other cities of Morocco.

Once the palace had been appropriately gawped at we were taken to a pottery.  Fes produces a fine grey clay which when baked becomes a brilliant white.  We were given instruction on how the journey from clay to souvenir shop took place picking up mosaics on the way.
Loaded down with crockery we stumbled on.

It is the Medina or “old town” (that’s a name that just keeps getting more accurate) of Fes that we’ve really come to see.  Parts of it date to the eighth century (the fourteenth is looking pretty new now I bet) and it is the largest non car urban environment in the world.  There are fifteen thousand streets in the Medina not one of them wide enough to drive a car down.  Still each of those streets has a name, receives mail and, more impressively, has plumbing, electricity and internet connections.

The Medina has mosques, markets, what claims to be the world’s first university, workshops and a tannery.  We visited the tannery because there’s nothing like the pervasive odour of pigeon shit to make you feel properly medieval.  The fact that you could purchase the tannery’s products on your credit card did spoil the illusion a little.

On our way in we were handed sprigs of mint to hold to our nose like a seventeenth century nobleman.  This was to make sure that the pigeon shit didn’t quite overcome us.  We were not I hasten to assure my readers down amongst the vats ourselves.  We gazed down from on high  as the labourers toiled among the filth below.  If this is inequality them I’m all for it.  In actual fact most people are in favour of inequality as long as they’re on the right side of the ledger.

From our eyrie we watched the toiling masses (about a dozen guys actually) and held mint delicately to our noses when some faint trace of the odour of labour came our way.  Then we turned our attention to buying the products of said labour.

So in essence they take an animal hide, soak it in limestone and pigeon shit for about twenty days, beat the crap out of it , soak it in various vegetable and mineral dyes and then persuade someone to drape the finished product over their person.  Despite the fact that we saw all this happening some people did indeed make purchases.  The camel belly leather was absolutely beautiful and not for the first time I regretted the fact that I tend to fill a bag before I go on holidays.  I should really just take an empty bag and fill it as I go.

In addition to the tannery we went to a fabric makers where we were shown exactly how much repetitive, gruelling work it takes to make something we can toss lightly about our shoulders.  I did buy something there.  

Then we retired for lunch before we got on with some serious sightseeing.  In truth the Medina was a little too much of a good thing.  I love the medieval streetscape and the incredible amount of activity that happens here but it’s just too big.  We had a local guide as our regular guide frankly admitted that he got lost every time he went in there.  If I had gone in by myself you would never have seen me again and this blog entry would have been scratched on a Medina wall next to my withered corpse.

Travelling Hopefully - Camelburger Edition

 After a too short stay in Moulay Idriss we headed back to Meknes but we didn’t go directly; that’s exactly what they would have expected us to do.  Instead we dropped in on the Roman city of Volubilis.

Volubilis was once the Westernmost city in the Roman Empire but sometime in the fourth century with the western empire in fast rewind the city was abandoned.  The local Berbers may or may not have had something to do with this abandonment.  According to our guide the Berbers then razed the city to ensure that the Romans didn’t return.  Another option is that the subsequent power in the area decided Fes would make a better location for a city.  Since Fes is still there over a thousand years later who am I to argue.

Of course when they say “ruined city” what they actually mean is ruined foundations.  The bit of the city that protruded above the ground suffered from, well it suffered from a number of things actually; earthquakes, abandonment and the fact that having a source of immediately available dressed stone proved irresistible for the builders of other cities in the vicinity.  This is either a staggering act of cultural vandalism or a laudable form of recycling depending on your point of view.

There were however floors in abundance some of which had some very beautiful mosaics.  A few structures have been partially rebuilt with the original materials as far they were available/identifiable to give an appropriate “ruined city” appearance as opposed to just a field of overgrown rubble.

On our way back to the exit we came across a turtle (or tortoise) rustling through the grass.  Over the course of the next ten minutes we traumatised the crap out of that poor reptile trying to take photos of it while it huddled inside its shell and waited for the storm to pass.  I got a couple of good pictures of what appears to be a tortoiseshell stone weeping with fear myself.

Once we were done with the tortoise torturing we left the poor beast to whatever peace it could find and piled into taxis bound for Meknes.

Meknes has a royal palace you can look at when it isn’t closed which it was and the mausoleum of Moulay Ismael, one of Morocco’s greatest rulers.  As is usual you can determine a ruler’s greatness by the accompanying body count and Moulay Ismael had a tally that looks impressive even by today’s standards.  To be fair when you have eighty three brothers and half brothers with a claim to the throne then a certain level of homicidal mania is probably a vital survival trait.  It was Moulay Ismael who kicked the British out of Tangier (what were they doing there?) and his campaigns conquered much of what is now Morocco.

The mausoleum was large and beautifully decorated with gorgeous mosaic tiling, plush rugs and fountains.  It was also cool which is a major draw card pretty much anywhere in Morocco.

After gawping at the mausoleum we wandered through the market where someone adorned me with a possibly dead snake for photo purposes and a storekeeper sold me a Moroccan football shirt while commenting that I was too fat for a medium size.  He was obviously pretty confident that he wouldn’t be getting any repeat business out of me.

With reptile photography and personal insults taken care of we repaired to a cafe apparently owned by a couple of cats.  There was a small boy whose job appeared to be to fail to chase the cats out of the dining room.  At this cafe those of us who weren’t doing the southern part of the tour and thus wouldn’t get the opportunity to ride a camel could make up for this by eating one instead.  For the record the camel burger was perfectly nice.  It tasted like pretty much any other meat that is ground into a patty and served in a bun.