Friday, 30 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Little Angels

Lake Bunyonyi is a stunning part of Africa that I never even knew existed. About 10000 years ago a river was damned by the lava from an erupting volcano. The result was the beautiful lake, which aptly means the "place of many little birds". 6,437 ft above sea level, it is about 15.5 miles (25km) long and 4.35 miles (7km) wide. Its depth is believed to vary between 144 ft and 2,952 ft. It is one of the few lakes in the region that is rumoured to be free of schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and safe for swimming, however, this claim is not verifiable and so the closest I got to it was in a dugout canoe. Emerald hills rise from its shores with beautiful terraces cut into the slopes, giving you the false idea that you might even be in Nepal. Amidst the ever present red dust is an abundance of rainforests and agricultural land with a dose of an air of mystery thrown in for good measure. It has 29 islands, some of which have interesting and somewhat tragic histories:

Akampeine Island, which translates to Punishment Island, was where unmarried pregnant women were left to starve to death or drown by trying to swim to the shore until the 1940's. They were often saved by poor men or slaves who couldn't afford the regular bride price.

Bwama Island was an anti-colonial rebel base but by 1921, the missionary Dr. Leonard Sharp founded a leprosy hospital here. After leprosy drugs were introduced in the 1980s it became a secondary boarding school. Sharp himself lived on the nearby Njuyeera (Sharp's) Island.

The 35 acre Kyahugye Island is home to wildlife such as zebra, waterbuck, impala and kob. Alas their presence on the island isn't all that romantic, they were brought here from the nearby Lake Mburo National Park.

The legend of Bucuranuka Island, aka Upside Down Island, says that this island killed people as a result of a spell cast by a witch. Some men brewing local sorghum beer on the island refused to give some to an old woman passing by. The old woman asked if she could at least get somebody to take her to the mainland. A young boy took her over and when they reached the shore the island turned upside down killing all bar a chicken that managed to escape and the young boy.

This morning a bunch of us headed out on a free walking tour run by Little Angels, a non-profit orphan project (http://www.littleangelsuganda.org/the-project.php). From the campsite, we hiked up some steep slopes that surrounded the area, weaving our way past sugar cane plantations and banana groves. The higher you climbed, the more impressive the view got. The little islands rose from the water surface and you got an idea of just how massive the lake, seemingly stretching into the far distance.

As we trekked up the hillside we stopped in at a house to meet an interesting character named Frida, whom many call “the crazy lady”. Despite being in her 80's, this woman was bursting with energy. She gave each of us a big hug, and welcomed us with a song and dance. As translated by our guide & Little Angels founder Duncan, she wanted to find out which of us was his girlfriend. This somehow led to her groping us, squeezing our boobs and slapping our bums. Ok I must confess, out of all the girls I was the only one who didn't get their chest groped. However, she did seem more fascinated by my tattoos rather than the fact I don't have much of a chest. I broke out into fits of laughter regardless and even though there was a language barrier, it was easy to feel and appreciate Frida’s joie de vivre. We got to take part in weaving with banana leaves and grinding some kind of seed to make a flour.

Overlooking the lake, a little ways from Frida's, is the Little Angels Needy Children and Orphan Project. Duncan set up the project in 2010, in a bid to improve the lives of the children and offer them better education. All Little Angels children are living significantly below the poverty line. Having grown up in a poor family, Duncan was a sponsored child himself and he graduated high school thanks to his sponsor. With this project, he hopes to give back to his local community and help children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. There are currently 200 registered needy children between the ages of three and eight under their care and new classrooms are being built so they can take more.

During the visit, we got to sit in a classroom and watch the children learn spelling and mathematics. We even got to teach them (my artistic talents shone through *cough*). After class, the children all gathered in the playground and we had the opportunity to play with them (they loved braiding my hair) and join in the singing and dancing. We were then asked to perform a song and dance for the children. Nothing like being thrown to the lions! I apologize, to the entire planet, for inflicting the Birdie Song on these poor, poor children!

You can sponsor a child at the project or make any kind of donation that you feel will help. Collectively our group decided to buy a bunch of food products and gather together any clothing we had packed which we could easily do without (cue a reason for me to get rid of several pairs of socks which I haven't worn and likely won't on this trip that I'd planned to ditch before heading home). A little girl had also seemed quite enamoured with my watch, which I had had for eons and hardly ever wear these days, so as we were leaving I ran over to her and fixed it around her wrist. We headed back to camp in a wooden dugout canoe where we took part in the paddling for quite the workout. Just as we docked the heaven's opened causing a mad dash for the clothes line to salvage my hand washed laundry that had been drying. Thankfully it was just a quick shower although my clothing would've probably benefitted from the extra rinse had I left it hanging.

This afternoon some of us took a walk with the promise of coffee at the local coffee shop... Except the coffee machine was broken. And they didn't have the type of juice someone wanted. And the power went out. TIA! Still, it was nice to go for a walk before a very yummy "fingers only" dinner of lentils, spinach, salsa, chapati & ugali (maize) and I did get a very nice cup of tea.

Tomorrow I will be kind of sad to leave this idyllic haven and hit the road again to head back to Kampala. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: King of the Jungle

My alarm went off at 425am. Doesn't that sound like fun! Thankfully there was no need to pack away my tent like I had on so many other ungodly early morning starts, I merely had to drag my behind out of my sleeping bag and up a couple of flights of stairs. I felt like a roast chicken upon waking. When arriving at the camp last night a lady, whom had been residing here for several days already, had told us it had rained every single night since her arrival. So out came the rain cover which of course I didn't end up needing and instead I cooked. Like it wasn't already hot enough without the cover! It's rather disgusting waking up with a pool of sweat in your suprasternal notch.

Still, you soon forget all of that with a couple of wet wipes and the realization that today is the day that this trip is basically all about. At 530am I began a 2.5hr drive from Lake Bunyonyi to one of the entrance gates of the nearby national park. Today I was going Gorilla tracking!

It is said that the mountain gorilla evolved with the rise of the volcanoes half a million years ago. They adapted to the differing terrain to their lowland relatives by becoming larger and having thicker fur. Tragically less than 800 mountain gorillas exist in the world (as of Dec 2014), however that number is increasing thanks to conservation efforts. In Uganda they can be safely visited in two national parks: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We are able to do this thanks to a procedure known as primate habituation (the same applies with chimpanzees). This long process is where a group of primates (or other animals) are exposed to human presence, albeit slowly, to the point where humans are regarded as neutral. Of course these are still wild animals but they are less likely to flee deeper into the forest or, worse, become aggressive and attack unlike those that are unhabituated. It takes two to three years for a gorilla group to become habituated and even longer for chimps (around 7). It is achieved by a group of rangers with a lot of patience, and a good dose of bravado, spending time with a group every day to eventually win over their trust. This is done by mimicking their behaviour: pretending to eat the same food at the same time, grunting, beating on one's chest. The first few weeks are risky for the rangers with repeated charges commonplace. Having now seen a huge silverback male that was easily over 200kg and with the strength to rip you limb from limb, I can imagine how scary being charged at must be.

Habituation has been taking place for a long time - it allowed scientists to study them. Then of course someone had the bright idea of charging tourists, like me, $500USD a pop to take part in viewing them in the wild. Is this a good thing? There are lots of heavily enforced rules and regulations that you have to follow to be even considered.  If you are sick on the day then you won't be going - the Ugandans are fiercely protective of their primates and any signs of as much of a sniffle and you'll be refunded your permit money and sent on your way. Only 8 people are allowed at any one time to visit a group per day and your time with them will be an hour - and they follow this to the last second as I found out. You are not allowed any less than 7 metres away from a gorilla and if one approaches you you have to slowly back away from it to maintain that distance. Of course deep in the bush that might not always be possible but the Rangers will do whatever they can to keep your distance, they do speak gorilla after all. Bottom line is that had there been no habituation then the subsequent tourist trade the likelihood is that mountain gorillas would've been wiped out by poachers years ago. I felt incredibly honoured that I was being given the opportunity to go and visit a family.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was established only in 1991 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. It covers an area of 331 sq km and the jungle forest, one of the richest ecosystems in Africa, is only accessible by foot.  Bwindi has 11 habituated gorilla groups in total and is home to half of the world's population of this critically endangered species. The Mubare group have been habituated since 1993 and the most recent are 4 groups in 2011. One of the 4 gates, Rushaga Gate, in the southern sector of Bwindi is home to the largest number of habituated groups: Mishaya (2010), Nshongi (2009), Bweeza (2011), Kahungye (2011) and Busingye (2011). It also has occasional visits of elephants. Bwindi itself has at least 350 species of birds too not to mention many butterflies and insects and species of trees.

If you like the outdoors, don't mind getting very hot and sweaty with a strong possibility of at least some part of you caked in mud (so leave the designer gear at home, also no bright clothing allowed), aren't fazed by the loud whack of machete hacking or thorny bushes and have an interest in spending time viewing one of the most magnificent animals I have ever had the opportunity to see then Gorilla tracking might be for you! It will likely be one of the most surreal yet amazing experiences you will ever be a part of. Whilst this literally is a "walk in the park" it also isn't. Don't underestimate how steep some of the climb will be or how thick the bush is. If you have issues with fitness then this may not be for you. I also had to forgo my fear of "creepy crawlies" for this one as you fight your way through the dense jungle. Slap on the sunblock, Deet, gators, good hiking boots, long trousers and, when needed, a good pair of gloves (gardening or leather, I used my cycling gloves) to protect your hands from the thorns - there will be times you will reach out to grab something to steady yourself, even though you also have a walking stick. Local porters are for hire if you feel you need someone to carry your stuff (I didn't so can't remember the minimum price quoted) and by stuff I mean at least 1.5L of water, snacks & a packed lunch and then your camera gear plus any rain gear you may need, this is the jungle after all. You could be hiking for as little as half an hour or up to 8. These are wild animals remember! Trackers are already out in the bush following the group you are assigned to from a distance and your job is to catch them up. Our guide together with two other rangers carrying guns and a couple of porters took 6 of us off into the forest in the hope of catching up with the Nshongi group.

I hoped I would see a couple of gorillas but what I ended up with was beyond my wildest dreams. I knew it would be a challenging hike, but would you expect me to want to do anything less? It was well worth the effort and the cost of the permit. After about an hour we were told the trackers were with the group. It was just a question of how long it would take us to get to them, it's not like they sit and wait around for us. After a further 50 minutes I had to make sure I was seeing what I thought I might be seeing. In the not-too-far-distance as bold as brass there was a gorilla climbing up a tree. Now we just had to get to him!

Some serious bush-whacking ensued before we stopped just short of where the Nshongi group were feeding. You could hear the crunching. Gorillas are primarily vegetarian but will occasionally eat ants. We  left our packs with the porters and the two rangers with guns then carrying just what we needed (cameras/iPhones/GoPro's, no food or drink allowed) followed our guide and the two trackers. Swinging from a tree without a care in the world was a baby gorilla. He didn't care that we were there either, in fact I think it encouraged him to put on a show. I was mesmerized. He would occasionally try approach us but the trackers would start making grunts to basically tell him to move away, and he would obey. Still that said, I'm pretty sure he was closer than 7 metres at some point although we were pretty boxed in by the foliage. There was a deep low pitched rumble. I switched my line of sight to lay eyes on the back of an adult male silverback. His silver stripe was almost cumberband-like. We weren't even acknowledged as he sat there eating, only moving to reach out to pick more food. All around us bushes were moving and we knew we were not alone with just these two. Sure enough as he moved to find a better spot, he'd make a noise and the bushes would move again towards his general direction. We would follow and as a result during our hour with the group we were able to watch 3 adult females as well as this male and the baby, who kept reappearing again and again to put on a show. He even beat his chest for us to show us his future aspirations perhaps. The group consists of 10 gorillas in total. To be able to spend one of the best hours of my life with these amazing creatures I can't even do it justice with my words. When it was time to leave the group and make our way back I actually started crying. Why? It was admittedly a little bit overwhelming. But the main reason was that to witness their expressive thoughtful faces and their cinnamon eyes watching you watching them was an experience I will forever be truly grateful for the opportunity to be able to do.

Our total hiking time was about 3 hours not including the hour spent with the gorillas. The drive back was slightly faster than the drive there at 2hrs, likely because it was now daylight. It made for a long day but, in case my sentiments aren't yet clear, it was totally worth it. I can say I "penetrated the impenetrable".

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Planet of the Apes

Kalinzu Forest Reserve is located in the Bushyeni district of SW Uganda and is close to the well-known Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is home to 378 species of birds (including sun birds, black and white casket, cuckoos and the Great Blue Turaco), 97 moths, 262 butterflies, a variety of flora, reptiles, several mammals (it provides refuge to several savannah grassland species) and over 5 species of primates.

Another early start of 520am was because today was the day we would be tracking chimpanzees in the forest. The endangered chimp shares an unbelievable 99% of their genetic makeup with... Humans. Like us, they're highly social, care for their offspring for years and can live to be over 50. Communities can consist of between 9 and 120 and the males will spend their entire lives on ancestral turf in shifting hierarchies whilst females will disperse to other communities. Decades of research into chimpanzee behaviour has been done at Tanzania's Gombe National Park. Dame Dr. Jane Goodall is a name synonymous with chimpanzees: considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is best known for her 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees and I highly recommend the IMAX film "Wild Chimpanzees" (2002) which we have played at Science World. Chimps have already disappeared completely from four countries and are under tremendous pressure everywhere else they live. Their population is believed to be within 170K to 300K (per the WWF).

Poaching is a major threat, like with most endangered species in Africa. Bushmeat has always been a primary food source in some parts of Africa and in recent years has become commercialized to satisfy the appetites of wealthy urbanites. Infant chimpanzees are frequently taken alive and sold as pets. There are obviously some very dumb people out there. Sadly, there has been a high level of illegal hunting in the Reserve too and many of the chimpanzees that live there have snare injuries, even though they are not the target. The Jane Goodall Institute and the National Forest Authority started a snare removal programme within Kalinzu Forest Reserve in the late 2000's, supported by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and the Japan Ministry of Environment Global Environment Research Fund.

Upon entrance into the forest there was a blue monkey high in the trees but it didn't take long to start hearing the calls of the chimpanzees. It was pretty amazing to hear not mention loud. Now we just had to locate them! As we trekked deeper into the forest they were all of a sudden above us swinging from tree to tree. I was admittedly awestruck. A little baby held on tightly as its mother moved from branch to branch. They all seemed to be eating voraciously and didn't appear to notice us down below.

When they moved we followed. Aside from seeing one on the ground a short distance away that was very obviously staring at us, they stuck to the tree tops which is where they spend most of their time. We attempted to follow two different groups and came across chimp poop, nests that they make to sleep in, knuckle prints in the ground and, just when you start thinking how cute they are, some colobus monkey fur.... with skin attached. Chimpanzees eat Colobus monkeys and will corner their meal before ripping it to shreds. Lovely.

To be able to track chimpanzees you need a permit and a strong sense of adventure. Wild animals don't obey anyone but themselves. You may come across them within minutes or you could be trekking for several hours. Our trek in total was 3.5hrs.

Upon return to camp for brunch and to pack away our tents we were joined by a baboon family. It certainly made me wonder what may have been lurking in the bushes whilst I had slept.

The road quality deteriorated quite considerably from the ones in and around Kampala and I was treated to the "African massage" for many hours. The scenery however was certainly even more green and lush than it had already been plus a lot more hilly. I also saw a little monkey sat on a telegraph pole as we headed towards Kabale and Lake Bunyonyi in the south west, very close to the Rwandan border. Our campsite, Bunyonyi Overland Resort, was right on the shore of the lake and the views were absolutely stunning even if we did have several flights of steep stone steps to climb with a tent. The great thing about the camp is that it is ecologically built, with local materials, locally owned and provided employment to the people who call Lake Bunyonyi home. Of course having hot showers and flushing toilets also helps. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Blinding You with Science!

Tiny bladder syndrome kicked in at 315am but I was able to fall back to sleep until my 445am alarm. Yes, I know... I'm on holiday and I am getting up earlier than I would do were I home. I was actually awake earlier due to someone chanting in the bushes. I half expected that, were I to peer out of my tent, I might see a crazy baboon swinging from the trees singing, "Asante sana, squash banana, wewe nugu mimi apana". I've absolutely no clue what was being said and thankfully they stayed in the bush singing to themselves.

Of course I'd forgotten to bring in all my washed laundry off the clothes line prior to bed so they were all wet. Then again the word "washed" can only be applied very loosely here. I don't think I'm going to rid any item of clothing of the red dust until I can actually machine wash them with proper detergent. That stuff gets everywhere. Still, as long as my clothing at least smells tolerable for a long ride on a truck, out of respect for my fellow travellers as much as my own nose, then I'm happy. In the interim drying clothing took the form of holding onto it tightly and sticking my arm out the window (a good portion of the Ugandan countryside has seen my peach Lululemon sports bra drying in the breeze as a result) or hanging them from my chair on the truck. You've got to work with what you've got!

We were on the road by 625am with the goal to try and avoid the Kampala traffic. About 65km southwest of Kampala is where the equator crosses the Kampala-Masaka road. Two cement circles mark the spot however the true GPS apparently places it about 30m south of it (without the same pomp & circumstance). You can watch a demonstration on the apparent Coriolis effect, which way water travels down a drain, depending on which hemisphere you are in. On the Southern Hemisphere it appeared to turn anticlockwise, on the Northern it turned clockwise and at 0 degrees there was apparently no rotation. It was pretty cool to see even if  I personally think it is a hoax (and I had good Science teachers at school who helped guide me to this conclusion, many years ago, so I was always going to be jaded about this demonstration). For one, shouldn't it turn anticlockwise in the north and clockwise in the south? Hurricanes certainly do this depending on which hemisphere they are in due to the direction in which the winds are pulled by the Coriolis effect (left in the South, right in the North). Hmmmm. I also believe systems like toilet bowls & sink drains are probably too small to be controlled by the effect, unlike jetstreams, hurricanes and trade winds etc.which definitely are affected..... Then again I was trained as a Chemist (the cooler science, right?) so what do I know about Physics?! However, an interesting factoid is that if you stand at the equator at midday during the equinox there is no shadow.

A quick stop to pick up some charcoal from one of many sellers on the roadside and some veggies afforded me with the opportunity to try some fresh jackfruit for a good dose of B vitamins.

Upon arrival at the basic Kalinzu Forest Camp, once I'd erected my tent, it was time to go on a tea plantation walk around the Ankole Tea Estate. East Africa exports high quality tea (& coffee), although locally you tend to get a far inferior brew (and instant coffee is the norm). Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant grown in mostly tropical and sub-tropical climates. It was interesting to learn that tea plants take 4 to 12 years to bear seed and about 3 years before a new plant is ready for harvesting. They can grow up to 52ft but cultivated plants are usually pruned to keep them low as this primarily means more new shoots equaling new and tender leaves thus an increase in tea quality. Not to mention its a lot easier to pick!

After dinner we were treated to some traditional songs and dance from a group of children from the local village. They are part of a charitable organization that perform to help raise money to buy school supplies.   The best thing was getting to join in. Pretty soon I had a grass skirt deftly wrapped around my waist whilst I shook what my mother gave me. In my mind I was the greatest dancer, in reality not so much. It was a lot of fun to be reduced to a sweaty demented-looking chicken. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Dollar Bills Y'All

After most of yesterday stuck inside a truck I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to an even longer day of travel. However today included a border crossing by land into Uganda and so I knew from past experiences that a good chunk of that time could be designated to that alone.

The main border crossing from Kenya to Uganda is at Malaba with the other at Busia. Both are known to be, in general, relatively pain free with visas available on arrival. Leaving Kenya I was finger printed and photographed but it didn't take long at all. The Ugandan side was a little more problematic. It started out pretty smoothly despite queuing in the blistering heat. But then when the time came to pay the $50USD I hit a problem.... My so-brand-new-you-could-smell-the-ink money was apparently not good enough. Perhaps this was, in part, because half of it was in $1 bills as apparently the border agent seemed very unhappy at not being able to get a good exchange rate for them. Whether or not the delay that followed was deliberate as a "punishment" I'm not sure but even after giving some larger new bills it still took almost half an hour for her to process my visa. Lesson learned? Don't get on the wrong side of someone who is obviously in a position of power. In total the entire "experience" took about an hour, which as border crossings go is actually pretty good. We were soon on the road again.

Uganda has a chaotic history known for its terror and bloodshed although it is fighting hard these days to emerge from those shadows. Idi Amin is known as the "Butcher of Uganda" with an estimated 300000 people losing their lives under his rule. He supported the Palestinian/German hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976 and allowed the plane to land at Entebbe. After over a week, Israeli commandos stormed the terminal and within 30 minutes 7 terrorists were dead. It is one of the most daring and dramatic hostage operations to this day. In retaliation to more than half the Ugandan airforce planes being destroyed to prevent retaliatory airstrikes on Israel, Amin ordered the killing of a hostage recuperating in hospital in Kampala. Like with most mass murdering evil human beings this planet has ever known, he died in Saudi Arabia in 2003 never having been brought to justice. Northern Uganda later had Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to deal with. Atrocities included mutilation/torture and the abduction of children to be used as soldiers and sex slaves. Despite not having threatened Uganda since 2007, most Northern Ugandans will not return to their homes out of sheer terror. More recently the incredibly controversial anti-homosexuality Bill proposing the death penalty and life sentences for homosexual behaviour has thrust Uganda back into the limelight for all the wrong reasons.

Despite these shadows cast on an otherwise new dawn of tourism in Uganda , it perhaps surprisingly is one of the safest destinations in Africa. What surprised me about the drive was how lush and green everything in Uganda is as well as the tropical heat. Despite being on the equator, Uganda is more temperate than its neighbours. The rolling hills are rich and fertile and much is grown here. Much of the country is 3000ft above sea level and even higher in the southwestern region. Alas it suffers the same environmental problems as the countries surrounding it: poaching and deforestation. It's also struggling from overpopulation with one of the worlds highest annual growth rates at around 4%. Significant discoveries of oil is putting pressure on several National Parks and protected areas.

The major roads in Uganda are said to be generally in good condition although there were potholes. However, that said, a lot of highway and road upgrades are being done which can inevitably lead to delays and a slower journey. Kampala, the capital city, is notorious for its major traffic jams and you are advised to plan your commute in/through/around it. Rush hour is obviously bad but they apparently have three of these per day and then on Fridays it is said to basically last all day. Fun! We managed to get quite close to the city before we were crawling at a snails pace and thankfully that didn't last long.

Red Chilli Hideaway, the camp site for the night, was on the outskirts of Kampala. We finally reached it about 10 hrs after we left Eldoret. I am willing to bet that it is home to the worlds smallest swimming pool - if you do decide to take a dip be prepared to have your personal space violated let alone invaded. There's a pool bar, an indoor bar, a pizza oven, hot showers and... Free wifi to make up for it though. Bring your ear plugs, the frogs start their chorus early and Deet will save your sanity from the onslaught of the mozzies.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Creeped Out by the Crawlies

I awoke to my 615am alarm looking like Medusa. Attractive, no? The thought of a cold shower and creepy crawlies meant that I was content with wet wipes and Gorgon hair. During the night I had needed to go to the bathroom. As I turned on the light there had been a rather large spider on the light switch. Then all of a sudden it disappeared. Cue lots of hair shaking. It had actually been quite cold during the night and so I was glad that I had my 4-season sleeping bag. The camp rooster lived to see another day thanks to me having earplugs. After finally successfully learning how to pack a tent and some breakfast we were on the road by 8am. A long travel day at least provided me with some stunning scenery as we drove from Lake Naivasha to Eldoret over the Mau Mau Escarpment. I saw baboons, zebra and antelopes and... The "Climax Coach", a bus that was actually named this in bright rainbow coloured writing. I kid you not. Sounds like one heck of a ride.....

A pit stop at Nakuru, the 4th largest city in Kenya, to get supplies meant time to grab a very good java from "Nairobi Coffee". The Kenyans know their coffee! This also helped me a little with my likely-Malarone-induced headache. Nakuru is also home to Lake Nakuru, one of the Rift Valley soda lakes. I will visit this on my way back to Nairobi.

Unfortunately most people know Eldoret for a post-election incident in 2008 when 35 people were burnt alive inside a church. However, I know Eldoret and the surrounding area, such as Iten, to be famous for its marathon runners. Runners like Wilson Kipsang and Mary Keitany hail from the region. A lot of elite marathon runners from other countries will also use the Rift Valley to do their altitude training, where altitudes sit 8000 ft above sea level. Sadly I didn't bring my running shoes on this trip.

The Naiberi camp ground was pretty great with hot showers(!) and a pool where I ended up playing water polo with a bunch of Kenyans. Being small and wily can sometimes have its perks! It was so much fun.... Well, it was all fun and games until I took an elbow to the ribs and chest. That quite literally knocked the wind right out of me and all of a sudden water polo seemed like a very violent sport. I was happy to sit by the side of the pool after that enjoying the last bit of sun for the day with a Stoney Tangawizi drink (ginger beer) before it was time for dinner.

Now that the camp chores are done it's time for bed! Another early start tomorrow as we drive across the border into Uganda!

Saturday, 24 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: "Tent"acity

A "short" drive from Nairobi through the Rift Valley to Lake Naivasha, where I would spend my first night camping, took about 3 hours . In a very short time you learn that the road conditions here can run the full gamut from new to being in very poor condition. It is probably a good thing then that I was riding in a 24 seater Tatu overland vehicle. In case you're not sure what that means, you have to climb a ladder to board this thing. It's huge! This also means that, for most part, you don't feel every pothole. However, that said, when you go over any form of speed bump it's akin to being on the top floor of a building during an earthquake. Monkeys, goats, cattle and chickens will also often appear to have a death wish.

I've put up a tent once before in my life last October when I did my first ever solo kayak-camping trip to Granite Falls in Indian Arm, North Vancouver. It was with a tent that I had actually owned for over 6 years. On that occasion I think it took me about an hour, I got annoyed with the string holding some of my poles together because the excess wouldn't allow the feet to go back in properly- which caused one foot to snap thus I attacked the bloody thing with my Swiss Army knife. Yup, it went that well.

I'm pleased to report that I put up my khaki coloured-mosquito proofed "Afro 210" tent in about 10 minutes! I shocked myself. I am not quite sure what had happened between last October and now to make me such a tent pro but I also suspect that part of it was I didn't want to look like a total idiot in front of everyone else.

Lake Naivasha is a fresh water lake that is the highest of the Rift Valley lakes at around 5600 ft above sea level. There's papyrus and yellow bark acacias kissing the shoreline providing a home to many animals and birds. At weekends a lot of people from Nairobi will venture out to escape the maddening crowd.

I was met with black & white colobus monkeys on arrival at the campsite and it only got better from there. Lake Naivasha is home to the mighty hippopotamus and I was going to take a 2hr boat ride to see some plus many birds and other wildlife that make the lake home. The boat was similar to a canoe except with a motor and actually very comfortable to ride in. even at top speed when the spray was a welcome coolant from the searing heat. I am currently the not-so- proud recipient of a wicked sunburn on my right lower arm and wrist, complete with watch & hair tie tan lines (or in this case, burn lines), from holding my SLR camera. This was despite slapping on factor 50+ sunblock.

It was worth it however. Two curious Pelicans came right up to the boat to see if we had food and we had seen kingfisher, two kinds of cormorant, egret, and ibis before we even saw the first hippo family. They didn't move much and yet they seemed to watch our every move. These things look massive even when they're partially submerged. They were always in groups of at least 6 and the most I counted was 12. They were given a wide birth and admired somewhat from afar. Other birds included stills, hornbills, yellow beak herons and the marabou, whose face only a mother could love.

The highlight though, and my Nat Geo-worthy photography, came courtesy of watching a fish eagle successfully take a fish from the water. It was so graceful and yet so powerful. My shots included coming in for the swoop, talons & all, the successful catch and flying away with his prize. They look similar the the Bald Eagle in that they have white heads but the white extends further down their back and they also have brown on their bodies as well as black. Very majestic beautiful birds. It was an absolute delight to see.

On the shore there were giraffes, zebra, water buffalo and water antelope. The guide was very knowledgeable and had the eyes of a hawk, he saw stuff long before we did including an animal "walking on water" that looked like a marmot.

It was pretty special to walk down to the water edge later to watch the sunset and take photos that included the silhouette of a grazing male water antelope with his huge horns before sitting around a campfire to eat dinner (mostly in the hope of keeping the mozzies at bay). The campsite cats watched every forkful to your mouth in the hope that you would drop something on the floor for them to eat.

Now I'm basted in Deet and about to retire for the night. I'm praying to the bladder Gods that I don't need to get up in the middle of the night - I don't fair too well with creepy crawlies and there was already a spider watching me brush my teeth in the bathroom.....

Friday, 23 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Look Out! Pink Elephants on Parade!

I'm not sure how I fluked this but for my flight to Nairobi I had an entire row to myself. This meant 3 seats, 3 pillows, 3 blankets so you can probably guess what I did once I'd eaten my dinner, slept for pretty much the rest of the flight waking merely for a bathroom break. I recall this only ever happening to me once before - on a flight from Vancouver to Vegas so not that exciting really although I had just got off a night shift. This and the fact I realized I had left my North Face jacket in the waiting area with a bunch of important documents in the pocket once I had boarded the plane made it quite the exciting ride (thankfully I got the jacket back, this is what happens when you fall asleep in a chair & apparently board in the manner similar to a zombie). We landed at 325am, I was soon through passport control ($50USD for a visa, bring cash) and on my way to my hotel thanks as ever to carry on luggage!

May be it was the excitement of what today was going to bring or the fact that it sounded like a scene from the Lion King going on outside my balcony as to why I didn't fall asleep until 530am.  I had set my alarm for 730 and thus was once again thanking the Travel Gods for the ability to truly sleep on the plane. Of course chances of that happening to me on the way home when I've got a 28hr 45 min travel day are probably slim but I've got 2 weeks before I need to start worrying about that. I woke feeling pretty great all things considered and once breakfast was done was ready to seize the day.

Today I became a foster mum... of a baby elephant thanks to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which I spent the morning visiting. Major David Sheldrick MBE is one of Africa's most famous and pioneering Park Wardens. In 1948, he became the founder Warden of Tsavo, Kenya's largest National Park. He had to deal with the problem of armed poachers, which he was forced to combat by utilizing staff from the Game Department and National Parks. He studied every facet of the elephants' lifestyle on the preserve, collecting data on their food sources, and, along with his wife, Daphne, rescuing and hand-rearing vulnerable elephants, rhinos and antelopes. He also helped to develop the Tsavo's infrastructure. There were no roads or buildings when he first arrived. He paved 1,087 kilometres of tourist all-weather roads, 853 miles of administrative roads and 287 kilometres of anti-poaching tracks. In 1977 after his untimely death from a heart attack, his wife Daphne founded the non-profit David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in honour of his memory. She herself is a recognized international authority on the rearing of wild creatures and the first person to have perfected the correct milk formula and necessary husbandry for infant milk-dependent orphaned elephants and rhinos. The orphan's project is at the heart of their extensive conservation activities and it has a hugely successful elephant and rhino rescue and rehabilitation program. Per the trust, to date, they have successfully hand-raised over 160 infant elephants and effectively reintegrated orphans back into the wild herds of Tsavo. Many former orphans have gone on to have babies of their own in the wild.

The rehabilitation process is long, starting at the nursery where they are cared for by Kenyan elephant keepers and gradually ending with a gradual transition back into the wild. This is done at an individual's own pace over a period of up to 10 years. Head over to http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/raiseorphan.htm for an in depth rundown of how it's all done and more importantly why.

Many of the orphans are victims of poaching and human-wildlife conflict. I don't know about you but it continues to shock me to read that there is an insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn. This is despite science going on record and saying that basically you might as well chew your own hair and nails if you believe that the stuff in their horns, tusks and shark fins whilst we're at it has any kind of health benefit. The anti-poaching and de-snaring units work with the Kenya Wildlife Service in protecting an area of 60000 square km. If one elephant is killed every 15 minutes then at this rate none will roam in the wild by 2025. The WWF just today released the news that a record 1215 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2014. That is absolutely insane!!! The only thing that rhino horn and ivory looks good on are the animals who grow them.

"The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust embraces all measures that complement the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife. These include anti-poaching, safe guarding the natural environment, enhancing community awareness, addressing animal welfare issues, providing veterinary assistance to animals in need, rescuing and hand rearing elephant and rhino orphans, along with other species that can ultimately enjoy a quality of life in wild terms when grown."

With a mission statement like that today I spent the best $50USD in my life! Jasiri, a 3 year old male came to the trust as a poaching victim after his mother was confirmed dead in December 2012. I get keeper updates, a map of where Jasiri came from, a foster certificate plus a slew of goodies in a binder.

For more information about how to foster an orphaned elephant check out www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.  Fostering can be just for a year or longer plus you can foster as many elephants as you like. Also check out the Iworry campaign www.iworry.org , which is based on the premise that everyone has a stake in the conservation of these gentle giants. I cannot recommend taking a trip out to the trust highly enough, be mindful though that they only allow visiting hours between 11am & noon daily (highlighting the fact that this is not about tourism as well as the fact that "entrance" is by donation). An absolutely wonderful way to spend a morning.

As if I wasn't already in cuteness overload, I then headed over to the Langata Giraffe Centre, run by the non-profit African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW). This is a sanctuary for the rare Rothschild giraffe that started as a rehabilitation project to rescue the species by Jock Leslie-Melville. There were only 120 giraffes left in a ranch in Western Kenya when the Giraffe Centre was founded. The programme has had huge success, resulting in the introduction of several breeding pairs of Rothschild Giraffe into Kenyan national parks. On safari in Tanzania I saw hundreds of giraffe but never this close - it's why I invested in a good telephoto lens! Here, however, you can observe, hand-feed or even be kissed by one from a raised circular wooden structure. It is quite an experience. Slobber will be involved, trust me I discovered that all for myself! Staff tell you about each giraffe and are very informative about the species. An incredible experience. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favour

Turkey loves tobacco, which is why it probably shocked me to read that the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority actually has really strict laws about where you can and can't smoke. It didn't however really shock me to read that in 2013 the estimated scale of illicit tobacco traffic in Turkey rose to 16.2 billion cigarettes per year. It seems that in Istanbul everyone needs a cigarette. They walk with them, talk with them, eat & drink with them, serve you food with them (street sellers) and I suspect even the stray cats and dogs have a sneaky drag.

Whilst the Turks are destroying their lungs with their cancer sticks, the stray animals of Istanbul are actually surprisingly healthy looking. There are about 14 million people living here there are also about 150000 stray animals. A company named Pugedon came up with an excellent idea and got the government to agree to them placing food dispensaries around the city. Not only do these vending machines provide food and water, but they also help to promote recycling. Genius! The dispensers dish out pet food every time someone puts a plastic bottle inside. It also has a container where you can pour the remainder of your water to make sure stray cats and dogs also have something to drink. How fantastic is that? Previously, the government had been drafting a law that allowed city dogs to be sent to “wildlife parks” on city outskirts. Hmm, Hunger Games anyone?!?

Many locals seem quite comfortable with, and even enjoy, having the free-roaming animals around. During my time walking around I also saw lots of locals feeding the animals proper pet food plus homemade shelters dotted along streets. Rather touching is the fact that the Turks are very much against euthanasia of dogs and cats for “population control”. This is in contrast to, for example, the U.S. where euthanasia of healthy but unwanted dogs has been a common, although controversial, public health policy for a long time. Both my canine furkids are rescues from Californian "high kill" shelters. A strategy being tried in Turkey is trap-spay/neuter-vaccinate/treat and release. Free-roaming dogs are picked up off the streets and taken to local shelters where they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies and other diseases, treated for minor illnesses, ear-tagged for identification, and then released back to the neighbourhood where they were trapped. I saw many tagged dogs and it was wonderful to see a more humane way to deal with a worldwide problem.

Today was my last day in Istanbul before I fly to Nairobi, Kenya tonight. I admittedly sat on a patio for the morning in the sun after hand washing & drying (thanks to cranking up a radiator) my clothes and picking up an awesomely gaudy pair of running tights from the Nike store. It was nice to recharge my batteries after a couple of hectic non-stop days. As it stands right now there is currently no-one in either of the two seats next to me on my flight, let's hope it stays that way as sprawling out and sleeping would be a rather wonderful coup, if I can pull it off.

Next stop..... Africa!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Diamonds Are Forever

After a far better night's sleep, I was up n' out the door walking down Istiklal Caddesi with a Java in hand just before 9am. I was heading for the ferry terminal in Eminönü across the Galata Bridge and it didn't take me long.

The Bosphorous connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea (only a mere 20 miles away) via the Sea of Marmara, Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea It forms the boundary between Europe and Asia thus dividing Istanbul in two continents.

TurYol is a private ferry company primarily running ferries for locals as an alternative to the city ferry line. However it pleased me to learn that they also run a 90 minute tour along the Bosphorous for an crazy low price 12 TL every hour with the last sail around 7pm I believe. Tour companies up in Sultanahmet want to charge over 20€! It was time to test my sea legs.

The boats are large, modern & clean and a really nice elderly gentleman walks up and down plying you with hot tea, orange juice and snacks for very little cost. I got a seat right near the back port side as my research had led me to discover this was the best side for the tour if you wanted a closer view of the coastlines. Both coasts are lined with palaces, ruins, villages, old Ottoman wooden houses (Yali) and gardens. The baroque buildings of Dolmabahçe and Çiragan Palaces are there to in all their grandiose glory and the latter is now a hotel. A glimpse of old versus modern is with the Ortaköy Mosque, absolutely dwarfed by the Bosphorous Bridge which connects the two continents. Rumeli Hisari (Europe), just before the Fatih bridge where we turn to head back down the Asian coast, and Anadolu Hisari (Asia) are two fortresses adjacent to each other. Of course a highlight for me was sailing pass the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi) whose original structure dates back to 341BC. Legend has it that a young princess who was locked here as a means of protection died here after being bitten by a snake, as an oracle had predicted leading to her being sent there in the first place. Today the tower has been fully restored and transformed into a luxurious restaurant. It has been a watchtower, a lighthouse, a quarantine station and these days a cafe/restaurant. More importantly it is where Elecktra King holds MI6's M (Dame Judi Dench) captive and where she later tortures 007 with a garrote in the 1999 "The World is Not Enough" (the one where Denise Richards is laughably a nuclear physicist).  The tour was great value for money and audio guides are available for an extra price.

Any place that is famous for its Harem is going to have a colourful history, and I'm not talking about the colour of the interior decor here. Topkapi Palace is basically a historical soap opera with tales of randy Sultans, concubines, scheming eunuchs during the Ottoman Empire. The exceptionally well maintained buildings and grounds are simply stunning. Even the "circumcision room" is opulent - you could literally lie back and think of the Ottoman Empire. Ah the life of the privileged.  There are more rubies, emerald and diamonds than at De Beers, the bones of Saint John Baptiste, several belongings of the Prophet Muhammad and allegedly the staff of Moses. Perhaps the most stunning item I clapped my eyes on was the 86 carat, yes 86, colourless (grade D) Spoonmaker's diamond. It is considered to be the 4th largest in the world and has a further 49 old-mine cut diamonds around it in two rows. Now that's some serious bling! It apparently gets its name from the fact a jeweller gave 3 spoons for it to the poor fisherman who found it in amongst some litter. There are also tales linking it to Napoleon and also to Marie Antoinette. The entrance fee for both the Palace and the Harem are both covered with the museum pass. Note that you are forbidden to take photographs in many of the rooms housing artefacts but it is well worth the visit. You will need to devote a couple of hours to truly get a feel for the place. Also on the grounds is the Aya Irini, a Byzantine church almost as old as Hagia Sophia. It is now mostly empty bar the pigeons that nest here but it's serenity might prompt you to wonder why you never ever see a baby pigeon. The Istanbul International Music Festival apparently gives it a facelift and uses it as a venue for classical music due to its exquisite acoustics. Entrance is covered by the museum pass but I wouldn't pay to go in otherwise.

By now I was feeling hungry and so I headed back down to the docks where I caught the ferry from this morning. Istanbul's favourite fast food can be bought here, the balik ekmek (fish sandwich). You queue up with all the locals in front of boats tied to the quay that are grilling mackerel fillets and stuffing them into fresh bread with a generous serving of salad. For a mere 6 TL you get a very tasty lunch (made even tastier by a very generous serving of lemon juice) and if you want to be truly local you wash it down with a 3TL cup of salgam (pickle juice with chunks of pickles & paprika). Of course I did both, being British I do have the pickle gene after all located just after my queuing gene in my chromosomes.

I wouldn't have been much of a traveller had I come all this way to Istanbul and not tried Turkish coffee. If you are in a rush for your caffeine fix then this perhaps isn't a drink for you, it is a method of preparation and not a kind of coffee. I was asked how sweet I wanted it. To be honest I had no clue if I was meant to have it sweet or not so I was asked how I normally drink my coffee. Result? I was going to have my Turkish coffee sade (no sugar). Apparently a well-prepared Turkish coffee has a thick foam at the top (köpük), is homogeneous, and does not contain noticeable particles in the foam or the liquid. I checked my teeth after the first sip. So far so good! I didn't look like I had just taken a mouthful of black treacle! It was delicious and creamy tasting yet didn't have a drop of dairy in it. There was a piece of lokum too which was equally as yummy. Admittedly I had to look up what the glass of accompanying water was for, this was after I had started pouring it into my coffee to "spread it further" and apparently you're supposed to leave the grounds in the bottom of the cup. No wonder I was buzzed. The girl in the shop must have been horrified! You can take a lass out of Lancashire.....

I stayed at the coffee shop for a couple of hours reading and ordering another drink, this time a fresh lemon & ginger tea served with a cinnamon stick. Still feeling decidedly full from the balik ekmek (or may be it was the overdose of coffee grounds that was satiating my hunger) I opted to buy a sesame seed coated Simit (Turkish bagel) from a street seller for 1 TL and a banana for dinner as I slowly headed back to base. I can always rely on ye olde faithful banana "sandwiches" no matter where I am!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Turkish Delights

Just because I slept "overnight" on my flight I didn't for one minute think I was going to get away scott free without any jet lag woes. She didn't disappoint. I was asleep around 8pm and woke just after midnight, staying awake until well after 3am, re-waking at 530am and basically tossing and turning until my alarm at 8 (yes I had set an alarm).

After a quick shower and packing my daypack, I headed out the door. I had things to do and places to go! Admittedly first on my list was Starbucks - I was in need of some Java. I chose one part way down the pedestrianised boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi, which starts out at Taksim Square. I really could've gone anywhere and found one though, they are everywhere which is kind of sad. I passed at least 4 before I walked into one. Istiklal means independence (given after the formation of the Republic of Turkey) and it is said that you come here to witness the city as a local. That did make me wonder why, aside from the Starbucks, I was also greeted with Burger King and McDonalds.

The neighbourhood of Galata has its roots from the 14th Century. You walk along cobbled streets which all seem to converge on Galata square, home to the Galata Tower. For a fee of 25 lira you can actually go up the tower and be rewarded with outdoor 360 degree view of the city. A little pricey but if you time it right, like I did by going back to watch the sunset, then it is worth it.

You can take a Metro tram to many places within the city but I opted to walk. Although a little chilly (it is Winter after all), the sun was out and after the previous day of numb bum-itis there was no way I really wanted to spend time sitting on my backside unless it was absolutely necessary. Although distances look huge on a map, they're really not and I got from place to place very easily. To be a little less obvious, I had pinned a couple of places to my Google Maps app. It was very easy to fire it up and look like I was merely fitting in with everyone else with their face glued to a smartphone, although I didn't have to use it all that often.

I walked over the Galata Bridge, littered with restaurants and fishermen, across the stretch of water known as the Golden Horn from the Galata neighbourhood to Eminönü. I was greeted with the sight of the New Mosque, a rather odd name considering it dates back to 1597. That was when I actually managed to dodge traffic and cross the road. I've learnt in my short time here that vehicles are loathe to stop for pedestrians.

You can actually follow the tram line to get to the Byzantine and Ottoman-infused neighbourhood of Sultanahmet. The belief is though that all roads in Istanbul lead here anyway so technically does this mean you can never get lost? The sights, shops and hotels are all in easy walking distance and then before you know it you're in the next neighbourhood you want to explore. This is the heart of Old Istanbul and used to be known as Stamboul. It is home to some of the heavy hitters sight-wise, hence why I had made it my first port of call.

Sultan Ahmet Camii or Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more popularly known as the Blue Mosque due to the many blue tiles adoring the interior walls. It was built in the early 1600s during the rule of its namesake, Ahmed I, and his tomb lies here. It is absolutely stunning inside and more than 200 stained glass windows admit natural light adding the a sense of tranquility. It is a running mosque so prepare to wait if it's prayer time, and remember to bring something to cover your hair, shoulders, and knees (I believe head scarves are provided to females but I brought my own). You are provided with a plastic bag to carry your shoes rather than leaving them on shelves. Entrance is free.

A 72 hour museum pass costs 85 lira and gives you entrance to Topkapi Palace & Harem, Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia), the Archaeology Museum plus several other sites. If you visit them all you save about 40 lira on admission wee you to pay individually but the biggest bonus is you bypass the ticket queues! I snapped one up in front of the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque face each other but the former is the elder of the two. This amazing feat of engineering is almost 1500 years old. The interior is simply stunning, with the main attraction being the huge and beautifully decorated space supporting the dome. It was consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and then became a museum in 1934. Look out for the Weeping Column - a hole in a pillar which you stick your thumb in in the hope it emerges wet thus curing you of ailments (the translation actually used the word sweat which was a little off putting), Viking graffiti carved into a marble banister, the beautiful mosaics and the Ottoman tombs. Some restoration is going on inside so certain parts of blocked off/covered.

Not included in the museum pass is the huge underground water storage cistern known as Basilica Cistern. This highly unique experience was well worth the 20 lira admission. At nearly 1500 years old, it consists of 336 30-ft high marble columns, and is capable of holding nearly 3 million cubic feet of water. There's still a couple of feet of water in there packed with what looked like Koi and you actually get to walk around and through the cistern on an elevated wooden walkway. It felt like I was going into some vampiric lair or the Chamber of Secrets from Harry Potter! Try and find the upside down and sideways Medusa heads plus the weeping column aka the peacock column. However, a pretty famous British spy was actually here before me... James Bond came here in the 1963 "From Russia with Love".

Lunch came courtesy of The Cihannüma, a restaurant known for its panoramic views and admittedly rated for that very thing in my Lonely Planet guide. I had an incredibly tasty hummus followed by a dairy free mushroom casserole (should've included cheese but they catered for my needs) which was delish. It wasn't cheap however but I figured that with how full I felt it could suffice as my main meal for the day and I would just snack later. Without realizing the close proximity, I actually walked past the Tourist Police station that was the target of a suicide bombing a few weeks ago. It was taped off and several police with big guns were stood outside, I didn't stop not that I needed or wanted to in any case.

Feeling very full I made my way back down the hill (I don't think I've yet mentioned Istanbul is quite hilly) only to walk up another one towards the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and Topkapi Palace. Both are covered under the museum pass. Topkapi Palace isn't open on Tuesday's but in retrospect that was actually ok because the Archaeological Museum is huge and I likely would've had a museum meltdown in any case.  You won't see everything right now either because it is undergoing restorations and yet there is still plenty to see. A few thousand years of history is housed in the buildings that make up this museum, there's even stuff from ancient Babylon. The information labels are very informative for those of you who like to read when visiting a museum and there's also the option of an audio guide for an extra cost. Sadly due to the restorations you won't be able to see the Alexander sarcophagus at this time.

The  Karpali Çarsi or Grand Bazaar is as the latter name suggests, very grand meaning huge. It would be very easy to get lost here. After walking up yet another hill, I went to go and have a look at the place rather than look for anything to buy. After a while it all started to look the same. Lots of jewelry and more carpets than I've ever seen in my life. The bazaar has been in operation for centuries so it worth a visit just for the historical aspect. If, like me, you do not want to buy anything, just stroll through the market exploring it and pretend not to hear, for the umpteenth time, "special discount lady, just for you." Make sure that you remember which entrance you came in and have an idea of how to get out. Google maps was my friend here and I had no problems in leaving from the right exit to take me to the highly recommended Misir Çarcisi (Egyptian Bazaar/Spice Bazaar). The smell is intoxicating, it's a tea and spice lovers heaven. You could probably walk around the entire thing and be fed your weight in lokum (Turkish Delight) samples, with no pressure to buy.

By now the sun was beginning to set so it was time to haul myself back across the Galata bridge to the tower. Admittedly I had been starting to fade until the sugar boost of lokum gave me a much needed kickstart. The views during sunset certainly didn't disappoint and were made even more magical when prayer rang out across the city.

And now I sit in the ironically named Caribou coffee house with a jolt of caffeine and a Zeytinli açma, Turkish bagel filled with olive paste whilst I plan my adventures tomorrow.

Old Constantinople's still has Turkish delight on a moonlight night.....

Monday, 19 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Scratching Yet Another Travel Itch

I was strangely even more laid back than I usually am when about to embark on yet another Itchy Feet trip (though I'm sure you know I had my usual lists of things to do, as that is the A type way!). The furkids were already sorted so I extended my day at work, went out for dinner to Heirloom (because let's face it, 1/4 tin of baked beans was never going to cut it) and still had to launder most of the clothing I wanted to bring with me. I think I panicked the most about not being able to find my trusty travel hat! I packed everything including a sleeping bag into a 40 L backpack, camera gear into my day pack, got 4hrs of sleep, missed the bus by seconds and of course had Car 2 Go issues (they reimbursed me for the trip however so win-win!) but it was finally no more sleeps! I am off to Kenya & Uganda via Istanbul!

My 4+ hour flight from Vancouver to Montreal was turbulent and I didn't have a window seat. I was, however, sat next to an Air Canada pilot and so instead of semi-hyperventilating every time we were thrown around I tried to remain poised, merely to save face so he wouldn't think I was an idiot. The pilot who was actually flying had us keep our seat belts on and kept telling us "the tower says it will level out and be calm in about 10 minutes". May be he was communicating with the tower of Sauron however as those 10 minutes never really came. We landed a little later than scheduled at a snowy airport but that didn't bother me as my connecting flight was a lifetime away. Well may be not that long but having then sat for 6 hours in the airport it certainly felt like it.

I studied French for 5 years back in high school. Shame then that that was over 20 years ago. Besides, I personally am never ever going to need to ask someone for a ham and cheese sandwich, which truly is about as much as I can recall from my GCSE French. That and the phrase for "I don't understand". Champion.

I'm not sure why the airport map was confusing me so much. I didn't yet have a gate number for my connection and I wasn't even sure if this airport had an international departures terminal. My brother, with whom I was conversing with, found this hilarious and made fun of my misfortune.

"How good is your French these days?" I asked.
"Shit. I did German" was the hilarious yet honest reply.

I did however manage to order a Jugojuice in broken French (well I'd no excuse really seeing how it was written out for me) and then a meat & cheese-less pizza, which I'm actually quite proud of. Not for my linguistic skills you understand but the mere fact that I was able to get such a thing in Quebec, where they love their meat and cheese. I'm pretty sure I'd have been pushing it had I asked for a veggie burger.....

The snow had been falling pretty hard during this time and by the time I boarded my Turkish Airlines flight for Istanbul just after 10pm you might have said it more resembled a snow plane. I hoped someone had a large container of ethylene glycol!

The moment the flight crew threw all the queue jumpers off the boarding line up I knew this was going to be a great experience!  Watching the faces of all those obnoxious passengers, seemingly devoid of the queuing gene, hoping to jump to the front and steal overhead spaces be told to wait their turn just made my day. One woman tried, and failed, twice. Finally an airline that takes boarding seriously! And it pays off, boarding truly was a breeze. The ample overhead space meant no problem getting my backpack in and my day pack went under the seat in front of me which I could then rest a foot rest on.

We pushed back from the gate early but then we spent at least half an hour getting de-iced. Just as that was finishing up the Captain announced there were some issues with a "contaminated runway" (snow) and braking. They were, I think, going to try clearing it, take some more measurements and then we "would see if we could actually take off". I secretly hoped that he didn't quite literally mean the latter part of that.

In the interim the cabin crew brought around little goody bags and a series of menus, plus you had a blanket, pillow, headphones and slippers waiting for you in your, what I found to be, comfortable seat (with head rests). The bag contained ear plugs (God send), eye mask (another God send), socks, toothbrush & paste and lip balm. The large touchscreen TV in front of you also had a remote control and you could plug in and control your iPhone/iPod via the TV. Wifi is apparently "coming soon". It had one of the best movie selections I've ever seen in flight (even if I did just play with the maps and cameras haha). Bit bloody posh this and I was in cattle class.

The food I ate was amazing, all vegan and incredibly tasty. You were even given a snack of the best Turkish Delight I've ever tasted prior to take off and had an invitation to request a sandwich or muffin any time you felt hungry. Water was quite literally on tap, with staff making sure you had it whenever you needed it. Everything was spotless and even the bathroom had flowers in it. The crew were to the point but very helpful, which was great when they swooped down on some young guy in front of me who seemed oblivious to turning his phone off during take off. It was quite humorous as he had initially tried to hide the fact by turning it over into his lap so you couldn't see it was on.... What the!?! I had already tapped him on the shoulder once - he apologized then carried on surfing Facebook! Haha Have we truly become that addicted to the Internet?

I'm sure there was more I could wax lyrical about but I can't remember it as I slept blissfully for at least 6 hours, ironically waking briefly as we flew by Manchester. I felt like I was totally spoiled during one of the absolute best experience I have ever had flying! Economy felt like First class. They were leaps and bounds above other carriers. Air Canada take note!

Despite having left over an hour late from Montreal, we landed at Atatürk Airport only 10 minutes late in 8hrs 35 mins thanks, I suspect, to a wicked fast jet stream. At times our ground speed was over 100 mph faster than our actual airspeed (thank you trusty travel map!) as we rode the jet stream. This is common at this time of year: a few weeks back BA114 landed in London 90 mins early from New York thanks to riding winds of more than 200mph. I certainly wasn't complaining either even if our climb from Montreal through the snow storm was initially a tad bumpy in places.

We were taken by bus from our plane to the main terminal and it was very crowded. Perhaps time to engage my queuing gene to avoid any nasty surprises? Everything is easy to follow though plus if, unlike me, you haven't sorted your visa prior you can use machines to apply for your E-Visa (I just used the same system back home a couple of weeks ago). The queue for passport control was huge but it moved incredibly fast and I believe every single kiosk had an officer in it. You are quite literally herded through, which some people might find cold in approach but I'm all about efficiency. I'm not looking to make friends here after all and well I've had worse experiences crossing the border into the U.S.! I didn't have to collect luggage and I was lining up for the Havatas bus all within about 50 minutes of touching down (and that included a bathroom break/freshen up).

The Havatas bus runs every half an hour and cost me 11 lira. You buy the ticket on the bus and then sit back and let someone else do the driving. It was 430pm on a Monday and so traffic got a bit congested but I was at my destination stop near Taksim Square (and the final stop for the bus) in just over 35 minutes. There is apparently a metro line but that involves several changes so this suited me just fine.

After a successful Air BnB experience in Tokyo, I had decided to use it again for Istanbul staying in an apartment near Taksim Square. My host, the very nice chef-in-training Gökhan, met me where I disembarked the bus and as we walked to his place he chatted away giving me hints and tips on where to go and what to do. I had to laugh when he pointed out the nearby Starbucks.

As I type it has been 26 hrs since I left my apartment and admittedly, despite it only being just after 7pm here in Istanbul, I've already climbed into bed. I am exhausted. Excited but exhausted. I can't wait to scratch my itchy feet tomorrow with a day of exploring Istanbul!