08 December 2007

17-24 November 2007 – Red Sea, Egypt

Oh what a trip! Six nights on a boat, on the Red Sea scuba diving my little heart out.

I had always wanted to do a ‘live-aboard’ trip but had always ended up doing land-based trips. Not this time. I booked myself on a trip to Egypt through a dive company in the UK (http://www.oonasdivers.com/) and picked a trip around the northern Red Sea. It was definitely the right choice.

I flew into Sharm el Sheikh and immediately joined the boat. We were moored for the night but the next morning we took off. The boat (M.Y. Juliet) was well kitted out…the cabins were pretty good and I got one to myself with bathroom as well. Five cabins all up, with a bigger one on the main deck that costs a bit more. The ‘lounge’ was very comfortable and that’s where we ate as well. As for the main decks, they all had large cushions everywhere so wherever the sun was shining, you could lay out and soak it up.

The other divers consisted of nine people: three Spaniards and the rest from the UK (the five from the UK were from the same dive club). It didn’t matter that I went by myself as we were all there for one thing…diving.

On the Sunday we got up at a leisurely time of 8am and had our first dive at 10am. It was an easy one as everyone was still a bit tired and it was the first dive of the week. The water throughout the time was around 26-27 degrees, and with the sun out I got myself quite a tan. Saying that, it was very windy in some places which bought the temperature down somewhat.

Our days usually began at a 6am wakeup call, a dive at 7am, breakfast at 9am, lazing around until about 10.30am, another dive, lunch, lazing around until about 2pm, our third dive, afternoon tea, and then our last (night) dive around 6pm. The sun set each day about 4.30pm so it was dark by 5.30pm. Dinner was about 8pm and most of us were soundly tucked up in bed by 9.30pm! Scuba diving is exhausting work!

Our local dive guide Wael was experienced and with his knowledge and the captains, we got to see a whole lot of hammerhead sharks, dolphins, turtles, string rays and fish/coral. None of us left disappointed – particularly when we were scuba diving and were visited by a pod of 13-14 dolphins who played around with us for about 5mins. Amazing mammals. And the hammerhead sharks…they kept their distance but still near enough for us to appreciate the size of them (c.2.5 metres)! We also spied a white tip reef shark on the last day.

The highlights of the trip include:
  • Diving with a pod of dolphins
  • Seeing the hammerhead sharks (about 11 in total over the 6 days)
  • Spying the white tip reef shark
  • Coming across a massive turtle (about half my body size) while doing a night dive on the Thistlegorm wreck (which was being chased by about 6 divers with their flashing cameras)
  • Diving on the Thistlegorm wreck was truly fantastic – it was a WWII steam freighter and sank in 1941 with all its cargo…which meant we got to see jeeps, trucks, ammunition, rifles motorcycles and many more things. We got to dive in and around it and because work was being done on it, rumours were around that it was closed. Lucky for us that it was open on the day we visited it and only three other boats in the vicinity. Usually in peak season you could have up to 20 boats parked up!!

I had such a good time and would definitely recommend the boat and doing a live-aboard – it gets you away from the day-trippers and gives you far more flexibility.

15 October 2007

10-14 October 2007 - Poland


Krakow is a fantastic town...right from the first moment when we (me and Sheree who is another of the bride's friends) got off the train from the airport. It was such character and the historical buildings are wonderful. We visited the 'old town' which were were actually staying in (thanks to my sis for the Green Hostel recommendation) and the square (the oldest one of this size in Europe) which is really busy with tourists and locals.

We ended up having a dinner of dumplings which is very traditional in Poland. Can't say we stayed up very late but did go and have a traditional Polish beer called Tyskie - a very light beer and one I may actually try to find in the many Polish shops we have in London now.

We had arrived in the late afternoon and by sunset were were shivering away as the night temps for our stay in Poland was around zero at night and about 9 degrees during the day. I can still feel the cold! Thankfully I had my fleece with me but could have still done with another layer.


On the second day we got up (very) early and got a bus to Aushwitz and Birkenau concentration camps (costing all of 14zl return...which is a couple of pounds). It was a 90 minute journey time but between looking at the passing scenery and nodding off, the time went quite quickly. We got there just in time to join the English tour and over the next four hours we got to see, to some extent, the misery and horror that prisoners went through. There were some bits worse than others, especially when we saw the initial movie of the camp being liberated and the actual shoes, hair, glasses and clothes that the Nazis horded in warehouses.

What took me by surprise was the that the buildings at Aushwitz were made of brick and it looks more like a modern day prison than a concentration camp...I was expecting huts made of wood or something similar. Birkenau was more primitive with wooden huts (or what I would call barns) which was really barbarically basic. I have no idea how they could have survived a winter with no heating, barely any food, hard labour and one layer of clothes.

The guide ended the tour at Birkenau which housed most of the prisoners and I found that his grandfather had been held in the camp. It makes you realise that this can't simply be written down in history books and left as is, but it should continually highlighted as an example of what humans can do to each other and ensure it doesn't happen again (which of course it has in places like Croatia/Bosnia).

After the tour we headed back to Krakow and by the time we had found somewhere to have dinner and a coffee to warm up, we headed to bed for another early wakeup to see Wawel Hill - there is a castle and cathedral worth seeing there - and to get our train to Warsaw.


The train to Warsaw was on time and took us just over 2.5hrs. We got tickets the day before and it was actually cheaper to buy them at the train station than over the internet (which you can do). Warsaw was wet and cold when we got there but what warmed up us instantly was the beautiful hotel we were booked into (Le Royal Meridian Bristol). It is placed right by the 'old town' so we didn't have to go far to see some of the sites in Warsaw. The old part was actually rebuilt after WWII (as it was completely bombed out) and the Polish demolished a town in Germany to get the necessary material!

We didn't do much as it was wet and very cold so went down to the hotel bar for a couple of (very expensive) drinks and meet up with Ewa (bride), John (groom) and some of the groom's family. It wasn't a late night as we had the wedding the next day and the beers were just too expensive!!!

The wedding (Warsaw)

We woke on Saturday to see the sun shining but the temperature wasn't going to be hitting double figures as there was a bitterly cold wind blowing. We did go for a wonder into the old town again and visit a palace, but more to find a decent coffee than anything else. We needed to be ready for 1.30pm so after getting back and dressing, we were heralded into waiting taxis for the ride to St Anne's church. It is a stunning church, and is one of Poland's most notable ones.

The service (and Catholic mass) was done in Polish and though John is English he knew what was basically being said and what he was signing his name to!!! It was about 1hr and there were some photographs taken afterwards but it was so cold outside that we went back to the hotel. Some of us then headed to the 'local' bar for some more decently priced alcohol and the soccer for the blokes. We got back to the hotel for 7pm where the reception was being held.

Two thirds of the guests were Polish and the rest of us English but that didn't stop us socialising with each other as there were a few who understood English and translated. Ewa and John had 2 or 3 'English' people sitting at each table so we could get to meet some of the Polish wedding guests, and frankly, after the music began, everyone was up and moving around anyway.

It was such a fun evening, and with shots of Polish vodka to keep everyone going all of us made it till midnight when the wedding cake was cut. As to after that, some of it is clear and some of it is not so clear. I know I got to bed about 4am and think I was one of the last. The Poles certainly know how to party, and they certainly know how to drink vodka! I think the last of the guests left about 5am...and I don't think one English person had lasted the distance!!

The next morning, with many people feeling sorry for themselves, we checked out of the hotel, saw off the Polish contingent who were driving back to their homes, and headed to the airport for the flight home.

I will certainly go back to Poland (I think I invited myself to someone else's wedding during last night), and found the Polish to be very friendly and welcoming. There is certainly more to be seen in Poland!

02 October 2007

28-30 September 2007 - Devon, England (surfing)

Myself, and friends Sera and Tina decided to do a learn-to-surf weekend down in Croyde, North Devon (which came with all the 'oh my god, you're crazy, you'll freeze' ringing in our ears). Come 5pm Friday afternoon I was rearing to get out of London and head towards the coast, but getting there was another matter entirely.

After 7 hours we did eventually got to Croyde, but that was after idling for about 1.5hrs after an accident on the motorway. Half an hour later we passed another accident but this time we got through pretty quickly. It did mean we couldn't enjoy the scenery as it was about 12.30am when we got to our rented cottage 'Chapel Farm Guest House'.

I had looked up the weather forecast and it 'promised' sunshine and a very 'warm' 18 degrees. Unfortunately it didn't quite turn out that way and it was a bit grey and overcast when we got up the next morning.

After breakfast we turned up at the surfing school and got kitted out in wetsuits and booties. We then got a lesson in the sandpit which showed us the necessary basics to standing up on a surfboard. Pretty easy on land....not so easy on the water! We had booked lessons for the whole weekend, which meant 2hrs in the morning and afternoon on both the Saturday and Sunday.

Amazingly the water was warm and with a 7mm full wetsuit on, we were all pretty toasty while (trying to) surfing the waves. It really wasn't as easy as it appears, and I have a new found respect for surfers as it is a hard workout and by the end of the first lesson on Sat morning we were all feeling pretty tired. You literally have to heave yourself onto the surfboard, start paddling like crazy to catch the wave, push yourself up to a standing position and then try to stay on! Then you have to drag yourself back out into the surf, avoid other surfers and crashing waves, and do it all over again...and again...and again.

For us beginners, we also had to deal with swallowing water, having water rushing up our noses when doing a nose dive because your weight is in the wrong position, and also the constant face plants and belly flops when you fall off the board. All the instructors were patient and I can still hear their 'paddle faster' screams as we were trying to catch the waves! They are all surfers themselves and know what they are talking about. The school we went through has a 1:6 ratio, so we all got individual attention which helps a lot.

As part of the surfing package we got lunch includes which was delicious. In fact, I would go back to Croyde for just the food as all the meals we got over the weekend were really tasty and reasonably priced.

After the Saturday afternoon lesson, we were so tired that we headed back to our cottage, had showers, a wine or beer, and dragged ourselves out for dinner. It didn't help that Croyde was packed and the restaurants/bars were packed (all 3 of them), but we eventually sat down for a meal and then dragged ourselves back to the cottage and ended up going to bed...very early....(far too embarrassed to say what time!)

The next day we woke up with very achy muscles and wondered how on earth we were going to surf that morning. It was slightly colder as well and still grey and overcast. We warmed up pretty quickly after literally dragging on wet wetsuits inch by inch...very ungraceful getting into them and out of them, and very unforgiving on the figure! But we got there in the end and headed towards the beach for a lesson...this time the three of us had an instructor to ourselves. We were all able to catch the waves and get up on the board so we were improving...gradually! That afternoon we had another lesson but the water was much more flat and we were getting cold towards the end.

We had such a great time in Croyde (which is a lovely little village), and I would recommend surfing to anyone...it's such a buzz when you catch the wave and manage to stand up and stay up. If you do go to Croyde, the Surfing Croyde Bay surfing school is a great school to go through. We may well have been bitten by the 'surfing bug' as myself and Sera are already trying to organise a surfing week in Portugal over Xmas and New Year!

25 August 2007

24-27 August 2007 - Dorset, England (walking)

The six of us (Allison, Tina, Jane, Eloise, Tom - and me behind the camera) all arrived at Lulworth on the Friday, with some of us driving down, and the rest getting the train. The day was beautiful and it was about mid afternoon when we all congregated at the ‘local’ (I know, it didn’t take us long to find the nearest pub!). But we had a valid reason…the YHA didn’t open it’s doors until 5pm.

Sitting at the pub we decided on the route we were to walk the next day and also organised a taxi to get us there as we would walk back from Weymouth to Lulworth (just a mere 10 miles, and a few hills). We did go for a small walk that afternoon and of course treated ourselves to a delicious ice cream (the first of many).

We couldn’t ask for better weather on the Saturday. Walking 10 miles in rain and wind would not have been fun, so the fact that we had sun the whole time was miraculous. The first part of the walk was pretty reasonable, one or two hilly parts but generally fine. It was after lunch that the fun began – and of course the big a**e hills came at the end of the day when we were already tired and sweaty!

Got to say though, between the huffing and puffing we had some fantastic views, gorgeous weather and had a good laugh or ten along the way. It is a beautiful part of the country and reminds me a little of New Zealand.

After a shower, change of clothes, and wine or two, we headed back to the local for dinner (Lulworth was full with day trippers and anything near the main hub of Lulworth, ie the cove, was expensive and packed…and we were too tired to walk far). A delicious meal, cold beer, and good company made the night pass very quickly. But most of us were in bed before midnight as the next day we were going on another (even hillier) 7 mile walk from Kemmeridge back to Lulworth (ie headed out north from Lulworth one day, and south the next).

Again the weather gods smiled on us and apart from some wind (which was cool and a welcome relief at times), we had another gorgeous day….to climb one hill, after another, after another….and the scramble down the other side wasn’t anything to scoff at either!

But we had a good time, and we even stopped off at a beach where 3 adventurous people jumped in and went for a swim (the fact I put a toe in and grimaced, was enough to tell me that it was far too cold to take a dip)! Instead, I had the very necessary ice cream back in Lulworth to cool down.

We headed back to the YHA and changed, and some of us drove to the nearest town 20mins away to get out cash as there are no ATMs in Lulworth and most places only accepted cash. But we made it back in time to sink a few wines before heading back to…yes you guessed it…the local!

On the Monday we were all a bit tired so we packed up and had a leisurely day off from walking. Some of us drove back to London (in very good time since it was a Bank holiday and the Nottinghill Carnival), and others took the train back.

I really do recommend these walks, and you don’t need to be super fit to do them, but a bit of perseverance and good lungs will help! (and of course the goodwill of the weather gods).

A big thanks to Jane who organised it all, and volunteered to drive some of us down and back.

20 June 2007

2-17 June 2007 - Morocco

I arrived in Casablanca a day earlier than the 2-week Exodus trip and met up with the two people I was travelling with – Anne and Sera. We hit the markets in Casablanca and found that it wasn’t as cheap as we thought. And as for haggling…let’s just say to get a good bargain you started at half the price given, and work up slightly from there. On the Sunday we met the rest of the people we were going to be travelling with – 10 Americans (very nice ones as well), 5 Brits, 3 Aussies and 2 Kiwis.

The ages were from 24 up to 60, with about half male and half female. Our local guide Larcen was lovely and as he spoke Berber, French, English, Arabic, some Portuguese, Italian and little bits of other languages, we knew we would be in good hands. What amazed me was that 95% of the population here are Berbers (indigenous) with 5% Arab and nearly everyone in Morocco speaks French. If only I could remember my school-French!

We were in Morocco just before its hottest time…so we were bathed in temps around 30 degrees+ most days, though in the Sahara it was about 45 degrees! They didn’t seem to have aircon working properly in most of the places we were staying so there were some very restless nights and meant we were ready to get out of bed when the sun rose every morning (well...a slight exaggeration)! Because of the season, there weren’t a lot of other tourists about so in some places, especially the Atlas mountains and Sahara desert, we had the place to ourselves.

As for the sights in Morocco here are my favs:
  • Walking through the medina (market place) in Fes – massive area with lots of side alleys and we were told to stay close as getting lost was a surety! It is in fact the largest medina in the world. It is confusing, immense, noisy, smelly, hot and intense – an amazing experience!
  • Hassan II mosque in Casablanca – the third largest mosque in North Africa. Absolutely stunning.
  • Volubilis – the largest and best preserved Roman ruins in Morocco. The mosaics are amazing and very well preserved.
  • Staying at Merzouga (Sahara desert) where we climbed the Erg Chebbi dunes for sunrise. The dunes are a staging post for the Paris-Dakar Rally. We also had a 2hr camel ride into the desert where we spent the night under the stars at a Bedouin camp. (One of the guys got stung by a scorpion here…not a poisonous one, but he was in a lot of pain most of the night).
  • Todra Gorge in the Atlas mountains – awe-inspiring with thousand-foot high vertical walls. We went for a 5 hour walk from 1600m to 2000m (very hot, but not as hard as you might imagine). There is a massive contrast to the barrenness of the mountains and then coming down to Todra gorge where it is basically an oasis…green with lots of date palms and wheat fields. Their irrigation system is simple, but very effective and everyone has access to the water.
  • Spending 2 nights at a gite – local and basic accommodation in the High Atlas mountains. A great time to unwind and a highlight was going for a walk around the fields and watching people harvesting them. Girls were hauling loads of wheat and grass up hills and were a lot fitter than I am! In fact harvest time is the best time to come here for.

Everyone in the group got on amazingly well, and it has to be one of the best groups of people I’ve travelled with. I would definitely recommend this trip if you don’t have much time and want to see it all. Otherwise Morocco would be easy to travel around independently. Got to say though, two thirds of the group came down with a dodgy stomach during the trip….no one is quite sure what it was as it was like a domino effect - ie went from one person to the next over a course of about 5 days. Luckily I escaped the worst of it!

Morocco is so diverse in regards to landscape, people and history! The food is very tasty, though, it usually consisted of only 3 choices…cous cous, tagine, and omelette….for lunch and dinner!Once we got to the main cities like Casablanca and Marrakesh, there was more on the menu, but not much! And as for alcohol...barely saw any of it. Remember that nearly the whole population is Muslim.....

I really enjoyed my time here and would definitely come back to Casablanca for a long-weekend of shopping, and a week of hiking in the Atlas mountains.

19 June 2007

2-17 June 2007 - Photos from Morocco

Door knockers to the King's palace!

A good ole gossip!

Amazing tile work

How to keep the neighbours out!

Couple strolling through Casablanca

Hustle and bustle of a medina (market place) at Meknes

Hassan II mosque in Casablanca

Standing guard outside the tomb of a Moroccan king

The sprawling medina of Fes

18 April 2007

6-11 April 2007 - Brisbane, Australia

It could be a good couple of years before I see my little sister Penny again, so I decided to kill 2 birds with one stone…see my sister in Brisbane, and actually visit Australia for the first time (yup...flown over Australia many times but have never visited)!

The flight got me into Brisbane airport at 11pm on Easter Friday and Penny (or should I say Penelope) was there waiting for me (iPOD plugged into her ears of course). We had a quick catch up but by 12.30am both of us were ready for bed.

Saturday had a leisurely start to it, and after Penny showed me her lab and all the serious looking equipment and chemicals in it (no playing allowed), we headed into Brisbane city. There I met Mike (her boyfriend) and we had lunch, went to the art gallery, a museum and generally mooched around for the afternoon. Of course a good way to see a place is by boat, so we got the ferry – we spent the next 1.5hrs cruising the river and freezing our butts off as it was windy and the sun was setting. All I can say is there were lots and lots of apartments and office buildings along the waterfront.

After the cruise we headed to a Japanese restaurant to eat, and to warm up. Dinner was delicious and would have been a lovely evening if on the next table there wasn’t a small boy watching a DVD on his DVD player (I kid you not). Obviously his parents either have nothing to talk to him about, he doesn't talk, or he has Attention Deficit Syndrome!

We went back to Mike’s place where we stayed the night and caught a taxi back to my sister’s place so we could get a bus out to Lone Pine Sanctuary. It is the world's first and largest koala sanctuary, with over 130 koalas. So yes, I got to hold a koala, feed kangaroos and have a very pleasant time viewing dingoes, kookaburras, wombats…all things Australian!

We spent the afternoon there and that night my sister kindly made dinner and we chatted and watched telly. A nice way to unwind and relax as we had to get up early for the Bushwacker's eco tour we were booked on for the next day.

We had to meet the van at 7.20am, and the first stop on the tour was a place called the ‘Natural Arch’. We were driving up to Springbrook Mountain, and this waterfall/arch was on the way. We were basically in the rainforest and you could notice the drop in temperature. Our guide was in a fleece and beanie even before we left on the tour!! After some more driving we got to a track through the rainforest that should have taken us 45mins, but because there was a couple with a 5 month old baby on the trip, and the woman was wearing a skirt and inappropriate footwear, it took us 1hr15mins, which happened to coincide with the rain. So yes, we got very wet and didn’t get lunch until 2pm!

It was great walking through the rainforest, hearing the birds, taking in the atmosphere, and getting a botany lesson or two! We didn’t see any wildlife (other than hearing birds) but near to the Natural Arch we did see a red-bellied black snake on the side of a bank…my first venomous snake!

After lunch we basically headed back to Brisbane, but did stop at a glowworm cave and fed Rosalie birds which was great fun. We also hit the local fudge shop (yum). Four people left the trip in the afternoon as they were spending the night in the forest…3 of them were Korean and didn’t speak a word of English to us, so I felt sorry for the Italian girl who was the only other person doing it.

By the time we got home, had something to eat, drank a wine or two, we were both ready to crash.

Tuesday was my last day so we had a late start to the day and headed into town to do some shopping and see a movie ("300" - very violent). Afterwards we met Mike and went out for dinner.

All in all I had a fab time and was really glad I made the effort to see my sister. I wouldn’t want to live in Brisbane but its climate while I was there was great…26/27 during the day and 17/18 at night. I also love not having to wear a coat or hoodie all the time and being able to sit in restaurants/bars that are opened up onto the footpath.

16 April 2007

6-11 April 2007: Photos from Brisbane, Australia

Me and my little sister!

Walking under a waterfall in the rainforests on Springbrook Mountain

Penny feeding the Rosalie birds

Brisbane city by ferry

Red-bellied black snake...can kill you in an hour


Feeding the local wildlife

Isn't he just adorable?

Looks pretty uncomfortable to me!

Wombats are just plain weird looking animals....