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Bristol - Birmingham - Dubai

Let the adventure begin


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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The day has finally arrived! After weeks and months of planning, we are off on the Great African Adventure with our friends Lyn and Chris.

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Thankfully Chris drives an estate car, which means we can get all four plus luggage into the one car. Unfortunately Bruno thinks he is coming too. On our previous trips with Lyn and Chris we have taken Bruno with us (three different canal barge holidays), so it is perhaps not surprising that he expects to be part of the trip this time too.

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It's an excited little gang who leave Bristol for Birmingham Airport

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For convenience and speed, we have chosen valet parking at the airport, and we just pull up in the car park right by the terminal building, hand over the car keys for someone else to park, and head for the check in.

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I am not saying we are keen, but we end up first in the queue before they even open the check-in desks!

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We sail through the Fast Track security lane and head straight for the executive lounge.

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With free food and drink, we start the trip the way we intend to carry on. There is a self-service salad and pastry bar, a menu to choose hot items from, and a well stocked bar.

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The food is fresh and tasty, although the portions aren't very big. But then we don't really want to be digesting a massive meal on our flight.

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Fish finger sandwiches! Mmmm

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It’s a very relaxing way to start this adventure, and we stay there until our flight is called.

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At the gate departure lounge, Chris spots a bag on the seat next to him which doesn't seem to belong to anybody. Having asked around the people in the immediate vicinity, he reports it to the airline staff, who are quick to react.

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It turns out the bag belongs to a chap who is standing by the window the other side of the room, too busy chatting on his phone to notice the commotion his bag is causing. The official loudly berates him for leaving his luggage unattended, and all is safe and well in our world again.

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Much to our delight, the flight is not full, and we are able to spread out, taking a whole row of seats each. This is Lyn and Chris’s first long haul flight – I hope they realise that having room to spread like this is the exception rather than the rule!

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I ask one of the crew members to take a photo of us all, chatting about the adventure we are about to embark on.
Soon the air stewardess comes back with a Polaroid camera, snapping us (and other passengers) and creating a very nice little personalised memento from it.

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All in all Emirates are a great airline to travel with, and we have a very enjoyable flight, with good food (in fact Chris reckons this is the best air-plane food he has ever had!) and plenty of drink.

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Tandoori chicken - very tasty!

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Two bottles of whisky - Lyn's happy!

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Although no Captain Morgan, Grete is happy too!

After dinner, the cabin lights are dimmed, with little ceiling lights creating the impression of a starry sky, as I settle down with the free wifi and the others watch live football on the TV screens.

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Shame the football results aren’t as good.

Just another five hours to go...

Posted by Grete Howard 01:12 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing emirates birmingham Comments (2)

The Gowler African Adventure 2016

We're ready for Africa, but is Africa ready for us?

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Planning

Not since our Around-the-World trip in 2002 has so much planning and so much anticipation gone in to a holiday. So why is this one so special? Several years ago my very good friend Lyn said to me that one day she wanted me to help her arrange an African safari. Well, that 'one day' finally arrived.

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I really want Lyn and Chris to have an extra special safari experience, as this is their very first safari, first time in sub-Saharan Africa, first time in the Southern Hemisphere and first long-haul holiday. It is also their first experience of a tailor made private tour.


So how can we make it special?

Enter Calabash African Adventures:

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Why Tanzania and why Calabash?

There are an almost infinite number of tour operators who will design a bespoke African safari, so why have I chosen Calabash? I first became aware of them some years ago when they replied to question a in the Tanzania Forum on Virtual Tourist at the time I was researching a safari. I contacted them for a quote and they came back to me with an itinerary that fitted my plans and a price well within my budget. The safari, taking in all four of the northern parks in Tanzania, was amazing, and Calabash more than lived up to our expectations in every way.

That was 2007. Compared with other safari destinations in Africa (we have been lucky enough to have been on a number of safaris to a number of different parks in a number of different countries over a number of years), we have found Northern Tanzania to be far superior, in particular as far as the wilderness experience goes. So we went back in 2011. And in 2014. And now we are taking our fourth Tanzanian safari – all arranged by Calabash of course.

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A safari in Tanzania is far from a cheap holiday, with the cost of accommodation in the wilderness starting at around £100 per person per night, and prices exceeding £1000 per person for sleeping in a (luxury) tent not being unusual (as you can see from the screen print below from one of the big safari operators).

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In an attempt to maximise our hard earned holiday savings, Tillya (of Calabash Adventures) suggested travelling at the end of the 'Green Season' when prices are lower, the grass is greener and there are fewer people. The only problem is, of course, this time of year is called the 'Green Season' for a reason... it may rain. A lot.

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We have been closely monitoring the weather forecasts, and keeping fingers crossed that at least the heavy rains will have finished by the time we arrive. Having taken safaris in Africa previously in the Green Season and not been particularly hampered by the rain, we are hoping that it won't be too much of a dampener (pun intended) this time either. At least it should make for some atmospheric scenery shots. Watch this space!

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Many an enjoyable evening has been spent during the planning stage of this trip, with African food and wine, while discussing itineraries, photography and packing.

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Other aspects of the preparations, however, have not been quite so pleasurable.

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A number of immunisations – as well as malaria prophylaxis - is required for all four of us, although David and I thankfully had the benefit of some of the vaccinations still being valid from previous trips. We spent an entertaining afternoon at Nomad Travel Clinic in Park Street in Bristol, being advised on all things travel-health related by a delightful nurse called Helen, who shared our slightly warped sense of humour.

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Although theoretically Tanzania requires you to produce a Yellow fever immunisation certificate if you are arriving from an infected country (in our case Kenya), we have travelled to the country three times in the past via Nairobi and never been asked for the certificate. I have heard, however, about travellers who have been stopped, fined ($300) and immunised on the spot, so it is not worth taking the risk. Not that we would ever consider opting out of any recommended vaccinations.

VISAS

Both Kenya and Tanzania require travellers to obtain a visa before entering the country. Kenya no longer issue visa on arrival, but their website is easy and user friendly. Or so I thought - David and I applied for an online visa last year when we visited Lake Turkana. As the two of us already have an account, it was just a matter of completing the personal details, information about this trip and any previous visits; and attach our itinerary, flight tickets, photograph and scanned copy of our passports.

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There are several agencies on line who will offer to arrange your visa for you - for a fee of course. While we sometimes use their services for some of the more obscure countries we visit, for Kenya (or Tanzania) this really isn't necessary. The money we saved will go towards a drink or five in Africa.

For visits up to 72 hours, you are entitled to enter on a transit visa, providing you are continuing to another East African country; and the issue of our Transit Visa was instant. Success.

So... I try to do the same for Lyn and Chris, setting them up with a Kenyan evisa account using their own existing email addresses. So far so good. A message pops up on my screen saying that an email has been sent with a link which they need to click on to confirm the address. No problem, I ring Lyn and let her know to look out for it. No email received their end. We wait half an hour. They still have no email. We try using a different email address for Lyn. Still no email from Kenyan High Commission. What to do now? I am guessing a firewall on their Sky account has stopped the emails reaching them, so it is time to put my thinking cap on. As a last resort, I try creating a new Outlook account for each of them on my PC, and this actually works! I receive the necessary link, carry out the confirmation 'click' and we're in business! Lyn and Chris also have Kenyan Visas! The applications have only taken me five-and-a-half hours! And that's just the Kenya ones!

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To obtain a Tanzanian visa, we need to download applications from their website, send off with the passports to their High Commission in London. No big deal, and in 2014 (our last visit to Tanzania), the passports took just over a week to come back, although the website only actually suggests to allow 3 working days for the process. Or at least it did last time I looked, a couple of months ago.

So imagine my horror when I casually glance at it now, and find that a new message has suddenly appeared: Apply 4-6 weeks prior to your departure date! Eeeek! Our trip is just over four weeks away, so I guess we ought to get a move-on with those!

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With the fee paid in cash to the Tanzanian High Commission's bank account, David takes the forms, bank receipt and passports to the post office on Saturday morning and send them off registered delivery. To our surprise, we get them back on the following Wednesday! So much for the 4-6 weeks and the mad panic, they didn't even take four days!

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We are now good to go! Almost.

Paying the balance of the holiday

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It's just a few minor issues to tie up now, such as paying the balance of the safari to Calabash Adventures. Priced in US dollars, the cost of the ground arrangements in Africa is dependent on the exchange rate, which is not particularly good at the moment. On our previous safaris organised by Calabash, we have paid the deposit by bank transfer, then the balance by cash on arrival. We do not really want to do that this time, for a couple of reasons – the amount is considerably more than it has been on previous occasions (longer and more involved trip, as well as being for four people rather than just two of course), and we are spending a couple of nights in Nairobi before arriving in Tanzania, so we don't really want to carry that amount of cash with us.

To cut a long story short, I gave David the task of searching for alternative ways of paying the bill, and he came up trumps in the form of a company called Currencies Direct, which seemed to offer the best rate. We have always transferred money through our regular bank in the past to pay for ground arrangements abroad, but the lower exchange rate through the bank, plus bank fees made a difference of nearly £300 more that of Currencies Direct. That is an awful lot of of rums for me, and whisky for Lyn (never mind beer for the boys).

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The process was simple. David opened an account, they checked him out to ensure he was a bona fida customer, and we were in business. After a couple of 'due diligence' compliance checks, the money was transferred to Calabash's account in Arusha. Simple, cheap, efficient. Now looking forward to a cocktail or five with the saved money!

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Countdown

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So, the countdown has begun, with each day marked off the calendar. Of course, in this electronic age, it is all done on the phone!

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So, what's left to do?

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Ordering foreign currency

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Getting our nails done. Mine are a nice turquoise, while Lyn has decided to blend in with the natives. Or not. I hope it doesn't scare the animals. David and Chris have decided to leave theirs au naturel.

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And of course...

Packing

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While keeping clothing and toiletries to a minimum is easy, travelling light is impossible for a photographer. It is not just the cameras and lenses; tripods and window clamps; batteries and chargers; flash guns and accessories, plus numerous memory cards that takes up space of course - it's all the other stuff too. OK, so I admit I am a gadget freak, but I do enjoy playing around creatively with filters, intervalometers, motion sensors and such like. The only item from this photo that I won't be taking is the high-viz vest. Not a good idea in the bush - we are trying to attract the animals, not scare them!

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It's strange really. I can't wait to go, can't wait to be there, see the sights, smell the air, taste the food and just drink in the atmosphere. And take lots of photographs, of course.

Yet, I don't want to go. I want to stop time right now as the excitement I feel at this moment is electrifying. It's tangible, it's giving me such a delirious high. I want to feel this intoxicated on excitement forever...

And then it's those "what if it doesn't live up to the expectations?" feelings. Perhaps it is better to just have the buzz of the anticipation than the real thing...

Then I give myself a virtual slap and a good talking to: "These are the most blatant First World Problems Grete! Stop overthinking it and just appreciate that you are in a position to be able to do this. Go forth and enjoy!"

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As we're off to fulfil our Out-of-Africa fantasy and make extraordinary and life-long memories for ourselves and our good friends, I will just leave you with this poster we bought in Kenya on our very first safari in 1986 - if you study it carefully you will see so many scenarios epitomising African safaris.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:09 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

Out to Africa - in search of the Greatest Show on Earth

Just one-and-a-half more sleeps...

Back in the autumn last year, a friend (thanks Jen) suggested I might be willing to hold a talk for Avon Wildlife Trust about some of my wildlife related travels. I agreed to talk about “African Safaris” as I do have quite some experience (and a number of photos) of the subject matter. The problem was, once the “safari thought” had been introduced into my brain, it matured into a strong desire to travel to Africa to shoot some more animals. Hence this trip was booked. We get back home with just a week to spare before the talk - not much pressure then!

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Having been on numerous safaris in the past, it has always been my dream to see the migration crossing the Mara River, and I therefore contacted our trusted ground handler in Tanzania (Calabash African Adventures) asking them to set up a “Migration Safari” for us. I am fully aware that seeing a river crossing is far from guaranteed, as they are often elusive, rapid experiences, but just seeing the sheer number of animals that are likely to be in this area will be worth the trip.

The annual wildebeest migration is renowned to be one of the world's most spectacular wildlife events and is often called “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

The migration doesn't just happen in one place at one time, with the animals walking from A to B, and it is also not a continuously forward motion. They go forward, backwards, and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces again, they walk in a line, the spread out, or they hang around together. You can never predict with certainty where they will be; the best you can do is choose a likely location and timing based on past experience. And then hope for the best!

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I am hoping to be able to update this blog while we are away, and will be taking my mobile internet with me; however, I am sceptical about the mobile phone coverage in the bush. And we really ARE going to be in the wild for a few days, staying in a luxury mobile camp in the far north west of Serengeti; so if you don't see any updates, do not fret. They will eventually be published even if you have to wait until we get home.

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Safari here we come!

Posted by Grete Howard 06:24 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

My bags are packed and I'm ready to go...

India bound yet again

OK, we're as ready as we'll ever be, we have checked in on line, packed our bags and received our visas. India here we come! I just wish this fog would lift, it is making me kinda nervous for our flight early tomorrow morning departing on time....

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Most of our trips have a specific reason for travelling to that particular place at a certain time, and this one is no different: we are going to India to celebrate the Holi Festival where the brightly coloured powder is being thrown around. Having seen lots of photographs of this festival in the past, I have wanted to be part of it for a number of years. Looks like I am about to get my wish and get very messy indeed!

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This is our ninth time to India, and this time we are going to be staying with our friend Sabu from Icon India Tours and are really looking forward to seeing his new house in Jaipur.

All being well I should be able to update the blog regularly over there, as we not only have a new tablet, but also a mifi dongle with mobile internet. Watch this space.

Posted by Grete Howard 03:37 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Snow and ice and all things nice

Heading for colder climes

Back in 1992 my interest in the Snow and Ice Carving Festival in Harbin was piqued by a visit to a lantern festival in Shanghai where I heard about the winter equivalent in North-East China, but back then trying to find information about travelling there proved a little difficult and after a very half-hearted attempt I gave up.

Since then, Harbin as a travel destination has not only moved ever upwards on my wish list, but has become almost 'mainstream', with a number of travel companies going there as part of a group tour. Looking at some of our favourite operators, I was disappointed to find that they only spend one or maximum two nights in Harbin, dividing the rest of the time between Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Hong Kong. I wanted much more time in Harbin, from a photographer’s point of view if nothing else, and I really didn't want to spend my time and money revisiting (some for the fourth time) these other cities in China. So I set about designing my own trip, which is our preferred way of travel anyway.

Once I started looking into it, I found there was enough in the Harbin area to keep us occupied for a week or so, and with the help of a very nice young lady at China Highlights, I came up with a plan to fit in as much as I possibly could in the short space of time that we will be there.

Talking to another travel friend, Alan, a few months later about our various forthcoming trips, he too had wanted to visit the Snow and Ice Carving Festival, but he also felt discouraged about the amount of time operators such as Explore (we met Alan on an Explore trip to Bangladesh back in 2007) actually spent in Harbin. “Join us” I said. “Great” said Alan. So it came to be that the three of us will be heading to north-East China tomorrow for a week in the cold. And I mean COLD, Harbin is under the direct influence of the icy winter wind from Siberia and current temperatures are hovering around the -20 °C mark. I am packing all the thermals, fleeces, jumpers, hats, gloves, socks I have ever owned...

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The only drawback (in addition to the cold) is that it's a long way to go for just a week, with 3 hour journey to Heathrow, 3 hour check-in time, an 11.5 hour flight to Shanghai with a 3 hour layover and a further 3 hours to reach Harbin (by the time we reach the hotel, we'll have been travelling for over 24 hours). But since when has that stopped us?

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I should be able to update this blog as I go along – both hotels we are staying in have free internet access, and I don't think Travellerspoint is on the banned website list in China. Facebook, on the other hand, is a big no-no in China and access to that (as well as Youtube, Twitter and a host of others) is totally forbidden. David thinks he has managed to get around that however, by setting up a VPN (virtual private network) connection to a proxy server, tricking the Chinese authorities into thinking we have a British IP address. Whether it works or not remains to be seen....

Posted by Grete Howard 07:43 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Aiming High: Ladakh and Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas

♪♫♫♪♫ When I’m on, when I'm on my way, yeah ♪♫♫♪♫

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Have visa, will travel.

Having travelled to India every other year since 2003, it seemed natural to plan a holiday there for 2013 too – there are certain traditions that do need to be maintained dontchaknow.... Initially I wanted to go to Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela religious festival in January / February, but after some serious deliberation we decided the crowds would be just too overwhelming. Reading the news reports from India during the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, I know we made the right decision – some 80 million people are thought to have visited the Kumbh, making it the largest gathering in human history. Yes, it would have been cool to have been part of that, but not so cool for the scores of people trampled to death in the stampedes.

Anyway, after more consideration (David wanted to spend his birthday somewhere exotic) and discussions with our trusty agent in India (Sabu of Icon India Tours ), we came up with a plan, which included Ladakh and Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas.

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The Ladakh region of India

Packing for the trip has been a challenge to say the least, as the average summer temperatures for Leh and its surrounding areas can vary as much as between -10 °C and +35 °C. With its thin air, the sun feels even more intense here than it does at lower altitudes - it is said that only in Ladakh can a man sit with his head in the sun and his feet in the shade and suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time. We also have to consider the start of the trip in Delhi, which is experiencing monsoon season right now (with massive amounts of flooding around), and a heatwave with temperatures in the mid 40s (centigrade)!

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The weather forecast for Delhi looks seriously scary!

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It looks like the weather will be very pleasant in Leh

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Maybe not the best temperatures for camping in Pangong Tso, but we've known worse! A few days ago they had -3 °C and snow!

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It could be chilly up in the mountains at Khardung La...

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...with a nice warm finish to the holiday in Srinagar.

♪♫♫♪♫ Led Zeppelin's Kashmir ♪♫♫♪♫

Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveller of both time and space, to be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed

Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace, whose sounds caress my ear
But not a word I heard could I relate, the story was quite clear
Oh, oh.

Oh, I been flying... mama, there aint no denyin
I’ve been flying, aint no denyin, no denyin

All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land
Trying to find, trying to find where I’ve been.

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream
My shangri-la beneath the summer moon, I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin through Kashmir

Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear
Ohh.

When I’m on, when I'm on my way, yeah
When I see, when I see the way, you stay-yeah

Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I'm down...
Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, well I'm down, so down
Ooh, my baby, ooooh, my baby, let me take you there

Let me take you there. let me take you there

Posted by Grete Howard 02:27 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

There be Wales on the horizon

Planning for Picturesque Pembrokeshire, Photogenic Puffins, Peculiar Pre-history and Period Palaces

The main reason for this trip to Wales, is to visit (and stay overnight on) Skomer Island, with the hope of finally clapping eyes on puffins! Over the years we have made a few attempts to see the colourful and comical puffins in the wild, but so far we've been unsuccessful. Our encounters with the cute little birds to date have been a little off-beat:

1. stuffed specimen in the Natural History Museum in London
2. in captivity in The Living Coasts in Torquay
3. as a fluffy toy in an RSPB souvenir shop
4. lightly smoked on a dinner plate in Iceland

Maybe the last one is best kept to ourselves when we meet the wardens (and the birds) on the island...

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(the smoked puffin is to the right at the front...)

While we are in the Pembrokeshire area, we are staying for a few more nights, meeting up with a friend and seeing some of the local sights. Watch this space for frequent updates as I have specifically been out to buy a dongle so that I can (hopefully) access the internet via the mobile phone network. Buying a dongle in England was a totally different kettle of fish to purchasing one in Mumbai some 18 months ago. Some of you may remember the palaver, if not, you can read about it here

Posted by Grete Howard 08:05 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Counting down the hours to the next trip

The Land of Ice and Fire

After the disastrous holiday to Kyrgyzstan in 2010 (long story, but in a nutshell the group dynamics were completely shot to pieces, mainly because of one woman) we vowed never to travel in a group again, but in planning this trip we have reluctantly booked another group tour.

The trip came about after seeing an advert on London Underground for a weekend to Iceland to see the Northern Lights for £399, but the more we looked into it, the more we realised we wanted to go for longer than that. Not only is there so much to see in Iceland (of course, we will only be able to 'see' some of sites we visit because the short daylight hours means it will be light late and dark early – sunrise is at 11:30 and it sets at 15:30), but we also wanted the maximum chance of seeing the Northern Lights, especially as this winter is said to be the best in 50 years to view this great natural show! Hence we settled on a one week trip. Aurora borealis occurs mainly on the magnetic pole, so the further north you go the greater your chances are of witnessing the show. As the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with almost negligible levels of light pollution and positioned on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is said to be the ideal place to view the Aurora Borealis.

Next was planning how to do the trip – the initial idea was to rent a self-catering apartment and a car, but when we looked into it, the group tour actually cost less than the price of just the apartment and car hire, without any of the entrance fees, petrol, meals or guiding. Plus, as the website points out: “the program includes a special six night Northern Lights Academy – with 6 evenings of presentations, lectures and guided tours at spots likely to offer a glimpse of the Northern Lights”. That clinched it for me, and should hopefully increase our chances of seeing the lights.

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Some amazing photos of Northern Lights in Iceland here

Let's just hope the weather cooperates – the forecast isn't looking too great at the moment. I am sure many of you can remember our ill-fated trip to Greenland to see the northern lights three years ago: we planned to travel there during December for the best chance of seeing the aurora – the week before we were there it was -35 °C, the week after we returned to the UK it was -35 °C; the week we were there, it was +5 °C! Not only was it the hottest New Year on record, it was warmer than the UK, all the snow melted so we were unable to go dog sledding and skiddoing as planned, and the warmer weather meant more cloud cover, so the Northern Lights never made a single appearance all week.

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So, there it is – we are off to West and South East Iceland for a week on a coach tour with 38 other people. With such a full program (day and night), I am not sure when I shall have time to write my blog, although with the Icelandic prices, we won't be spending much time in the bar...

Posted by Grete Howard 11:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

Setting the scene for Tobago

Birdwatching, snorkelling and sunbathing. Sunbathing?

“If you are to appreciate Tobago, you must switch off your northern concept of time as soon as your aircraft lands. “

“The pace of life on the island is so slow that it is almost stationary. Given the nature of island life, time has little, if any, meaning. “

These two quotes from the best and most informative on-line guide on Tobago, My Tobago, are making me feel increasingly nervous about our forthcoming trip to the island. I don't do chilling on holiday, the word 'relaxing' doesn't feature in my vocabulary. Those of you who have read my previous blog entries, will know that I was bored stiff by 11:30 on my first (and only) day in Goa. So why I have I booked a week's holiday at a remote beach hotel in Tobago? Much as I am relishing the idea of spending lazy days limin' (the Tobagonian expression for 'hanging out') around the pool in our small beach-front hotel miles from anywhere, I am concerned that the reality won't quite match the romantic notion.

I am also a stickler for time keeping, so learning to live on 'Tobago time' may prove a little ambitious.

So why did I book a trip to Tobago if I am not into beach holidays? Two words: birdwatching and snorkelling. Tobago is said to be one of the best places in the Caribbean for birdwatching, and the same can be said for the underwater life. I am hoping that the colourful birds and their watery cousins will help keep my me from boredom. I have even put in a request for a room with its own hummingbird feeder. Being the rainy season they could all be hiding under a giant leaf in the deep of the jungle to avoid getting wet and thus escaping from the camera-toting twitchers.

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Weather forecast

Boredom is “a condition characterised by perception of one's environment as dull, tedious, and lacking in stimulation”. I consider myself to have a very low boredom level, and a great thirst for knowledge, hence I prefer my holidays to be full of new sights, activities, impressions and information, and I am somewhat afraid that a week in Blue Waters Inn is not going to fulfil those criteria.

Watch this space.

Posted by Grete Howard 07:08 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

It's that time again.....

.... time to head off somewhere exciting

The Caucasus is calling us with a 12-day private tour of Armenia and Georgia.

As the cradle of civilisation, this area is where Jason captured the Golden Fleece, where the lance that pierced Jesus' side is displayed, where the Ark came to rest, where Joseph Stalin was born and more importantly: where vines have been growing for thousands of years. Nestled on what is considered to be the dividing line between Europe and Asia, and bordered by the Caspian and Black Seas, Russia, Turkey and Iran, the region has been an arena for political, military, religious, and cultural rivalries for centuries. Once part of a complex trade route, linking the Arabs, Greeks, and the Silk Road among others, Armenia and Georgia have centuries of tempestuous history to unravel. In Greek Mythology, Caucasus was one of the supporting pillars of the world, denoting the importance placed on this region at the time. Wikitravel describes the two countries thus: Ancient, millennia-old civilisation amidst stark mountain landscapes and remote canyons. Home to amazing world heritage sites, forgotten monasteries and boasting a wonderfully laid back and friendly culture. Fabulous cuisine and culture, incredibly diverse landscapes, and an exceptional wealth of ancient churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and cave cities.

Stay tuned and follow our explorations as and when I have internet to update the blog.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:36 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Almost time for the next trip

Thailand and Laos here we come

One of the disadvantages of doing a private tour rather than joining a organised group tour, is the amount of paperwork it seems to generate. I do like to pre-book as much as I can before we leave the UK, as it saves time and hassle when we get there. Our travel time is so limited (once because of work schedules, now as a result of family commitments) so I want to ensure we maximise our time in the destination doing what we want to do, rather than spending valuable time looking for hotels or trying to arrange transport.

With five flights, eleven hotels, one cruise, various transfers and other arrangements, I seem to have a folder full of tickets, vouchers and schedules. paper weighs so heavy too.

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The folder full of paperwork.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:09 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

A sign of things to come?

Bureaucratic frustrations.

overcast

The English taught the Indians well when it comes to bureaucracy - shame they had to be such good pupils.

Four weeks ago we sent off both passports and visa applications after having battled endlessly with the online application forms. To say they were not user friendly is an understatement - any website that needs 17 pages of instructions on how to complete a two-page form obviously needs a little redesign. Unable to process our payments, we had to sign out and back in again just to pay for the privilege of another sticky label in our passports.

The process proudly claimed to be trackable on line, but every time we tried to see what stage the process was at, it came back as 'application not found'. Thanks to the Post Office tracking system, we knew the passports had been received and signed for, so we weren't overly worried.

Two weeks go by and we receive an email to say that I, as a Norwegian citizen living in the UK, need to pay an extra £10. I had half expected that, as I was unable to prove that I have been living in this country for the last 37 years - bank statements, mobile phone bills and pension letters are not acceptable proof, it has to be a utility bill. Unfortunately, all household bills are in David's name only. We provided them with a mobile number and details of when it would be convenient for them to call and collect the payment (any time) as requested.

After another week goes by without hearing anything from them I send off a chasing email, and within an hour they have phoned and taken the payment.

A few days later David gets a call to say his passport is ready, but he needs to pay for the postage. As we provided them with a stamped addressed envelope with enough postage to cover both passports, they agree to keep hold of David's passport until mine is ready. When that will be they don't know.

With just over a week to go, I am getting a little jittery and chase them again. Today I received my passport in the post, in the stamped addressed envelope we provided. Without David's passport!

I wonder if the embassy practises this kind of incompetence just to get us used to the way things are done in India?

Visa

Visa

Posted by Grete Howard 02:03 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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