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Vestvågøya - Evenes - Oslo - London - Home

Farewell Norway


View Northern Lights in Lofoten 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today we make an early start for our drive back to Evenes Airport for the flight home. Leaving Ure to join the main road, takes us over a mountain pass with spectacular S bends. This is the only time we have been grateful for the lack of snow, and more importantly, ice, on this whole trip.

It is still dark when we reach the E10 highway. Despite being only half-awake, I spot something at the side of the road. It looks like a donkey – then I realise: it's an elk! Neither of the others have seen it, and they don't believe me at first, so I make David turn the car around.

There she is, grazing in amongst the trees. The photo is absolute rubbish at 25,600 ISO, but I don't care, IT'S AN ELK!

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Footnote: Although called 'Elg' in Norwegian, the elk / moose found in Norway (Alces alces) is a different species to the American elk.

The journey home via Gardemown and Gatwick is smooth and painless, and we get back just after midnight. It's been a long day, but we have plenty of awesome memories from the north and some good photos.

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Our route through Lofoten

Posted by Grete Howard 02:10 Archived in Norway Tagged moose elk gatwick ure homeward_bound evenes gardemoen ure_rorbuutleie alces_alces Comments (2)

Bristol - Gatwick - Oslo - Evenes - Risøyhamn

Heading for the cold north


View Northern Lights in Lofoten 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Thursday 14th November 2019 Bristol - Gatwick

Originally booked for February this year, we had to cancel when my dad was very poorly. Fast forward to November, and we are on our way, with our good friend and fellow photographer, Lyn.

Our flight is early in the morning from London Gatwick, so we stay in the Premier Inn at the airport the night before. As Lyn was working today (these poor people who are not yet retired!), we get there late, and go almost straight to dinner.

While the waiter is dishy (and way too young for me unfortunately), the food is just passable. Both Lyn and I have the Hunter's Chicken, which is very much on the small side and served with too small a portion of BBQ sauce. Never mind, we are having churros for dessert, a firm favourite. What a disappointment! They are cold and chewy. We are offered another portion, or a free drink to compensate, but decide to call it a day.

Friday 15th November 2019 Gatwick – Oslo – Evenes - Risøyhamn

We are always excited when we get a new experience on our travels, but this is a first I could definitely have done without: I spend the entire night awake, just lying there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to catch up with me. It doesn't. At all. All night. I am hanging this morning.

With valet parking arranged, they picked the car up last night, so all we have to do is walk across to the airport this morning.

Self check in is easy. Or at least it is when the young man comes over and does it for us. We are now finally on our way. We are pleasantly surprised that we are able to check the luggage in all the way to Northern Norway despite the second leg being a domestic flight.

The first flight is reasonably painless, it is not full and we are able to spread out a little. There are two large groups on the plane, one of which I assume is a large Indian family, and the other is a number of Caribbean Africans who speak a form of Creole or Patois.

Transfer at Gardemoen (Oslo), however, is anything but painless. Mrs Hitler at Security wants everything out. All the cameras. All the batteries. She could do with a personality transplant as she tuts and sighs when we are not fast enough for her liking, and I put my stuff in the basket she is trying to grab. We still make it to the gate in plenty of time.

Arrival at Evenes is very low key. By the time we get to the luggage carousel, the bags are already going round. Mine and David's. We wait for Lyn's. And wait. And wait. When there are no more bags arriving and the belt stops, the realisation that her case has not made it sinks in.

We head for the Service counter to report it missing, where we are lucky to go straight up to the waiting staff. By the time we have finished explaining when we last saw it, what it looks like, what flight we were on, and given our forwarding address to the young trainee whose typing speed must have been around one word per minute; a long queue has formed behind us. We are given a receipt with a telephone number and told that the case will be sent on to Andenes this evening where we can either collect it or it will be delivered tomorrow.

Meanwhile, David has arranged our hire car, and we walk down the dark slippery pavement to the car park, where the car is not only waiting for us, unlocked; the engine, and more importantly, heater, is on.

We're on our way.

Our first stop is the local convenience store, part of a petrol station, in order to buy some food for the next 24 hours. There is very little choice, the store is full of chocolate, crisps and other snacks, but as for 'meals', frozen pizza is about the only thing they have.

Despite it only being around 4pm by this stage, it is pitch black, and we can't see much as we make our way to the first accommodation.

Hjerterom i Andøy

Half an hour before we are about to arrive at the house, I ring the owner. I speak to him in Norwegian and he answers me back in Norwegian. We are clearly speaking two different Norwegians, and I spend the entire conversation asking him to repeat what he said. Eventually I have to admit that I have spent 45 years abroad and my Norwegian is somewhat rusty. It is not, but the 'dialect' they speak in this part of Norway might as well be a foreign language.

We find the house without problem thanks to the Garmin Sat Nav we brought with us from home, and are given a guided tour by Ole-Robin, the owner.

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On the ground floor is a large lounge-diner, a sizeable kitchen-diner, another small lounge area, the bathroom and one of the bedrooms.

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Lounge area

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Dining area

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Kitchen-diner

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The other small sitting room

Up some dangerously steep stairs are another three bedrooms. I now understand why there is a bucket in the bathroom named “potty”. There is no way I would want to climb those stairs in the middle of the night – they are lethal!

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Tonight is cloudy with no chance of seeing the Northern Lights, so we settle in for the night with a few drinks and the pizza we bought earlier.

Posted by Grete Howard 13:31 Archived in Norway Tagged oslo flight stairs norway norwegian churros gatwick lost_luggage risøyhamn premier_inn valet_parking vesteralen norwegian_airlines evenes gardemoen hire_car hjerterom_i_andøy andøya Comments (5)

Ashgabat - Dubai - Heathrow - home

The long journey home


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After breakfast we wander down to the lobby – partly to access the internet, and partly to get away from the drab room. An English-Danish couple approach us, asking if we know anywhere around the hotel to change money. They are very well travelled, and we hit it off immediately; so much so that they end up sitting there chatting to us for nearly three hours, sharing travel stories.

By this stage we manage to arrange a room swap, and thankfully return to something more comfortable. While we have stayed in very much worse rooms on our travels, they were never part of a four-star hotel!

With the help of a porter, we move out stuff over, followed by another room picnic using up all the leftover snacks. This room is a big step up from last night, with two chairs, a nice rug on the floor, two sets of towels, extra loo paper (that's a first in Turkmenistan!), two dressing gowns, extras pillows, a bolster on the bed, pretty bed spread, and two bottles of complimentary water.

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We take a nice long nap, followed by a shower, and get ready for dinner at 18:30. The restaurant is deserted. We are the only people there (yet they couldn't find us a decent room yesterday?), and the menu is limited.

We both order chicken in cream sauce and I ask for a Fanta. No Fanta, only Coke. Not being particularly keen on naked Coke (without rum or vodka, that is), I ask for an apple juice instead. As with everywhere else, they don't seem to provide individual cartons, so I end up with a whole litre of the stuff!

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They have no Berk beer (but there was some in the mini bar in the room earlier), only Zip Light. Light? At 11%? As Boney M says: “Oh, those Russians!”

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The waitress brings over a huge basket of bread while we wait for the food. It is very fresh, and would be delicious with lashings of butter. No butter.

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After a few minutes the surly-looking waitress comes back to explain that they have no chicken. I ask for beef stroganoff with rice instead, while David chooses beef in cream sauce with chips (or rather fries, we've made that mistake before here in Turkmenistan). When the food arrives, David's dish comes with rice and mine is accompanied by chips. Oh dear. The chef had TWO meals to make this evening.

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Locals do not eat with a fork and knife like we would, only a fork, using the bread to push the food onto the fork. The food is quite tasty, albeit a little greasy. We don't linger in the restaurant after the meal, but return to the room for a very short night.

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Tonight's sunset

Friday 20th September

We're up at 01:00 for a 02:00 pick-up. There is quite literally no traffic, so we reach the airport in just ten minutes, ready to start the rigmarole of getting through the bumbledom of official pomposity and nonsensical regulations.

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In order to enter the airport terminal, we are scanned and the luggage is X rayed, and passports are checked. As soon as we are deemed suitable to be able to get inside, we request a wheelchair for David. Airports in general are such huge places with miles of corridors to make even the most able-bodied traveller weary.

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At check in, we yet again have to show our passports, and by the time we reach the pre-security passport check, we are waved through in front of the queue waiting, without anyone even looking at out passports.

The security check is much the same – the carry-on luggage goes through the X ray, which detects what the official suggests might be a knife. I show him my nail file and again we are just waved through.

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By the time we reach the boarding gate, our passports have been checked five times, and we've been through three X rays. Should be safe then. One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair, is that you do get priority boarding. Pushing David in the chair down the slope to the plane is hard work, not made any better by the fact that the rubber handles come off the chair where I have held on so hard to make sure it doesn't run away from me.

The plane between Ashgabat and Dubai is nowhere near full, and we get to have a row of three seats each. One poor chap has paid for two seats in order to have the extra space, and not only could he have got that without paying, the two seats he has been allocated are actually far part! Doh!!!!!

The second flight from Dubai to London Gatwick is full, however, and we end up with the two middle seats in a row of four – our least favourite seats. Arriving at Gatwick, we are amongst the first off the plane, and the porters point to a bunch of wheelchair just inside the tunnel “pick a wheelchair, any wheelchair...” It even comes complete with a porter to push this end, so I don't have to. In fact I struggle to keep up with them, and when the lift is not big enough for the three of us, I end up taking the escalators and have to run to catch them up again. We end up in a holding area, which has a great atmosphere, and while we wait for the electric buggy to come and collect us, we bond with fellow kindred spirits (ie other invalids).

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In the buggy

At immigration, the buggy driver gathers up all the passports and takes them over to an official, who brings them back as soon as he has checked them out. The buggy drops me off at the luggage carousel and takes David right through customs to a pre-agreed meeting area while I collect our bags. After helping a girl who is on crutches get her bag, I meet up again with David outside Marks & Spencer for the short walk to where the Valet Parking chap is meeting us with the car.

The journey home takes almost twice as long as it normally does, due to series of traffic jams every few miles. David has booked an appointment with the chiropractor this afternoon, but we have to ring him and cancel, as we won't make it. Which is probably just as well – for the last few miles David's stomach has been feeling increasingly unsettled, and as soon as we walk through the door, it explodes both ends. It must have been something on the plane, as mine follows half an hour or so later. Welcome home!

Posted by Grete Howard 14:46 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged flight airport security dubai passport luggage plan wheelchair gatwick ashgabat diarrhoea room_picnic grand_turkmen_hotel delsey_dining fanta Comments (2)

Bristol - Gatwick - Dubai - Ashgabat

We're on our way


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At this point I will admit that I put very little thought into this trip. It was only much later it became obvious that at the time of booking, I was a little scatterbrained, my mind still very foggy following my dad's death. I would have done some things slightly differently if I had really thought about it, but more about that as we go along.

There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to go to Turkmenistan:

1. The main draw was the “Gates of Hell” burning gas crater that I had seen photos of some years ago and really wanted to visit.

2. I was in need of a 'proper adventure' after a few 'vanilla' trips recently – I wanted my trip to be a voyage of discovery, not a ritual of reassurance.

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Getting very excited when seeing a group tour advertised on line, I asked our agent Undiscovered Destinations if they could arrange something similar as a private tour for the two of us. Turkmenistan is a highly regulated country, akin to North Korea in many ways, and independent tourists are not permitted to enter: you have to travel with a tour company.

After a few minor adjustments to the itinerary, I booked it, flight inclusive as I didn't have the time, nor the inclination to sort out logistics myself.

It wasn't until I started to read up about the places we were going to visit that I realised just how much the country has to offer and how incredibly unique it is. Even Undiscovered Destinations, who obviously (from their name) arrange tours to some pretty unusual places, claim that “this is one of our most exciting trips”.

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What I learned about Turkmenistan before I left:

With only 7,000 visitors a year, it ranks as the 7th least visited country in the world.

Turkmenistan is one of the richest countries in the region as they have the 4th biggest natural gas reserve on earth.

The country is 3.5 times the size of England and slightly larger than California, with a mere 6 mill inhabitants.

Fewer than 1% have (highly censored) internet access, with all social media and mainstream news channels banned. Even my chiropractor's website was blocked!

90% of the workforce are employed by the government

80% of the country is covered in desert

The country's first president after independence in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov, made a number of demands as part of his dictatorship:

Banning:
lip syncing at public concerts
recorded music at weddings
dogs from the capital
long hair and beards on men
TV presenters wearing make-up
opera, ballet and circuses
gold teeth (very popular at one time in Central Asia)
cars not registered in Ashgabat from entering the city
any cars that are not white from the capital

Renaming:
the word for bread with the name of his mother
names of the months based on other family members
days of the week
a meteorite
the airport
cities
a breed of horse
a canal

He also closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat, as well as the libraries, stating that the people only need two books: the Quran and the book he wrote himself (the Ruhnama, a spiritual guide made mandatory reading in school. Knowledge of the book was also required in order to get a driving licence).

He also decreed that all public buildings in the capital should be made of white marble – the city now holds the Guinness World Record for the most white marble buildings in any capital city (5 million cubic metres of marble mostly imported from Italy)

Continue reading if you'd like to find out how my pre-trip perceptions match up with reality.

In order to enter the country, we needed a letter of invitation, a pre-booked guided tour and a visa.

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As I mentioned earlier, my planning was a little off for this trip, and it wasn't until a couple of weeks before we were going that I realised that the flight was very early from Gatwick the morning after the opening night at my camera club. Normally we'd go up to the airport the night before and book into a hotel, but as I am the chairman of the local camera club, I felt I really ought to be there for the first meeting of the season. Hence we're up at 02:00 and on the road by 03:00.

At least Gatwick Airport is quiet at this time in the morning, with no queue for check in at Emirates. That is fuddled brain quandary number two – as we are flying with Emirates, why did we not try to get a flight from Heathrow? Even more perplexing – as we found out through a Facebook post - is that there are direct flights from Birmingham to Ashgabat five time a week. Really? With only 7,000 tourists a year (and only a small number of those would be British), and not a great deal of trade between the two countries; how can they fill those planes?

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Anyway, we are here now, and there is nothing we can do about it. The lady on the check-in desk insists that we take our bags to the 'Oversized Luggage' counter as they have wheels on them. Really? Those bags have travelled on three dozen flights already without their wheels being called into question; several on them on Emirates. Who are we to argue with her logic, so we do as asked.

The main terminal and eating area is very, very busy, and we struggle to find a table in any of the restaurants for breakfast. Eventually we unintentionally queue-jump in the Sonoma restaurant, by arriving from a different direction than the main entrance (where there are around a dozen or more people waiting). I do feel a little guilty when I realise, but not guilty enough to give up my seat.

London – Dubai

The first flight goes without incident or excitement, and we find ourselves with a long walk to the food court at Dubai T3, where we grab something to eat at the Hard Rock Café.

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Beef Sliders

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Pulled lamb roll with a delicious kale and beetroot salad, coleslaw and chutney

We spend some time chatting to the very friendly Brazilian waitress who promises to cook for me if I ever make it back to Brazil.

Dubai - Ashgabat

We have plenty of time here at the airport, but once we have bought our Duty Free rum for pre-dinner drinks in the room, we decide to move on to the gate for our next flight and just chill.

Heading for the Connections board, we check out the gate details for flight EK2214 at 23:55.

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No sign of the flight. This is rather worrying. Gate F7 is printed on our boarding card and was showing on the Connections board as we stepped off the previous flight, but now it seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

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When asking the lady at the Information stand for confirmation about our gate and she is unable to find it on the system using her tablet, and asks for our boarding cards instead, we really do start to get a little concerned. Has the flight been cancelled?

We follow the directions she gives us (a very long and convoluted route including a train and numerous escalators up and down) and finally see the arrows point to F Gates, but nowhere to get through the barriers or the X-ray machines which are all for arrivals, not departures. We ask the man at the end of one of the security lines. He points us through the opposite direction X-ray arch (which beeps but they still wave me though), and when we get the other side we have to move some barriers in order to continue. Eventually we make it to where we see an affirmative sign for F gates.

There is a bus to take us to the departure lounge (which is in the other terminal), but the doors from the waiting area refuse to open until someone with a key comes along. Stepping outside, it's like stepping into an oven at 36 °C, and we are grateful for the A/C bus. We now embark on a sightseeing tour of Dubai Airport. Driving around, under, and across the runways, we regularly have to stop and wait for planes to cross, and by the time we get to the actual gate, the bus journey has taken us 25 minutes.

Much to our relief, we see F7 with our flight mentioned as soon as we enter T1. Phew. The flight is just starting to board (there was us thinking we had a lot of time to waste), and a long queue has formed. An official is shouting “One line please, one line” over and over again, but organising the passengers is like herding cats. He spots us, and beckons us over. We, and four other westerners, are taken to the front of the queue and led on to the bus first. Much as it is nice to be treated like VIPs, this sort of cringeworthy segregation always make me feel uncomfortable.

This bus journey takes a mere ten minutes, but we spend a further 15 minutes waiting for the plane to be ready for boarding. We are in the row behind the Emergency Exit, and the plane is not full. The chap next to David has bought a huge display of chocolates on a wooden tray with legs, about the size of a dustbin lid (for those of you who can remember the old fashioned dustbins), and a good 18” tall. It won't go in the overhead locker. He therefore places it on one of the emergency exit seats. The air steward tries to explain that it has to go on a spare seat (but NOT on the exit row), and in the window, not the aisle; and that he has to strap it in and sit next to it; or it goes in the hold. He does not understand, or maybe chooses not to understand. The 'discussion' goes on for at least ten minutes, and finally he walks down the aisle with the display and comes back without it.

The ladies behind us are talking extremely loudly and when the announcements come on, they just up the volume to drown it out. There is a constant sound of cellotape being torn and applied, and a chaotic battle for the overhead lockers. We eventually leave 20 minutes late. As soon as the flight has taken off, the chocolate-man goes back down the plane to retrieve his display and places it in the emergency exit seats again. The same crew member comes over and the argument starts all over again. And again. And again. Eventually he reluctantly returns the chocolates to the back of the plane and sits down in the emergency exit row for the rest of the flight (which we find rather annoying as David asked if he could move there but was told he had to pay extra for the privilege).

As expected, as soon as the plane touches the ground in Ashgabat, we hear the sound of seatbelts being unclipped, and seconds later 95% of the passengers are standing in the aisle (while the plane is still moving) despite repeated announcements asking for them to sit down. I swear the pilot makes a couple of deliberate jerky stops, sending the offending passengers tumbling.

Ashgabat Airport is clean, bright and very modern. At the Visa counter we hand over our passports and are given a printed form in return which we take over to the cashier at another window.

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Once we have paid our dues - US$109 for me and US$129 for David, we are given back the form and return to the first counter where the visa is now issued.

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Armed with the visa, we are totally taken aback when we are faced with automatic passport control stands like they have in some airports in the US. Wow! I really didn't expect that. We still have to go to a manned booth too, but it all seems to be a formality and we are soon in the luggage hall awaiting our bags. A number of locals have enormous amounts of luggage, including the lady in front of me at customs. Like so many places throughout the world, there is an X-ray on entry to the country, and she has been asked to open her huge cardboard box. Inside there must a hundred pairs of trainers. All white. I am beckoned to bypass her, and I am whisked through without even as much as a peek. I had been warned that I would have to show them all my medicines as they have a very strict policy of drugs – we were sent a complete list of 249 banned drugs with our booking confirmation – and I have heard of other travellers who have been asked to produce the original prescription for certain pain killers. The customs officials didn't even mention drugs to us – they barely looked up from their screen.

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A last cursory glance at the passports and luggage tickets, and we are out. Or is that in? Maylis is waiting for us just the other side of the barriers, and leads us to the car park. As I said earlier, all the cars in Ashgabat are white, and finding our driver is proving a little difficult.

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After a short ten minute journey we arrive at the Grand Turkmen Hotel, check in and collapse into bed. It is now 04:30. Welcome to Turkmenistan: our 141st country and the last of the 15 ex-USSR states we've visited.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for organising this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged travel flights aircraft hard_rock_cafe emirates_airlines dubai_airport turkmenistan gatwick central_asia undiscovered_destinations visa_application visa_on_arrival check_in flydubai fly_dubai ashgabat_airport grand_turkmen_hotel Comments (14)

Makasutu - Banjul - Gatwick - Home

Going home


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I lay awake in my bed early this morning, listening to the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer before daybreak. The first rays of daylight brings with them screeching plantain eaters flying through the camp, pigeons cooing in the rafters, quarrelsome crows in the tree tops and the chattering of many small birds. Makasutu Forest is awake once more. I shall miss this.

We wander around the hotel grounds before breakfast, enjoying the whimsical architecture and meandering paths overlooking the mangrove and mud flats. In addition to the four floating lodges, Mandina has Jungle lodges, a Stilted Lodge and a Mangrove Lodge – each room being individually designed.

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The pool

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Reception area

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Breakfast

We travel to the airport with three other Brits in a mini bus, and on the track leading to the main road we encounter many children running alongside the bus. One of the tourists has bought a large box of sweets which she is throwing out of the window to them. Not only is she encouraging the children to beg rather than go to school, she is putting their lives at risk by them getting too close to the moving vehicle. The driver is getting more and more angry and shouting out to the kids. The woman's husband tries to involve me in the hope of getting some support. Wrong move. Telling him exactly what I think of the practice doesn't sit too well with him and he tries to justify it by telling me he doesn't approve of people “flashing at dinner” (referring to me taking pictures of us and food). I shrug and reply “fair enough”, letting the conversation die right there.

Banjul has a new airport building which is almost finished. It looks very different to how it looked last time we came in 1996. We check in our luggage in the new terminal, but have to walk across to the old terminal for security and passport control. There is a long queue snaking its way through the covered area and out into the sun.

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Bottles confiscated at security

The departure lounge in the old terminal building hasn't changed much over the years, it still looks more like a cafeteria than an airport, with a large outside seating area.

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The flight is full of British school children – three separate classes from what I can gather. They are mostly well behaved, and on landing they give the pilot an enthusiastic applause that goes on and on with cheering and whooping.

The flight lands at 22:30, and with a 3.5 hour drive back from Gatwick, we have decided to spend the night at the airport before driving back home tomorrow. We quickly grab a few things for a 'room picnic' from M&S before trying to locate the Premier Inn next to the terminal.

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And so ends another Howard holiday.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:02 Archived in Gambia Tagged hotel airport africa gate gatwick banjul gambia premier_inn the_gambia mandina_lodges makasutu mandina airprot_transfer water_bottles desparture room_picnic Comments (6)

Gatwick to Tanji

Better late than never


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As expected, the hotel room was way too hot overnight (it is a common problem with Premier Inns) and I didn't sleep very well. The benefit of this is that I will then hopefully sleep on the plane, making the flight go quicker.

After dropping off the car at the valet parking, we head for the Titan check in desk. It is a number of years since we travelled on a charter flight, and I am concerned about my hand luggage which is full of camera equipment and borderline as far as the weight limit goes. To mitigate this, David is carrying one of my lenses in his backpack, and another in his coat pocket, whereas I slip all the batteries in my pocket and wear one of the cameras around my neck with yet another lens on it.

As it turns out, all this worry has been for nothing – they don't even give the hand luggage a second glance, yet alone weigh it.

Wondertree Restaurant

Duty Free purchase comes next, then breakfast.

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David's full English

I order pancakes with bacon and syrup.
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Flight

Boarding is simple and straight forward and we strike lucky with a row to ourselves.

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As we settle in, ready to relax for the next six-and-a-half hours, our hearts sink a little when the captain comes on the intercom with an announcement: “Things don't seem to be going too well for us this morning; we have developed a technical fault and have to go back to the stand to get an engineer to check it out.”

Oh dear.

One hour later, he updates us: “We're ready to go, air traffic control is ready, but Eurocontrol is not ready”.

At this point he switches the engine off to save fuel, which of course means no A/C. The cabin becomes hotter and hotter and hotter as people's patience wears thinner and thinner. After some (uncomfortable) time, he reassures us: “I am aware that you guys are getting rather warm back there...” and switches the power back on.

More time passes before the next announcement: “A restricted no-fly zone has cropped up in the south of France, so our flight path needs re-routing.”

More waiting time.

That sorted, we are informed that “we need a courier to push us out from the stand and they are all at the other side of the airport”.

At this point the lady across the aisle from us becomes very irate, shouting obscenities, calling the captain a liar, refusing to switch her phone off etc. While I understand that nerves are getting frayed and tempers short, that sort of outburst is not doing her – or us – any favours.

We finally take off two hours and twenty minutes late. What should have been a 6 and a half hour flight, now becomes nearly nine hours of having to sit in this tin can.

The flight itself is reasonably painless after all that, with quite good food (spicy chicken noodles and a very nice chocolate and orange mousse). Wine, of course, has to be bought – and paid for – separately. I guess we have been spoilt over the years with scheduled long haul flight where everything is included.

Banjul Airport

The modern terminal building has been added since we were last here; in fact, it is not fully completed yet. We are last in the queue for immigration, but it doesn't matter as the luggage has only just started to arrive when we get out there.

Some things have never changed since we were here last, 23 years ago: porters wishing to change the British coins they have been given as tips into notes which they are then able to convert into Dalasi, the local currency. I am happy to oblige.

My bag arrives and we watch everyone else collect theirs, one after the other. Still no sign of David's. Some bags go round and round, again and again, but David's is not one of them. More and more people are leaving the baggage area and heading for the customs and exit. Still no sign of David's bag. With only a handful of passengers still remaining around the carousel, all apparently in possession of their luggage, the belt stops. Without David's case. After a few tense moments, I spot it, partly hidden by the curtain at the entrance to the belt, stopping just short of actually coming into the baggage area. Phew.

Tanji Bird Lodge

As expected, we have a private minibus transfer to the hotel. Our accommodation for the first five days is in a very small eco-lodge with just eight rooms, and it soon becomes apparent that we are the only tourists staying here for those nights.

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The lodge is all very open plan, with a thatch-covered bar and tables in amongst the trees as well as on a ridge overlooking the ocean for eating and drinking.

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A meandering path leads us to the four simple brick huts housing two rooms in each.

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There is no A/C in the room, but it has been designed with a high domed ceiling to help disperse the heat, and with slatted windows, the sea breezes are allowed to flow through.

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The inside is basic but adequate, featuring a narrow double bed which has been lovingly strewn with flower petals. In all the years we've travelled and all the hotels we've stayed in, this is a first for us. We have had petals on the bed before, of course, but never has it spelled out our name – such a special and personal touch.

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Domed ceiling

The bathroom has a shower and toilet but no running hot water (we were fully aware of that when we booked), and we cannot seem to manage to get any water out of the shower hose, only through the tap. Cold bucket showers it is then. In this heat, that can be quite refreshing, and is an excellent way to preserve water.

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Bird Baths

But first things first: bird watching. The lodge is set inside Tanji Bird Reserve, and have enticed birds to visit the grounds by providing a series of bowls and pools filled with water. To encourage human visitors, chairs and benches are available for us to sit on as we watch our feathered friends come to bathe and drink; with strategically placed tables for our drinks too of course.

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David's preferred way to spot birds

We see a surprising amount of birds in the short time we are here this afternoon (by the time we get settled in to the room, we only have around half an hour left of daylight). They come to bathe and drink, or maybe just hang around with their mates. Here is a small selection:

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Blue Spotted Wood Dove

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Blackcap Babblers

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Red Eyed Dove

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Village Weavers

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Snowy Crowned Robin Chat

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Black Necked Weaver and Grey Headed Bristlebill

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Laughing Dove

Dinner

As is the Howard tradition, we enjoy a Duty Free tipple in the room before going down to the restaurant for dinner. We find it surprisingly chilly, with a cool wind, to the point of wearing a fleece. We never expected that in The Gambia; in fact, while packing we contemplated whether or not to bring any type of warm clothing at all. Just as well we did.

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As the sun goes down, some interesting clouds appear, later taking on a muted pink hue from the setting sun.

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With us being the only two guests in the lodge this evening, catering is down to what they have in the kitchen, which is fish and chicken.

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We choose butter fish, which is thankfully de-boned and absolutely delicious. I have mine with rice while David orders chips.

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With a glass or two of the local beer, of course. While the main religion here in The Gambia is Islam, they are a secular nation and quite liberal – the country even has its own brewery.

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Being situated inside a bird reserve, there is no light pollution here. Walking back to the room in almost complete darkness, we are glad to see someone has been to the room and switched our outside light on while we were eating dinner. How thoughtful.

We have only had a couple of beers each this evening, but David really struggles to get the key in the lock. s we are fiddling, a knock from behind the door makes me jump – there is someone in our room! Then it dawns on us: this is not our room. It seems we have tried to enter the room where the manager was sleeping. Oops. Sheepishly we continue to our own room and make a mental note of leaving the outside light on tomorrow night.

Being used to a super-king sized bed at home, we worry that the four-foot bed in this place is going to feel rather cramped. Surprisingly, it doesn't, but it is somewhat chilly this evening so we reluctantly grab the duvet from the cupboard and put on the bed. While the bed is narrow, the duvet is miniscule. It is basically a single quilt inside a double cover. It looks like we will have to cuddle up all night, then.

Once the lights are out, the room is pitch black. The sort of blackness that you cannot imagine without having experienced somewhere with absolutely no light whatsoever. Your eyes never get used to it. You cannot see anything. At all. I make sure my torch is within groping distance, and drift off to sleep.

The Gambia Experience featuring Tanji Bird Eco Lodge

Posted by Grete Howard 10:59 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds hotel flight airport breakfast dinner birding dove weaver gatwick titan bird_watching delay valet_parking check_in bajul charter_flight wondertree tanji tanji_bird_lodge bird-bath babbler robin_chat bristlebill butter_fish narrow_bed Comments (4)

Home to Gatwick

The Gambia here we come


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After having to cancel our trip to Norway recently while looking after my terminally ill father: culminating in his death at the end of a long and stressful period of our lives; I felt the need to book something. Anything. I didn't want to have to spend time planning a 'proper' adventure, but I did want to go somewhere reasonably exotic. Having contemplated a return to The Gambia a couple of times in recent years (we first visited in 1996), it seemed a perfect destination: hot, sunny, relaxing, comfortable, friendly, excellent bird watching and not too long a flight.

So here we are, in the car on the way to Gatwick for an overnight stay before our early morning flight tomorrow.

Premier Inn at Gatwick Manor

After checking in to the hotel, we crack open a bottle of something alcoholic in the room (we do like to have a little tipple while we are getting ready) before sauntering down for an early dinner. We find there are no vacant tables in the restaurant, but the bar is reasonably empty, so we eat our food there instead.

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With mostly traditional pub dishes on the menu, I choose carefully. It is not that I don't like traditional food, but when I go out to eat I prefer to have dishes that I would not normally have at home.

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Very tasty mushrooms in Stilton and black peppercorn sauce on toasted sour dough bread for starter.

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Battered halloumi and chips. One of my frustrations with classic pub menus is that so much of it is deep fried (why not just simply grill the halloumi rather than adding extra grease and calories?) and most things seem to be served with chips, which I am not overly keen on.

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David, having more of a traditional palate than me, chooses pie and chips for his main course.

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My choux bun with Prosecco strawberries is disappointing. The berries appear to have come out of a tin and there is too much cream for my liking. David fares much better with his apple and sultana crumble with a hint of cinnamon. As usual David asks for custard and ice cream, but unlike most other places we have eaten over the last few years, he get charged extra for one of them.

Almost as soon as we have finished eating, we retire to the room to make sure we get some sleep before tomorrow's early start. Watch this space for further updates from The Gambia.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:36 Archived in England Tagged dinner gatwick gambia premier_inn gatwick_manor the_gambia pub_food halloumi pie_and_chips Comments (2)

London - Chisinau

We're here!


View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Thankfully the flight is not early this morning, so we can have a leisurely start to the day, with a full English breakfast in the hotel. Probably just as well, as we won’t be getting any food on either of the flights today.

Gatwick Airport

At the Ukraine International Airline desk, the check-in girl weighs my backpack and frowns. It is nearly 10kg, and I am only allowed seven. She tries her best to help me out by asking if I have a laptop in there that I can take out. No. She wonders if I can transfer any of the contents to my ‘handbag’. I explain that both are full of camera equipment that I really don’t want to check in. “It is not safe” she agrees. Finally, after establishing that David’s backpack is only 5kg, she reluctantly lets mine go. Phew.

Security is very well organised, with slots marked on the floor next to the conveyor belt, each person having an area to unload their stuff before it actually goes on the belt; rather than a free-for-all that usually ends in chaos. It works well and seems to be much less stressful, as you are not holding anybody up even if you take your time.

The first flight from London Gatwick to Borispol, Kiev is not full and we are able to spread out a little. We both sleep most of the way anyway.

Kiev Borispol Airport

The airport looks brand new, and has certainly been built since we were here last in 2008. Our flight lands at the furthest gate, so we have a long walk to Security, where – after very slow processing - we just turn around for another long walk back to the next gate. Which is in fact the same gate we landed at, and the same plane. We sleep on the next flight too, which is only around an hour.

Chisinau Airport

Moldova’s main airport is also brand new – in fact it is still under construction. A flight from Istanbul arrives just before us, so there is a long and slow queue at Immigration and chaos at the baggage carousels. Sharp elbows are a must, even more so when trying to exit the Arrivals area through a long thin corridor where passengers stop to greet their friends and family, completely blocking the exit. Arghh. I easily lose patience with people who have no consideration for others; and I ‘may’ have ‘accidentally’ shoved someone suitcase into their shins and knocked into them with my backpack…

Tatiana from the local agents waits for us just outside the Arrivals Hall. She has fairly limited English, but is very sweet. Leonid, the driver, is parked right outside the terminal building, and he soon whisks us off to our four star hotel in the centre of Chisinau.

Codru Hotel

I didn’t expect a long queue to check in to our hotel after 22:00 on a Wednesday night. I guess these other people arrived on our flight too, or maybe on the one from Turkey.

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We finally get in to (the very pleasant) Room 313 (once we have negotiated the tiny lift which barely fits two people with bags), and crash out.
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Posted by Grete Howard 06:09 Archived in Moldova Tagged airport kiev ukraine flights airline chisinau moldova borispol gatwick airport_security uia ukraine_international_airline codru_hotel hotel_check_in Comments (0)

Home - Gatwick

On our way to yet another trip

I hadn’t originally planned on including this day in my Moldova blog, but as a couple of amusing incidents happened, now that it is time to write it all up, I have changed my mind; so here goes:

In order to avoid an early start and any hassle associated with long distance motorway travel in the UK, we decided to drive up to Gatwick the day before and stay in a hotel. After checking in to the Premier Inn near the airport, we head straight for the outside bar to enjoy a pint of cider (or two) in the warm summer’s evening.

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Also in the beer garden are a table of ‘virgins’ - air stewardesses from a well-known airline. They completely freak out when a few wasps are attracted to their food; screaming, waiving their arms about and running around like demented beings. Their hysteria is complete when the resident cat saunters over to check out their dinner. The girls abandon their table, complete with plates of half-eaten food, and seek safety from the dangerous beasts of Surrey inside the pub. Hmm. This is the calibre of people we have to rely on to be calm, efficient, and business-like in the case of an emergency on a flight?

This is our third visit to Gatwick Manor, and we are not sure whether to be flattered or worried that the restaurant manager still remembers us, especially as it is four years since we last came! We must have made quite an impression.

I often find appetisers are more interesting than entrées on the menu; so like many times before, I choose three starters rather than a first and second course.

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STILTON & PEPPERCORN MUSHROOMS - Sautéed button mushrooms on a garlic toasted muffin with peppercorn & buttermilk sauce. Topped with crumbled Stilton.

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KOREAN-STYLE PULLED CHICKEN dressed in a hot red pepper sauce. Served on noodles with red onion, soya beans and red pepper in a soy, lime & chilli sauce. Finished with sesame seeds and a honey & chipotle dressing...... and ..... CARIBBEAN-STYLE PORK MINI RIBS, slow-cooked and served in a sweet and spiced jerk marinade. Accompanied with cooling kale coleslaw and a jerk barbecue dip.

David is more of a traditionalist, and after his Stilton and peppercorn mushrooms, he has SLOW-COOKED LAMB SHOULDER, cooked for 8 hours and served with mashed potato, buttered seasonal vegetables and a rich red wine sauce.

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For dessert, David predictably chooses the apple and blackberry crumble with custard and ice cream.

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I, on the other hand, go for the cheese plate.

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Having eaten – and drunk – too much, and with the room being way too hot, sleep evades me, and I toss and turn throughout a restless night.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:54 Archived in England Tagged food restaurant airport drink cat pub virgin cider gatwick wasps premier_inn gatwick_manor Comments (2)

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