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Edge of the World

Stunning desert scenery


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a morning at leisure, Ali, our guide here in Riyadh, picks us up at 13:00, with the words: “Have you had lunch?” When we confirm that we have not eaten anything since breakfast, he replies: “Oh good!”

Heading North West out of Riyadh, he stops in a small town to buy food from a restaurant for our picnic. Being very environmentally conscious, he carries his own insulated food containers, so that no packaging is wasted. I like him already!

Our first stop after we turn off the tarmac road is a small area of Huraymila National Park, where Arabian Sand Gazelle, locally known as Reem Deer (Gazella marica), have been reintroduced.

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Off Road Driving
There is a marked dirt track leading to the Edge of the World viewpoint, but Ali, like us, thinks it is much more fun to drive off-road. He is obviously a very experienced 4x4 driver, something that is confirmed when he tells us he is on the board of the organisation that rescues stranded motorists in this region.

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Picnic
We spend a little time looking for the best spot to enjoy our picnic lunch; somewhere that is free of scorpions and snakes and offers some shade from the fierce Arabian sun. We find the perfect place in a dried-up riverbed.

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Ali has come prepared, with blankets, mats, cushions, and pouffes to sit on, as well as bowls, cutlery, and paper towels.

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With my bad knee, I would be unable to get back off the floor if I was to sit that far down, so I have brought my own foldable stool. I love this stool, with its clever telescopic mechanism – it was invaluable during my trip to France, where I used it all the time while I was photographing the white horses of Camargue. It folds down really small, is surprisingly light, and is extremely strong, marketed as being able to hold 500 lbs, which is considerably more than my large frame weighs.

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As soon as I set the stool down on the ground and plonk my bottom on it, I hear some ominous creaking. I immediately start to get back up again, but too late: the whole thing has collapsed in a thousand pieces below me, leaving me on my back on the desert floor, flailing my arms and legs in the air like an upturned beetle, and rolling with laughter.

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The poor stool

Ali springs into action. Getting David to grab me under my left elbow, he places both his hands under my arms and effortlessly lifts me up again as if I am just an ordinary shopping bag in the grocery store. Wow!

You will be pleased to know that the only thing that was injured was the stool.

Post note: as soon as we got home, we wrote to the seller, explaining what happened, and had a very nice reply with apologies and full responsibility as well as a replacement stool.

For safety and comfort, I retire to the front seat of the car to eat my lunch.

Lamb Mandi
Originating in Yemen, mandi is a very popular dish in Saudi Arabia. Traditionally cooked in an underground oven, these days a tandoor is usually used. Initially, the meat is boiled with special spices, and the spiced stock is then used to cook the basmati rice at the bottom of the tandoor. The meat is suspended inside the tandoor above the rice and without touching the charcoal. After that, the whole tandoor is then closed with clay for up to eight hours.

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The tasty meat falls off the bone, and the rice is lovely and fluffy. There is so much food left over, however, I feel rather guilty for not eating more.

After finishing up our lunch and packing away up the leftovers to feed to the animals later, we make our way back to the main track. There used to be two choices of two tracks leading up to the Edge of the World, but following a fatal accident involving Italian tourists and their driver, the other route was closed for safety reasons.

We can see from a distance that we are most certainly not going to be alone at the viewpoint, so when Ali suggests going to another area he knows, which also has some spectacular views, we jump at the chance.

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Not only do I get some good images of this stunning scenery, but I also have a very willing model to 'photobomb' my images while dressed the part. Perfect!

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Edge of the World
The spectacular cliffs popularly known as The Edge of the World, are part of the 800-km long Tuwaiq Escarpment. The official name is Jebel Fihrayn.

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It is a very popular place for an afternoon excursion, taking around 1.5 hours from Riyadh, especially on a weekend (today is Saturday). I didn't expect it to be quite so touristy, there is even an official car park here!

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Not being a fan of heights and having a healthy respect for crumbling cliffs, there is no way you'd find me climbing to the top of this rock.

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Looking out over the edge of the precipice, you can see the ancient ocean floor some 300 metres below.

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As you can see, the view I had hoped to get for my photograph, is photobombed by a group of Americans having a picnic. With some clever composition and a little Photoshop magic, I manage to get a semi-decent shot without them.

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We hang around to see the sun set behind the rocks, then head back to the main road avoiding the official dirt track so as not to travel behind other vehicles and eat their dust!

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Ali heads for a spot in the national park where there is a small well/spring for animals to have access to water. He leaves the leftover food here for the wildlife to finish off.

Stopping just once more for Ali to partake in his evening prayers, we head back to the main road, Riyadh and our hotel, where we learn that poor Bacha was not informed that we were leaving at 13:00, not 16:00 as we first thought, and he turned up at 16:00 to much confusion.

Room Service
Back at the hotel, we struggle to get into the room as the key card, which has been quite temperamental, is now completely refusing to cooperate. After having it reprogrammed by reception, it works first time.

We order a couple of pepperoni pizzas from room service, of course, pepperoni is made from beef, not pork here in Saudi. When they arrive, we realise that we could probably have made do with just one between us, as they are quite large. There is lots of cheese, the base is crispy and the filling is tasty.

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We take an early night after a great day, as organised for us by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:04 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged sunset fall off_road 4x4 crowds photoshop weekend cliff picnic photography pizza national_park mandi 4wd gazelle riyadh lamb saudi_arabia viewpoint traditional_food undiscovered_destinations off_road_driving jebel touristy room_service huraymila huraymila_national_park arabian_sand_gazelle sand_gazelle edge_of_the_world collapsible_stool telescopic_stool foldable_stool falling_off lamb_mandi arabic_food photobombs precipice ancient_ocean_floor tuwaiq tuwaiq_escarpment escarpment jebel_fihrayn Comments (4)

Bristol - London - Riyadh

The start of another adventure


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Foreword

As often happens with our trips, as soon as we mention where we are going – this time Saudi Arabia – we find the other person's eyes widening, their whole face turning into a huge question mark, and their mouth uttering “Really? Why? Is that safe?”

Sigh. Why should it not be safe?

Too many people seem to rely on the gutter press to form their opinions of a country, and confuse political headlines with everyday life for citizens and visitors.

As for why we want to go, it all started with an article in the travel magazine Wanderlust about the historical site Al Ula. I was captivated by the photographs and intrigued by the little-known historical sights. Two days later I phoned up Undiscovered Destinations to book a private trip for just the two of us to KSA, following the same itinerary as their group tour.

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Saudi Arabia only opened its doors to regular tourists in 2019 (up until then, visas were generally just issued to religious visitors and workers), with their long-term plan to be in the top ten tourist destinations in the world by 2030.

Obtaining a tourist visa was remarkably quick in a smooth and easy online process. David's visa landed in the email inbox before we had even finished applying for mine, which arrived a few minutes later. That has to be some sort of record! I have since been told that the approval system is mostly carried out via automated bots that look for certain 'correct' answers, and then a team of workers are available to give the final authorisation. It is not a cheap service, however, at £123 each.

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Are they ready for an influx of large numbers of foreign visitors? Do they have enough to offer curious travellers? Follow my blog to read about my experiences and opinions.

Thursday 13th October 2022

With an early start tomorrow morning, we figure we are better off staying in a hotel near the airport, rather than leaving home at some unearthly hour of the morning, so we travel up to Premier Inn this afternoon. We like Premier Inns, they are clean, reliable and reasonably priced. We have stayed at this particular one before, so we know what to expect.

After checking in, to what we discover is a large family room with one double and two single beds, we wander down to the restaurant for a drink before dinner, enjoying our last drop of alcohol for the next two weeks (KSA is a dry country).

One of the other things we like about Premier Inns is that they nearly always have a restaurant or pub attached, which – like the hotels – are usually very dependable. Premier Inns are part of the Whitbread Group and have a variety of different restaurant brands too. Here at Bath Road, there is an enormous atrium, part of which houses the Thyme restaurant. Their restaurants are usually as dependable as their hotels, and while it is not the sort of place I would go for a celebratory meal, it is certainly good enough for an overnight stay. Although indoors, the atrium gives the restaurant a nice open and airy feel to it. We are able to sit 'outside' in the atrium part, which is nice. The menu features classic British pub food, and I choose grilled salmon with chips, whereas David has grilled chicken with vegetables. We share the chips and vegetables.

Friday 14th October 2022

After an interrupted sleep, I drag myself out of bed at 5:30. We are too early to take advantage of the legendary Premier Inn breakfast, so drive directly to Terminal four at Heathrow. In the period between our flight tickets being issued and us travelling, Saudia Airlines moved their operations from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, something that the ticket agents omitted to inform us of. Thankfully we do check these things, although there was conflicting information available online too. In the end, I relied on the Heathrow phone app, and David got his information from the Saudia app.

Valet Parking
We nearly always book valet parking these days, where a driver from the parking company meets us at the short-term car park, collects our car and keys from us, and takes the car off-site for parking while we are away. They then deliver the car to the same place ready for us to get in and drive off on our return. It is so much nicer than having to take a shared bus from a long-term off-airport car park to the airport and the reverse when arriving back. To us it is worth the extra cost.

Special Assistance
Because of a knee injury which has plagued me all through the summer, I booked a wheelchair through Saudia Airlines and headed directly to the Special Assistance counter before check-in at the terminal, conveniently situated just inside the door. While I am capable of walking short distances, I am unable to stand for any period of time, and walking longer distances causes me a lot of pain.

The special assistance kiosk is full of wheelchairs, but no other waiting passengers. There are two members of staff there, and I approach the lady at the counter, explaining that I have booked a chair. She asks which airline we are travelling with and whether we have checked in yet (which we have not). “You need to check in first and come back here” she explains. I point out to her that if I had been able to walk all the way down to the other end of the concourse to the check-in desk and back again, I wouldn't have needed to book a wheelchair. She sighs and reluctantly asks her colleague to push me down to the Saudia desk.

Once she has brought me back to the Special Assistance holding area again, she suggests it would be better for David to push me from there on. This is unfortunately typical of the lack of service we have found at Heathrow for less-able customers.

Security
Unsurprisingly for such an early start, there is no queue at security, but they are really quite thorough this morning (fresh on shift, I am guessing), and ask me to take my camera out of the bag, something that I can't remember being asked at Heathrow before. David gets the full treatment, having to remove his shoes and walk through the scanner a couple of extra times, as well as being patted down by hand and with swabs.

Breakfast
Having left the hotel too early to take advantage of their excellent breakfast, we head to the Prince of Wales pub in the terminal. I'd checked out the options before leaving home and found that the pub had more options and better prices for breakfast than the other restaurant here.

One of the reasons I chose the Prince of Wales for this morning's meal, is that the menu features my favourite breakfast dish – Eggs Royale: toasted English muffin with smoked salmon, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. David, predictably, has the full English breakfast.

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Unfortunately, as is often the case, expectation and reality don't quite match this morning; and I am rather disappointed in the ridiculously meagre amount of salmon. With its lacklustre presentation, the dish does not warrant the £9.35 price tag.

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Saudia Airlines
One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair is that you do get to board the aircraft before the other passengers. We have aisle and middle seats in the centre section of their 3-3-3 configuration. Thankfully the plane is not full this morning, which means we are able to spread out and have the whole row of three seats to ourselves, making for a much more comfortable flight.

Soon after the crew start the meal service, we experience turbulence, and they have to stop serving and take the trolleys back to the galley for safety reasons. This happens several times in a row, and some passengers are getting impatient, aggressively pressing the call button and demanding their food NOW! The interrupted service also creates some confusion as to who has already been served their main meals; resulting in the ice cream dessert being separately distributed while some people are still eating their main meal, and for others (like David), it arrives before he has even received his other tray.

I have to say the ice cream is a very welcome addition to the menu, however, and it is one of my favourite brands, too.

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Once the meal service is over, I manage to grab some semi-decent sleep before we land in Riyadh after a 5.5-hour flight.

King Khalid International Airport
A wheelchair is waiting for me as we exit the plane, and I am taken through corridors and tunnels of the modern airport, which bears no resemblance to the scruffy underbelly of Heathrow that I was previously taken through on arrival there. Here the walls are covered in colourful tiles and everything is looking gleaming, clean and pretty.

Immigration
Our visas are obviously already on the system, as we are not asked for the paper copies we have printed out. We are, however, required to submit fingerprints, but the scanner for this is seriously unreliable. After several unsuccessful attempts, the official gives me some hand sanitiser to use and tells me to try again. Eventually, it accepts my fingerprint, and my passport is stamped. I'm in!

Immediately after passport control, our hand luggage goes through an X-ray before we get to the luggage carousel. I can see David's case on the belt, and the porter who has been pushing the wheelchair with me in it, runs off to retrieve it before David is even through passport control! Mine arrives very much later, as one of the very last pieces of luggage to come off the plane. I guess someone's bag has to be the last.

Arrival
As we exit through the very unobtrusive customs hall, I can see a smart young man in a dark suit and immaculate white shirt carrying a placard with our name on it. Such a reassuring sight when you arrive in a foreign country. He goes off to collect the car – a massive 6-seater SUV (GMC Yukon XL) - and pulls up right outside the exit door to pick us up. The car is so high that I struggle to get in, but is very comfortable. The driver, who introduces himself as Bacha, moves the front passenger seat forward so that I have plenty of legroom in the back. The car is spacious, clean, and very comfortable.

During our journey from the airport to the hotel, George, the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations use here in KSA, rings to welcome us to the country and to inform us that we will be picked up at 16:00 tomorrow for our booked excursion.

Riyadh
My first impressions of Riyadh are a city of bright lights, fabulous modern architecture, wide avenues, and definitely not a walking city! We see very few pedestrians about anywhere, just a few people milling around by the market.

Hotel Centro
As Bacha pulls up outside this posh-looking modern hotel with its inviting facade, I wonder if there has been a change of plan. Our original documents had us down to stay here, but the latest version of our itinerary suggests that we are booked into the Gloria Inn instead.

The friendly and chatty receptionist confirms my suspicions, as he can find no record of our booking. Bacha insists that this is where we are staying, and shows us the instructions he has received on his phone, which quite clearly state Hotel Centro. While he phones George, I look up the confirmation I received from Undiscovered Destinations. Bacha returns and explains that it was an 'office mistake', and that we are indeed staying at Gloria Inn. Oh good, we all agree now. Hopefully, Gloria Inn will be aware of us too. With a cheery “maybe next time” to the helpful receptionist, we leave Centro Hotel and get back in the car while Bacha googles how to get to Gloria Inn from here. “Just another 20 minutes” he informs us as we head off into the bright lights of Riyadh again.

Gloria Inn
After the more upmarket Centro Hotel, Gloria Inn looks a little shabby. Several of the bulbs in the name sign on the front of the hotel are missing, and the side entrance looks disappointingly uninviting.

The welcome more than makes up for it, though, with the receptionist greeting us from behind a huge smile, and our room key ready and waiting on the desk. Phew, that's a relief!

After the usual formalities including showing our passports and visas, we say goodbye to Bacha as the porter takes our luggage – and us – to our room. The initial anticlimax I felt when we arrived here, is soon replaced with delight: the room is huge, with a nice seating area and a large double bed.

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Room Service
When we checked in, the receptionist explained that the hotel restaurant is only open for breakfast, but we can order dinner from a room service menu to be delivered to the room, which is what we do.

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The porter arrives with a large tray of food, and a credit card machine for us to pay for it. We both have spicy chicken sandwiches with chips and a Diet Coke. While the chicken is anything but spicy, it has a crispy coating and the bread roll is fresh.

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Just after we've finished the meal, the room phone rings. The person the other end introduces himself as Ali, explaining that he will be our guide for the duration of our stay here in Riyadh. He suggests that 16:00 is way too late to leave from the city tomorrow, so he will pick us up at 13:00 instead. That sounds a much better plan to me.

After a long and tiring day, we sneak into bed early to get some rest for an exciting day tomorrow. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, and THANK YOU to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:51 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged airport breakfast security visa heathrow ice_cream immigration arrival wheelchair customs riyadh middle_east saudi_arabia ksa undiscovered_destinations visa_application premier_inn valet_parking tourist_visa saudia special_assistance room_service whitbread thyme_restaurant eggs_royale saudia_airlines king_khalid_international_airpo hotel_centro gloria_inn Comments (4)

Iguaçu - helicopter, glass lift and boat trip

Another busy day


View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We are joined by the usual crew this morning at breakfast.

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David and his favourite member of staff: Melissa

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Plush Crested Jay

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Toco Toucan

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Planalto Hermit

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Saffron Finch

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A hungry Coati

Helicopter Flight
As soon as we meet up with our guide Carini, we head straight to the heliport, just outside the park gates.

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We have booked a private sightseeing flight over the falls, which means that there is only us and the pilot on board, and I can move around much more freely in the back seat.

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We can see the mist rising from the falls long before we see the falls themselves.

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Here you can clearly see the amazing position of our hotel

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Devil's Throat

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In the pictures below, you can see just how near we were to the edge of the falls yesterday!

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The pilot takes a couple of loops around the falls to give us both some great views, but the ten minutes is soon up and we are back at base again.

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I have hardly had time to breathe on the flight, I have been so busy taking photos, with two cameras, out of the windows on both sides. I would love to go around again without the cameras and just enjoy the scenery. I get out of the helicopter absolutely buzzing with the excitement and adrenalin of it all. Wow! What an experience that was!

Itaipu
Carini suggests we go on an optional excursion this morning, to see something different while we are here: Itaipu Dam. I remember it being pointed out to us when we were here last in 1990, but these days they offer guided tours of the hydroelectric plant, something David thought might be interesting.

We drive through the town of Iguaçu, very much a tourist place, with lots of hotels of every size and budget, and many restaurants. It looks like a laid-back and interesting place, but I would still rather stay inside the national park in the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas.

We get to the power station, where we find the gates locked shut. A security guard explains that they have recently started closing it to tourists on a Tuesday, something Carini was not aware of. Oh well.

Lunch
Instead, we head for a large tourist restaurant at the head of the falls, driving past our hotel to the end of the road. This was definitely not here when we last visited!

In addition to the restaurant, there is a visitors centre and a large souvenir store, where David finds a pair of nice thin trousers, ideal for the jungle.

The restaurant is huge, with seating inside and out. We pay a fixed price on entry and find ourselves a table outside overlooking the river with the top of the falls in the distance.

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The food is an all-you-can-eat buffet and is quite pleasant, nothing more, nothing less.

Glass Lift
I remember walking down to this from the hotel when we last came and being amazed by the proximity to the falls and the little swallows nesting behind the falls, flying in and out of the spray.

From the road, there are stairs and a ramp leading down to the upper platform, from which you take a glass lift down to the lower viewing area. We walk straight into the lift, with no queue.

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There are further walkways to take, in order to get nearer the falls. Both David and I decline the offer.

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Selfies
Selfies are the bane of a photographer's life! While having the odd picture of myself or me and David while we travel is nice, I cannot see the desire to be in every single photo I take! It just seems so narcissistic to me. “Look at me! Look at me!” Can people no longer just purely enjoy the surroundings, or it is just for likes on Instagram?

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Mind you, it is infinitely better than before the selfie invention, when one person would stand near the edge and their companion on the other side of the path to take their photo so that no one could get past.

And here is our selfie!

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There is a long line of people waiting for the lift to go back up again, but Carini has a word with the operator, and not only do we jump the queue, we actually get a private lift to ourselves (the service lift).

Macuco Boat Trip
I am constantly impressed with the way Brazilians accommodate less able people. The transfer truck that takes us from the entrance to the funicular, is easily adapted to take a girl in a wheelchair and me on a ramp, while still being able to seat a number of able-bodied passengers. I have never felt that I am a nuisance, every single adaptation and modification has been carried out without hesitation and with a smile.

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The truck takes us to the top of a funicular, where there are lockers and changing rooms. There is a choice of “wet” or “dry” boats, and we decide to go for the dry boat so that I can take photos. At the last minute, however, we change our minds, leave everything except the waterproof cameras in the lockers, and go to get wet!

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Getting into the boat is down some very steep steps, from where you step across into the boat. I manage with a bit of help, and the staff effortlessly carry the paralysed girl and place her in a seat. There is no turning back now!

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The boat is extremely powerful and weaves from side to side, leaning right over to add to the adventure, negotiating the rapids with ease. It reminds me very much of the jetboat on the Shotover River in New Zealand.

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We stop to view the falls from a distance, and this is the point at which the “dry” boat would turn around. As a result of all the mist, the view is not great, so I am glad I didn't risk my cameras, as even the “dry” boat would have got us wet from the spray.

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From here it is full steam straight into the falls!


How can I describe it? It starts off as a gentle shower and you brace yourself for the downpour. It doesn't come. Just as you think that “this is actually quite bland, it hits you. Quite literally! Imagine a huge barrel full of icy-cold water dumped over your head without warning... that is what it feels like. To say it's a shock is an understatement!

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David looks shell-shocked!

Then they do it again. And a third time. By this time we are both shivering, and the wind as we speed back to the jetty does not help.

For sure it was an adventure, and I am glad I did it – would I do it again? Not on your Nelly!

At the jetty, I struggle to get out of the boat, as I haven't got the strength in my knees to step up onto the seat. It hurts like hell when I try. Panic and distress set in. Eventually, I manage to manoeuvre myself so that my bum is leaning on the back of the seat, and with David's help manage to lift one leg up, and then the other. By the time I have climbed the steep steps back up to the platform, my legs are shaking, and I haven't even got the strength in my knees to walk. I drag my feet on the floor, shuffling along like a zombie.

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Carini is worried about me, and as soon as we get back to the hotel, she asks for a wheelchair for me, as well as some ice to be delivered to the room. As he is pushing me up the incline in the hotel corridor, the porter comments “leg day yesterday, arm day today, no need for gym”.

Dinner
On Carini's suggestion, we order room service for our dinner this evening. This hotel can manage to make a salad and sandwich look like a five-star meal!

The waiter arrives with a large tray complete with condiments as well as a small bunch of flowers.

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My chicken Caesar salad

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David's tuna sandwiches

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Some fresh fruit to share for dessert

I see housekeeping has been having fun with my glasses again while we have been out, creating a little pouch for them from a face cloth. How sweet.

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Tonight we need to pack, as we are moving on to pastures new tomorrow. Why is there so much less room in my bag now than there was when I left home, even though I haven't bought anything?

Goodnight from Iguaçu for the last time. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:59 Archived in Brazil Tagged waterfalls breakfast brazil lunch mist brasil jay jetty jetboat shock pain coati iguacu devils_throat pilot wheelchair iguassu hermit finch boat_trip hummingbird selfies itaipu hydroelectric helcipter helicopter_flight heliport glass_lift macuco macuco_boat_safari painful_knee room_service Comments (2)

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