A Travellerspoint blog

South Africa

April 2006 - Cape Town & Safari

sunny 31 °C

I arrived in Cape Town on Tues March 29th. Kim picked me up at the airport since there really is no form of public transport in Cape Town. I was first surprised by how small the airport was. I suppose since Cape Town has about the same population as Sydney, 4mm, I thought the airport would be the same size. But Kath explained that only a small percent of the population has the economic means to travel. I was reminded of this once again on the drive from the airport as we passed the townships made up of tin shacks that we had flown over on our descent. The income discrepancy between the people of South Africa explain the need for such high security. Although Kim had a lovely two bedroom cottage with an outdoor patio, all the windows need to be covered in bars, and the house surrounded by gates or walls. Locals also do not recommend walking to far on ones won, which is disappointing as I had wanted to explore a bit.

Once Kath and Rob arrived we went into central Cape Town to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront and had lunch with her family at the Cape Grace Hotel. The waterfront is custom built for tourists with restaurants, shops and marinas, and apparently did not even exist 5 years ago. The locals are optimistic about the future, based on the current economic growth the city has been experiencing. The hope is the continued economic growth of the country is the only way to reduce the poverty levels and the diseases that come as a result of that poverty. We had a view of table mountain as we dined on the waterfront, which we had plans to climb in a a few days.

After lunch we grabbed some beer and cider and headed to Llandudno beach, not pronounced in the traditional Welsh way as its namesake is, instead they pronounced both L’s. It was a lovely beach with soft white sand nestled into the hills, a perfect spot for my first ‘Sundowner’ as the South Africans call it. We enjoyed a brilliant, fiery sunset and it felt a bit like Australia until I ran into the water for a picture and found the temperature to be about 12 degrees C.

On Thursday we headed up the less touristy West Coast where Kath’s father used to have a house. The town only has about 150 residents, and the house was once owned by the local minister who held prayers and other functions in the various rooms. The house is done in traditional, charming Cape Dutch Architecture, recognized by its symmetrical design and prominent gables. We stayed with the new owners, an eccentric and thoroughly interesting couple, the host being a successful artist whose wildlife art hung throughout the many rooms. Our favorite was a six foot black rhino painting that watched over us as we dined. As always, dinner conversations amongst various cultures was ensured to be entertaining and illuminating.

Upon arrival we took a short drive to a local spot known for its ancient cave drawings. The area has been recently confirmed by archeologists as being the oldest site to show human habitation using tools, estimated at about 10,000 years ago.

After a peaceful night’s sleep in the countryside we headed back toward Cape Town along the West Coast, stopping at a small town called Langebaan, along the beach. We had lunch at an open air eating known as a ‘skerm’, Afrikaans for ‘shelters’. The restaurant was called Die Strandloper, which literally translates to ‘living off the beach’, a fitting name given you dined on tables cut from rocks and used oysters as your cutlery, and the roof was made of fish nets. We ate ten courses of fish and shell fish smoked and grilled seafood cooked on the fire. Garlic mussels, snoek, angelfish, stumpnose and crayfish to name a few. During courses you could take your drink and walk along the beach, and they would call you back for each course with a huge gong. Every bit of the three and a half hour meal was thoroughly enjoyable.
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On the way back into to town for Friday night drinks I was reminded of the the world element of Cape Town. Many of the cars are dilapidated and hardly road worthy. They drive for miles on the shoulder, exceed speed limits of 150 kms/hr, and even go the wrong way on a road to get where they are going. I was reminded once again that safety is always a concern in Cape Town, no time was this more evident than when I read the sign outside a hospital that read ‘Please leave your firearms and ammunition with reception staff’.

We enjoyed a Friday night out with locals, starting with sundowners at the Radisson overlooking the sea. Cape Town has a real small town feel when it comes to social life, with many people knowing each other through work, or outdoor activities, as CT is great for mountain biking and other outdoor sports.

On Saturday we climbed Table Mountain, which looms over the center of Cape Town, standing at just over 1000m. It only took us an hour and a half to reach the top where we were rewarded with amazing views of the city and the bays.

Sunday was a tour of the Peninsula in the morning along Table Mountain on the Atlantic side, heading towards Hout’s Bay and finally Chapman’s Peak, rising nearly 2,000 feet. The road had previously been closed for four years due to risk of falling rocks from the sheer cliffs above. Now some areas are secured with safety netting and wiring, although some are very much still exposed. The stunning view down the cliffs to the swirling seas below is worth the risk.

We arrived at the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve by midday where we walked about 100 feet up toward the highest ppoint overlooking Cape Point, and were greeted by gale force winds and a signpost that read ‘Sydney 11,642 kms & South Pole 6,248 kms’. The winds I had felt previously while cycling across the Golden Gate paled in comparison.
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We drove back on the opposite coast, along the Indian Ocean where the winds settled a bit. We stopped at Boulders beach to visit the African penguin population that live on a nature reserve. They were lying with their mates in small burrows in the sand or sunning themselves on the beach. The colony has grown from 4 in 1982 to over 3,000 due to their location being excellent shelter from frequent southeasters. After seeing March of the Penguins, it seems to me they are quite content with their location compared to their cousins in the Antarctic battling sub zero temps.

On Monday said goodbye to everyone as Kath & Rob were heading off to the wine region and I was heading into central Cape Town for some time on my own. I booked into a backpackers with about a half hour walk to the Waterfront in town. I had taken the precaution of not wearing any jewelry or taking a hand bag just to be safe. Although it was unnerving at times, I arrived without incident and dined on traditional Cape Malay cuisine for lunch – grilled snoek fish with malay seasoning – divine. I visited the Aquarium which was very nice and the arts and crafts warehouse in search of some of the designs we’d seen being sold along the roadside.

Wire art is everywhere, and it’s both unique and beautiful, combing wire and beads to create bowls, animals, key chains, vases, ornaments, you name it. I got myself a gecko for myself and Rob as well as a bowl. Meeting the artist was a highlight as he shared his success story of how he had been making wire art since he was a young boy, starting by fashioning the wire into cars. However as he grew older he was pressure into giving it up, being told it was childish, and not seen as a viable career. He tried various jobs, not of which had the power to hold him. He secretly continued with his wire art in his own time and began selling it at the stop lights (called robots). Business was so good that quite often he would hold up traffic for miles. For this the police would fine him. However as a serious business he simply calculated the reduction of the fine from his daily sales and realized he could still have a viable business. He’d earned about 1000 rand (100 pounds) and day and head to the station on the way home to pay the 120 rand fine, considering it an overhead expense. The police got wise however and said on his next offense he’d have to serve 30 days in jail. Given he had numerous orders it was now time to set up a proper shop, which he found in the arts warehouse. A few months after my visit he has now also set up a website. All of the art in South Africa is very creative and uniquely South African. If only I had more room in my luggage.

The following day I headed back into town to take a boat ride to Robben Island, the prison that held numerous political prisoners including of course Nelson Mandela. There was a wonderful exhibit at the ferry terminal that documented the Freedom they signed in the 50’s and were subsequently tried for it. It was interesting to note that of the 156 people on trial, many of them were white. Good to see that at that time some people were willing to fight for the right cause, even if it did not directly affect them. After a four year trial they were found not guilty but we put under government surveillance after that.

They also documented the deadly aftermath of the student uprisings in Soweto in 1960 and again in 1987. It was their political reactions to these uprisings in 1963 that put Nelson Mandela and 5 other away for life. Upon reaching Robben Island we were greeted by our first guide, who was himself an ex political prisoner on the island. He pointed out how the leaders were separated from the followers, and even sometimes in solitary confinement for fear they would incite uprisings. The prison itself of course was very dire, the cells only about 4 feet by 6 feet, smaller than the dog kennels. They only contained floor a bucket, stool and a bed mat, and did not get cots until 1978 when the Red cross intervened 15 years into Mandela’s sentence. mandelas cell.JPG They took us to the courtyard known as Mandela’s garden because he had petitioned to have bushes planted there, and when they obliged he used them to hide sections of his manuscript “A Long Walk to Freedom.” Based on the size of this book he must have had many holes in the garden. Im looking forward to finally reading this book that I have had from ages now that I have seen where much of it took place.

They also showed us the quarry where they worked and the hole in the rock used as a bathroom which was the only place on the island that they could commune and make plans without the guards, given that bathroom were segregated . The conditions were vile but they made the most of it, communicating and teaching one another. Their motto from the leaders to the others was ‘each one, teach one.’ They would also communicate using messages tucked into the inside of tennis balls which they would throw over the prison walls feom cell block to cell block. They also spoke of the sense of community among the prisoners, with them sharing food with the Bantu prisoners, who were at the bottom of the racial food chain and would receive less rations than the others.

It was a real pleasure to shake the hands of the many guides there, knowing each one of them had given up so much of their lives in hopes for a better future for their country. Both of our guides that day served 15 years for sabotage, the other common crimes being treason or terrorism. One of our guides was on the last boat off of Robben Island upon its closure. All in all an amazing trip and a real eye opener into South Africa’s troubled past.

Then I headed up North to Durban to meet up with Kath & Rob at Rob’s parents place. The next morning we packed up three cards between nine of us and headed to the park, pronounced Sheshlooee. Its park is the 4th largest in S Africa and is known for its rhino conservation efforts, and home to nyala, impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, zebra and buffalo, all of which we encountered on our drive into the park.
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The bush camp is roughing it at its best, consisting of 4 round thatched huts, up on stilts, and a dining hut overlooking the river. It’s super hot here during the day so we relaxed a bit until about 4pm when we headed out for our first dusk drive. We saw a giraffe eating from a treetop just before sunset and encountered 2 white rhinos not more than 500 meters from camp, blocking our road back. We had not choice but to watch them and wait and they ate, as given they were nearly the size of our truck, they were not intimated by our presence in the least.
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The next morning Mafuta our Zulu Guide arrived at 6am to take Kath, Rob ad I on our walk. The rest of the group decline d to go as they said they were too old to climb trees. I thought they were kidding….His English was minimal but his instructions were clear. Black Rhino charge– up tree, Buffalo – up tree, Elephant –run, Lion – stand together, walk slowly backward. After that speech we were too scared to speak, but we did relax a bit as the walk went on and we did not encounter any charging animals. Each time we saw an animal, like hyenas (mating – a sound I wont soon forget), giraffes, zebras, we all breathed a sign of relief.
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We were quite happy to see the other animals from the safety of the truck. The bush was far greener and more lush than I had expected, given they had experience a great deal of rain. On that evenings drive we saw wild dogs, which are apparently quite a rare sighting.
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I would have believed that if another pack of them had not run straight through our camp during dinner, chasing a young impala. I witnessed my first kill by the pack of dogs right along the river bank of our camp. An amazing site, although right before dinner was a bit unsettling. Not half as unsettling as the being awoken by lions roaring in the middle of the night in our camp and desperately wanting to go to the bathroom. But given the bathroom was in the middle of the camp, and Robs parents had told previous stories of finding lions in the loos, I gave it a miss. A very sleepless night.
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The final evening we had more evening guests, with elephants visiting us at our camp right before dinner and again in the middle of the night and again at breakfast. Two huge ones, splitting trees in half right in front of our hut. You could no sleep with the noise so we simply got our flashlights and watched them dine. The next morning we inspected the damage and it looked like a tornado had gone through camp. They came back again to finish it off, and I got caught under the hut, hiding behind the stilts as I took some nice close up shots. Terrifying for a moment or two when he caught my eye and seemed to be eyeing up one of the stilts. Thankfully he returned his attention to the tree and was finally chased off by Mafuta when he came to take us on our final morning walk. An exhilarating way to start the day, no coffee needed.
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It was an amazing experience although I am looking forward to a good night’s sleep without lions, elephants and especially bats that wee on you in the night!

Posted by KathleenMc 23:31 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Espana

Spain March 2006

sunny 20 °C

Hola! I am back from two weeks in sunny Spain. My friend Brian and I had a fabulous time!! We started our trip in Madrid, city of my birth, which I had not been back to for 22 years. After making this calculation (could there really be a place I had not visited in over 2 decades?!) I was feeling very old. However, after meeting a friend of mine from the UK who now lives in Spain, and partying until 5am, I was feeling quite young again. But then again, one can do this when they can sleep til after noon and even take a siesta again at 3pm!

Madrid was even more beautiful than I remember it, with its grand boulevards, huge plaza squares dotted with tappas bars and of course the beloved choclaterias, where you think nothing of dunking some freshly fried chorizos into a cup of thick melted chocolate as a bit of a snack to hold you over until that late night dinner. We did the touristy thing and visited the famed Prado museum (for 5 Hours!) as well as the grand royal palace. But the highlights were simply strolling around the older areas near our hotel and the lively Latin area. My friend took us to a fantastic Flamenco bar where a man plays solo guitar and the clientele, mostly gypsies, sing along with their sad, flamenco songs. From the looks on their faces, I am sure their songs would translate much like our own country music songs, about loss. Loss of your dog, your lover, your truck… You get so caught up in the atmosphere, that before you know it its after five and the sun will shortly being rising. This could also have a bit to do with their liberal serving rules. They apply the rule of measuring the drinks, in my case vodka tonics, by ice cubes, being very careful not to pour the vodka past the second ice cube. This sounds like a careful strategy until you see the size of their ice cubes!! Each one is easily over an inch tall. A wonderful night out filled with great tapas, rioja, music and fun.

We then headed south to Cordoba, Seville and Granada, staying in the latter two for a few days each. In each we explored glorious mosques, winding streets, and palaces with beautiful gardens. By this time we were truly into the Spanish groove of spending the day about town, relaxing/siesta-ing in the early afternoon, then heading out for some tide you over tapas and rioja around six and finishing with dinner around ten and topping it off with some fab Spanish sherries. Given we were finding that most businesses pay absolutely not attention to their own posted hours, you need to learn to adapt the ‘oh well, I could do it later’ approach, and simply head off for a rioja for the time being. We had been there over a week and still not met anyone who was in a hurry.
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After a few days relaxing in Andalusia, we headed back up North to the province of Catalan, to visit Valencia and Barcelona. From here on in, our relaxing was over as we were arriving in Valencia just in time to catch the last 2 days of their week long Fallas festival, one of the biggest festivals in Spain. I will do my best to capture the atmosphere of it, but it really is something you have to experience yourself to truly understand.

The Fallas are enormous models made out of paper mache, wood and wax, and represent a satirical and ironic vision of local, provincial, national and even international problems and current affairs. Each neighbourhood spends a year making their models and then they are burnt on the final night of 19 March in a festival of fire, fireworks and organized mayhem. They are more than mere bonfires or pyres because they show scenes referring to people, events or collective behaviour that their makers - the falleros - consider should be criticised or corrected. After exploring dozens of Fallas, you come to learn that the Spanish have a very funny, albeit a bit racy, sense of humour. Very tongue in cheek. Over 370 full-scale fallas and 368 children’s fallas are mounted throughout the city, and some of these reach extravagant heights, some over 25 meters! During the festivities, Valencian women wear their best traditional clothes and parade through the streets in colourful pageantry under their fallas standards to the sound of regional music. Their destination is to the Basilica where the patron saint of Valencia, Our Lady of the Forsaken, awaits. Here they lay their flowers. Thousands and thousands of them are placed over a wooden structure that serves as the framework upon which her image is formed. For days the entire Plaza is perfumed with the fragrance of endless bouquets of flowers At midday, each falla stages its own sound fireworks display, harmonizing the booming sounds of rockets with the smell of gunpowder.

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At night there are spectacular fireworks displays that brighten up the night time sky. They take their fireworks very seriously in Valencia, with loudness and uniqueness being the main goals. The afternoon ones aim for the biggest boom. The crowds will boo the technicians if they aren’t loud enough, fast enough or bright enough, but carry him on their shoulders like a winning football star after a finale of a great show. The four competing firework making families enjoy start status in Valencia. They did not disappoint, and I thought the display we saw on our second to final night was superb. However, my friend, a local Valencian, did not agree and complained that they have been much faster in the past.

At twelve o’clock midnight on the 19th, preceded by a grand fireworks display, the large fallas are set to the torch during what is known as the Cremá. The entire city is filled with flaming fallas, bringing to a close this semi-pagan, semi-patriotic, semi-religious fiesta. We watching one burn that stood about 20 meters high, and was packed into a small square, surrounded by apartment buildings (apparently they hose them down with water first) on every side. I would struggle to ever put into words what it was like to stand so close to such a massive ball of fire with flames shooting from every angle and fireworks exploding overhead. Even as a tourist you feel part of the festivities. You can not come to Valencia during this time of year and stay on the sidelines. There is no time for sleep. It is fiesta time for five whole days. The parades never end, the fireworks are deafening and the musicians play concerts in the streets. Food and drink are everywhere, with typical pastry stands on every corner. The fallas are on every corner and in every square, the firecrackers continue from eight am till 4 am all across the city, as if the city itself is performing for you. After a night of restful, firework-free sleep, we headed off to Barcelona for our final night.

I love Barcelona for its grand streets, cheap shopping, laid back atmosphere, and its modernist architecture. Given Brian had never been before, we spent the day taking him around to some of Antoni Gaudi’s most amazing art nouveau designs, from his houses and apartment complex, to the amazing sagrada familia cathedral. We finished our holiday in fine form at one of the gothic quarter’s great wine bars and tapas restaurants. I feel I have done enough to last me 20 years, just in case it takes me that long to return again.

Posted by KathleenMc 12:34 Archived in Spain Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Egypt

sunny 30 °C

Cairo
We arrived in Cairo as night was falling. As we were shuttled out to our hotel on the outskirts of Cairo, at the base of the Pyramids of Giza, we were introduced to the chaos of Cairo and the Egyptian rules of driving, which are basically, that there are no rules. Like in many Asian countries, there are no lines on the road driving lanes, instead, drivers simply honk their horns to signal they are moving in front of another car, changing direction, or even making rights hand turns from left lanes and vice versa. Perhaps there are different types of honks for each activity; I am really not quite sure. And lights are purely optional, and are only used when a driver wants to signal that he is about to make a drastic change of some sort. They are not reckless, they simply believe its rude to have lights in the eyes of other drivers.

After a lively ride to the hotel, we fell asleep to the sound of continually honking throughout the night, as we arrived on Thursday, signaling the end of the Muslim workweek, and a popular night for weddings. We spent ten full hours the following day soaking in as much or Cairo as possible, with our first stop being the Pyramids of Giza. What can one say about the Pyramids? They are over 4700 years old and the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world to survive. They stand over 147 meters high with the base stones weighing fifteen tons each, and the top stones only a mere two and a half tons each. They are a magnificent testament to the loyalty to their kings and gods. Standing at the base you feel both infinitesimally small and at the same time, when faced with the amazing resolve of the men who built them, believe anything is possible. The magnitude of the pyramids is so great they actually dwarf the Sphinx, the protector of the pyramids which is an astonishing twenty meters high and 72 meters long, and carved out of a single piece of limestone.

Stan and the Pyramids
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After a quick touristy camel ride (when in Egypt…) we were off to the Cairo museum to check out more ancient wonders and of course the treasures of King Tut-ankh-ammon we had all learned about in school. The exhibit does not disappoint, with its gold jewelry, and gilded gold sarcophagi and leaves you wondering if this amount of treasure was buried with a young king who ruled less than ten years, what treasures were buried with Ramses, who ruled 67 years, or with the other 60 tombs and 90 pyramids, all lost to tomb robbers. The museum is teeming with breathtaking artifacts from thousands of years BC.

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Luxor sunset
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We arrived at the Khan al Khalili bazaar just as the sunset call to prayer rose from the countless minarets and pierced the din of honking cars, clattering horse drawn carriages and chattering street vendors. We were quickly surrounded by touts, who make shopping and bargaining a real treat. “Where you from? English? I have ASDA price for you. Ah, American, welcome! Come have some hibiscus juice, Egyptian hospitality.” They will bargain with you for anything, with our one carriage driver offering me the bell from his carriage that I had admired. I politely explained I just couldn’t, to which he replied by yanking it off, breaking the leather strap attaching it, thus ending our negotiations. I am now the proud owner of an authentic Egyptian bell, for the cost of one English pound.

We navigated our way through the bustling, narrow market alleys stopping to buy a few items and drink a bit of sweet hibiscus, to which I fear I could easily become addicted.

Luxor
Upon arrival in Luxor we found the peacefulness of the feluccas cruising silently down the Nile a welcome change to the chaos of Cairo. The 150,000 inhabitants of Luxor pale in comparison to the 17mm of Cairo. Our hotel, located on the banks of the Nile, was a true oasis and offered magnificent views of the sunset over the West bank.

The outdoor Turkish Coffee cafe, complete with the local tabacco pipes.
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As we drove to the West bank, we were taken through fertile green fields of sugarcane, one of the main crops of Upper Egypt, and could smell the fields burning the remnants of the first crop, as it was harvest time and they needed to make way for the next crop. As we drove on the lush fields were replaced with the barren, dry, rocky terrain that makes up the valley of the Kings, the necropolis, or burial ground of the New Kingdom Pharaohs., These Kings, realizing that pyramids marking the royal tombs, had been an easy mark for the greedy tomb robbers, chose to dig their tombs deep into the Thebian hills. This strategy too was unsuccessful, with all but one of the 62 tombs being depleted of its priceless possessions. Only King Tut’s tomb was left untouched for modern discovery.

Other than King Tut, no major discovery has been made in the Valley of the Kings until less than a week before we arrived. An American archaeologist had just discovered 5 mummies, which were likely reburied by high priests once their tombs had been raided. We were fortunate enough to be able to see the excavation site, and see the archeologist, who was dressed like Harrison Ford in Raiders, but the similarity ended there. They will be spending the coming months working to determine the identity of the 5 Kings.

Unlike the inside of the Pyramids, which are fairly plain, the tombs include various antechambers and a burial area where the huge granite sarcophagus remain, as they are too large to be removed, as the tombs were built around them. The underground corridors are covered in bright indigo, terracotta and gold painted hieroglyphs depicting the life of the pharaoh and the sunrise, symbolizing the rebirth/ or afterlife of the King.

By now we had the chance to meet a few Egyptians and gain an understanding of their lifestyle. They are steeped in family tradition, with most Egyptians living in a house with their extended parents, and dedicated to supporting their parents. Muslims can have from one to four wives, so houses are added onto as the family expands, while Coptic Christians have just one family, but typically also live with the wife's family. Another distinguishing trait of the Egyptians is their never ending generosity and curiosity. From the first meeting they want to know many things about you and are willing to open their homes, shops and towns to you. In our two weeks we had countless offers to show us their cities, as the Egyptians are very proud.

The next morning we met up with the group what we would be cruising the Nile with and visited the magnificent remains of the Temple of Karnak and Luxor. These temples were built when Thebes (now Luxor) was the ancient capital and were added to, demolished and restored over a period of 1500 years and cover an area large enough to hold 10 of the largest European cathedrals. The temples are connected by a 2km walkway protected by two endless rows of sphinxes. Karnak temple’s highlight is an expansive courtyard containing over 130 massive columns densely packed like a forest of carved sandstone. Each is covered in hieroglyphs and paintings of old Egypt and reach toward the sky as a symbol of the power of the pharaohs. Throughout the temple site there are various rooms shadowed by statues and obelisks, covered in hieroglyphs. No words or pictures can describe the grand scale of this site and its difficult to grasp the enormity of what these ancient people built.

We also made a stop in the Luxor museum to meet the local mummies. King Ramses the first is there, and does not look to bad considering he is over 3000 years old. It is amazing to look at the face of the famous pharaoh, with his hair, fingernails and teeth still intact. One can not help imagining what they would have looked like in their days of glory.

Sailing the Nile
We then began our five-night cruise up the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, sailing silently through the tranquil blue-green waters. Only the honking of passing cruise ships disturbed our tranquility as we soaked in the scenery of the desert mountains just beyond the fertile shores of the Nile where locals grow bananas and sugar cane. Fishermen dotted the water in rowboats as we floated past cattle and donkeys grazing on the riverbanks and locals washing clothes or playing football.

SugarCane Fields
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Our pilot used no navigational instruments, preferring instead to use hi years of experience sailing the Nile since he was a young boy. Very charming, but we did have a few close calls complete with honking from the passing cruise ships and even one pilot shaking his fist, running along the bridge and telling us off in Arabic.

Our Pilot
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Sunsets on the river are magnificent and very peaceful, with the sunset prayer calls echoing along the banks as we pass small villages.

Along the way we stopped at temples in the morning, and would sail in the afternoon. We visited Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna, where nearly all the walls were covered with detailed carvings and hieroglyphs. Previously, in a spice shop in Luxor where I was buying spices for David, the merchant kindly wrote our names in hieroglyphics. Kathleen is represented by a cup, eagle, tethering rope, lion, feathers and the Nile. David is a hand, which means generous, and eagle, a viper (a contradiction to the generous hand!!) and a symbol of problems that have passed and been conquered. Joanna is comprised of a basket (representing a collector), a baby chick, and eagle and the Nile.

Luxor Spice Markets
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Aswan
Our final destination was Aswan, a bustling town that has a mix of Egyptian and Nubian cultures. When the Aswan high dam was constructed to control the seasonal flooding of the Nile, the resulting Lake Nasser, flooded most of the land of Nubia and they, along with numerous ancient temples, was moved to higher ground. Ftom the high damn, you can gaze out over the massive lake, which is larger than the size of England.

We traveled from Aswan to Abu Simbel to see one such relocated temple. Even if it had not been moved, it is easily one of the most astounding archeological sites in the world. Knowing it was moved piece by piece and reconstructed a few hundred meters away, is even more astounding. The original site of this temple is now under 150 feet of water where the Nile once flowed past giant sandstone cliffs. In a monumental rescue effort, nations from around the world joined UNESCO in the 60's to salvage this and other sites from the fast rising waters of Lake Nasser after the completion of the Aswan high dam. Pioneering new techniques, UNESCO disassembled the entire temple block by block and meticulously reassembled it including all of the underground passageways at this current site. If you did not witness the pictures of the project for yourself, you would not believe it was possible.

Four colossal statues of Ramses II stand over 100 feet high and face east towards the rising sun along the banks of Lake Nasser. A huge entrance in the middle leads to a passageway past more giant statues with walls covered with intricate hieroglyphs and carvings depicting the personal and military accomplishments of Ramses II.

Abu Simbel
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On our way back up the Nile towards Luxor, we visited the Temple of Philae, another temple moved to higher ground to ensure its salvation. It resides on a small island and can only be reached by boat. We sailed on a small local boat, called a felucca, where our captain allowed out friend John to sail, given he is an avid sailor in Inverness Scotland. The island is a magical place, covered in vibrantly colored flowers and cactus, where the temple overlooks the blue water of Lake Nasser.

Luxor Feluccas
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Temple Philae
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Our final night on the cruise was complete with Egyptian dress, food (very similar to Lebanese and just fabulous!) and dancing. Joanna and I even won the mummy contest with her toilet papering me so well I could barely breathe but we earned the coveted prize of free hibiscus and mango punch drinks.

Sinai Pennisula
Our hotel looks out across Naama Bay, where the waters of the Red Sea hide coral treasures, and lap against our water-front restaurant. Given Sharm el Sheik is very touristy, we have come to prefer our resort to that of the bright lights of the main street.

The only time we ventured from the resort was to find a fabulous Egyptian restaurant, to go snorkeling and diving, and to climb Mt Sinai to see the sunrise. In order to reach the summit at sunrise, we had to depart by bus at 11pm and drive for 3 hours into the heart of the Sinai Peninsula. The only things found in the barren desert are a few small Bedouin (local dessert people who live as nomads) settlements and St Katherine’s monastery. Therefore there is no pollution, which makes for a beautiful star filled sky.

After over three hours of hiking in the darkness, under a blanket of stars, dodging camels and hordes of other hikers, the final steps to the summit of Mount Sinai loomed before us. How the heck did Moses do this at his age?? The sunrise was beautiful, but not particularly peaceful as we were sharing it with the hundreds of others who had made the journey. I was amazed at the number of people who make this trek every day. It was worth the effort as we reached the small chapel on the summit and took in the breath-taking views of the surrounding mountainous desert.
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The last rays of the setting sun disappeared along with all of their warmth and the temperature quickly plummeted. We began the trek down, covering over 3,000 steps, (we did not count, but would swear it was more like 5,000) to reach St. Katherine's monastery, which has been around for centuries and contains what is said to be a relative of the famous burning bush where God spoke to Moses. I had a somewhat religious experience as insensitive tourists stood on there toes attempting to snap off bits of the bush, sending pieces of branch and leaves fluttering over me in a baptismal manner.

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The trip took over 15 hours and we ended up sleeping right though dinner. After that, our activities were restricted to the simpler pursuits of snorkeling, kayaking, diving and eating and drinking the local cuisine.

The snorkeling right off the beach is simply fabulous, and competes very well with that of the marine life of Ras Mohammed national park where we went on an all day snorkeling trip. I also spent one day diving the red sea, which was just as wonderful as my friends had promised, with great visibility and a magnitude of marine life. A perfect way to finish off a truly fabulous holiday.

God willing (Inshallah!), I will be back to Egypt many times in the future, at which time I will be sure to see Alexandria and to get to Jordon to see the ancient city of Petra. But given there were no flights until the day after we departed, we turned down the opportunity to take another 22 hours land journey. Next time.

Last Supper
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Posted by KathleenMc 02:02 Archived in Egypt Tagged cruises Comments (1)

Winter in Hungary

Kath, Karen & Stan in Budapest

snow 1 °C

Our plane touched down on a fog filled Thurs evening and was greeted by a blanket of fresh snow. Welcome to Winter in Budapest! We would later discover how thankful we were for the snow that brightened up what would have otherwise been a very bleak city.

We were excited by the healthy prospects of this weekend, with the guidebook boasting an abundance of healthy options from thermal baths and saunas, to sports of all kinds. However, by lunchtime we discovered this Hungarian lifestyle was likely necessitated by their taste in food. The menus consisted of an astonishing amount of meat, and in most cases its even breaded or baked! Although inexpensive, the food is served in huge portions (huge even by my American standards!) and meat, sour cream, heavy sauces and pickling abound. Pickled beets, pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers, and pickled peppers. If they can catch it, I presume they pickle it. I figured I would stick to the veggie options until I realized the traditional way of serving veggies is to fry them and mix them with cream!

This is Parliment House, overlooking the Danube
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Here are Stan and Reg checking out St Matthias Church. He brought Christianity to Hungary when he decided to side with the Roman Empire.
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We thus decided to sample just the simplest of local cuisine and focused in on apple strudels at a traditional coffee house called Ruszwurm in the Castle District of Buda, the hilly side of the city. I also tried the goose liver they are famous for, and must confess it was really good, although the French need not worry too much. We found they made up for it in their wine production. We loved their local wines!

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Having seen most of the sites in the Castle District by lunch time, and vowing to miss any museums (they have well over 16 of them in the city alone!) and opt for a more local tour, we ended up at the Hungarian House of Wine. A tremendous place as it offers self guided tours through the numerous wine regions of Hungary, offering over 50 wines to taste, and taste, and taste, plus memento glasses all for only 13 pounds! We had a great afternoon, and evening and ended up purchasing some whites (Karen’s fav) and Reds (my Fav), and a few dessert wines (which we both really favored).

On our way home we were treated with more snow, which was a real treat for Karen, who is from S Africa and rarely gets to enjoy a new snowfall.

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On the following day we checked out the newer side of town, Pest and wandered the residential streets and shopping districts to get a feel for the city. Most of the areas were quite bleak, with most of the architecture showing that post war communism gray. This apartment building shows the potential of the place with just a bit of optimism, vision and some bright paint!

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No trip to Budapest would be complete without a trip to the thermal baths. As Budapest lies on a geological fault, a massive amount of mineral waters gush from over 100 thermal springs. We went to the Szechenyi Baths in the City Park, which are surrounded by a pleasant yellow building giving it a Roman Bath type feel. Although intrigued by the idea of sharing a bath with hundreds of half naked Hungarians, most of them sporting the physique of a lifetime of heavy foods and great wine, we decided to give it a miss. Maybe next time. From the number of people comfortably wandering about in the swimmers, it was clear that the baths must have been giving off a tremendous amount of heat, enough to warm the snow covered ground.

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On or last day we treated ourselves to saunas in our hotel, as it ended up being a luxury hotel, at only a fraction of what you’d pay in England.

All in all, a great trip. My only regret was not having the opportunity to try a few phrases of the local language, as I usually try to do while abroad. But given the word for ‘Hi” is ‘Jo napot kiranuk’ and goodbye is ‘viszontlatasra’, I figured it was too much for me to handle. I did manage to learn ‘kirem’ which means ‘more please’, and worked a treat in the winery!

Posted by KathleenMc 08:00 Archived in Hungary Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

Impressions of Tallinn, Estonia

November 2005

overcast 10 °C

We selected Tallinn due to its remoteness, while still offering a direct flight from London. Apparently, with only 400,000 living there, it's the most un-densely populated city in Europe. The historic old town has a remarkable sense of space, almost deserted in some parts, with seagulls being the only sound you hear. This is me in the bustling Town Hall Square!
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Tallinn regained its independence from Russia in 1991, and the drab, Soviet style buildings disappear as you travel away from the airport, replaced by traditional Eastern European buildings like this Orthodox Church or those made from wooden slats painted in pastel colors, such as their gov't house, which is bright pink.
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The historic town is a walled city on the Gulf of Finland. Shops line the cobblestone streets, selling Amber jewels, woolens and handcrafted items.
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We enjoyed the local food, Estonian pancakes, wild boar, fresh pike perch, underground coffee shops where we'd try their local drink Vana Tallinn that makes Jaegermiester taste good and your eyes roll back in your head!

Tallinn is a city of big fur hats, extremely cheap beer, plenty of pig and a great deal of fun!

Posted by KathleenMc 09:16 Archived in Estonia Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

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