Too Good to be True: The Caribbean – 2007

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

But not on this occasion.

A small ad in the Vancouver Sun’s Travel Section promised a 17-night Caribbean cruise on Holland America’s Maasdam for only $1,600 per person.

So I immediately phoned the cruise line and asked what the catch was.

“Yes, sir, you are correct. There is a bit of a twist to this cruise,” said the booking clerk. “It is a cruise to the Cricket World Cup and we’ll be visiting several islands to see different games, including the final in Barbados.”

I couldn’t believe what I had been told. It was NO catch for me. I was ecstatic. I love cricket and this was the chance to combine two of my passions – sport and travel. And my wife loved the itinerary: two days in Grenada, four days in Barbados, two nights in St. Lucia and a day each in Martinique, Dominica, St. Vincent and a final stop in the Bahamas.

Now, we had never done a cruise before. In fact we were always reluctant to do one, concerned about being a part off a large captive crowd.

But it was magical and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Our early reluctance was unfounded and we realized that if used properly, cruise ships are like a giant taxi ferrying us from place to place. A perfect way to see the Caribbean islands.

The Maasdam had been hired by Australian cricket fans, but they couldn’t sell enough cabins so there was a last minute fire sale for North Americans to fill the empty spots. On board lecturers, included former Australian cricket captains like Kim Hughes, as well as cricket quizzes and even cricket memorabilia. Not everyone’s taste but I was in cricket heaven!

The Pitons

The World Cup final itself was in Barbados at the legendary Kensington Oval. And while I watched the game my wife spent the day on a spectacular Barbados beach.

There was plenty of free time, not the micro-managed itinerary we expected. The pick of the islands were the Bahamas, Barbados and St. Lucia, which had the most spectacular scenery including the Pitons, two volcanic mountains up to 2,500 feet high – a World Heritage Site. And a highlight was hiring a speedboat to visit the islands of Bequia and Mustique, an exclusive resort made famous by members of Britain’s royal family.

The weather was perfect, the cabin great and even though we had fixed seating arrangements for dinner, our companions, from British Columbia as it turned out, were good company.

While it wasn’t the adventure vacation we were used to, we enjoyed it enough to cruise again.

It was like a taster menu in travelling. A cruise, we decided, provided an overview to interesting parts of the world and a chance to see several out of the way cities and countries. And it gave us a chance to judge if we wanted to return again in the future.

We’ve actually done several cruises now, always selected for the itinerary first and the cruise line second.

A Baltic cruise we took a few years ago is a perfect example of our theory,   seeing smaller countries, we might never have visited, like Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki, Finland
Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia

If we had booked flights between the nine countries we visited it would have been expensive and time consuming. Going by ship we frequently sailed during the night and arrived fresh at a new port every day or so. And these ports were usually right in the centre of the cities we were visiting (we had chosen small ships for this very purpose) so we could hop off the ship and begin exploring right away. It was like a glorified taxi.

Cruising isn’t perfect, of course. One was ruined by sitting with a dreadful couple at dinner – obnoxious, overpowering, rude individuals somewhere to the right of Donald Trump. We vowed that wouldn’t happen again and now ask for a private table for two.

We also realized that rather than booking expensive shore excursions through the cruise line, we could usually book a private tour, which was cheaper and allowed us to control the itinerary.

In St. Petersburg we booked back to back tours over a couple of days with a company called DenRus. As our fellow passengers lined up for ages and were boarded onto large tour buses, we had a private guide and driver in a Mercedes at a lower cost.

It gave us plenty of opportunity to see the colourful St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the royal residence in Peterhof – with a walk through its magnificent gold-covered fountain park – and spend time in the stunning Hermitage Museum. We also had a private tour of the newly opened Faberge Museum and we requested several breaks for walking tours and a trip on the subway.

Peterhof
Peterhof
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Hermitage Museum
Hermitage Museum

And we always tried to use a cruise as only a part of a vacation. After a fraught driving trip through Portugal, Spain and France, we took a two-week Mediterranean cruise which took us to the Middle East before ending in Santorini and Athens.

On that trip, we were able to take a couple of days off the ship to visit both Cairo – particularly the pyramids of Giza, an original Wonder of the World, along with a short cruise along the Nile. But every moment our bus drove anywhere in Egypt, an armed guard stood by the driver at the front of the bus because the fear of terrorism was so great.

Giza
Sphinx
Pyramids

After Egypt we were able to spend a couple of days in Israel – which was wonderful as we had been trying to visit the country for almost 20 years, but every time we tried a serious threat of a war prevented us from going there. And we loved it so much, we returned to spend a week in Israel, a few years later.

On another occasion, we used a cruise ship as a ferry from LA to Costa Rica, visiting several countries in Central America, before leaving the ship for a week of adventure around Costa Rica. On route, in Guatemala, we took a flight to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal.

Tikal
Tikal

We spent several days in Costa Rica, trekking through the cloud forests and spent two nights in a hotel with bedroom windows that overlooked the impressive Arenal Volcano. And Panama city was a huge surprise – a magnificent waterfront with spectacular modern architecture and, by way of complete contrast, a visit to Casco Viejo, the city’s historic old town settled in 1673. And, yes, a day on a ship navigating the famous Panama Canal.

Arenal Volcano
Cloud Forest
Cloud Forest
Panama City
Panama City
Panama Old Town
Panama Old Town
Panama Canal
Panama Canal

The same cruise-theory was true in Asia. We had several days on our own in Beijing and Shanghai – exploring many highlights like the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors (don’t miss them, sculptures depicting the army of the first emperor of China and just a two hour flight from Beijing) before picking up a cruise from Shanghai, a truly beautiful city, which took us to Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and Thailand.

Beijing
Beijing
Beijing
Beijing
Great Wall
Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army

Our first stop in Vietnam was the town of Hoi An, designated in 1999 as a UNESCO world heritage site because of its rich cultural heritage. The old quarter is a mosaic of various cultures with well preserved buildings, (the Japanese Covered Bridge and the House of Tan Ky among the many sites  well worth visiting), charming shops and the loveliest people you will meet anywhere. While my wife wandered the side streets saying the Vietnamese women were the best salespeople in the world, I hired a local fisherman to take me on a trip down the Thu Bon River, with his young university educated daughter as our translator. Well worth missing lunch for the experience of time well spent with locals.

Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City, better known to most of us as Saigon. Probably the controlled chaotic traffic of motor bikes and the impenetrable tangle of wires are the lasting images we have. And again, that of the graciousness of the people, most of whom we met born after the war, known to them as the American War, not the Vietnam War. 

After a long busy day in Ho Chi Minh City, we caught a flight to Angkor Wat in Cambodia for two days. Built in the 12th Century, the temple site is the largest religious monument in the world and contains some of the great masterpieces of Khmer art. Partly restored from its wilderness state, the jungle still invades much of the 400 acre site and its buildings.

Hidden in the dense jungle for hundreds of years, Angkor Wat was the epicentre of a sprawling area about the size of Berlin. It has grown massively in popularity. In the mid-1990s it had around 7,500 visitors a year. Today there are nearly three million annually.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

And again, with another fellow traveller, we passed on lunch and hired a boat and guide to take us on a trip to see the many families living and working from their homes built on stilts on the river.

It was no doubt worth seeing but we found it troubling to see the food waste in our hotel juxtaposed with the poverty of the local population. Of course, poverty exists in many countries but it was the waste that was jarring. Having said that the Cambodians we met were, like the Vietnamese, kind gracious and welcoming. We can only hope that tourism eventually trickles down and the children are the benefactors.

We flew back to Thailand and spent a night and two days in Bankok where we took a river trip and visited many of the “gilded” sights. However, on our last day, while touring, our guide heard on his radio that the city was going to be closed due to a political demonstrations. He drove at warp speed, insisted we check out immediately and took a circuitous route to the ship. As we sailed away we were told the city was all but shut down due to political unrest. I couldn’t help but remember our guide’s colourful scarf, the colour of dissent, sitting on the seat next to him as he spirited us out of his city.

And after ending that cruise in Singapore, our third visit to that ever changing city, and spending few days there, we took a bus to Kuala Lumpur. A very civilized trip and a great way to see the country. After our visit to KL we flew back to Japan, where we had organized our own tour, visiting Tokyo (and as luck would have it, at cherry blossom time!), going on the bullet train to visit Kyoto, and a spectacular drive to Mount Fuji. As exciting and frenetic as Tokyo is, Kyoto won the top prize in our estimation. The old imperial capital has many of the age old qualities of a Geisha; refined, delicate, and somewhat other worldly. The gardens, Nijo Castle, the many temples and the Gion district were all places we walked and enjoyed. And as my wife reminded me, even purchasing a gift became a ceremony. The care and time spent on the whole process nearly drove me mad but to my wife it was soothing.  A sure cure for high blood pressure……hers, not mine!!!!

Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur

After a week visiting Japan, we flew home and felt we had had a satisfying overview of a large part of Asia.

So, as I said earlier, we find cruising to be an efficient and effective form of transportation when time and logistics are an issue. And they have taken us to places that we might well not have otherwise visited.

Tiger Tales – 2011

Yadunath Sen spoke only one word of English. And that was “tiger”.

And when he calmly, but softly, said “tiger” and pointed with his left arm into the distant bush he had our complete attention. 

We were in Bandhavgarh National Park in India. It was our fifth – and last – safari in two national parks searching for the elusive and endangered tiger. And our luck appeared to have run out.

At that time there were only about 3,000 tigers left in the wild and they had completely eluded us. One hundred years ago there were 40,000.

But early one August morning our Toyota Land Cruiser eased to a halt at Sen’s command and there, 400 yards from us, was a magnificent 275 pound tiger, camouflaged by trees and bushes. It was slinking behind some tree stumps, and slowly walked through long grass into the open where it stood, yawning, for a few brief seconds before heading back for cover. Our driver estimated it to be about 18 months old.

The total sighting lasted maybe five minutes, but it had made our Indian adventure. We always knew the odds were stacked against seeing a tiger but it was an exhilarating thrill.

We were in the tiger parks half way through a six week adventure which started in Nepal and ended in Israel.

We flew to from Vancouver to Delhi, via London, and then on to Kathmandu, 4,600 feet up in the Himalayan foothills.  It was quite a culture shock as we touched down – a city of beautiful chaos.

Kathmandu
Kathmandu

You are immediately drawn into the cacophony of sound from honking cars and motorcycles racing through the narrow streets of the city with its six million people, living in precarious wooden buildings. We were there several years before the catastrophic earthquake of April, 2015, and could easily understand how vulnerable the city was.

Kathmandu was the royal capital of the kingdom of Nepal and is packed full of history, palaces and temples. One of its gems is Durbar Square – a place of palaces – which has more than 50 temples dating back to the 12th Century.

Durbar Square

Our favourite was the Boudhanath Stupa – a UNESCO world heritage site, and the largest temple in the country. It is the religious centre of Nepal’s Tibetan/Buddhist community. Monks and pilgrims walk around the stupa, always in a clockwise direction, spinning prayer wheels, chanting and praying. Thousands of colourful prayer flags are hoisted from the top of the stupa downwards and dot the perimeter of the complex. It was hard not to be moved. And eighteen months after the earthquake, with private donations from Buddhist groups and help from local volunteers, it has been fully restored.

Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa

But for me, while this beautiful, bustling city was awe inspiring, the main purpose of the visit was to make an attempt to see the Himalayas -particularly Everest.

We were there for three nights, and it took three attempts to fly close to the world’s highest mountain. The first morning I arrived at the Kathmandu airport, Yeti Airways kept insisting we’d make the hour long flight into the Himalayas but as the clouds got heavier and heavier, they had no alternative but to call the trip off. We never left the terminal.

On the second morning, the weather looked a lot brighter as we boarded the Everest Express. Strapped into our seats and actually travelling along the bumpy runway, the pilot came on the PA system to advise us that conditions were deteriorating and it simply wasn’t clear enough to see the mountain. That flight was abandoned.

On the third morning, my final chance, was our final day in Nepal. This time the weather was perfect. The blue sky crystal clear and not a sign of a cloud. The propeller driven Jetstream 41 rumbled down the runway and we were away. It was an absolutely magnificent sight as we flew right along the Himalayan range. And we were able to take turns going into the cockpit to take photographs as we flew just five miles from the peak. I was on top of the world.

 

Everest
Everest

From Nepal, we flew back to Delhi to begin our 16-day tour of Rajasthan. It was organized by a company called Perfect Travels.  And it was perfect in every way. We had our own guide/driver most of the time, and we needed him as there is no way an inexperienced driver would want to drive the rough, chaotic, potholed roads in India. We bumped along most of the way at speeds of not much more than 30 miles an hour. And on the longest legs, our driver would drive through the night while we flew ahead.

The hotels were superb. Seven-stars in some cases – and the whole package for the two of us was less than $10,000. Every night within moments of checking in, there was a phone call from the travel company checking that we had enjoyed our day and wanting to know if there was anything we needed.

India is nothing if not a country of contrasts. A riot of colour, rich magnificent historic buildings and wonderfully generous people. Bazaars teeming with industrious vendors and full of pungent smells.

But on the other hand the worst poverty we have seen anywhere, with hawkers and beggars on most street corners, unimaginable filth and dogs everywhere. And cows tethered to posts, wandering on the streets – and even inside stores.

In fact, before leaving Canada it was the first time on any trip in the world that I felt nervous and concerned about our safety. Concerns that were totally unnecessary.

The highlights of our trip through Rajasthan, included Delhi (you must see the Red Fort and India Gate), Udaipur – where we stayed in the seven star hotel, The Leela, arriving by boat across one of the city’s lakes. As we stepped into the lobby hundreds of rose petals were released from the ceiling onto our heads. Next, the desert forts of Jodhpur, and Jaipur, where the pink sandstone Palace of Winds stands out as one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

Udaipur
Palace of Winds, Jaipur
Palace of Winds, Jaipur

Built in 1799, it was an extension of the Royal Palace of Jaipur and was named because of to its clever cooling system which allows gentle breezes through the inner rooms during the heat of Rajasthan summers. We were there in August and it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

We stayed in our first tiger park – Ranthambhore – on the way to Agra, home of the iconic Taj Mahal and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It was even more magnificent in real life than we had imagined and much bigger. Our guide was able to get us in at first light to the immense mausoleum, which was built between 1631 and 1648 by the emperor Shad Jahan in memory of his favourite wife. It is the jewel of Muslim art in India and it was stunning to see the pink light of the sunrise reflected on the white marble walls.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

After leaving Agra we took an overnight train to the second tiger park. It was supposedly a first class coach. But, wow, what a shock to the system. I have never seen so many flies in my life as we waited for the train to arrive – and when we boarded there was nothing remotely luxurious or first class about it. We were crammed into two bunks – upper and lower – but shared the space with two other bunks on the opposite side of the cabin. And as we tried to sleep, every time the train stopped – which was often – there was a revolving door as other passengers would replace the ones leaving our tiny compartment. Almost always men, men who seemed to snore their way through the night. Suffice to say, not much sleep was had by us!

And as we boarded the train in Agra I knew I had a boil developing on the back of my head. Lying in the dirty bunk, with its filthy pillows, I’m sure that is where the boil became seriously infected and when I got back to Vancouver the infection was diagnosed as the super bug MRSA. (While that in itself was bad enough, the antibiotics used to treat it put me a day or so away from death after developing a severe allergic reaction called Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.But that is another story for another day)

We arrived at the tiger park tired and dirty. As we approached the safari lodge, it looked, at least from our vantage point, disappointing. How wrong we were! Once we got through the underwhelming entrance it turned out to be one of the finest, classiest lodges we had ever stayed in – with opulent rooms and incredible food. Called Samode House, it was designed on the best of African lodges and no detail was spared.  It was also close to the main entrance of the park and they provided us with knowledgeable guides and vehicles to go on regular safaris. It was Indian hospitality at its best and, of course, this is where we experienced our first tiger sighting . All in all a memorable experience.

From there we were driven to Khajuraho, to see the temple of love – with its erotic, Kama Sutra style sculptures depicting every imaginable – and some unimaginable – love-making positions. The group of Hindu and Jain temples were built between the ninth and 11th centuries and are now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Khajuraho
Khajuraho
Khajuraho

We were in two minds about visiting Varanasi, regarded as the spiritual capital of India. The city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites. There are 2,000 temples amongst the city’s winding streets. And a surprise around every corner.

Varanasi
Varanasi
Varanasi

But we were so glad we did visit the city. Colourful and yet poignant, where the bodies of loved ones are cremated and their ashes scattered on the banks of the Ganges.

We had a delightful ride on our first evening in a rickshaw, or Tuk-Tuk, which sounds like a lawnmower and isn’t much faster.  The driver we hired could only take us so far and passed us off to his friend who took us to see the sunset on the Ganges. As dusk fell, we trotted after him through a rabbit’s warren of narrow back streets to visit his home, wondering if we’d ever be seen again! As it turned out, he and his family made and sold beautiful pashminas from their tiny cubicle abode. Counted among his clients was Goldie Hawn (he had photographs with her) and when we said she had lived briefly in Vancouver, he whipped out a letter from her, stating that she had indeed lived there. As a result we were accepted into the “inner circle”, friends of my friends, so to speak!

The Indian leg of the journey ended in Mumbai, where we stayed in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which had been attacked and set on fire by terrorists just three years earlier. One hundred and sixty people were killed and hundreds more injured. It was hard not to forget that this beautifully refurbished hotel had been the subject of such devastation and horror.

Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is a giant, polluted city – a city of slums and entrepreneurs. I particularly remember the giant laundry, the dhobi Ghat by the side of a freeway, where hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing were beaten clean on rocks or stones, then hung up to dry in the unrelenting heat before being ironed by a heavy coal iron weighing 15 pounds.

Mumbai Laundry
Mumbai Laundry
Mumbai Laundry

And as we left Mumbai, Clive’s next law of travel kicked in.

It is always been my belief that when you are flying half way round the world, it is the flights that are often prohibitively expensive. So I take out my atlas and study the surrounding countries to see what other side trips I can add on.

Therefore, after leaving India, we flew to Oman (where we arrived, me wearing a massive head bandage after treatment by an Indian doctor for my infected boil…..I looked like a terrorist, but was waived through immigration.)

Muscat, Oman is friendly, pristine and really beautiful. We made friends with our taxi driver on the first day – and he insisted on giving us a city tour the next day, even taking us to his home to meet his family and after hearing my wife loved dates, thrusting dates from his garden into our hands.

The splendour of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was as beautiful a piece of architecture as you can imagine. The Indian sandstone changes colour with the light and provided us with peace and tranquility after the pandemonium that is sometimes India.

Muscat, Oman
Muscat, Oman
Muscat, Oman

The people went out of their way to be friendly and at one point when we asked for directions to cross a busy highway to get to a restaurant that had been recommended to us, the man we asked insisted on driving us there because it was such a complex road pattern.

Our trip ended with ten days in Jordan and Israel. Jordan ranks with Peru for its stunning architectural ruins. A new Wonder of the World, the city of Petra was built as early as 312 B.C.  It was carved in the mountains out of the surrounding rose red stone by nomadic Arabs, and is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system.

Petra wasn’t discovered by the Western world until 1812 by a Swiss explorer who described the city he found as “half as old as time”.

Another UNESCO world heritage site, the Smithsonian Magazine described it as one of the places you must see before you die. We agree whole heartedly.

As we walked the mile or so through steep canyons carved out of stunning, rugged, 220 feet high rock formations towards the ruins of Petra, our guide told us to close our eyes tightly and hang onto him. Then, as we we opened them again, before us was the Treasury, seen through a narrow fissure in the canyon wall…..one of the most stunning architectural ruins we’ve ever seen. It was simply breathtaking.

Petra

Nothing really prepares you for this amazing pink facade, about 140 feet high and 100 feet wide, which was probably built originally as a tomb.

The Treasury is the first of many dazzling wonders that make up Petra. In the afternoon heat I walked up 800 steps to see the Monastery, which was probably built as a temple. At least as imposing as the Library, it was worth every gruelling step.

Monastery
Monastery

From Petra we drove south to Wadi Rum where the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was filmed. Our Bedouin guide spoke virtually no English – yet he had the most contagious laugh and was more fun than any guide we can ever remember sharing time with. He drove us through the desert by Jeep, looking at the spectacular rock formations and sand dunes and stopping to greet young family members on camel back.

Wadi Rum

That night we stayed in a Bedouin camp and experienced tasty traditional goat and rice dishes as we watched the sun setting over the shifting sands of the desert. There are few words to describe how beautiful this vast expanse of land is. The silence alone is worth the visit. Wadi Rum was a gift from our son and it remains a cherished memory.

Finally we drove to Israel, via the Allenby Bridge. We entered with thousands of Muslims returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca in one of the most disorderly border scenes we have ever experienced. It took a couple of hours of pushing and shoving through the masses, carrying our suitcases, before we made it through immigration and into Jerusalem. It is probably worth noting that this scene would not be repeated at any other border in Israel. Israelis are nothing if not organized so there was more going on at that crossing than met the eye.

There is probably more history packed into the close quarters of Jerusalem than anywhere else on earth – in the old city around the Temple Mount is the Western Wall (Wailing Wall), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock….sites of three of the world’s most significant religions.  In addition to visiting the above religious sites, visiting the old city should include a walk along the Via Dolorosa and the tower of David( take in the night show if you can, it was wonderful). But just walking the streets in the various quarters, stopping to eat or drink, shopping and chatting with the various vendors is worth the experience.

On our first trip to Israel, on a cruise sponsored, two day trip, we visited many Christian sites including the Mount of Beatitudes and a church overlooking the Sea of Galilee. A peaceful, beautiful place believed to be the setting of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. We also visited the Jordan River, the Garden of Gethsemane, near the foot of the Mount of Olives, and a very interesting trip into Bethlehem, in Palestine on the West Bank. 

On this trip, we decided to see more of Jerusalem, as detailed above and also booked a trip to the legendary fortress ruins of Masada and a trip to the Dead Sea. Both worth doing and if visiting the Dead Sea, take a bathing suit to swim (or float) and/or to take a mud bath.

However, Yad Vashem was our number one priority on this trip. It is Israel’s official monument to the victims of the Holocaust. And by any standards, while not an enjoyable place, it provides an understanding of the size and impact of the Holocaust. It includes a museum, a Hall of Remembrance, a garden that includes trees planted to honour non-Jews who put their lives at risk to rescue Jews, and so much more.  We spent a full day there. The entrance is free.

From Jerusalem we drove to Tel Aviv. If Jerusalem is old, Tel Aviv is young. Beautiful young people seem to “own” this city…a busy, cosmopolitan centre.  An easy city to walk in, a great walk is along the promenade to the ancient port city of Jaffa. Also a great walk is in what is called the White City, an area with hundreds of stunning buildings with a variety of styles, including a collection of Bauhaus style buildings. And you will never go hungry or thirsty as cafes and restaurants abound.

Jerusalem
Jerusalem
Jerusalem
Jerusalem
Jerusalem

In all, a most excellent adventure. However, as my MRSA infection was getting worse, we reluctantly boarded a plane and headed for home.

Chimpanzees and Gorillas – 2009

Sitting on a plane wearing protective breathing masks for a ten-hour flight seemed a little bizarre.

But we were terrified of getting sick.

And for good reason. We were on our way to see the gorillas high up in the mountain forests of Rwanda and Uganda and if we had even the slightest sniffle, we would be banned from visiting them.

We were under surveillance as soon as we arrived early in the morning at a holding field for gorilla trekkers on the edge of Virunga National Park. The guides watched us closely for an hour for any signs of sneezing, coughing, or multiple visits to the washroom. Any symptoms and our day would have ended right then.

Fortunately we arrived fit and well for what proved to be a gruelling hike up steep slopes, through the damp, wet, humid forests in search of gorillas.

We had paid $500 each for a trekking permit, and had arrived at the Bwindi impenetrable forest in the Virunga Mountains right on the border of Uganda and the Congo. Only about 80 people are allowed to see the gorillas each day, and you need to book at least a year in advance. Permits have now shot up to as much as $1,500 per person in neighbouring Rwanda!

We spent the night before in a bungalow at the Mikeno Lodge, on the edge of the forest, overlooking the rift valley and the volcanos. We bunkered down to try and sleep under mosquito netting to protect us from cockroaches and all manner of flying insects. It was hard because of the anticipation of a 5 a.m. wake up call, the sheer excitement and the constant noise of the intrepid insects!

At dawn we walked a mile or so to the rendezvous point where we were eventually divided into small groups of six or seven people and assigned a guide per group. Only 50 permits are given out each day.

Each group was told about the designated family of gorillas they would be following. There were no guarantees we’d see them – visitors have actually left without seeing these magnificent creatures, though that is quite rare.

Scouts or spotters were sent ahead and had a rough idea which direction the gorillas were heading. They used radios to communicate with the guides.

And then we were off, hacking our way through the jungle. We climbed for two hours in 100 per cent humidity, dripping with sweat and struggling to keep up.  The steep trails wound around tangled ropes of vines, pressing through a maze of foliage, when at last – exhausted – we found them, or they us?! In any case, there they were, nonchalantly sitting in a clearing.

Moments earlier we had to leave everything but our cameras under a tree a few hundred yards away. We had hired a porter to help carry our few possessions, mostly large bottles of water and, in truth, he also helped push us up some of the steepest, more slippery sections of the bushwhacked trail. I was running marathons at the time, but still found it exhausting and tough going in the sapping heat.

The camera lenses fogged up in the humidity, so taking photographs was challenging as we came within a few yards of ten or twelve gorillas eating, playing or resting in the clearing. Several more were in the trees.

They stopped munching for a moment to observe us and then carried on with their business. A few feet away there was a large silverback (the alpha male leader of the troop), twice the size of the young females, weighing over 400 pounds and about six feet tall. He sat on massive haunches, stripping leaves from branches. He was close enough to hold our gaze with his intelligent, liquid brown eyes.

The young gorillas displayed the curiosity of all youngsters and I sensed they wanted to inspect our shiny cameras. Their mothers, for the most part, were calm and only occasionally interfered with their offspring. They posed, played, and performed within inches of us.

But we were allowed precisely one hour with the troop. The guides are stringent about this so as not to overly disturb the gorillas.

There are fewer than 900 of the endangered mountain gorillas left in the wild and their protection and that of their habitat is an ongoing challenge.

Then we started the downhill trek through tall, tangled, scrub back to the village, a sense of having been privileged to witness something truly extraordinary.

Our drive back through Uganda was hair-raising. A white knuckle ride along roads that were nothing more than rough tracks, often tire deep in red sand – sand which invaded the entire inside of the Land Rover, including us.  Back in Kigali, Rwanda, we stayed at the Hotel des Mille Collines, dubbed Hotel Rwanda – made famous by the gut wrenching movie about the genocide which ripped the nation apart a few years earlier. There were still bullet holes in the walls of the hotel. It has since been renovated.

The next day we set off in a four by four with our guide searching for an equally elusive animal – chimpanzees. This time we faced an eight hour drive to Nyungwe National Park in southwest Rwanda, right across the river from the Congo. We arrived at perhaps the most decrepit hotel we have ever stayed in but given the hardships faced by most of the locals, we counted ourselves lucky.

At four the next morning the guide woke us for our attempt to find the endangered chimpanzees. We were given a one in ten chance. But we got lucky, very lucky. Within an hour another guide flagged us down and tipped us to their whereabouts. We hiked maybe a mile into the deep African jungle, and there they were.

Actually we heard them before we saw them: screaming, whooping and making a series of excited, short cries which reverberated through the trees.

Fifteen or so chimpanzees were running in and out of shady openings, swinging through trees. When they walked it was on their knuckles. They were much harder to photograph than the gorillas because they were mostly on the move.

But every bit as awe-inspiring.

And after maybe 30 minutes observing them they were off – following the noisiest whooping we’d heard that early morning. Our guide said the alpha male was signalling to the rest of the group to follow him and they headed off, even deeper into the jungle.

Next stop on our African adventure was Windhoek, Namibia. This time our luck didn’t hold up and both our bags vanished during the multiple flights. We had a few minutes to pick up some emergency supplies before venturing deep into the sun drenched bush of Namibia’s Namib desert.

Dead Vlei
Dead Vlei

A complete contrast to the jungles we’d left behind.

The desert is home to the highest sand dunes in the world – up to 1,000 feet high. It is important to enter the national park before the sun rises – because watching it come up over the dunes has to rank as one of the greatest sights in the world. The dunes turn from inky purple to salmon to bright red.

The dancing light on Dune 45, the most photographed dune in the world, is stunning. And after photographs, it is possible to climb the dunes, often hanging on to ropes along their sharp wind carved edges.

Driving out of the desert towards Namibia’s skeleton coast we suddenly saw a truck coming towards us spewing up huge clouds of red sand. As it got closer and closer, the driver frantically waved us down. And there, in the back of his truck, our missing bags, five days into that part of the trip. We were overjoyed to see them again, in what must have been the remotest of places ever for missing baggage to be returned – at least 200 miles from the nearest airport.

Skeleton Coast

After looking at ship wreck after ship wreck on the Skelton Coast, one of the world’s most dangerous places for vessels, it was back to animals. A fantastic piece of luck was when minutes before we had to turn back, we spotted a herd of very endangered desert elephants in the fading light. We had a day at nearby AfriCats, a massive rehabilitation reserve for injured and orphaned cheetahs and leopards. So vast, that we went on a lengthy safaris to spot the animals.

We were also given a cool opportunity – to see veterinarians extract a abscessed tooth from an adult cheetah in the facility’s hospital. They made sure the animal was given huge doses of anesthetic. Its teeth were incredibly sharp.

From then on, as we wrapped up our adventure, we were on safari every day. First in Etosha National Park, Namibia, and then were drove right across the Caprivi strip, into Botswana.

One never to be forgotten night on the strip was at a river camp surrounded by hundreds of hippos, grunting all night long. They are considered the most dangerous animals in Africa, every year killing more humans than any other. But left alone they make fine, musical camping companions!!

It was our first visit to Botswana and we were based in Chobe National Park, which has now become our favourite national park on the continent  because of the vast elephant herds and the huge variety of wildlife including some of the largest crocodiles we’ve ever seen.

From there we flew to the Okavango Delta to experience the Pom Pom bush camp. Remote, but far from primitive, the nine tented rooms overlook a lagoon and we experienced some our finest lion sightings of the trip.

Although we had bumped into a couple earlier in our adventure who had stayed at Pom Pom and swore they had the scary sight of a deadly black mamba snake emerging from their pit toilet, we loved every minute of our visit and learned to always “look first’!!

It was, perhaps, the most extraordinary of our African adventures.

The Night of the Hyenas – 2015

My friend Ted is normally a calm, placid man. Nothing really bothers him.

That was until 4.00a.m. in the pitch black of an African night, when he heard a rustling sound, looked at the shadow cast by the tiny light outside his tent flap and saw a hyena looking in on him. 

For an hour the hyena stalked Ted’s tent. They are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa with jaws capable of crushing bone and known to attack humans.

It eventually ambled off after marking its territory all around Ted’s tent.

Thirty minutes later Ted came to breakfast looking as white as a sheet.

Just hours before the incident we were returning to camp in our Land Cruiser when four 150-pound hyenas literally brushed the side of our vehicle. I was actually petrified but the guide told us to remain calm as they don’t jump up or climb. They were so close, we could have leaned down and touched the formidable predators.

It was one of several close encounters with animals on the camping safari. We woke several mornings to find lion tracks in the sand inches from our tents. One morning we were having breakfast when a pack of strong wild dogs – the African equivalent of wolves – chased a roan antelope right through the camp at speeds of 35 miles an hour.

Another time we surprised a sleeping male lion. We came within 20 feet of him and for a split second we thought he was going to leap into the truck, but after a few terrifying seconds decided we weren’t a threat and settled back down to snooze. Twice elephants bluff charged us.

On this trip, we spent nine nights in three different camps in the Okavango Delta, living in canvas tents and sleeping on metal cots.

Camping outdoors gave us spectacular views of the totally clear night sky and made us feel as though we were at one with nature. Each tent, which was about 80 square feet, had a private bathroom entered through a zip flap at the back. There were proper toilets over holes dug in the ground, and showers twice a day using warm water from bladders hung from the bathroom supports and heated earlier on the camp fire.

Our team consisted of our main guide, Gee, who drove the Land Cruiser and three helpers including a chef who every day cooked up amazing dishes on open fires – including some of the best chocolate and lemon cakes I have ever tasted. Gee had magic eyes, spotting game we could never hope to find on our own.

There were nine of us on the nine-day safari – paying about $6,000 Canadian each. We travelled with a company called Letaka, recommended by adventure-minded friends back in Vancouver.

There were several reasons we opted to camp: it is cheaper that the more up-market “soft” safaris, you are effectively on safari 24 hours a day and there are no time-wasting flights between camps. And the raw excitement of being in a canvas tent surrounded by animals makes it a true adventure.

And as much as anything else, we had the advantage of being by ourselves virtually the entire time. In the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya or the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, for example, someone spots a lion or a leopard and within minutes as many as 40 trucks full of camera toting tourists descend on the bewildered animal.

On our trip, we rarely saw another safari truck. The most vehicles we ever saw in one place was at a leopard sighting – and there were five of them over a two hour window.

We have experienced the higher end luxury safaris – in Kenya and Tanzania. The accommodation is permanent, and described as “tented” – but it is usually on solid platforms raised from the ground with wooden or solid canvas walls and ceilings with fans and most mod-cons, including electricity. The staff are there all year round, and the food is more like that served in a high end hotel, and believe it or not some have spas and pools.

But nothing beats the smells, the taste, and the smoke of the open fire when you are camping in the great African outdoors.

Our safari through the Okavango Delta ended in Chobe National Park – our favourite park in Africa because of its beauty and the vast herds of elephants. Botswana is the only country in Africa that effectively cracks down on poachers. They shoot to kill and ask questions afterwards, which has led to a 99 per cent drop in ivory poaching and the expansion of giant elephant herds.

In Chobe, we actually stayed at a high end lodge – Muchenje – at the end of the safari. But at close to $1,000 a night it was twice the price of a night under a canvas tent. Though it was nice to have comfortable beds, flush toilets and air conditioning after camping in the heat!

And it gave us an opportunity to spend time on the Chobe River, watching elephants drinking and swimming, crocodiles sleeping and hippos playing by the water’s edge.

We also like Botswana because it feels safe…away from the always present threat of violence and terrorism in Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam. The people are generous, warm and quite lovely.

Chobe is also just an hour or so drive away from the borders of Zimbabwe and Zambia and close to the spectacular Victoria Falls. The journey across the border is tricky, with visas for Zimbabwe costing over $100 US each, just to see the falls. There was one other bonus in Zimbabwe – you can buy original and legal trillion dollar Zimbabwean bank notes for very little, such is impact of inflation in that poor country. So you can come home a trillionaire. The bank notes make great souvenirs and cool gifts and at the same time helping the people selling them.

Victoria Falls

On this trip we also took in a week at two more luxurious camps just outside Kruger national Park in South Africa – nThambo and Idube. nThambo’s five rooms are built on stilts, and the surrounding park provided a perfect setting for all the Big Five animals (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard). Rhinos are hard to find in Botswana.

Our time in Idube was marvellous, largely because of a legendary guide nicknamed Rob the Ranger whose exploits are followed on YouTube the world over. He is part cowboy and part wildlife expert – driving through thickets and across swamps in pursuit of animals for his truck full of camera-waving tourists.

Tanzania, which we visited on an earlier trip, was an altogether different experience. There were four of us sharing one guide, John, a giant of a man who drove us through the Tarangire National Park and the Serengeti and made sure we had unique sightings, including the great migration – the time of year when a million wildebeest and zebras make their way through treacherous conditions to better grazing. It is called the greatest show on earth.

John’s eyesight was unbelievable. He could spot animals well before we could see them – on one occasion there was a whiff of dust five miles away and he calmly said: “That’s a cheetah”. We drove fast across the plains and and he was right. A cheetah mother and her two cubs found dining on an antelope they had just killed. They didn’t seem concerned about our presence as we watched mesmerized for an hour or so, without another soul in sight, and as a result, we got some superb photographs.

He was a formidable driver. On one occasion leaving the Ngorongoro Crater the one road out was swamped in a sea of mud from a heavy storm. But John slowly used steel wires he carried to winch us upon the steep road inch by inch. Otherwise we could have been stuck for days.

And on another occasion he had to drive down a precarious, rocky bank, to cross a river. He actually gave one of our group his gun and told him to stand on guard as we crossed. His infamous line was: “We’re beyond government assistance here.” We made it. Just.

We ended that trip in an area of Tanzania south of Dar Es Salaam called the Selous. An area that is being heavily poached and therefore devastated.

However, we’ll always remember Selous after we spent an hour watching a pride of a dozen lions languishing on a beach, and because it was the first time we saw the colourfully patterned African wild dogs.

We’ll always remember Tanzania, too, for an immigration scam. As we were leaving the country immigration officials asked how I arrived. I said that along with everyone else in our group we had entered through Kilimanjaro.

“Well, where’s your entrance stamp”, he asked. I looked and couldn’t find one. Turns out they had taken my $50 visa fee as we arrived, but pocketed it and not stamped my passport – which I hadn’t checked. After some explaining they waived me through – and said it was, sadly, part of an ongoing scam.

Kathaka

And to complete the circle of that trip let me go back to our arrival in Nairobi, enroute to Tanzania,  where we spent an afternoon at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehab program in East Africa and indeed the world. It was a special moment for us, as several months before our visit, Carol-Ann had ‘adopted’ Kithaka, an orphaned elephant being rehabilitated at the Trust.  Kithaka was there when we arrived, relatively small, weak and sickly when we saw him. His keeper covered him with a blanket and slept with him in his stall at night during the long road to recovery.

But now were are happy to report that Kithaka is strong – and very cheeky – having graduated from the nursery, to a rehab unit in Tsavo where he continues to grow and thrive and where one day he will be released, back  into the wild.

DSWT is an extraordinary organization, rehabilitating orphaned elephants, supporting anti poaching units, a mobile veterinary unit, conservation and a successful community outreach program.

But they are working against a terrible tide of wildlife poaching in Africa.

Responsible tourism is one of the many ways to help alter that tide. Choose a safari company that supports local communities and minimizes the environmental impact. And of course, at home, speak out against the trade in wildlife parts and never buy Ivory.

Galapagos and Easter Island – 2013

It was potentially the most exciting day of our six week journey. But it had started to rain. It was torrential and we could barely see more than 50 feet before our eyes.

But emerging from the equatorial scrub was a 200 pound tortoise. Then another, and another. Pretty soon there were about 40 of the huge creatures slurping through puddles, following each other along the rough gravel paths.

The rain, in fact, meant that virtually every tortoise on Isabela Island in the Galapagos had come out to take a drink of the desperately needed rainwater. Our guide said we saw more that day than she had seen in any sighting for years. Sometimes, she explained, you can hike along the pathways but never see them.

Cameras getting wet, we were soaked to the skin by the downpour. Yet it didn’t matter. We were in probably the most famous wildlife watching destination in the world and the tortoises were utterly magnificent to watch as they greedily lapped up the warm tropical storm water and chewed on the newly drenched grass.

We were part way through an extraordinary week long cruise around the Galapagos. Travelling by boat is the most practical way of seeing highlights of the 13 different volcanic islands, slap-bang on the equator.

We had flown the 600 miles there from Quito, Ecuador, and were observing the sheer spectacle of the place that provided inspiration for Charles Darwin’s ground breaking theories. We were with about 55 other adventure seekers on a small cruise ship which came with expert local guides and several powerful zodiacs to take us from the main boat through the shallow waters onto the beaches of different islands. Islands overflowing with wildlife at every turn.

And it was on one of those beaches that a small group of us undertook a dramatic rescue. As we approached the far end of the beach, a giant 200 pound turtle was stranded on its back, as the sun got steadily hotter.

Turtles are unable to turn themselves over, and there was no question this turtle was going to die in the already 30 degree temperature. But it was a dilemma – as to touch wildlife on the islands is against the law.

Fortunately common sense prevailed and our guide agreed that half a dozen of us should approach the turtle and turn it over. This was no small feat as it was very heavy. But we managed to get it back on its feet and within seconds it was scurrying (as much as a turtle scurries!) down the beach into the water. If turtles could smile, it was smiling – it had been a very narrow escape.

It is fair to say that my wife, Carol-Ann, turned her nose up at the idea of travelling to the Galapagos. She would, she said, rather go back to Africa. It didn’t take her long to decide she was wrong and described this as a piece of equatorial heaven on earth.

We sailed to the islands of Baltra, Daphne, Espanola, Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina and Santa Cruz and saw everything from penguins to boobies with bright blue feet, and male frigate birds with their extraordinary red balloon-like sacs under their throats.

Each day seemed to get more spectacular as we mingled with the wildlife – snorkelled with the sea lions and seals and got within a few feet of exotic, prehistoric looking iguanas of all colours and sizes.

Quito was a dazzlingly beautiful city and is the hub for flights to Galapagos.  And we arrived there from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to magical Easter Island, also slap dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – but further south than the Galapagos.

Quito
Quito

It is nearly 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile and one of the most isolated inhabited spots on earth. Easter Island, or Rapu Nui as it is called locally, is also one of the most mysterious.

We stepped off the plane into the humidity of Easter Island, and immediately after checking into our modest hotel set about exploring the 900 stone statues scattered over the tiny island. The tallest are almost 33 feet high and weigh more than 80 tons.

I will never forget my first glimpse of Ahu Tongariki. We were heading along the clifftop road, when there was a sudden bend and before us, the statues: 15 colossal moai looming up upon their panoramic stone platforms, like stony faced soldiers on parade. It really should be one of the wonders of the world.

A thousand years ago they were raised into place in one of the most intriguing engineering feats ever achieved by primitive man. The statues have massive seven foot high heads of stone: some look angry, some anxious, some have their heads topped with red rock hats.

Apparently the mystical figures would be outlined in the island’s cliff walls first, then chipped away until only the image was left. But no-one has really unlocked the secrets of Easter Island. Did the islanders cut down trees to roll the giant statues into place? How did the islanders get there and where did they come from? How did they actually carve the stone?

You see the statues everywhere you turn – dotting the green hillsides and on the beaches with their backs to the ocean.

We had actually begun this adventure a few weeks earlier in Argentina. After a three days visiting friends in Rosario, birthplace of the world’s greatest footballer Lionel Messi (we ate at a restaurant his parents owned), we picked up a cruise in Buenos Aires which took us down the coast to Ushuaia – a taking off point for Cape Horn, one of the windiest, stormiest places on earth.

As we sailed through benign seas, it was hard to visualize that this place was where hundreds of sailors have been swept to their deaths over the years, as the Pacific and the Atlantic crash into each other around this rocky outcrop at the southern end of the Andes Mountains.

In fact it was so calm, and so tranquil, the photographs look almost anti-climactic….but then we were headed to a photographers dream, due south to Antarctica. Now, ideally, we would have travelled in a smaller expedition ship run by organizations like National Geographic, but the cost was four or five times what we were paying to be on a conventional Celebrity cruise ship.

And we had fun. The good weather around Cape Horn stayed with us for the three days we sailed through Antartica. It was freezing cold – around minus 10 degrees – but perfect blue skies. The captain said he had never experienced  such spectacular weather for the cruise as we sailed through Schollart Channel, Paradise Bay and by Elephant Island.

The giant ice mountains were piled high with snow, huge icebergs floated ominously past the ship, and we watched, fascinated as huge chunks of ice calved off the surrounding glaciers, with a deafening, cracking sound.

We headed back to Buenos Aires via the Falkland Islands. There was only a fifty-fifty chance of getting in because of high winds. But made it we did, and had a never to be forgotten day wandering around the town that became the centre of a world crisis during the Falklands War, 25 years earlier. We also spent time with some of the island’s gorgeous King and Gentoo penguins on the windswept beaches.

After a day in Montevideo, Uruguay, we sailed back to Buenos Aires and began the long flights to Easter Island and Galapagos.

As Charles Darwin famously said: “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” I would like that written on my gravestone!

Uluru – 2016

From the air, we flew over miles and miles of red desert. And then out of nowhere, a massive sandstone monolith. We were looking down on Uluru, or Ayers Rock, stunned by the beauty of this vast freak of geology.

In this remarkable terracotta landscape of dunes and scrub, Ayers Rock suddenly appears like a rusted battleship from the desert floor.

It is a sacred place that has only really opened up for tourists over the past 20 years or so.

In fact, when we were in Australia back in 1981 the only way to get there – it is smack in the centre of Australia – was to drive through the unwelcoming desert or fly to Alice Springs and then face an all-day drive on treacherous dirt tracks.

Now it has its own airport and several top-class hotels with excursions to the rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, organized by locals.

We went straight out to see the sun setting on Ayers Rock for the iconic photographic shot. It was worth the effort as it went through a full spectrum of colours as the sun went down. We spent two days exploring the area, driving and hiking the six miles around the circumference of the Rock, stopping often to explore its nooks and crannies, unique rock caves and ancient paintings.

It used to be possible to climb the1,000 foot high monolith, but aboriginal people now ask that tourists don’t climb because of its deep spiritual significance.

There was also an early morning drive to another spectacular outcrop called Kat Tjuta, 20 miles away, where we walked through fissures and gullies in what is a chaotic cluster of brown rock domes. We ate a picnic breakfast as the sun came up, or at least tried to eat as we were swarmed by flies the entire time.

Our visit to Ayers Rock ended what had been a month-long trip through parts of Australia, the South pacific and a magnificent all encompassing cruise around New Zealand.

Because of a hip injury I was unable to drive long distances, so once again a cruise ship was able to become our taxi around first, the South Island, then the North island of New Zealand.

As we sailed across the Tasman sea, getting close to the iconic Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, at the tip of the South Island, the weather was appalling. Driving rain, virtually no visibility in thick mist, and plunging temperatures increased my despair that we would not be able to see the Sound, where rainfall is measured in feet rather than inches.

But alarm clocks set for 5a.m. as we entered the Sound, I looked out the window and saw a watery sun rise and almost clear skies. Our luck had held again.

We gazed at magnificent temperate rainforests, clinging to steep sides of the 5,500 feet high mountains either side of the inlet, as water cascaded down massive waterfalls. We were on the decks for 12 hours that day observing what Rudyard Kipling called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The landscape of Milford Sound and the nearby Doubtful Sound is glacial, characterized by U-shaped valleys and spectacular ledges gouged by shifting ice.

Afterwards we made our way up the East Coast of the South Island to the lovely town of Dunedin, where we spent most of one day watching albatross on the cliffs of the Otago Peninsula. This location is the only mainland breeding colony in the world and a wonderful, if not windy way to spend a day. Next, Christchurch, still recovering from a massive earthquake which destroyed the centre of town and most famously its beautiful old cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral

Marlborough wine country was a highlight (the sauvignon blancs are among the best in the world, in my opinion) and then into the vibrant capital city of Wellington.

We had a couple of days in the city of Auckland with a skyline slightly reminiscent of Seattle, and then took one of those days using the public bus system to spend time on the lovely sandy beaches and amongst the wineries of Waiheke Island, just a ferry ride across the bay from Auckland.

This whole picturesque area of New Zealand is where the Hobbit movies were filmed. We drove through the lush countryside made famous in those movies on our way to Rotorua – New Zealand’s version of Yellowstone with its amazing geothermal features.

Finally the Bay of Islands, where the weather wasn’t good, but we managed to sail through rough seas on a small boat to see the famous Hole in the Rock on Piercy Island.

On this trip we also spent ten-days cruising the South Sea Islands – spending time on the pristine beaches of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. It really is a slice of paradise – though we were lucky to see the islands as for the entire trip we dodged a vicious cyclone.

We used Sydney as our hub, as we had on previous trips to Australia.

In 1981 we had spent time with friends just outside Sydney, in Woy Woy, drove into the spectacular Blue Mountains for a day (known for dramatic scenery, steep cliffs and eucalyptus forests) and then all the way up the 600 mile coastal highway through the Gold Coast to Brisbane – a city I revisited in 1988 to report on Australia’s World Fair, just two years after Expo 86 in Vancouver.

Blue Mountains
Stradbroke Island

On our first trip there we spent a weekend on stunning Stradbroke Island, just north of Brisbane – with miles and miles of sandy beaches. It is actually the second largest sand island in the world and we remember it not just for the beaches but restaurants where you selected your raw steak and watched it cooked over the famed Aussie Barbie.

The Great Barrier Reef was still relatively healthy in those long ago days, and we drove up to the reef which stretches along 1,400 miles off the Queensland Coast. We flew to Queen Elliot Island on the southernmost coral cay. It has the highest seabird diversity of any island within the Great Barrier Reef and is a popular breeding ground for humpback whales.

But, sadly, like the rest of the Great Barrier Reef, today it is dying because of climate change. Scientists say it is now truly “terminal” after sequential, massive bleaching effects which happens when ocean temperatures rise beyond levels that coral can survive.

We are lucky, so lucky, to have seen it in its pomp.

Cuba – 2017

It was dubbed Obama’s Glasnost.

Just before Christmas, in December 2014, the then president announced the opening of relations with Cuba after 54 years.

He called the previous US policy, which sought to isolate the communist government, a failure.

Although the US trade embargo remains in place, Obama started the thaw – and started a flood of interest by US citizens wanting to visit Cuba.

We wanted to beat them to see this mysterious country before it was overrun with tourists, cruise ships and tour buses – and get there before Cuba, emerging from the 1950’s – lost its unique identity.

And we were amongst the first tourists to book the one-hour flight on a U.S. carrier out of Miami when the relationship began to improve.

But, the flight to Havana wasn’t easy. The law still prohibits tourism to the island by American citizens. And to fly out of the U.S., we had to chose from a dozen different categories, selecting one as our reason we were travelling there. We chose a “people to people” exchange and those were the magic words that allowed us into Cuba.

As our jammed Delta flight touched down in Havana, there was a loud cheer and ovation from dozens of passengers, many of whom were Cubans returning home for a visit, now that the regulations were relaxed.

But talk about a time warp. As soon as we arrived in Havana it was clear that with liberalization had come a painful lesson in capitalism, at least for tourists.

The renewed interest in Cuba has led to rapid price inflation – according to our young communist guide – up to as much as 400 per cent. And the state runs most everything – hotels, taxis and many restaurants.

Despite the influx of tourist dollars, improvement is slow- the infrastructure is breaking down throughout the country. We stayed in a architecturally beautiful old hotel, The Raquel, in the centre of old Havana for which we paid around $300U.S. a night.

The room was like a cell: high ceilings, poor air conditioning, uncomfortable beds,  noisy and absolutely lousy breakfasts. Our guide warned us the breakfasts in most hotels weren’t good. That was an understatement – the coffee (which ironically the Cubans grow themselves) was a watery gruel. The toast, stale rock-hard bread and the cooked food cold, congealed and inedible.

But worse: we were staying on a tropical island, spending hours walking in extreme heat. So we expected a shower at the end of the day – but like so much of the infrastructure, the plumbing was in desperate need of repair. A trickle of tepid water was the best we could hope for.

And in another hotel we stayed at in Cuba we actually had no water at all for a 24 hour period and we were forced to wash in bottled water.

That said, travelling around Cuba, especially with our young communist guide, was one of the most fascinating adventures we have undertaken  – and it was truly an adventure. It really was like travelling though a time machine.

For starters, Havana is full of stunning, old, colonial buildings, often in a state of disrepair, like a faded beauty. But it is slowly gaining its former charm, with restoration work going on everywhere. As a result, it is not unusual to find a stunning new or renovated structure tucked up beside a building, that in most other places in the world, would be condemned. For now, at least, the juxtaposition of luxury and poverty can be startling.

However, there is an abundance of beautiful architecture. My personal favourite was La Cathedral San Cristobal de le Habana, once described by a local novelist as music set in stone

Cobbled streets lead travellers to Baroque churches, castles and palaces and many plazas have been returned to their former glory.

And at the seafront of Havana, the Malecon, is still one of the world’s greatest pedestrian seawalls, albeit in need of a facelift.

And as you walk along the Malecon there are sounds of salsa music, the clickety clack of dominoes, and most dramatic of all, the streets are full of vintage Cadillacs and Buicks – all from the 1950s when the US broke off relations with Cuba.

There are estimated to be 60,000 pre-1960 American cars in Cuba, many abandoned by their America owners when they fled the country in 1959.

Indeed the classic cars are really the symbol of old Havana. We drove in  several and it was a prerequisite that the driver be a master mechanic, able to keep the 60-year old car on the road. I’d venture to say we didn’t travel in a single classic car that didn’t have at least a million miles on it’s clock.

We walked miles in the heat, but it was the best way to see the old city. And everywhere were street vendors selling local beers and colas. The restaurants, or Paladars, unlike our breakfast experience, were generally top notch. Lots of pork and chicken dishes. And the nightlife was exuberant – especially drinking daiquiris or mojitos, listening to salsa music in the old Hemingway haunts like La Floridita.

We also took time to see a local ballet company perform in one of the most beautiful theatres in that part of the world.

After a gruelling few days in Havana, we set off west to Vinales to see what is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its is breathtaking – dramatic limestone pincushion hills set in the heart of Cuba’s prime tobacco growing region. And, yes, we not only toured a tobacco farm and watched cigars being rolled, but we also both smoked one. And enjoyed it.

Back to Havana for the night and then we were off to Santa Clara to visit the absolutely fascinating Che Guevara mausoleum and memorial where the remains of the Cuban revolutionary are interred. We learned how Guevara played a pivotal role in the demise of the dictator Batista and about the rise of Fidel Castro – a turning point in the Cuban revolution.

One of the highlights of the trip was a two-day visit to Trinidad – a Cuban jewel. The town is a living museum, founded in 1514. The buildings, particularly in the town centre, are painted in vibrant colours, connected by cobblestone streets, echoing the sound of horse’s hooves.

On the five-hour drive back to Havana we made two fascinating stops. Firstly, a town called Cienfuegos, which is reminiscent of Paris because of the French influenced architecture.

And even more interestingly, we stopped at the infamous Bay of Pigs – Playa Giron. This is the area long associated with the USA’s first military failure in Latin America, set on the spectacular Caribbean ocean. A war museum tells the story, complete with newsreel footage, of the Cubans stunning victory -a victory which shook the world.

So while our Cuban experience fell under a murky area of U.S. law, our “people to people”  exchange was an intriguing if not gruelling, adventure.

The Cuban people are friendly, engaging and go out of their way to help. It is also one of the safest countries we have visited. Cuba is saucy, spicy and colourful in equal measure but it is great deal more than than that.

Having spent time with a young communist and an older comrade: the young man born years after the revolution and the older man, a product of the revolution, we discovered a tale of two solitudes, if you will. There is no question that “the times, they are a’changing”. The new generation is digitally connected to the rest of the world and as a result they are restless and ready to break loose from the constraints of a dictatorship. But it’s not quite what one would expect.

Our young guide, a go-getter, if there ever was one, loved Fidel and is extraordinarily loyal to their revolutionary history. At the same time, he is an active participant in the booming black market. And he feels, and quite rightly so, that no one speaks for him, in government.

And here is the rub. Greed, being an equal opportunities vice, finds some communist party members, selling from ” the back of the truck”, so to speak. Skimming the cream. Then you have the ” peasant class”, for lack of a better word, who patiently stand in line, with their ration books, eking out a meagre existence. A chicken in every pot, Soviet style. 

And in between these two groups of people, you have variations on the theme. Some older communist members, who have never known anything else, loyal to the party, working hard to support their families, working within the confines of communist principles. 

And then there are those like our guide and like so many other young people we met….. energetic, well educated but with no real opportunity for advancement, creating a thriving underground economy. But often thwarted at every turn. 

It seemed to us that Cuba suffers from a failed grand experiment. I think the young Che and Fidel were on to something but the fates conspired against them and the embargo has nearly destroyed them. If some or many of them can abandon the mantle of “victimhood” ( justified or not), the new generation, given half a chance under a responsible, representative government and without the crippling embargo, have the potential to create a vibrant, progressive and successful state. 

As Hemingway once wrote: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places.”  Viva Cuba!

Counting Countries

Radoslav Bozovic thought we were nuts. Absolutely nuts.

We’d hired him to drive us through five countries in a day. We left Dubrovnik, Croatia, early in the morning, then drove through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and finally to Skopje, Macedonia.

Actually we made the trip for a couple of reasons. Largely it was economic. We wanted to see Dubrovnik, but then had to make our way to Istanbul where we had already booked flights with Turkish Airlines down to South Africa. And there were no direct flights from Dubrovnik to Istanbul. To fly would have taken all day and cost twice as much as it did to drive.

Not to mention it was a fascinating trip through the Balkans, particularly a stop at Kotor, a fortified town on the Adriatic coast and another world heritage site. We drove through impoverished Albania and ended up in a charming bed and breakfast in Skopje, next to the official residence of the President of Macedonia.

Our driver was a huge asset. The borders in this complex region are notoriously hard to cross. Most of the time Bozovic pretended we were his wife’s long lost relatives visiting from America, which explained why we couldn’t speak the local languages. That and an occasional bout of shouting, seemed to grease the wheels of the bureaucrats who let us cross the borders without too much fuss. Apparently it could have been a lot worse had we tried to go it alone.

And yes, I was counting countries.

This began in Cambodia when a fellow tourist touring Angkor Wat told me about the Traveller’s Century Club – for people who have visited 100 countries.

Fascinated, I did a count and found myself a dozen or so short of the magic 100.

But then the debate raged: what is a country?

I realized the fairest and most accurate way to answer that question was to base it on the list of countries that are members of the United Nations. They list 193 counties, but there are also four other independent nation states not in the UN (Taiwan, Vatican City, Palestine and Kosovo). So, let’s say, that makes 197 countries in the world.

However take a look at the Olympic and the World Cup organizations. The IOC lists 206 member nations and FIFA lists 211. For example, the UN counts the United Kingdom as one country, yet FIFA and the IOC count England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately.

I had other territories on my list. I decided they didn’t count. I had included Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Macau. But they are territories or dependencies of other nations according to the UN, not strictly countries. And officially, there are 58 of them.

Confused?

After researching this for a year I have concluded that under the UN definition I have been to 104 countries and 20 territories.

That day in the Balkans added six more and got me very close to the 100 mark!

The main purpose of that trip, in 2015, was really to go on safari in Africa but started in Italy.    

Remember Clive’s law: find interesting places to stay en route to your main destination because of the high cost of air fares.

We flew to Venice from Vancouver, took a memorable private water taxi to our hotel on the Grand Canal and spent four glorious days wandering the back streets and canals of Venice.  And on one of those days, drove 175 miles to the tiny Republic of San Marino – squeezed into the North East corner of Italy. It was worth the drive to see Mount Titano, with three spectacular defensive fortresses perched on its slopes.

San Marino

Venice was magical, rightly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And our lasting memory of dining there was they had the most delicious tomatoes in the world! The young man who waited on us the first night, as we watched dusk gather over the Grand Canal, whispered to us that we were, in fact, eating tomatoes from his own garden, picked only hours earlier. It may be hot in Italy during August but worth it for the tomatoes alone! Our hotel, the Hotel Canal Grande, which collectively probably had the nicest staff of any hotel we have ever visited, was located just across the canal from the main rail station.

Venice
Venice

So on our departure from Venice, our hotel procured the assistance of a porter as we made the short trek across the bridge to take the train to Florence.

Of course, I remember Florence for the Uffizi, Duomo and Ponte Vecchio, but I remember it for two other reasons. I dropped my Nikon camera on a concrete floor. And the camera survived! That’s why I buy Nikon. The other reason was the restaurant we discovered – Mamma Gina. Family-run, reasonably priced and some of the best Tuscan pasta, fish and meat we’ve ever eaten. And my wife reminds me of two other reasons, gelato and night music. All reasons to return again and again.

Florence
Florence

While in Florence, we hired a guide for a day trip to Cinque Terre – a string of centuries old seaside fishing villages on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline. In each of the five towns there are colourful houses and vineyards clinging to steep terraces. We sailed from town to town under bright blue skies. As the towns are jammed with tourists by mid-day, we left at dawn and arrived just as the first sleepy town was rising. It was magical but as the day lengthened, it lost some of it’s charm.

On the way back, we just had time for Pisa. I thought it would be tacky and it was never really on my bucket list. But was I wrong. Set in a beautifully manicured area, the gleaming marble tower, glittered in the setting sun. My wife, who had avoided it on numerous trips to Italy over the years, said it took her breath away. I hiked up the 284 steps to the top – well worth it, for the amazing view.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaving Florence, we took the train to Rome, overnighted at the airport ( if you book the Hilton at the airport, know that there are two hotels to avoid any confusion) and then flew to Dubrovnik to begin our sojourn to the Balkans.

We spent our wedding anniversary in Dubrovnik and splurged on a hotel that overlooked the Adriatic. The distinctive old town, encircled with massive stone walls completed in the 16th Century is utterly spellbinding.

Dubrovnik

It takes about an hour to walk right around the wall looking down on the streets, some of which glisten as they are made of marble. And the distinctive red tile roofs add to its beauty.

Istanbul, located on the Bosphorus, spans both Asia and Europe. Full of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture like Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, Sultan Ahmed Mosque – and the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul
Istanbul

Noisy, dirty, frantic. That’s Istanbul today, but now terrorism haunts the entire country.

There are carpet salesmen everywhere. I swear we didn’t walk down a single street without hearing the patter of a salesman telling us we had to buy from him. The bazar was so crowded and hot it is surprising they don’t find bodies under foot! “Hello, beautiful lady,” or “Sir, kind gentleman” was the constant refrain of the stall owners. “Hello, where are you from? Vancouver? I once lived there….near Seattle. Hello, I have the carpet you want.” But they are extremely charming.

The clear highlight of that visit, though, was a trip to Ephesus on the coast of Ioni. Built in the 10th Century B.C. the ancient city’s top attraction is its temple to the goddess Artemis. Today only a few columns remain of the temple. But other treasures, like the library, remain. A highlight on my bucket list.

Ephesus

Other countries and sites on my list of short, flying visits included Angola. It was my birthday and I bribed a boat owner to row me across the Okavango River into Angola – despite warnings from our guide that we were flirting with danger as armed soldiers camped out along the river. However, he agreed that it was early morning and the chances were very high that most of the soldiers would be sleeping off excesses from the night before. I was safe.

Another fast trip was to Macao. I was in Hong Kong one year, filming a story for BCTV, when I took the opportunity to take a hydrofoil to the Portuguese territory.  Full of giant casinos, it has been nicknamed the Las Vegas of Asia.

Surprisingly, the Vatican counts as a country. The world’s smallest. Most people who visit Rome have been there because it is home to the Sistine chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

We have wonderful memories of two-day trips to smaller countries and territories like Luxembourg, Morocco, Andorra, Gibraltar and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which is consumption on steroids – but I loved the spectacular architecture.

Gibraltar
Dubai
Dubai

So 104 countries and counting. I still have two major trips remaining on my must see list – one to see the Komodo dragons in Indonesia, orangutangs in Borneo, Lhasa in Tibet and the country of Bhutan, snuggled close to Nepal. The second trip is to travel through West Africa – I have always wanted to see Timbuktu in Mali. That seems like an appropriate place to conclude our adventures.

As Sir Richard Burton, the explorer,  once said: “The gladdest moment in human life, methinks, is a departure into unknown lands.”

We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.