Sunday, 29 September 2013

Kenya- Nairobi and Lake Nakuru

I recently went on my first ever safari trip, to East Africa.  First stop: Kenya.

Nairobi and Lake Nakuru

Landing in Nairobi airport was a unique experience in itself, going through customs in a gazeebo, due to the fire that devastated the airport a few weeks prior, was certainly a first.  Having said that, I was expecting chaos and huge queues, but was pleasantly surprised, and my immigration experience was probably one of the quickest and smoothest I have experienced!

I walked outside and found a man holding a sign with my name, and he explained that he would take me to the company van, where I would wait for two other travelers from my group who had not yet landed. Bewildered, tired and dehydrated, I nodded along and off we went.

He went off to get the van and wrestle it through the never ending line of safari company jeeps and vans, leaving me alone in the middle of a busy airport carpark under the scorching midday sun.  We then drove to a different carpark, where I was left locked in the van while he went in search of the others.  Only after he was out of earshot and sight did I realise that everytime I moved a muscle, the car alarm went off and deafened everybody within a few metres (and me!).
After what seemed like 5 hours (in reality it was 2 and a half....but I was feeling dramatic) and feeling enormously dehydrated and tired, I saw three glorious sillhouettes come around the corner!  Saved at last! And off we went to our camp for the night and to meet the rest of the group.
It was a 30km drive from the airport to our camp, which in Nairobi, can take anything from half an hour, to three hours.  On this occasion, as it was rush hour, it took us about two.  It was fascinating to take in the atmosphere and new smells of this densely populated city.  When we arrived, I guzzled two bottles of water as quickly as I could, and began to feel human again.
We met the group, had some dinner, and flopped into bed, ready for our drive to Lake Nakuru!


Our beloved orange truck
With the alarm set for 6 (I soon learned that 7 am is a lengthy lie-in on a safari), I got up, took my malaria pill on an empty stomach like my pharmacist had instructed me, took a shower and went to meet everybody for breakfast.  Within minutes of sitting down at the table I felt queasy, and within moments my malaria pill came back up again!  At this point, I did not put two and two together as I had simply followed the instructions given to me, and was terrified about having to get on our big rickety safari truck in this state.  However I soon learned the reason after speaking to other people who had had a similar experience on Doxycycline, and luckily after ten minutes all was fine, and we set off to Lake Nakuru!
Our truck which was to be our mobile home for the next 10 days was huge and orange.  It seated about 32 people, but we were 16, so had plenty of space to stretch out and nap on the long drives!  We had a driver, a cook and a tour guide- all native Kenyans.

We battled the Nairobi traffic for a few hours, stopped off to buy some supplies of (mostly) unhealthy snacks to keep us going, and by 2pm we had arrived at the national park.

Lake Nakuru is approximately 140km north west of Nairobi and 45km squared, and is famous for its huge population of flamingos.  The lake was overflowing due to a lot of rain, and was surrounded by greenery, which gave it a marshy feel.  As the water was deep at this time of year, there were only a few hundred flamingos rather than the tens of thousands that are there during other seasons.

We started unloading our food to make lunch.


We spotted some Vervet Monkeys and Baboons, probably attracted by the rustling of food, coming to get a closer look.  These were obviously the first animals we had seen, and extremely close.  So, being a tourist, I climbed back on to the bus to find my camera.  Here, we learned one of the most important rules to follow whilst being on safari- ALWAYS close the truck windows when you get off!  As I looked for my bag, I heard a little rustle on the opposite side of the table, and looked up to see a Vervet Monkey rooting through my friend's bag.  I don't know who was more surprised to see who.  It grabbed her doughnut that she had bought herself earlier for a birthday treat, and briskly climbed back out of the window, onto the ledge overlooking our lunch table, and proceeded to eat the doughnut in front of the birthday girl.  Talk about rubbing salt in the wound!  Anyway.... we gave her some birthday Pringles instead.

Birthday Doughnut Thief

Throughout lunch we had various tomatoes, lettuces and apples stolen by other monkeys with sticky fingers.
Afterwards we set off on what was (supposed) to be our first game drive......

We drove through the national park for about 30 seconds before the rain started coming down heavily.  The track went through some thick bush and became very muddy....but we soldiered on!  We saw a heard of buffalo on one side, staring at us through the rain and mist.
After a few minutes we came to a crossroad which had been recently dug out, and the muddy track was very uneven.  The moment we tried to cross it we all knew what would happen....... BOGGED.
Our huge, bulky truck was stuck.
Looking behind us, there was a line of smaller, svelte (in comparison) jeeps, waiting patiently for us to get ourselves out of our predicament.  Looking left, more came.  Eventually we had a queue of about 10 vehicles in both directions, all blocked by our big orange heffalump of a truck in the middle.
We revved the engine, rolled a few inches here and there, but it became apparent pretty early on that we were completely stuck.
One by one the jeeps started to attempt 3 point turns, only to get stuck themselves in side ditches.  The drivers and guides all got out, losing their shoes in the thick mud, trying to free each car one by one.  After about an hour of pushing and revving each car / jeep/ truck, a medium-sized truck arrived with a towing rope.  Our savior! ...... No.  It turns out you need more strength than that to pull our sorry orange derrière out of the mud.  It slowly, but surely, saved each jeep behind and to the left of us.  This took about 2 hours, and darkness started to fall.
By this point, some members of the group started to need the loo.... and were given permission to venture a few metres from the truck to hide behind a bush, away from the many tourists surrounding  in various vehicles!  But, within seconds of descending the stairs and making their way off the road, a local man came running up to them, 'THERE IS A MALE LION COMING THIS WAY, 200 METRES AWAY, GET BACK ON THE BUS!'.  He did not need to tell them twice!
And so we remained on the truck, in the darkness, with big cats roaming around outside (out of sight...fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you want to look at it) for 3 and a half hours in total, until finally a tractor with huge wheels came rolling in, like a knight in shining armor, and released us! Ahhh, freedom!
Having said that, the whole experience was a good team bonding session.

One of the other vans attempting a 3 point turn
Needless to say, we had not reached our intended final destination that evening, and slept in a random field just outside the National Park, which was quite disconcerting, as there were some unidentifiable noises coming from the bushes, and we could not see where we were putting up our tents.  This was improvisation by our guide and driver, who were incredibly calm and professional during the entire bogging incident.
We set up our tents in the dark, had some dinner, and settled down for the night.

In the middle of the night there were some footsteps, some grunts, and then a HUGE loud crash!  Every member of our group was sat bolt upright, sleepy and flustered!  There have been a few theories as to what on earth it was....most likely a gun shot at a buffalo.... but that will forever remain the Mystery of Nakuru.  

A buffalo bathing in the lake
We awoke to actually see our surroundings, and they were BEAUTIFUL to say the least.  We were perched on a slope overlooking Lake Nakuru, and it was a crispy cold, clear morning.  We had a brisk breakfast (well.....brisk in Africa terms anyway), and set off on round 2 of our Nakuru game drive!  The mud had mostly solidified overnight, so the day went without hitches.
This was my first real experience of African wildlife (excluding the doughnut incident) and it took my breath away.  The vast expanse of land with herds of animals scattered in every direction was beautiful.  Among a big group of zebras and buffalo, we spotted two rhinos, one stood up and one lying down basking in the sun.  This was a wonderful creature to see on our first drive, being so rare and endangered.  We slowly made our way around the park, spotting Thomson gazelles, pelicans, a tawny eagle, and drove up to Baboon Point (and we promptly closed all the truck windows before getting off, and hid all doughnuts from sight), which is a lookout point over the lake.  Here you can take in the fantastic reflections of the trees in the lake.  The water is so still it creates a mirror effect, which reminded me of the mirror lakes on New Zealand's South Island.

Lake Nakuru 

Taken from Baboon Point

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Barcelona's Best Bits

'O le le, O la la, ser del Barça és el millor que hi ha'

I called Barcelona 'home' for a year whilst working as a Teaching Assistant, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.  It’s where I learnt about a new culture and two languages, Spanish (Castellano) and Catalan.  I ate amazing food, drank delicious sangria, and made friends for life.  I worked in a Catalan school about 30 minutes down the coast by train, and lived in a flat-share in central Barcelona. 

I'm going to share my top must-sees in this city and its surroundings.  They cannot all be ticked off in one weekend city break, but this is a place that you will want to come back to time and time again, so there is plenty of time to tick them all off .

1)   La Sagrada Familia

This is an obvious one.  Gaudi’s unfinished Basilica.  It is still being built and does not have an official finish date.  This was right by my apartment when I lived there, so was a backdrop for many amazing memories.  Every time you look at it you cannot help but be in awe of its grandeur and unique character, and if you return to the city a few times you notice the changes as they continue to build it.   
Walk all the way around it to take in each façade, or sit outside a nearby cafe with a 'cafe con leche' and take in the view.  

Accessible via metro stop Sagrada Familia (blue line 5 and purple line 2)

2)   Parc Guell

This park has featured in several films set in the city (L’Auberge Espanol, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and is an icon of Barcelona.  From the famous mosaic bench are beautiful panoramic views of the city.
Accessible from metro stop Lesseps (green line 3).  

BEWARE- very steep hill to walk up before you get there!  Wear sensible shoes!

3)   Parc de la Ciutadella

Come out of the metro to find the beautiful Arc de Triomf, and remind yourself that you are not in the French capital.  Head down Passeig de Lluis Companys and into Parc de la Ciutadella.  This central park is great for relaxing on a sunny day.  In the middle is the Cascada with a huge fountain and waterfalls- a great photo opportunity.  There are rowing boats for rent on the lake, and plenty of grass to settle on for a picnic.  It is also home to Barcelona’s zoo if you are visiting with children.

Accessible metro stop Arc de Triomf (red line, line 1)

4)   Plaça Reial

Just off the bottom end of La Rambla, this beautiful plaza is great for an evening aperitif; you can sit at one of the many bars and restaurants’ outdoor tables and watch the world go by.  Head on down the side streets off the plaza to find small hidden bars with an unlimited variety of beers, wines, cocktails and sangria- Sugar bar was one of our favourites!
Accessible from La Rambla

5)   A beer or a jug of sangria from L’Ovella Negra

This chain of beer halls are a must-see for any fun loving traveller visiting this city.  They are rustic and relaxed, with rows and rows of long tables, giving it a beer-festival feel.  They sell very reasonably priced beer and sangria by the jug, along with free popcorn to nibble on.  A fantastic location for mingling with other travellers and locals before heading to a club to dance until the sun comes up.  
The bigger 'L’Ovella Negra' is right near Razmatazz, so a great place to go until you are ready to hit the dancefloor.   There is another just off La Rambla on Calle de les Sitges.

6)   Razmatazz

A huge multi-storey club not too far from the marina.  They often have international DJ’s playing, and you can find a music genre to suit all tastes.  Hang onto your friends, as it is hugely popular and easy to get lost, but a guaranteed good night and a great way to experience Barcelona’s nightlife.

Accessible from metro station Marina (red line 1)

7)   Watch Barça play at the Camp Nou

'Més que un club'.  After living in the city for a year and working alongside Catalans, I realised how true this slogan is.
Going to a match at the Camp Nou is an unforgettable experience.  I have been to see them 3 times and still have to catch my breath when I first come out of the stairwell into the stadium.  It is gigantic, and the atmosphere is electric.  They are a much-loved team and you truly get a feel for how important this sport is to Catalan culture.  From some parts of the stadium you can see the sun set behind Tibidabo.  
Tip: to fit in with the locals, bring a baguette sandwich for a half-time snack, as the matches are often played late, and all the cheering is hungry work!

Accessible from metro station Collblanc (blue line 5), or Les Corts (green line 3)

Camp Nou

8)   City view from the top of Parc Guinardo

Get off the metro at Hospital de San Pau and walk into Parc Guinardo.  Head right to the back and walk up the hill.  Eventually you get to a concrete abandoned bunker. 
The great thing about it is the lack of people, so you can take in the spectacular view without the crowds that you get at Parc Guell.  It’s about a 30-40 minute walk up the hill and steep in certain areas, but well worth the effort.  
Head up just before sunset, take a couple of ‘cervezas’ with you, and enjoy the view!
Accessible via metro to Guinardo i Hospital de San Pau (yellow line 4)

9)   Day trip to Sitges

Sitges beachfront
If you have a spare day, pack your swimsuit and towel and hop on a train down to Sitges for the day (approx 25-30 minute train ride).  This beautiful coastal town is where I worked when I lived in Barcelona, and has a wonderful character.  With its winding cobbled streets, boutique shops, beachside church and charming beaches, it is definitely worth a visit.  It is a popular destination for gay and lesbian travellers, and the home of Bacardi! 

Tip: Best time to go is during Carnival at the start of lent, as they host a huge street parade much like the famous event in Rio.  With floats carrying hundreds of dancers and local performers, street parties and every fancy-dress costume you can imagine, this is a party not to be missed!

Accessible via train from Barcelona Sants Estacio, or Passeig de Gracia.

10)   La Rambla

This is an obvious one.  While it is important, it is not top of my list, as it is extremely busy, and lined with overpriced restaurants and bars.  However it is regarded as the centre of the city, and leads down to the Port where you can see the Colon statue and head round to Barceloneta beach! 

Tip: pop into El Bosc de les Fades (fairy bar) for a tipple.  It is just off the bottom of La Rambla down a little alley on Passatge Banca.  Inside it is decorated like a forest with trees looming up the walls and leaves hanging overhead, a starry sky, and even the odd rumble of thunder. 

Accessible via metro stop Catalunya (green line 3, red line 1) or Drassanes (green line 3) or Liceu (green line 3).

11) Magic Fountain of Montjuic

Great free evening activity.  
The impressive waters of the fountain dance along to famous music tracks along with a light show, and the Castle of Montjuic is magnificently lit up behind it. The times of the shows do vary according to season and day of the week, so check out the official website before heading down there.

Accessible via metro stop Espanya (green line 3 and red line 1)

12) Parc del Laberinto

This place is a hidden treasure, and a great way to spend a peaceful afternoon in the outdoors and away from the crowds.  Run through the maze, admire the plant sculptures and the 'romantic garden'.  It is cheap, and simple, old-fashioned fun.

Accessible from metro stop Mundet (green line 3)

13) Eat tapas

This is the final one, and can be incorporated into many of my previous points!  I am a tapas fanatic, and there is an endless choice of bars and restaurants to choose from in Barcelona. 
The famous Catalan speciality is ‘pa amb tomaquet’, which quite simply is ‘bread with tomato’, and is a feature at most meal times in Catalunya.  It consists of crushed tomato, along with olive oil and usually some garlic, spread across bread.  So simple, but divine.  The Catalans use this combination in most sandwiches instead of butter or mayonnaise.  Since living there, I have taken this habit home with me.  It is tastier and healthier!
Other favourites include ‘patatas bravas’, ‘pimientos de Padron’ (warning! Can be very spicy), and ‘anchoas en vinagre’ (anchovies in vinegar…. don’t knock it until you have tried it!)
Have a wander down the winding roads of the Barrio Gothico, perusing the menus until you find one that suits.  It is in the hidden corners of the city that you find the best, most authentic tapas. 

I could talk about this vibrant city for hours on end, but these 13 points give an insight into why Barcelona is a great place to both visit and live.  

Monday, 29 July 2013

Bonjour Paris! t'aime!

I thought I would begin with my background and where my travel bug stemmed from. 

Finding out I was going to be leaving my homeland as a typical British 8 year old was somewhat of a shock… What was this far off land they spoke of?  Were all my friends coming too?  Would I immediately forget how to speak English?  (The latter was probably my biggest concern, as I had never met one of those bilingual sorts, and any memories of previous holidays abroad seemed to temporarily evaporate).

There were tears, I begged my parents to quit their jobs and open a restaurant in our living room, I vowed to stay behind as a lodger at my friend Katie’s house.  But my protests were fruitless, and I got bundled into the overly crammed car and off we went down to Dover. 

Fully expecting to immediately forget how to speak my native language the minute we disembarked in Calais, all my worries dispersed as we arrived at our exciting new home in the outskirts of Paris, and I dove head first into the amazing experience that is life as an expat.

My home for the next 7 years, Paris is where I would do the most important part of my growing up.  It is here that my love of new places, cultures and languages grew, and it is because of this experience that I am writing this first post today, and will continue to write about places I have been to, am off to soon, and am saving hard to get to at some point in my future!