Another Brick in the Wall: Berlin

Monday 9th February
When you are at school the key to survival is fitting in. Luckily for me I had a love for football, for Watford football club specifically. That meant I ‘couldn’t’ be bullied because a) I liked football, b) I supported the team all the Arsenal, Man United, Spurs and even Chelsea fans (this was pre Abramovich) felt sorry for (I.e we were no threat) and perhaps c) I wore glasses. You can never hit someone with glasses. It also helped that I was a pretty fearless goal keeper in 5 aside where my short height had no impact so back then I wasn’t even last picked.

I suppose as you get older you do accept there is perhaps less shame in any geeky tendencies you may have tried to keep hidden. One of mine is history and perhaps a rather irritating habit of remembering the most minuscule of facts as though it happened yesterday. But then perhaps the latter is a natural result of the former. I do love history and feel great pathos at the way man kind enacts the same actions with the same results again and again. Anyway I digress, where am I going with this? Well for someone that studied modern history there is only one city that encapsulates the power struggle of the 20th century. Athens, Rome and Istanbul are probably the European cities Ancient historians want to visit but for a graduate in modern European history Berlin is (to me) of equal if not greater importance than St Petersburg and Prague.

Flying from Heathrow I felt much less anxious than when I left from Gatwick for Morocco. Having sped through bag drop off and through security (no interrogation(s) this time) I treated myself to breakfast. After i finished and watched everyone rushing off in different directions I sat and let out a content sigh. No rushing for me, it was 8.35 and boarding wasn’t for a whole 5 minutes. Then it struck me. I wasn’t at the gate I was in EAT so I had no choice but to join those rushing in different directions. I still arrived on time and because I was flying so out of season I got a row (if not the whole final 1/4 of the plane) to myself for the 3rd flight in succession. I’m going to feel sad when I have to share a row again.

I know Germans have that reputation of being efficient but Berlin airport took it to another level. We landed early, got off the plane early and then I realised having gone through the walkway from the plane I was already in the queue for passport control. Even better the baggage carousel for my flight was just the other side. No potential confusion about which bay to go. Then stepping through the customs door I realised I was at the exit of the airport for the bus. I’ve been through Heathrow queues quickly but it’s a maze and requires lots of walking. Not Berlin. In my head I had allowed an hour to leave the airport but in reality it had taken under 15 minutes to get from the seat of the aircraft to the seat of a bus.

After getting off the bus I caught my glimpse of the Berliner Fernsehturm the TV tower built in 1969 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who controlled East Berlin. My hostel wasn’t far away from Alexanderplatz so it was useful to have the tallest structure in Germany as a landmark. I arrived at the hostel but couldn’t check in but my rucksack already had everything I needed for a day of sight seeing. Unfortunately by the time I’d put my bags in storage I’d just missed a free walking tour which may have been a good introduction to the city.

I’d already got a list (yes I’m one of those tourists) of where I wanted to see on Tuesday and Wednesday but Monday had been blank. The Stasi museum based in the old head quartets was not on the list because it was out of the centre and I didn’t think I’d have time. But with time now on my side, thoughts about the film “The Lives of Others” and a morbid interest in understanding how they operated I soon found myself outside ‘Building One’. Standing outside its soulless character felt quite sinister and I felt a shiver or two up my back. The museum had been closed a number of months and had only just reopened. The displays were really interesting (with English translations) and each section contained a different theme of the Stasi story. The second floor contained the offices of Erich Mielke in restored condition and it was quite chilling to think what decisions had been made there.

It was fascinating to hear the view points of some of the 8000 people that worked for the “Ministry of State Security”. Most believed they were acting in good faith however I was surprised a minority still refuse to believe they were acting against the population still believing this to be ‘propaganda’ of the West. There was a display on the different techniques used to observe the population but perhaps most chilling was a audio display about those observed. One phycologist committed suicide because the agents would enter the house and move a few objects around. Her friends didn’t believe her and she ended up believing she was going mad. It was only after the collapse of the GDR that the truth came out.

I returned back to my hostel checked in and met my room mates. A student from Esperance on the South West coast of Australia (he was astounded I’d not only heard of it but visited on my Nullabor trip) and an Italian from Venice. Having got changed I made my way to meet up with my friend and old housemate Victoria. I’d always wanted to visit Berlin so when she’d told me she was visiting for work it was a case of “just try to stop me”.

I met up Victoria and her brother Richard and we asked the reception for some tips on where we could get a drink and for me to get some food as I’d inadvertently missed lunch. We were soon joined by two colleagues she had worked with and were at the same conference. I was looking forward to a curry wurst but apparently the Munich themed restaurant we were in didn’t sell it so I chose the first thing that I saw which contained mustard, sausage and mustard. To say it wasn’t what I expected is an understatement as it was just a bowl of warm water, containing two white sausages floating around. It looked small and not overly appetising but looks can be deceiving and it was actually just the type of stodge I needed to go with my stein of beer.

It was obviously a lot of fun meeting Victoria again but it was also nice to meet Richard as well. It wasn’t long before he had to leave to make his way to the airport for his flight back to Sweden but not before I asked for some tips on when to visit. By now the others were hungry so we went to another bar / restaurant. I was still peckish so I ordered a kids sized portion of Kasespatzle (similar to mac and cheese) which I had in Munich. It was a lovely evening and it was nice to spend a bit of time with Victoria before I got my train back to the hostel. Luckily the light was still on when I got back so I didn’t need to crawl around in the dark.

Tuesday 10th February
After an uneventful but fulfilling breakfast at the hostel I made my way through Alexanderplatz to the Berliner Fernsehturm tower. Considering it was a week day on a cloudy day in February there was quite a big crowd to get in and i was glad I’d booked my ticket in advance. The commentary in the lift up was in German and I felt quite pleased I got the gist of what was being said. I reached the viewing platform 203m high, perhaps not the tallest I’ve been to in the past year but it must be one of the most historic. Despite it being a cloudy morning I got quite a decent clear view of the city below but I was eager to get back down and explore the streets.

Making my way down I headed to the train station so I could get the ‘S Bahn’ towards the East Side gallery, the longest open air gallery in the world. I walked the full 1.3km of the longest section of what remains of the Berlin Wall but it may have been nice to have had a local guide to draw my attention to some of the art. I still stopped to appreciate some but unfortunately I’m not the best art connoisseur and I felt I’d probably missed out on some human stories behind the graffiti.

Seeing the wall covered in bright graffiti it didn’t have the cold sinister appearance I had expected (obviously the intention of the artists). If I wanted to appreciate how the wall was I knew I’d have to visit the the Memorial to the Berlin Wall. This includes a section which has been rebuilt complete with watch tower and death trap. When the sculpture was built it was quite controversial but personally I think it’s important there is a proper reminder as it is a way of dealing with the past. It was only possible to look down on the section (which was quite small) so I still felt a bit separated from the emotions as to how it must have felt when the city was divided. Perhaps weirdly what had more of an impact was a block of flats which had remained in situ both before and after the wall and had therefore seen so much history.

It had gone 13.00 and I was starting to feel hungry. I noticed I wasn’t far from a vegan restaurant Victoria had recommended but when I arrived I found out it was closed. Putting hunger thoughts behind me I carried on up to the underground station to take a trip to Check Point Charlie one of the most famous border crossings due to it being the place where JF Kennedy had given his “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech. Despite the sign telling me I was leaving the America sector and some men in American military uniforms at the check point the street itself had changed immensely. I meant to look at the pavement to see where the wall had been but forgot.

The Museum on the Topography of Terror was also in the area and whilst I wanted to have a look around the Check
Point Charlie museum I decided to go to the Topography of Terror whilst it was still light. The outside area contained a section of Berlin Wall in its original location but my main reason for going was because the museum was located on the site of the headquarters of the SS. The building had been levelled but there were some archeological remains of a building that had such a notorious history.

The exhibition itself detailed the atrocities of Hitler towards Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and anyone else he deemed unable to contribute towards Volksgemeinschaft (folk community). I had studied the Wairmar Republic and was reminded how the unpopularity of the government had been partly responsible for the Nazi party being able to rise to power relatively unchallenged. Obviously it sounds shocking in hindsight but the Great Depression meant most were just trying to survive and the rise should be a reminder how ‘facts’ can be used to mislead and stir hatred.

I was a bit drained by the end so I decided to try and get a particular brand of vodka Victoria had asked me to try and pick up for her. A big shopping centre was near by and whilst I checked all over “Kaisers” they didn’t stock it. I left and headed back towards Check Point Charlie but first I was distracted by a giant Nutella sign. Finding out it was free I had my name put on the sign and my picture taken. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to modelling and it meant I got a nice free souvenir.

I returned back to the Check Point Charlie Museum which was located in a building used by photographers and press during official visits because it allowed them to look in to East Berlin. It went in to a lot of detail and there was arguably to much for my brain to take in. It didn’t even seem that well laid out so I couldn’t easily skip certain sections but the subject matter was interesting. The origins of Cold War including the global political landscape, lots of stories about the Wall and how people tried to escape and in amongst all that a general sections on the modern abuse of human rights.

By the time I was ready to go I was drained, both mentally and physically. – Dragging my legs and feet I navigated to the fairly nearby U2 underground station so I could check out a authentic Curry wurst outlet not to far from my hostel. “Ich mochte zwei curry wurst mit pomme frits und ein Berliner Pilsener bitte” The two curry wursts came chopped up smothered in ketchup and curry powder with chips and a refreshing local beer. Having not eaten since breakfast it wasn’t a bad reward.

I returned to the hostel and I was in two minds about going on the hostel pub crawl. If it had been to authentic beer halls or if I had more than one more night remaining I may have been more keen but despite the “free shots” advertised it didn’t really interest me. Next I contemplated travelling to Die Berliner Republik a bar where the price of beer was determined by a stock level system. We had something similar in Aberystwyth called “Bar Footsie”. My roommates weren’t keen on travelling to that so instead we went to a Munich themed beer hall nearby.

Outside it was disappointing to realise it was just a modern building but inside I could have fooled myself in to believing I was back in Oktoberfest. There was a toilet sign which also randomly pointed to Dubai. Obviously the most obvious drink to have in a German Beer Hall is beer and I saw what appeared to be a selection of different beers in taster glasses. The waiter looked a bit confused when I ordered them and it was only when they arrived they were strawberry and rhubarb shots of an unknown spirit not beer.

Shortly after after downing the second I got a message from Victoria inviting me for a beer at her hotel. I quickly drunk the remaining shots and made my way. Luckily it was just one train and when I arrived at Wittenbergplatz Station I congratulated myself on how easily I was finding my way around and remembering the way. A few minutes later, rather predictably I realised I was going the wrong way. Eventually I arrived and after ordering a beer we had a bit of time to catch up alone before I made my way back to the hostel.

Wednesday 11th February
Luckily I had sorted everything before going out the night before but I still had a fairly early start because even though I’d paid for late check out it only covered me until 1.00. As a result I had to put everything in a locker and in hindsight the late check out was of zero benefit. Victoria had recommended a bakery a 10 minute walk from hostel so I decided to go there for breakfast. Victoria had recommended the cinnamon buns but as I couldn’t see any I ordered two things I unfortunately don’t know how to spell or say. At the time I went Ich mochte ein *point* / ‘mumble'” I took a chance on both but wasn’t disappointed. One was a croissant filled with what I assume was cream cheese and salad and the other was a dough bread with bits of chocolate. I’ve not done justice to either with my description.

It looked a fairly simple journey by bus to the Reichstag so I thought as I had so much time I’d be able to go via Bebelplatz and the Brandenburg Gate. Unfortunately my travel plans unravelled in spectacular fashion and even with Google maps a 25 minute journey took about an hour. 1st I couldn’t find the bus stop and then when I finally did a police car suddenly pulled a car over and blocked the road. I therefore saw the bus I was waiting for turn off on diversion metres before my stop. I am not a fan of city buses I just don’t find them as regular as a train. This itself wasn’t much easier because I went via the new Berlin train station which made Kings Cross look simple to navigate.

Arrived at Reichstag 5 minutes later than I had been advised to and feared German efficiency would see me left behind. Fortunately as i handed in my invitation letter I was told my timing was ‘perfect’. As I made my way through I saw some audio guides and asked how much they were. In the UK they probably cost a small fortune but they were free. I couldn’t get mine to play so I went back to the desk. I felt like a dinosaur when I was told it would start automatically depending on where I was stood. I have to admit I was amazed.

Then I saw the Dome and I was amazed again! It really was quite spectacular and I slowly made my way up the ramp where at various points I was told facts or to stop and appreciate the view of Berlin below. On the inside the Reichstag looks incredibly modern and functional but on the outside it has all its Gothic charm. It’s basically Canberra and Westminster (the only other two parliament buildings I’ve been in) combined.

Leaving the Reichstag I made my way to the Brandenburg Gate and in the middle of the road that ran in front I could see where the path of the Berlin Wall had been marked. It was built in 1791 as a sign of peace on the site of a former city gate and it has therefore become a symbol of Berlin especially after the wall was built.

I carried on down the same road and eventually arrived at the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe ” and had some quiet reflection time. I’m not great with interpretation of modern art and sculptures but to be it appeared to represent some kind of dystopian cemetery and walking towards the centre the blocks got larger and eventually towered over me.

Not far from the memorial is a site which is not commemorated with anything except a notice board to say what it once was. I had mixed feelings about trying to locate the FuhrerBunker but ultimately the historian and tourist in me were curious to see where one of the 20th centuries most notorious murderers met their fate. Thankfully it didn’t look like the site had become a shrine but I think it’s right it does have an information board because to avoid history repeating you sometimes have to face up to events of the past.

I carried on to another site I was interested in visiting more out of intrigue. Bebelplatz. It was here in front of Berlin university that the Nazis burnt books that were ‘ungerman’ or presented a way of life which was different to their ideology. I remembered studying it on my course and I was a bit disappointed when after spending 15 minutes walking around the site the actual spot was behind the walls of a construction site. Apparently the Opera House is being rejuvenated and the memorial is it appeared therefore outside of public view. Apparently it is an empty bookshelf engraved with the following quote from a play in the 1800s: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”

By now my visit to Berlin was nearly over but there was still one more place to visit which I was combining with lunch and to see Victoria one last time before we both went home. Kaufhaus des Westens is probably Berlin’s equivalent to Harrod’s though perhaps the building is less grand on the outside and inside. We wondered around the food hall and nothing was immediately jumping out saying “eat me” except the delicious looking chocolates. Eventually I made a decision and got a curry pastry/omelette/tart thing. As usual I enjoyed it but wasn’t really sure what it was. After a quick selfie on the elevator down it was time for a final hug goodbye until the next time.

I returned back to my hostel for the last time and collected my bag and waited for bus which was 20 minutes late. Then the journey seemed to take longer both than I’d remembered it taking coming in to the city and than it was meant to. Luckily I had allowed a bit of flex in my timings and the Berlin airport I used was small. My gate was also the check in desk and passport control so whilst I wasn’t early I wasn’t in a rush. I had a wonder in duty free and saw they did Victoria’s vodka but all I got for myself was a giant bag of haribo sweets. I’d seen them in every shop for 48 hours and it was only in the final minutes I broke and gave in.

This will probably be my last trip abroad before I turn 30 in March but all the best things get better with age and I’m not done yet…

Catch the Wind: Marrakech

Thursday 15th January
As we drove back in to to Marrakech rush hour seemed to be in full swing though there weren’t any traffic jams just a lot of beeping of horns and chaos at the roundabouts. In reality it was no worse than any other city and certainly not as noisy or crazy-busy as Cairo or Delhi. The only real difference was a lack of crossings for pedestrians and as zebra crossings were ignored by drivers most just stepped out in front of cars as and when they needed to cross. Unfortunately as we drove on it appeared this general chaos had caused a fight between a truck driver and a motor cyclist but it was unclear what it was about as no one looked injured and neither vehicle was damaged.

We arrived back at the hotel we had stayed at on the first night and as I knew I had two nights I let my bag explode open causing myself to wonder why I’d packed so much or rather how I’d travelled around Australia with so little. I suppose 6 thick jumpers were always going to take up a lot of space but the 3 unused t-shirts and sun hat were an optimistic waste of space.

That night we had free time to get our own food but as we were a small group that had all got on well we met in reception to find somewhere together. I’ve loved Moroccan food but I was glad when I saw the restaurant we chose did pizza, pasta and burgers. After dinner we made our way back to the hotel where unfortunately the WiFi kept cutting out as it had on the first night. After a while I gave up trying to update the blog and just went to bed in a slightly grumpy mood which in hindsight I acknowledge was a bit of a pathetic thing to get grumpy about though it highlighted how flawless everything else had been.

Friday 16th January
I had woken up 15 minutes before i had to be and I felt a bit lethargic when I finally got up. I made sure I was packed for the whole day ahead before going to breakfast. It did however look like everyone had finished by the time I arrived. For our final day we were having a guided walk around the city to the main sites within the Medina and then in the afternoon I planned on having a massage and a Hamman experience. Getting a massages on holiday is slowly becoming one of my traditions though I’m pretty sure the Russian one will never be beaten in terms of uniqueness.

As we walked towards the Medina (the old city) our guide explained he had lived in Marrakech all his life and that the city had changed a lot in his life time. He told me how many years but I’ve forgotten and I never clarified if he felt it had changed for better or for worse. I was surprised at how close our hotel was to the Medina and once we were through the gates to the old fortified part of the town our first stop was outside the La Mamounia Hotel. This is where Winston Churchill regularly stayed and a night in his suite apparently costs €8000.

We carried on towards the Koutoubia Mosque and once there we could see the ruins of an old Mosque. This was the result of a war in the 12th century between the Almohads and the Andalusians. The Andalusians were eventually victorious and so demolished the old Mosque building a new one next to it in a symbolic gesture. This style of Mosque was the first of its design and the style was copied in Rabat and Seville. It has always had its name due to a souk selling books outside.

One of the laws the French had introduced during the urbanisation of the city was that no building must be taller than the Mosque. It is therefore a constant reminder of how important Islam is to the daily lives of those in the city. Our guide also explained about some of the Islamic traditions, for example the flag pole on top of the minaret which pointed East to Mecca and which had 3 Orbs symbolising the current life, the judgement and the after life. He also reminded us of the 5 pillars of Islam

After leaving the Mosque we made our way to the Palaus de me Bahia which like Ait Benhaddou was also used in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Unfortunately the part used is currently closed for renovations however the part that was open was still pretty impressive. The palace was built in the 19th Century by Si Moussa and named after his favourite wife. Later it was used again by Abu Ahmed who had 4 official wives and 24 unofficial wives. There were 4 sections to the palace and in the ‘entertainment’ section we were told he’d pick one to be with every day on rotation until he died in 1900. The palace was then abandoned until used by Pasha Glaoui in 1908 and then by the French as a garrison in 1911.

We finally made our way to the central square the famous Djemaa el Fna Market. I had seen pictures and film footage of this and if I’m honest had prepared myself for an experience I wasn’t going to enjoy. Thankfully a mix of it being out of season, mid day on a Friday and poor weather meant it wasn’t very busy. We passed through the square towards the souks and our guide pointed towards where my Hamman would be.

As we wondered down the narrow winding streets I had three troubling thoughts. How do I find the Hamman? As its general location had only been pointed to me and I knew it was downstairs I wondered if I’d walk in to the right one (I had no leaflet on me to remember the name). Next I was so disoriented by all the walking I wondered how, even if I found the Hamman how I’d get back to the hotel alone. Again I had failed to mark it on a map or to keep the address on google maps. Perhaps the most immediate thought though was how I’d make it through the souks without being hassled.

It actually turned out I didn’t need to worry about the latter. The shop keepers weren’t pushy and it wasn’t as bad as the Aswan markets in Egypt. Again perhaps visiting out of season on a Friday helped because some of the industrial sections were closed and it was much less busy than I’d expected. The streets are narrow so it must be horrendous when it’s hot and busy especially as our guide told me it was as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

Carrying on in to the depths of the souks we stopped off at a Berber Pharmacy which with the big jars full of various products reminded me of an old Victorian sweet shop. Some of the creams and oils even smelt edible due to the fruity flavours. The cooking spices were particularly nice however ultimately I didn’t buy anything.

We passed a section of tin crafts where the guide explained the symbolism was of Berber origin (predating Islam) and which is meant to protect against the evil eye. The symbolism is not celebrated and is now more for decoration. I’d have easily got lost in the souks alone as there is no organised planning to it. I wonder if tourists just wonder around aimlessly until they happen to stumble upon a stand selling something they like or they get tired of walking. As it was I’d done over 10000 steps by the time we emerged back out in to the Djemaa el Fna at midday.

After leaving the others the guide kindly led me to the Hamman. I was early so I went up to the men’s waiting room where I had a Moroccan tea and waited for my massage. My lack of other language skills always makes me feel awkward. This is particularly true if the person I’m talking to speaks English very well, doesn’t quite understand my English and then apologises for theirs. This happened here and I used my ice breaking line “your English is better than my *insert relevant language*” which made us both smile and laugh.

My hamstring has really been causing an issue for over a year now when it rotates in certain motions and because the physio wasn’t concerned and whilst running/stretching appeared to have resolved the issue a few months ago it hadn’t in the long term. I hoped a massage using the Argan oil would help. The guy giving the massage was certainly very strong and It was all going along without anything dramatic or particularly funny. The only thing I found remotely unusual was my hair (not head) was occasionally massaged/ruffled but I assumed that this was meant to be relaxing.

When my back was done I was told to roll over which i did obediently. As he started to massage my stomach he started to (what I can only describe as) jiggle my belly before saying “cous cous”? I laughed with humiliation as I realised despite my attempts to hold my stomach in it was still undeniably obvious that a lack of exercise due to the hammy, December and a week away had given me a food baby hump. “to nice and to much” I agreed.

Leaving the massage area I went to the Hamman, and was covered in a black soap substance before again being told to roll over where I somehow managed to move my hamstring the one way it doesn’t like and unfortunately it instantly reminded me it was not healed. I was then led in to the steam room where I couldn’t see anything.

It wasn’t long before I started to wonder what I was doing. What if I was forgotten, would I just assume I was meant to stay in there and that i would slowly steam to death without realising it? I started to feel like a animal does when it knows it’s been fattened up and is ready for slaughter. These thoughts didn’t make it the relaxing experience it was meant to be.

Eventually I was fetched and had a bucket of cold water thrown over me before I was covered in the black soap and given a thorough scrubbing that meant two slight recent scars disappeared completely and one I’ve had since my Grandparents cat scratched me roughly 25 years ago also pretty much vanished. My skin had never felt softer. Sadly the scrubbing experience had not removed my belly nor sorted the hamstring.

I was put back in the steam room and this time I enjoyed it slightly more but I wouldn’t say I was ever relaxed though I was perhaps more energised as a result. After I was collected the second time I was given more Moroccan tea and told to lie down and relax which I was doing very well before I was suddenly told to get changed quickly because it was women’s hour.

I left and successfully made my way through the souks to the mosque and because I had time decided to go around the gardens to reach the Medina gate. I successfully navigated my way there and made it to the main junction walking down the correct road because I recognised the tall palm trees that were actually mobile phone masts. Despite the long walk that morning it all seemed very close. I thought I’d done the hard part so patted myself on the back.

After walking 10 minutes I finally turned right down the road I thought my hotel was on but after another 10 minutes I hadnt seen certain landmarks I’d noted that morning. I carried on anyway because the sun had come out and I figured I wasn’t far away. Eventually by chance I was able to access some free WiFi from someone or somewhere called SMC and located where I wanted to be. To my shock it was roughly 30 minutes away and it meant by the time I arrived I’d done a big 40 minute loop out of my way. At one point I worked out I was only a block away. I’d felt safe the whole time and the extra walk had meant I’d seen more of the city than planned even if they were just mostly hotels and a new shopping mall under construction.

I had plenty of time before meeting the others for dinner so just relaxed. Eventually it was time to go down to reception and I realised it was raining again. We walked to Djemaa el Fna and then me and Keith quickly made our way through one of the souks to collect some laundry he and Margaret had dropped off. Ibrahim shortly arrived and took us to the restaurant which was outside in the square but covered which was lucky as the rain wasn’t easing.

Our final meal was a true grand finale and as big as any we had eaten any other night if not bigger. As usual we had some olives, bread and chili followed by a soup which was the best of them all. Next we had a plate each with chips, fried aubergine (egg plant), potato and spinach. I was stuffed and I still had my main to come which was the mixed skewers 2 chicken, 2 beef, 2 mince meat kebabs and 2 mini sausages. My only regret is I ordered a coke and not a lovely fresh orange juice. Sometimes when food is included you don’t always get value for money but I have always returned home a full, very content, bordering fat when returning from onthego tours.

We made our way back to the hotel and after completing our evaluation guides and saying our goodbyes it was time to admit the tour was over. Except for Jason who would be continuing to the coastal town of Essaouira alone with Ibrahim. I’d had a wonderful time in Morocco, the 30th country I’ve visited, it had far exceeded my expectations and I was sad the trip was already over.

Saturday 17th January
Eventually getting up I made my way downstairs where Alison and Jason had already started. I asked for a coffee but when it arrived I wasn’t really in the mood to drink it, the milk didn’t look that great and so I favoured the lovely orange juice.

The hotel still appeared empty and so Ibrahim had been able to extend my check out time to 14.00. In hindsight I could have returned to Djemaa el Fna to see it busy and in the sun but after 6 days ‘on the go’ pardon the pun I was ready to relax.

Unfortunately the poor room service lady didn’t know I was still around at entered the room shortly after 12 when I should have been checked out. She didn’t appear awfully pleased with the way I’d left the bed. She’d clearly spent time the day before tucking everything in as they do in hotels and immediately I’d untucked everything. Now we had the awkward moment when she got to see who it was who undid her hard work. She didn’t speak English but eventually I remembered how to say ‘departing 2’oclock’ in French and she left.

At 14.00 I went down to reception and waited for my taxi which was booked for 14.30. After about 15 minutes a man approached me and asked if I needed a taxi, unfortunately for the first time i had a proper language barrier issue as I tried to explain I’d already booked one. Eventually the hotel confirmed it was mine and arriving at the airport I dropped my bag off, went through security and had none of the issues experienced at Gatwick. We actually departed early and I was first on the plane (such was the small number of us on the return flight) both which were firsts for me. As the drinks and snacks were brought round there was an absolutely stunning sunset that even the flight attendants commented on.

My travel bug that had been simmering throughout December especially since catching up with Gabi and Keili (and meeting the latter’s Australian friends) has been satisfied for the time being I’m not ready to settle down yet. Travel and experiencing other cultures has become my escape, my second life, I even enjoy the challenging, uncomfortable, unenjoyable bits. Until next time…

Rockin’ All Over The World: Sahara Desert and Ouarzazate

Wednesday 14th January
I had a bit of a sleepless night but it wasn’t because I was cold or uncomfortable. There was one stage when the wind picked up and seemed to channel between my bed and the tent but I just pulled my djellaba hood over the back of my head and my sleeping bag hood over my face. The blankets were thick and I doubt I’d have been much warmer in the tent anyway.

I woke properly when Alison walked by confirming it was 6.45 and as we were leaving at 7.00 I got up without protest. I quickly made sure I had everything and moved my mattress back inside the tent before we all headed over to the camels. Mine was better behaved this time not standing up whilst I was still getting on.

After Ibrahim took some pictures of us we were off though he walked in front and eventually took a different path. It was quite relaxing though rather quickly the ‘pressure points’ from the day before started to ache. I started to list left as it felt more comfortable though perhaps looked a bit unstable especially on the down sections. Eventually I corrected myself because I was concerning the guide but it meant I felt numb by the end. It was totally worth it though and I knew I just had to grin and bear it knowing it was all part of a quite unique opportunity.

When I saw the base in the distance my feelings were one of relief (that my ‘pressure points’ would be relieved) and sadness (that our desert experience would be over). The building gradually got bigger and eventually having got down I realised one of the camels had taken a liking to my sleeping bag case. We had breakfast (omelette, pancake and bread), before boarding the mini bus and commencing our journey back across the gravel road towards the main road.

We passed back through a village/town which I assume was Rissani. There were lots of children around, I saw two riding a bike at the same time with one sitting on handle bars and neither holding on, another two were racing again neither holding on and I was impressed with their great balance. We also saw a group sitting on a plough with what looked like an instruction manual. It was a bumpy road all through the town and a number of buildings were either being built or left to fall down.

After about an hour we crossed over another river where the bridge had been washed away and we had to cross through a shallow bit of water. Ibrahim explained that during his 7 years of doing the tours this was one of the first when water was flowing. Apparently there had been no rain for 5 years until recently so once the floods had subsided the villagers immediately planted palm trees. We stopped off for a short while before commencing our journey across the barren gravel desert like valley flanked by mountains either side.

We drove for about 1 hour 30 minutes when we came to our lunch stop. The staff seemed to like my djellaba and when we were being served the first course he gave me Berber name ‘Hamel’. He then tried to teach us some Berban as he gave us the food so the starter was ‘zit’ (olives), zitoun (olive oil) and of course large ‘aghroum’. Take a guess. The second starter was a lovely salad with some lentils (we often tried to guess what we were having so we were all right) and the main was beef skewers and chips. Dessert was a apricot yogurt.  Someone at work had said I’d put on weight out here and I’m sure I will by the end if I have not already done so. There was a cat that wanted feeding but I think it got the message I wasn’t going to relent but I did get a great picture of it looking quite angry at me.

30 minutes later we stopped in the Draa Valley famous for producing dates and where if we were interested we could go to a market stand to buy a fresh packet. First though we had a stroll across a bridge over what was once the longest river in Morocco before a sand dune blocked its route to the Atlantic Ocean. The river had flooded fairly badly recently which had destroyed many of the crop fields and whilst the land had dried there were still stagnant pools of water.

Ibrahim gave us some information about Agdez which was one of the stops for the old caravan routes and is now mainly a tourist stop. As it is also one of the bigger town in the area it is one of the main places where dates and date products are sold. At some point I fell asleep only waking up when we stopped off for a photo of the gorge below the Ait Saoun mountsins (Hard Mountains) and were named due to the difficulty caravans had crossing them.

We finally arrived back in Ouarzazate and it turned out we were sleeping where we had lunch on the first day. We had about 2 hours free time but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your view point) WiFi was only available in reception so it was only just before dinner I connected with the outside world. Dinner here was a choice I went for salad followed by meatballs however I was full after the salad which was a shame because the meatballs (as with most food here) had some lovely flavours.

After dinner we chatted and Margaret (who I shall I appoint as my sub editor) read snippets of the first blog. I returned to my room which was now more toasty and finally sorted the pile of desert clothes I’d thrown on the floor almost as soon as I’d got in earlier in the afternoon.

Thursday 14th January
We were given a bit of a lie in as departure wasn’t until 9.00 but unfortunately I forgot to reset the time on my Fitbit so it still went off at 7.15. I started to go to sleep before my phone briefly connected to WiFi. Once the signal had gone it was to late to go back to sleep so i decided to start the day. It seemed everyone else already had and after filling ourselves up on bread, pancake and a croissant type pasty we left for our final day outside Marrakech.

The first stop of the day was to the Atlas Corporation Movie Studios which officially opened in 1983 and has been famous for movies such as: Gladiator, The Mummy and Kingdom of Heaven. It is still actively used and sets from it will be seen in 2016 when ‘King Tut’ is released.

We had a tour given to us by one of the locals that has worked on some of the films as an extra and as an interpreter. He said he’d been doing them a number of years but it was only recently he had a mobile that could take pictures and I was glad I asked as he seemed keen to show. Outside of the sets we saw a stunt car which is used in explosions, a boat from Astrix and the Obelisk: Mission Cleopatra and a non working plane used in Jewell of the Nile.

The first set we saw was used in the Gladiator slave/market scene but it has now been adapted for other movies. I’ll have to watch the film again to see if I recognise it. Carrying on we passed through an Egyptian temple used in Cleopatra and to an Egyptian palace which I believe were also used in ‘The Mummy’ and ‘King Tut’. The pillars looked so authentic and yet when we tapped them they were just made of wood and plaster.

We passed through other in door sets used in various films including the 2009 version of Ben Hur. One of the sets was apparently the location of a famous mistake after an extra had forgotten to remove a watch. Leaving the indoor sets we emerged outside in to a street scene set for a film on Moses. Looking one way it appeared to have a lot of depth and much bigger than it was. Walking behind it was interesting to see all the wooden supports and to see that these had just been covered in a picture of plaster and straw to create such fine details on the walls especially the bits that were meant to be crumbling.

Carrying on outside we saw the entire set of a replica of the City of Jerusalem in the distance used in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. All the buildings were full size and it looked enormous but then I suppose it had to be. To the left of that was a replica of Karnak temple with various siege weapons lying around it. This had been used in a Astrix film and either intentionally or not bits were looking a little worse for wear. Normally bits are only repaired if they are to be used in new movies and that’s when additions are made. This did however mean sets used in ‘older’ films like gladiator weren’t that recognisable.

We had seen some camels in the distance and during the time we’d been outside they had come over. They are specially trained and were very placid so I was able to stroke one without fear of being spat at. It was very soft and if I ever have to buy myself a new rug I may come back to Morocco. Finally we saw a set of Tibet used in Kundun which reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was quite a short tour of the studios but I found it quite enjoyable and it has encouraged me to see some of the other movies the studio helped produce.

We boarded the bus and travelled 30 minutes down the road to Ouarzazate so we could have a brief walk around the famous Ait Benhaddou. By now the sun was finally out after hiding for four days so I removed my djellaba. Ibrahim explained that village was built on the caravan route because it was the first town after the mountains and last town before the desert. The village was fortified to protect it from invaders.

Made our way up winding street with lots of handmade products and paintings on sale for tourist. We appeared to be the only ones. One of the busiest places in southern Morocco in the high season. We stopped off about half way and Ibrahim explained what a Kasabah is as we looked down on a good example. Kasabahs were a place for the local leaders to live and because they had high walls, 4 towers and very small holes for windows they could be used as a defence when a city was under attack. Ait Benhaddou with its fortified walls outside certainly seemed to me to be well protected.

Ait Benhaddou Was UNESCO heritage listed in 1987. Ibrahim explained that it has been decided that the best way to ensure that the village is looked after is to allow a small number of families to live within the walls. They live in the Kasabahs and still repair the buildings using mud and straw when they are damaged by rain. Unfortunately however there is no electricity for the people living there and whilst it to expenses to put cables in underground they are not allowed overhead cables. A number of movies have been filmed there including classics such of Lawrence of Arabia and more recently Prince of Persia. Ibrahim told us that during filming the families are paid to move out to.

When we reached the top there was a small building called the Granary which was surrounded by another wall. This was where the villages most valuable items would be stored and would be protected by everyone. Whilst individual homes would be protected at least if they fell to the enemy the centre and their most valuable items could still be protected. It was also here that fires would be burnt if the city was under attack so people in nearby cities would come to the rescue.

On our way back down we stopped off to see one of the local artists. First he used a magnifying glass to burn a picture in to a piece of bamboo wood. Next he took a piece of paper and taking a tea substance and a saffron substance he painted a picture. He then lit a gas cylinder and holding the painting over it the colours slowly changed and as if by magic it transformed in to a lovely desert scene of a camel caravan in front of some sand dunes. This was the traditional way of painting in the village and the results were certainly very impressive.

As we made our way back down we could see a very large group of tourists crossing the river and they looked like a mini invading army. As we got towards the bridge another group arrived and it was clear that staying in the town overnight and the relatively early start had beaten the rush.

We had our penultimate lunch together in a nearby hotel. Bread with a lovely chili paste and olive oil, followed by a salad. When I think of Moroccan food I normally think of Moroccan lamb but this was our first meal where we had any. Apparently lamb is only served as a speciality in the mountains. I’d eaten to much by the main but I still tried a bit and as expected it was very nice. The only real issue was for poor Alison who ordered an English tea with milk that came as milk with a tea bag. If this is how it’s served it’s no wonder it hasn’t caught on with the locals.

We now had a four hour drive back to Marrakech that would only be interrupted by a brief stop at a place selling Argane oil. I looked out of the window before falling asleep waking with a jerk as we went over a bumpy bit of road. Looking out of the window we were now back on the twisty road in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains.

Our final stop before Marrakech was to see a place where Argane oil was produced and sold. First we were given a very brief demonstration of how the oil is made before we went in to the shop. I tried the oil (like olive oil), peanut butter and honey but wasn’t convinced to buy either before I had a aftershave rubbed on my wrist which I could still smell two hours later. I had to buy Lucy my travel buddy from Jordan some and whilst everyone had said how expensive it is because it is only produced in Morocco I was still stunned when I did the conversion. It must be good stuff so I brought myself a small bottle.

Just as we were done a big coach of tourists arrived and the shop was swamped and I got out just in time. It was going to be weird being in a city full of other people.

Asleep in the Desert: Todra Gorge to the Sahara Desert

Monday 12th January
Despite my heater being set to 30 degrees the room never reached a temperature I would describe as warm but it was no worse than the attic in Ealing I’d got used to. Having got up I made my way to breakfast where they had the crêpe style of pancake. I had mine with jam and what i assumed were blueberries. It was only when I took a bite I realised the blueberries were in fact black olives. I sent a couple of quick emails and returned to my room to ensure I had everything. I was last again and stepping outside decided it was marginally warmer than inside.

We left our hotel and had to back track slightly before taking another spectacular winding road towards our next destination Todra Gorge. There was a big cloud that seemed to follow us and the blue sky or rather lighter coloured cloud always seemed to be around the next corner. We passed through a town that links the Rose valley and Dades valley before it appeared we were out of the mountains and on a long flat road. There were however more mountains in the distant.

Eventually we stopped so we could have a walk around a local market. Our guide said because we were in a slightly poorer and rural area it would be used in a very traditional way in comparison to the way the markets are used in Marrakech. It was organised chaos summed up when a tuk-tuk which had successfully battled through the crowds then came face to face with a giant tractor. I had feared there would be meat alive and dead everywhere generating the awful smell there was in Bangkok but there wasn’t. In fact judging by the size of the oranges, carrots, onions and peppers the food section was a vegetarian paradise. The market seemed to sell everything; beds, bikes, mobiles, toys, spanners, drills… You name it someone probably sold it.

We drove along a little way before we stopped off to take a photo of a stunning valley. It was quite a sight because there were towering dry sandstone rocks with no vegetation either side of the valley and yet in between it all there were lots of palm trees. We jumped back on board the bus for less than a minute before we jumped off again so a local could take us through the valley to our hotel. It was a nice touch and meant I really felt like I was interacting with my surroundings and not just passing through them.

Within about 5 minutes of the walk the sun suddenly came out and almost instantly I had to ditch layers. I had been wearing 4 including a layer of thermals (I knew it would be cold, I had not expected that cold) and when I was done the one jumper I had left was still a layer to much. It was a pleasant walk, not strenuous but after a day on the coach it was nice to move the legs again. Plus it was a start of a new Fitbit challenge so I needed to keep my step rate up.

It was really interesting to see the channels that have been dug in the field to keep the land irrigated and to see the effects a recent flood had on the community. Quite a sturdy looking bridge had been half washed away. Eventually we arrived at our hotel and whilst I no longer had a double it was very nice. We went on to the tea terrace for lunch where we had a very nice lentil soup for starter (and customary big roll) followed by a Berber omelette cooked in a tajine. This was absolutely wonderful and it was the first dish we as a group completely finished off.

Next we drove a short distance to Todra Gorge where Jason and I were doing rock climbing. We walked through the most narrow section and saw two abandoned hotels where again the bridge leading to them had been washed away. Other than that they both seemed very smart and a lot of money must have been used to build them. Initially it was unclear why they had been abandoned and then we saw. They were at the bottom of the cliff and during a particularly bad storm a boulder had dropped on to the roof of the restaurant. Luckily no one had been inside because they had already been evacuated due to the floods.

Whilst we waited for our rock climbing guide I climbed up some steps for a better view and on my way back down passed a nomadic family leading a donkey and horse up. As I reached the bottom I realised our guide was there. It was time to rock. I have a vague recollection of doing it at some point in a indoor centre but as far as I was concerned this was my first real go.

I was excited, I didn’t feel nervous because I knew I just had to trust the the guide. I am not agile, I am not strong and I am not tall. But I was not going to give up and slowly and then a bit more quickly I got used to where to put my hands and feet and scrambled up. I won’t be racing spider man anytime soon but I loved it. Jason went after me and made it look a bit easier before Ibrahim went up and made it look like he hadn’t even needed the rope. The guide then set up as new course for Jason but I was happy just watching.

After rock climbing we went back to the village to see carpets being made. Perhaps if I had my own place already by now I would have collected furniture from different countries I’d been to. It seems a nice idea and I was a bit tempted but I’m not at that stage yet. We had more mint tea before the demonstration and Allison who had been looking for something did buy a carpet which packed down in to a very convenient size. On the way out I brought myself a blue scarf for the desert and then we had a couple of hours free time at the hotel before dinner.

Dinner like lunch was wonderful. The starter was again soup and big roll but it was the main course that I particularly loved. Beef kofta meat balls with rice and vegetables. Dessert was apple and banana with yogurt. We went to our rooms about 8 and I spent a bit of time communicating with the outside world before going to bed.

Tuesday 13th January
For some reason I’d had a bit of a sleepless night possibly because my body probably isn’t used to so much sleep but I still felt refreshed when I went down to breakfast. I was first and they quickly brought me a fried egg, pancake, fresh orange juice and a coffee. I had loved every meal so far but the food at this hotel was my favourite and it was in a lovely location so I was sad to leave but the desert was calling my name.

We left the hotel and passing through the village had a photo stop of the old village in the valley below. It appeared that children outside the nearby school gates were protesting due to their chanting and a banner but no one including the teachers seemed that worried. Maybe they were just Pink Floyd fans singing ‘We don’t need no education’.

After staring out of the window for about an hour we arrived at a garage / toilet stop. We were used to having places to ourselves so were surprised when a big coach arrived. I’ve travelled on both types of tour but for a country like Morocco where I want to feel like I’m connecting with the scenery and culture I definitely prefer a more intimate experience.

Jason and I wanted to buy djellabas for the desert so we stopped off at a shop in a small town. It was a bit more than I hoped to pay but it felt very comfortable and I could tell it would keep me warm. I probably should have attempted to haggle but I’d forgotten my French, I didn’t really have the energy and figured the amount I’d save would be the cost of 2 bottles of water.

As we left the town Ibrahim told us that it was the Berber New Year and that the students we had seen earlier were protesting because they didn’t want to be at school. We weren’t yet in the desert but we were in a very remote area and he explained that any nomads in that area would have a very tough life. The government encourages them to leave the children in the towns during the winter and when the children are are older many leave to work in the cities.

As we carried along the road to the desert we started to see sand dunes however we then approached a settlement with a lot of vegetation. It was explained that this was one of oldest irrigation systems in Morocco built in the 11th century using a technique from Persia. Wells were dug 20km from mountain along with a network of tunnels so water didn’t have to be carried. The wells are no longer needed because the villagers can use machines to dig 100ft to reach water if it is required especially in the dry season. The system has allowed the village we passed through to grow palm trees, to produce dates and also to grow barley and wheat. It also appeared vegetation had started to grow on some of the sand funds close to the village making them more stable in the process.

We stopped off at Kasbah Ennasra a lovely looking building for another huge lunch. Olives, olive oil & bread, followed by a cooked salad with rice, then a chicken leg with vegetables followed by a crème brulé. Throughout different meals we’d had to take one for the team to eat a bit more food and it was Allison who duly obliged on this occasion.The food had been delicious so far and I’d over indulged so much I was concerned the camel would be unable to carry me.

After leaving we passed through a gate to enter the town of Rassani which was one of the oldest settlements in the area. Originally it was a commercial centre for Caravans from Fez but now it was one of the army bases as it is the closest town to Algeria. Tourism is now a big industry because it is the last settlement on the route for those going to the desert.

Gradually the vegetation was less and less and then in the distance we could see the sand dunes that were our destination. There was quite a bit of cloud but the sun that did shine through gave them a pink colour. Eventually we turned off the main road and on to the desert track. It wasn’t long before we felt remote and for the first time there was little of anything except the odd shrub and patch of desert grass. I am however always surprised at how much gravel and stones there are in deserts, they very rarely just consist of nice bright yellow sand.

The dunes grew bigger and after many twists and turns we eventually came to a stop. After getting off the mini bus I had a mini wardrobe change swapping my jacket for my new djellaba whilst Ibrahim helped me to put on my turban. Whilst we waited for departure we took a couple of pictures in front of the sand dunes and camels. A couple from Lithuania had also joined us though they were on a separate camel train.

The journey to our camp site was about an hour so there was plenty of time to appreciate our stunning surroundings even if the sun was refusing to shine through. There are many deserts in the world but the first I ever heard about when growing up about was the Sahara so camel riding through a dune to reach a destination in part of it was pretty special. I held on firmly with my left hand whilst taking the occasional picture with my right. I didn’t have a watch so I’m not sure at what point various ‘pressure points’ began to rebel but it meant I certainly developed a whole new level of respect for the great explorers and locals that travel on them.

As we reached the top of one dune we could see a camp below. Going down hill always felt a bit more unstable so holding on for one final time my camel slowly plodded down the dune. When it was my time to get off I have to admit the overriding feeling was one of relief. Having dumped my overnight bag in my tent (which was nearly as big in width as my room at home) I went back outside. It was time to give sand boarding another go.

Those that read my tales in Australia will know my failed attempts to get a picture of me doing it there so I was quite excited about the chance to have another opportunity. It was however only when I reached the top of the dune I realised this was a different type of sand board. This was one I’d have to stand on and as I’ve never skied or any type of winter sport (besides sledging if that counts) I was a bit nervous. The first go was pretty pathetic but at least I hadn’t actually fallen over or broken anything.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately no pictures were taken so I stepped up again and this time glided all the way to the bottom. It wasn’t as fast as sitting down in Australia but standing felt a bit more dramatic and perhaps most importantly I finally had my picture. Sand boarding done, Keith, Jason, Allison and I went for a walk to explore the dune which was 20km by 5km.

It wasn’t particularly windy so sand wasn’t blowing in to our faces and whilst the sky was still overcast ensuring we wouldn’t get sunburnt Jason and I had our turbans on anyway. Eventually we reached the bottom of two ridges. I took slightly longer than I should have resting and taking pictures and when I turned I saw Jason and Keith were already a quarter of the way up. Allison started to turn back. I looked up. They were on their hands and knees. I gulped. Reminding my self I had conquered a steep dune in Jordan…But this was far steeper.

I set off setting myself mini challenges. First shrub, second shrub but eventually there were no more shrubs which also meant the sand was loose. Initially I was able to stand up right by using their hand and feet prints but gradually that became impossible and every step forward seemed one back. Keith and Jason disappeared over the top. I gave my self a few minutes and then with a burst of energy I scrambled up on all fours until the top was less than 10 feet away before the sand gave way and slowly I was making no progress. I turned and sat admiring the view. I gave it one more go but realised even if I reached the top I wasn’t at the actual peak so admitting defeat I trudged back occasionally turning to see where they were.

I’d built up quite an appetite whilst walking and as I had perhaps 1/4 of the way to go I saw them at the top before they came running (whether on purpose or carried by momentum) down the ridges and I suddenly realised there was a chance I’d get overtaken. I reached the bottom and appeared to have collected half the dune in my shoes so emptied them out before we sat with the Lithuanian couple whilst we waited for dinner. Unfortunately it was still cloudy so there was no grand sunset.

Dinner was very nice and I keep being surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it though I’ve probably eaten my chicken and beef quota for the rest of the month. Starter was a cooked salad with chicken skewers the size of which would have been a main in any other country. The main itself was beef with vegetables and thankfully as we were all so full dessert was just fruit. A fire was being prepared outside and once ready the music would commence.

There is something special outside in the middle of nowhere with a proper fire. The drum music was very lively and as the clouds slowly parted we had the stars up above which really finished off the scene. It reached absolute perfection when Ibrahim gave us a skewer each and pulled out a pack of marshmallows. How he’d kept that a secret as we’d discussed them at dinner I don’t know.

The clouds covered the stars again and gradually people started to go to bed. The stars came out again and I used the opportunity to grab some pictures. It wasn’t as cold as when I did the sane with Lucy in Wadi Rum but the pictures weren’t as good either. Jason and I had made a decision to give sleeping outside a go and once I was in my sleeping bag I looked up to the sight I’d last seen from the same sleeping back in Flinders Ranges. I forced myself to stay awake until I’d seen at least one shooting star and catching one before it disappeared behind a cloud I was satisfied I could sleep.

World At Your Feet: Marrakech to Dades Gorge

Saturday 10th January
Some people fly and allow no time for the unforseen events whilst some allow for a bit of slippage. I always plan to arrive so early it’s often a wonder I’m not at the airport 24 hours before the flight. Normally because I am on one of the first flights out of heathrow and because the journey couldn’t be much more simple I don’t have to worry. Gatwick on the other hand…well that’s south of the Thames which to me makes the journey to Mordor from Hobbiton sound simple.

The flight at 12.50 was at possibly the best time I could have hoped for and so i aimed to be at the airport for around 10.00.  I still had to buy a train ticket and even though I’ve walked to Ealing Broadway 100s of times I got up and left the house much earlier than necessary and somehow convinced myself I was still running late. I arrived at Ealing Broadway but the district line (which i planned to take direct to Victoria) appeared to be running with delays so I jumped on the central line again planning to change at Oxford Circus.

Zoning out I tried to ignore (but still noted) passengers frantically checking the underground map and asking questions about where the train was going. “It is going East towards central London; the only station West is the one we just left, relax” – I wanted to say. There was a lot of crucial nap time before Oxford circus. It was only when I got to North Acton panic set in. It can’t be terminating here I thought. As far as the Acton area goes, North Acton is in the middle of no where without even a nearby taxi firm it turns out. What should have been one train from Ealing Broadway to Victoria, a journey I do every morning had become 1 tube, a bus and 2 trains. It ate hugely in to my time and yet once I was through security I still had time for a cooked breakfast, too much time to look at gadgets and books and enough time to write all of the above. Oh and to buy a pack of chewing gum.

I made my way to the departure gate and looked around. There were only 11 people and the plane looked quite small. I knew I was flying in the low season but I had still expected the flight to be half full. A handful more people arrived and then we started to board. Well they started to board. Having already been selected randomly for an explosive check I was now interrogated by a very serious looking man in a suit about why I was visiting Morocco and how much money I had. My response of “umm about £5” didn’t go down well and I had to clarify I had a return ticket and a bank account.

Eventually I was allowed to board and once on saw someone was in my seat. This worked to my advantage because I got moved and ended up with an entire row to myself but it was so empty that wasn’t difficult. As usual I slept from about 10 seconds in to the safety video and missed the food although this time I woke to find the tray down and the food ready for me. Along with a landing card.

The view of the planes wing was quite boring (apparently ‘my’ seat was meant to be a good view) so I went back to sleep. Eventually I completed my landing card checking I’d spelt my name correct – am i the only one that worries I’ll get something basic on that form wrong? By now we were coming in to land and over the wing as we tilted I got a fantastic view of the snow capped Atlas mountains. We landed and I had no issues at immigration, no issue meeting my rep and no problem with using the ATM. I arrived at the hotel and wondered on to the balcony before heading down to meet the group. They hadn’t arrived so I pottered around in my room in anticipation…

At about 7.50 I wondered back down and met an American called Jason who was on the tour before our guide Ibrahim arrived and took us to the table where we met the others; Allison from South Africa and Keith and Margaret from New Zealand.

We started with a tasty soup and huge bread roll before I had my first experience with a famous tajine dish. This was a mixture of peas, olives and potato with a whole chicken leg each. Those that know me well know I do eat meat but somewhat weirdly only if it doesn’t look like an animal. Chicken breast yes chicken leg no. But I didn’t want to offend the host and I was hungry so I tucked in and ate the whole lot.

None of us had room for dessert but took some fruit with us for the next day. After Ibrahim gave us s summary of the days ahead we went to our rooms. I was in bed and just drifting off to sleep when what sounded like a huge street party started outside the hotel. I looked out and there were a group of 10 to 15 people in the street singing. Morocco is a alcohol free country so I knew they weren’t drunk and I just hoped they were happy rather than protesting.

After maybe 30 minutes they left and I went back to sleep.

Sunday 11th January
I’ve started to use my fitbit pedometer to wake me up in the mornings but each time it still strikes as a bit of a shock. I got up fairly quickly made sure I was packed and after a hot shower headed for breakfast. I thought I was early but I was actually last down. Very quickly I’ve noticed massive bread rolls are popular here so I took one and had half laughing cow and half jam, a coffee (which took me back to my time in Australia) and one of the best freshly squeezed orange juices I’ve ever had. Returning back to my room I made sure I had everything and headed back down. I was 10 minutes early so I was shocked when I realised I was last again. Clearly we were all trying to give a good first impression.

We commenced the drive out of Marrakech where our guide Ibrahim provided us with lots of facts about the city and the Moroccan economy. Marrakech means Land of God in the Berber language however it is also known as the ‘Red City’. This was originally due to the mud used to build the houses and the co!lour it dried however now cement is used so houses are painted.

Casablanca known as the white city due to the colour of the houses is the largest city in the country with 5 million people. Unfortunately it is getting to big and too close to other nearby cities however in Marrakech the problem has been avoided. A new town has been built which is far enough away to be separate but close enough so people can travel in to city. This has helped to create construction jobs as the infrastructure is put in place and will once complete generate jobs for teachers and doctors. In Morocco people still try to own their own home however like most cities the centre of Marrakech is to expensive for most.

Agriculture big industry but because Spain produces similar vegetables it is alleged they sometimes try to prevent the produce entering Europe even though Morocco has a contract to supply the European union. Agriculture is obviously risky because it is dependent on the weather so the Moroccan government are moving towards industry. The country is well positioned geographically because it is the link between Europe and Africa. Tourism has also always been a big industry, especially in Marrakech and they want 20 million tourists annually within 10 years.

As we drove through the city on a Sunday morning we saw lots of groups playing football matches on any of the empty gravel spaces. Apparently the sport is very popular and it seems a great shame that their request to postpone the African Cup of Nations due to the Ebola outbreak wasn’t granted and instead they were kicked out of the tournament. But then common sense doesn’t exist in football now – only money and sponsorship deals.

From the moment we left the hotel we couldn’t escape the majestic site of the distant but dominating snow covered Atlas Mountains. The highest peak Toubkal is 4167m above sea level which makes it the 3rd highest Africa and the highest in north Africa. The highest we would drive would be 2260m which still sounded quite impressive considering Snowdon is 1085m.

Sometimes I get the image I have of a country very wrong and I have to admit from the moment I came in to land and until this point I was surprised at how green the part of the country I had seen so far was. Ibrahim explained it is green on the northern side of the mountains and desert on the south side. This is because the High Atlas mountains are a natural obstacle which prevent rain from Europe in winter reaching the south and dry heat from desert in summer reaching the north. That also explained why it was colder than I expected despite the fact I had thermals on.

Our first photo stop gave us an opportunity to marvel at the view below and of the Tichka road which was a great feat of engineering showing how routes can be forged. It was designed by the French during their occupation so they could get to the southern side in order to access natural minerals like copper and silver. Unfortunately it was built using Moroccan slave labour however from a personal point of view I was glad the UK wasn’t the bad guy on this occasion especially after my experiences in Australia and New Zealand.

Dams in Morocco have helped to irrigate the land and reduce risk of floods but people always try to build on rocky place and during the drive we saw why as a recent flood had washed the road away. The river in question now just looked like a small trickle but the flood plain was clearly extensive. We passed through a small village where there was a local market. Whilst there were lorries we also saw people using donkeys to transport their produce. It was very busy with lots of people from surrounding villages and we were told when we pass back through on Thursday it is likely the village will be empty.

We stopped off for some Moroccan tea, which was jokingly referred to by our guide as Moroccan whiskey because most do not drink alcohol. I had the sugar version which was very sweet but I could taste the mint and it wasn’t unpleasant. We continued to drive up and over mountain where we had another photo stop. By now we were in the ice and snow but the roads were clear and still better than those back home. As we passed through a small village we got pulled over by the police. They seemed to be joking with the driver and after opening the back of the bus and looking at our bags they seemed satisfied so we were allowed on our way

We drove through an area used in the horror film The Hills Have Eyes where they had to build a fake service station and brought in a lot of American cars for filming. We also passed Atlas Studios where a number films such as gladiator have been filmed and where we would be returning on Thursday for a tour. We stopped off at Les Jardins de Quarzazate for lunch. The portion size was big and it was another 3 course meal, first a salad followed by a beef tajine and a fresh orange for dessert. We were told that portion sizes are big because it is a sign of respect if you have enjoyed the meal to leave some. This went against my habit of seeing a big dish and accepting the challenge to eat it all. But in honestly I couldn’t even if I’d wanted to and, if my a miracle I had the bus wouldn’t have made it over the mountain.

After lunch we took photo of the original fortified part of Quarzazate that people lived in. Some families still live there however the town grew bigger outside of fortified area due to French occupation becoming a military base and the administrative capital of the region so businesses grew up. Ibrahim explained that 500mw of electricity is produced from nearby solar power panels which is the largest project of its type in Africa. Eventually Morocco will be self sustainable and maybe even able to export it’s energy  which is important because the country has no natural fuels to export.

Although the country doesn’t produce any natural fuels it still has a good economy in comparison to other African nations and it is the only country to export Phosphate. It is also one of the main producers of Argon oil which is used in a variety of ways and is more expensive than olive oil as trees only grow in some areas. Unsurprisingly after a big lunch and knowing we had a big uninterrupted drive ahead I fell asleep.

I woke up in the type of desert terrain I had expected from the start. Soon we stopped and I got a coffee to wake myself up but I didn’t really enjoy it. A little boy tried to get us to buy a petal but I knew from my time in Egypt the key was to say no and to keep my hands in my pocket. Our guide brought him a bar of chocolate but he was still a bit persistent and tried to look in the open mini bus though probably more out of curiosity than anything more sinister.

Next we drove through the rose valley, famous for growing roses allowing those who produce it to create hand crafts and to add it to water. Even though the settlement appeared quite isolated it was clear from the houses that this was one of the more wealthy areas. As we passed through Keelat M’gouna there were monuments of roses on the roundabout and we were told during the 1st week of May there was a roses festival.

Finally we made our way to Dades gorge and drove up a v windy road to get a famous picture and to look down in to the most narrow point of the gorge. Despite the cold and cloud which hadn’t shifted all day it was still spectacular. We drove back down the road and arrived at our hotel for the night.

I was quite pleasantly surprised when I opened my door though I suppose this was because I had another double bed to myself. The room was cold but had a heater which I quickly turned on before heading on to my balcony. After having a quick nap and use of the WiFi I made my way to dinner and ordered my first beer of the trip ‘Casablanca’. Dinner was the biggest meal yet. Soup followed by chicken and lamb skewer with chips, a cous cous dish with chicken and then a lovely French type pasty for dessert. By 8.30 we were all ready for bed and I assumed I would sleep well.

We Are Young: Munich Oktoberfest

Friday 26th September
As my mobile phone played its relaxing melody I knew it was time to wake up. It felt like I’d only just gone to bed which in truth I probably had because it was 4.40am and I’d got back from seeing Lee Evans at the o2 with Caroline at gone 12. Still after 5 years of it being on my bucket list I was finally off to the legendary Oktoberfest in Munich.

A quick shower barely revived me and I don’t really recall getting ready or the walk to South Ealing. When I arrived at the station it seemed the underground was still sleeping, the station was totally deserted and there was a maintenance train on both tracks. I looked at my watch and calculated I still had 2 hours and 30 minutes before I would be on the plane and therefore able to have a nap.

The maintenance train moved off, my train arrived and after 30 minutes I was back at Heathrow. I’d already checked in but I still had to collect the ticket and luggage label. I clicked reference number and went to enter the code which included a number. There were no numbers on the keyboard so I asked the nearby steward “how do I enter numbers?” I probably sounded irritable but he was incredibly understanding as he explained “you only have to enter your name sir”. I looked again. First name. Last name. Oops. There was only one retort to save face “good job I’m not R2 D2 then”. After the words left my lips I realised this was not witty and I hung my head in shame as he turned his back on me to help someone who actually required assistance.

The flight was uneventful; no engine failures this time. I did however miss breakfast snacks being brought round but the attendant  kindly got me something as I think she could see the sadness in my eyes when I realised. Arriving in Munich, Germany seemed as efficient as I had expected and the only thing to hold me up were fellow tourists who couldn’t use the ticket machine even though options appeared to be in any major language you can think of. Ticket purchased I made my way to München Hauptbahnhof.

The journey took longer than I expected and it was very busy though no worse than the tube from Heathrow and certainly not at Moscow or Beijing levels. I got slightly lost in the station concourse but eventually found Chris and Ben. I quickly got changed in to my lederhosen and then left my bag in the secure baggage area before we headed for the world famous Oktoberfest site.

It was only a 10 minute walk from the station and as we arrived at the site my mouth probably hit the floor. I’d not ever really seen pictures of the site but I had a level of expectation yet the scale of the temporary buildings, the number of stools and the number of rides blew them away. Wow. It really was an adults playground.

Paul found us, apparently he had been at deaths door a couple of hours earlier after a heavy night but a beer had clearly revived him. He was his usual chirpy self and wasn’t surprised when rather than asking how my flight was instead said “don’t laugh at me John-boy because you’ll be dead in the morning”. Throughout Russia it seemed his objective was to destroy me and here I was at a place where the objective seems to be to get wrecked in as fun a way as possible.

He led us to our beer hall where Claudia (who Clare and Paul had met in New Zealand) had reserved us all a table. We sat down and it wasn’t long before the Steins of beer arrived. Claudia’s brother was also there and he ordered us all some authentic bavarian food including some giant pretzels.

It was shortly after the 2nd stein that dancing on the chairs began and having got a souvenir picture of Claudia, Clare (hung around my neck) that I began to lean the phase “zucke die da frauan?” Which I learnt in case I got lost and needed to ask someone to help me find “these girls”.

The beer flowed the Steins clinked (a lot) and each time with slightly more force. Some of Claudia’s brothers friends joined us and I tried my best to introduce myself in German but my fake lederhosen worked against me and I ended up with the name Robin Hood.

Eventually we all left and as Chris Claudia and I turned around realised Ben wasn’t following. Instead a guy forever known as ‘Canada’ started chatting to us and followed us around a bit. Clare and Paul appeared from nowhere and we were able to get a beer from one of the outside areas (not that I needed any more).

We went on the dodgems and a load of random girls appeared from nowhere and asked to steer which was fine by me. Then we went on the double shot tower – one of those rides that shoots you up in to the air. Perhaps the alcohol had removed my fear but it seemed particularly tame and whilst Chris agreed the surrounding screams suggested we were alone in that view. On the way home I got a currywurst and then at some stage lay down so Paul could stand triumphantly over me as I admitted defeat.

We were back for an hour or so (it was still only about 10pm) when the door buzzer went and as I opened it realised it was Ben. All reunited we set up the air bed and with a trusty glass of water went to sleep.

Saturday 27th September
I expected a huge hangover next morning but it seemed we were all fine. Still it took us a while to actually leave the house and by the time we did it was edging towards lunch. As a result we grabbed some food from a cafe at the metro station. It was only as we finished we noticed the rat traps and that a rat must recently have been caught in one of them.

We made our way to the English Garden looking for the surf area (apparently there is a wave in the middle of the river) which we never found. We did however spot a guy sunbathing nude which is perfectly normal and us being in clothes were the ones making a fashion faux pas. Soon we came across a beer garden. Totally unplanned but totally typical of Munich. It seemed rude to pass up the chance so we sat in the sun whilst we planned what to do next.

There was only one logical suggestion a traditional German/Munich beer hall. So we headed over past the Residenz and through old looking winding streets. We briefly got distracted from our mission when we saw a fox holding a gun in a shop and it seemed a perfectly natural reaction for Paul to pose with it.

We entered the beer hall which was huge on an epic scale and each table was packed. We went up the different levels and it was by total chance that a group left just as we we’d given up hope. The waiter came and 4 beautiful beers were soon on the way. I was feeling quite peckish so ordered some food at the same time.

Whilst we did some shaky face pictures and were in good spirits I don’t think any of us felt that drunk. It was however still only 4.30pm in the afternoon. We crossed the street and headed to Hard Rock Cafe but as we got to the entrance the bouncer blocked our path and turning to Paul announced “We only have one rule, you have to approach by walking in a straight line”. It was a interesting way to say we were to drunk and rather surprising considering we were in Munich where it seemed the whole city, especially during Oktoberfest is geared towards being merry. Saying that the Hard Rock Cafe was near empty despite it being a early Saturday afternoon so it’s possible the bouncer was doing his job slightly to well.

We found another restaurant and as we drank another stein Paul wrote an email of complaint to Hard Rock Cafe explaining how much of a loyal customer he and Clare had been on their travels. I made a few edits but between us we were fairly confident we had the perfect email and fully expected to be rewarded with at least a free drink for the miscarriage of justice we has suffered.

It was still early when we got home and the plan was to quickly get changed before heading back out for dinner. Clare had given up going out I was getting hungry again, hungry being an understatement if I’m honest and my usually care free manner was announcing I’d eat Chris if he didn’t hurry up.

There was however a hilarious moment when me and Ben were introducing ourselves to Claudia’s housemate and Chris announced his arrival walking in wearing just a pair of boxers. After a few seconds, which felt longer, he realised we weren’t just talking to Clare and Paul. In the end I gave up up waiting and I went to the local Chinese Pizza takeaway round the corner and tucked in like a monster that hadn’t been fed for a week. Chris Ben and Paul soon caught up but as I was being a bit indecisive about whether to join them they headed back in to town without me.

Ultimately I decided to head back for an early night as I had to be up early next morning to see Finja. There was however two issues I had not bargained with. The first was I didn’t actually know how to get back. I was wondering around the vague area, looking for the block of flats with a traffic cone outside. All of a sudden in broken german someone tried to talk to me. “Spreche sie English?” I replied and the person speaking went ‘damn you’re English, I’m trying to find my friends but I’m not sure which street they live on, do you know the area?”. I don’t think I was talking to myself but I guess there was a chance. I explained I was in the same situation and it was as I turned the next corner I saw the traffic cone. Hopefully he also found his friends…

The second issue I had not contemplated was that Claudia’s housemate and her boyfriend would be rightfully sitting in their living room which unfortunately for me happened to be my bedroom. There endured a rather awkward hour or so where I sat in the corner watching YouTube clips and they watched a film I couldn’t understand.

They finally went to bed and so did I but I’d been asleep less than 5 minutes when my phone rang. Paul was back but had come out the wrong station exit and lost so I went to find him. I thought I knew the way but it seemed I still didn’t and after 15 accepted I was lost again. Paul phoned me and just by total chance he was standing the other side of the road. I was able to lead us back to the park and he led us to the traffic cone.

I went to sleep again and was perhaps asleep for 2 hours when Chris and Ben got home. It turned out that at 11pm the Oktoberfest site closes with Chris describing it as ‘someone suddenly turning off all the electricity’.

Sunday 28th September
My alarm had been set early as I’d agreed to meet Finja for a coffee before she started work and didn’t want to be late. I actually woke up before the alarm which felt rather unfortunate because I was tired. I got ready and made my way to the station questioning how I got lost twice the night before.

It turned out we were meeting in the centre of Munich but as it was still early most of the streets were deserted. I saw what looked a giant church spire so as I was early went to investigate. Loads of tourists were staring at the Neues Rathaus Glockenspiel clock tower and as I looked at my watch I noticed it was one minute to 9. I think we all expected to see the figures move and we were all a bit surprised when nothing happened and it was all very anti climatic. An American announced they’d wait because “something is bound to happen soon”. They will have been waiting a few more hours as Finja later told me it only operates at 11am. Oh and it wasn’t a church but the New City Hall

I headed back to Starbucks and Finja arrived shortly after. It was great to catch up but neither of us actually drank coffee (though there had been a time in Australia when I’d become a consumer) so we both got a hot chocolate instead. After that we went on a stroll around the still empty streets that would later be heaving with probably mostly tourists. We went as far as a water fountain but it was a cold, damp morning so there was no incentive to go closer than we had to.

Finja gave me some ideas on how to spend the Monday I had to myself but unfortunately the two hours we had to catch up went to quickly for my liking. Still it was lovely to catch up with another of my friends I’d met travelling.

I met up with the others and after a quick beer we met up with Claudia and her boyfriend before going back to Hard Rock Cafe. This time we got in though throughout the time we waited for a table I expected the bouncer to put two hands on Pauls shoulders to kick him out for his email. Unlike the day before my appetite had deserted me so I ordered a couple of sides.

When mum and I had done to Hard Rock Cafe with Paul and Clare in Sydney I was slightly jealous when she was able to buy the souvenir hurricane glass. Despite already having a stein from the day before I still wanted to expand my personal collection of vessels that can hold alcohol so there was no hesitation this time.

After leaving Hard Rock Ben had to catch his flight home so we went to the station and put our souvenir glasses in the locker had been using. Then after he had gone, Chris Paul Clare, Claudia and I headed to the Oktoberfest site. Paul won on one of the shooting stands and we then each watched the oldest ride that has been in operation at the festival.

The premise was that people had to stay on a spinning roundabout as long as possible before being thrown off. It sounded easy but then the organisers started using ropes to catch people and swung a big ball to knock people off. I was tempted to have a go but never got near the front and even if I had would probably have been crushed by the number of bodies trying to clamour on.

We left and went to a bar at the back of the site where I ordered a drink that was half coke cola and half beer. I did this because my body was beginning to rebel and I thought it sounded different to the usual radler (Lemonade and beer). The first taste or two seemed alright and I began to wonder why they don’t sell the combination in British pubs. A few more sips later and I began to decide it didn’t actually taste that great and that cola and beer perhaps aren’t drinks that should be mixed. Lemonade makes it refreshing but cola just gave it a odd taste.

We tried to get a group picture but where ever I stood the sun light blocked me out and then almost to sum up how much or a failure the idea had been I dropped my camera on the floor. Luckily it was undamaged even though the lens had been out. We left the bar and I brought a toffee apple, which worryingly was my first bit of fruit or veg in 3 days and then a commemorative Oktoberfest stein. This meant my hand luggage would just be my 3 glasses and my camera and considerably more heavy.

We went back to Claudia’s and got changed in to our lederhosen for one final time before returning to the Oktoberfest site for one last time as a group. We went in to one of the beer halls but there were no seats so we sat outside and soon had some Steins on the way. After a couple we moved inside again and found a table buy the party was winding down and we couldn’t find the person serving our area. Still this didn’t stop us joining in with the singing.

Realising there was no chance of beer we headed to our trusty bar at the back of the site. As it was close to last orders we got two beers so we wouldn’t make the same mistake as at the beer hall. Eventually they began to start closing the site and they started to use a spray hose to clean the bar we were at. The hose seemed to have a dual purpose at being a water cannon to remove those who had not finished their drinks.

It seemed the site was pretty much closed so we began to make our way home stopping at McDonald’s. There was no where to sit so we decided to sit on the floor and eat it at the station which we dubbed our McDonalds picnic. Chris and I also found it quite funny when we saw some police buying doughnuts.

We arrived back at the house and the others tried to have a quick nap before their flight and I stayed up to wait for them to leave. My flight wasn’t until 9pm on Monday so I knew I’d be able to catch up on sleep after they’d gone. The house felt very quiet when they bundled out of the door to get the bus and I finally went to sleep.

Monday 29th September
I still wasn’t really suffering hangovers but the lack of sleep had caught up with me and I so any plans to cram as much in as possible went out of the window. I wasn’t going to overdo it. I spent a couple of hours having a quick clean around asking the Leeds lot various questions as by now they were back in the UK on the train home. The one thing I never did find was the community bin or the place to recycle all the bottles we had somehow accumulated.

I eventually left with a plan of action which involved finding the haribo store so I could buy a life time supply and to climb the church Finja had recommended. Going to the Olympic Park and the tall tower would have to wait. I never did find the haribo store, Google had been little help and even tourist information had no idea what I was talking about. Instead they told me to go to a ‘Bears & Friends’ store.

I made my way there instead and whilst not on the scale of the mystical haribo world I was still pretty impressed. Next I headed towards the church and climbed St Peters Church steps to the top. Each time I thought I was there, I wasn’t and my legs were suffering when I got to the top. It was hard to believe just a week before the same body had been capable of running 8km in a gorilla outfit. It is fair to say I am need of a detox but with the Camra beer festival at Ascot, the Rugby League Grand Final, a 30th birthday and a rugby union match at Twickenham taking it easy isn’t an option in the foreseeable.

The view was however probably worth it and I was glad to have done something vaguely cultural besides drinking. After taking in the view and searching out where the Oktoberfest site was in relation to where I stood I headed back down.

I wanted to look for a Steiff bear and whilst there wasn’t a special store I was told to go in a department store. I eventually found what I was looking for but nearly collapsed when I saw the price so instead I took a photo. Next I had a walk around the food hall section as I’d been told to get mustard in a tube and I thought I could buy some chocolates. Leaving the store with enough money for a beer and some food I went in search of the oldest beer ha in Munich.

Fortunately I found a table and ordered the German equivalent of sausage and chips in curry sauce. It was also nice to have one final beer, and one I hadn’t already had though it wasn’t the same alone. I was feeling tired and just wanted to be on the plane but I still had some time to wait. After finishing my drink and paying the bill I collected my bag from the locker at central station and headed to the airport.

The time at the airport was a blur, I got hungry again and craved a McDonald’s but sadly for me there wasn’t one after security. Instead I spent my remaining euros on a can of red bull, chocolate and a bag of haribo sweets. Eventually it was time to board and I inadvertently fell asleep and this time I missed the dinner snack. Again a kind attendant found me something and again I went back to sleep.

Landing back at Heathrow I was expecting a challenging journey home similar to when I got back from Portugal with Carissa and Sophie. Instead it was a breeze and I was home and in bed less than an hour after I had landed. Oktoberfest had nearly destroyed me but it was worth every minute and I am so glad I can finally say I have been and I survived.

All Around the World: Dubai

Thursday 27th March
I had managed to get about 4 hours sleep before there were to many distractions that I couldn’t ignore any further. This included the person behind coughing and a baby a couple of rows back crying and screaming. It was to late to watch a movie so I watched the final two episodes of ‘The Wrong Man’ which I’d missed when I’d left at the end of October. I tried to rest my eyes but first they came round to give breakfast and then to take the blanket I was using to cover my face.

We landed at around 6am and I made my way to the visa and tour booking desk. The guy at the desk confirmed there was space and because I wasn’t staying at a hotel the solution was for me to be picked from the nearby Premier Inn. It looked nice outside and I was also able to book a morning session to visit Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world). I felt quite apprehensive as I passed the baggage claim and it felt like something was missing when I left the airport with only a small rucksack.

Eventually I made it out of the airport towards the Dubai metro and I was thankful that the machine made it clear how to buy tickets. The notifications on the train were in Arabic and English so I had no problem getting off at the correct station though I had regretted not sitting on the other side as I would have seen the Burj Khalifa. After arriving it was unclear which way I needed to go but eventually I opted to follow signs to the Dubai Shopping Mall though I was surprised that all the signs for Burj Khalifa had disappeared.

The walkway was lot longer than I had anticipated and I wasn’t even sure if I was heading in the right direction. I looked out of the windows on both sides but I literally couldn’t see, and therefore felt lost trying to find the tallest building in the world. I finally entered the shopping mall and I have to admit even I was impressed and slightly overawed by its size. I finally saw some signs to the Burj Khalifa and made my way.

I was in no hurry to rush round the displays so I took my time and was surprised to discover that the Burj Khalifa was nearly double the size of the Twin Petrona Towers I had visited in Kuala Lumpur. I made my way to the lift and travelled to floor 124 which was 1,483 feet from the ground. The view was obviously impressive but there was quite a bit of haze in the distance which meant I couldn’t for example make out the Palm Islands.

There is only a certain amount of time you can spend looking down on a city so I soon found myself feeling ready to go back down. Before I did one of the telescopes became free and it was amazing to see the contrast between the city now and in the relatively recent past when it had been mostly desert. Once I was finished I decided to make my way to the Waterfall inside the mall before going outside to the Waterfront where I was able to appreciate just how big the Burj Khalifa is.

My colleague Sue had given me a suggestion for a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Rangoli where for very little money I could “eat like a King”. After arriving at the nearest station I started walking to the restaurant however as soon as I turned the final corner the local shop keepers were trying to tempt me in to their shop to buy t-shirts. I let out a sigh inside. I’ve been in the situation many times before and have learnt to ignore what I’m being asked but I really feel it is mentally tiring when people stereotype and assume I’m a walking £ or $ sign. It’s very frustrating when you know where you want to go and people keep trying to block your path but luckily I could see my destination so I persevered.

It wasn’t quite lunch so I ordered a mango lassi and waited for the kitchen to open. Eventually I made my way upstairs and ordered the Gujarati Thali. The plate given to me was big and had a few small metal dishes on it but I feared portion sizes looked on the small side. How wrong I was. Soon various waiters were bringing out Chapatis, Papads, and various curries and a dhal to fill up the bowls and when ever one was finished more food appeared. I loved it, though I wasn’t a big fan of the complimentary buttermilk drink.

Full and happy I made my way back to the train station and boarded the train. I had been careful not to board ‘Gold’ class but I made another tourist error. I accidentally boarded the “women and children only” carriage however luckily I was able to quickly move down the train when the mistake was pointed out to me. I arrived back at the airport to get a free shuttle to the Premier Inn but as the carpark was predictably very busy I couldn’t see where it was.

I had been told a taxi would cost about 25AED which I was prepared to pay to avoid the hassle of waiting for the shuttle. Sadly I had the floating £ and $ sign above my head and when I enquired I was told over 50AED so I said no thanks. There was still no sign of the shuttle so I went back in to the airport to the taxi booking desk and again the girl confirmed the price. I was then approached by a taxi driver which is always dodgy and he quoted 80AED. Declining that offer I went back outside and thankfully this time I saw the shuttle bus to the Premier Inn and I waited there for the pick up.

We drove out of Dubai and as we entered the desert I was over come by tiredness and dozed off. Our first stop was a garage to fill up and as I chatted to a guy from New Zealand I hit my head on an overhanging sign which at least woke me up. The owners were trying to get me to wear a traditional head scarf and I wasn’t interested at all. I really wanted a fizzy drink to wake me up but sadly the drinks didn’t have prices on so whilst I knew I was being conned I couldn’t work out the exchange rate quick enough.

Our first proper stop was to see a Peregrine Falcon display. The guide provided quite a bit of information and told us that he had a detonator to blow up the bird if it escaped because it was tame and wouldn’t survive in the wild. We were all quite horrified but he then assured us he was only joking. The Peregrine falcon is the fastest bird and it was impressive to see it in action as it was so fast it wasn’t possible to get a clear picture of it swooping down.

After leaving the display we started our journey to our desert camp but to get there had to cross the sand dunes. I had done something similar in Wadi Rum in Jordan but this seemed even more extreme and it was great fun. The constant up/down and side to side movement meant it was like a never ending roller coaster so I was slightly relieved when it was all over as I think by that point we were all feeling slightly dizzy.

We arrived at a lookout to see the sunset and the lighting really was quite impressive the sun looking like a small orange ball in the sky. It gradually sunk lower before disappearing beneath the sand dunes and with that my last sunset of the holiday was over. I’d travelled across 8 countries but my last day was now over. The next time I’d see the sunset would be back home and that would be assuming it wasn’t blocked by cloud.

The desert camp wasn’t really what I expected because it was much busier than I had anticipated but it still looked nice and had a good atmosphere. I started off by having a short camel ride which was really just around a small area of the camp before getting a henna tattoo. This had seemed a good idea at the time but almost immediately before it had tried I knocked it therefore destroying one of the patterns but still causing it to leave a faint mark / stain on my arm.

The dinner was huge but because I had a flight I didn’t want to over indulge to much however I made sure I had enough to keep me going until I had to board the flight. As we ate the main course the hosts provided a belly dancer for some entertainment which was particularly popular with some teenage boys on the table behind. After the belly dancer had finished the lights in the camp were turned off so we could see the stars. I have to admit whilst it was a clear evening it wasn’t as spectacular as what I had seen in New Zealand or Australia but I still enjoyed it as I knew once I was back in London I’d be lucky to see anything at all.

The Journey back was uneventful and The driver kindly took me direct to the airport where I checked back in and waited at the gate trying my best to stay awake.

Friday 28th March
I boarded my last flight of this incredible journey and saw the plane was a Airbus A380 which I knew had been plagued by engine failures in 2010. After taking my seat I found a movie called ‘The Sapphires’ which had been recommended to me by Victoria over a year ago. The movie had been about 20 minutes in when the safety demonstration began and I must have fallen asleep during the latter because when I woke the movie was playing and we were in the air. Almost immediately upon waking up there was an in flight announcement from the Captain. “Some of you may have wondered why we are only 6,000 feet in the air, unfortunately we appear to have developed a minor engine fault”. I hadn’t noticed and this was a somewhat unpleasant surprise.

I had no idea how serious it was but the captain sounded very calm and very professional however I know that if some Australian’s tell you about the danger of sharks, snakes and spiders they’ll always play down the risk. When they tried to fix the fault but ultimately couldn’t identify it he remained calm, almost jolly as he told us ‘hey folks we’ve tried to fix the minor problem but it appears to be a bit more serious than we first thought’. Whilst I remained calm the thought did briefly cross my mind that this may have been Australian code for there is a snake and it has bitten us.

I was in the middle seat and as i couldn’t see anything carried on watching the film. It almost sounds silly in hindsight but I thought if the worst does happen I’d at least want to know how the film ended. I guess the film was a distraction, whilst it was playing I was in a bubble where the reality of the situation couldn’t get to me. I just assumed we would be fine which is probably a bit naive especially as we had to dump fuel in to the sea to lighten our load as we were initially to heavy to return to Dubai. We were also escorted on to the runway by fire trucks but weren’t told to get in the brace position and the captain did try to assure us it was a formality ‘for the situation we were in’. I guess I’ll never know what situation that was.

The landing was smooth but the captain claimed an over enthusiastic fire engine had parked to close to us meaning we couldn’t taxi. I naïvely thought we’d be allowed off the plane fairly quickly. We weren’t. The airport staff wanted us to remain on the plane whilst the engineer assessed the situation. Personally I wasn’t overly keen on staying on the same plane though I knew the engineer with his neck on the line would have only given a go ahead to fly if he was sure. He couldn’t and the flight was officially cancelled. It was now about 3.00am but still we had to wait on the plane.

There was an interesting looking documentary on formula one racing so I decided to start watching that not really expecting to see the end. Gradually people were asked to leave, starting obviously with business and first class. Sadly I was near the back so I was amongst the last group and by then I had seen the whole documentary which was over 1 hour and 45 minutes. I have to admit the organisation was atrocious. I didn’t mind being amongst the last group because I had no dependants but I just couldn’t believe those with children, especially babies hadn’t been given any type of priority. I was also surprised that where people had a connecting flight from London there wasn’t an effort to fly them direct to their final destination.

Once I was off the plane which was after 6.00am I got chatting to a lad from New Zealand who was about to start a new life in London. We had been told we would all be treated as individuals and those at the front of the queue were certainly taking their time. By the time it got to us the approach had changed and no questions were being answered and all they were doing were handing out meal vouchers. I jokingly asked if I would be home by Sunday and I received the response ‘most probably’. Not most definitely, not even most likely. By now it had gone 7.00am so I’d officially been awake for more than 24 hours.

The duty manager kindly let me use her mobile phone as my phone battery had died after I had updated dad but I wanted to speak on the phone to confirm I was ok and to make sure he wasn’t going to Heathrow. I felt hungry but I also felt very tired and just couldn’t bare the thought of going upstairs so I stayed by the desks saving my meal voucher for when it was less busy. After about two hours of waiting someone at the desk told me to take a seat in the lounge and told me that there was a flight from Melbourne and a flight from Sydney both arriving from Heathrow. They still needed final authorisation but the intention was to combine the flights (effectively cancelling one) and for one of the planes to return straight back to the UK.

At 09.35 we finally received confirmation that we would be departing at 15.00 and due to arrive in Heathrow at 18.30, 13 hours late but at least not 24 hours or more which is what I’d feared. After waiting around downstairs a bit more I saw the lad from earlier and together we went up to the business class lounge. Qantas/Emirates had failed to find us a hotel due to everywhere being booked by the time it had got to our section of the plane. We were both tired and needed somewhere to sit down but we didn’t really expect to be let in however it seemed other passengers in our situation had thought of the same idea.

I have to admit I didn’t really explore the lounge as I was to tired. They had free computers with WiFi and a comfortable chair I fell asleep in, that was all that mattered. I woke with a start and noticed it was 12.30 so I’d probably been asleep about an hour if not more. The food option choices available with the voucher weren’t great but I opted for what I will ensure will be my last McDonald’s for a considerable amount of time.

I had two vouchers which entitled me to two drinks and two burgers of any type. I didn’t really want two of each so asked if I could swap 1 burger and coke for a portion of fries instead. Initially I was told no but then the manager agreed and after exchanging what was left of my money I made my way to the gate. There I started chatting to someone from Australia who was about to do the huge 49 day Topdeck tour round Europe. He was a bit nervous as it was his first big trip abroad and I told him everyone would feel the same and that things could only get better after the start he was having.

Soon we also got chatting to a guy from Devon and it gradually became obvious the flight was going to be delayed further and this was eventually blamed on catering issues. We finally boarded at the time we should have departed and once I was seated I put on my next choice of film “The Delivery Man”.

Rather than trying to sleep I was now trying to stay awake as long as possible and watched ‘The Butler’ which I thought was quite thought provoking. Almost as soon as the film ended I crashed out and woke up about 4 hours later because the guy next to me had jabbed me in the side as he wanted to escape. The flight had fortunately been uneventful and once I made it through security I was officially back in London after a fantastic few months.

Unfortunately the drama wasn’t quite over. We’d all had a bad feeling that changing planes would result in lost luggage and whilst my sleeping bag came out almost straight away there was no sign of my backpack. It was a bit concerning because they would have been added together and as the crowd slowly emptied I was one of a handful of people left. The backpack did eventually emerge but the detachable rucksack was no longer attached and didn’t come out.

There was quite a crowd of people from my flight at the lost luggage counter and when I finally got to the front I was redirected to the back of another queue that dealt specifically with damaged baggage. The guy who served me was helpful and filled out a report however it was understandable that he could give no indication as to whether Qantas would accept responsibility.

I finally made my way through customs and saw dad and Jenny waiting for me. It was nice to see some friendly faces after the journey back I had endured. It all felt a bit surreal especially as I’d only seen the the week before but my journey was now over.

Drops of Jupiter: Thailand

Monday 24th March
During the flight I watched four films because there were a few I had missed at the cinema that I had wanted to see. I started off with ‘Captain Phillips’ followed by Philomena. Both of these had required my full attention and were quite moving so I needed something to lighten my mood and therefore opted for ‘The Interns’. With time still available I managed to squeeze in ‘Rush’ though I made a note to watch the accompanying documentary on my next Qantas flight. I did however watch a few classic Mr Bean episodes and a documentary about ‘The Ashes’ which was effectively a Aussie gloat fest at how embarrassing English cricket has been in all years except 2005, 2009 and 2010.

I arrived at Bangkok and whilst I did have directions on how to get to my hotel the city suddenly seemed very big when I was told the bus I had been told to get no longer ran. I was determined not to get a taxi because I knew mentally I couldn’t face the battle of trying to find one that wouldn’t try to con me and I knew that unlike the good old cabbies of London they didn’t have to sit an equivalent of ‘The Knowledge’. Thankfully I got on the free internet and worked out that the train journey from the airport was simple and it would only cost about £1.

The train was modern but busy though no where near as bad as in Russia and I was able to position myself by the door. I could the see the CBD in the distance and it all looked very modern but the outskirts of the city looked very traditional and seemed to still be surrounded by tropical forest. I guess whilst this looked unusual to me it would be no different to passing through a London suburb such as Richmond that still maintains a ‘traditional English Countryside’ feel.

Once at my station I had a short walk to the hotel and whilst the pavements were either non existent or blocked by food stools I finally made it inside. Compared to some of the places I had stayed it was luxury and to be honest none of the criticisms I’d read seemed justfied for the price but I guess some people had a much higher expectation than me. With free breakfast and WiFi I was in paradise.

After sorting out my things (dumping them on the floor) I went back out in search of some traditional Thai street food. I went to where I thought the stools were but I couldn’t see any and as the road appeared from a distance to be a dead end and had a unsavoury smell I returned back to the main street. I looked at the menus of various restaurants and tired and hungry eventually settled for the one outside my hotel purely because it was close. I ordered a Chicken Pad Thai which was very nice but cost slightly more than I expected though still a lot less than what I’d have paid in London.

I returned to my room and flopped down on my bed. I decided I’d figure out how best to spend my time the next morning.

Tuesday 25th March
I woke up and because my knowledge of Bangkok and Thailand was pretty non existent except for the fact I knew one of the ex Prime Ministers was the owner of Birmingham City FC  and In prison. I knew this had resulted in political turmoil but when it came to tourist attractions all I knew about was to get a Thai massage and toi try some Thai street food.

It turned out there were some lovely Buddhist temples in the city so I decided I would see a selection of them and the Grand Palace. It looked an easy journey on the bus so I went down to fill up on breakfast in the hope it would last to dinner. The selection was as good as that I’d had in India and I was able to have 4 different courses including Indian, traditional English, fruit and pancakes.

I started by booking myself a 1 hour massage for that evening at the spa recommended by the hotel and where I got a discount. My right knee ligament has been aching if I have to cross it since January though I am unsure exactly what caused it and I hoped the massage would cure the issue. I also thought it would be a nice way to relax after what I hoped would be a busy day exploring the city.

I waited at the bus stop and the traffic wasn’t moving at all and there was no sign of the bus. Taxi drivers kept trying to gesture towards me but I stayed strong ignoring them. I’d read a few of the taxi tips that morning and the final quote had said “Don’t worry, for every bad taxi driver there are two good”. Those odds as far as I am concerned are shit and whilst I felt familiar with all the tricks they would try and pull I had no intention of needing to do so.

I realised after a while that it was becoming a bit pointless waiting for the bus because there was a lot I wanted to see. I therefore flagged down a taxi. The driver seemed genuine enough and I made it clear I wanted to go to the ‘Grand Palace’. Unfortunately after about 5 minutes we still hasn’t moved that far. He then told me the Grand Palace was closed and asked if I wanted to go to the ‘Floating Market’. I explained near the Grand Palace was fine and that I wasn’t interested in shopping. He then became persistent and told me that protests had closed the Grand Palace. I had no interest in going to the floating market as being taken there by a taxi driver was one of the cons I’d read about. However at the same time I knew that even if the Grand Palace was open, traffic caused by the protests meant I wouldn’t get there, and I didn’t really fancy being out on the streets in those circumstances anyway. I therefore paid the equivalent of about £1 and walked back to the hotel.

My new plan was what I had originally intended to do in Bangkok, exercise and rest & relaxation. I’d been carrying my gym kit around for nearly 5 months and I finally used it by going on the running machine for 20 minutes. My fitness wasn’t quite as bad as I feared but the machine was old and kept stopping for no reason which is why I didn’t run for longer. I did some weights before going outside and doing a few lengths in the swimming pool. I felt quite pleased with myself and was glad I had at least done something with my day.

I arrived at the Spa in good time and thankfully it looked as fancy and non seedy as I had hoped. Kirsten had told me Thai massages were painful and even though the lady was short she pressed very hard and seemed to know exactly where my body was showing signs of wear and tear. At one point it felt like she was walking across my back, though as my head was buried in a pillow I guess I’ll never know if she was. The conversation tended to be “pain?”, “hmmm no” (even when I once broke my arm I didn’t admit how much it was hurting), “ahh need little pain” followed by some action which resulted in the pain level rising a notch and me yelping.

My body was clicking and whilst I haven’t been a careless owner it was clear I probably haven’t looked after my body as much as I should. Body I promise vegetables and exercise will be the norm once we’re home. In case anyone is thinking it, there was no seedy side and no happy ending once my hour was up. I wish I could say I felt like a new person but I think I need more than a quick fix. I went downstairs, drank some tea and even though I hadn’t had lunch or dinner I returned back to the hotel as I didn’t feel particularly hungry.

Back at the hotel I stayed up later than I should have done considering I had such an early start the next morning. I was trying to use the free WiFi to upload as many pictures to Dropbox from my tablet so i could create space to transfer more pictures from my camera. Time seemed to go by much quicker than I had hoped and I hadn’t achieved everything I’d wanted to and wondered exactly where the day had gone.

Wednesday 26th March
I woke up early so that I could get breakfast before the tour to the Khao Yai National Park however I decided not to eat as much as the day before because I was feeling quite tired due to the lack of sleep. I was probably running off adrenaline because I was looking forward to finally seeing some of Thailand and at being able to travel on an elephant. It was nice being fussed over as the reception staff sought to ensure my needs were met and even said they would let me know when the pickup arrived. I was particularly grateful for this because I was a bit paranoid that there would be a problem with the hotel pickup.

After collecting me the driver said we were picking up two others and we’d therefore have a pretty much private tour. He didn’t seem to know where the other hotel was and had to keep asking for directions but eventually we found it. I’m terrible at guessing accents and I put my foot in it when I asked where in Canada the couple were from only for them to say they were from the States.

Our guide provided us with quite a bit of information about the history of Thailand and his thoughts about the political instability gripping the country as a result of corruption. There were also some more quirky facts for example ‘The Beach’ was filmed at the national park we were going to. He also provided some advice on how to navigate our way through Bangkok and the taxi scams he warned the others about sounded like my own experience. He also gave some other day trio ideas and I personally hadn’t realised the Bridge over the River Kwai was in Thailand.

Our first stop on our way to the national park was at Nakorn Nayok a province around 100km from Bangkok and which our guide suggested would be better suited as capital. We started off by looking round the market and tried some fruit. The first was called Rambutan and looked like a giant grape but tasted like a melon. The second tasted like Mango and may well have been but our guide said it was a fruit that you could only get in Thailand. The other fruit was unidentified though may have been a tamarind however it looked very strange as it came in what looked like a giant pea pod and unlike the others it wasn’t very juicy.

Whilst I had been feeling tired the walk through the market woke all my senses up and the smell of the live/fresh meant (including a pigs head) meant I tried to only breath through my mouth as I’d done on shark cage dive. We saw live eels, frogs and turtles all of which were food as well as dead birds however we were told the live birds weren’t yet for food and were for people to release as part of a celebration e.g birthday. We also saw lots of different eggs including some that were pink which had been treated in a way that means they can last a long time however personally I wasn’t keen to find out if that was true.

We left the provide and as we passed a number of locally built temples our guide explained they were built by families who were seen as doing a good deed because they could be used by the public. Soon we arrived at a rice farm in Baankwan which was owned by the tour company we were with. After being shown around a traditional house and wondering over to see the Ostrich we got on to a cart so that a cow could transport us around the fields.

It was very bumpy and obviously the old wooden cart didn’t have any suspension and I half expected it to fall apart at any moment. It did however carry on going and we just about managed to stay in. The ride was meant to give us an idea about the traditional rural way of life and whilst it was a nice setting without our guide we didn’t know the significance of what we were looking at. We were all wearing traditional hats and after the ride was over we got an opportunity to sit at the front to look as though we had been controlling the cows direction.

We then watched our dinner get cooked and at one stage there was a very impressive burst of fire in the frying pan. Lunch included a shrimp Soup, fried chicken and stir fried vegetables. What I tried was tasty but there was to much and the other two had suffered recent food poisoning so didn’t eat to much.

We arrived at the Khao Yai National Park and started a short walk to the Heaw Narok waterfall. The National Park is listed by Unesco so people are no longer allowed to hunt and as a result there are a number of different species of animals including 250 elephants. We didn’t see any on the walk but we did see evidence that they had been in the area and also a big fence to protect the elephants from getting close and falling in to river. This was built in response to an accident in 1992 when a baby elephant fell in to a chasm and as the adult elephants tried to help they also fell in. In total 7 elephant calves died.

We finally reached the end of the walk and then had to climb down around 190 steep steps to see the waterfall from a lookout. It had been dry so there was actually no water but it still looked quite spectacular. On our way back up the steps we saw a lizard and just before we reached the car park we saw two monkeys, a baby and an adult. Our guide was quite optimistic we’d see more later in the day so we carried on walking.

We drove theough the national park and I drifted off to sleep and woke up to a brief thunderstorm and very heavy rain. It stopped for a while and saw some deer but then came down with even more fury which meant we didn’t stop to see the monkeys. Fortunately by the time we arrived at Pak Chong it had stopped raining and even though we hadn’t seen the monkeys up close at least we had seen them on the walk.

The elephant ride had been my main reason for booking the tour and was great fun. I started off sitting in a special seat which even had a seat belt but eventually my ‘guide’ got down and I sat on the actual elephant. It felt a bit unstable and I was surprised at how hairy it was but it kept plodding along occasionally it’s warm ears flapping against my legs. It was a bit naughty though as one point it got hungry, stopped and started to use its trunk to snap tree branches. The highlight was crossing a small creek which was surprisingly deep after after the ride we got to feed them some bananas.

On the way back our guide was giving us some tips on how we could spend the next day and he was going to take us on a tour of some of the temples as it sounded easier than doing it ourselves after the previous problems I’d had. I thought I still had another day as I still had one final night in the hotel but I just happened to glance the date on the counter and all of a sudden it struck me my flight was in a few hours time and I didn’t have an extra day.

I would have liked to have had time to nap as I’d already had very little continuous sleep and I knew I had to stay up 17 hours in Dubai. For the first time I was looking forward to being home but only because I would be sleeping in a bed again. After uploading some more pictures to dropbox and transferring the days pictures to my tablet I finished packing. I had booked the hotel taxi to the airport so arrived at the airport in good time.

The check in desk was very busy but eventually it was my turn and as I watched my luggage being labeled I had an uneasy feeling that something would happen to it though couldn’t explain why. I made my way to the gate and as I tried to stay awake I ended up talking to the girl next to me who it turned out had also been travelling around numerous countries and was on the way home. This was my first flight with Emirates and it was a nice touch they had left a wash bag on my seat however I was so tired I was probably asleep before the safety demonstration video had ended.

End of the Line: Flinders Ranges

Friday 21st March
I woke up feeling slightly melancholy because I knew that my tour to the Flinders Ranges was my last activity before leaving Australia and I wasn’t sure, when, or if I’d ever be back. It was a tour I’d booked late partly because my trip to the Nullarbor hadn’t gone via the southern section due to bush fires and because my trip from Alice Springs to Adelaide hadn’t taken us off the Stuart Highway. I was therefore also excited because I was looking forward to visiting the outback one final time and to have at least one more night to sleep under the stars in a swag.

The other passengers on the tour were slightly older than me but I think I’ve always been able to have a conversation with anybody and age doesn’t really mean anything to me. Ultimately we were all there for the same reasons. To discover “real” Australia. Besides I’d been one of, if not the oldest on my previous tours so it was lovely to be considered so young for a change.

Our guide Mark kept talking to a minimum letting us rest for the first section of the journey as it had been an early start. Whilst I didn’t sleep the sentiment was appreciated. The lady sat in front of me said she was a tour guide undertaking research and although Mark was having a conversation with Martin the passenger in the front seat the passenger in question kept asking for information to be repeated. Eventually I told her to relax in my belief that if Mark felt something needed to be shared we’d all be told especially as we’d be driving over 1000km in 3 days so had plenty of time to ask questions.

During our first stop it was unfortunately clear I wasn’t the only one that had felt mildly irritated and in fact one person was quite honest about the fact she’d crossed a line in her behaviour. After leaving the first stop we passed some wind farms and in the township of Snow Town there was a propeller blade from one of the turbines which made me appreciate just how big they are. It was a very cloudy and windy day so when we passed the Southern Flinders and saw evidence of the January Bush Fires it was difficult for me to remember just how hot it had been when I’d passed by the area in late January when apparently the fire had been burning for 18 days.

Mark started providing us with some information explaining the Flinders Ranges are made up of a series of mountain ranges not just one. Most of the information however was about the surrounding the vegetation we were passing. As we were passing fairly close to the Spencer Gulf there were a lot of bushes called Mangroves which is evidence of a good water eco system. We also passed Mallee scrub and Acacia’s which we were told grew better in the region. I also finally got to see the famous Ghan train which was heading in the opposite direction as well as a wedge tail eagle, possibly even two.

We had another stop at Port Germain where I walked to the jetty but didn’t walk to the end it because despite it being shorter than it once was it is still over 1.5km in each direction. There was also a lighthouse just before the jetty and it appeared that restoration work was taking place to smarten it up though it is no longer used or in its original location. Before Port Germain we had passed Port Pirie which had a smelter that is currently out of action because the lead levels in the town were to high. In the UK the older generation often bemoan the lack of heavy industry but I think we should consider ourselves lucky we don’t suffer the ill effects especially as I still remember when the chemical factory in Berkhamsted caught fire. Let’s also not forget the Buncefield explosion which would have been catastrophic if it had happened on a Monday and not the middle of a Sunday night.

We stopped at Mount Remarkable National Park for lunch before going on a short walk in the area around Mambray Creek. There were two main types of trees in the area. The first were the only pines native to Australia called Callitris or cypress-pine which are apparently resistant to termites so the wood was used for the original telegraph poles. The other type was the Red gum (a eucalyptus tree) that was also useful to the early settlers this time for railway sleepers. Aboriginals used to make a small hole to ‘burnt out’ the inside of the tree to get rid of insects and this then made it possible to store food or even to use as shelter.

Whilst it was a short walk, it was still a good introduction to the Flinders Ranges and whilst we saw lots of emus and a kangaroo we didn’t see any of the Euros, another name for the walleroo. The views down towards alligator gorge in one direction and the Spencer Gulf in the other were nice. We also saw a slag heap from the copper mine workings and we later passed a mine shaft.

We departed the national park and headed for Quorn. I had heard of this town before the trip because it was one of the stations on the Pichi Richi Railway which runs along part of the old Ghan railway route. It looked quite a spectacular journey through the lower Flinders Range as it passed through tunnels and over dry stone walls. We also passed the Devils Peak as well as Mount Brown which was named after Robert Brown the naturalist on Matthew Flinders boat HMS Investigator. We briefly stopped in Quorn and whilst I would have liked to have had a quick look around the exhibition at the station I didn’t think there was time. Instead I headed with the group from Netherlands to the bottle shop (off licence)

Our final stop of the day was Kanyak Homestead a cattle station which had been built by Hugh Proby in 1852 but was eventually abandoned after severe droughts. It was quite eerie to look at and to think that at one time early settlers had tried to make a livelihood in such a remote location. There was a big ants nest so when we were taking pictures we had to be careful where to stand. There was also a creek bed near the homestead but there wasn’t any water flowing.

We arrived at Rawnsley Park and Mark cooked us a BBQ and I cheekily asked if it was going to be my last in Australia and he said he’d cook another one for lunch on the final day of the tour. It was a really good BBQ as well, and despite eating my fair share we still had a number of sausages left over to have cold the next day. I helped with the washing up and left my cider to one side, turning round a few minutes later to discover that unfortunately it had been mistaken for someone else’s. In their defence we had been sitting next to each other and whilst the flavours were different they were by the same company.

Some of the group weren’t camping like me and the family from the Netherlands so they departed and I opened a 3rd bottle of cider before having a shower and eventually setting up my Swag. Martin and Casey decided to join me outside but they didn’t have a swag so pulled their foldable beds out of the tent. The night sky was as stunning as I hoped and I tried to take some photographs but my mini tripod was too loose to support the camera and it was too dark to work out what was wrong.

Saturday 22nd March
We didn’t have to go to breakfast until 06.30 and because I was packed and only had to leave the swag in the tent rather than rolling it up I had set my alarm for 6am. Unfortunately one of the others had set theirs for earlier and because I was outside I couldn’t escape the noise or activity. I therefore decided to get up as well though it did mean I was able to have a shower before I made my way to breakfast and had what would be my last Vegemite on toast in Australia.

We got on the mini bus and made our way to our first stop Wilpeana pound, arguably the most famous feature of the Flinders Ranges. We were able to drive in to the national park and started a short walk to Hill’s Homestead. We saw a few trees that had fallen down and saw evidence of branches that were effectively forming new trees from those that had fallen as they grew to try and get more light. As it was early in the morning I had hoped to see a kangaroo or a Euro but we didn’t see anything. It was also much colder than I had expected.

We arrived at the Hills Homestead and there was a moving story about the early inhabitants and their struggle to survive in such an isolated landscape. There was a walk to a lookout overlooking the Homestead I thought we were going to do but we didn’t and instead returned back to the mini bus. We took a different route back in the belief it would be warmer and to see a different path. I had been told the day before that the only real way to appreciate Wilpeana Pound was from the air and as we didn’t have time to climb the main lookout I think this is probably fair because walking at ground level you couldn’t get a sense of how impressive and extensive it actually is.

Once we returned to the mini bus we had quite a long bus journey to just outside of the national park to see some Aboriginal rock engravings at ‘Sacred Canyon’. The date of these are unknown but the local clan believe they were left during the dreamtime Stories so it is fair to say they are very very old. The walk there was through a dry creek bed and whilst it was flat there were a few big boulders towards the end but all the group managed to make it through some with a bit of support from Mark.

The engravings were on a rock face in a really lovely secluded location and as the symbols were similar to the cave paintings I had seen I instinctively recognised the pattern for kangaroos, emus and water. There was also some ‘modern’ graffiti dating back to the 1800s though I wasn’t sure what the initials stood for.  It was amazing the engravings had survived so long because if the rivers water levels rise enough there is a risk the symbols can be hidden under water.

The drive to the Aroona Valley was very picturesque and took us through the Bunyeroo Valley where we saw a number of Euros sitting under the trees. From the Aroona Valley lookout there was a nice view towards the Heysen Range named after the Australian painter Sir Hans Heysen. There is also a walking trail named after Heysen. The walk stretches 1200km (750 miles) from Cape Jervis (where I caught the boat to Kangaroo Island) on the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges. We had lunch and then did a short walk where we saw an under water spring. When we were at the top of the lookout we heard what sounded like a fire engine and we realised one of the fire trucks had arrived to fill up their tank. Mark had to quickly move the mini bus as we were blocking the fire hose but it didn’t cause any problems as there weren’t actually any fires in the national park.

As we drove through Brachina Gorge Mark said he had a surprise for us and we made our way to the bottom of a much larger slag heap than the day before. There were quite a lot of people looking at what only appeared to be rubble and hope built up inside me that it was a spot that is popular with the rare Yellow footed wallabies which now only live in the Flinders Ranges. It didn’t take Mark long to spot one under a tree. When it stood up and still it was nearly impossible to distinguish it due to its colour but occasionally it shook its head.

We walked along the road a bit more and soon realised there was another one by a big rock. This one was slightly more active and was eating food off one of the branches From a nearby bush/small tree. I’d seen a lot of wallabies and kangaroos but this was a particularly special type because it had a lovely black and yellow ringed tail. The fur was one of the main reasons that this type of wallaby had been hunted by the early settlers and as a result it had nearly become extinct. I had hoped at best to glimpse one from a distance from the bus so it was a highlight of the trip that we got to see them so close. I knew we were lucky that it had been a relatively cool day which had encouraged them out rather than them seeking shelter under the rocks.

We continued our drive through Brachina Gorge, which is known as the ‘Corridors through Time’ to see the gradual evolution of the rocks in the area. This included the Wonoka Formation a limestone and siltstone formation which is 570/580 million years old. We also saw some rocks that had the oldest fossil evidence of animal life known as Ediacara fauna. Having seen the stromatolites on the West Coast it was interesting to now see the fossils of the first animals.

On our way back to the campsite we drove along the Moralana Scenic track. Whilst the scenery was still stunning it had been a tiring day due to all the fantastic things we’d seen we all started to doze off. We did however stop off at two more lookouts. The first was of the southwestern wall of Wilpena Pound which looked particularly impressive framed in between two trees. The second was of the Hills of Arkaba which were a favourite of Sir Hans Heysen when he was painting.

We returned back to the Rawnsley Park and this time Martin, Casey and I made sure we were in a good viewpoint for the sunset. There wasn’t any cloud and it didn’t quite look as good as the day before but it was still a nice way to end a memorable day. There was a wall in the kitchen providing cooking recipes which included “Spaghetti on Toast”. This included useful instructions such as ‘open the can’. I enjoyed the rest of my ciders this time keeping a careful watch over them to ensure they didn’t go missing.

Before going to bed I set my camera up as I was determined to get a picture of the Southern Cross. Eventually I was satisfied I couldn’t do any I rolled out my swag for the final time and fell asleep with a million stars above me.

Sunday 23rd March
I woke up feeling a lot warmer than the night before and feeling quite refreshed and after sorting everything out including rolling the swag as tightly as possible I made my way down to breakfast. I arrived just as the bus arrived and helped carry some of the boxes for breakfast in. Throughout all my other tours breakfast for me has been a slice of toast with Vegemite and a slice of toast with jam. Sometimes I add a bit of excitement by having cornflakes as well. Today however Mark surprised us by doing a cooked breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs.

Feeling quite full we set off on our long journey back to Adelaide where we passed through Hawker and briefly stopped off in Melrose the oldest settlement in Flinders 1853. I hadn’t planned on getting off the mini bus to get a tea or coffee but the group from Canada came back with some home made ice cream. It wasn’t that warm outside but I suddenly realised it would be my last opportunity to have some in Australia so quickly kept out of the bus. The guy that served me had what only can be described as a Justin Bieber haircut not that I can judge, my hairs not been cut since I was in New Zealand and it now looks like an unshaped scruffy mop.

We were slightly ahead of schedule so Mark made a decision to carry on to Wirrabara where we set up lunch in Wongabirrie Park. Mark then lived up to his promise of cooking a BBQ and this time I knew it really would not only be my last ‘down under’ but due to the British weather my last for a while.

We carried on and despite wanting to stay awake to take in the view of nothingness for the last time however unsurprisingly I was eventually overcome by sleep. Eventually I woke up as Mark started to provide some information about the Clare Valley and eventually we pulled in to Taylors Estate (Wakefield in UK) for a few samples at their cellar door. The first white I tried was a Chardonnay from their Jaraman range which was a fusion of 2 regions. Then I tried a sparkling pinot noir Chardonnay brut cuvee which I preferred but at the price of the bottle I’d have been surprised if it had been disappointing. I may have tried others but they had no dessert wines or sweet late harvest wines and as no one else appeared to be sampling I rounded off with the Tawny Port.

We arrived back in Adelaide and I discovered I was in the same room as before. I hadn’t previously mentioned it but one of the beds had towels all the way around so they had complete privacy and it was above this bed that I now had to spend my final night. I was somewhat startled when as I was packing my bags for the last time someone emerged from behind the curtains as for some reason I had assumed no one was there.

My flight was at around 06.00am and although normally for an international flight check in is 3 hours before, this wasn’t possible because I was told that the airport wouldn’t be open until 04.00am. I therefore set my alarm for 03.00am with the intention of phoning for a taxi around 03.30am.

Monday 24th March
The alarm went off and it sounded particularly cruel. I tried to silently climb down the ladder but anyone that has stayed in a top bunk in a hostel knows this is near impossible and it squeaked loudly at every step. I made my way to the reception and as I waited for the taxi I think there was a small group that were just getting back from a night out.

I got to the airport and even though it had gone 04.00am it appeared it was still locked even though the lights were on and I could see staff. I wasn’t the only person waiting and when they finally did open the doors and then the desks it was clear that like me those serving wanted to be in bed. The lady serving me was particularly miserable and my luggage, despite being within the weight limits was deemed by her to be oversized because I’d attached my sleeping bag. I’ve done this for near enough all my flights so it seemed odd that during the final part of my journey it would suddenly be an issue. Anyway I did as I was told and took it to the oversized baggage desk. As I approached the guy asked why I’d had to come over and when I explained he laughed in that classic Australian way and told me she was being over zealous.

It wasn’t a great start and things got worse when the flight was delayed by 15 minutes due to ‘issues’ at Sydney Control Tower and it doesn’t bode well when the very first flight of the day is delayed. Then it started raining as we were leaving which meant we bounced around dramatically as we lifted off. Turbulence is never a particularly nice sensation but even worse when there is no screen in front to look at in order to create a distraction. Instead I had to make do with the in flight magazine which had a number of articles on different holiday destinations including Antarctica but it then failed to say who the tour operators were. Not that I can or should even consider a holiday for sometime after how fortunate I’ve been to experience what I have over the past 5 months.

The view of the sunrise was spectacular but soon the ground below us was hidden by cloud. We were near Sydney. The air traffic team still had issues so we ended up circling for a further 15 minutes making us over 30 minutes late by the time we landed. Not only that I realised I had to transfer from terminal 3 to terminal 1 and it took longer than expected.

When i reached the terminal required the last call for boarding was already going out for my flight and I had to clear security again.
Three ladies were serving at the Qantas desk but when it got to me they seemed to vanish. Eventually I lost my cool and called out to one of them that was just standing around looking gormless that my flight was leaving in 20 minutes and I was going to miss it because my qantas flight from Adelaide had been late. She suddenly looked a bit faint and came trotting over and gave me a priority boarding card. It allowed me to take a short cut up a hidden passageway but didn’t seem to help with security. I ran through the duty free where I had hoped to buy myself some Bundaberg rum to take home and as I ran I heard someone say anyone for the Bangkok flight. Luckily I had my name ticked off the list and this meant they effectively held the plane for me until I arrived at the gate.

We still departed on time but as we were taxying on the runway 6 planes somehow got in ahead so we were late leaving. I was desperate for the toilet as I hadn’t been since 3am and it was now gone 10.00am so as soon as we were airborne and the seatbelt sign went off I jumped up. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered there was already a queue. I had for some reason expected a routine departure where I should have had time in Sydney to buy souvenirs. Unfortunately it wasn’t at all the way I’d wanted to say goodbye to Australia.

What’s My Age Again? Adiós Adelaide

Wednesday 19th March
Over the course of the week I had been promoted to navigator but this was the first time I’d actually sat in the front. I was very confident on the route we were taking to Adelaide but navigating our way through a busy city with roadworks and with a map that only showed some of the roads was more challenging. Luckily as I had been to the city, my Samsung and Google maps had stored the GPS information so I could see exactly where we were and where we wanted to go.

I started directing dad to the YHA as it was on the way and seemed to make sense to drop my stuff off before continuing on to the location where we had to drop the hire car off. Almost immediately ‘Murphy’s Law’ struck as road works prevented us going down Waymouth Street and there had been no prior warning at the earlier turn off we could have taken. Then when we finally arrived at the YHA there were no car parking spaces and when we turned up the near by street were met with a garbage truck heading towards us. When we pulled over it then proceeded to take the garbage bin from behind us lift it over us and then put it back in a position which meant we were trapped so Jenny had to move it.

Abandoning the YHA idea we set out for the hire car office which we found however there were no signs for the garage. After doing one loop I ran in to the office for directions and was told it was the next left (a narrow street). About one minute before a fire engine had passed and unbeknown to us all had parked up the street we wanted. A car then almost ploud in to our side because they were impatient and didn’t realise there was a reason no one could go up the street. We therefore had to do another loop and I had to repeat the process. Third time was lucky and we entered by a different street though of course the fire engine had left by then anyway

Amy one of my friends from Adelaide had been travelling South America during both of my previous visits but we had finally arranged to meet at the Exeter Hotel at 17.00. This gave me less than two hours to my laundry done before my final trip in to the Outback and my eventual return to the UK in under 10 days.

I met Amy and it was good to catch up and to share our thoughts on travelling for a prolonged period of time. After a couple of drinks we went to another pub where I had a chicken parmigiana and I disgraced myself by having a bit of tomato ketchup on the side of my plate. I had claimed in all innocence this was for my chips but I was caught in the act when I dipped the chicken in it therefore apparently destroying an ‘Australian Classic’.

I returned to my hostel and whilst I still had a whole day I knew it was going to be busy with a late night to hopefully see some platypus. I therefore decided to pack my small bag and rucksack in preparation. It was weird knowing my time here was almost up especially when I started talking to a girl from Portugal that was about to visit most of the places I’ve been so lucky to visit. I probably won’t ever have another journey like this but having met so many people from Europe I’m looking forward to exploring the continent I’m from in a bit more detail. Weekends away to regions as different as Scandinavia and Turkey and to cities of such historical importance as Athens. Not many, if any continents can offer that.

Thursday 20th March – My Birthday
I woke up and I have to admit it didn’t really feel like I was another year older though perhaps that was partly because it was still only the 19th back in the UK. As it was my last day in Adelaide it was my last opportunity to see the parts of the city I had missed and that evening we were doing a nocturnal walk around a sanctuary to see native animals in a protected environment.

I met Dad and Jenny at their hotel before we walked along to the Botanical Gardens at the end of North Terrace. I had moaned for a number of days about how cold it had been (anything below 23 degrees now requires a jumper) however I’d forgotten just how hot Adelaide could get. Dad had already checked the time of the guided walk so we made our way to reception.

The group seemed very busy, certainly compared to Perth when there had only been 5 of us however the lady was very patient and informative and I took in more than I would have done reading signs. She explained that the climate of Adelaide is similar to that of the Mediterranean so many plants suited to that region can grow. We saw a tree called the ‘Wheel of Fire’ which I heard as ‘Ring of Fire’ but it looked quite spectacular as the flowers on the end of the branches were various shades of red and yellow.

Some of the European names given to Australian fauna and flora isn’t all that imaginative but it’s not that surprising when you consider that the botanist Joseph Banks discovered 1000 species of plants and animals in 70 days alone. It was therefore hardly surprising the ‘Bottle Tree’ had got its name because it looked like a bottle. However it also had a secret and the Aboriginals had discovered it could store water in its bark if it was squeezed. Next we saw a fig crown, a fig plant where the flower was shaped like a crown and the leaves of which felt like sandpaper.

I was enjoying the walk but it was getting very hot now and I was struggling to pay attention as there weren’t many places to escape the sun. We were shown the rose gardens and sniffed different varieties, apparently Mister Lincoln was historically the best for perfume. Some of the varities were unnamed because they are planted as part of a competition to see what can grow best in South Australia’s climate.

After walking around the gardens we sat to have lunch and made sure not to sit under the Bunya Nut Tree which drops nuts weighing 10kg. Being knocked on the head by one of them may not have been a great way to celebrate my birthday as it would have probably prematurely ended my holiday. We left the Botanical Gardens and went to the South Australian Museum first as we had an hour before there was a free tour around the South Australian Art Gallery.

There was an interesting Aboriginal display and it was the first time I’d really seen such an extensive collection in a museum. It also struck me that whilst the British Museum has collections on Egypt, Greece, and other ancient civilisations a display on the Aboriginals is shamefully lacking. Being interested in history I really can’t express just how overawed I have become by their culture. They managed the land for over 40,000 years and yet in just 200 years mostly British settlers destroyed vast areas especially in South Australia. With the federal election of the liberals in Tasmania it appears that the modern Australian government haven’t learnt the lessons and want to remove an areas UNESCO listing so they can commence logging. Unbelievable.

The display included some of the bush tucker foods I had heard about over the past few months such as Witchetty Grubs but hadn’t seen. One of the things I have been surprised about is that I didn’t have the chance to taste bush tucker foods especially when I was in the Northern Territories. The display also included a couple of paintings by Albert Namatjira one of which was on the West McDonnell Ranges. This was particularly pleasing because when I’d asked to see his paintings at the Art Gallery of NSW I was told they were in storage as they are fragile and fade easily due to being water colours.

There was also a display on native animals and I got to see some off the animals that are common especially in South Australia. I thought there may have been a deadly creatures section but if there was we couldn’t find it. Perhaps they don’t want to scare the tourists away unlike Darwin where it was almost celebrated as a way of showing how creatures had evolved to suit the landscape. It was still a good informative display though I realised it would sadly be the closest I’d get to a wombat before I left.

We left the museum and arrived at the art gallery. It seemed to be a fairly large group though we were the only non Australians, or at least the only people not living in the country. The guide was absolutely brilliant, very enthusiastic and it seemed she wanted to do her best to ensure we saw everything or at least as much as possible.

We saw an idyllic portrayal of Australia painted in 1927 which showed Australia in a Greek/Roman classical style and it was meant to represent how Australia was on the move. It was a nice painting but the landscape looked so fake an un-Australian that it looked like some type of over the top propaganda which I suppose it was intended to be. I preferred the painting called “The Breakaway” by Tom Roberts in 1891 which was also a nationalistic painting because it showed the rural hero in the outback. It looked and felt like Australia.

We also learnt that because France and the UK fell out Matthew Flanders was imprisoned on Mauritius and it was here that one of the few paintings of him was made. A painter called John Glover is believed to have been the first to paint a ‘Gum Tree’ and to understand Australian light. Prior to his paintings Australian artists seemed to continue putting English trees in to the background to make it feel familiar. There was also a painting of a wealthy looking lady called Elizabeth Soloman which at first glance didn’t look all that interesting. It was however a classic case of don’t judge a book by its cover. Whilst she was wealthy and her husband a gold merchant her father in law was Ikey Soloman. This was the real life person Charles Dickens based Fagin on in Oliver Twist and so it showed that the early settlers could overcome their convict past.

Finally despite going beyond the scheduled hour we had an opportunity to see the Dark Heart exhibition. The piece that stood out for me was entitled “someone died trying to live a life like mine”. It was a modern marble sculpture called Alex Seton and portrayed 28 empty life jackets which looked so realistic it was hard to believe they were marble. It was also a very moving piece as it made reference to 28 asylum seekers who were discovered washed up on the islands off the coast of Western Australia in 2013.

After leaving the art gallery we left to get ready for our Platypus walk and met back up an hour or so later to get some food from a cheap Malaysian restaurant dad and Jenny had stumbled across the day before. After eating we made our way to the bus stop and using the GPS on my phone was able to assure dad when I knew we’d have to get off. We then had to walk over 2kms through the Adelaide Hills which I suppose predictably weren’t flat and there were no pavements but luckily few cars.

Eventually our guide arrived and took us down in to the sanctuary and explained it had previously been known by another name and open during the day but had closed down. He seemed fairly confident we had picked a good evening and we began walking around the different lakes. There were more than I had expected and the largest lake was bigger than I expected but I suppose that means there is a bigger source of food which is why they have survived.

The time passed very quickly and soon my hopes of getting a picture in day light were fading quicker than the light. There had been a lot of false hopes which had been caused by tortoises and lots of ducks as well as some unexplained activity but no sighting. I did however see a Bandicoot which I mistook for a rock because it had lost its tail so I didn’t take a picture and only realised my error when it was to late and it had scurried away in to the undergrowth.

Soon it was dark but we continued walking around d the lake, the guide saying that the signs weren’t good as there appeared to be no evidence of platypus activity. There were a few more false alarms, which when he shone the torch were again the tortoises and eventually he had to say it was time to go. At least we had tried, but it still felt a huge disappointment especially as the indication had been they are seen more often than they are not. It had however been exciting and we’d learnt a lot so it was reminiscent of our failed tiger spotting tour in India. On the way back we saw a bettong which is another small type of kangaroo and not something I had seen before so that at least was some compensation.

I had really enjoyed the times I spent in Adelaide, the largest settlement in the area it was the business and entertainment hub of South Australia the self proclaimed ‘festival state’. It was my gateway to the West, and can be a gateway to the East, to the Centre and to the North. It has a beach to rival Bondi and has not one but three wine valleys and the oldest mountain range is within a days drive. The CBD had retained many of the older buildings and it fortunately lacked the taller skyscrapers of Sydney and Melbourne. I haven’t got a job with the Adelaide tourist board.