Category Archives: Travel
The Desert. Oh Arabian Nights!
I wanted the real desert, not the desert of oil pipe lines and gas flares. I wanted golden dunes and mysterious silence, camels and glamorous bedouin tents, not the scrubby rolled stone and boiled sand that makes up our tatty desert. No, I wanted the desert of Lawrence of Arabia.
And I found it. It didn’t come cheap, but we stayed at Desert Nights Camp and it was an experience to remember. The road getting there was a little hairy, especially in a low, basic Yaris but I take my hat off to Toyota, because even with all the sand we collected under that car it still ran on and on and got us there and back without a hitch.
The camp is in the middle of nowhere. Literally. It is only 11 km from the nearest village but it might as well be on the moon for the desolate silence, the soft footed and gormless camels, the dramatic stars and the dune scape. Within minutes of arriving both girls were up a dune and running down as fast as they could. A little later we were driven up a mountainous dune for the sunset and we all ran back to camp giggling and feeling the fun and freedom of running over a mountain of sand. Handsome and Trooper Sand boarded the next morning ( think snow board, then think sand) and all three of them took a hair raising excursion on an ATV for an hour. There was a short camel ride, tea and dates in the shade, a game of cards outside by the fire, shisha under the stars, wrapped up in a warm shawl.
It took my breath away.
Oman is a country of contrasts. Muscat runs like a sliver along the coast, ancient forts and highways, palm tree dotted roads, decorated roundabouts and shiny sky scrapers; blue tiled mosques, a winding labringth of a souk and five star hotels all face a lapis sea. Behind this sliver lies a majestic and imposing mountain range, brown in some lights, red or grey in others, barren rock that winks at the sun. And if you take a road that cuts like a glaring wound through the mountains you will arrive at a desert the likes of which only live in the Arabia of legends. An infinite and harsh landscape of undulating dunes, as high as mountains that stretch on and on ad-infinitum, like rolling ski hills with no snow. And the sand is red, gold, thick with gold dust; footsteps are erased minutes after we walk, as if we had never existed. And then back through the rock, sharp gashes through stone until, once again we spy the sea, glinting in the sun.
Deep in the mountain ranges of Oman live tiny villages with communities of people who walk for hours with a donkey to get supplies and news of the world. There is a first world that hold hands with the third here, and a modern land that holds history in its palm. It is a place with ancient traditions and a time line that stretches back to the days of slave trade and a port that saw people come and go from Iran and India to the eastern coast of Africa. There are windows that I saw in the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya and faces that I knew had the Indian sub continent in their past.
We spent 5 days in Oman, four nights in Muscat and one in the desert, also known as the Wahiba Sands. Hotels are pricey in Oman, especially as there is a general refusal to put a family of four in one room, demanding that we get two. So the likes of the splendid Chedi and Al Bustan were out but we decided to stay at the Intercontinental who were very accommodating in giving us a room with two Queen Beds. Or so we thought. Turns out there was an entire Italian Opera company staying at the hotel at the same time as us; the brand spanking new Oman Opera House had invited them to perform Carmen ( although not a ticket could be had for love or money.) So the Italians filled the hotel to the brim and had taken every last room. Oh what is a family to do? The hotel kindly popped us into the Royal Suite, complete with a living room, dining room, kitchen, three TVs and three bathrooms.
So between living like Kings and hearing the bellowing voice of a practicing Tenor down the hall, sharing a line for the breakfast cappuccino machine with loud Italians still wearing traces of theatrical makeup from the previous night’s Opera, and walking on the beach with the sharp and powerful mountain range behind, we felt we were in a story book.
Oman is like that. Stories swirl in the air, between the tiny walls of the souk and the camel’s tread in the desert, or the echo of a cave in a Wadi, it is a place that leaves its magic hanging, long after you leave.
Particularly if you purchase Frankincense and one of the lovely burners that are sold in the Souk. Frankincense and its accompanying cloud of fragrant smoke is the scent of Oman, and now we have it at home, for with a strike of a match and a magic bean of the golden stone, we too can remember some of the magic.
This past week I have seen many of my firmly held assumptions come tumbling down. There have been some rather shaky stereotypes that have been knocked and my ideas renewed.
When we travel, as tourists, our impressions may add to rather than remove any pre conceived ideas we may have had. On the other hand we may add colour and shade to hunches we have about people, places, culture.
When you live in a place, sometimes we are in a bubble and what we learn is seen through a prism of other expats; conversations and combined observations mesh together to become a thick layer of learning. Our eyes are opened but do we really know? What do we know? How much do we know? Always more than those who never came, but is it enough?
Example: I tell people I lived in Africa for two years and their response varies from “ Was it dangerous?”, “ Were you scared?”, “ Did you get sick” to “ Did your school have walls?”. There is a preconceived idea that Africa is not much more than poverty and filth combined with elephants and lions. Africa as a notion is a collective lump of images made from Oxfam video appeals to National Geographic Specials. Africa as a continent with countries and cities, glass, steel, Japanese restaurants, fashion designers and literature professors is not the package most of us are sold.
Likewise the Middle East is often a collective and rather messy group of ideas centered around checkered tea cloth on the head men, deserts, camels, suppressed women, dogmatic ideas, fanatics, materialistic shrines of steel, ferraris, felafel, heat and black draped groups of women resembling a murder of crows.
And taking a little side trip to Dubai sandwiched between London and Bangkok will do little to dispel those ideas.
There are countries and cultures that I am drawn to. North American, Latin, Japanese, Italian, Moroccan to name some. But I have never been intrigued by the Middle East and in fact had been negative about it whenever Handsome brought up the idea of living here. We met in Egypt over 19 years ago and at that time he told me that he longed to live in the Middle East and was drawn to it for some inexplicable reason. He loved Arabic music and would play it and even fashion some dance to it in our Montreal living room on many occasions. Sometimes I joked that perhaps he was Arab in his past life. Five years ago he applied for a job in Qatar and journeyed there for an interview. I was most relieved when he did not get the job. I had the opposite reaction to him, shuddering when he mentioned wanting to live in the Middle East and hoping that the idea would pass. I wanted to visit beautiful Morocco and Petra in Jordan and see the stunning landscape of Lebanon but I had no desire to go further or explore the culture or, heaven no…live here!
And here we are.
I worried that I would have nothing to write about and that 3limes would dry up and sadly shrivel. But instead I find myself alert, wide awake to the rich and surprising culture before me. I was nervous that I would not like teaching in a Bahraini school, with no expats and their familiar Western culture to buffer me. I fretted over what the kids would be like and would I relate? Could I teach and penetrate such an unknown and “difficult” culture?
Was I ever wrong and am I ever happy to admit it.
I am back. I am not sure if I haven’t lost my faithful readers of 3limes during my summer hiatus, it was the longest break in the the 3 years I have been writing. 3 years that has seen me through Trinidad, the Uganda years and now here we are in Bahrain. 3 years, 3 moves, 3limes.
But before we say hello to Bahrain I think we need a look back at the Summer of 2011.
London Montreal San Francisco Montreal London
canoes and docks
fishing and champagne
sushi and cappucino
I love America
Toe dipping in the Pacific
God Save London
pub lunches and old friends
Art, red buses and pavement pounding
From the Pacific to the Thames, icy Quebec lakes to the warm Bahrain sea, this summer has crossed time and memory. I have slipped through the shadow of years, made a tiny chink in the wall of time, visited the past before diving into the future.
And nearly 2 months without writing, reflecting and giving pause for thought. I have missed blogging but needed that in between space, the freedom to live unconnected with no screen and no keys to tap my days.
So now I have written my four posts about the Kenayapalooza Road trip that was, and having been back for two weeks now and back at school for one it is starting to feel like it all happened some time ago. As a family we have decided that it will be some time before we embark on any long drives and have equally agreed on the necessity to get back to the beach ASAP ( by plane this time.)
I have been so fortunate to have crossed Kenya and seen what a diverse and beautiful country it is. I really adored Kenya, the people, the landscape the stunning vistas. It has a very different feel to Uganda; one I am still trying to put my finger on. Partly it holds the colonial influence of the British in a way that Uganda never has. There are the towns that still have some old world charm, all the little shops by the road side have taken the time and care to paint signs and colourfully announce their existence. There is less rubbish strewn by the side of the road, the roads are smooth and mainly pot hole free, things work efficiently, I spotted more than one post office. It is a place I’d like to go back to, a weekend in Nairobi would be especially sweet.
What never fails to amaze me is the variety of crazy things seen on the road. The trucks that bend under their ridiculous load; threatening to topple over us as we overtake. The buses that are painted in honour of a foot ball star or Jesus Christ, the sheepskin rugs and juicy carrots sold to happy passersby, the random street signs, the donkeys pulling a load seemingly impossible to manage. It is never dull, always colourful, often funny, sometimes terrifying.
How many chairs can you fit on a bicycle?
Do you think you could fit one more on top?
Please note that some of the sand bags had fallen off the back. A case of overly optimistic loading.
Princess and the Pea?
Doing the Matoke Push and Pull.
The view is different now. I am once again looking at the bowed heads of students scratching out a story, or the raised hands of children eager to have a turn. The classroom might be a safer place but as I help these kids get ready for exams, be ready and set for what comes next I jump over each hurdle, one at a time. It is a crazy road out there; I’m hiding inside Camp Hormone for a while.
We were greeted by a collection of cheerful dogs, ranging from Obelisk the magnificent Great Dane to Sock the Daschund puppy with one white foot. The children poured out of the cars and began to embrace and hop about with these fellow puppies, excited to use some of their pent up energy. The adults searched for beer and sorted out who would be sleeping where. The girls were all put into a little two story cottage with miniature deck poking through the leaves. We were shown to Acacia cottage. Kembu farm is a very special place. It is owed and run by the Nightingale family who has lived on the farm for 5 generations. It is a working farm with cottages and camping, happy bar and campfire. On our second night there we were treated to homemade pizza cooked in the genuine pizza oven by Mr Nightingale and his sons. A true, welcoming family experience, it is the sort of place I could imagine staying happily for a whole week. Especially in Acacia Cottage.
Our cottage was like a story book house in the English Countryside. The walls were brick and adorned with old black and white family photos, the table, set with white linen and flowers faced the window which faced an ancient tree set upon a rolling lawn. It was the perfect space to sit and read. But best of all was the hot bath that I climbed into with some glee within minutes of arriving. It was a particularly relaxing place. So much so that we all decided to stay put and read the next morning. Then it was time to visit the famous Nakuru National Park.
This park is small, and is set around a lake famous for its flamingo population. It is also renowned for its Rhinos and leopards. I have now been on a considerable number of game drives and have been fortunate to see everything from Cheetahs to Hyenas, Rhinos to Lions, elephants to Giraffes and Zebra. The only animal that has evaded my beady eye is the leopard. Nakuru has the densest leopard population in Kenya so I felt certain it would be my lucky day. It was not to be. And it has now become a standing joke amongst Kampala friends who see these fabulous cats within minutes of their Murchison Falls drives. Instead I did see Rhinos and towards the end of the drive an Australian, standing in a bright red t-shirt behind his white car waving furiously with his arms to get our attention. Our friend had run out of diesel and how lucky he was that we were there, and even luckier to find a safari vehicle with strong rope to lend us so we could pull him out. It all could have been a lot worse. I did think for a moment that perhaps that would be the moment a leopard would come out and greet us, but gratefully it was not to be. The running out of diesel story meant that we were delayed leaving the park and therefore had to drive like a bat out of hell through the dark to return to Kembu farm. It was the one and only time we drove at night the entire trip and thankfully only for 20 minutes. Driving at night in Africa is to be avoided; having had experiences involving scary cows, pot holes, bikes and sadly a crossing dog, I do not say this lightly. Our last night in Kenya and it was Pizza, a cuddle with the Great Dane and a hot bath before bed. We had an early start the next morning and at least 9 hours before we reached home.
Leaving the beach is always hard. My family belong to the tribe of beach bums: for us the ocean is our world. While some in our group described themselves as “Mountain Men” and kept a wide berth from the salt water, we couldn’t stay out of it. We climbed back into the car with skin that smelt of sea, sand and SPF 15. We wanted to keep the scent, the stickiness and the dried sea salt as long as possible. As we drove away from the coast our car was quickly making promises to return (by plane) as soon as possible.
The chief planner of our trip had made the fool hardy decision to drive straight from the coast to Nakuru. Even an optimist could not imagine reaching Nakuru in less than 13 hours and there was a general agreement within the group that such a drive would simply crack us all up. So we decided to stop back in Tsavo to break up the journey, this time about 20 mins from Voi Gate, between East and West Tsavo. We found a little lodge run by a Swiss woman that was a perfect stop over for the night.
Sagala Lodge is a small but sweet, neat and tidy lodge with 20 bandas and a swimming pool set in front of a Baobab tree. We arrived at 4.30 and quickly jumped into the pool. We knew we would be back in the car at 7.30 am so we just needed a quiet yet energetic few hours to stretch and play. The highlight of Sagala lodge for me was the Swedish couple I met. I noticed a Defender parked behind our banda with a tent that protruded from the roof, ladders, food cooking on a small kitchen that seemed to be built into the side of the car; it looked like some serious campers on a serious journey. Turns out they were some intrepid Swedes, a couple with two small girls, (4 and 6) who were driving from Stockholm to Capetown. There I was feeling like a rock star on our 11 day road trip across Kenya but within minutes of meeting this small family I felt like a bug on their wind screen. Two continents, 20 countries, 9 months! With two little girls. Amazing. I quickly took Trooper and Princess over to meet them as there is great value in meeting such individuals who embody bravery, determination and a true adventurous spirit. It all goes without saying that they must be incredibly patient, organized and nice to each other.
At the moment they are somewhere near Mount Kenya and will be arriving in Uganda sometime this month. Their blog can be found here.
The drive to Nakuru took 9 hours. We had to cross through the centre of Nairobi which had us straining our necks to see the capital city. We have never actually been to Nairobi, yet, so this was our first impression. Pavements! Tall buildings! Parks! Traffic! For the half an hour that we drove across down town Nairobi I had the sense that we were in a serious city, plumped with self importance and age.
Between Nairobi and Naivasha the route takes cars past one of the most extraordinary viewpoints. There is a look out where one has the opportunity to stand and gaze across the rift valley, over the Masai Mara towards Tanzania. On the outbound journey towards the coast we had driven past at great speed while with rubber necks we had strained to see the awe inspiring view. I promised myself that on our return we would pause for a moment or two and admire the view. Really, what type of traveller would drive past that? It seems we were the only ones with that idea and ended up stopping alone. Not everyone in the group was on the same page in this respect and this can be a source of stress in a large group. Particularly when one car is lambasted for holding the others back by a meagre 10 minutes.
It was a tired and tense group that descended in Nakuru. But when we saw the divine little place we would be spending the next two nights our spirits began to lift.
Camping. I am not a camper, many of you might have realized this by now. I sort of wish I was, you know, the sort of person to embrace the whole sleeping in a tent, cooking over an open fire, brushing my teeth in the dark and spitting onto the ground. I wish I was that sort of girl, in some ways. Maybe if I had been raised a camper and pitched tents as a child, as my children now do I would not only love it but know what to do. As it is I am not in my element. But I am proud to say that I did it and survived it and threw myself whole heartedly into the experience. I know many people who would never leave the comfort of their 5 star lodges to camp within earshot of munching elephants and roaring lions and bouncing, barking baboons. But I did and while I would have preferred one rather than two nights, the whole camping thing was okay. It was part of the journey and made me feel rather hard core, really. I had a metaphorical hand patting my back most of the time and if I come across as a someone with more princess tendencies than I should have, well welcome to my world. This is who I am. The noises at night were freaky and the cooking and cleaning and finding supplies from the many bags and boxes was a trifle tiresome but when, sitting on my camping chair and reading my book under a tree, I looked up and saw an elephant walking through the camp site I felt the magic. These are not things that happen from the comfort of a lodge swimming pool.
Handsome Husband is convinced that he felt a trunk pressing through the thin walls of our tent and considering that in total we saw 6 elephants in our camp it is entirely possible. Or perhaps it was that last whisky by the camp fire?
On our first morning we crawled out of our tent at 6 am just as dawn was cracking through the clouds and went out on a pyjama safari. Since it was so early we were treated to a splendid animal showing. A tiny baby elephant still uncertain on his legs and cowering in the comfort of his mother’s trunk could be seen close to the path we drove on. Minutes later two cheeters, slinked past, the sun bouncing off their spots. We saw lions resting after a busy night hunting and a proud male lying beneath a tree surveying the view and his female pride walking below his lofty perch. We were the outsiders driving through their kingdom and I could have watched for hours.
When we got back to the camp for coffee and eggs cooked over an open fire we felt the thrill of being so close to wildness. And then we stopped to read, draw, chat and listen to the hot silence.
The drive to Watamu was long and hot and made slightly more painful by the hour we spent attending to the flat tire. But 6 hours later when we finally saw the sea we all whopped for joy and felt like mini heroes who had conquered the road.
The drive from start to finish took us through an extraordinary variety of landscapes, some lush and green, some hilly, some rocky and some dry and dusty. The coast was blisteringly hot, the palms were dusted with red dirt in places and only when we actually approached the beach did we feel the cool respite of a sea breeze.
At the end of this long road, non paved and thick with dust we had no idea what was in store. We expected a luxurious villa, complete with canapes by the pool for our New Year’s Eve dinner. We had high hopes of soft billowing mosquito nets in rooms over looking the sea, open showers and soft sand dipping into a turquoise sea. We were led to believe both by the gorgeous web site and the encouraging emails from the owner that we would be treated to a true 5 star experience. This would be the prize at the end of two days camping. This would be worth the many dollars we were spending on our three nights at the beach. This would literally be the golden pot at the end of the dusty road.
How wrong we were.
Well I am back and have survived the Let’s Cross Kenya in 11 days road trip. It will take more than one post to write about it, after all I did cross the breadth of Kenya, bathed in the Indian Ocean and then drove back to tell the tale. I am still processing it, feeling the weariness and sore bum of sitting in a car for endless hours. Having exhausted my ipod’s musical offerings, played I spy countless times and gripped the seat nervously through some hairy Kenyan roads I can safely say that I am ready to leave the long car trips on the shelf for some time.
In total we drove 2818 km. The longest drive was 12 hours, the shortest was 6. There were 4 cars in our little convoy and the battle wounds were mercifully few.
One flat tire, deep in Tsavo National Park. The boys leapt out of the car with glee and put their new sling shots to good use, shooting stones at giant termite hills.
One front left hand side light casing flew off into some trees, thankfully avoiding the injury it might have caused to a hapless passerby.
One episode of running out of gas in Nakuru National Park. Through some extraordinary good fortune disaster was avoided when a safari vehicle passed by and loaned some rope so that we could tow the unfortunate victims of optimistic gas usage.
None of the mishaps happened to our car. Our car was the Trooper Car of the trip, although we did have one scary near accident when, narrowly avoiding a truck left in the middle of the road we spun 180 degrees. There were some horrible flashbacks to the Flipped Car of 2009, but we quickly recovered, breathed in some dust and went on our merry but cautious way.
Road trips are an ordeal, an adventure, a brave undertaking, not for the faint hearted. Especially in Africa where anything can happen and often does. So I feel lucky to be back safe and sound and even luckier for the amazing sights seen along the way.
17 of us left Kampala before the sun rose on December 27th. We were 9 adults, the oldest being 72 and 8 children ranging from 6-15. Our first stop was Naivasha where, with great relief we stiffly stepped out of our cars and were greeted by giraffes walking around the gardens of Sopa Lodge. The next morning with a guide to show us around we were fortunate to walk very closely beside these strange and glorious creatures. Oblivious to our presence, they just kept on chewing and looking for the choicest and highest leaf.
Naivasha was also where we climbed down into Hell’s Gate, so named by the Masai who witnessed the deaths of many by volcanic eruptions and tumbling rocks and then scrambled back up to Heaven where we gave thanks to a truly heavenly view. It was a good hike through a gorge that felt at once prehistoric and out of this world. It holds some fame for being the place where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed. Now I suppose I should see that movie, having never had the pleasure.
I made full use of the buffet and rain shower at Sopa Lodge, knowing that the next day we would be on the road for two nights of camping. Yes, me in a tent. Filled with some trepidation and a small petulant sulk I endured the 8 hour drive trying to set all princess tendencies aside and get into the spirit of camping. Tsavo has more elephants than any National Park in Kenya and within minutes of arriving we saw them; covered in red dust, tossing their trunks in the air with anger as we drove too quickly past, hoping to set up camp before nightfall.