Celtic Connections

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Sometimes journeys trigger unexpected feelings and reactions. And then you wonder if the unexplored feeling gave rise to the journey in the first place? Whatever the causality, we were heading to Scotland and Ireland to travel around the Celtic fringe. Not a big trip, but three or four weeks to catch up with friends and a bit of family; to somehow reconnect with the country of my birth, and the culture dear to our hearts – after eight months back in angry brexit Britain.

And of course the blog was meant to be finished; done. But this trip ended up as something I felt like sharing – photos and impressions of special places. Not the hours of smiles and laughter with dear friends – that’s for ourselves alone. But there is beauty, joy and adventure in this short journey that might be worthy of interest. If I’m honest I don’t know, we had fun, see what you think.

Scotland

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Starting off in Edinburgh, we followed the Leith walkway with sun and rain flowing past. The tenements of Dean village, the National Gallery of Modern Art and Antony Gormley’s cast iron statues were great company along the way.

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From there to Glasgow and the train journey to Loch Awe – the sky was blue as we hiked around the area. The Tower of Glenstrae was fab as always – and we were able to walk up to the Cruachan Reservoir, explore Glenfinnan and Glencoe with the sun (mostly) on our backs. Happy travels.

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The Glenfinnan monument, Loch Shiel and the Jacobite Rebellion echo through these hills

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and there’s always a few Highland Coos along the way …

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Celtic Fringe

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Ireland

After a quick flight to Dublin from Glasgow, we sorted a hire car and were soon in our B&B in Rathgar. We met up with my cousin and other family members that evening and were rapidly engrossed with family stories and history, not least identifying the house in Limerick where I was born – somewhere I haven’t been back to since those irregular visits ‘home’ as a child in the 60’s an early 70’s.

Our plan was to head south to Kerry, but we headed West the next day to call in on London friends Enda and Maria who had moved back to Ireland and were building their own straw bale roundwood home Radharc Eile in Tullamore. While it was certainly great to catch up with old friends what was truly impressive was the labour of love that’s gone into building this fascinating structure. They have developed knowledge and skills to a huge extent over these last two years – their blog is well worth a look.

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Beautiful Douglas Fir and tightly packed straw bale walls. Plus an intricate and fascinating roof

Back on the road we stopped for a few days at an AirBnB in Adare where we walked the countryside in lovely weather.

 

Although there are similarities with the flora and fauna of the English countryside, Ireland’s history and culture are everywhere. The abandoned Famine Houses of Knockfierna are a standing testament to an Gorta Mór that devastated the country over 150 years ago. The thought of starving souls breaking rocks all day on a bleak hillside in mid-winter for less than a penny of ‘outdoor relief’ from the British is a stark indictment of the vicious colonial rule that created this holocaust and saw over a million dead from starvation and disease. We came across mass rocks (Carraig an Aifrinn), deep in the forest established after the Catholic religion was outlawed in Cromwell’s Penal Laws. And ancient megalithic tombs, circular forts and ruined castles – Ireland is alive with history.

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the megalithic tomb at Labbacallee – aligned with the setting sun equinoxes

We’d called in to Limerick City on our way south, but couldn’t track down the family home. We did see the Shannon waters rushing through the arches of Thomond bridge, King John’s castle and the treaty stone on its plinth.

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The Treaty Stone from 1691. Kids in my parents era sold stones off the streets to gullible tourists as a ‘chip off the Treaty Stone’

Kerry

It was mostly chance that we’d booked a place in Cahersiveen. We decided we needed a base to explore Kerry, and this small town was a great location for that. Plus it had restaurants, bars and music – all in easy walking distance. As with so many small towns in Ireland there were remnants of ancient churches, shops selling religious icons and statues of saints in housing estates.

 

It must have been 40 years since we were last in Kerry. It really is a beautiful county, the weather was kind overall and we had a great week exploring and walking.

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The Skelligs (Na Scealaga) are often visible from the shore
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Valentia Island (Dairbhre – ‘the Oak Wood’) looking west
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The Ballaghsheen Pass

 

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Ballinskelligs Castle on a glorious day

 

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Ballycarberry Castle

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Anne walking towards the clouds – they cleared

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The Caragh Lake Trail
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The joy of getting lost. We did double the planned distance walking around Derrynane

The Skelligs (Na Scealaga)

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Sceilig means ‘splinter of stone’ in Irish, and these harsh Islands are on the western edges of Europe. Remote, swept by wind and waves, you would be hard pressed to think of a more inhospitable place to build a community. Yet, in the 5th Century, Christian monks decided to make this most remote and unforgiving landscape their home. It took hundreds of years to eek out a habitable environment in this bleak place, and the ‘beehive’ monastery they built was thought to accommodate no more than a dozen monks at a time.

The monastery (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is accessed by climbing over 600 dry stone masonry steps, built by the monks. The ‘beehive’ structure of the monastery is also built this way and has lasted over 1,500 years – a testimony to the skills, resilience and endurance of the people who built it.

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Suddenly a rainstorm moved in from the sea and the reality of this inhospitable rock descended

The Skelligs (Na Scealaga) are also a haven for wild life, with Puffins, Shearwaters and Gannets nesting there in the breeding season.

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The colourful beaks and white chest plumage are on display only in the breeding season

 

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Puffins nest in burrows and the parents fish to feed their chicks. Once they are able to fly they do not return to land for 2 to 3 years
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One puffin landed at speed straight into a burrow at Anne’s feet
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Puffins coming in to land have a comical, slightly clumsy look – see enlargement below

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Little Skellig is home to a huge colony of nesting Gannets – they prefer the bare rock and every inch is taken up with these birds. They migrate to Southern Africa at the end of the breeding season.

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We left Kerry and headed north to friends in Connemara for the final part of our journey through Ireland. On the way we  stopped once more in Limerick city and found the house where I and my sister were born and where my grandparents raised 7 children. It must have been very cramped. Although Rosbrien is now a gentrified area with large Victorian houses, some of the small terraced houses remain. The area is described in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

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As a child I left open this gate on market day. We soon had sheep running through the house

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Galway

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The beauty of Connemara hits you every time. The Twelve Bens (Na Beanna Beola), the inlets, the peat bogs all combine in a peaceful beauty.

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We had happy times walking the area, breathing in the fresh air and catching up with friends, and once again the weather was pretty kind.

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The home of Patrick Pearse now has an educational centre Ionad Cultúrtha an Phiarsaigh where much of the local history is explained.

 

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So, we headed back to London, with our spirits refreshed. The beauty of these landscapes bring a smile to the most jaded hearts.

In truth though, the part missing from this blog was the best – the smiles laughter and chat between old friends.

Slán go fóill Cuisle!

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Hey Hey, My My ….

Endings can often be more difficult than beginnings. Despite the trepidation we felt, heading out into the blue back in 2016, there was an imperative that drove us forward. We’d packed our belongings into a lock-up in Essex, our flight was booked to Trivandrum in India, we’d had countless ‘goodbye’ celebrations. We were off!

And now we are back. Back home in London town, with all the comforts you forget, hot P8170048-1000x1334water, cooking for yourself, knowing where light switches are in the dark – the little things. And the big things too – family and friends, smiles and hugs, the embrace of a city we’ve called home for over 30 years. So there is no doubt the ‘Big Adventure’ has ended – we have no flights, hostels or buses booked, no research needed, no visa applications or packing required. We are home.

But of course it’s never that simple. We are readjusting, settling in, and re-discovering our home. Walks around Alexandra Palace or Hampstead Heath, with the golden Autumn leaves and clear blue wintry skies – such a contrast to tropical rainforests. We are seeing our old place in new ways. We don’t have a plan for the future yet – we’re still coming to terms with our new present. It’s still a journey.

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London from Alexandra Palace
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Hampstead Heath in Autumn glory

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So this is an attempt to draw a line at the end of the blog. I’d originally planned to leave it with Farewell Brazil, but as the end of 2018 approached I thought it best that it came full circle.

And with all the images, smells, sights, joy and adventure we’ve experienced over these last two years, the most wonderful thing about travelling is the way your lives coincide with people you would never otherwise meet, doing things you never thought you’d be doing in places that you only dreamed of going to.

So thank you to all of those people we have met along the way for enriching our experiences and our lives. We are lucky indeed to now call so many of you friends.

Look by for a beer if you get the chance!

As it says in the introduction to our blog,

‘Here are the thoughts and pictures from two people in their sixties who have left London to travel and explore. The blog is intended as a personal reflection, a scrapbook and a way of keeping in touch with family and friends. If you are a visitor from elsewhere in this wonderful world, hello and enjoy.’

Now two years later, we’re astonished its been seen over 12,000 times with visitors from more than 60 countries.

Wherever you are from, whoever you are, if you are thinking of going travelling – do it, you will never regret it.

Not everyone who wanders is lost.

Niall & Anne x

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Salvador and Olinda

Salvador – the beating heart of Brazil

The journey from beautiful Itacaré to Salvador worked well – despite the five hour bus ride, the ferry and the taxi, we travelled to Bahia’s capital Salvador without any major hassle.

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The ferry from Bom Despacho in the south is the best way to cross the Todos os Santos Bay to Salvador

We’d chosen to stay in the old quarter of Pelourinho, which proved to be a wise move. Salvador is large city with glinting shopping malls, wealthy high-rises, poor favelas and a population of around four million people. Travelling around this sprawling city is hard work. Our lodging was in an attic room with a tiny little roof terrace and views over the streets and church towers of Pelourinho.

 

Pelourinho

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The Elvador Lacerda links Pelourinho with the rest of Salvador

Salvador. Brazil’s original capital under the Portuguese, the first slave port in the Americas with its historical centre, Pelourinho. Named after the pillory or whipping post where slaves were punished, the streets in the old quarter are alive with history. And, as the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture in Bahia music, art, religion and dance are everywhere.

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Capoeira display

 

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At any time of the day or night the streets echo to the rhythm of drums

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As with other large cities in Brazil, alongside the joy and celebration of culture, there exists poverty and crime. The World Heritage streets of Pelourinho are guarded by armed police, tourist police and military police. Locals warned us not to walk down quiet streets, and conscious of our experience in Rio, we took their advice.

 

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The campaign to release Lula seemed popular

A huge part of Bahian life centres around religion, not only the colonial Catholicism brought by the Portuguese, but the beliefs and traditions that came with the huge numbers of African slaves. The medieval religious orders, Franciscans, Carmelites and Dominicans all built churches, monasteries and convents, but alongside these grew ‘brotherhoods’ organised around class and race as support organisations for this widely diverse society. There appears to be a church on every street.

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Most of these grand colonial structures were built with slave labour and their baroque interiors are dripping with wealth and spectacle.

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Portuguese Azulego tiles are everywhere, often glorifying the colonial conquest.

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The Church of Sao Francisco is drenched with gold.

 

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A slave Brotherhood built the aptly named Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men. They were banned from entering other Catholic churches (that they themselves had built) and could only work on this building in their ‘spare time’. It took around 100 years to complete.

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The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men has very different iconography and hosts services accompanied by spectacular drumming

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The highlight of our stay in Pelourinho was a visit to see the Folklore Ballet of Bahia with its exhilarating dance and music bringing together the cultures of Africa, Europe and the Indigenous peoples. The displays of Capoeira were astonishing in their grace and athleticism, the music was intoxicating and the packed audience responded with a roar of approval at the end.

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image from the web

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We left the beating heart of Brazil with fond memories and headed north to Recife and Olinda.

Olinda

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We loved our time in Olinda. It’s hilly cobbled streets have charm, and it has a common passion with Salvador – carnival. Although dwarfed by it’s neighbour Recife, artistic Olinda with its restaurants bars and music is a perfect place to explore both.

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The quaint streets of Olinda, with Recife in the distance

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Our accommodation in Olinda was an excellent choice. Not only did we have a beautiful room in the heart of Olinda, but our hosts at Cama e Café Olinda were wonderfully kind and helpful – they are fluent in four European languages and provide the best breakfast we’ve had in Brazil.

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Great shops restaurants and bars as you wander around the colourful streets

 

 

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There are some fantastic, often impromptu, music venues, with all sorts of bands practising for carnival. As the only European tourists around we felt welcome everywhere. These events usually spill on to the streets where beer vendors and foodstalls fuel the revellers. Any night of the week seems to be party night.

 

Olinda also lays claim to some rather beautiful colonial churches.

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Carnival, and preparing for carnival is always on the agenda.

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This collection of carnival figures was a bit spooky. We came across them unexpectedly while visiting the loo in a restaurant late one night

The giant carnival dolls had their origin in Olinda with the Man of Midnight in 1931. Kim Jong-un, Superman and ET are modern additions.

 

Recife

We headed in to Recife late one Sunday morning (a cheap cab ride is easiest). The roads around Marco Zero (the spot where the Portuguese first landed in 1537) are closed off on Sunday, foot-volley nets are strung up, market stalls and skateboarders appear, and carnival blocos gather on every street to practice their performances. It’s also the area for street art, galleries and museums, and for wandering around in the sunshine with everyone else.

 

 

Frevo

Frevo music and dance emerged from Afro-Brazilian culture, which is particularly strong in this region due to the historic importance of sugar cane as a crop and the slavery that went with it. Religious and military music bands at the end of the nineteenth century gave Frevo its distinctive character with plenty of brass instruments, and Frevo dance came from the fights that ensued as these bands clashed on the narrow streets and battled for space.

At the front of each band marched capoeirstas and fights, usually involving knives ended up with many  dead and wounded. When the police began arresting the capoeirstas they started carrying umbrellas instead of knives and disguising the capoeira movements as dance movements. The frevo dance was born.

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Frevo dancer from the 1970s. The small umbrellas are used in rapid intricate moves

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A standard spectacular Sunday on the streets of Recife

From Recife we travelled north and west, heading towards the Amazon. Although we are now in the last month of our big adventure, there’s still plenty to see.

Fly me Down to Rio

A flight to Rio made sense. With stormy weather down south, and our plans to travel north up the coast through Bahia to Recife and beyond, it was clear that this country is just too big to get around by road.

P8057467-1244x933I’ll start the Rio story with our visit to Sugarloaf mountain and then to the iconic, art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer – it proved to be an interesting and adventurous day.

That Saturday dawned with low cloud hanging over the city, but the forecast looked good and we headed down first to our local beach. We were staying in Injoy Hostel, Botafogo a friendly place in a great location for restaurants and public transport. We walked along the shore and then up by cable car to Sugarloaf, as the clouds began to clear.

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The mountain and ‘Redeemer’ appear and disappear among the clouds behind the city

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Christ the Redeemer

Visiting such an instantly recognisable, totemic statue whose image has represented Rio, Brazil, South America, the Catholic church and so much more, we were prepared to be disappointed. The mountain was much higher than I imagined, the statue itself was smaller than I anticipated but it’s Art Deco design was striking. And the clouds lifted for a beautiful afternoon.

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Not a miracle, just some lens flare!

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Give us this Day, our Daily Selfie ….

Of course the view over the city, Sugarloaf peak and the harbour below were spectacular – set in a sparkling azure sea and sky.

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With a good few hours left of sunlight, and with a cooling, balmy breeze, we decided to call an Uber and head down to Copacabana Beach to finish off a perfect day…

And then

On our way down from Christ the Redeemer, in an Uber, heading to Copacabana. Suddenly the cab screeched to a halt as two men stepped out on to the cobbled road in front of us. There was a moment of silence, as we tried to work out what was going on. Clearly the driver was spooked as he’d stood on the brakes to stop on the steep hill.

We peered out at the scene ahead and then saw one of the men raise an Uzi machine gun, crouch into a firing position, and aim right at us. The driver tried to reverse back up the street, but the clutch kept slipping on the steep hill, and the car wasn’t moving. The driver shouted ‘get out of the car, get out of the car’ so Anne and I slipped out of the doors, and using the car as a shield, headed back up the street. There was a lot of shouting going on.

The car managed to lurch up the hill, with the clutch screaming – the gunmen hadn’t moved – and we jumped in the car and sped away. I asked the driver ‘Foi um assalto’ via Google translate and he thought a gang were conducting a big drug deal in the area and had sealed off the streets.

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Around a quarter of Rio’s population live in the favelas or comunidades

All ended well, but it’s the first time I’ve been threatened by a machine gun (600 rounds per minute – I looked it up).

The driver dropped us off in Copacabana and said ‘Rio is very beautiful, but sometimes dangerous’. And of course that’s true. What happened to us could have happened to an organised tour bus, and obviously happens to local people living in the city. With the military deployed on the streets, and shoot outs Screenshot_20180822-135120_crop_653x703between them and well armed drug gangs, violence is a real problem in Rio.

But it’s a big city of over six million people and hundreds of thousands of tourists, most of whom are unaffected by this conflict. There are now regular organised tours into some favelas, with the avowed aim of showing the positive community organisation in these poor areas, although this ‘slum tourism’, as in South Africa and India, remains controversial.

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Jorge Selaron, with his take on favela living

As if to emphasise the normal life of Rio, within minutes of our scary moment we were walking along the beach in Copacabana, as people swam, played ‘ foot-volley’ and relaxed with cold beers on a sunny Saturday.

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We’d started off our time in Rio with a three hour free walking tour on the Thursday morning. It was very well done, with information about the unique and surprising colonial history and architecture of Rio. There were also some friendly and interesting people on the tour, so we signed up for an entertaining pub crawl in Lapa that evening. We missed breakfast the next day.

The walking tour ended at the Escadaria Selarón, 125 steps covered in different tiles and ceramics over decades by Chilean-born local artist Jorge Selaron. He spent his artistic life working on the steps, at first using reclaimed tiles and then adding contributions from around the world. It is an eclectic and vivid tribute to the people of his adopted city, Rio.

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Santa Teresa

One other area we visited in Rio was Santa Theresa, a mixed neighborhood with some old colonial buildings, either dilapidated or restored as well as poorer areas hanging on to the hill. One incentive for us to visit was the old tram that went from town, across the viaduct in Lapa and up the hill – hard for two ex tram drivers to resist. Our first visit was a wash out with rain and low cloud, but on the Sunday, after promenading on Ipanema beach and visiting the hippie market, we jumped on the tram and rattled through the streets once more.

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View from the tram as it crosses the viaduct in Lapa

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There is also a project representing the trams in ceramic tiles, which of course we liked.

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Perhaps the final highlight of our time in Rio came via a message from a friend in London – two friends were visiting Brazil, and might just still be in Rio. Sure enough, we tracked each other down and spent a lovely evening catching up and swapping tales, a precursor for our return home in October after two years traveling.

Arraial d’Ajuda

Heading North from Rio to Arraial d’Ajuda looked a logistical nightmare. Two flights (with a two hour delay), a taxi from Porto Seguro airport to the harbour, a ferry and then a van/bus to our hostel. Yet it all worked smoothly, despite the language barrier, and we were dropped right outside our hostel, Hostel Arraial d’Ajuda. And what a lovely place, beautiful, artistic shared areas, comfortable rooms and staff that did everything they could to make you welcome.

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Aerial d’Ajuda Hostel

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Arraial d’Ajuda is relaxed, with cobbled streets, markets, bars and restaurants. You get to the beaches down a steep cobbled street and then follow the coast along to your chosen spot. Minibuses ferry you back to the town square at the end of the day for a small fare. Lovely spot; and in the evening there is the music of Bahia on the streets and in the bars and restaurants.

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Caraíva

On the advice from our hostel we took a minibus tour to Caraíva – two hours over bumpy cobble and dirt roads would have been twice as long on a local bus. Access to the village, river mouth and beach is across the river, boats constantly ferry people and goods back and forth. There are no roads, and the whole place has a relaxed slightly ‘alternative’ vibe.

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The ever present foot-volley

Itacaré

It’s around 450km from Arraial d’Ajuda to Itacaré, and of course the journey starts with the bus/ferry/taxi to Porto Seguro. The bus to Itacaré is then another seven or eight hours, (comfortable but ice cold a/c) so we arrived about 8.00pm. Luckily our hostel, Che Lagarto, was a short walk from the bus depot and we were soon checked in and wandering down the pedestrianised street, looking for somewhere to eat. The hostel is in a great location and the people are friendly and helpful with advice and recommendations. It’s known as a surfing destination (we were amazed to see all the young people in the hostel up so early for breakfast!), but there are plenty of beautiful little bays with golden sands.

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The highlight of our time in Itacaré was a day  out on a boat for some whale watching. It was recommended by the hostel and Amanda, one of the workers there, volunteered to come with us to help with translation. The project is heavily involved in research of humpback whale migration, behavior and distribution along the coast of Brazil and our guide explained how local and global conservation efforts have seen a massive increase in whales migrating down the coast from Antarctica between July and October.

For the first hour, the boat rocked back and forth, but no whales, and unfortunately Amanda was seasick 😯.

And then we started sighting humpbacks.

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Before long there were groups of them all around the boat. In all we saw maybe fifty whales. One, bigger than the boat, passed underneath us. It was a wonderful sight.

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And then, just as we were about to finish for the day, three humpback whales breached the water and came crashing down nearby. Jaw dropping. I only managed to capture one picture, as it slammed down on to the sea -everyone was mesmerised by this force of nature.

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Our guides told us it was the best day of the year. It was a special experience.

From Itacaré, our next stop was Salvador, the old capital of Brazil and the capital of Bahia, with its unique history and culture. But that story will be in our next blog, coming soon.

Fiji

It would be hard for a traveller to not enjoy Fiji. Over 300 islands, clear tropical water bursting with life, remote palm fringed beaches, and a vibrant culture that is positive, friendly and welcoming. This belies it’s previous decades long history of ethnic conflict, military coups and expulsion from international bodies. Indeed, now, according to some international surveys Fiji is rated as the country where its population is happiest.

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Beach Rugby

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We landed in Nadi, on the main Island of Viti Levu and took a two hour bus ride to accommodation we had booked in Pacific Harbour, arriving at night. In Fiji we found that backpacker dorms tend to be located within holiday resorts, meaning private rooms proved relatively expensive, especially as we had arrived in the Australia/New Zealand school holidays.

With blue skies the next morning we explored our surrounds and spent quality time in hammocks, planning our journey in Fiji.

Locally, we booked some diving with Aqua-Trek Beqa Dive Centre (old, badly maintained gear), and on my birthday had two dives with beautiful soft coral and clear water teeming with life. We came across around a dozen tawny nurse sharks asleep on the sand, reef sharks and a big bull shark, moving fast, clearly on the hunt.

The area is renowned for shark feeding displays, and even though we had avoided this, it was clear that the practice impacted on how sharks and other underwater life behaved. A remora (a fish that hangs around sharks hoping to grab some food) took a painful bite out of Anne’s little finger, something we have never encountered before.

Heading back to Nadi, we checked in to Bamboo Travellers on Wailoaloa Beach, an old-school backpacking haunt, where you can relax in the bar on the beach, swim, eat good food, drink cold beer, watch sunsets and talk into the night with fellow travellers. My kind of place.

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Bamboo Travellers also had an efficient travel desk that meant we were able to sort out all our Fijian travel and accommodation arrangements with minimum fuss, something that we had found near impossible till then. Our next stop was the southern Island of Kadavu.

Kadavu

Our fifty minute flight south to Kadavu was on an eighteen seater De Havilland Twin Otter, with passengers distributed according to their weight.

 

 

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The Great Astrolobe Reef Kadavu.
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With only one landing per day (weather depending) it’s not the busiest airport.

We were met at the airfield and taken through Vunisea, with its government buildings, post office and local school.

 

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Most students stay at the school during the week. With no roads and a population of under 10,000 a daily journey is impossible
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There is still evidence of the damage caused by Cyclone Keni in April this year

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The boat trip to Matava resort took around ninety minutes in some heavy swell (despite the protection of the Astrolobe Reef), and poor weather characterised our time in Kadavu. Strong Trade Winds from the south-east can develop at any time between May and October in Fiji, and this clearly affected activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. We were able to enjoy some good diving on the reef however, with colourful soft coral, unique macro life and massive cabbage and brain coral sitting on brilliant white sand. On our first dive Anne spotted a leopard shark asleep on the sand, who then woke and circled us a few times.

The company of other guests was enjoyable, the staff lovely and the view from our bure was transformed by different light on the bay. But those trade winds kept on blowing.

 

 

Among the staff at Matava were two O’Connors … very distant relatives

The Yasawas

On the day before our departure from Kadavu the plane tried to land twice, but the strong winds meant it had to return to Nadi, so we were unsure whether we would be able to leave the island. All turned out well on the day however and we were soon back in Nadi, rushing around withdrawing cash from ATMs before our trip north to the Yasawas.

The Yasawas are an archipelago of around twenty volcanic islands, scattered along the north east of Fiji. At one time they were remote and visited by only the most determined backpackers but these days island hopping is popular with travellers, budget-backpackers and those seeking luxury resorts.

We’d selected two islands and travelled first up to one of the northernmost islands, Nacula, aboard the Tavewa Seabus.

One feature of touring the Yasawas is that you frequently bump in to people you’ve met on the boats on other islands and because you share meals, activities and travelling tales, a shifting community soon develops. Add to this the friendly and enthusiastic engagement of local Fijians and you get a relaxed and entertaining journey. While we enjoyed snorkelling, visiting caves and chilling in hammocks, for me the best part of our time in Nabua Lodge was the visit to a local village where we got a real sense of how the community live, work and play in an isolated environment.

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Village life

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Origami continues to make friends

 

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Kava session on Saturday morning following a wedding in the village the previous day

Our second stop in the Yasawas was at Korovou Eco-Tour resort in Naviti. Lovely beaches, blue skies and sunsets – classic Fiji.

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Special mention should go to Abu in Korovou, who involved everyone with demonstrations on coconuts and herbal medicine, quizzes, games, singing and dancing.

 

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Great to see young people taking travelling seriously! This London couple had been on the road for a year and had a real sense of adventure

 

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Back to Nadi on the Yasawa Flyer

It felt appropriate for us to spend our final night in Fiji at the Bamboo Travellers, bumping in to people at the bar who we’d met along the way.

Then, with that abrupt transition that modern travel brings, we’re suddenly back in Auckland, staying once more with good friends who we’d said our ‘final’ goodbyes to last April.

We’ve now made our final plans and booked our flights. We’re off to Argentina on Sunday and then plan to travel overland to Brazil and along the North East Coast. We have a flight booked out of Brazil and will be home in London by the beginning of October. There is still plenty of travelling to do and there are adventures yet to come, but we are slowly heading back. Inevitably, over the next few months I suspect we’ll both be posing the question, ‘What next?’

And finally for this post, a few pictures from Muriwai, just an hour from Auckland. We saw this colony of gannets on a beautiful winters day. They are themselves great travellers, making the 4,000km journey back and forth to Australia.

The Gannets of Muriwai

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With a two metre wingspan they plunge into the sea for fish, hitting speeds of 150 kph

 

 

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Felt like we were intruding a bit here

So, South America on Sunday – we arrive four hours before we leave, thanks to the international date line.

Click ‘follow’ to see how we get on…

 

 

Wild Days In WA

That laconic steering wheel wave, common in country areas throughout the world, acquired greater significance as we travelled the often empty highways of Western Australia. The glinting metallic dot on the horizon, slowly taking shape on the long straight road, a momentary human contact quickly disappearing in the rear view mirror, emphasising the vast open spaces and sparse population in this mostly flat, always intense landscape.

And WA really is big. A third of Australia’s land mass, 980,000 square miles, and if you exclude Perth and it’s surrounds, containing a population significantly smaller than the North London borough we call home; it’s hard for us city folk to comprehend.

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The South

We had said final goodbyes to our Melbourne friends (for this trip anyway) and spent a few weeks relaxing and planning in an Airbnb near the beach between Perth and Fremantle. Freo was laidback, Perth pretty anonymous and Rottnest Island idyllic, but this blog is about the vast beauty of the WA outback, so just a few pictures for now.

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Fremantle, Rottnest and the South have lots to recommend them …. including the unique, and cute, Rottnest Quokka, coastlines and sunsets.

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Up North – Broome

Originally we intended to drive a campervan on a one way rental from Perth up to Broome, but realised we could save $1000 by flying to Broome and driving South – the route less travelled.

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Boab trees in Broome, vacant lots in the middle of town and unexpected street signs

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From our hostel in Broome we made final arrangements for the big road trip and decided to spend a day in a 4WD exploring the Dampier Peninsula. Well north of the Tropic of Capricorn, bitumen quickly turned to hard red dirt and we began to appreciate just how big and empty the place is. And the sheer intensity of colour, red green and blue under a harsh northern sun burnt the landscape into your eyes.

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Termite mounds and as we moved north, red earth the like of which we had never seen

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Perhaps it was overconfidence in a 4WD, and the packed solidity of the dirt roads, but the decision to drive on to the beach at James Price Point, and then on to the white sand, following other tyre tracks, was a big mistake (mine). Soon we were stuck in soft sand. Digging out, lugging rocks into position underneath the wheels and deflating the tyres didn’t work – the car was buried to its axles. Anne noticed a vehicle on the other side of the bay, and I headed over to see if they could help with a tow. The young couple had only stopped briefly for the view and a drink, but they were the only people we were to see all day. Unable to help extract us, they left some water and headed off, promising to ring for help as soon as they got a signal – a good long drive south.

Hours spent in heat and an eerie lonely silence, getting mobbed by flies and contemplating your own stupidity is probably good for the soul, but it certainly made the sight of a tow truck appearing very welcome. The rental people Broome Broome who sent the truck were great and reassured us that had they not got the call (thank you Alanna & Robbie) they would have come looking for us the next day. Now that would have been a long long wait. Lesson learned.

On the Road

The campervan had a few important comforts – toilet, galley with fridge and a BBQ, and at 7m long, there was plenty of space for two. Our roadtrip of 4,500 kilometres began with a ‘short’ 370km drive to 80 mile beach, long enough to get used to handling the vehicle and negotiating the Road Trains, an iconic feature of life out West.

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A misty sunrise at 80 mile beach and the anglers are out with all the kit

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The early bird …  A Rainbow bee eater

Although we had come across Road Trains down South, these were of a different order. Thundering up and down the Great Northern Highway at a steady 100km, carrying all manner of goods. Iron ore, petrol, food, building supplies, houses or massive mine equipment – they sometimes linked up at a railway, or at  a roadhouse siding to swop loads.

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Over 50 metres long (think 11 cars) and sometimes traveling in pairs, you need to see a long way ahead before venturing to overtake.

Driving into Port Headland, we saw glimpses of the economic powerhouse in the region – mining. A 20 minute stop at a railway crossing to wait for an iron ore train stretching as far as the eye could see.

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So much of this activity exists unseen, way off the beaten track. After an overnight stop and a beautiful sunrise in Port Headland, we headed for the national parks.

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Karijini National Park

The campsite in the heart of the national park, with no electricity or running water is accessible by sealed road. It’s tropical, semi-arid climate, mixed with a distinct geology marked it out as a special place in our road trip. The ancient banded iron formations of sedimentary rock, cut open with deep dramatic gorges hiding shady rivers and rockpools are ideal for walking, swimming and scrambling over. And at night the sky is alive with stars.

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The rocks at our feet, the color of rusty iron and cold to the touch
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Just spectacular

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Anne, peering in to the depths, and swimming in the pools

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That night, we watched a bright full moon rise and went to bed to the sound of dingoes howling at the moon. This really is the outback.

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After two days we had to head out of Karijini, but stopped off to walk Joffre Gorge.

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The climber at the bottom gives a sense of scale

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We drove on to the town of Tom Price, to replenish our water and power, and here we saw some gallahs belie their reputation for foolishness by turning on a camp tap to gain access to water.

Coral Bay

It was over 600 km to Coral Bay, still just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and we headed there for some diving on Ningaloo Reef and snorkeling with Manta Rays. In truth the diving was not that great, with surges around a shallow reef, but we saw reef sharks on a cleaning station, a cuttle fish and schools of snapper and trevally. The snorkelling with Mantas in a shallow bay was fantastic though, as these pictures show. Credit to Peter Wandmaker for the underwater shots.

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Exmouth

Exmouth is not a town that recommends itself, flat, spread out, vacant lots, with the odd craft brewery in mitigation. We had booked a campsite in town, but quickly moved out to the Lighthouse, at the tip of the peninsula, and caught up with the intrepid campers, Innis, Nat and Callum, who we had first met in Coral Bay. These were real campers, with tent pegs, ropes, canvas and a trailer. Callum was clearly in charge, issuing instructions, pulling up pegs and having a great time, as only a two year old can.

Whale Sharks are regular visitors to the peninsula between March and August and the chance to see them had been on our list from the start. However a South Westerly was pushing rain up the coast and the winds were too strong to snorkel outside the bay on Ningaloo Reef, so we were landlocked for a few days. No worries though, Cape Range National Park was pretty much on our doorstep.

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Kayakers in the gorge
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Yardi gorge runs down to the sea and Ningaloo reef beyond

The place was bursting with wildlife, and during our walk in Yardi gorge we came across black footed rock wallabies clambering the rocks and feeding on the spinifex.

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Young black footed wallaby in the rocks beneath us

Not to be confused with Roos, Emus and Dingoes ..

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Dingo with a kill, we saw around six of them in Cape Range NP

My enthusiasm to spot indigenous Australian wildlife led me to jump on the brakes when I spotted an Emu while driving the camper van through the Cape Range NP. Unfortunately a slab of beer stored under the bed, came sliding down the van and collided with the fire extinguisher. As a can exploded, spraying beer throughout our ‘home’  I was already out of the van, camera in hand chasing the large, shy elusive bird through the scrub. Whoops.

Our boat trip with Three Islands – snorkeling with Whale Sharks – set out on a cool morning, with grey skies but good visibility under the water. The briefing and organisation was professional and friendly and soon a spotter plane had located an adolescent male whale shark in the bay. We spent the maximum allowed time, one hour, taking it in turns to enter the water and swim alongside the oceans biggest fish. Magical.

And thanks to Dave from Three Islands for the shots.

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We also had the chance to snorkel with other creatures on the reef, including some rays and the local, but weird, black sailfin catfish.

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Yes the sailfin catfish is weird.

After a farewell dinner with Nat, Innis and Callum, we replenished supplies in Exmouth, and headed out of the North West Cape and down to Wooramel, a station just off the coastal highway, where they had stayed on the way North. Great spot.

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It took 3 sets of confusing directions to find the fresh water tap in the centre of Exmouth …
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… no-one mentioned it was next to the giant pink prawn!

At around 1,500 square kilometers, Wooramel Station is not large by Australian standards – the largest is bigger than Wales. It is impressive enough though, with an ‘upside down river’ that only comes to the surface two or three times a year when it rains inland.

It also has hot baths (33°C) from artesian wells where you can sit and admire the Milky Way at night in all its glory. Special.

The next day, on our way down to Kalbarri NP, we took the fascinating detour to Shark Bay and Hamelin Pool to see the Stromatolites – the largest living fossils on Earth. We also stopped over in Monkey Mia – famous for its, now heavily regulated, dolphin feeding event. Much more our style was the sailing boat Shotover that cruised the bay looking for dolphins and dugons – and we saw quite a few as the breeze rippled the sails.

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Bottle nosed dolphins at Monkey Mia
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The Shotover at sunrise

 

Dolphins in the bay were busy mating, with two bulls coraling a female, it seems there is no choice for the female – who may have to abandon her calf if she falls pregnant. Not so cute.

On shore we came across some eccentric looking Pelicans, and a thick-billed grasswren, a rare and endangered species.

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A rare and endangered thick billed grasswren

Kalbarri

And in Kalbarri, we were soon climbing down gorges again – perhaps not as impressive as those up north, but a beautiful National Park, with a spectacular and varied coastline. Still pretty special.

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Mushroom Rock
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Conquering fears
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Nature’s Window

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Perhaps that ‘special moment’ in Kalbarri though was when Anne and I were walking the coastline by Island Rock and a majestic Humpback Whale breached the surface, turned and disappeared into the deep. Wonder full, but alas no photograph!

The Pinnacles

Just over 200km north of Perth, and the final stop on this epic roadtrip, our visit to the Pinnacles was rushed, but also wonderfully timed. Walking the Kalbarri costal cliffs had delayed our departure (but we did see that whale) and with a 250km to drive, we would be lucky to get there before sunset.

As we approached Nambung, the sky turned all manner of colours, the windscreen was smeared with large drops of rain and swarms of insects began to spatter against the glass. It all added to the atmosphere as we arrived at this sand dune desert with striking limestone columns whose origin is unknown.

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And after that, the drive to Perth, the red-eye overnight flight to Sydney, a few goodbyes to dear friends – and some huge memories of an epic roadtrip.

And now we’re in Fiji.

But that’s another story.

Tasmanian Devils and other Tales

A trip to Tasmania was overdue. Despite visiting Australia half a dozen times – including two years living in Melbourne – we’d never made it across the Bass Straight to Van Diemen’s Land. We soon discovered it’s reputation as an outstanding natural environment with unique wildlife and dramatic history was well deserved. It was a fascinating place.

In Hobart, we found a comfortable apartment on Airbnb, and so we used this as a base to explore Mount Field National Park, Bruny Island and the Tasman Peninsula, as well as the city itself.

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Mt Field NP, the first of many spectacular parks in Tassie