Athens and the Lycian Coast of Turkey

 

Day 1

Left Perth at 7.50am or so for the long flight to Athens. It was a very long, and for me, a tiring flight after a chaotic time in balancing a new job and leaving the old job….

We arrived in Athens around lunch time and we were picked up by ‘Demetrios’ at the airport to go to our small apartment in Kolonaki.  It was ‘Hidesign Apartment’.  It had a large main bedroom; and in the Greek style tiny but new bathroom and a pleasant sitting room and thin porch/balcont overlooking the apartments opposite.  There was a distinctive circular staircase – distinctive of many Athens apartments – and we were on the 4th floor.  There was a tony three person lift which just fitted us in.  Determined to stay awake, we walked down the residential streets to a delightful local café for lunch.  I had ripe Roma cherry tomatoes, a mound of prosciutto and the most delicious fresh mozzarella cheese.  We saw the delivery man arrive with a mound of cheese while we waited for lunch.  We then wandered the streets looking for light provisioning for our apartment and to bed by 7.30pm – slept a good 10 hours.

Day 2

Up early for breakfast on our terrace and then navigated ourselves to the Acropolis Museum.  We walked via Athens major park, which although looking a bit unloved was a beautiful green oasis from the very busy Athens street.  The museum was a beautiful building, perched over ruins of the old city, with glass viewing from walkways looking down on the archaeological sites.  The museum was everything I’d hoped for and my major reason for another trip to Athens.  It was dramatic architecture, wonderful interpretation and the artefacts ‘presentation was just wonderful.  A great experience and being there early was absolutely essential to miss the tourist crowds.  After that, we walked through the famous Plaka, which I do love, despite its tourist focus.  The lack of cars and general atmosphere is intimate.  I know it’s tourist ‘tack’ being sold but it’s so very Greece: souvlaki, the smell of Greek coffee, tavernas and cafes on every corner.  We walked down to Syntagma Square, where Bill located the most perfect Greek custard, filo and honey cake for me and a meat and filo pie for him.  When in Greece…. We sat in the square and watched a small demonstration (also very Greece) with the police lethargically looking on.

Heading back to Kolonaki, we conquered the local subway to find our way home.  That evening Bill had located a typical Greek family restaurant, where in our enthusiasm we ordered so much food that we had to bring home at least a kilo of leftovers.  The restaurant was a real local eating place and the food stodgy and decidedly Greek, lots of stewed vegetables and meat (kleftiko style) and slow cooked dishes.

Day 3

My next museum of choice was the Cycladic Museum which was nearby to Kolonaki and housed in an old mansion just off a main road.  We really enjoyed the Cycladic art and the icons and statues dating back over 2000 – 3000 years.  Hardly a male statue in sight!  Female icons were the go for the ancient Cycladians.    That evening, our last in Athens we walked down to a rooftop bar at the local Hilton Hotel which overlooked the city.  This was again walking distance of our apartment as was our choice for dinner at the stunning Cookoovaya restaurant.  We had a superlative meal and great service at this leading Athens restaurant.  A great way to farewell beautiful Athens.

Day 4 and 5

We had an early flight to Rhodes, which was delayed and the wait was tedious.  In Rhodes we got a taxi to a beachside hotel/restaurant just out of old time to await the ferry to Fethiye.  We lazed by the pool, reading our books and watching the ocean.  Not a bad way to pass the time until we had the hot and unpleasant transfer across to Turkey.  Arriving at Fethiye was a relief and in the evening we walked down to the centre of the town for a great Turkish meal and to absorb the great atmosphere of this small seaside town.

We did have a small drama on Day 4 as Bill mislaid his credit card.  This caused some stress as we managed the ‘work-arounds’ of accessing enough cash to pay for the yacht deposit, cancelling his card and generally feeling dispirited by the whole affair.  I had wrongly thought that we could access cask from ATMS using our American Express card, which is actually not the case, in Turkey in any case.  The other fact is that in the areas where we were travelling in remote parts of the southern coast of Turkey it is largely a cash economy to we desperately needed enough Turkish lira to get us through the two weeks away.  As a consequence we decided to stay in Fethiye for an additional day before setting out for sea.  This would allow us to withdraw enough cash (the maximum daily rate for me was not enough to cover everything) to pay for the boat insurance (also cash required!) and for the journey.

Day 6

We headed off very early on Day 6 crossing the gulf of Fethiye Korfesi to Skopea Limani.  We stayed at Kapi Creek, a very picturesque bay surrounded by huge cliffs and ancient ruins scattered up the slopes.  We took our dinghy around the head of the bay to a swimming spot away from other boats. The water was crystal clear and deep as deep as the cliffs drop off into the ocean.

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Day 7 and 8

We moved a couple of miles to Tomb Bay, which had Lycian pigeon size tombs above us.  We anchored and long-lined off the shore.  We spent all of the day at Tomb Bay for Day 8 as well and had one of those long Mediterranean style swims (it was very hot); just propped up in the water, bobbing around and talking as we drifted past Turkish families on their small gulets on summer holidays.  While there are many gulets in this area of the coast and these have western tourists, the majority of the tourism seems to be local tourism, Turkish families enjoying summer holidays.

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Day 9

Today we headed back to Fethiye for repairs (our dinghy motor quietly died).  Once all sorted we had our first good sail.  The wind was fresh as we made our way to the incredible Kracaoren Bay about 15 miles due south after going around the cape of the bay.   All along the route were impressive cliffs covered in pine trees and dropping straight and deep into the ocean.  Karacaoren is very picturesque and is deep and blue.  There are ruins surrounding the bay and on an island which forms one of the sides of the bay.  They are thought to be the remains of a medieval trading port.

The only restaurant in the bay was a ramshackle affair.  It looked as if it had been built into a cave with the kitchen deep inside and the tables perched high over the water.  The place was well established for the summer; with herbs drying, vegetables on display and simmering coals ready for baking bread and cooking meat.

There were about six boats in the bay and as there is no option but to eat there we were all at dinner.  It was pretty shambolical with a pack of dogs roaming the floor and scrabbling around after an occasional cat.  Still it was an absolutely beautiful spot.

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The shambolical restaurant in beautiful Karacaoren

Day 10

Next morning we woke early and went by dinghy over to Gemiler Adasi which is a channel nearby to explore the ruins of St Nicolas Island – or Gemiler Adasi, thought to be the original site of St Nicolas’ tomb.  It was sourced to 4th-6th century AD and St Nicolas was thought to be there in 360AD.  The island town was on route to the Holy Land for the pilgrims during the Crusades.    Now the place has 5 churches, all now rock fragments and wall and the occasional standing rock arch.  In the 1650s the Arab fleet raided the area so the remains of the Saint were removed to Myra.

Back in our boat we headed further south to Kas, the exotic and ancient city of Antiphelos.  This was a long haul and was 30 miles along one of the harshest areas of the Turkish coastline – the Seven capes.  This area has no shelter and no bays in which to take refuge.  We continued through and sadly there was no wind for sailing, so it was motoring all the way.

When we passed the capes we stopped briefly at the only port of call near Kalkan, Yesilyoy Lemani for a lunch stop, putting out the anchor amidst several day tripper boats.  After another few hours of motoring we made it to Kas where we headed into the new and very modern Kas Marina.  This place was full service, three restaurants, a swimming pool and air-conditioned shower block.  I could really enjoy this.  We wandered up to a marina restaurant after a luxury shower, and wouldn’t you know it the food was less than impressive.  We got better in the remote bays where we had been in previous nights.

Day 11

Kas was a Greek city until the ‘population exchange’ in 1922, when the Greeks were expelled and the area was resettled with Turks from Anatolia, Anatolian Plateau and the Balkans.  1.2m people were removed from Turkey during this time to refugee camps and then to be resettled around the world.  This included Kas, but not the two islands just off the coast.  Kas is now a busy town serving the tourist industry and the many day tripper diving and tour boats.  Just off the coast are Kastorellizo Island and Ro which remain a part of Greece and many will know that this island is the source of many great now Australians, including that of two of our good friends!

On Day 11 we walked into Kas and found the local ferry company which went to ‘Meis’, the Turkish name for Kastellorizo.  It was a very hot wait and lining up for customs but when we arrived in Kastellorizo, I was heaven.  I do love Greece.  The picture-book buildings, very Greek cafes right on the water, small gift shops.  What can you not like about the Greek Islands?

It was hot.  So we did a quick recce of the port then found the local swimming spot along a narrow walking path along the side of the cliff under the castle.  After our swim we walked back into town and found a restaurant perched over the bay’s port for lunch.  It had two Sea Turtles swimming below us as we had our grilled octopus and moussaka (when in Greece, eat Greek!).  Superb.  I also did some shopping in the cafes before we headed back to busy Kas.

Dinner on the boat of cheese and a bottle of good local red wine.

Day 12

We headed 20 miles further east to the Kekova Roads, a long channel between Kekova Island and the mainland.  It was a further 20 odd miles to a very remote area of Turkey coastline.  Again the coast was rugged and inhospitable.  We stayed at the most westerly point of Kekova, at Sicak Koyu.  It was a muddy bottom and very calm with two tiny restaurants at the top of the bay.  As we were the only boat there late in the afternoon, Bill went by dinghy to see if we they were cooking that evening.  As a result, we had a unforgettable dinner looking up Kekova roads on a jetty platform made of hand strewn poles and rickety edges.  The elderly owner had set up dinner just for us and after we left following our meal of squid, kofta and salad, the coupled pottered or puttered up the inlet to the comfort of their home, no doubt in one of the marginally larger townships nearby.  A beautiful spot.

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Looking down Kekova Roads, from the Sicak Koyu restaurant

Day 13

Sicak Koyo is a couple of miles overland from the sunken Lycian city of Aperlai. This city was destroyed by an earthquake in the second century AD. Some of the city slipped into the sea and is now submerged; the rest covers a steep hillside above Asar Bay. We’d checked with the restaurant owner the previous night about the track and the distance. His warning was get up early before it is too hot to walk. He was right about that! It was a hot, dry walk across the riverbed between the two bays but the hillside was covered with ancient wall, rock-carved tombs and castle walls. This particularly appealed to Bill, because he had a colleague at ECU who had conducted archaeological digs on the Aperlae site.

After tramping back to the boat, we moved on to the village of Ucagiz, a long, thin bay deep inside Kekova Roads. Unlike most of the remote bays we visited, this one can be reached by road, so there was lots of local tourism involving day tripper boats exploring the bays. We backed into the jetty, tied up and went for a walk through the village. The thought of another hot night sleeping on the deck of the boat was too much for Susan. She found a cheap local B&B, asked whether it was air-conditioned, and agreed to take the room if it was chilled by the time we got back from getting a few things from the boat. It was chilled, so we stayed and chilled, too.

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Day 14

Today’s adventure was to head offshore in search of a sailing wind. We couldn’t find more than 5 knots of wind, so we completed a circumnavigation if Kekova Island and anchored in another fabulous bay at the eastern end of Kekova Roads. This area, called Gokkaya Limani was our furthest point from Fethiye – or to put it another way our closest point to Syria. It was almost empty when we arrived, but over the day if filled up with noisy tripper boats. We puttered around in the dingy, inspecting the  adjacent island and a large sea cave, followed by a quiet night on the boat.

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Gokkaya Limani

Day 15

This was a long day. We wanted to get as close as we could to Fethiye in one day. To avoid the possibility of having to bash into the prevailing wind, we got started just before daybreak, retracing our steps to Kas, passing outside of the Greek islands of Kastellorizo and Ro, and then on past Kalkan and the Seven Capes. Fifty nautical miles in a day, perhaps the longest single distance we’ve covered in a day in eleven charters, landed us back in Karacaoren and in striking distance of Fethiye the next and last day on the boat. More swimming, followed by another night at the crazy dog restaurant.

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Leaving Kekova, dawn

Day 16, 17 and 18

We headed back to the marina at Fethiye, signed out of the boat and checked in to a terrific hotel jest above the marina. We spent the next day or so checking the sights of Fethiye, shopping, and ended up with a pizza and a few beers in a rooftop bar. Beyond that, a long drive to the airport at Dalaman, a flight to Istanbul, then Athens, then Doha and then Perth. And there we were, arriving back to a cold and wet Perth winter day, brown as berries and very pleased with our fabulous mid-winter break.

 

 

 

 

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Havanaland

After sailing in the Spanish Virgin Islands we had a long day flying from San Juan to Havana, via Miami. This is the long way round, of course, but the US only allows its citizens to fly in to Cuba from a half-dozen airports. US Customs and Border Protection requires them to name one of a dozen reasons for travelling to Cuba. Tourism is not one of America’s officially sanctioned reasons for travel, so people have to nominate one of the other reasons: journalism, research, artistic performances and so on. The most popular one is “support for the Cuban people”. Actually, most of this support for the Cuban people comes in the form of hard currency spent on expensive drinks and meals, cigars, rides in 57 Chevys and nights out at the Floridita or Tropicana. Like the Americans, Susan and I tried all of these forms of support for the Cuban people.

We landed at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, named after the expatriate Cuban poet, intellectual and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Martí’s name is everywhere in Cuba, on his statue in the Plaza de la Revolución and in the name of public institutions such as the airport and one of the universities. He is regarded as a major Latin American literary figure. One fun fact: the song “Guantanamera”, Cuba’s great patriotic song — made famous outside Cuba by Pete Seeger, the Weavers and many others —  uses lyrics based on one of Martí’s poems.

From the airport we were driven to Susan’s conference hotel, the Palco, which is part of the Cuban government’s main international conference centre. It’s not a tourist hotel. It reminded me a bit of the Stazi hotel in Leipzig. Things kind of worked and kind of didn’t, but I don’t think that the rooms were bugged.

On our first day we rented a car and driver with our zoo friends Kris and John, and took drive in the country to a place called Las Terrazas. The car was an important part of the experience. Like most pre-1959 vehicles — they don’t say 1959, but before or after “the triumph of the revolution” — it was a Frankencar. It looks like some kind of a Chev, but has a Hyundai engine and axles and other parts from a variety of other sources. This requires a bit of fettling. The gear stick, for example, emerged from a hole in the dashboard where the radio speaker would ordinarily go. The continuation of the US blockade and the absence of sufficient hard currency for ordinary people to import a new car means that just about every car ever imported is still on the road. The red car below is the “restored” one; the blue one is owned by the driver’s son who is restoring it.

Las Terrrazas turned out to be a model ecological village, developed in the late 1960s and now a local tourist attraction. Lots of jazzed-up old cars for the international tourists and beat up ones for the locals. We had a terrific lunch at the hotel that forms part of the village and headed back to the old city, La Habana Vieja for a look at the tourist sights.

Chief among these was Cuba’s Tiananmen Square, the Plaza de la Revolución. There’s a tower, a statue of Martí, and a couple of large-scale images of Fidel and Che superimposed on the front of government buildings. Next to Fidel the text reads “Vas bien, Fidel” (“You’re going fine, Fidel”), and next to Che the text reads “Hasta la victoria siempre” (“To victory, always”). These messages are mostly lost on the tourists, who rent restored convertibles and do bog laps of the square.

That night we were picked up by our old friend from Toronto, John. He lived and worked in Cuba for more than a decade and returns frequently on business. He was a great host, keen to show us the best spots to eat and drink and smoke cigars. He was also patient in explaining to me how things worked in Cuba, or didn’t. We went with two of his friends, Australian teachers who worked at the international school, to a terrific Italian restaurant in Miramar diplomatic district called Bellaciao. This place was very popular with expatriates and hadn’t been discovered by tourists. The restaurant is outdoors, under a vine-covered arbour. We had a great night. I am sorry there is not a photograph of me smoking that huge cigar.

For the next couple of days Susan had to work, so I tagged along with John as he did some errands. This involved going to the bank and to his office, dropping off hard-to-get items to friends (chocolate and shampoo) and picking up hard to buy items from other friends (cigars). According to John, everything in Cuba requires a workaround.  After the errands each day we went out to lunch. We went to the the very cool El del Frente rooftop bar in La Habana Vieja (tats, tartan and topknots: the hipsters are everywhere);  Starbien, in Vedado; and the Buena Vista Curry Club — Havana’s only Indian restaurant.  Terrific meals at all of these places, accompanied by a couple of beers and (for John) a cigar to finish.

The most interesting of John’s errands was to pick up some pharmaceuticals. As we headed home after lunch one day I asked if we could pick up some bottled water which was not available at our hotel. H was glad to, but said he needed to get some prescription medicine. We stopped three times at stores that ought to have sold water but drew a blank each time. John had more success with his medicine. We pulled up outside a government clinic and were mobbed by a couple of street guys. There was some shouting at the window, which seemed to be about whose customer John was. One guy protested “Mi chino” (roughly my Chinese, or in street language my mate) to which John responded “Mi negro” (thats’s my – black- supplier). Vendor and salesperson sorted out, there was a bit more shouting about the price. When that was settled, John’s supplier rushed off on a bicycle and returned with prescription medicine. We did find water at the fourth shop, but I concluded that in Cuba it is easier to come by bootleg prescription drugs than bottled water.

Cuba has gone through some very tough years since the fall of the Soviet Union. From 1991 to 1995, during what Castro called “the special period”, the poorest Cubans were reputed to have lost 25% of their body weight. I was told by someone that the government tried to help by providing alternative recipes for food from available local sources, including “bistek de toronja”, an alternative to steak made from the pith of grapefruit, seasoned, breaded and cooked. Perhaps this is behind the best Cuban joke that I heard:

Q: What are the three great achievements since the triumph of the revolution?

A: Education! Healthcare! Sports!

Q: What are the three greatest disappointments?

A: Breakfast! Lunch! Dinner!

Another highlight was a visit to the Tropicana cabaret. This was organised one of Susan’s zoo colleagues Ron Magill. He’s a larger than life character and lots of fun. I didn’t realise how famous he was until the maitre de of the Tropicana wanted a selfie with him. Apparently he appeared with animals on the hugely popular Spanish variety program, “Sabado Gigante” for 25 years and is recognised everywhere in the  Spanish-speaking world. The child of Cuban emigres, he is passionate about the Tropicana and comes to the show every time he is in Cuba. He organised us a table right at the front of the show. It’s all singing and dancing, huge hair and high kicks, but the photo below may give you an idea of what Ron likes so much about it. Just so you know, I agree with him.

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My final thoughts about Havana concern what might be called “Havanaland”, a version of old Havana being recreated for the tourists. Despite the shortages of things, the constant working around that is required to live in Cuba, there’s a gradual transition going on in the old town. The elegant pre-revolutionary buildings are being turned into modern hotels with rooftop bars and pools and the street traffic is being dominated by tourist Frankencars. But it’s getting harder for the locals to live there. One of the days we were in the old town, John was concerned about whether his favourite restaurant would be open.  There was a cruise ship in town, and when that happens all of the water gets used up or diverted to the cruise ship, leaving hotels and restaurants reliant on the arrival of water by truck and the locals reliant on hoses and buckets.

(Tourist Havanaland, above, and the locals’ La Habana Vieja below.)

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Puerto Rico, you lovely island

You all remember the song from West Side Story, where Bernardo and Anita sing about the Manhattan immigrant experience for Puerto Ricans:

BERNARDO
I think I’ll go back to San Juan
ANITA
I know a boat you can get on
BERNARDO
Everyone there will give big cheer!
ANITA
Everyone there will have moved here

I’m a big fan of this musical and the song was an worming in my ear for the two weeks we were in Puerto Rico.

From Charlotte we flew direct to San Juan and the Hotel El Convento, built as a Carmelite convent in 1646 and converted to a boutique hotel in 1962. It is located at the heart of old San Juan, a few minutes from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

El Morro was constructed on the orders of King Charles V of Spain in 1539. Its purpose was to protect San Juan’s strategic harbour and the wealth that was shipped through it. (Morro means head, bluff or promontory; there is a Morro overlooking Havana harbour, too.) The citadel was added to and rebuilt for the next 400 years and has seen off attacks by Sir Francis Drake in 1598, the Dutch in 1625 and the Americans three times during the Spanish-American War.

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El Morro, from the land side: once a battlefield now a kite-flying park

The Dutch were involved in a nasty land battle as they attempted to attack by land, across open fields. Americans had more luck. During the final bombardment of San Juan in 1898 the USS Iowa fired on El Morro, smashing part of the wall and injuring no-one. The El Morro gunners fired on the Iowa and missed entirely. The Americans won the war, of course, took over Puerto Rico and occupied El Morro from 1898 to 1961. Since then it has been a park and museum.

From San Juan we headed down to Fajardo to pick up our bareboat yacht, a Jeanneau 409, perhaps the best boat we have ever rented. The map below includes most of the places we visited. Fajardo is on the extreme left and we travelled roughly clockwise from Fajardo to Culebra and Culebrita and south to Vieques, along the south side of Vieques then north back to Fajardo.

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First night out was an hour-long motor eastwards from Fajardo to the nearest anchorage, Isla Palaminos (in the top left hand corner of the map.)  It’s a private island, used mostly as a beach resort during the day by hotel guests from the “big island”. After 5 PM and before 10 AM it is deserted. We hung on a mooring ball provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and in the morning dinghyed over to the tiny sand islet Isla Palaminito (the slash of white that you can see on the right of the photo below).

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Isla Palaminos and Isla Palaminito

The next morning we headed off east towards Isla Culebra, a four-hour slog into the wind. Culebra was virtually deserted. We had our choice of bays, usually on our own, and stayed off three different beaches on the west side of the island: Playa Carlos Rosario, Playa Tamarindos and Playa Melones. Fabulous.

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Playa Tamarindos, Culebra

After four nights out we were running low on cold beer and other essentials, so we headed in to the tiny town of Dewey, the only settlement on Culebra. There’s a little channel between the beaches on the western side of the island and the inland bay, Ensenada Honda. We scrambled over the rough pier on the right hand side of the channel, picked up some ice and supplies and headed back to the boat for a swim.

 

The next night we moved on to Dakity, a very secure but rather busier anchorage, where boats shelter behind a coral wall from the prevailing easterly trade wind.

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Dakity, Culebra

The best thing about Dakity was access to restaurants and bars, after four or five nights of cooking on the boat. We chose a place called the Dinghy Dock for lunch. I had a couple of the local Medalla beers and Susan had some rum punch. There might have been hamburgers, too.

Bidding a fond farewell to Culebra, we headed off to the next island — Culebrita. We had a lovely sail up the channel between Culebra and Culebrita and found a mooring off Playa Tortuga (Turtle Beach), the best of all the beaches in these islands. It’s a long white crescent of sand, fringed with palm trees and surrounded by gin-clear water. A few boats came and went, but mostly it was just us and the wildlife.

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Laughing gull, Culebrita

From Culebrita we had a long day’s sailing to the other big island in the group, Vieques. We sailed at about eight knots (that’s very fast for a keelboat) for nearly five hours, reaching across the Sonde de Vieques and running down the Eastern side of the island to the main port, Esperanza. Can’t beat those trade winds: 10-15 knots, all day and night, every day and night.

Vieques is something else. Most of it is a former US military gunnery range, so half of the island is blocked off in a nature reserve. The birds have a pile of unexploded ordinance for company, but not much else. There are two settlements on Vieques, Esperanza and Isobel Segunda. We moored the boat in the harbour of Esperanza and went for a walk, hoping to find some stores to replenish ice, beer and food. There’s a strip of little beachside restaurants and guesthouses and maybe 50 local houses in Esperanza. We found the Green Store a couple of hundred metres up the hill, but figured that the ice would have melted before we got it back down the hill, onto the dinghy and out to the boat. Dejected, we walked back down the hill, past a strange four-story concrete box. On inspection, it turned out to be the island’s only decent hotel, El Blok. Best idea when confronted by an unexpected boutique hotel? Book in, have a proper shower and a couple of restaurant meals, and rent a car.

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Esperanza

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Isobel Segunda

After a shower and a bit of air-conditioned comfort, we rented a car and set off to explore Vieques. It seems to be a very poor place, in the US but very Caribbean. There’s no local industry except the fledgling backpacker tourist industry, high levels of unemployment and lots of people who look like they drank or smoked a little more than is good for them. Isobel Segunda is a scruffy little town, full of barely roadworthy vehicles , outdoor beer bars and not much else.

Much of the island, though, is a national wildlife refuge. There is a nicely curated boardwalk through the Kiani Lagoon wetlands with miles of untended natural forrest around it. There were virtually no other visitors the day we were there, although wild horses graze freely in great numbers in the forrest and on the roads through the refuge.

We returned for a swim in the pool and a few drinks at the bar on the roof of El Blok followed by a great evening meal. Refreshed, next morning we did a shopping and ice run, returned the hire car and sailed down to the western end of Vieques. We anchored in an empty bay off near Punta Arenas. What happened next? We went for a swim.

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At anchor off Punta Arenas, Vieques

We stayed here one night — another bay another day — and then sailed north for about three hours. We stayed overnight at Isla Palaminos again, so that we were ready to return the boat to Fajardo the following day. And that brings the sailing part of the holiday to a close. Next, a flight to Havana via Miami and the possibility of another blog episode from your guest blogger.

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Bluegrass and the Blue Ridge Parkway

Peaks of Otter Lodge is quite beautiful, particularly when the sun comes out.  After dinner last night, with a local woman singing hillbilly country and playing a dulcimer for diners’ tips, we had a run back through the cold and the rain to our room.  But by morning, although cold, it was was clear and glorious.  The ‘Peaks’ were visible and the lake glistening.  We walked its perimeter enjoying the brilliant green trees, the brightly painted deck chairs and the post and rail wooden fences.  But it was cold!  So my bad cold and the actual cold weather was a reason to delay our next planned walk and we drove instead direct from Virginia back down to Blowing Rock in North Carolina on the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway.

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The sky was clear and the vistas were stunning.  It was a long drive, peppered with stunning pink rhododendrons by the roadside and corner after corner of wide mountain views.  A wonderful experience and strongly recommended.

Blowing Rock is now a destination in itself for people from the south – a mountain escape from the heat and humidity of the southern summers and a skiing destination in the winter.  Blowing rock is an actual place with a story that it is the only place in the USA (the world? the cosmos?) where snow flows upwards. This is caused by the winds whipping up the valleys and rock face.  It is now in well-manicured and interpreted gardens, perhaps overly so, but we enjoyed the walk around it and the magnificent views of the surrounding Appalachian mountain ranges.

From there we drove again up to the Parkway to Linville Falls in the Linville Gorge in the mountains.  It is a 30 metre waterfall with walkways to several vantage points.  It was Mother’s Day and the trails were full of families, the most people we had seen in several days, all out for family picnics and a walk in the woods.

Our next stop was further south to a small town just outside Asheville called Weaverville, where we were staying on Main Street.  All USA towns and cities seem to have a Main Street, it’s really one of those ubiquitous things about the United States, a bit like strip development and food chains on the outskirts of cities.    But Weaverville was delightful, and this far south the warm weather had certainly arrived.  Our B&B was an old wooden mansion with a back porch (where we breakfasted) backing onto the mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway wilderness) and the front on a cultivated garden and of course the Main Street.  Pretty, but a little worn (like the Inn owners themselves), the house had operated as a private house, a doctor’s surgery, a school and now an Inn.  We sat on wicker chairs on the front porch and enjoyed the warm sunshine at last.

Dinner was a walk down the Main Street, past the local schools (with little league baseball) and craft shops (it’s a very crafty and arty part of the world) to a local brewery-restaurant and some local music.  It was Mother’s Day so it was busy, but fun, people watching and enjoying the local craft beer.

While in Weaverville we took a day trip to Cherokee.  This was through a winding mountain road (with ubiquitous strip development), lovely mountains, rivers and forests.  Cherokee itself was full of Native American/Indian ‘tat’, complete with wooden life-size Indian sculptures outside of tobacco shops.  But the Cherokee museum was good and the reason we travelled there.  The museum tells the story of the dreadful forced removal and relocation of thousands of native American people, including the Cherokees, by the order of President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.  The dreadful Trail of Tears to Oklahoma where thousands of people died on the road or from disease in the camps.  A sad piece of history.

For lunch, for something bizarrely different, we ate at Harrahs, a Cherokee-owned casino.  It seemed to be the only place to eat in town which wasn’t served in paper or on plastic or with disposable knives and forks.  The casino has given a steady income to the Cherokees who remain in this part of North Carolina.  They are descendants of those who escaped forced relocation and the Trail of Tears by hiding in the mountains.  They have somewhat retained their language and culture and the income from the casino pays for social services and education foe local families.

The last thing  we did before heading to the Charlotte airport was to walk around Asheville, a tourist town full of art galleries, restaurants and brewpubs. We wandered into this lovely arcade (photographed here), and found a shop where a young man was making  musical instruments by hand. The instruments are a kind of upright dulcimer. So beautiful, we bought one (left).

 

We enjoyed a final evening in Weaverville at a lovely local restaurant with a good Californian wine – and now, off to Puerto Rico!!

 

 

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On the road again

We left sunny Detroit and flew down to Charlotte, picked up a rental car and drove to Asheboro where Susan had a few more days work to do. Asheboro is a small town in the central Piedmont area of North Carolina. The NC Zoo is the biggest industry in town and the biggest local employer (except perhaps WalMart).

Susan’s work began with a few drinks at Kickback Jack’s with some of her zoo friends: Pat, who runs NC Zoo, and Georgina and Dave from an NGO called Wild Welfare.

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Kickback Jack’s Asheboro NC

The next day, while Susan worked, I went for a walk in the woods along an old railway track. There are lots of disused rail tracks in the Piedmonts, which used to serve the many cotton mills and clothing factories. These are mostly closed now, and the jobs have been exported to lower-wage countries.

NC Zoo is just the kind of zoo that Susan would have designed, had the plans for an open range zoo not been shelved. It is set on a couple of thousand acres of hilly woodland. There are two separate sections “Africa” and “North America”, each containing species from those regions. Africa includes large cleared paddocks such as the one below, containing a herd of African elephants. North America includes a lake, marshes full of birds and alligators, a fabulous walk-through aviary and a series of large, conventional zoo enclosures such as the one containing this very happy polar bear. The next exhibit developed will be “Australia”, opening in 2019. We might come back for the opening. NC Zoo is now my favourite large scale zoo. Visiting zoo directors must walk away shaking their heads, wishing they had the site, the space and the capital of this zoo. (For those of you who are following closely and wondered why I said “favourite large zoo”, Basel in Switzerland is my favourite city zoo.)

When Susan finished the last of her meetings we headed north to Charlottesville in Virginia. Charlottesville is the location of Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello, and the university he founded in the early 1800s. We stayed on the beautiful campus of the University of Virginia, a World Heritage Site and reputed to be the most beautiful campus in the US. UVA has developed into a highly selective university — near Ivy League cost and selectiveness for students. When Jefferson designed it, he wanted professors and students to mix together and people to work across disciplines, so he designed a series of buildings around what is called “the Lawn”. At the top of the Lawn is the Rotunda — formerly the library — and around the sides are professors’ houses, joined by lines of single student rooms, ten or fifteen of them in a row between each professor’s house. (And no, I did not take the picture below: I stole it from the internet.)

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Jefferson’s UVA Rotunda and Lawn

We also visited Monticello, the house that Jefferson designed and retired to after his term as President. It is a Palladian house, designed to reflect the houses he had seen in France and Italy when he served as US Ambassador to France. It is full of Jefferson’s inventions: beds in walls between rooms, double doors that close mechanically when one is closed, an automatic pen that creates a duplicate of letters he wrote, a dumb waiter to bring wine bottles up from the cellar to the dining room. I particularly liked a quote displayed in the cellar, from a letter Jefferson wrote to a European correspondent: “wine from long habit has become indispensable to my health”. Contrast that with the current maniacal, teetotal US president.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Leaving Monticello and Charlottesville we drove west to Staunton, a town famous as a Civil War railhead used to supply the Confederate army during the battles in the Shenandoah Valley. We stayed (of course) at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.

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Staunton, from our window in the Stonewall Jackson Hotel

Unfortunately, the rain has closed in, making the first part of our planned drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway impractical — high mountain roads, heavy rain, visibility less that 100 metres. So instead we scooted down the interstate to our next hotel at the Peaks of Otter, just north of Roanoke, Virginia.  The picture below shows the guest blogger at work, overlooking the lake at Peaks of Otter.

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Guest blogger at work, Peaks of Otter VA

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Guest blogger returns: Rivière Détroit

It’s Saturday today, the first fine day since we arrived in Detroit on Monday. Steady, unrelenting drizzle 24/7, low grey skies and temperature ranging from 4 to 10 degrees C. The hotel is 15 minutes from the zoo, but not near anything else of interest except this carpark which you can see out of our hotel window.

The location of the hotel, 15 minutes by freeway from downtown Detroit, reflects the hollowing-out of the old city. This process began around the time of the terrible 1967 race riots, leading to city-centre offices being abandoned and suburban offices like the one we are staying in replacing them.

The blighted inner city and downtown are is currently undergoing a major revitalisation. The fabulous Art Deco skyscrapers, hotels and office buildings of Detroit’s golden age are being rebuilt and reoccupied.

So, on the first fine day for a week I called an Uber to take me into the city for a self-guided architectural tour. Working my way up from the waterfront, I began with the Underground Railway memorial on the Detroit River: an African American family looks across the river to safely in Canada.

One of Detroit’s Art Deco masterpieces is the Guardian Building, a cathedral of finance with interior and exterior decoration in multicolour Aztec designs. Above the lobby desk is a lofty statement of banking principles. The banking chamber remains in use today, with brightly Aztec tiles on the walls and dome and an intricate brass dividing wall.

Other buildings have not fared so well. The Metropolitan Building (below left) is decayed and surrounded by scaffolding; the David Stott Building, the last Art Deco building completed before the depression, has been shuttered and prepared for restoration as an apartment building.

And finally, by way of contrast, the old and the new Detroit. On the river’s edge is the GM Renaissance Center (the Ren Cen), built in 1977 and currently being refreshed — all light, glass and views and a symbol of modern Detroit. And in the picture beside it, an un-named 20’s building abandoned inside a chain-link fence and flanked by the monorail track of the Detroit People Mover.

But that’s not all: Detroit Institute of Arts and the Diego Rivera mural

Out of time sequence, I should also report on a visit last night to the Detroit Institute of Arts (not to be confused with the Detroit Institute of Bagels, just down the street). This magnificent art collection was funded mostly by old Detroit (and especially Ford) money. It includes old masters and a great collection of more modern work. I could name check the artists, but by way of example it included several very familiar Van Goghs including the self portrait without ear. I was particularly taken by the juxtaposition of these two Picassos: one from 1923 and the other from 1954, both of women seated in armchairs.

But the real reason for the visit was to see Diego Rivera murals. These murals, the Detroit Industry murals, were painted in the early 1930s and largely funded by Edsel Ford. They draw heavily of what Rivera saw a Ford’s Rough River car plant but cover a range of other industries and technologies associated with Detroit. The images are in socialist realist style and were criticised at the time for their Marxist sentiments — unsurprising since Rivera was a Marxist — but he was strongly supported by Edsel Ford in the controversies that followed the display of the completed work. Some say that the controversy pleased Ford, who wanted to generate publicity for the work and the gallery. I have included one section from one of the panels in the photo below. I found the whole work very moving, and recommend that you all come straight to Detroit to see it, notwithstanding the terrible weather, climate, white flight, urban blight and so on ….

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“Sorry, I have to go, I’ve got an escaped gorilla.”

The guest blogger returns, to update readers on our trip to Hong Kong, San Francisco and Mexico. (Click on the blue links for more detail on some of the places we visited.)

We are on the last day of the trip, and the fifth day of Susan’s conference in Puebla. As these conferences are, WAZA is flat-out politics 16 hours a day. Susan is forever circulating at lunch and dinner and in the lobbies outside meeting rooms, checking whether what suits the Europeans on some zoo policy issue also suits the North Americans, the Latin Americans and the Australians.

Most recently, she was following up with a colleague to thank him for lining up on some policy position or other and his phone rang. He picked it up, turned to Susan and said,”Sorry, I have to go, I’ve got an escaped gorilla.” Real life of a zoo director gazumps even WAZA politics.

The picture below shows Susan at work, with the opening address to the Governor of Puebla state and Mayor of Puebla city.

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La Presidenta del Mundo gives her opening address

Hong Kong

The first phase of this trip was a three-day stopover in Hong Kong. Susan hadn’t been to Hong kong before, except through the airport, so we booked three nights at a Tsim Sha Tsui hotel with a view of the Hong kong island skyline.

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Hong Kong skyline from West Kowloon

Highlights of our visit included a foodie walking tour: four hours in-and-out of a jumble of markets and restaurants eating dim sum, roast meat, preserved fruit and Portuguese egg tarts. The wonderful cultural and culinary diversity of Hong Kong was summarised for me by the multilingual restaurant sign below.

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Enter from Mody road, through the Chinese medicine shop

The other Hong Kong highlight was a visit to Ocean Park, an aquarium and theme park run by Susan’s friend Suzanne Gendron. What blew me away was a behind-the-scenes visit to the giant panda enclosure, where we saw keepers training the pandas to present paws for blood tests. The pleasure shown by the pandas in interacting with the keepers was a sharp contrast the usual view zoo view of immobile pandas eating their way through kilos of bamboo.

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Training a giant panda to present paws for a blood test, Ocean Park

San Francisco and the Sonoma Valley

After a long flight to San Francisco (thanks for that upgrade, Cathay Pacific) we checked in to the Metropolitan Club, Caroline’s downtown refuge for professional women (male guests may use the pool on Friday, Saturday and Sunday). We caught up with David and Caroline for a couple of lovely meals and did the tourist rounds. The best of these was a visit to the SF MOMA gallery. Highlights included a wonderful exhibition of Anthony Hernandez photographs. As usual the work I liked best was a mid-century Rothko.

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Mark Rothko, No 14 1960, SFMOMA

We then hired a car and headed north to to the wine country. First of many stops was a fabulous wine tasting booked by Caroline at Lynmar Estate in Russian River. Four fabulous pinot noir reds on tasting – pity I was the designated driver, rather than the designated drinker! Best Californian restaurant? The Shed in Healdsburg, Sonoma Valley.

Mexico City

Listening to Donald Trump, you’d get the impression that Mexico was some backward third-word country, mainly producing housekeepers, gardeners and drug cartels.  Not so. Founded by the Aztecs in 1325 and rebuilt as the capital of New Spain from 1524, Mexico City is a vast sprawling metropolis of 30 million people and a Centro Historico built with Spanish gold in the 16th and 17th centuries and in a celebration of Mexican independence in  the 19th century. We stayed in a converted town house built around a courtyard just a few streets from the zocolo (main square).

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View from our balcony, Downtown Hotel Mexico City

On the first morning Caroline, Susan had a guide show us around the Centro Historico. Incredibly well-informed about the architectural history of the city, and with some wry views about the behaviour of the Spanishers (as he called them), Francisco walked as through museums, cathedrals and the most ornate GPO in all of the Americas. Of these buildings, the one I liked best was the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes (below).

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Caroline, Susan and two random passers by, Museo Nacional de Belles Artes

We ate several times at Limosneros, a restaurant we stumbled on around the corner and later found was rated among the top few in Medico City. On our last night we had the six course tasting menu with matched Mexican wines. we also had a couple of  glasses of mezcal from the suspended glass jugs in the picture below.

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The mezcal line-up at Limosneros

We also visited the Mesoamerican temples of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan on an early morning tour. This marvellous archeological site dates from about the time of Christ. The photo below is or the ride out to Teotihuacan, brightly coloured houses buzzed by one of Mexico City’s many freeways.

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The final treat to mention in Mexico City was a visit to the Palacio Nacional to see the Diego Rivera murals. Painted in the 1930s at the behest of the minister of education of the day, they were intended to raise Mexicans’ awareness of their history. They document aspect of pre-colonial life, struggles against the French and Spanish invaders, and revolutionary struggles for independence. That’s a lascivious priest ravishing Mexican womanhood in the detail below.

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Detail from Diego Rivera mural, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

Moving on to Puebla, another ancient city two hours down the freeway, we joined up with our friends at the WAZA conference. Like Mexico City, Puebla has a lovely centro historico dating from  the 16th century, including Biblioteca Palofoxiana the oldest publicly accessible library in the Americas and the extraordinary gold-leafed Capilla Rosario.

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Capilla Rosario, Puebla

And that’s about it for the travelogue. Next steps, Puebla to Mexico City, Mexico City to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Perth. ¡ Vamos !

 

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South Africa!

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The view driving to the Cape of Good Hope

The languages and cultures of South Africa have been one of the most interesting things about the visit here – and the scenery; the wildlife; the history; the food; wine; the walks; and the great service. We have been incredibly impressed with the whole experience of holidaying in South Africa.

Firstly the language and culture.  Apparently there are 11 official languages in South Africa. We noticed the flow between zulu, xhosa, Afrikaans and English; and peoples’ faces reflected the rich and lengthy history of the flow of people to this part of the world.

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Giraffe at the Lion Safari Park where the conference was held.

It was work that brought me here as I attending a professional conference north of Johannesburg at Broederstroom in Gauteng.  It was VERY cold, which took us by surprise, and the small local conference centre struggled with maintaining the heat to our room. And I’m a sook in that regard.  The conference room was icy and the Vervet monkeys in the gardens looked as though they were tinged with ice or dew in the morning sun.   After the four days of work and presentations, we travelled south to Pretoria where we met with the CEO and Science Director at the South African National Zoo.  The tour of the research facilities was really impressive as they are biobanking DNA of South African wildlife.  I was also impressed with the zoo.  It is a large old colonial zoo and although built at the same time as Perth Zoo, it is a much larger facility and many of the original enclosures are quite large and naturalistic.

After work obligations were all done at the end of Friday, it was time for Bill and me to celebrate.  We were now in a warm hotel room in Pretoria with a good restaurant and bar (the conference facility food facilities, like the heating, were relatively rudimentary).  We had our first taste of ostrich filet washed down my a delicious glass or two of South African red wine.  For those wondering about ostrich, it is lean and quite delicious.

Next stop was Cape Town – on a holiday break!  It was a short flight from Johannesburg airport.  We saw the landmark Table Mountain as we came down to the Cape. It really is an extraordinarily beautiful city.  From the Mountain to the ocean is the original city and the suburban sprawl has moved along the coast and inland as the city has grown to now 4.5 million people.  Bill had arranged a great apartment right on the waterfront, in a complex overlooking the canal which flows into the harbour.  We were spoilt.  It was luxury.  A short walk was the wonderful V&A (Victoria and Albert) Harbour development, full of shops, restaurants and wonderful views of the ocean and mountains.

Being keen on everything nautical, we went for a short boat/yacht tour out into the ocean – where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.  It was a fabulous day, sunny and warm.  We saw Sea Lions, African Penguins, Long-beaked Dolphins and a great array of bird life.  A great trip.  Returning to the V&A, we had a seafood platter to die for, sitting in the winter sunshine.  We then went to the armory museum dating from the 1600s which was only re-discovered during excavations in the last 20 years or so.  It was well curated and such fascinating history in this part of the world.

Day 2 we went up to the Table Mountain.  I expected it to be a bit tacky and full of people from tour buses but the interpretation was excellent and being a winter day it wasn’t crowded.  It was exquisite up on the mountain top and we could walk around quite freely and explore the bush and views.  After the challenging cable car, we took a bus ride home via the beach suburbs.  Wonderful scenery and very wealthy real estate – with people walking dogs, skateboarding, surfing and watching the sunset.

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The coastal drive

Day 3 was hire car day.  The trusty GPS helped us find our way to the Cape of Good Hope which is in an excellent national park, passing small coastal villages on the way.  We visited Boulders, which has one of the few remaining colonies of African Penguins.  Again, the interpretation was excellent and the area was managed really well to protect the nesting penguins.  All along the coast the scenery was wonderful.  we pulled into a small seaside restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had a fantastic seafood meal in the sunshine.

Before heading north to Franschoek on Day 4, we visited the ‘Company’s Gardens’ (the VOC – ie the Dutch East India Company) dating from the late 1600s and the slave museum.  We also visited the very hip scene of Cape Town – very good coffee and food culture.  Also lots of art galleries and studios, hipsters galore.

Franschoek, our walking (and gastronomical destination, as it also turned out) is just an hour or so from Cape Town.  It has French Huguenots antecedents (the first arriving in the late 1600s) but also a rich history of other Europeans settling here from throughout western Europe.

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Our Hotel in Franschoek – a lovely small hotel and the views from our room below

These days the farms are now all converted to vineyards and the small village houses and wine farms changed to accommodate high end restaurants.  The food here has been extraordinary.  We were told that there are around 60 or so restaurants in this village and the surrounds and there is a bit of competition for the most adventurous menus.  Our first night we ate at a very famous (apparently) ‘foraging’ restaurant.  There were lots of local fungi and grasses in the salads and sauces and the chef and his team looked out of hipsterville in Cape Town or New York.   The food has been really terrific.

The trek we had chosen for our next day was up the mountain above the town.  Our guide was a local who knew quite everything about the ‘fynbos’, the unique plant life in this biodiversity hotspot and was also the editor of the local paper.  It was a rugged and challenging walk for us with older infrastructure.  We loved the stories of the plant life from Siegfried as well as the beautiful proteas (and their similarities to West Australian plants is very interesting) and as I hope that you can see from the photos the views were extraordinary.

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Protea up on the mountain above the village

We are heading home tomorrow, but tonight we have another great meal planned, in one of the best restaurants in South Africa.  Loosen the belt….

 

 

 

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The Kimberley

In late April, I travelled to the Kimberley with good friends and colleague zoo directors from around the world,  from Washington, Chicago, Houston, New York, Cologne in Germany and also Melbourne.

We flew into Broome and immediately went out to the amazing Roebuck Bay.  The tide was rushing in – it is a 9 metre tide – and the many shore birds were massing on the beach as it disappeared.  It was blazing hot in the sun but we had a very experienced and enthusiastic bird guide, George Swan who showed us the best spots to view the birds.

IMG_0758After a full day birding we ended at Cable Beach for a beer by the ocean for the sunset, along with very many other travellers and Broome personalities.  The camel trains came past us up the road from the beach.  Dinner was at local Matso’s at a long table in the garden.  Delicious curries, tandoor and locally brewed beers.

The next morning we were picked up after breakfast by Broome Air Services for a flight up the Dampier Peninsular to Cygnet Bay, where we were to stay the night.  The flight was clear and we could spot the communities of Beagle Bay and the vast creeks and inlets up and down the peninsular.   Cygnet Bay is the site where William Dampier brought his boat, the Cygnet ashore for repairs in the 17th century.  It’s now an operating pearl farm, producing high quality pearls because of the purity of the water.  The site certainly feels like a farm with bits of agriculture equipment and a boat with wheels – sealegs Bill assures me – with hydraulically operated wheels that drive into the ocean.

Our tented cabins were about a kilometre from the kitchen camp adjoining a creek and some mangroves.  Lots of bugs and mosquitoes!  Little corellas watched us as we swam in the pool overlooking the bay.

In the afternoon a local Aboriginal guide and the boat captain, took us out on the ‘tinny’ to see the sites of the Buccaneer Archipelago – harsh islands with incredible rock formations and of course that amazing rushing tide.  That evening the stars and the skies were vast.

Next day we were back on the plane on the way to Derby for refuelling.  Derby is a tiny and extraordinarily remote town.  Coming in from the air over the vast mud flats was incredible.  Then on to a more rugged rocked landscape, over the Leopold Ranges to Mornington Sanctuary.  The Sanctuary settlement is green and lush scattered around Annie’s Creek.  The cabins are comfortable and ours had the backdrop of the water bubbling by.  There was a wonderful delicious lunch and then a drive through the rugged bush to Sir John Gorge.  Wonderful swimming in the clear Fitzroy River and a magic sunset.

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The AWC is restoring the once cattle station to close to its natural state; having removed the livestock, ferals and have introduced the light burning regime to best manage the land and the impact of late dry season fires.  When we were there they were monitoring the remaining population of Northern Quolls.  We went down to the river to view the tagging and were briefed about the work by one of the camp’s ecologists.  Impressive.

The easiest and quickest way to get around the rough terrain at Mornington is by helicopter and we were taken for an incredible breakfast on a high bluff overlooking the Sanctuary.  This was followed by an incredible helicopter ride along the Fitzroy River to Rosie’s Pool, an idyllic remote swimming hole surrounded by lush palms and rugged rock face. There was rock art on the overhang.  Coming back to camp, the helicopter pilot hovered beside some intricate “Bradshaw” rock art up high above the Fitzroy.

 

Our final day was a bird walk down Annie’s Creek where we saw a huge array of birdlife including the extremely rare Gouldian FInch.  Then a canoe trip through Dimond Gorge on the Fitzroy River followed by a beautiful candlelit dinner out in the desert.  It was an extraordinary adventure in the Kimberley.

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Tucson

During January I visited Tucson Arizona to attend work meetings and a conference.  I have never been to southern Arizona before and certainly wasn’t prepared for this cactus kingdom.  Tucson is set in flat land between mountains.  At this time of year (January) many of the high peaks had snow, but the temperature in Tucson was mild and sunny.

I arrived from Los Angeles in mid afternoon and picked up a high car at the airport.  Setting my ‘sat nav’ in the car I ventured out of the airport car hire section (always a real challenge to find one’s way out of rental car sections of the airport) and onto the streets of Tucson.

Tucson is only a smallish US city, initially a part of Mexico and still with remnants of that history and that of the original country of the Apache.  Layering the interesting history is the freeway and road culture of all American cities.  The ubiquitous green freeway exit signs with 35E or 1st Street. Thank God for the sat nav.

I found the right exit which headed into the mountains. It was then I saw the cactus.  Yes, we all have a working and gardening knowledge of cactus and coming from Western Australia I have seen a fair share of invasive cactus in the bush.  But Tucson is cactus country.  There was literally a forest of cactus on the hill behind the hotel.  The view from my room was a wonderful cactus landscape.  Up until now I didn’t know but I really love this weird landscape of cactus.

I travelled west to the Sonora Living Desert Museum the next day and enjoyed much more cactus and the mountains surrounding Tucson.  There was a wonderful old mission San Xavier Mission del Bac in the Indian land south of the town.  It had a rich history, founded in 1692 and was right in Apache country.  It has a wonderful Moorish style and the inside of the main church has been beautifully renovated.

Back in the trusty car with sat nav I then headed east past the one remaining Titan Missile military site (where you can tour the facility – I passed on that, but it was eerie) and headed for a walking trail in one of the mountain canyons.  It was about an hour’s drive through the flat lands between the mountains and then winding up to the mountains themselves, which were dusted with snow.  It was strange seeing the snow covered cactus, a bit like a dusting of icing sugar.

 

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