A Travellerspoint blog

2 conflicted spaces

This Spring I visited a couple of zones of conflict in the Mediterranean so thought I’d write an email describing them.

First up was sun kissed Cyprus/Northern Cyprus in February.
After flying into Northern Cyprus (Turkish side) our first stop was the central city Nicosia, which is unique as it’s the world’s only divided capital city.
Greeks and Turks have both lived on the island for a long time but the Greeks have always been in the majority. In the early 1970s Turks made up about 20% of the population but were quite thinly scattered across the island. In 1974, in a display of needless machismo, the junta that ruled Greece at the time decided to invade (and run the country themselves) and the Turks responded by counter invading to protect Turkish Cypriots. After a few months of mid intensity fighting, a peace treaty was signed but with the island now split into a Greek South and Turkish North (not internationally recognised).
Whilst Nicosia didn’t have too many stand out sights, by far the most interesting aspect of being there was the atmosphere of the demilitarized zone that has formed right in the city centre. Whole chunks of the city have been either abandoned or turned into military posts and quite often you’d turn into an unsuspecting looking side road only to be faced by soldiers with guns and signs warning you that trespassers will be shot in several languages. Probably not a good place to absent mindedly get hammered methinks.
We then headed to the South coast and the pretty port city of Paphos. There are some great archaeological sights and once you can get off the beaten track in the Akamas peninsula some really impressive coastal scenery.
The highlight in the South was definitely climbing the highest peak Mt. Troodhos. Whilst you can’t get to the summit itself (British military installation) in February it was a great experience as the mountain is high enough to be covered in knee deep snow. There’s an extremely popular ski resort near the top but once you get away from that into the pine forests you almost feel like you could be in Scandinavia or the Alps as the perfect blue skies meets the green and white of the snow covered trees. Absolutely wonderful and not what you’d expect to find in Cyprus.
The problem I think I had with travelling in Cyprus was that it’s just really hard getting away from tourist developments. There are billboards virtually everywhere on the highways advertising property developers in a variety of different languages and it felt like the island’s economy seems to be based on a giant ‘laundromat’ model as Russians, other Eastern Europeans and even Chinese who’ve made their money through dubious means invest in the country and in return get a shiny Cypriot (read EU) passport. On top of endless dodgy Russians there’s also a huge number of annoying, generally fat and stupid British baby boomers, who bought and sold houses at the right time to live out a very comfortable retirement in the sun. Aside from creating an eyesore landscape of endless white duplexes, sprawling out from the dull cities, dodgy Adidas clad Russians and Daily Star reading Brits drinking pints of Carlsberg do not add much to the culture and I think they have sold their soul a little bit.
The North I definitely enjoyed more as I felt it still retained an old world charm about it. That said it’s also sold it’s soul somewhat as unexpectedly Northern Cyprus revealed itself to be a bit of an adult playground. The target market seemed to be Muslims from nearby countries (Turkey, Lebanon and beyond) but also from further afield in Central Asia as several impressive casinos have been built and are even joined by strip clubs in this Muslim country. Wandering round one of the casinos on a midweek night was a bit of a surreal experience as the designer clad patrons nonchalantly tossed around $100 chips and the whole place positively reeked of illegality somewhere in the system, but in an otherwise quiet coastal area.
To get around you pretty much have to rent a car but you’re rewarded as stunning coastal and mountain scenery is joined by some lovely cities in Famagusta and Kyrenia. There are some particularly good crusader era castles to climb up to and the bizarre ‘Blue Mansion’ owned by an eccentric lawyer/arms smuggler was a particular highlight. It’s much more sparsely populated than the South and in large parts of it not much is really happening until you come across another inevitable army installation of course.
The conflict in Cyprus and indeed the division as a whole felt a bit pointless as most Cypriots on both sides would actually like to reunify. Last year was a major blow to the process however as years of negotiations ending up collapsing after Turkey interfered and refused to remove their army presence from the island. As Erdogan pushes an ever more pro-Islamist agenda many on the Turkish side feel they’re losing their own much more relaxed culture as he tightens his grip on power. Pointless, expensive and misguided machismo started the conflict and even 45 years later continues to fuel it.

Whilst I enjoyed Cyprus it also me realise that I like more of a challenge when I’m on holiday. I don’t think I’m ready for the days of renting a villa and enjoying the sun as the main focus of a holiday so, looking for something a bit more on edge, this Easter I headed to the land of Israel. Or is it Palestine? Or Canaan? Or Judea? Or ‘The Holy Land’?
I don’t really know but as the different names above suggests, it’s one of the most contested places in the world. Travelling there has been an extremely thought provoking and stimulating experience, but I also pretty shocking too.
After getting quizzed for well over an hour by 3 different security agents at Tel Aviv airport (a Qatari ID + some unusual stamps in the passport “Where is this Somaliland”? will do that) I was very relieved to get into the country and headed straight to the Holiest of Holies, Jerusalem.
I arrived just as Shabbat (Sabbath) was breaking at Easter/Passover and being in Jerusalem at this time is an eerie feeling. Virtually everything shuts down with no shops open or public transport running. Jews also aren’t allowed to drive a car and it’s a surreal feeling in the dusk as you’re in the downtown of a city of nearly a million people but with virtually no noise. With the exception of some background automated noises like pedestrian crossings or the hum of street lights, there are no signs of life beyond the occasional Orthodox Jew in their extraordinary 17th century Eastern European outfits scurrying to get to synagogue.
The whole city is built from the same material called Jerusalem stone and in the silence, as you get closer to the Holy city a unique air of expectancy grows, I could easily see why so many people get ‘Jerusalem fever’ when they visit. It’s the most important city in the world to both Christians and Jews and third to Muslims (after Mecca and Medinah) and all (very pious) communities are easily identifiable walking around the narrow streets. To allow everyone to coexist peacefully, the old town was split into 4 quarters, a Christian one, an Armenian (also Christian) one, a Muslim one and a Jewish one where each community can live how they choose. They are all fascinating in their different ways and I thought it would only be right if I saw a range of devotion in action.

When I reached the old city I went and watched the eerily quiet Good Friday evening service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus alleged tomb location) and then afterwards went to the Western Wall (alleged last remaining part of the Jews 2nd temple) to see Orthodox Jews much more active prayer rituals. The following day I got through the heavy security up to the Dome on the Rock (allegedly where Mohammed ascended to heaven from). Even though they were thronged with pilgrims, looking round them and other sites like the Garden of Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives had an almost transcendental quality to the experience; like you were there but due to their importance to the different faiths and to human experience, being there just didn’t feel quite ‘real’, like you couldn’t quite believe you were in the place where Jesus/Mohammed etc. had been. This feeling of unreality was a sensation I would feel later on in Israel/Palestine and underpinned much of my time there.

After leaving Jerusalem I headed North and spent a fairly hardcore 2 days hiking the Jesus trail from Nazareth to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It connects up important places in the life of the big man and whilst it was tough going with all the weight on my back it was a wonderful way to connect up the landscape and gather an understanding of how Christianity started. Some places e.g. Nazareth have changed a bit since the Bible and are now fairly ugly sprawling towns but other places, notably on the Sea of Galilee still retain a degree of bucolic charm and it again felt surreal walking in the footsteps of the disciples.
Israel really is ground zero when it comes to organized religion on Earth. Aside from its importance to the Abrahamic faiths, it’s also home to a couple of secondary faiths including Druze and Bahai. The Druze are quite secretive and won’t let you in to many of their temples but in Haifa (Israel’s third city) the Bahai spent about 20 years designing and landscaping a set of quite magnificent terraced gardens. They’re set out over 19 gorgeous terraces and rise several hundred metres up Mount Carmel. They were made a Unesco World Heritage site almost immediately and dominate the landscape in a way that I can’t recall one feature dominating a city so much.
Aside from religious sights there’s a wonderful range of other cultural sights which connect up large swathes of human history. From seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum to the Crusader and Napoleonic war port of Acre and even up to the amazing Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem it’s probably the fullest trip I’ve done in terms of trying to pack activities in. I was getting up and out by no later than about 7am and averaging around 30,000 steps a day which gives an indication of how intense a trip it was. My favourite historical sight however was definitely camping out and then hiking up the infamous ‘snake path’ to the incredible Roman era mountain top fortress at Masada on the Dead Sea. Somewhat reminiscent of Caribs Leap in Grenada, trapped by Roman forces, after a desperate last stand, rather than surrender, the 1000 Jewish rebels elected to commit mass suicide and Masada has become a byword for Jewish independence and freedom. When you reach the summit and look out over the spectacular views as with so many places it’s Israel it’s an incredibly evocative place.
Unfortunately I got stuck in a couple of places as during Passover transport becomes a real headache in Israel. Whilst I got to see the amazing standstill of traffic in Tel Aviv on Holocaust memorial day, over the 2 weeks I was there on 3 days there was no transport running at all and on another 3 were running a very reduced timetable so it was quite frustrating at times.
That felt like very much a ‘First World problem’ though as I next ventured into Palestine. Many tourists only really visit the somewhat ‘neutral’ spaces of Bethlehem and Jericho but in terms of understanding the conflict I found the countryside and main city of Hebron to be far more illuminating.
One of the most noteworthy things I found about travelling in Israel is just how fertile ‘the land of milk and honey’ now is. Israel are virtually world champions of irrigation engineering as through ingenious use of drip feeds and other technologies they have successfully ‘tamed’ much of the land and are now almost self –sustainable for food. It has come at a great cost for the Palestinians though.
When you cross over into Palestine one of the first things you notice is how much lower quality the land is compared to Israel. Green fields of crops and bovine pasture get replaced by scrabbly hillsides which can support sheep/goats and little else. There are however, pockets of greener land but these are almost all behind barbed wire fences and have IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) defending them nearby. Controversially, lots of hardcore Zionist Jews have moved into Palestine as they feel it’s ‘their land’ and by a variety of methods have slowly but surely taken over the best quality land.
Israel has gradually diverted water from the Jordan river (less than 5% now reaches Palestine) and other sources into Israel and what’s left for the Palestinians is almost not worth having.
Whilst the idea of a 2 state solution is very popular in the West, to some extent it ignores just how much the population has changed since it was first proposed in the 1920s. Even when Israel was created as a home land for European Jews in 1948 the population was under a million but its numbers have swollen 10 fold since then. Much of it is ‘by design’ as Orthodox Jews are encouraged to go forth and multiply and are subsidised by the government to an almost comical extent. In Jerusalem and other Orthodox communities you see couples with endless numbers of kids tagging along everywhere as they have around 7.5 children on average and the country as a whole is the most fertile in the developed world at over 3 per couple.
On top of this, immigration has continued apace and whilst some stories are almost heroic (e.g. Operation Solomon) much of the increase is due to the nearly 2 million Russians who moved in post USSR breakup. In many areas you’re more likely to hear Russian than Hebrew as anyone with Jewish heritage has a ‘right to return’ to Israel but many of the Russians were only grandchildren of Jews and were essentially economic migrants. Israel is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world and when you consider that most of the Southern half is the Negev desert it’s almost inconceivable to see how an agreed 2 states could be even remotely fairly apportioned. Israel has recently finished a huge series of desalination plants and some have optimistically reckoned that much of the Jordan river can be allowed to flow back to Palestine and allow it to become regenerated but I think population pressures dictate that a 2 state solution that both sides are happy with is now infeasible.
I found a similar story of contested space in the main city of Hebron; home to the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) it is claimed by both Jews and Muslims and there’s a persistent air of tension in the city. To travel across different neighbourhoods you have to (very slowly) get through various IDF checkpoints as Israel has tried to clear the city centre of Palestinians and replaced them with Israeli settlers. On ‘security grounds’ the IDF have kicked Palestinians out of their homes and shut down most of the commercial centre of the city. On a visit to a refugee camp and speaking to some Palestinians they are under no illusions that the Israelis are gradually trying to suffocate life out of Hebron and Palestine generally. The current government of Netanyahu makes little secret of their desire to own all of Palestine and there are now over 3million Palestinians in Jordan alone. By slowly removing agricultural and any other economic opportunities for the Palestinians, they are hoping that the rest will simply gradually give up and leave. As one guy in the refugee camp said to me: “They were in the diaspora for 2000 years so they do not mind playing a long game but this is our home and we will never give in”.
I finished my time in Tel Aviv and once again the sense of unreality of travelling in Israel hit me. Full of artisanal coffee shops, interesting Bauhaus architecture, tech start ups and hippies smoking weed everywhere, in many ways it felt like a city the Guardian could describe as the ‘ultimate urban experience’. Everyone has dogs and are very chilled out and ‘happy’ but to me it brought up visions of the Capitol and their splendid isolation from the other zones in the Hunger Games.
In many ways Israel is an incredible achievement, from it’s legal system to it’s creation as the homeland of Jews after the Holocaust to the regeneration of Hebrew and the construction of a super strong national identity, there is a lot to admire… but it’s also one of the most unfair places on the planet where the country is basically run on an apartheid system. Most towns or cities are either Arab or Jewish but even in ‘mixed’ cities like Haifa the two communities don’t really mix; from childhood they attend different schools and are brought up to regard the creation of Israel as either the greatest event in recent human history or the ‘nakba’ (literally ‘The catastrophe’). This is then followed by national service for Jews and living in a police state for the Palestinians.

Things kicked off in Gaza when I was in the West Bank (but when has Israel/Palestine been ‘quiet’?) but entering Palestine via endless checkpoints and barbed wire fences didn’t feel dangerous, just deeply annoying. I’ve often found that the one of the things most frustrating about conflict zones is realising just how much money, time and effort is wasted on the military when it could be better spent elsewhere. Tens of millions are spent on the Palestinian side as the UN and European charities help offer limited support, but its dwarfed by the absurd extent to which Israel is ‘financially doped’. Thanks to the super powerful Israel lobby in Washington, it receives over $3bn a year in aid from the USA alone (way more than any other country) and it’s even written in American law that the contribution can only go up. This doesn’t even taken into consideration private Jewish contributors from around the world and the money is used to both metaphorically and literally build a wall blocking out the Palestinians.

Like most nationalities, Israelis vary a lot, for every ultra Zionist settler you’ll get several more easy going socialists who have no desire to harm the Palestinians. However, over time the 2 state solution has been largely shelved and the country has now settled into a ‘treatment is better than cure’ mindset. By putting up with having heavily armed soldiers posted everywhere (even in places like bus stops) it’s a price they’re willing to pay and by building huge border walls around Palestinian areas they’re effectively keeping the problem out of sight and out of mind rather than attempting to solve it.
The quality of life in Israel is now one of the highest in the world in many ways but this full knowledge of but ignoration of the problem is why it felt like they were living in the Hunger Games.
Whilst life in the West Bank was overcrowded with poor quality services (the streets for example were filthy) it could be a lot worse. Gaza’s population density is over 5,000 per sq km and ringed by the border wall and the naval blockade in the Mediterranean there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the ‘biggest open air prison in the world’. I can’t really imagine just how tough life must be there and felt at least somewhat hypocritical for visiting Israel and contributing to the economy etc.
With its wonderful wide ranging landscapes, unique culture and incredible history, it’s one of the most thought provoking places I’ve ever been to but I also left with very mixed feelings. Whilst Cyprus felt like a slightly unnecessary conflict and hope that at some point in the future things could change, no one seems to have any ideas on how to move the conflict forward in Israel and the great/awful reality for the two communities looks like it will persist.
From Tel Aviv,

Posted by carlswall 09:28 Archived in Israel Tagged northern cyprus palestine Comments (0)

Indian Ocean Islands

Greetings from wonderful, beautiful Praslin in the Seychelles. Home to the world's sexiest fruit (the Coco de mer) and several potential entrants in internet lists of 'the best beaches in the world', it really is a veritable slice of paradise and a truly perfect place to end any trip. 2 months earlier we began our journey of 13 islands spread over 4 countries via 11 flights and 11 boat trips, so after such a complicated trip it felt invigorating to end the trip in such a glorious location.

After an epically bad flight (we turned up 24 hours late via Johannesburg) we finally got to start the trip in Mauritius, the world's first openly gay country. Mark Twain claimed heaven was based on Mauritius and it's not difficult to see why. Aside from the perfect white sand and turquoise waters the lush green landscape is a bit of a wonderland of volcanic fecundity with fruits and vegetables growing everywhere and the island able to support one of the highest population densities in the world.

As with the Seychelles later on, Britain and France traded the island according to whom was in the ascendancy in the Indian Ocean at the time and it's left an interesting melange of people and cultures. The French brought African slaves to the island and the British later brought Indians over as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations so it's not unusual to see churches, mosques and Hindu temples within a single village. In many ways it reminded me of Guyana or Suriname in the make up of the population but Mauritius is doing far better as a country. Due to a long running focus on education and shrewd political decisions on where to focus investment in the economy (from agriculture to clothing manufacturing to IT and finance) the country is very much a Middle Income country and consequently there are far fewer social problems like crime of racial disharmony meaning it's a very safe and easy place to live.

That's not to say it's perfect; as in many similar countries lots of the best beaches have been bought up by resort chains or property developers and public areas do feel slightly second class but overall it's undoubtedly one of the more successful ex colonies.
After 10 days of relaxing and enjoying the ease of Mauritius it felt like we needed more of a challenge in Madagascar and we certainly got that.

Madagascar is not really like what most people would expect; although for such a big country it doesn't really get a lot of press generally. Informed largely by the Dreamworks films, most people probably think that Madagascar is made up impenetrable jungle with few people and unusual animals everywhere but that's not the case at all.

After arriving and spending a couple of days in the polluted and chaotic capital city Antananarivo (or Tana for short) we were pleased to leave it behind and get out into the countryside. Our first adventure was a pirogue trip on the Manambolo river down to the West coast for 4 days. In many ways it was amazing as we saw virtually nobody but our boatmen and heard no noises except river birds and the lazy river slowly winding it's way downstream. We camped every night on river islands and whilst it was supremely relaxing the landscape was surprisingly monotonous and at times quite sad to look at.

As with so many LICs, Madagascar has undergone appalling deforestation in recent decades for hardwoods, firewood and in particular slash and burn agriculture. Whilst it's not Haiti in terms of damage done, in the dry season this has created a landscape of rolling empty yellow grass hills with few trees and surprisingly little to see in much of the country.
When we arrived at the coast we were greeted by the spectacular Tsingy national park; a stunning collection of limestone pinnacles and caves that they've created an excellent harnessed climbing route through. It took all day but was utterly exhilarating climbing through the formations and it was nice to get some physical exercise after so long on the pirogue.

After finishing in the Tsingy we then had to start travelling by road and as with so many African countries, getting around quickly proved to be a harrowing experience in Madagascar. Despite being the size of France the country only has around 2000km of paved roads and many of the national highways are little more than dirt tracks that are closed for several months a year during the rainy season. Journeys are done by taxi brousses (converted mini busses) and they really are an ordeal to get through. Your fellow passengers don't really have the same hygiene considerations as you would in a Western country and will hawk and spit on the floor or fart without a second thought. Malagasies also have a lot of kids (who go free) and on one particular journey there were 18 adults and 17 children on 18 seats. Being thrown around so much by the journey, the kids predictably started throwing up everywhere and mixed up with the phlegm of the others the bus quickly became truly disgusting to sit in. Many of the vehicles are in shocking condition and whilst extremely cheap, progress is often glacially slow and most tourists end up either renting a private vehicle with driver or simply fly between the destinations.
Obviously this jacks up the cost of travelling considerably and removes you from ordinary people and actually experiencing the country rather than just being on a guided tour. Therefore I found the balance between 'adventure' and 'comfort' was very difficult to get right and ultimately at the end of travelling through Madagascar I had the unusual feeling that the parts of the trip were 'greater than the sum'. Whilst we saw and did some amazing things, the actual practical difficulties of travelling meant the trip as a whole didn't feel that easy but that's what you get when you go to more unusual places.

The denuded landscape has left the country with 3 distinct climate zones, the East coast where there is still some rapidly shrinking rainforest, the temperate central highlands (where most of the population people live) and the desert or spiny forest in the West.
Whilst generally not the most interesting landscape, the spiny forest did have some real highlights to see with the beautiful Baobab trees springing up sporadically as well as some good national parks where we got to see some lemurs.
Madagascar is of course very famous for its wildlife as it's isolated location causes it to be something of an '8th continent' with over 11,000 species of animal and countless plants species endemic to the country. The reality is a far cry from wildlife watching in Kenya or Tanzania though as the wildlife simply isn't easy to spot as most of them are simply small (lemurs are as big as they get) shy and their habitat has often been cut down. Therefore wildlife watching is slow and you have to be patient; alternatively you can go to created lemur parks or areas where humans leave rubbish like campsites and they'll come and find you, but it's not quite the same.

After some lovely snorkelling and whale watching on the reef in the South West we headed back to the capital and it's 'view of a thousand hills' (not really). After reading about Harry Flashman's adventures with Ravalona I (the Maddest Queen of them all) a few years ago, I was expecting the country to be quite wild and colourful but the culture was less distinctive than I was expecting and certainly nowhere near as memorable as somewhere like Ethiopia in terms of food, clothing, music etc. One thing that is quite unique about the population and which struck me immediately on arrival was just how odd the people look. Madagascar does not have an indigenous population but it's 25m people have come in waves from different parts of the Indian ocean. Therefore the people can look as though they're Indonesian, Arabic, African or from the Indian subcontinent. Whilst they split into 18 major tribal areas over the last 500 years there has been enough intermixing (particularly in the capital region) that they look often look like a mixture of all those ethnic groups and so trying to describe what a Malagasy looks like is nigh on impossible.

Before visiting the North of Madagascar we took a 9 day detour to the Comoros, where the people are definitely African, definitely Muslim and definitely not gay .
A liberal Muslim island archipelago to the East of Mozambique it is a former French colony composed and would rank as one of the world's most obscure countries. It turned out to be a really nice contrast to Madagascar in that the country is covered in tropical rainforest but is relatively easy to get to and explore (and get lost in). Getting between the 2 main islands of Grand Comore and Anjouan would have to rank as one of the toughest sea crossings I've ever done. In a part of the world where safety precautions are limited to put it mildly, setting off in a Chinese built ferry quickly felt very unsafe. The Indian the ocean is meant to be calm but almost immediately after leaving port the sea was up to swells of 5-8m and it felt like riding the pirate ship at a theme park as you climbed and dropped over the wave crests. I'd estimate 60% of the passengers threw up over the 6 hour journey and I just felt so sorry for the poor crew whose job on the crossing was largely composed of going inside and carrying bags of sick out and then throwing them overboard. After our motor broke down in the middle of the ocean just as the sun was setting, I did start to worry as to how we could be rescued but thankfully after 45 stomach churning minutes the crew got it going again and we thankfully made it to Anjouan.

As often happens though the next day we immediately had another reckless adventure on the island's highest mountain, Mt Ntringui.
After climbing up to a beautiful crater lake we continued pushing on up to the 1500m summit on the thickly forested mountain. Unfortunately we then got very lost trying to find a way down to the city. After losing the path we continued getting nowhere trying to descend through forest so thick you needed a machete to clear a path. After getting far too close to a near vertical drop, despite having been hiking all day we had to take the decision to exhaustedly reascend the mountain back to where we could safely camp. We then made an heroic effort to firstly climb back up to the summit in the twilight and then getting up and descending the way we'd come at 3am the next morning to make our boat on time. Every single muscle in our bodies ached but the sense of relief in being back to safety when you have been in genuine trouble is an incredible feeling.

Much easier was the spectacular Karthala volcano which dominates the main island Grand Comore in a similar way to Etna on Sicily. A huge volcano that has erupted 3 times in the 21st century, there are lava fields all over the island and wherever you are the volcano stands imposingly and ominously above you. The relatively straightforward climb up was rewarded by views out towards the other islands and in to the spectacular 12km caldera which is so big it has several craters smoking inside it. It takes a couple of hours just to walk around it all and when the cloud clears it's an incredible vista and definite highlight of the country.
Unfortunately we finished our time in the Comoros in the capital Moroni but as with many other areas of the country it was ruined by a terrible litter problem. Across the country you see abandoned cars and disgusting beaches covered in rubbish and it creates a really negative impression of the place as it's such an easy problem to fix. On the final day in Moroni at the market I saw a huge rat run directly in front of a cat who didn't even bother to chase it and unfortunately this would be one of the defining images of our time in the Comoros. Whilst Mauritius and the Seychelles have world famous tourist industries (and a decent standard of living) I couldn't help but think the Comoros could join them if they cleaned the country up a bit.

On returning to Madagascar we took a flight North and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of life. The French ran the country from the North the cities of Hellville and Diego Suarez were clean, orderly and had some lovely colonial architecture.
In many ways it was a nice area to finish the country in but the French owned hotels and bars was not really representative of the poverty elsewhere in the country.

Partly due to it's isolated location and lack of involvement in the global economy or geopolitics, Madagascar is almost completely ignored by rest of the world. One of the poorest countries in the world at a GDP of just $400 per person, it's the sort of place where 90%+ of the population could be described as poor (1/3 of the population still practice open defecation) but yet receives little to no aid, investment or even interest beyond its wildlife. There is a strong feeling of economic inertia here as unemployment (and underemployment) plus a high birth rate leave so many people just 'hanging around' for most of the day, most days. I do find it frustrating that a country like Madagascar which desperately needs help to develop its infrastructure and agricultural productivity but generates no problems is essentially ignored whilst basket case countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have tens of billions of dollars wastefully pumped into them every year. It's not a fair world.

Whilst travelling through Madagascar I found it difficult to get away from the poverty and it can be a very humbling place to travel in. On our last night we took a taxi back to our hotel but the 40-50 year old Citroen we got into was way past the point of safe or reliable usage. Despite the poor driver never leaving first gear it was giving off awful fumes and broke down several times in just a few km. He'd briefly get it going again using push starts but the car had quite simply gone, however he clearly had no other asset in the world to help him earn a living and so had no choice but to persist with it. After it broke down one last time we got out and walked the last km and as we walked away I felt so, so lucky to be able to get on a flight the next day...

And so we finished our trip in the glorious, also gay Seychelles. Whilst not cheap, it is a place where you can 'live the dream' as perfect white beaches are flanked by huge granite boulders and palm trees. Half the tourists there seemed to be on honeymoon although ironically Seychelles has one of the lowest marriage rates in the world and 3/4 of the population are born out of wedlock!
As with the likes of the Maldives they have firmly put their eggs in the luxury tourism industry and it's worked as Seychelles has the highest GDP per capita in Africa and few problems of any note. In truth it doesn't really feel like an African country and in many ways is much more similar in culture and atmosphere to some of the Caribbean islands as most people work in tourism and large parts of the coastline have been parceled off into different resorts.
Getting around however is easy and after structuring the trip to be something of a sandwich i.e. easy Mauritius then more challenging Madagascar and Comoros in the middle, we were delighted to have such a relaxing end to the trip. We hiked, cycled, snorkelled, played with giant tortoises and otherwise kicked back in these paradisical islands for a week.
Logistically this wasn't the easiest trip to plan and at times it was quite difficult but I finished the trip pleased to have got through it safely but also delighted to have had the opportunity to experience this part of the world.

From Praslin,

Posted by carlswall 04:51 Archived in Mauritius Tagged madagascar mauritius seychelles comoros Comments (0)

Horn of Africa

Greetings from Addis Ababa, the self styled ‘Capital of Africa’ as it’s the home of the African Union and the UN has their continental HQ here. Whilst like virtually all African cities it has a very rough edge to it (awfully polluted, aggressive beggars, chaotic etc.) it also has a more attractive side to it with good restaurants and nightlife and a very pleasing climate. The sort of place (assuming you had a bit of money) you really wouldn’t mind living in.

That’s where we ended the trip, but you would probably say the opposite about where we started the trip in Djibouti. A ‘hot hell’ as one local described it, Djibouti city offers virtually nothing for the visitor except debilitating heat and one of the worst value for money cities to visit in the world. An ordinary restaurant meal costs upwards of $30 and a hotel room costs in excess of $100 a night for fairly poor quality. The reason for it is the huge number of Western military that are based there as Djibouti has emerged as a key ally in the very unstable Southern Red Sea area; with the extra foreigners on expenses accounts brings inflation for any visitors.

That said there is a bit do to in the country as a whole; located in an area called the Afar Triangle, it sits on no less than 3 tectonic plates moving away from each other and this creates an amazing landscape to look at with hot springs, volcanoes, depressions and rift lakes all around you. Highlights of this were the hypersaline Lac Assal, at -156m the lowest point in Africa and the amazing fumaroles at Lac Abbe. From a distance they look like a city skyline but up close they reveal themselves as chimney like vents that offer an outlet for the thermal activity below. Millions of years ago when sea levels were higher they were submarine volcanoes that slowly got built up over time but now just stick eerily out of the landscape on the lakeshore as flamingos and other birds fly around them.

Financially Djibouti seemed to survive on 3 things; remittances from overseas workers, payment from Western countries to allow their military bases and tax revenues to allow Ethiopian companies to use the port. However, this money didn’t seem to spread at all outside of the capital city and I can scarcely remember such extreme poverty as we saw in rural Djibouti. When people think about poverty you tend to think about shanty towns in urban areas and the danger and dirt that goes with that. However, in the country side it takes a different form and in a country as hot as Djibouti (the temperature was about 40 degrees every day) very, very little can get done.
In most villages we passed people seem to be doing almost nothing at all for most of the day with only a sprinkle of activity at dawn/dusk. Visually the men seemed to get through their days by doing nothing but chewing qat; qat is a plant from East Africa that can act as a mild stimulant if you chew its leaves. It will almost certainly never catch on in the West as it is disgustingly bitter to chew and takes ages to have an effect unlike most recreational drugs that are used. However, in this part of the world it’s incredibly popular despite often dreadful consequences on both the environment and society as a whole. In Djibouti, the standard day for a shockingly high percentage of men is to get up, go to the local qat den then spend pretty much all day in a zoned out state, sat in the dark chewing qat and chatting nonsense to their friends or just staring into space. There are obvious consequences of mental health problems, lack of economic activity and an appalling sense of inertia as things just don’t get done.

There’s no move to cut down on it as it’s such an ingrained part of the culture but travelling through the country I could kind of understand why they do it so much. Similar to Russians/Mongolians drinking so much vodka to help get them through the challenges of their climate/environment, East Africans treat qat in the same way as it helps get them through the many boring hours they pass daily in a brutal heat. I kind of grew semi sympathetic to the idea of doing it so much as there are so few other ways to pass the time there; it’s a difficult, difficult place to live in. Indeed the only people who seemed to have it worse were the women who culturally aren’t allowed to even chew qat to waste time.

From Djibouti we had a real adventure and did an 18hr journey across the coastal desert to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. When I told people I was going there I got a lot of “Are you nuts?” type of comments but Somaliland isn’t quite what most people think it is. When Mohamed Siad Barre’s government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, most of the country became a lawless dystopia run by a combination of local warlords, Islamic extremists and in Puntland, little more than modern day pirate kings as the country imploded and anyone who could, fled.

Somalian culture is subdivided into a very complex system of different clans and subclans with all the rivalries, alliances and disputes that go with it; but not all areas shattered in the same way. Somalia is shaped like a 7 and in the horizontal part in the North, Somaliland, they have actually been very stable. Immediately civil war broke out in the 1990’s the people worked together to retain their security and way of life away from the problems of the South. They have security through their own army and police, control of their borders and even things like their own currency and functioning democracy.

In short, it’s a real success story in a very unstable area but has become one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries of the world. They have been pushing for independence since the 1960’s and I think it’s to the international community’s shame that they are unwilling to listen to their wishes. The logic is similar to the safe Kurdish area of Iraq; if the West were to support independence it would remove a stable part of a very unstable country and this would be bad for the future of the country as a whole. I don’t think this is a very positive attitude to take for the people in Somaliland who have achieved so much despite what’s going on elsewhere in the country.

I was slightly wary that it would be a very conservative and slightly dangerous place to be but the people were much more easy going than I feared and happy to see foreigners there. That said we still had to take an armed soldier to travel around the country as a precaution but it never felt that dangerous. Thanks to investments from the large Somali diaspora around the world, the economy is also doing well and you can’t help but feel they really deserve their independence.

After an awful journey to the border we then hit the main focus of the trip in Ethiopia.
We actually started in the Muslim East of the country and the historical city of Harar. It was great going round the walled city via the narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards and even got to see the famous hyena feeding ceremony. It started off as a way of stopping them eating livestock during drought but now feels a bit contrived as a tourist show. However, it’s still pretty cool seeing them emerge from the darkness and wrench the hunks of meat from the hands and even mouth of the feeder.

From Harar we did the long trip West and realised that probably the worst aspect of travelling in Ethiopia is the travelling itself; journeys are long and whilst tickets are cheap you aren’t allowed to travel at night so often entire days are spent ‘in transit’. That said the scenery is wonderful and as you travel across the country you really start to appreciate the huge variety of landscapes and environments that make up the country from the parched lowlands up through coffee plantations to the highlands which act as something of a roof of East Africa as many of the rivers and lakes are formed there.

Our next destination was the so called Historical circuit that Ethiopians themselves are so proud of. Ethiopia’s place in human history goes back further than anywhere of course as it’s here that the 3.6m year old Lucy skeleton was found right up to the brutal Derg regime in the 1970-1990’s backed by the Soviets who murdered some 500,000 civilians during the so called Red Terror period.

Between those two events it arguably contains the richest history of any sub Saharan African country. From the various pre-Christian legends that are said to emerge from here such as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to a variety of powerful empires that ruled vast areas before collapsing such as Axum. Rastafarians site their spiritual home in Ethiopia after they saw the 2nd coming of Christ in the former Emperor Haile Selassie’s (whose original name was Ras Tafari) coronation and there were also a lost tribe of Jerusalem who have moved to Israel with limited success. However, when Christianity did arrive it became just the second country in the world to adopt it as the state religion (after Armenia) and religion is still a key part of daily life all over the country.

From the remote and intriguing monasteries on Lake Tana to the famous rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia is one of the best places in the world to see Christianity in a purer, more devout form. The most extreme example of this was in the rock hewn churches in Tigray, where you may remember the wonderful (in my opinion) Exorcist 2 is set. In a landscape very similar to Monuments valley in Utah you climb up steep slopes towards churches hidden up in the cliffs. However, in order to show their devotion to God (and find a quiet place to pray) early Christians would put them in places where you have no choice but to climb vertically for some 20m using just natural foot and handholds in the rock. You can now wimp out and use a rope but we wanted the authentic pilgrim experience (or copying Richard Burton/Max von Sydow in the film) and did the terrifying climbs up to the amazing churches cut into caves. Early monks would paint beautiful frescoes on the walls and surrounded by 200m+ precipes on both sides they really are an amazing sight and experience to behold. Whilst the climbing was amazing I was absolutely delighted to get back to the bottom of them and it did beg the question of why? Could you not have found a quiet place that was easier to get to?!!

Ethiopia is somewhere that has been high on my list for a while; however it’s a country that a lot of people have a very limited understanding of and that included some of the fellow Westerners we met. One Australian executive of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world was visiting on business and said “This really isn’t what I was expecting; I think I just thought I’d see starvation and poverty based on that Band Aid song”.

I actually teach a lesson about the song and how a) inaccurate it is and b) how it has completely fixed even educated Westerners minds onto the idea that all human life in Ethiopia (and indeed Africa in general) is in grinding poverty and completely dependent on the weather.
Actually the situation is very, very different, particularly at this time of year. In a land where “No rain nor rivers flow” during the Summer is actually in rainy season and can be extremely wet, indeed the capital Addis Ababa receives twice as much rain as London and large parts of the country flood every year. On the plus side we saw the source of the Blue Nile and its wonderful falls at full volume but the Simien Mountains were the biggest disappointment of the trip. A World Heritage site famous for its wildlife and views out over the Rift Valley, our time there was ruined by rain and our proposed 5 day hike got reduced to 3 soggy ones as locals said the rivers were too high to cross. We did however get a silver lining on our final day as we go to see the wonderful 500m Jinba waterfall descend from the clouds.

Aside from its historical attractions, Ethiopia offers an incredible array of landscapes. Whilst we spent most of our time in the cooler highlands I also fulfilled an ambition of mine by visiting the Danakil Depression. The road from Makele momentously dropped more than 2000m down to -100m in the Depression. As you descended the temperature on the dashboard in the car increased a degree every few minutes before eventually stopping at about 45 degrees. It has the claim to fame as the highest average temperature of anywhere in the world and as in Djibouti life is extremely hard with salt mining using the ubiquitous camels to help you pretty much the only economic activity. There are however things to see with the undoubted highlight being the incredible Irta Ale volcano. It reminded me of the Gateway to Hell in Turkmenistan as you walk several hours uphill towards an orange glow in the darkness. I drank 4 litres of water on the way up in the scorching temperatures but oh my it was worth it to see two of only 6 lava crater lakes in the world. Bizarrely it strongly reminded me of playing in Super Mario Bros as most of it was covered in black lava that has solidified at 700 degrees, however a lot of it is molten hot magma at 1500 degrees and this is constantly bubbling away and having mini eruptions. It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful sight and whilst at times it is too dangerous to go near, at the moment it’s safe enough that you can go to within a few metres for a near unique experience. Wonderful.

Indeed in many ways Ethiopia is one of the most unique countries in the world and really does do it’s own thing. Famously it’s one of a very small number of countries that were never colonised by Europeans during the Age of Empires as they humiliatingly defeated Italy towards the end of the 19th century using little more than medieval weapons. This lack of ‘contamination’ of European practices can be seen in a variety of very basic ways of how society is organised. For example it’s 2008 as they go by a different calendar, which also has 13 rather than 12 months and bizarrely the time is told differently as their day starts at 6am rather than 12 so they’re always 6 hours behind (or ahead). Their version of Christianity is unique with many of the stories having Ethiopia at the core e.g. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly buried in Axum, no one outside of Ethiopia believes this is true but every Ethiopian takes it as fact.

All this means that they don’t “Know it’s Christmas time at all” as they celebrate it on January 6/7th like other Orthodox believers. Even the culture isn’t like anything else as they shun everything but Ethiopian music and the dancing is done almost entirely with the upper body as just your neck, head and shoulders move in time to the rhythm as your legs stay static. Eating is done differently too as you eat communally with your right hand from a big slab of injera and its toppings which acts as a kind of edible plate. Delicious. It all takes a while to get your head round but definitely adds to the charm of visiting this unique country

Band Aid also described it as a land “Where nothing ever grows” which must have been a surprise for the 100m or so inhabitants of the huge country. Amartya Sen won the Nobel prize for Economics by using Ethiopia’s disastrous Derg regime as an example to demonstrate how famines rarely have to do with the weather but the governing system that creates the conditions for it. Droughts may always happen but if you have a reasonable government, famines shouldn’t as steps would be taken to prevent that happening.

Despite the impression it created amongst Westerners, amongst lots of other things coffee, flowers and various cereals grow in abundance and this has in part led to a booming economy over the last 20 years. Whilst corruption is still a big issue unlike many African countries Ethiopia has generally been led very well and has become a bit of a darling of Western aid economists due to its steady and consistent leadership. It’s also built up a reputation as a hotbed of entrepreneurialism and certainly does better in areas like manufacturing than most of its African neighbours. In Addis in particular there is a real feeling of positive change as new buildings are being built apace and major structural changes such as a metro and Chinese built highways are also being constructed.

However, claims of being ‘Africa’s China’ are fanciful and gives an indication of how far Africa has fallen behind Asia economically. Whilst new roads and factories have been constructed as well as the burgeoning tourist industry they often mask many of the big problems Ethiopia still faces. Aside from the ongoing ‘Cold War’ with Eritrea and sporadic clashes between the different ethnic groups, some 83% of the population still live in the countryside and a GDP per capita of little more than $500 per year gives a good indication of how hard life is for most people.

Aside from the beggars and homeless I strangely thought that showed itself most in the children of the country; the constant cries of “Gimme money” from them got irksome and sad very quickly and for all the talk of the economy and infrastructure projects the biggest problem by far is the sheer size of the population. The country’s economy has grown a whopping 10% a year for the last decade or so to be one of the highest in the world but the benefits of this have been somewhat lost as the population has also grown by 20million. The average woman still has 4.6 children and they are absolutely everywhere in Ethiopia running around as their poor parents struggle to feed them all and encourage them to beg.

However, the country really does feel like it’s moving in the right direction rather than the sense of stagnation which you feel travelling in many African countries. If it can keep its massive multi-ethnic and multi-lingual population content and under control then they can continue to make progress as one of Africa’s success stories in the early 21st century.

Overall Ethiopia is a wonderful place to travel in due to its unique yet varied culture and landscapes and its friendly and interesting population; 1 month simply didn’t feel like enough and having not even had a chance to see the South it’s definitely somewhere I intend to visit again in the future.
From Addis Ababa,

Posted by carlswall 09:16 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)


A greeting from Montreal, North America’s only bilingual city and it definitely feels a bit different from elsewhere in the country. Whilst you still have the same companies and food options etc. the people are a little bit ‘different’. As a German woman at my hostel summed up better than I could: “On the West coast Canadians are amazingly welcoming, they really go out of their way to make you feel comfortable even in quite small ways. But when I got to Quebec… it was like being in France”.
Canadians are awesomely friendly and agreeably laid back but I guess I have quite enjoyed not having to deal with 10-15 “How are you doing today?” conversations per day which don’t go anywhere and can get a bit trying!

However, that’s one of the very few things I could say about Canada which isn’t overwhelmingly positive as it joins my recent trips to Iceland and Norway as one of the ‘best’ countries in the world to live in and it’s not bad looking too. My flight in would have to rank as the best long haul one I’ve ever done as after flying over the Icelandic desert we continued over the iceberg covered Greenland coast before reaching Canada. 2 hours over Northern Canada revealed the harsh landscape of treeless tundra and thousands upon thousands of lakes. We then hit the snow-capped Rockies before the clouds cleared above the Pacific and the beautiful city of Vancouver. I knew it was going to be good.

After taking the ferry from the mainland my first activity was hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. The top rated hike in the world for the last 17 years on Besthike.com, they only let a limited number of people do it and after I’d missed the booking date online I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. However, after meeting a Swiss army vet in my hostel in Victoria (capital of British Columbia) we decided to take a risk and serendipitously we found a ride to the start of the trail and the park rangers let us start the next day. It’s 75km long but takes around a week due to the nature of the terrain you hike through. It was originally founded for shipwreck victims and the trail veers between the fog covered coastline and one of the few areas of temperate rainforest in the world. There are signs up everywhere saying it’s only for experienced hikers and you have to sign a disclaimer as you have to battle huge tree roots and logs, deep mud, car sized boulders on the beach, hand pulled cable cars, scary suspension bridges and nearly 100 ladder sections which being afraid of heights I did not enjoy much. The unique beauty of the landscape coupled with the nightly whale watching and camping on the beach will not be forgotten any time soon.

My biggest fear about the outdoors in Canada was the threat of bears and predictably I saw one within 25 minutes of hiking! It was a couple of hundred metres away but later on one came within about 30m of us on the beach and despite making as much noise as we could to scare it off it really didn’t seem to care, taking a couple of minutes to slowly make its way back into the forest. I always made sure I hiked with other people and put food in bear lockers or hanging from a tree. There are certain things you’re advised to do if you meet a bear like make noise but as when a wasp is buzzing around you and might sting you, you’re acutely conscious that if a bear wants to break you in 2 pieces there’s not much you can do about it. A guy got eaten in Yellowstone this Summer and whilst I somewhat got used to it there is a definite air of tension when you’re in the countryside which I’ve never experienced before.

That said, conquering that fear was definitely worth it as I continued the adventure in the Alberta Rockies. I did several day hikes around Jasper and climbed the awesome 3000m Cascade mountain near Banff which gave out incredible views of nearly 100km and was quite scary as there’s no path just a 7hr scramble up the mountainside. However, the undoubted highlight was cycling The Icefield Parkway or the much prettier French version of Le Promenade des Glaciers. A certain entry in the 10 Greatest Driving Roads, 1001 Things to Do Before You Die etc. lists on the internet it’s a 250km route in the Rockies so named because the road weaves between the glaciers in the high Rockies. Geographically it’s an amazing area as it’s one of the few places in the world where water drains to 3 different oceans called an Hydrological Apex and the glaciers have formed huge U shaped valleys and incredible rock layering to admire. There are campsites dotted en route in the pine forests by the bright blue glacial lakes and streams and with jaw dropping scenery the entire way I found myself stopping all the time for photo breaks. Well, that and the fact it was very tough physically, with a fully loaded bike, going over two 2000m passes and the scary descents down the other side meant I got a real felling of achievement when I finished.

If the first half of the trip was quite physically intense the 2nd half was MUCH easier. After meeting up with an old friend in Calgary I flew East to Ontario and pushed past the thousands of tourists to admire the voluminous yet graceful Niagara Falls as they flow from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The popularity of the Falls amongst Mid Western tourists has led to the town becoming quite an odd place composed of rubbish motels and tacky wax museums/haunted houses but nearby Niagara on the Lake is a gorgeous alternative and a lovely introduction to the East of the country.

From Niagara I headed on to the country’s biggest city in Toronto; it’s home of the CN Tower, Drake and the Blue Jays and has an impressive lakeside setting. With approximately 150 languages spoken there it vies with London and New York as the most multicultural city in the world and my favourite aspect was just wandering the different neighbourhoods seeing all the different cultures and people. Finding strength in its diversity people do just seem to get along and to date they’ve largely avoided the domestic terrorism that Europe and the US has suffered from.
Canada has been one of the fastest growing developed countries in the world and it’s easy to see why so many people from around the world want to move there. Thanks to their huge reserves of natural resources the economy has boomed and it’s fairly easy to find work there. Arguably a more welcoming population than America and better public services too means that even with the long hard Winters it’s become a land of opportunity that few countries can match.
That said Canada definitely has social problems too; on arrival in Ontario I was warned by a couple of cops to look after myself as petty crime and the gang problems in America have crossed the border into the big cities. However, by far the most visible issue is drug addiction and homelessness. All major cities have big problems but similar to Seattle/San Francisco on America’s the troubled and homeless tend to drift to the West coast in Vancouver and Victoria. Largely this is due to the weather (no snow and much milder Winters) but also better public services and a slightly more tolerant population. In Vancouver they’ve taken over an 8x8 block area just outside the city centre and the sheer number of street people in certain areas is almost unbelievable, as in thousands in a small area. I’ve not quite seen poverty like it in the developed world and it left me feeling quite sad at how so many people have lost their way and we don’t have the means to help them find it again.

My final area to visit was French speaking Quebec and as alluded to earlier it does feel like being in a different country. Whenever I told a Canadian I had Quebec on my itinerary I was greeted with a roll of the eyes and a none too positive comment. The people have a reputation not a million miles from the French in Europe i.e. a bit superior to those around them. They’ve had a couple of independence referendums and in the mid ‘90’s came within 50,000 votes of seceding from the rest of the country. I went to see Didier Drogba make his debut for the Montreal Impact (MLS team) and it was quite noticeable how differently the anthem was respected vs at the Blue Jays game I went to. In Toronto it was similar to America with everyone putting their hands on heart and belting the anthem out with no sense of irony. In contrast in Montreal, everyone around me just ignored it and continued their conversations. The Quebecois flag is more visible than the Maple Leaf and their ambivalent view of being part of the country doesn’t go down well with the rest of the country.
That said there are lots of nice aspects of being in a more European cultural area with a much stronger sense of history and a slightly more refined arts and culinary scene compared to the rest of the country. In short, any culture which provides poutine to the world must be celebrated.

Having spent my last two Summers and the first half of this one cycling, hiking and camping outdoors the second half of the trip felt very easy, almost to the point where I felt a bit lazy. The quality of life felt very high in the glorious sunshine as I’d have leisurely mornings drinking coffee and reading then spending lots of money on good food in very comfortable surroundings before finishing the day drinking excellent microbrews whilst watching baseball. It felt very strange, almost like I was on holiday.

Despite spending 6 weeks in Canada looking at a map of the country I realised I only visited maybe only 2% of it and wondered if that was enough to get a decent view of the country. However, 75% of the population live within 150km of the US border for weather/agricultural reasons and getting around is either prohibitively expensive (up to £1000+ for flights in the Northern Territories) or simply wilderness and I did come to realise that you can only get a snapshot of Canada regardless of your trip length and ultimately I took nearly 800 photos so I think the ‘snapshot’ of this beautiful country came out pretty well.

From Montreal,

Posted by carlswall 05:25 Archived in Canada Comments (0)


It’s now 2014 and after enjoying cycling around Iceland so much last year I thought I’d repeat the trip format and spend my Summer days wondering when the current climb is gonna ‘top out’ and my Summer nights in a tent being terrified by animals. This time though I swapped the volcanoes and glaciers of Iceland for the forests and fjords of another pristine piece of Scandinavia in wonderful Norway.

In the days leading up to departure I was beginning to regret booking the flights; trying to set up for a cycling trip in another country is a darn sight harder than an ordinary holiday. Rather foolishly I’d booked my flight for the morning after I finished work and the final couple of weeks were much busier than I’d have wanted. Trying to make sure the bike was in working condition and that I had the myriad bits and pieces needed to set up a nightly camp and repair the bike if anything (simple at least) went wrong left me with an overly stressful last few days- quite different to how you’d want to feel when embarking on holiday.

I then had a pretty dreadful first few days as despite getting up at 5am to be on time for my Gatwick departure, the plane left an hour and a half late. This meant I missed my Oslo to Tromso connection til the next morning, and as the Norwegian Airlines customer service rep told me “As your connection time was under 2hrs you’re not entitled to a complimentary hotel”. So in an unwanted introduction to Norwegian prices I had to spend £70 on a dingy hotel room at Oslo airport with no food as I had no cash. After getting up at 6am the next morning to catch my flight I again wasn’t delighted with the news that there was a 3hr delay to my flight. Eventually I arrived in Tromso 24hrs late and not massively happy.

As I learnt in Iceland however, probably the worst parts of a cycling holiday are the beginning and ending of the trip- once I got off the plane into gorgeous sunshine and got the bike rebuilt I started feeling much, much better about things.

I started in Tromso, visiting the Arctic Circle for the first time; I was worried the weather would be overly inclement for cycling but I arrived in a record breaking Norwegian Summer. In the land of the midnight sun the first week was in perma sunshine and 25 degrees as I found myself sunburnt daily in shorts and a t-shirt. Tromso is by far the biggest city in the North and in the 24hr sun and fjordside location has something of an ‘end of the world’ feel to it, like a Northern version of Ushuaia in Argentina. In the Summer it felt very quiet but reading about the heroic exploits of Amundsen and Nansen in the Arctic museum felt a bit surreal in the languid sunshine.

After a couple of days there I took a night boat to Harstad with incredible views of the coastline in the midnight sun and then started the cycling odyssey in the Vesteralen islands.
It wasn’t a bad place to start. As the memorable character Slartibartfast states in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: "Look at me - I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway... I've been doing fjords all my life...for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award”.
And indeed whilst a few other countries like Thailand, Croatia and Vietnam would be in the hunt, Norway would I suspect be the bookies favourite for most beautiful coastline in the world award. TheVesteralen and Lofoten islands are the bits poking out off the Western Norwegian coast in the North and I covered the 300km to the succinctly named Southern tip of Å in about 3 days. Lofoten means ‘floating’ in Norwegian and whilst Norwegian mountains are generally of the more rounded variety, the vast grey rocks of the islands shoot very steeply up giving the impression from afar of giant granite sails ‘floating’ on the sea. The mountains are so steep that at times it was hard to see where the people could live but there was always just enough space on the coast for small fishing villages to settle. The coastal roads wind along these narrow strips and gave my first sight of the awesomeness of Norwegian engineering.

I was kind of left thinking that Norwegian boys have posters of tunnel engineers and bridge builders rather than the fighter pilots and footballers that they might in the rest of the world. Maybe only Japan ranks alongside Norway in terms of the ingenuity they’ve showed in managing to tame their wild Geography and connect up the entire country. To get between the islands there are a series of spectacular cantilever bridges which could be several kilometres long and have to be steep enough to allow oceangoing boats to be able to pass through. On a bike they could be ‘very challenging’ to climb up and then get down the other side but they afforded wonderful views and added a strangely uplifting human element to the wild natural landscape. Perhaps more spectacular still were the road tunnels that were particularly plentiful in the Southern fjords. For longer ones bikes aren’t allowed but on shorter ones I’d have to ‘tunnel up’ (put lights and reflectors on) and grind through them- annoying and a bit scary but definitely a better option than climbing the mountain it bored through. Amongst the more memorable ones I went in was one near Stavanger which had four different routes meet at a roundabout all underground and the 24.5km world record long Laerdal tunnel which is so long they’ve had to include special pale blue lighting and rest areas every 6km in order to stop drivers becoming disorientated! Amazing achievement.

After a few days hiking and relaxing in the fishing villages on Lofoten I got a boat back to the mainland then a night train took me to the lovely third city of Trondheim. I found that whilst cycling and camping in the middle of nowhere you have only a limited ability to interact with people and see how the majority of the population live. I managed to visit the 5 biggest cities in the country however, and spending a bit of time in them definitely led me to the (deliberately sweeping) conclusion that Norway is ‘the best country in the world’.

From an outsider’s point of view, literally the only bad thing I could say about Norway is the price of things… but then that’s because I don’t earn Norwegian average wages of 45k Euros per annum. It is deeply ironic that the country’s most famous painting, Munch’s The Scream has come to symbolise the agony of modern man better than virtually any artwork.
A more accurate representation of the country would have a healthy, toned, attractive person heartily smiling whilst expostulating on how great life is.

Norway has been top of the world Human Development Index since the turn of the century and has won the UN’s ‘best country in the world to live in’ award for the last fourteen years. With an almost perfectly functioning democracy and welfare state, virtually no rich poor gap to speak off and world class public services it’s difficult to see almost any problems at all within the country. In a country where bus drivers and doctors earn remarkably similar salaries, I’ve certainly never been anywhere where even in low level jobs people seem genuinely content with their lot. They’ve successfully cultivated a healthy, well educated, easygoing, positive (and, it must be said very beautiful) population and it’s no surprise that they’re ranked only behind Denmark in the UN global Happiness rating. Throw into the mix theworld’s lowest rating on the ‘Glass Ceiling Index’ (by law Norwegian boards must be 40% female) and in short, Norway sets the standard the rest of the world should be aiming towards.

This would be is the tricky part however; much of the reason Norway is in the privileged position it finds itself in is due to its huge oil reserves. When oil was discovered in the 1960’s the government rather intelligently and with a sagacious degree of foresight started putting the money earned into a sovereign wealth fund. The money was used wisely to build the welfare state (but well within their income so they were saving) and in a country of only 5million the fund has grown so successfully (now worth about $800bn) that they’re in the enviable and quite remarkable position of living off the interest on it. Whilst not every country is going to have huge oil reserves or has a much larger population to share the wealth amongst, the commitment to erasing a rich poor gap through a strong welfare state and the subsequent effect on people’s mental health is surely something other countries can aspire to. As when visiting other Scandinavian countries and even somewhere like Japan, Norway (and Norwegians) reconfirmed my belief in a ‘managed capitalist system’ as the way countries should be run…

After a bit of socio-political analysis I then headed South to some national parks in the centre of the country where the biking got just a bit harder than the coastal roads of the Lofoten islands. Central Norway is very much the heart of the Scandinavian mountain range and it’s here that much of the Norse folklore and mythology comes from with tales of evil and heroism from Loki and Thor and a creeping fear of the untamed upland home of the trolls and giants. I had the single hardest day of the trip in the Rondane national park; after starting the day by climbing 400m in about 4km (roughly 10% average gradient) via a series of switchbacks I carried on climbing up into the park for another 20km. When I got there I then spent 5 hours climbing the highest mountain in the park before the scary descent back down left me so tired to have a nap in a park before going back to my tent. Whilst the highest mountain is under 3000m, hiking in Norway is harder than it sounds as the rock type tends to be granite or other harder rock types. Well above the treeline the rock is so hard that erosion is limited and even in the busier national parks ‘paths’ don’t really get formed, you simply scramble over and up the rocks. This gets very hard on your feet and means you rarely get ‘easier sections’ as you’re constantly having to watch your feet. It’s all worth it though, as like in Iceland last year, the views from the various summits I did across the country were incredible with the fjords, lakes, glaciers, waterfalls and rock formations below creating a veritable smorgasbord of geographical features to feast your eyes on.

After the Rondane and the wonderful Jotunheim I hit my highest point on the road of 1389m after a gruelling 12km climb into a headwind before an epic and unbelievably fun 70km long descent to the mighty Sognefjord the next day. At over 200km long it ranks as the longest fjord in the world and it took me 3 days to cycle along it to the sea. The cycling here was near idyllic as whilst it was overcast rather than sunny the rain stayed away too and the quiet, flat roads meant finding a place to set up camp was extremely easy. This plan went well ‘til the last night by which time I’d reached the North Sea and took a ferry across the fjord for the last time. I cycled 5km out of the ferry port without seeing a single house then set up camp off road basically in the middle of nowhere, I had dinner etc. then got into my tent until about 10.30pm in the dusk….
At which point I had one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

Basically out of the utter silence I suddenly heard branches breaking and something obviously quite big running away. It then moved back and started, if not quite roaring, then barking or braying very loudly in a circular motion maybe 10-20m around my tent for about 5 minutes. My initial petrified reaction was “Oh my God is that a bear?!!!” After a bit of reflection I thought it more likely a deer or moose but that would still be not much fun. Being alone in a tent (so you can’t see anything) several km from any potential help was utterly terrifying and eventually I couldn’t take the fear anymore and jumped out naked armed only with my Chinese made penknife ready to just leg it. Somehow it did the trick and ‘it’ shuffled off, although it did come back the next morning and bark a few more times it stayed for only a couple of mins this time. Checking up on the internet later it was indeed a moose call and not something I wanna experience again. Ever.

2 days later I then had another pretty atrocious night camping just outside the rather lovely 2nd city of Bergen; about 5pm the wind really started picking up and by 9pm was into gale force or 9-10 on the Beaufort scale. I was in a relatively sheltered position (i.e. 3 sides blocked off) but I would describe it as being about as bad as can be tolerated in a tent. For about 6-7hours I used my weight to hold the tent down and spent a sleepless night hoping it wouldn’t fly away or poles break etc. Thankfully about 4am it died down but cycling into town the next day I saw lots of branches and even a few trees down all over the city and I felt I’d had a relatively lucky escape.

After all this excitement I was very pleased to have my Bavarian friend come out to join me for the next couple of weeks. I don’t think I’d be able to do a cycling trip for much longer than a couple of months as one of the things that defines it as a mode of travelling is how ‘moody’ the experience is and I’d struggle with this over longer periods by myself. When things are ‘good’ there is almost literally nothing else I’d be happier doing. When the weather is good, the road is quiet and fairly flat and the scenery is attractive, I don’t think there is a better way of seeing the world and the gradual absorption of the landscape has an almost cathartic quality to it. In contrast when things are ‘bad’ it really isn’t enjoyable and you wondered why you came in the first place.

I’d been very lucky in the opening couple of weeks, only experiencing rain twice and generally just not having any issues with either bike or body. Unfortunately for my Bavarian friend he did not have that luck. After the first day we hit an almighty rain band which seemed to track us as it rained on and off (but mostly on) for the following 2 days and it continued to rain fairly frequently over the fortnight. Quite quickly we developed a theory of ‘degrees of rain’; when you’re on a tight time budget you have to cycle through light rain if you want to make any progress but if it gets heavier you simply have to stop as if you can’t see properly then it’s dangerous. Over the following weeks we spent a few too many hours stuck in bus shelters or spending nights in barns discussing whether it was too heavy to cycle in, trying to use humour to laugh the situation off as best we could but largely just getting bored.

Throw in a couple of mechanical problems and cycling 40km to catch a ferry that no longer runs and cycling doesn’t seem such a fun holiday idea. One 24hr period perfectly captured our fluctuating mood as a beautiful ride along the Hardangerfjord was ruined by rain all morning only for an agreeably long lunch to be followed by the rest of the fjord being bathed in sun for the afternoon. After reaching our destination my Bavarian friend took a masochistic dip in a glacial lake and we set up a truly spectacular camp on the beach as the mountains rose all around us. An amazing evening was followed by having to face Mr. Hyde again the next morning, as having to catch a bus up to the plateau above us meant we had to pack up again in the pouring rain. Not so good.

I found on a day to day basis the worst period of the day was having to pack up after breakfast but then once I got on the bike I felt much better and it was the same that day as we did a pretty memorable cycle across the Hardangervidda, Europe’s largest mountain plateau. The road started off looking down the county’s highest waterfall and in swirling mists of as little as 20m or so visibility we slowly inched across the treeless, eerie landscape. Having got up to the plateau we then had to get down and did so by completing the famous Rallarvegen (Navvy Road). The trainline from Flam at sea level up to the plateau is one of the steepest in the world but in order to transport the materials there needed to be a road to transport materials, which you can now cycle. Most people rent mountain bikes and do about 2/3 of the distance but we had a cold night camping at the base of a glacier near the beginning, then the following day cycled the 80km long unpaved route with our fully loaded bikes. Neither of us had mountain tyres and the extra weight on the bikes makes them much harder to steer and balance than a normal mountain bike; whilst we kept going as much as we could we frequently had to simply get off the bikes and push as the road deteriorated. Whilst over the course of the ride you descend over 1300m, about 400m of this were done in one 1.5km or stretch by the side of a waterfall. My God I was scared, as bringing back memories of the Death Road in Bolivia, you squeeze your brakes as hard as possible and hope you make the series of hairpin turns OK as the waterfall crashes down beside you. Not a day for them to fail, I was truly delighted to get to the bottom and complete the 11hr day with a lovely gradual descent to the stunning fjordside village of Flam. We celebrated by a hearty handshake (in true British style) followed by a couple of cans of the local cider. Happy, happy day.

Drinking was definitely not something we did a lot of though; in a bar the cheapest pint would be £7.50 up to £12 and even in the supermarkets were at least £2.50 a can. The costs were definitely the worst thing about travelling in Norway- it may be the ‘best country in the world’ but it’s also one of if not the most expensive. Whilst everything is pretty expensive it was probably food and drink where you notice it most- the cheapest sandwich would cost about a fiver and the supermarkets just don’t really offer many deals or discounts. You kind of get used to it but we certainly didn’t feel the urge or desire to splash out on big nights in Norway which was a bit of a shame.

Thankfully the last week afforded us much better weather and after saying goodbye to my German pal in the lovely ski resort of Voss I took the train to my final destination of Oslo. I had four days there and thought it might be a day too many but it turned out to be about right as I spent a couple of days sightseeing and a couple of days happily lounging around pretty wooded islets of the Oslofjord. It has the reputation of one of Europe’s most amenable capitals and I couldn’t disagree with that as the locals enjoy such a high standard of living either on the surprisingly peaceful waterfront along the fjord or the wooded hills above.

I felt visiting the museums also gave quite a useful insight into how Norwegians see the country too. For such an old culture, Norway is actually a very young country; Norway tended to get the worst of centuries of near interminable wars with their neighbours in Denmark and Sweden throughout the middle ages and left them as something of a vassal state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries before they finally got independence in 1905. Similar to Britain’s treatment of Ireland, their Danish and Swedish masters operated little more than a feudal system forcing Norwegians to fish and farm the country only to remove all profits back to Copenhagen or Stockholm. Living in near penury, when the opportunity arose most of the population fled to the New World as soon as they could- there are actually more Norwegian Americans than Norwegians. The country’s economic situation didn’t drastically improve ‘til well after WWII and the discovery of oil but I got the impression the country is well aware of its change in circumstances. Dotted around central Oslo are several huge murals including some by Munch and are reminiscent of Rivera’s works in Mexico City. They show the agricultural and fishing heritage of the country morphing into the developed, cosmopolitan 21st century Norway and this seems to be a key part of their identity. The people are happy and know they’re affluent but it’s with the knowledge that the country and their ancestors have been through much tougher times. The consciousness of this change in circumstances is what keeps the belief in hard work and humility quite visible but also one of the things which makes Norwegians so likable as individuals and as a society. Rather than the flashy, ostentatious displays of wealth in some of the Gulf countries, showing off and splashing money around is not viewed upon positively in Norway. They could quite easily have fallen into the Wildean trap of Barbarism to Decadence almost overnight but the value system in the society has ensured they turned into and remained one of if not the most civilized country in the world.

Like Iceland, the country is so consistently beautiful you could stick a pin anywhere into the map and land somewhere interesting and this makes it a fantastic place to visit for a few weeks. However, when you ally that with the quality of its society and the individuals that it produces and the realisation slowly creeps in at this point in time that in many ways Norway is maybe as good as it gets on this planet.

Posted by carlswall 15:02 Archived in Norway Comments (0)

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