_Before I hit you with number 10 on the list, here's a recap of 20 to 11...
20: Camping on the Ngorongoro crater rim in Tanzania
19: Almost ballooning in the Mara, Kenya
18: Incredible Roman ruins in Libya
17: Exploring the delights of Jordan
16: Chilling with cocktails in Paphos, Cyprus
15: Snowball fights in Krakow, Poland
14: Spicing it up on Zanzibar Island
13: Playing with Gelada Baboons in the Simien mountains, Ethiopia
12: Sunset seaplane flight over Coal Harbour, Vancouver, Canada
11: Flying first class with Matt Goss to Vegas
_I’d always wanted a celebrity moment but, let’s face it, the chances are few and far between. Little did I know when I upgraded my Vancouver to Vegas flight that my dream was going to be realised… A Stateside virgin, I was flying to Vegas for a mini-break before heading back to Toronto to see family. US Customs at Vancouver airport were a little scary, especially when I found myself detained for 10 minutes in a waiting area. I thought it might be something to do with the Chicken Bisto gravy granules I was carrying as a present (don’t ask!), but it turned out my name was on the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted list – surprising because how many Piara Strainges can there be in the World – yet not surprising when you consider my last trips had been to Serbia, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. I work for an Adventure Tour Operator and I get around - and the later dubbed "Arab Spring" was already in full swing in Tunisia and Egypt with rumblings in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan... So I’m lounging right at the front of the plane in first class and reading through the menu for dinner, when I happen to look up and spy Matt Goss (of Bros fame) boarding the plane. Alas, I am surrounded by Americans so there is no-one to share my excitement with! Enter Facebook. Whipping out my mobile and quickly turning off flight mode, all thoughts of data roaming charges fly out the window as I quickly update my status. As I’m frantically typing, Matt takes his seat behind me! Dinner comes and goes and we’re an hour into the flight and still I haven’t turned around to make conversation… Then Matt asks our flight attendant if I can lower my shutter as it’s reflecting on his screen. The opportunity has arrived! I down the rest of my wine, turn around and in my best English, say “Would you think it awfully rude of me if I ask you for your autograph?” Elation hits me as he introduces me to Robin, his Manager (also the Pussycat Dolls creator) and we get talking about Fleet and Camberley, our Customs palava at Vancouver (Matt was detained and questioned for an hour) and his Vegas show. He writes me a little message and I get the all-important pic taken. Wow! But that’s not all – on arrival into Vegas, I meet his PR Executive Justin and they offer to wait with me for my bag and then taxi me to Caesars Palace in the Gossy Limo!!! How can I refuse? On the short drive we discuss the US X Factor and how successful we think it might be. When we get to the hotel, a kiss from Matt and a complimentary ticket to his show that evening seal the surrealism and I’m treated like a VIP with my own concierge to show me around the fabulous Palace. Not a bad introduction to America!
I dedicate Number 12 of my "29 of the Best" to my seaplane flight around Coal Harbour (Vancouver) at sunset. I LOVE Vancouver. Actually, I love all the bits of Canada I've seen so far. It's a great country and all the hype is to be believed! No sunsetty pics because I was too busy enjoying this very special moment - just me, the pilot and 1 other - and something I'd wanted to do for a long, long time. As you know, I love flying. And this was magical.
Apart from being desperately sick to the point all inhibitions fly out the window and you don't care who sees what, when - and taking a rather dodgy flight from Addis to Lalibela where my seat was coming away from the aircraft mount (no point wearing a seatbelt but I put it on anyway!) - Ethiopia was a joy. For me, this was the country where the reality blew all my preconceptions to bits. From Bob Geldof, Bono and Band Aid videos back in the 80s, I expected dry, dusty land with famine ravaged people walking the streets, begging to be fed. I expected sadness, hostility and heartbreak. I expected to be humbled, and definitely not wowed. When I arrived in November 2007, Ethiopian Millennium celebrations were still going on 2 months down the line (they are 7 years - yes really - 7 years behind us!) Happy, smiley people greeted me. Green, fertile land awaited me. I was stunned, quite literally stunned. 1 favourite memory out of all the highlights - staying in an eco-lodge in the Simien mountains and being so close to the cuddly cute Gelada Baboons. Check out the pics...
On my way back from Tanzania, I flew across to Zanzibar to experience the beautiful Spice Island. I've never been rained on and still sweated at the same time; that was a little bizarre in the dense humidity. Staying in a remote beach location, I pretty much had the rustic resort in Nungwi to myself - and they put me up in the honeymoon suite. Work can be tough sometimes ;) The spice tour itself was fascinating and I purchased quite a lot. It's probably more commercial now, but back then it was just me and my guide wandering around - him teaching, me tasting. We got so engrossed, I missed my flight back to Dar. I was taking 3 flights in 1 day to get home to the UK and missing the first 1 was stressful. A 50 USD bribe ensured I made the next charter back to the mainland, but what a carry on!
Other fond memories of Zanzibar include the gorgeous, cheeky, intelligent red Colobus monkeys, and visiting Freddie Mercury's house in Stone Town where he was born. I am a massive Queen fan :)
We had just over 24 hours in Krakow for a Business Review Day back in January 2005, made more difficult by the fact we landed in Warsaw instead due to - and I quote - "the female pilot not wanting to land the plane in heavy snow". Actually, I think it was more because Krakow airport was accommodating dignitaries for the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz, but what a funny excuse to use!
Just found this on the web to confirm:
"On 27th of January, 2005 over forty heads of state, among them presidents of Russia - Vladimir Putin, Germany - Horst Koehler and France's - Jacques Chirac, government heads and even high rank of European royalty will gather at the ceremony of 60th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation."
Anyway... there we were stuck in Warsaw when we needed to be in Krakow to meet our bosses. Plenty of ex-tour leaders amongst us who pulled rank and got us on a train. It ended up being a great socialising session with weird and wonderful food - and beer. Can't remember if there was vodka...
For me, the highlight of the whole day was, on arrival, dumping our bags at the hotel and then battling in a massive snowball fight right in the middle of Krakow coming up for being in the middle of the night. Nothing like releasing the pressure before a hard day of seriousness!
I've never been in a country where it's so hot and humid, I've been forced to relax and literally do nothing but sunbathe and drink cocktails the entire time. So I dedicate Number 16 of my "29 of the best" to Paphos, Cyprus in September of this year. 40 degrees plus in the shade and a sauna like air heavier than I remember Bangkok being. Actually, at one point during the holiday, we were hotter than Bangkok and even the locals were grumbling and wilting.
Got a great story idea out of all that lazying and observing though!
2008 was the year I put safaris aside and went in search of ancient history. I'd already been to see the pyramids in Egypt and Leptis in Libya, so now it was time to hop over to the next country in line - Jordan - for another fix. I can't pinpoint 1 specific memory in Jordan because the whole country was amazing, but I did love the fact I was the closest I'll probably ever get to Israel when we visited the site of John the Baptist's settlement at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptised on the east bank of the Jordan River. Just a stone's throw away across the water was the Holy Land. It was also coming towards the end of Ramadan whilst I was there, so I was able to celebrate Eid with the locals (Muslim celebration to mark the end of Ramadan) and take part in the Great Feast where all the families get together and basically eat and drink and have a good time and smoke some shisha.
Everywhere we visited in Jordan was a highlight for me, from floating in the Dead Sea to riding a camel through the desert, camping in Wadi Rum to walking in Dana nature reserve, being bustled by zillions of people in hot, sticky Aqaba to driving to the Saudi Arabia border. And I haven't even mentioned the beautiful, visually stunning site of Petra along with Jerash, Mt Nebo, Madaba and Kerak. It's not every country you can drive the length of and find something so incredible at every turn. The King's Highway certainly lives up to its name!
Photos to follow...
Rocking up at Tripoli airport, I was the only female passing through Security on arrival. To say I stood out like a sore thumb would be an under statement. The to-ing and fro-ing with my passport didn't help matters and I couldn't understand the sudden chuckle bursts from the guards. Eventually my passport was handed back to me and I got ushered through, but there was definitely some distinct mocking going on. It wasn't until the end of my trip, that my agent kindly explained the misunderstanding (although he too was laughing). The Libyan Embassy in London had translated my job title "Contractor" to "Builder" !!! Thanks guys...
Anyway, all that joking aside, what a fabulous country Libya was. The ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha blew me away. Sitting amongst them, looking out to the Med, wind in my air, sun on my back, I tried to imagine myself in Roman times. I think we studied the Romans at school even more than we studied the Egyptians, so I was digging through the recess of my memory to visualise it all.
I can't believe all that has happened to this country over recent months and I can't believe Colonel Gaddafi is dead. I remember very clearly my guided tour of his museum of treasures and gifts from world leaders. The propaganda was rife, but it was a fascinating insight. I felt completely safe walking around on my own in the capital Tripoli, no hassle from men to speak of, and a very modern, cultured feel to boot.
So, aside from the joke about the builder, the over zealous hotel porter who wanted to do anything for me in return for a visa, and the mega amount of litter everywhere you looked, Libya scored very highly and I feel privileged to have seen it before the revolution. One day I will go back and compare notes.
I was going to be taking approx 10 flights during a 2 1/2 week jaunt to Ethiopia and Kenya, but it was the hot air ballooning in the Maasai Mara I was most looking forward to. It was still pitch black when we arrived at the site around 5ish. Everyone was sleepy and cradling their coffee, but you could feel the buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air. For most people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An awesome flight over 1 of the best known game reserves followed by a beautiful champagne breakfast in the bush. It doesn't get much better than that! It seemed to take ages to "blow up" the balloon, but as dawn approached, we finally got the signal to climb into the giant basket. The best way I can describe this is, it's like taking the brace position - but on your back with your legs in the air. Very elegant when you're all strapped in. I remember the heat from the propane on the side of my face, the roar of the gas, shielding my camera underneath my jacket and waiting for the basket to lift so we would be seated upright. We actually did quite a bit of waiting...and waiting...and waiting...and then it went flat - the balloon and the experience. Turns out it was too windy to fly. At the time I was bitterly disappointed. Having missed out on the Serengeti during my trip to Tanzania several years ago, I thought I'd get lucky second time around. But it wasn't to be. And looking back now, I'm very glad. Since that trip, there have been a couple of very high profile ballooning accidents caused by freak windy weather.
So, I dedicate Number 19 to my almost Mara ballooning experience!
Blogging is an amazing concept so here I am giving it a whirl. You'll get words. You'll get pics. Sometimes a vid or two. You'll get tongue in cheek, the odd humble opinion and an honest insight into my travels and writing life. Maybe even a few gems along the way. I'll be musing on home turf as I see more and more of the UK and sharing my experiences further afield on holidays and adventurous trips across the globe.