Temples of Taiwan

So my next stop on this weird and wonderful world tour sees me get off in Taiwan. A place I have visited, briefly overnight previously but have never made the effort to visit properly and check out what it has to offer.

Taiwan actually has an awful lot to offer the discerning traveller, it may often get overlooked for some of its more well known neighbours but it definitely deserves some of you travel time.

I started in the capital, Taipei, where I based myself for a couple of days to take in the city and it’s temples.

Sadly the weather decided to become somewhat hit and miss, so bright sunny spells became interspersed with crappy rainy spells…sometimes for most of the bloody day! Still I had a pack a mac and an umbrella…may as well use them!

So…day 1…somewhat overcast and threatening rain…I head out to check out a few of Taipei’s main temples. The first stop was the Confucius temple.

I then headed off to the famous Dalongdong Balkan Temple which happens to be a UNESCO world heritage site.

After Dalongdong I wandered around the city checking out side streets, small local temples and quirky shops before air stumbled across a small but beautiful temple that was totally devoid of people, leaving me free to amble around alone taking in the vivid colours and the delicate but detailed carvings. According to my map it’s the Shú Ren Shu Yuàn Wen Chang Ci temple.

First day of temple spotting was a success and the rain held off until the afternoon when I was back at the hotel.

The next day the weather was terrible but there were still temples to be seen and steps to be walked, so I donned my pac-a-mac and grabbed my umbrella and begrudgingly headed out into the rain.

I stopped off at the Xing Tian temple and took a couple of quick snaps in the rain.

The rain began to get heavier so I retreated to the hotel with a plan to head out later on and see the Longshan Temple and the night market.

However, the weather had other ideas and I was not traipsing about in a torrential downpour so I spent the afternoon and evening watching films and eating M&Ms. That’s how it goes some days!

The following morning I left the rainy skies of Taipei behind and got the high speed train down to Kaohsiung on the south coast of the island. The HSR brings you to a station outside of Kaohsiung so I had to jump on the MRT (metro/subway/tube) and travel a couple of stops to my hotel.

I checked in, dumped the bag and had a quick go on the massage chair that was in my room….then as the weather was nice I made for the famous lotus lake and the absolutely stunning temples I had come to Taiwan to see.

I walked across town for 45 minutes to reach the lakeside and then circumambulated around the lakeside path taking in each temple as I went.

Firstly I headed to the temple/pagoda I was most looking forward to visiting…The Dragon & Tiger Pagodas.

I spent a good half an hour wandering about the Pagodas, you enter via the dragon’s mouth and climb up to the top for great views before descending and exiting via the tiger’s mouth. Pretty cool and is one of the most spectacular Pagodas I have seen.

I then continued my stroll around the lake and then came across the Spring and Autumn Pavilions Pagoda. Again another wonderful, brightly coloured masterpiece worthy of a good explore.

I continued on towards the next temple, past a weird karaoke booth where an elderly man was merrily banging out a tune for all to hear..I was briefly tempted to make a request but my ears demanded that I move on out of earshot of his ‘singing’.

The next pagoda was the immense Xuan Tian Shàng di Shen Xiáng Pagoda featuring a colossal 24m high statue of the mighty god Xuan Tian Shàng di.

After these 3 spectacular Pagodas I completed the circumambulation of the lotus pond…briefly stopping at the Hù An Sì temple and the Chingshui temple.

Circumambulation completed I wandered back to my hotel via Carrefour and then spent the evening snacking in my massage chair whilst watching unfathomable Taiwanese films.

The next day I headed out to a cool place called the Pier 2 Art Centre, the weather kept threatening rain but I managed to spend a couple of hours wandering around this open air art gallery with its quirky street art, bizarre sculptures and art installations and independent eateries and retail units.

I then took a scenic stroll along Kaohsiung’s “Love River” and back through the cute city to the hotel.

I have to say I really liked Kaohsiung, it had a real relaxed and friendly atmosphere to it, with beautiful pagodas and walking opportunities. Somewhere I would definitely go back to again.

Sadly the next day I had to leave Kaohsiung and take the high speed train to Tainan where I was going to stop for a day. The journey on the HSR is 10 minutes from Kaohsiung to Tainan, however, what I failed to learn was that the HSR station in Tainan is not actually in Tainan…it’s in the middle of nowhere a good 25 minutes outside of Tainan!

I soon discovered that I needed to jump on a local train from Tainan station to Tainan station! Might help if they give them different names to differentiate!

So, I eventually arrived at the second Tainan station and headed to my guest house. I had come across a guest house in a tiny backstreet which was owned by a Japanese guy and set up as a traditional Japanese ryokan. Thought it would be novel for 2 nights….it was but it’s basically sleeping on the floor on a wafer thin mat which to me felt like indoor camping!

Sadly the next morning the torrential rain was back, so my plan to roam about Tainan went slightly awry.

Eventually the rain abated and I managed a quick wander around. I popped to the Confucius temple which sadly was under renovation so I was unable to venture inside to properly check it out. I did find this dude in the gardens though….

Frankly there wasn’t much else to see in Tainan so I spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out at the Ryokan.

The next day I had to head back to Tainan station, get the local train to Tainan station and then pick up the HSR back to Taipei as my time in Taiwan had come to an end.

Mother Nature decided that an appropriate way to mark the end of my Taiwan trip was to wake me up at 4.15am with a 5.1 richter earthquake and a emergency presidential alert to my mobile all in mandarin! I grabbed some trousers, in case I needed to evacuate and cleared a space under the desk in case of aftershocks and went back to bed! Thankfully there were no aftershocks or further presidential alerts so the rest of my nights sleep was undisturbed!

It have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Taiwan it’s a fascinating island with modern cities that blend effortlessly with ancient temples and traditions. The people are friendly, the streets clean and the food is pretty good too.

I hope to go back there at some point and travel across the mountainous central region to the wilder east coast with its famed treks and cycle routes. I’ll add it to the ever growing list of places to re-visit!

Next stop Seoul!

Beautiful Bangladesh – March 2019

So continuing on my random jaunt around the world…my next pitstop sees me spending some time in Bangladesh. Whilst not on most people’s radar, Bangladesh has been on mine for a while simply for that reason.

I had a tour booked in 2016 which sadly was cancelled due to a terror attack and subsequent shutdowns and curfews. So I always had in the back of my mind that if I had the chance I would explore this lesser-visited, hidden gem of a country on the Indian subcontinent.

Somewhat overshadowed by it’s neighbours, Bangladesh is quietly going about its business with very few tourists and some wonderful archaeological sites and religious monuments…why wouldn’t I visit.

So before committing I spent some time reading up on Bangladesh, buying the thinnest Lonely Planet book ever and reading some fellow travellers blogs (not that there were many!). The words intense, crazy, intimidating and India raw kept appearing along with beautiful, friendly, hospitable and amazing….sounds interesting!

So with slight trepidation I jumped on a flight from Sri Lanka to Oman and then Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Upon arrival it was blatantly obvious that the immigration police were not really accustomed to foreign visitors….not only was the bureaucracy time consuming with numerous pieces of paper with the same data on, you needed to queue up at a separate bank desk to pay the visa on arrival fee, the receipt then had to go with your forms. I then queued for an hour for the forms to be processed and the immigration officer showed little interest in me having a return flight or hotel booking (which the forms and signage were adamant you must have). I have to say the officer was. Dry friendly and welcomed me to Bangladesh upon finally issuing me my visa.

I was then sceptical as to whether my bag would be at the carousel as it had now been 1 hour 45 since disembarking the plane!

Thankfully my little rucksack had been carefully placed in the middle of the floor near the baggage carousel and was looking rather sad and lonesome!

Next was customs where bags were being scanned and scrutinised and forms being completed. Upon reaching customs I got waved straight through…no need to scan bag or provide form…I can only assume I was exempt from the process due to the fact I was a tourist! A fact that would show itself to be true throughout my trip, it was like being a VIP for the whole time! Surreal!

I then grabbed a taxi and headed to my hotel, this was to be my next Bangladesh lesson….no one can follow GPS! So instead of following GPS to the hotel the driver just headed in the general direction of Gulshan 2 and then repeatedly asked people where the hotel was…even though I was sitting there with GPS and trying to direct him!

Still I made it there eventually and settled in for the week.

Now, I had already decided that my time in Bangladesh was going to be about meeting people and using the forum of Couchsurfing to meet locals and spend some time hanging out with them, learning about their country from them and travelling with them.

So a mere couple of hours after reaching the hotel, I was going out, on what was to be the first of many evenings out, to a local coffee shop to meet Abdul. Abdul and I had been conversing on CS (couchsurfing) for a while regarding a road trip up to the north of the country to see some fascinating archaeological sites and religious monuments.

We grabbed a quick drink and he introduced me to his friend Hasan, we sat chatting briefly about our road trip but then moved to us discussing global current affairs, Brexit, tourism and many other interesting topics. A wonderful introduction to the welcoming, friendly, hospitable and wonderful people of Bangladesh.

The next day I had arranged to meet Asmani at the same coffee shop, she arrived with her Husband, Bayzid, who from here on is know as Babu! Again, we sat chatting about the same things really and again both Asmani and Babu were really lovely people. Babu had to head off to see friends so I took a walk with Asmani back to their apartment where I also had the pleasure of meeting Kathrine who was couchsurfing with Asmani and Babu.

We sat chatting and eating until gone midnight when Babu returned and dropped me back to the hotel.

It was the perfect balance….daytime I mooched about Gulshan and wrote long overdue blogs, evenings were taken up with eating and socialising.

The next day I ventured out on a day trip with another guy from CS, Robin. He rocked up at the hotel with a car and driver and took me out for the day to see a few historical places outside of Dhaka.

We started with the Goaldi Mosque which is one of the few surviving medieval monuments in Sonargaon. It’s a stunning example of pre-Mughal architecture and is a rare example of a brick mosque.

After wandering around the tranquil mosque garden we headed to the nearby Folk and Art Museum which has some great displays of clothing, needlework, pottery and artwork from the area. We probably would have spent more time at the museum if a coach load of school children hadn’t turned up and descended on the place like a noisy, savage plague of locusts….climbing on everything, touching everything, shouting, running around and throwing fire crackers about (indoors!).

So we hotfooted out of the museum building and took a slow stroll around the surrounding gardens which although geared towards families and children have a lovely palace within them, a boating lake, some animal sculptures, some funky painted walls, loads of shops selling food, drink, clothing, toys and goods made in the local villages. There was even a very squeaky and unsafe looking wooden Ferris wheel!

After the Museum we headed to the beautiful ruined city of Panam.

Panam city is a former Hindu settlement dating to the early 13th century initially. From the 14th century it benefited from seafaring trade which influenced the architecture of the grand trunk road, giving it a striking indo-European style.

Fuelled by British colonial rule and the cotton textile industry, Panam became home to upper middle class Bengali Business men during the late 1800s until in fell into disrepair.

We wandered about the ghostly buildings, even wandering into some and clambering up positively unsafe staircase to take in views from the flat roofs.

I absolutely loved Panam’s building and ghostly ambience. A very cool historical site and one you should definitely visit when in Dhaka.

The next day I lounged about, went to a CS meet up early evening where I met Abdul again, then I headed to Asmani’s for dinner as Kathrine had knocked us up a veritable Malaysian feast…..a Bangladesh take on Nasi Lemak!

Kathrine is a big foodie and is an excellent food blogger and vlogger so I had high expectations for dinner and was not disappointed! Dessert was some wonderful local sweets I had procured on the way over, Bangladesh is heaven for sweet treats!

The next 2 days were taken up with day long monsoon rains and a political election meaning going out was a challenge, so I ended up chilling out for 2 days and staying in out of the rain. I did pop over to Asmani’s for dinner again which was, again, a delicious affair of copious amounts of local food!

Kathrine, Asmani and I also went out for a stroll around Hatirgheel and Gulshan, taking a quick bus ride around the lake and then wandering back home.

Friday saw me pack up my stuff ready for my weekend road trip up north with Abdul and Hasan.

We were getting the night bus at 11.30pm so I checked out shortly before that, got an Uber to Abdul’s, dumped my rucksack, collected the guys and then we headed to the bus station to await our night bus!

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the night bus….a definite improvement on ones I have taken in India before! The 3 of us dozed on and off throughout the journey and arrived into Bogra at about 5.30/6am…can’t remember exactly…it was too early and I was too tired!

We grabbed a tuktuk to our local hotel and managed to check in and get a room for freshening up. About an hour later, we were out getting an early morning bus to Natore where we would jump off and go and see the royal palace of Uttara Ganabhaban or Dighapatia Rajbari as its locally known.

The palace dates from the 18th century and was seat to the Dighapatia Raj.

We enjoyed strolling around the lovely gardens, even if the guys had to wait whilst I had numerous requests for photographs with locals! They don’t often, if ever, see a white Western woman so I was probably a bit of a novelty!

Next we jumped on the bus and headed back to Bogra before heading to the next historical site of Gokul Medh. Gokul Medh is a bizarre excavated mound which is said to be the bride chamber of Behula and date from 7th-12th century.

Our last stop of the day was the museum at Mahasthangarh, we wandered about the gardens, having more selfies with locals then headed back to the hotel…..totally shattered!

I crashed out early, leaving the guys to go out and get food and organise the bus for the next day to the site of Parharpur.

Sunday saw us have an early start again..out at 7am for a 7.30am bus. The bus was supposed to take 2&1/2 hours but some reports were that it was more likely 4 hours. We had been told the road to Rajshahi was impassable so we were going to have to go a different route.

We jumped on the bus, which was less of a bus and more of a child’s school bus! The seats were clearly built for children and the leg space was too small for me, let alone for Abdul at over 6ft!

We squeezed into the back right hand corner of the bus and off we went….we must have been on the road (which was terrible…if this was the better road, I dread to think what the bad road looked like!) maybe 90 minutes when we ground to a burning, smokey halt. Thick black smoke was pouring into the bus right where we were sitting and upon hanging out the window, I glanced a busted wheel sprayed with oil.

So we all had to stream out of the bus onto the side of the road…in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was trying to flag down alternatives to get to the next nearest town. We managed to nab a space in the back of a small flatbed truck, so the 3 of us along with maybe another 10 people stood in the back of this truck for the 10 minute ride to the nearest town.

There we jumped out and tried to flag down another bus coming through…none of them would stop to pick us up and by this time I was drawing quite the crowd…clearly no tourist/traveller has ever stepped foot in this ‘out of the way’, small town in the middle of the north of Bangladesh.

We ended up jumping in a tuktuk with 2 local guys and then heading to the nearest bus station, with the intention of grabbing the bus to Parharpur.

Upon arriving at the chaotic, local bus station we discovered no buses and a raft of tuktuks waiting to rip us off…purely because I wasn’t local! Again we had quite the fascinated crowd…eventually the guys negotiated a fare with a young tuktuk driver to drive us the rest of the way to the site.

So we settled down for the hours tuktuk ride through small, local villages set amongst the most beautifully verdant rice paddies. Our driver rattled around tight bends that hugged people’s houses, uneven and patchy roads and suicidal goats, chickens and dogs that darted out from unexpected places.

Eventually we arrived…..about 4 hours after we left! Unfortunately we now didn’t have much time to wander around the site as we had to endure the same journey back to Bogra and get back in time for the bus back to Dhaka!

So we set to it…grabbed a ticket…marched around the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara, the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur.

It’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates to the 8th century AD. It one of 5 important Viharas and the largest on the Indian Subcontinent.

It’s a fascinating place and even though we didn’t have long to see it, we still had chance to marvel at the sheer size of it and the beauty of its architecture. Again we had to make selfie stops with locals….we had enough time for that at least!

After rushing around we jumped back into the tuktuk (he’d been waiting for us) and headed back. The plan originally was for him to return us to where he had picked us up so we could grab a bus back to Bogra. However, part way into the journey he told us he knew a short cut and could drive us back to Bogra in only 2 hours!

So we agree a new price and sat back enjoying the 2 hour tuktuk ride through the villages, rice fields and beautiful Bangladesh countryside.

We made it back to Bogra in good time and managed to freshen up at the hotel before grabbing our bags and heading to the bus station to get the bus back to Dhaka.

Again it was a good 7 hours or so and we rocked up at the bus station in Dhaka around 11.30pm.

We grabbed a couple of cycle rickshaws back to Abdul’s and I said thanks and goodbye to the guys, grabbed my rucksack and called an Uber to my hotel.

I was totally shattered and filthy but what a weekend! It was so much fun and such a laugh…the buses, the break down, the alternative transportation methods and the selfies! I showered, even though it was 1am because my hair was vile and crashed out!

Monday morning I packed ready to leave Bangladesh, checked out and headed over to Asmani’s. Kathrine was also leaving Bangladesh Monday evening…about half an hour later than me, so we had decided to head to the airport together.

I spent the day chilled out at Asmani’s, we ordered some food in and just chatted for hours. We did head out to the coffee shop mid afternoon for a final, farewell drink and a meet up with Abdul to say thanks and goodbye.

I was really sad to be leaving Bangladesh and my new friends behind, but I know that I will be back, and soon, for some more crazy adventures with Abdul and Hasan and some more amazing food at Asmani’s.

It’s definitely true what they say….Bangladeshis are the most hospitable and welcoming people. Truly lovely people who go out of their way to make sure you have a great time in their country.

I have to thank Asmani, Babu, Kathrine, Abdul and Hasan for making my trip so much fun and enjoyable. Can’t wait to come see you guys soon….

Although…I nearly never left…

Bangladesh immigration sprung another surprise on me and had decided to date stamp my visa a day too early! Even though I had provided my return flight details on arrival! So technically I was in the country illegally for a day!

After a tense 90 minutes at the airport where they demanded payment for 1 day overstay and whole new visa, me refusing to pay, them taking ages to process and the me having to argue and eventually be handed over to a lovely lady who seemed to be in charge and thankfully waivered the charges immediately and got me stamped out! Phew!

Bangladesh has become one of my favourite countries and as long as they let me back in…I will be back!

If you are looking for an off the beaten track destination then Bangladesh is the place for you!

Planes, Trains, Automobiles and dog napping in Sri Lanka – February 2019

The next stop on my solo travels around random places took me to Sri Lanka to catch up with friends as it’s been 2 years since I was last there.

I arrived early in the morning and managed to check in to my hotel early which allowed me to sleep for a few hours before doing chores like washing and painting my nails!

That evening I met with my travel buddy Diana who I hadn’t seen since we went to Singapore for New Year 2017/2018.

We sat on the rooftop of my hotel and had a drink and a bite to eat whilst catching up. We also planned our travels for the next few days. It was a national holiday in Sri Lanka so she had a few days spare to spend with me. We decided to travel up country to visit the amazing temples at Anuradhapura before heading to her family’s home of Jaffna in the far north.

Diana headed off early as we were getting an early bus at 6.30am.

So next morning I was up early, checked out and got an Uber to Diana’s house so that I could drop my rucksack off at hers and just travel with a small bag for a few days.

We got the Uber driver to drop us at the bus station which is always chaotic. There seems to be a total lack of organisation around which buses go from where and when.

Diana and I crisscrossed the bus station being pointed in different directions by different people…one guy said the first lane…we went to the first lane and the guy there say the second to last lane, we went there and they said the second land, we went there and they said the second to last lane again…so we wasted 15 minutes trying to locate the right bus.

Diana was convinced we would be on an air conditioned bus as she didn’t want to get the non AC option. Eventually we located a bus going to Anuradhapura and jumped on. We were the first people on the bus so we took a seat and enjoyed the extremely loud and violent film being shown on the tv at the front and sat there inhaling thick incense smoke! Eventually the bus started filling up and we were on our way, Diana suddenly noticing the lack of AC in the bus and the fully opening windows! Turned out we were on the non AC, for 5 hours…what an adventure!

The bus, once out of Colombo, picked up speed and we were soon whizzing through the Sri Lankan countryside at a rapid pace. The 5 hours passed in a daze of napping, stopping for people to jump on and off, watching the dreadful film and being offered various food and drink items by vendors who leapt on and off the bus at intervals.

Eventually the bus rolled into Anuradhapura and we jumped off before the bus station and grabbed a tuktuk to the local hotel we had booked.

We arrived late morning/lunchtime and after a quick rest at the hotel we jumped back in the same tuktuk and the driver then took us around all the temples of Anuradhapura in one afternoon! It was the most fast paced buddhist pilgrimage ever! The driver said to get round all the temples and sights takes about 5-6 hours…we started at 1.30pm!

So first off he dropped us at Ruwanwelisaya Dagaba which dates to 140BC, it’s a huge white stupa with lovely Buddha statues surrounding it. So we removed our shoes and part walked, part ran between shaded spots on the floor to complete a circumambulation clockwise around the stupa.

The ground was bloody scalding….like walking on hot coals! I am not sure how holy my circumambulation was when I was muttering expletives under my breath as layers of skin were being burnt off the soles of my feet!

We then grabbed an ice cream to cool ourselves down whilst waiting for the tuktuk driver who had gone off quick to collect his son from school.

He soon reappeared with his son and took us to the next temple which is a enigmatic place…its the oldest Buddhist dagoba on the island and dates to 247BC. Thuparamaya has ancient stone columns around it and a loud speaker playing a haunting Buddhist pray chant which adds to it’s mysticism.

Again, shoes off and a scalding, shade hopping circumambulation around the stupa!

Again, we waited for the tuktuk driver to reappeared as he had taken the opportunity to run his son home whilst we were circumambulating! (I love this word…can you tell?!)

We then popped to Lankarama which besides sounding like a themed night out in Sri Lanka is actually a cute, little stupa that not much is known about.

Next we headed to Abhayagiri Vihāra which is a major Monastery at Anuradhapura, it’s a beautiful brick building with huge, aggressive monkeys…wonderful! Diana was put on monkey duty and in charge of making sure they didn’t attack me! (Bloody hate monkeys, they are still plotting the downfall of mankind…I tell you!)

After successfully bypassing the monkey hoards we quickly leapt out the tuktuk to take a look at Monastery dining rooms and dormitories and bathing places.

We then headed to Kuttam Pokuna which is one of the best specimens of bathing pools in ancient Sri Lanka. The pair of pools are stunning built where locals can buy popcorn and feed the fish within!

After the pools, which thankfully required no barefoot circumambulatory pilgrimage we headed to the huge Jetavanaramaya stupa which at 122m was the world’s tallest stupa and the third largest structure in the world when it was built. It was the second tallest non-pyramidal building in the ancient world after Pharos the lighthouse of Alexandria. It’s not longer the tallest but it is the largest with a base area of 233,000m2 with 93.3 million bricks used in its construction!

So with that in mind, I decided I was going to pass on the circumambulation pilgrimage because it was just too big to walk/run around barefoot and there were limited shady patches in which to find brief relief from the scalding floor, however, Diana persuaded me we should do it…whilst dodging the bloody monkeys!

The sun was now starting to diminish so we quickly popped to the sacred tooth relic temple…this is supposed to have housed Buddha’s sacred tooth relic before it ended up in Kandy!

We then headed out of the centre of the ancient city and to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi which is a sacred fig tree said to be grown from the southern branch of the historical tree Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya in India, where Buddha attained enlightenment.

The seed of the tree was apparently planted in 288BC and the tree is supposed to be the oldest human planted tree in the world. Pretty cool if you ask me….

To reach the tree you must walk a good 10 minutes from the road with a huge crowd of pilgrims attending puja (prayer ceremonies) and you guessed it…barefoot! Although the ground was no longer hot there was now grit and stones to contend with! Jesus….these people must have leather for soles!

We wandered around the temple surrounding the Bodhi tree for a while, watching the pujas before hobbling barefoot in the dark down to the beautiful Ruwanwelisaya Dagaba. We had accidentally coincided our unintentional Buddhist pilgrimage with a huge puja where hundreds if not thousands of Buddhists had come to this temple at sunset to participate in a ceremony. They were all walking together, holding onto a long piece of fabric in the colours of the Buddhist flag which we ended up getting entangled in…not the fabric thankfully but the group of pilgrims walking with it. There were monks, copious amounts of thick incense smoke, chiming bells and flowers. It made the circumambulation (I promise this is the last time I use this…) slow and busy!

Still the ambience was fantastic and the sunset immense.

So after a full afternoon of barefoot, circumambulatory pilgrimage (ok this is the least time….) we had completed the circuit and happily retired to the hotel, shattered but happy!

The next day we got a train to Jaffa, according to Diana we were in the observation carriage with air con. The observation carriage in Diana’s mind was a carriage with large glass panels so you could take in the beautiful scenery of north Sri Lanka on route…however this is Sri Lanka so the observation carriage had normal pokey windows and one large panel window at the rear and no air con! It was still comfortable and an enjoyable way to rattle through north Sri Lanka and Tamil territory to Jaffa.

Thankfully our hotel was just outside the station so not too far to walk, we checked in and rested briefly before heading out to see the sunset from Jaffna Fort.

As with everything else this didn’t really go to plan….we found an man in a tuktuk and asked him to drive us to the fort as the sun was starting to set…what should have been a 5 minute drive turned into a 15 minutes when the tuktuk ran out of fuel (apparently…or after Diana haggled the price down he decided to only take us part of the way…we will never know)..so we had to go on foot…we wandered around unsure what direction to go…asked some locals as and got differing directions from them! We started walking and ended up grabbing another tuktuk as the sunset was rapidly disappearing….eventually we made it to the fort with a few minutes to spare before the sun had completely gone down!

That night we went for the famous biriyani in US restaurant, my veggie one came with devilled cashews in it…immense!

The following day we headed out in the morning to analytics Hindu temple and watched the morning Puja

After Nallur we went to Diana’s favourite ice cream parlour…Rio’s. We had a nice ice cream and then wandered to see the cathedral, which was sadly closed.

After the cathedral we popped to Diana’s Aunt’s house to see her cousin and her dog, Dolly. Now Dolly and Diana’s mum normally live in Colombo with Diana, however, her mum was taking some long term rest back in her childhood home of Jaffna and took the dog with her. Subsequently Diana was lonely at home and wanted Dolly back and Dolly was suffering in Jaffna where she was kept in a small cage as opposed to have the whole house at her disposal! So we went to check on Dolly and Diana organised the dog nap of Dolly. Her mum and Aunt were not present as they were at a family event for a few days!

After Diana was briefly reunited with Dolly we headed back to the hotel, had leftovers for lunch and then hit the pool for the afternoon.

In the evening we had to visit Diana’s other Aunt and Uncle and cousins as everyone had got wind that she was in Jaffna and family politics means you can’t not visit! We spent 45 minutes or so showing our faces, chatting about how I get on with the heat and the spicy food whilst snacking and drinking chai.

We then popped to a nearby restaurant called Green Grass for dinner before heading back for a drink and a game of UNO.

The following morning was dog nap day….we checked out, met our driver and van, swung by Diana’s Aunts where she snatched Dolly and we drove off southbound towards Colombo. It was a long 6 hour drive back but at least we were comfortable.

Eventually we reached Colombo and Diana’s house. Dolly settled straight back into her domain whilst I grabbed my rucksack and headed off to my hotel.

I then spent the next few days chilling out on my own during the day and meeting Diana for dinner and UNO at night. I was hoping to see Lcmal my friend in the south but time was against us and it was a struggle for me to get time to get down there and he was unable to come to Colombo. So next time I come back to SL we have agreed that Diana will drive me over to the east coast for a few days and then we can swing by the south and see Lcmal on the way back!

It was a nice, chilled out end to our long dog napping pilgrimage and it was lovely to not only spend time with Diana but re-visit Sri Lanka.

Still all good things come to an end and it was time for me to move on again…onwards to Bangladesh!

You can read all about my 9 days in Bangladesh next time!

February Travels – Jordan

So I decided to pop by Jordan for a few days after Budapest…mainly because there is a new Ryanair route meaning I could fly from Budapest direct to Amman for £20 and the fact that although I have been to Amman a few times, I have only ever travelled through the airport in Transit.

So in the spirit of spending this African Hiatus ticking off some easy bucket list places…I jumped at the chance to head there.

Sadly I only had 4 days in Jordan (due to onwards plans in Sri Lanka) but I tried to squeeze as much in those 4 days as possible!

I had booked myself into a funky and reasonably cheap hotel that is more like a hostel. The owner rehomes animals and has a menagerie of animals lurking around the hotel…from budgies that fly about reception to rabbits, guinea pigs, hedgehogs and owls that live up on the roof terrace! The hotel also has a hip cafe/restaurant attached that serves great food and alcohol and has live music, shishas and backgammon boards. The thing that really sold it to me was that they have a fantastic travel desk where they organise shared sightseeing trips so that you can still see what you want to see in the comfort of a car with a driver but for a portion of the full cost. This proved to be a brilliant way for me to get around a lot of sights in the short time I had and also meet some great people.

So on my first full day in Jordan I jumped in a car with Asim (the driver) and Che who is an avid solo traveller and lover of history, from Hong Kong.

We headed out to Ajloun Castle for starters, which is not only an amazing 12th century Muslim Castle but a fantastic spot to look out over the Jordanian countryside.

After spending 45 minutes clambering about the castle we jumped back in the car and headed to Jerash.

Now, Jerash is one of the main reasons behind my desire to see Jordan. It’s an absolutely astonishing sight which has its foundations in the Bronze Age. The site is said to be founded between 7500-5500BC with the later Greco-Roman city being founded by (my hero) Alexander The Great!

The city flourished until the Galilee earthquake in 749AD when large swathes of it were destroyed.

It’s one of the largest and most well preserved roman sites outside of Italy, Emperors Trajan and Hadrian both are said to have visited the city.

The city contains numerous columns, the Tetrapylon of Jerash, Hadrian’s Arch, The Circus/Hippodrome, two large temples dedicated to Zeus and Artemis, a unique oval forum with a wonderful colonnade, the cardo (long colonnaded Main Street), two beautiful theatres, two communal baths, small temples, a Nymphaeum (water tank/fountain), Aqueduct, city walls, a water powered saw mill and two stone bridges.

One of the churches houses a stunning mosaic floor and the museum houses wonderful pieces found at the site.

What a day, what a place!

The following day I spent in Amman, I went out on a free walking tour in the morning which took me around all the old places and local markets of the city. It was fascinating looking at old photos of Amman from just 60years ago when all there was there was the roman amphitheatre and some farming Armenians!

After the walking tour I climbed up to the citadel to get a good view of the amphitheatre and mooch about the citadel.

The following day was another momentous day….Petra!!

This time I jumped in the car with Asim and a young Polish couple and we headed off early towards the legendary city.

Our first stop was Asim’s home village of Al Shoubak where we spent 10 minutes winding along mountain roads to the imposing 12th century castle called Montreal.

We then met a wonderful old Jordanian man called Mohammed Al Malaheem who has been on tv and news channels all over the world for his hotel called ‘the smallest hotel in the world’! It was even recently featured on Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man.

He told us we could stay for $1 a night in his million star hotel!

Very novel!

We regrettably left Mohammed behind (lovely guy) and headed to Petra. Asim dropped us off and said we had 4 hours to roam about and see as much as we could in that time.

So without further ado we wandered down from the ticket office past the Djin blocks and Obelisk tomb and wandered through Al-Siq.

Eventually after a 20 minute walk we emerged facing the face of Petra, The Treasury

You expect it to be a calm and peaceful place, a place to stop and marvel at the sight before you but alas no…it’s a cacophony of noise…horse cart drivers touting for trade, horse carts clattering around, camel owners touting for trade, aggrieved camels, other tourists and guides trying to persuade you to pay for their services!

Even so, it’s an amazingly stunning vision and piece of engineering and it takes everything you have to drag yourself away from it and push on through the Street of Façades to the theatre.

After the theatre there are copious rock cut tombs and churches that lead down to the colonnaded street.

It was at this point the Polish couple and I discussed the possibility of hiking for 40 minutes up 800 rock cut steps to reach a The Monastery!

We were almost halfway through our 4 hours and had to cover the same distance back but decided to give it a go.

The climb wasn’t easy and the ‘steps’ slippery and uneven with the added complication of sheer drops alongside!

Eventually after a sweaty 40 minutes we emerged at the top and came face to face with the beauty of The Monastery.

We allowed ourselves a quick 5 minute Coca Cola pitstop before scarpering back down like overly confident mountain goats…whizzing past tutting oldies who were taking the downhill terrain less confidently!

We charged back to the theatre in 15 minutes which must be some kind of record, I forgot to check!

We had enough time to stop and marvel at The Treasury once more before returning back to the car….reaching the car 4 minutes late! Not bloody bad! Even Asim was surprised we had walked the whole way and made it to The Monastery and back!

We then had the final adventure of the day….a 3 hour drive back to Amman complete with Jordanian driving, darkness, poor roads and ninja speedbumps!

My last day in Jordan was another action packed day…Asim drove myself and the Polish couple to the Dead Sea where we had an hour to wade or swim in the Dead Sea whilst gazing across the beautiful water to Palestine.

After bathing in the holy waters we headed up into the mountains and as need to the peak of Mount Nebo which is also known as the memorial of Moses. This is apparently the spot where Moses was granted a view of the promised land. I don’t know about that but the summit does give you a wonderful panorama of the Holy Land, the Rivr Jordan, The West Bank city of Jericho and Jerusalem.

We wandered around the summit for half an hour also taking in the memorial church of Moses as well.

We then headed back down the mountain to Madaba where we popped into the Byzantine church of Saint George which is famed for the most amazing floor mosaic which is a complete map of the Middle East dating to the 6th century AD and is the oldest surviving original map of the area.

Unfortunately after Madaba it was time for me to head to the airport for my flight to Sri Lanka. There is still so much I want to see in Jordan and would love the opportunity to go to Petra again.

It’s an amazing country with the most hospitable and friendly people. The sights and history are so interesting even for atheists like me!

February Travels – Budapest

Well, here we are again….if you read my last blog post you will know that I left Africa late January and popped home for my birthday and to spend some time it’s family and friends.

Then early February I packed my bag and headed off for a random solo jaunt around the world. My plan was to visit some ‘bucket list’ places that I just hadn’t got around to seeing and re-visiting some places to visit friends.

So my first port of call was Hungary and the city of Budapest. Hungary is one of the few European countries I hadn’t yet visited and Budapest was a city I had always wanted to see, even if it was middle of winter!

So after my cheap £20 Ryanair flight I checked in to my self catering studio apartment and set about tasks such as food shopping and planning sightseeing.

My first day was a lazy day really, I hit the City Sightseeing bus, which although they can be a bit lame, they are great for getting your bearings and listening to the factual audio guide so you can learn some of the history of the city and the buildings prior to walking around. So I just sat on the bus and did a 3 hour loop round…listening, looking and learning!

The following day saw me up and out on foot to explore the Buda side of the city, it was a lovely sunny day but incredibly cold!

I crossed from the Pest side of the city over the Danube via the Liberty Bridge

I then climbed up to the citadel for wonderful views of the city and the Danube.

I then reached the Liberty Statue which has pride of place atop Gellert Hill

I then took some time to meander around the citadel, which is pretty cool.

I then wandered in the vague direction of Buda Castle and the Budapest History Museum. My wanderings took me through an innocuous Park which on the map showed to contain a piece of art simply titled ‘Jesus’….well you know me…that needed checking out to see what it was!

So I wandered over to the area containing ‘Jesus’ to find this…..

It’s a sculpture by Nándor Wagner and is called ‘The Garden of Philosophy’. It depicts the world’s greatest religious figures meeting silently around an orb. Wagner intended for the piece to promote mutual understanding among the world’s religions.

The inner circle of figures shown above contains Abraham, Jesus, Buddha, Laozi and Akhenaten. There are a further 3 statues off to the side of Gandhi, Bodhidharma and Saint Francis who are leaders in spiritual enlightenment.

Wagner intended for a 3rd set of figures who would be representative of great lawmakers, however he died of cancer before being able to complete the work.

It’s an amazing sculpture which definitely warrants more exposure to ensure visitors trudge to the muddy corner of this innocuous park to see it.

I then reached Buda Castle and took a wander around the glorious exterior before venturing into the museum.

The museum houses numerous exhibitions on life in Budapest from Roman times to present day. Even just walking around the palatial building is amazing.

There are exhibits containing roman sculptures from Aquincum (the roman settlement in North Budapest), religious sculptures and paintings from the Middle Ages through to exhibits on how Hungary was affected by World War 2. Its well worth a couple of hours of your time if you plan to visit.

I then wandered up to Matthias Church, which is a stunning gothic church by Fisherman’s Bastion.

I spent 10 minutes or so taking in the stunning views from Fisherman’s Bastion back across the Danube to the Pest side of the city.

The next day I went for a long stroll up Andrássy Avenue which is one of the main boulevards in Budapest and fashioned on the Champs Élysées. It is lined with Neo-renaissance mansions and houses and is a high end shopping area with boutiques, embassies and fine dining options. The Avenue ends at Heros’ Square which contains a beautiful monument to the Nations Heros.

I then wandered around Varosliget Park taking in some beautiful buildings that are now museums.

That night I took a walk along the Buda side of the Danube admiring funky buildings, sculptures, lit up bridges and the stunning parliament building.

The following day I decided to go on a mammoth hike towards Aquincum and the Roman ruins of the city. The actual archaeological site and museum were closed as out of season but there were still roman ruins to found in plain site.

Firstly I wandered along the Pest side of the Danube so I could check out the Parliament Building in day light. Amazing architecture!

I then continued upriver until St Margaret’s Island. This is a cool island in the middle of the Danube which in summer is heaving with families, dog walkers, picnic lovers, joggers, cyclists and tourists. Being winter I came across a handful of hardcore joggers, a few dog walkers and maybe 2 or 3 other tourists. It was wonderfully peaceful and I followed my nose the length of the island, stumbling across the ruins of a church with St Margaret’s grave inside.

After a good 2 hours of walking I made it to the furthest tip of St Margaret’s Island and crossed over a large bridge to the area of Aquincum and the now hip area of Obuda.

I managed to locate the remnants of a roman building and a smattering of columns by the exit of a metro station and an underpass…like you do!

I will have to revisit Budapest later in the year to benefit from warmer weather and gain entry to Aquincum proper.

I then started the long walk back from Obuda, along the Danube on the Buda side and walked back for over an hour until I could see the Parliament building again. I then crossed over the bridge and wandered back along the Pest side again to the hotel…taking in some cute sculptures and a Starbucks Caramel Hot Chocolate!

My last day in Budapest was spent firstly in the Hungarian National Museum, I spent a good 90 minutes roaming about the artefacts and visiting a special exhibition where the Seuso Treasure was being temporarily displayed.

The Seuso treasure is an amazing hoard of high quality silverware from the late Roman Empire. Not only are the objects strikingly beautiful and well made, they also have an interesting story behind them…being found by a Hungarian soldier who was illicitly digging at an archaeological site in the 1970s, he was then murdered and the treasure vanished.

Some of the pieces reappeared in the 1980s in an auction but the paperwork stating the place of origin had been doctored and forged. It took until 2014 for Hungary to obtain half the objects and 2017 for them to buy back the other half for the princely sun of €28 million!!!

After the museum I headed out to the Jewish Quarter and just roamed about for 2 hours taking in the old Jewish houses, narrow streets, street art and ruin pubs. Very cool.

Eventually I ended up back at the Synagogue and headed back to pack before my early morning flight to Jordan.

I can definitely recommend Budapest for a city break…it has things to do in abundance for both culture vultures and for the beer monsters who can while away the weekend drinking in the numerous ruin pubs.

Liberia, Ghana & Ivory Coast

So we left off with us hurtling through Liberia in a Nissan Micra that belonged to the border guard.

We were planning on heading to Robertsport for a day or two of total chillaxing (not much to do there apart from surf)! However, we had been told the roads were bad and not worth the agro (especially in the Micra), so we were persuaded to skip Robertsport in favour of heading directly to the Capital, Monrovia.

We headed to a nice, beachfront hotel in Monrovia, which turned out to be a good 40 minute crawl (the only speed the traffic moved at) from the centre of the town.

We had already messaged the hotel in advanced to request a price for the room to see if we could negotiate a cheaper rate than online. They had replied with a pretty decent rate so we thought, why not?!

Upon arrival the bellend at reception then tried to talk himself out of the quoted price and say that it was more expensive because there were two of us. By then, having already spent then morning being shaken down for bribes twice at the borders, I was beyond the ability to remain calm under the constant attempts to bribe or rip us off!

So when showing my original message stating ‘myself and my friend’ and ‘do you have a room for us?’, the guy kept saying that my meaning of more than one person had been lost in translation and we would need to pay the extra.

I basically told him to poke it and that we would sit on the beach and have lunch and I would book online instead and get a cheaper rate. He didn’t believe that was possible.

So we indulged in an overly expensive lebanese lunch platter (did I mention the Lebanese criminals had also taken over hotels in Liberia!!) whilst checking online.

We decided to stay where we were rather than move as the beach was lovely and the bungalow they were going to give us was lovely, plus we couldn’t face another painful 40 minute journey into the centre.

So upon checking online I discovered that I could book the room for cheaper than his ‘revised’ price so booked it for 2 nights and then we would move on.

Ha, in your face African corruption….first you fail to bribes me twice, then you fail to rip me off for the room!

So off I wandered to the bellend at reception, who smugly said ‘ah are you taking the room then’, to which I replied ‘yes, I have booked it online’!

Well he wasn’t happy about that, starting trying to tell me that my booking wasn’t valid and I wasn’t allowed to book through an online website. See, I did say he was a total bellend!!

Eventually the manager appeared, who thankfully was not a total bellend and said it was fine and to hand me the keys! Can you believe the bellend then tried to argue with the manager and say that it wasn’t valid and I had to pay etc etc…to which the manager looked miffed and demanded the keys! Ha

So successful installed in our luxury bungalow, we chilled out for the rest of the day whilst, obviously, being subject to exceptionally loud music (again!).

The next day we just chilled out at the beach and bar, grateful for some downtime to rest and relax and gather ourselves after the last few months of overlanding, camping and difficult border crossings!

As you may have gathered…at this point we couldn’t be further from the truck which was still stranded on the beach in Freetown awaiting new crew. Nicole and I had decided to ditch the truck and move onwards on our own so that we could see what we wanted and move through the countries quicker.

It had dawned on me that I was in my 40th year on the planet and with that I didn’t want to do certain things anymore…and why should I pretend otherwise!! I couldn’t be arsed with the bushcamping anymore, the trundling around on the truck from camp to camp and the lack of an actual toilet! I mean come on…I am up for adventure, local buses with chickens whatever as long as at the end of the day I can retire to a room where I can shut the door on the crazy world for a short time, wash and sit on a loo. I don’t need hot water, just a form of running water will do even if cold.

It’s not too much to ask!

With that in mind…Nicole and I then swapped hotels and left the Lebanese criminal world behind and headed to a fancy hotel called The Farmington which was across the road from Monrovia airport.

We then spent the next 2 days chilling out re-watching Game of Thrones, eating nice food and generally lolling about the pools and the riverside.

Thursday afternoon we flew to Ghana, now some of you eagle eyed readers will spot that this meant flying over Ivory Coast…have no fear…we do head there after Ghana…it’s just the way the cheap flights rolled!

So we headed to Ghana in more civilised way than the previous 9 countries…

Friday we awoke in our aparthotel in Accra ready for a day of walking and sightseeing…we took in Accra’s famous forts, Independance Square, the Mausoleum and remembrance park of Keane Nkrumah (who was Ghana’s founding father) and then we headed to the slightly rougher but more authentic part of Accra to see Jamestown and its slave forts and famous lighthouse.

Saturday saw us walk an hour to the national museum, only to find it closed for renovation, so instead we had an early lunch at a cool Indian restaurant which is hidden around the back of a petrol station…had a masala dosa and some pandora which was nice.

Sunday saw us take a long day trip west and inland to Kalimantan National Park and then the Cape Coast.

The drive was a long 3 hours to the park but well worth it for the suspension bridges. You basically spend an hour in the forest traversing the canopy on these bridges. Pretty cool and something I had wanted to do.

There was a small group of 5 of us which was nice and I somehow ended up being volunteered to go first! Not that I mind heights or suspension bridges…but that first tentative step when the bridge freaks and wobbles…Adrenalin fuelled adventure right there!

After the bridges, we sadly had to leave and head back to the coast to check out the old slave forts.

We were running short on time so decided to just visit Elmina and briefly check the fort out before having to start our long 3 hour journey back to Accra.

Monday and Tuesday were lazy days involving great local food (plantain and jollof rice) and relaxing around the amazing pool at the Mövenpick hotel across town.

This is more the life…sightseeing mixed with a splash of luxurious relaxing!

I have to say I loved Ghana, having been there almost 10years ago, it was good to re-visit and explore further than I did last time.

Wednesday saw us fly from Ghana to Ivory Coast which was easy and allowed us to bypass the terrible roads that we knew were on the agenda! The picture below was sent to me by some of the remaining upgraders!

Anyway back to relative civilisation…we arrived to our loft room at the luxury Residence Ecologe in Abidjan, initially we we concerned that we were going to be unsafe in Abidjan…mainly because as soon as we arrived outside the hotel a very dishy man in a suit and shades with a hefty baton ushered us quickly inside as though we wouldn’t be safe outside! Turns out not to be the case at all but I think he just wanted to give that impression so he could feel macho and cool!!! Haha

The hotel was our last African splurge so we had maxed out our budget! Huge loft room with massive bed, massive plant filled balcony, sofa, huge breakfast bar covered in kitchen related utensils, a wine rack with 2 bottles of champagne in (that wasn’t free!), stocked minibar fridge, a glass rack containing 22 different shaped glasses, a glass walled bathroom (wonderful if on honeymoon, but two friends sharing not so much…leads to one person showering and one person facing the opposite direction on the sofa!), we even had our own tree in a pot! What more does one need!

We also took a short day trip out to the east to see the beaches and the famous town of Grand-Bassam. We popped to the luxury hotel where a terror attack took place a few years ago, then the local museum which displayed traditional clothes and black and white photos of the area from colonial times.

Really interesting place and well worth taking the time to visit.

We popped to Assinie to check out the locals weekend hotspots!

We then spent the next few days mooching about Abidjan which turned out to be a lovely city with friendly people, wonderful restaurants and a great chilled out vibe.

Then sadly it was my time to leave. I had decided to take a brief hiatus from Africa and pop home for my birthday and to catch up with family and friends after 3 months away.

I was planning to miss a couple of countries I had already visited and a few that were either suffering civil unrest, military coups or I just wasn’t that worried about bush camping around! Lol

I must admit after 3 months, I was Africa ‘d out and needed a break from the constant barrage of overlanding West Africa!

It’s been a bloody blast and I have loved my time travelling the remote west coast of Africa from Morocco and the Sahara in the north to such gems as Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Don’t worry though, I will be returning to Africa to pick it back up in Namibia where I will hopefully meet up with the group again!

So….plot twist I hear you cry…yep! Bit of rest at home for 2 weeks to celebrate reaching the last year of my 30s (less celebrating, more commiserating!) and catching up with as many people as possible before I head off again into the wilds of the world for a second 3 month stint.

This time I will mostly be on my own, trawling around ruins, temples and architectural gems of Europe, Middle East and Asia before returning to Africa in April.

My first stop will be Budapest which has been on my bucket list for a long time and I have never made it there! So, very excited for that so stay tuned to the blog for my revised travel itinerary! Lol

Beautiful vistas, forests, beaches and waterfalls are lovely but give me old buildings any day!!

Celebrating the New Year in Sierra Leone

Our first day in Sierra Leone was a very, very long one. It began with us leaving Conakry in Guinea at 5am in a luxurious minibus with Barry our local Guinean driver, who, we found out later on, had never done this route before!

The reason behind the exceptionally early start was not just the long day and border crossings but due to the fact that it was the regular rubbish collection day…no, not just a truck and bin men type scenario but a huge task requiring the roads to be closed from 6am til 1pm so that everyone can sweep up any rubbish into huge mounds and then that either gets collected or burnt causing huge, toxic plumes of smoke to choke everything! Either way we didn’t want to hang around to watch….

So we jumped into the luxurious minibus we had paid a local gangster for and Barry our driver took us out of Guinea, towards the border with Sierra Leone.

Conakry was still so full of life this early in the morning, it seemed that no one slept at night…everyone was up sitting around small fires outside their wooden, corrugated roofed shacks warming themselves against the chilling morning air.

Whether this was a normal morning scene or due to the 6am rubbish exercise, who knows!

The outskirts were slightly more sleepy with little, pastel coloured crumbling buildings along the roadside with solitary lightbulbs outside.

Eventually we escaped the clutches of the city all together and found ourselves back amongst mud roundhouses and terrible partially tarmac roads!

Unfortunately, this route is the main one to the border so we had to endure a few hours of terrible road…we passed many local bushtaxi minibuses (vans with various geometrical shapes cut out of them for windows!) who had broken down either through being excessively laden with people and goods or the bald, poor quality tyres had finally given up and ruptured!

Finally we arrived at the Guinea side of the border and then the fun began….this is when we started to realise that Barry had no clue what he was doing! We pulled up to a police checkpoint in the town before the border and whilst Barry dashed off to sort out photographs and paperwork so he could cross the border, we sat in the minibus with a moneychanger who was only to happy to change up our leftover Guinea Francs and American Dollars into Sierra Leone Leones.

Eventually Barry reappeared with the relevant documentation and we headed off again only to come across another police checkpoint where we were told to pull over and stay there until Barry payed them a bribe. He, clearly, hadn’t planned for this eventuality and asked us for money which a) we weren’t going to pay and b) we didn’t have, having just changed up all our francs!

So Grant rang the gangster dude who we had rented the minibus and Barry from, who then spoke to Barry and clearly told him to sort the situation whilst being assertive and paying minimal bribes as it was coming out of the huge chunk of money we had already paid.

I don’t think Barry had assertive bone in his body…so we sat for a while outside the police station…Barry clearly attempting some form of less than mediocre negotiation with them.

This is where it all got a bit surreal….the moneychanger was still hanging around and was saying one of the policeman was his brother and if Barry paid him he would speak to his brother and get us through, the police were telling him something else, we were getting riled in the minibus and shouting at Barry to get a move on.

I had to get out and pee behind the police office as the whole thing took so long. Then a young lad appeared on a motorbike and was clearly trying to educate Barry about what was suppose to happen. Barry then gave all his paperwork and a lump of money to this motorbike dude who drove off in the direction of Sierra Leone….the presumption being we were supposed to follow him! At that point a man appeared out of nowhere wandering around the police checkpoint on 7ft stilts! I kid you not…I mean what the actual fuck!

No one expects to see that at a remote African border! But hey, this is Africa…anything goes and all sorts of shit happens!

So we head off towards the border in pursuit of the motorbike dude who has fled with the paperwork and cash! We arrive at another checkpoint at the border where the guy asks for the paperwork and bribe…to which poor Barry then has to explain that he has given it to a random stranger on a motorbike who said he was going to help him! Clearly this didn’t wash with the border guards who, although we couldn’t hear the terse exchange of words, we could see the hand gesture demonstrating that Barry was off his head and clearly retarded to hand over everything to this guy! So there we sat again….refused passage through the checkpoint with no paperwork!

In the end Barry had to run off inside the border post to try and locate the motorbike dude whilst we sat more and more frustrated glaring at the corrupt border guards who refused everyone entry until they paid a bribe! So blatant!

Eventually Barry reappeared with the motorbike dude and all the paperwork who then had a heated exchange with the border guard before we were finally let through to the border post which bizarrely happened to coincide with the arrival of stilt man! Who appeared to have strolled through the border on his stilts and was just wandering up and down! The mind boggles!!!

So we all piled out of the minibus and got stamped out of Guinea before having to walk down a corridor to the Sierra Leone side where we had a Yellow Fever certificate check and a quick temperature scan.

Eventually the nice man stamped us all in and we traipsed out, grabbed Barry and went on our way to Freetown!

We had a short 2 hour drive to the capital which ended up being longer due to terrible traffic in Freetown.

Eventually we rocked up at our hotel on the hill and after checking in we all headed to the restaurant for late lunch/early dinner and a sign of relief! We had successfully navigated our first border crossing in West Africa without the truck!

The view from the restaurant was stunning and definitely made up for the long day!

We were hoping for an early night and a good nights sleep, however, we soon discovered that our hotel was the only place to be in Freetown at night and that night was a wedding party! Queue terrible and exceptionally loud music and a terrible MC until 4am!

The next day was a Sunday so we had a lovely lie in, which a few of the group needed as they were suffering with a terrible bronchial chest infection and hacking cough. We basically spent the day chilling out around the pool before we were made to vacate the pool area for that night’s entertainment.

Sunday nights in Freetown is all about ‘Vocal Drift Inspire’ which is a tv programme recorded live at the hotel every week and is supposed to be Sierra Leone’s answer to ‘The Voice’! Let me tell you now…it’s not!

We had to vacate the pool area so the stage, sound system, judging tables and audience areas could be set up, so we took up residence in the restaurant with prime view of the stage!

To start with we had high hopes for the evening, Nicola especially who is an avid fan of The Voice back home!

So queue the first contestant….my god the singing was atrocious…there were something like 22 people singing and I think 6 or 8 were to be eliminated as this was now knock out! To be honest out of the 22 I reckon you could have knocked out 20!

The song choices were terrible and the outfits downright bizarre! The guys all donned animal shaped beany hats, the woman looked as though they had just come from entertaining men for money! One guy sung the song from Frozen and another the song from the sound of music! The theme was supposedly musicals but that was clearly loosely implied!

The judges appeared to favour the singers were thought atrocious and the ones we liked they slated! And in a hilarious ode to African corruption their families and friends could also buy votes which were worth twice as much as phoning in….so basically the winner will end up being the person with the richest following as opposed to the best voice! How African can a competition get!!!

Despite the poor singing the entertainment value was first class and produced class moments such as the female host saying things like ‘this contestant is now going to sing Under The Sea, from the Lion King!’ (Now I am no Disney fan but even I know that’s not Lion King but The Little Mermaid) and then towards the end of the night she referred to the whole evenings events as ‘this thing’! Haha

As you can see Grant and Nicola we’re loving it!

Monday was New Years Eve, we decided to mark this occasion by taking a trip to the Tacuguma Chimpanzee Reserve in Freetown. This reserve houses nearly 100 chimps who are in varying stages of treatment. They are all brought to the sanctuary because of poaching, injury, being orphaned, being a pet, abused or rejoined from elsewhere.

They create new chimp families whereby chimps at a similar level of behaviour and recovery are put together, they then go through a stringent process which ultimately allows them to be reintroduced into the wild.

We saw some young chimps and some who are at the early stages of the process, some who are almost complete and are semi wild…they roam about a large fenced reserve connected to the sanctuary and just reappear for food but they are encouraged to find their own within the sanctuary!

We also read a story about a small group that escaped years ago and have taken their lives into their own hands and decided they were ready for the wild!

After the chimps we headed into town for a mooch around and lunch in a lovely, local cafe.

We then hailed tuktuks to a large supermarket near the hotel, where we happened to bump into the rest of the group who were also stocking up on goodies.

We stood chatting with them for a while before they all piled into a minibus for the hour drive back to the beach the were camping on and we headed back to the hotel.

The rest of the day was spent chilling around the pool before we freshened up ready for the NYE celebrations!

Again, for the 3rd night in a row the hotel had entertainment scheduled..there were tickets on sale for $120 which would buy you a seat at a table, access to the buffet and a concert by a Lebanese artist called Wassim El Farissi.

One thing I had not yet mentioned is the prevalence of Lebanese people in Sierra Leone, I believe our hotel was owned by 3 Lebanese brothers who wouldn’t have looked out of place playing gangsters in a Bond movie!

Hence the Lebanese entertainment that night!

Anyway…I asked the reception about what was on…they said we could buy tickets at a slightly reduced price of $80 each! I asked if we could just sit in the restaurant, order food and watch the entertainment from there, to which they said ‘yes of course’! Right then…why the hell would we pay when we can watch for free?!

So Wassim bashed out some warbling sounding middle eastern tunes, we ordered dinner and watched from the free box! There was a power cut which gave Wassim sound issues, so he had to come off stage and was replaced by a DJ spinning dance tracks…Wassim eventually made it back on stage for a 7 minute long tune which took us to midnight!

We enjoyed some great fireworks before heading to bed and leaving Wassim warbling until 4am!

New Years Day we spent around the pool in the sun, doing nothing! Lovely! At least our New Year was an improvement on our dire Christmas!

Wednesday we checked out of the hilltop hotel and took a land cruiser out for the day to check out the famous beaches of Sierra Leone.

Our first beach was a small one called Lakka Beach which was really lovely and a great start to our beach day! We stood taking in the peace and tranquility for a moment before being approached by Paul, who wanted us to sample his locally sourced seafood!

After Lakka we headed down the terrible coastal road to the next beach which is called River No. 2. This beach is particularly famous for being the star of the 80s Bounty TV advert.

It is an absolutely stunning beach, I cannot begin to put into words how amazing it is. We spent a while wandering along it, taking in the beauty and tranquility.

We then bumped along the bright red road to the last beach, Tokeh.

Tokeh is also eye wateringly beautiful, soft white sand, azure water and lush green palms! The stuff of dreams!

After our beach sightseeing we dropped Grant & Martin off at camp so they could catch up with the group on the impending sacking of the crew (a long story!) whilst us ladies headed to a local place called Mama’s for lunch.

I had fish whilst Nicola and Nicole has some kind of creature from the deep!

That evening we stayed in a small, Italian run guesthouse down along the beach. Team Upgrade were all there to discuss the now official sacking of the crew and the forthcoming plan of action.

The Director of the company was going to take over but needed to obtain paperwork and visas first. This was going to add a delay of 5 or so days to the schedule which meant the guys on the truck were going to be stuck on the dodgy beach for that time with no crew and limited food! It’s all part of the adventure, clearly!

This brought about the parting of Team Upgrade, Lauretta and Giancarlo stayed at the guesthouse, Nicola, Grant and Martin went back to Tokeh Beach and stayed in huts there for a few nights, Richard and Rhona eventually headed back to the truck to be of support to everyone and Nicole and I headed back to the hotel on the hill for another couple of nights so we could plan our escape to Liberia.

Thankfully during our time in Freetown we had met a Canadian guy who lives in Freetown and is manager of a transportation company….ching ching!

So we paid him to organise us a land cruiser and driver to get us to Liberia.

Again, our departure was affected by rubbish! The Saturday that planned to leave was the rubbish burning day in Freetown…again all rubbish is piled up and then set alight which means all the roads are closed and the visibility is all but none due to the thick, billowing, toxic smoke.

So we couldn’t leave Freetown until after 12 lunchtime, which meant that we wouldn’t make it to the border in a day. So we drove as far as a small town called Bo and headed to the only decent hotel in town.

Sunday we got up early and headed off at 7am to the border. We had a long and slow 4 hour drive from Bo to the border post with Liberia, called Bo Waterside.

The roads were almost impassable which huge ruts carved out of the red mud and massive pot holes everywhere. Even in the landcruiser going was slow.

At one point we had to cross a small river on a powered wooden raft!

Eventually we reached the border and Nicole and I then proceeded to tackle our second border crossing alone!

Firstly we had to get out of Sierra Leone…this involved us being taken in a room with a border guard who only had one volume…shouting…we had to shut the door, which means bribe!

So we sat there whilst he perused our passports thinking of ways in which he could bribe us….he asked us where we had been staying to which we replied ‘Country Lodge Hotel in Freetown (the hotel on the hill!!), he then asked Nicole for the address…which she wouldn’t have known because I booked the hotel and when getting taxis and tuktuks to the hotel you merely state the name and everyone know where it is.

I interjected with the address, only for him to scream ‘I wasn’t asking you, I was asking her’! He then harped on about how she didn’t know the address so he doubted we had stayed there…what were we going to do about it…certainly not paid you a bribe, you jumped up wanker!

Nicole produced a receipt for the hotel which sadly hindered rather than helped because they had put my nationality down as Ireland! He then picked up on that and started screaming at me that my passport was UK and they had put Ireland! When I gave my response stating that in fact my passport was The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IRELAND and the system only printed out the last word type in the box, he went mental again screaming at me to not tell him how to do his job!

What a prick! So maintaining a semblance of calm and refraining from physically harming him, we sat there arguing with him for a while before he finally conceded defeat and stamped us out minus bribe! HA! African corruption 0 – Claire 1!

We jumped back in the car and then got dropped off at the Liberian border post, our driver left having to return to Freetown and we proceeded on foot with our rucksacks into the office!

2 guys showed us into a ‘health check’ room and demanded to see our yellow fever certificate. Having both produced them and there being no avenue for a bribe the guys then stated shouting at us saying we needed Cholera and it was a requirement. Now, let me tell you it’s not a requirement at all and we have both had it!

They spent the next 15 minutes demanding that we show them certification for cholera, when we said we have no certification but we have had it, they said we have to have the injection there and then and pay for it! We both refused saying we didn’t need it and it wasn’t a requirement.

This went on and on with them saying ‘well what are we going to do about this?’ To which my consistent response was ‘ I don’t know what you are going to do about it but we don’t need it and we have already had it so there is no issue’!

They threatened to send us back to Sierra Leone because we could have been contagious…with Cholera!!! So I said, fine we’ll go back and infect people in Sierra Leone! Sensible!

Nicole was trying to be diplomatic and using politeness and flattery, I was just full on fucked off and argumentative! Still…all of a sudden, upon realising they weren’t getting any bribe from us, my cholera certificate miraculously appeared in my paperwork where I know it isn’t! Fucking idiots!

Then they turned all nice as pie, laughing and wanting a chat! Even asked if I would employ them in the UK, to which my response was ‘no, you haven’t had all the injections to get in’! They thought this was hilarious and clearly misinterpreted my sarcasm!

Anyway…we got through bribe free and then had to tackle the actual border officer…he was quite friendly and eventually stamped us in with no attempt at a bribe shakedown!

We then jumped in his Nissan Micra and headed to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia!

Phew…what an adventure!!

I have to say, I really like Sierra Leone and its infamous beaches.

Let’s see what Liberia brings!