Tournament of Shadows….. Kazakhstan

People have asked me what there is to see and do in Kazakhstan.  This proves a difficult question to answer, because there is no singular answer.  Perhaps because it’s the 9th largest country in the world, or perhaps because of rapid development in select pockets of the country; but Kazakhstan is diverse.  Very diverse.

Astana.  The capital since 1997 provides a skyline of lavish architectural oddities. This includes the world largest tent and a glass pyramid partially set below ground. The expansion and creative building construction in the city continues.  As the host of Expo 2017 the government invested $5 billion and controversially built what has been dubbed “the Death Star” in which to hold the event.

Crossing the seemingly never-ending steppe by train to the former capital, Almaty, took me 20 hours.  On arrival the mountainous backdrop creates a picturesque setting, though a layer of smog and the soviet era concrete block buildings nestling at the base are less ambient. Almaty is a decidedly more cosmopolitan and livable city with coffee shops, parks and a level of tourism.  It also interestingly boasts the world’s shortest metro system, with just nine stops.

As you’d expect with such a large country and population of 18 million it is mainly devoid of life, with vast open spaces.  This is a country on the infamous Silk Road, invaded during the reign of Ghengis Khan with many towns razed by his army. Resulting in a number of abandoned settlements eerily scattered in the Kazakh desert.  The wilderness also boasts snow topped mountain ranges, canyons and National Parks of great beauty.

Worth a visit?  Yes, but familiarise yourself with the 42 letter Kazakh alphabet or better still, learn Russian!

*for those interested parties (you know who you are!) the worlds largest tent is 150m tall and contains a shopping centre, a man-made beach and a roller coaster 

Categories: adventure, Asia | 1 Comment

Voodoo Central – Benin

One of my reasons for visiting West Africa was to witness voodoo at its height.  Ouidah, Benin, is where the voodoo religion started and it remains hugely popular throughout this region.  National Voodoo Day is when the largest celebratory festival occurs, and is when this small town sees scores of visitors – me being one of them.IMG_2435

The voodoo experience is not complete without a trip to the local market to hunt for the voodoo section.  This is typically tucked away from the main thoroughfare and takes some determination to find.  I eventually found it.  The potent smell should have been a giveaway.  Not for the faint-hearted this area was filled with dead animals in various states of decay, including skeletal.  I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the variety of animals was vast.  Sadly pangolin, which have recently been identified as an endangered species, were amongst the gory display.  This was the worst element of my trip and whilst I can appreciate the significance of animal remains in different religious practices, I physically baulked at the rarity of some of the species for sale here.

Like other religions, ceremonies and practices occur throughout the year.  But I am presuming it reaches fever pitch close to the designated Voodoo Day, as there was plenty of entertainment going on during my whole time in Benin.  It certainly wasn’t unusual to see religious processions with musical accompaniment, along with people dancing dress in elaborate costumes or adorned with body paint.

I shall say now that I am not exactly clear as to what was happening most of the time; or what certain dances and rituals meant.  But I will try to describe the three which I seemed to have a clearer idea on, I have named them in my own way:IMG_2361

  1. Goat Sacrifice – Again not for the faint-hearted. An important element of the religion is the sacrificing of a goat.  The practice here is to sacrifice the goat by slitting its’ throat and throwing it high into the air.  How the goat lands determines the future.

The throat of the lifeless goat is then placed between someone’s teeth.  The chosen individual then dances by spinning around and around in time to music.  The audience who absolutely loved this ceremony, were also dancing and chanting.  When the goat swinger tired or got dizzy, a new person stepped up for the honour of dancing with the goat.  Interestingly this was gender neutral, with both men and women taking the lead role.

The hashtag for this ritual must surely be #Beninforstrongteeth

  1. The Haystack Spirit – a large conical pyramid made of long grasses, spins continually around clockwise and then anti-clockwise, speeding up and slowing down in time to the drumming and singing. Their assigned trainer has a stick and seems to herd the haystack-like shape ensuring they remain within the circle of spectators.

After displaying the spirits’ agility, strengthen and skill at length they stop the dance routine.  The haystack is immediately laid on its side displaying a hollow empty space underneath.  Where is the person who was surely controlling the spirits’ movements?  Gasps of surprise emanate from the spectators, while the performers grin with delight at showing their voodoo magic.  The shape is placed back the correct way and upended again, this time a small plant is on the ground.  This is done again and ta-dah the plant has grown in size.

I am unsure what this represents, perhaps the birth of new life?   IMG_1884 (2)

  1. Tag on Speed – This could be the most intense and fun of all the voodoo events. Individuals dressed as spirits parade through the street with musical accompaniment.  Observers get as close to the spirits as they can, whilst keeping a small distance away.  Because those who are in the audience need to get a head start, in what could be the scariest moment of their lives.

At a random time during proceedings the spirits spin around and start to chase the onlookers.  Pandemonium breaks out.  People scatter in all directions, but they don’t go too far as they want to watch what happens.  However they are running for their lives.  For if the spirit touches you, you will die.

How crazy, scary and fun?  The voodoo religion simply has it all!

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture | 1 Comment

Africa for beginners…..

Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment.  English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.


Talc coffin

Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence.  Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.

One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement.  So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.

I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death.  I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins.  In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.

On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever


Slave fort

recorded – the slave trade.  It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships.  Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas.  A very poignant place to visit.

There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana.  Sounds good I hear you cry.

  • People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
  • A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words.  But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips.  One to practice for next time I think!


    Christmas Day drumming

  • I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly.  As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
  • This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
  • Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles.  They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.

*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture, people | 1 Comment

More Colombian insight

My love of Colombia was evident from an earlier post, so I am writing more to entice you to go…..

Covering an area of 1.1m square kilometres my three and a half weeks just wasn’t long enough but I did manage to immerse myself in the chaotic festive spirit over the holiday season, which now seems oh so long ago.IMG_9279

A Christmas tradition for some people is to dress as the devil or a demon, and along with musical accompaniment dance through the streets.  It seems the original festive role of this legendary character was to whip bad children to make them good.  But as with all things Colombian it just looks to me like another reason to party in the street!

Sadly for brave spectators, in 2015 the New Year tradition of setting mannequins packed with fireworks alight at midnight was banned by the Government; this was due to several serious injuries occurring each year.  I have seen this celebration in Mexico and it was crazily dangerous but fun!  Colombians create effigies of famous people who haven’t


It’s a scream…

performed well during the year, this is typically sport stars or politicians but can just be a relatively blank canvas.  These life size figures take pride of place outside houses and in the street for the week leading up to New Year.  The burning of the mannequins and erratic explosion of fireworks symbolises goodbye to the celebrity for last year and welcomes in the New Year with hope and promise.  The concept is a great one, perhaps more health and safety focus required though….


Whilst in Colombia I also discovered a host of interesting things, and here are just a few:

  • Smart(?) thinking means that one of the best places to pick up a prostitute is outside church.  That way you can repent and pay for sex at the same time.
  • Bogota’s gold museum is simply dazzling.  Home to a huge collection of gold made into exquisite accessories and ornaments it is the glittering jewel of an edgy capital city.
  • In 2015 Ariadna Gutiérrez Arevalo, representing Colombia was crowned Miss Universe.  Though the elation only lasted for a matter of moments, as the host realised he had accidentally crowned the wrong finalist and she had to pass back the crown.  The country erupted…..
  • The majority of non-South American cannot spell the word Colombia, confusing it with a US city.  This to the locals can only be described as annoying.IMG_8811b
  • The World’s largest necropolis, in San Agustin was founded by an ancient civilisation pre-dating the more renowned Inca’s.  Not much is known about this race as all that remains are numerous stone statues of people, animals and deities.
  • Cosmetic surgery is in serious abundance for the ladies.  I saw some of the most outrageously and dis-proportionally curved women that I have ever seen!
Categories: adventure, culture, South America | Leave a comment

If I get asked one more time….

… “have you seen Narcos”?  This is the most frequent question when I mentioned visiting Colombia.  Though this is a country working hard to dispel the violent and drug-riddled IMG_9046image left by one Mr Pablo Escobar*, and it is slowly succeeding.

I have to say outright I absolutely loved Colombia.  The sheer variety of things to do and see, as well as unbelievably friendly people made this country a joy to visit.  Yes getting a bus ticket was a challenge, yes Bogota felt ropey, and yes there was an exponential increase in the number mangy stray dogs after crossing the border from Ecuador.  But wow was it worth it!

The scenery is breath taking, each bus journey opens up new vistas across the mountain ranges including the Andes, and wide sweeping rivers.  The Amazon rainforest encroaches into Colombian territory, and there are beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coast.

The pinnacle of my trip was doing a four day, intense 44km trek to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) high in the Sierra Nevada.  This stunning walk through land previous claimed by IMG_9324the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), entails steep ascents and descents.  It also throws in several cold water crossings, no bridges here and note that river depth is seasonal!  This of course is all traversed in the sweltering jungle heat.

On arrival at Ciudad Perdida there is very little left of the city which was formed around 800AD.  Only a series of terraced platforms, several of them hidden in the dense wilderness, remain.  It’s eerily silent sitting on the platform looking out across the jungle stretching far below.  So beautiful.

I have much more to write about Colombia, a place I really want to share with you.  So stay tuned for the next blog instalment.

*for those not familiar with Pablo Escobar he was an infamous drug lord.  In true high profile fugitive style Pablo was shot dead whilst fleeing across the rooftops of his home city, following an intensive manhunt.  And no, I have not seen Narcos!

Categories: adventure, people, South America | 2 Comments

Ecuador – The Mainland

So whilst you may think the Galapagos has it all, the Ecuadorian mainland has some impressive feats too.  The Andes swathe through the middle of a beautiful country which also boasts coastline, active volcanoes and Amazonian rain forest.IMG_8554

The farthest point from the Earth’s centre is Volcano Chimborazo, which sits squarely in the middle of Ecuador.  Hmmm sounds controversial, what about Mount Everest?  Well Mount Everest is the highest point above sea level, but Volcano Chimborazo is the furthest from the centre of the Earth.  This is because the World is not round but a bit squashed, and Ecuador being on the equatorial bulge means their highest volcano is the furthest point from the centre of the Earth.

I didn’t spend long in Ecuador but the main things to be noted were:

  • Women have retained their traditional dress, which consists of long plaited hair under a Panama hat.  Bright beautifully coloured shawls, pleated skirts, thick tights and the most sensible shoes.  In rural areas these clothes are worn for farm work including milking cows and digging in the fields.  I love seeing the traditional clothing, IMG_8645but do question the practicality.
  • On Monday it’s changing of the guard time, and if the President is home he appears on the balcony and gives the crowd a wave.  It was the longest changing of the guard I have ever seen – 25 minutes.  That’s a lot of President waving!
  • The armed police dress in futuristic outfits reminiscent of RoboCop.  Scary and funny at the same time.
  • Bus drivers in Quito are nuts.  There are special lanes for the buses and apparently no speed limits,  It felt like a theme park ride especially n rush hour.  Try it!

However my most interesting and adventurous experience was getting a yellow fever vaccination which I had neglected to do prior to my trip, and required for my next stop – Colombia.  A big shout out has to go the recent changes in Ecuadorian health care where immunisations are now free, a splendid idea allowing everyone to protect themselves and their families.yellow fever

I managed to get the vaccination in a hospital in Southern Ecuador, which was a real test of my Spanish skills and the doctors patience.  However there were no international certificates for proof of vaccination left, I would have to go to the Ministry of Health in the capital, Quito, brandishing a note from the doctor.

On arrival at the Ministry of Health it didn’t take long to realise that my request was most unusual.  I was ushered through the metal detectors without being screened.  Then chaperoned by a lovely non-English speaking receptionist through most departments within the Ministry (bizarrely including Human Resources) trying to find someone who could help with this request.

Eventually after several trips up and down in the busy lift the receptionist located someone who had the international certificates and more importantly the stamps!  So I was given a little yellow fever booklet complete with lots of stamps.  However I was not finished yet, I had to go back to the desk where I first started for yet more stamps.  The Ecuadorian governments thoroughness and love for stamps was evident.

Interestingly I was then told I would have to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  More stamps?  More visits to Human Resources?  I was, and still am, unclear as to why they were insistent on me going there.  I decided to take my chances, not visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and head to the border…..

Categories: adventure, South America | 1 Comment

The Uniqueness Of The Galapagos….

This volcanic archipelago lies 973km from the South American mainland.  With it being so isolated and having no significant human history, the evolution of their animal IMG_7832species is unique.  Here Charles Darwin studied the wildlife and based on his learnings, developed his theory on humankind writing the legendary Origin of The Species.

Nowadays the Galapagos Islands remain unspoilt, but are very much a tourist mecca with several flights arriving daily.  The tourist industry is extremely well managed and coordinated, to minimise any impact on the wildlife and the environment.  In fact you often feel like you are on the only boat on the whole of the Pacific Ocean.

I shall now impart words of wisdom and advice.  Before you go on this budget busting trip research it thoroughly.  Whilst wildlife is unpredictable, certain aspects can be planned.  I hate to say it, but I was underwhelmed by the Galapagos Islands.  My experience included poor visibility for snorkelling, rather choppy sailing conditions and no famous bird mating rituals.  However there was stunning scenery, colourful land iguanas and lots of baby sea lions.  If timed to perfection I think this could be an amazing experience……

So now for some interesting snippets of information:

  • The scolopendra centipede inhabits these islands, and can be 30cm long.  Its diet includes baby rats and lizards.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see one.
  • Due to it’s perfect symmetry across the equator this is one of only two countries* which can boast exactly twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night.IMG_7900
  • When the Galapagos Island’s most famous inhabitant Lonesome George died in 2012 at an unknown age (thought to be 102 years old) this signalled the end of his species.  George, a Pinta Island giant tortoise, was discovered alone and despite extensive searches across the islands no others of his genus were found.  US$10,000 was offered to anyone who could find him a mate, but sadly despite this appeal none was found.

* For those quiz goers, the other country is Kenya.

Categories: adventure, South America, wildlife | Leave a comment

Panama and the 8th Wonder of the World….

This country is synonymous with two words – “canal” and “hat”.  I went to Panama to get to the root of both. IMG_7648

The Canal is often labelled as the 8th Wonder of the World and is a true feat of engineering – I was most impressed.  Completed in 1914 it revolutionised shipping by splitting the American continent in two, enabling boats to sail from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Pacific Ocean with ease.

But onto some more fun facts:

  • The lowest toll paid was 36 US cents in 1928 by an American who swam the Panama Canal.
  • Each lock raises, or lowers boats, at the rate of 9 meters in 9 minutes.  It’s actually quick enough for you to feel the boat moving.  Again, I was impressed.

So what about the hat?  Well the Panama hat is actually an Ecuadorian creation, but was shipped to Europe from Panama hence the name.  Either way the country does a roaring trade with tourists snapping up traditional sombreros.  Interestingly in 2012 as a dying trade the Panama hat was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List – a list of traditions and skills that communities pass down through generations as part of their cultural heritage.

Unfortunately mine was a whistle stop tour of Panama so I didn’t get to venture too far afield.  Maybe next time?

Categories: adventure, Central America | 2 Comments

Next trip locked and loaded….

…… A few days in Panama to visit the engineering feat of the canal.  Then Ecuador for the wildlife sensation of the Galapagos Islands.  Followed by Colombia, which holds the title of the third ranked country on the Happy Planet Index and has the World’s largest number of endemic species.

Happy Planet!

Happy Planet!


* The Happy Planet Index is an index of human well-being and environmental impact.






Categories: adventure, Central America, South America | 2 Comments

All that glistens….The Solomon Islands

When Spanish explorers came across this group of Pacific Islands, they discovered alluvial gold and thought they had found the source of the biblical King Solomon’s wealth.  Hence the name the Solomon Islands was coined.Solomon

I am unsure where to start when writing about my time in the Solomon Islands, as I like to keep my blog positive.  But I was disappointed.  The local people are great, and very down to earth.  But I feel the ideology and greed of the more influential people is exploiting this country instead of building a long-term vision.

*Intensive logging is destroying the countryside, great scathes of woodland is being felled daily.  Dirty brown tracks run through the countryside, and large tankers float off-shore awaiting the next tug boat full of timber.  This industry has undoubtedly driven a significant economic boost for the country but at a cost.

In a similar vein, only a minimal number of shops and companies appear to be owned by locals.  Instead a large flux of predominantly Asian investors are running Honiara’s economy, with locals continuing their less profitable traditional practices of fishing and selling local produce in the cities markets.

Now for some more encouraging and interesting pieces of information about this Pacific country – Hooray!

  • The Solomon Islands has some fantastic snorkelling.  The waters are crystal clear, and there is a multitude of colourful fish.  Shark gracefully glide through the waters close by, the blue starfish are huge and there are even occasional crocodile – not convinced this is a good thing!  Several divers regularly return to this destination.
  • 10% of the population is blonde, this is the highest proportion of any non-European influenced country.  The high incidence of blonde hair is due to a specific protein.
  • One of the local dialects uses the same word for blue and green, the two most prominent colours, but has five different words for “fart”!
  • Shell money is still used on certain islands, although it’s typically more of an offering during wedding ceremonies, rather than your weekly groceries.


* On a more positive note the logging practice is under review and has actually slowed recently.

Categories: adventure, Australia / Pacific, beach | 1 Comment

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