I personally find it hard to summarise Timor-Leste. It’s struggle for independence was finalised over a decade ago, and it is continuing to grow into itself as a solo country. Mixed political views (particularly around language), crazy Chinese led construction everywhere and a high rate of poverty add diversity to what is a beautifully scenic place to visit.
Whilst a well versed traveller and no stranger to adventures, this country was a difficult one to get to grips with. A strong influx of well paid overseas workers has put high cost voyeuristic tourism on the map, driving disparity between the local population and visitors. Subsequently it makes backpacking and integrating with locals difficult, though any effort you make goes a long way with people.
Enough of this negative spiel, there were gems to be discovered in Timor-Leste. The island of Atauro across the Wetar Strait from Dili was idyllic, climbing Mt Ramelau for sunrise was breath-taking and of course taking the public bus along with a host of local people, their shopping and farmyard animals always proves interesting.
In a nutshell, here are some of the facts and figures…
- Apparently an average of one person a month gets taken by a crocodile, no mention of that in the Lonely Planet. Reassuring to know I’d been swimming in safe waters…
- “Chester” graffiti in Dili. Never expected to see my name emblazoned in pink spray paint all over the capital!!
- In 1991 the Santa Cruz cemetery saw the massacre of over a hundred unarmed people protesting for independence, it led to the World putting Timor-Leste on the map. This colourful, crowded cemetery still hosts groups of wailing mourners and is a moving place to visit. Several graves were recently adorned with personal gifts and decorations. One grave had a teacup and saucer, whilst on another two lit cigarettes were smoking away, a unique offering to the deceased.
- When on a long bus ride and the driver stops for a break, it appears essential for everyone to buy a Pot Noodle. Once the journey continues, the perilous task of eating the boiling hot water snack whilst sitting on the bus roof and gripping on for dear life is commonplace.
- The official language has been designated as Portuguese, which only 5% of the population speak. This has caused controversy, with a general preference appearing to be Indonesian or English in alignment with neighbouring countries.
- And did I mention the crocodiles….
I had no preconceptions about Botswana whatsoever, and was unsure exactly what gems it had to offer the visitor. However it turned out to be one of my favourite places to travel. It was pure and simple fun from end to end.
- The currency is called Pula meaning rain.
Watch out for hippos….
- The Okavango Delta is the world’s only inland delta. It is an idyllic, waterlily covered expanse of river and a haven for wildlife.
- I got charged at by a family of warthogs. This is not actually funny, the biggest was my size! Three of us were out trekking and looking for wildlife. After accidently passing too close to a warthogs burrow they charged. Obi (the guide) ferociously waved a stick at the oncoming beasts, and in the ensuing scramble to “escape” we all ended up in a heap with me at the bottom so I missed most of the action. Luckily none of us were hurt. I think they just wanted to scare us – mission accomplished!!
- Chobe National Park has no perimeter fences; instead locals have fences around their properties for safety. In town it’s not unusual to see an elephant outside the post office!
Yes it has a turbulent recent past. Yes it is set in deepest darkest Africa. But this country is amazing and it most certainly has a special place in my heart. I loved the people, the way of life and the beautiful tiered countryside.
Star of the show!
Spend a precious hour observing the endangered mountain gorillas. The authoritative silverback appeared very much in control, keeping a watchful eye on his family group whilst giving us sideways glances just to let us know he was aware of our presence. The youngsters, merely meters away, were playing energetically and chasing each other. I was lucky enough to see a two month old baby clinging to her mother. This expensive escapade is worth every cent if it keeps the species from extinction.
- Plastic bags are illegal. I kid you not!
- Personal space means nothing. Frequently I had members of the public sleeping on my shoulder on arduous bus journeys! It’s weird.
- At the peak of the genocide in 1994, in just 100 days 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were murdered. For non- mathematicians that’s 8,000 a day – devastating! Hundreds of people sought refuge in churches only to find themselves a cornered target, and unable to escape their horrific fate.
- Ginkongoro houses a unique memorial centre for victims of the genocide. It displays the preserved bodies of 482 people fixed in motion at the point of death. The horrific nature of their poses and evidence of machete wounds send shivers down your spine. Crouched foetal positions, curled toes and arms covering heads in protection stances. Screaming open mouths ensured you could visualise their terror. The idea behind this museum is to shock, and repel people in a bid to stop anything so inhumane occurring anywhere, ever again.
New Zealand is possibly the furthest place you can get from my home town, in Yorkshire, England. Yet the similarities are striking – stunning countryside, friendly people, passionate cricket supporters and of course – rain!
Franz Josef glacier
- Fortunate enough to be seconded to Auckland through work I took full advantage and explored this beautiful country full of outdoor, action packed activities for adrenalin junkies. Famously home to the bungee, spelunking and zorbing; anything crazy you want to experience is readily available here. The scaredy-cat side of me kicked in though, so aside from trekking I only participated in snow and sand boarding. Both were awesome, though I have limited experience/capability so doubt I’ll be strutting my stuff in a halfpipe anytime soon.
- What I love about New Zealand is the way it embraces its original Maori culture and heritage. Harmony exists. A far cry from other countries where the original inhabitants have suffered hardships under new rule.
- So now for the big question on everyones lips – north Island or south Island? I’d have to pick the north as my favourite. Less hype, not quite as much rain and idyllic hotspots such as the Bay of Islands and the Coromandel.
Wow! What else can I say about the chaos and mayhem that is China. You just have to get involved….
- Act like a tourist and trek the Great Wall. The further out of Beijing the better for peace, tranquillity and the ability to stare in awe at the seemingly endless stonework.
- Be shocked and appalled at the cultural differences
- Spitting in the streets.
- Public toilets with no doors.
- Being manhandled by an 80 year old female queue jumper, time is money people!
- Avoid needing medical attention whilst in security conscience Tiananmen Square. Despite my best efforts to avoid nuts, because of my severe allergy, I clearly ingested a trace somehow and quickly felt the effects. After leaving my hostel and arriving in Tiananmen Square I was struggling to breathe and felt my body burning up. Thankfully I was with three friends, one of them, Alex, was a doctor and he could see that I needed emergency treatment. Unable to stop taxis due to excessive security in the square, Alex approached the police for assistance. They unbelievably sent him away. At this point my lips and ears were apparently blue and my breathing heavily laboured. Alex
More wall. Well it is pretty cool!
decided the best course of action was to carry me to another road and from there hail a taxi. Now I’m not particularly heavy, but the distance was some 100m so no enviable task! After making it just a short distance the police decided to get involved. With sirens blaring and lights flashing they drove over; bundled us into the van and this is the best bit……………… they just drove us to a main road and flagged down a taxi to take me to hospital. They simply didn’t want us to taint the image of Tiananmen Square, they didn’t care that there was a human being rapidly turning blue and unable to breathe. An unbelievably harsh country.
I met a psychic who when I mentioned Mongolia said that I suddenly emitted a strong aura of positive colours. Apparently this symbolised my close relationship with the country, possibly having lived there in a previous life. Unsure how much store I place in this, but I did love Mongolia!
- Sleep in a traditional nomadic tent. A ger is a cosy circular structure made of wood and felt, complete with stove in the centre; to heat the inside whilst snow falls around. A huge rock is suspended from the roof through the ger to stop it blowing away in typical harsh conditions.
- Feeling brave? Experience a horse trek in swirling, dusty icy cold winds.
Whilst I was there Zimbabwe was experiencing severe economic difficulties which only got worse over the next couple of years. It was a turbulent time to visit and I can only imaging how extreme the situation became after I left.
- I simply loved Zimbabwe. Unsure why it grabbed me so much, perhaps it was the caution to the wind approach, or the friendliness of the locals despite their extreme hardship.
- Ignore all health and safety constrictions of the Western World:
Bit close for comfort
- Walk with lions. Not for the faint hearted I joined three 15 month old lions on their exercise regime. These almost fully grown animals could quite easily kill you, but handily you are armed with a large but futile stick.
- Rhino trekking. Get up close and personal with a herd of rhinos whilst trekking on foot. My top tip, merely as a precaution, is to make sure that you are not the slowest runner of the group.
- Witness the real life effects of hyper-inflation:
- Supermarkets were rationing bread to the growing queues of expectant people.
- It was back to basics. The bartering system was being used to purchase goods as opposed to hard currency. I bought a sandstone sculpted hippo for half a tube of toothpaste – bargain!
- A queue of approx thirty cars were abandoned on the road leading to a petrol station awaiting a long overdue fuel delivery.
Miraculously I managed to win a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe for six weeks. No skill required just my name and phone number on an entry form and trip of a lifetime here I come!!!
Pre-school in Soweto
- During apartheid the black population of Johannesburg was exiled to Soweto, on the outskirts of the city. Conditions here remain poor. People survive in cramped conditions, living in small corrugated iron huts, fresh water is supplied by stand pipes installed in the streets. Interestingly this deprived area boasts the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prizes winners have lived – Nelson Mandela & Desmond Tutu!
- See what I believe is the real beauty in the Drakensberg region. This area celebrates spectacular walks, climbs and panoramic views.
- Pop into Lesotho to have a beer at the highest pub in Africa – some 2,874m above sea level.
- Visit the Transkei region for a different outlook on life:
- Catch a choppy ferry ride to Robben Island. Whilst imprisoned there for eighteen years Nelson Mandela scribed “Long Walk to Freedom”. Bleak is how best to describe this place.
Categories: Africa, culture, people, trekking
Tags: apartheid, Drakensberg, Lesotho, Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize, Robben island, sangoma, Soweto, Transkei, Tutu
I had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka with a friend who grew up in Colombo and was returning for a wedding. This gave me an insider perspective on their way of life. There was a sheer look of horror on her face when I mentioned I was taking the train. Interestingly this was an experience she had never undertaken due to it being deemed a lower class of transport.
- One year after the devastating tsunami the attempt to rebuild lives, homes and businesses continues. Where trees once stood saplings are beginning to take hold; and bare empty spaces are being refilled with hope. In Sri Lanka alone the death toll was around 35,000 with over half a million people displaced.
A bit of exercise to start the day…
- Climb to the summit of Adam’s Peak along with the pilgrims for sunrise.
- Plan, plan, plan when you are going to be in a country on a significant anniversary, else things may take a turn for the unexpected. Upon arriving in the ancient capital on the one year anniversary of the tsunami, I naively expected to find accommodation easily. What I hadn’t accounted for was the vast number of locals arriving to participate in remembrance services. Everywhere was full, and the night was drawing in. My options were limited at best, and to cut a long story short in return for providing dinner for my taxi driver and his family I was invited to stay in their home. The small house was on the outskirts of town; the facilities were basic with no running water and a long drop toilet in the garden. I was made to feel extremely welcome and as well as meeting the family I met plenty of curious neighbours when joining them at the communal well for washing and water collection. Another off the wall Chester travel experience.
- My favourite attraction was Sigiriya. This remnant of a palace is perched atop a lone vast rock in the middle of nowhere, which affords magnificent 360 degree views. The slippery, vertiginous climb is well worth it, but more for the panorama that the palace foundations.
Magical Borneo just keeps offering more and more intrigue to the visitor and it’s flora and fauna is spectacular!
- Top tip – check out the wildlife in the shower before you get in. Midway through shampooing your hair is not the best time to notice a scorpion at close quarters!
- Ascend Mt Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia, and ache from the incessant stepped climb for days afterwards. However watching the stunning sunrise from above the clouds was worth the agony.
- Seek out the world’s largest and most awful smelling flower, a Rafflesia. These flowers have a span of
It’s a whopper!
up to one metre, and emit a smell of rotting flesh. I was lucky enough to see one of these rare plants up close and personal, whilst in full bloom however the scent phase hadn’t yet commenced – this might have been a bonus!
- Visit the jungle in a bid to see orang-utans in their natural environment. Having a huge male orang-utan curiously peer down on you from a treetop is an awe inspiring moment, tinged with a little nervousness.
- Get into the spirit and attend a local wedding. All guests, myself included, received a traditional gift of a plastic flower and boiled egg.
Categories: adventure, Asia, culture, people, trekking, wildlife
Tags: fauna, flora, head-hunters, Mt Kinabalu, orang-utan, Rafflesia