Make shift housing in a shanty town along South Africa''s Garden Route

Racism in South Africa

Age 8, I was set an assignment at school to write to someone who inspired me. I wrote to Nelson Mandela (and received a reply!).

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact words I wrote, but I remember feeling that this man saw beyond the exterior and was working towards a world where everyone is valued and treated equally (it’s really no wonder I became a clinical psychologist!).

 

14 years later, I visited his home nation for the first time.

Honestly, South Africa made me uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s utterly stunning, the National Parks and their inhabitants are spectacular, and every South African I’ve met has been great fun, incredibly welcoming and has an endless appetite for braii, but it still has a hell of a long way to come since the days of Apartheid.

Make no mistake, Apartheid is still present.

The divisions and inequalities between black people and white people hit me square in the face; it’s hard to miss. The racist undertones often left me speechless and confused at how such hurtful, ignorant sentiments could be uttered by otherwise such kind and educated people.

I get that the racism amongst my generation of white South Africans, who were too young (or not yet born) to remember the final years of apartheid, has mostly been borne out of the government’s attempts to ‘undo’ a grisly history; for example, the white candidate now loses out on a job not because there was a better candidate but because there was a black candidate; and that older generations around the globe can often (but not always!) be a product of their time, but this doesn’t explain the stark and shocking inequality that persists in the context of a world that is surely (hopefully!) moving forward in its racial equality (and equal rights for all more generally).

 

Even the continued widespread use of the words ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, a left over product of Apartheid-era language, rubs me the wrong way. I find these labels incredibly dehumanising. In my mind, it’s as distasteful, outdated and unacceptable as using words like ‘fags’ to describe people of the LGBT community, ‘birds’ to describe women and a whole host of horrible words that I can’t even bring myself to write to describe people with disabilities. We are all human and we are all individuals with our own set of values, beliefs and experiences that are unique, even within the context of our collective identities. (Sorry, rant over…sort of!)

The difference between how the majority of black and white people live is nothing short of gut-wrenching.

All across the country, black people live in shanty towns, while a mile up the road, white people live in fancy gated mansions with security cameras and guard dogs, often with black employees as gardeners and ‘maids’ (I hate this word; it’s archaic and hierarchical), who cook, clean, do laundry and look after the children. I have no problem with people taking these roles, clearly it gives them employment and an opportunity to earn a living, nor with those who choose to employ people to help around the house, but I do have a problem with the clear black-white divide. Yes, shanty towns with white residents also exist, but these are few and far between compared to the sprawling settlements of make-shift housing permanently resided in by black South Africans.

 

Now, I think it’s important to be transparent about my own circumstances and the foundations on which my views are based. I’m white British and I come from a middle class background, and with that I certainly had a privileged upbringing. The U.K. is not perfect, and non-white people in Britain are more likely to be of a lower socio-economic status than white people, but there are two key differences as I see it: the welfare system and access to social housing doesn’t discriminate between race, religion and other markers of diversity, and fear and hate talk directed towards people of races different from your own is not accepted as normal, as it appears to be in South Africa (yes, even in the context of Brexit and the European immigration crisis, these feelings are only expressed by a tiny, and rightly shunned, minority). I have only once experienced shocking racism in the U.K. and it transpired that this person’s hideous view was based on having never met a black person (this is in rural north England, where sadly the population isn’t particularly diverse); white South Africans do not have this excuse.

Throw out any pre-conceptions of a now harmonious bi-cultural post-Apartheid society.

Sadly racism directed towards marginalised native populations is a common theme within countries previously invaded and colonised by Europeans; I have witnessed this first hand in the United States (can we please be clear that Native Americans are not ‘Indians’ and that if you need to collectively refer to people, using a tribe name is most respectful…but I digress!), Canada, Australia and I am starting to pick up on in New Zealand as well, but that’s another story, and in these countries it certainly doesn’t swing in like a wrecking ball to smash all your pre-conceptions of a wonderful postcolonial country rebuilding itself after white invasion quite like it does in South Africa!

I’ve witnessed a lot of poverty and discrimination, through both work and travel, and it is always sad to experience, but certainly South Africa got under my skin. I left declaring that it’s a fabulous place to visit but I couldn’t live amongst the racism.

Nairobi-National-Park-mum-and-baby-white-rhino

6 things to do during a stopover in Nairobi

Do you have a stopover in Nairobi coming up? Don’t waste it sitting in the airport (trust me, there’s not much there!). Instead, go and enjoy the city with my top 6 things to do on a Transit VISA in Kenya’s capital! All these suggestions are family-friendly and fun for all ages.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is East Africa’s busiest airport, serving more than 7 million passengers annually. There are currently 5 commercial terminals, with direct connections to countries across Africa, Europe and Asia, and plans for an additional terminal to facilitate direct flights to North America.

You may very well find that your intercontinental flight has a stopover in Nairobi and you need to transfer, perhaps to another airline, to reach your final destination in Kenya or other African nations.

So, what do you do while you wait for your next flight? Instead of trying to keep the kids entertained in the airport, try one of these:

 

 

1

Nairobi National Park

 

Located a short drive from the airport, Nairobi National Park is one of the smallest in Africa but is known for having one of the highest concentrations of black rhinos, as well as other abundant wildlife (see zebras, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, leopards, buffalo, hyenas, hippos, ostrich, baboons, vultures, crocodiles and various species of antelope).

 

 

This is my favourite thing to do whenever I have stopover in Nairobi! We have had some of our most memorable animal sightings here and observing them on wide open grass plains against the backdrop of city skyscrapers makes for a truly unique setting.

Explore the park in an open jeep with a park guide, who will always know the best spots to find wildlife and will take you off the beaten track in search of the encounters you are most hoping for.

 

The ivory burning site, one of the most important landmarks in conservation, is also located inside the park. Here, presidents Daniel arap Moi and Uhuru Kenyatta oversaw the burning of large stocks of seized ivory in 1989 and 2016 respectively. In 1989, 11 tonnes of ivory were burned, sending a powerful message to poachers. This act was widely credited with sparking a reduction in poaching in Kenya at a time when the elephant population across East Africa was being decimated. In 2016, 100 tonnes were burned, the equivalent of tusks from 6000 elephants!

 

2

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

 

Located within Nairobi National Park, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is home to orphaned black rhinos and elephants, who socialise with wild herds in the park every day, but are raised here until it is safe to release them.

You can watch the animals being fed and observe as the elephants enjoy a mud bath, splashing and sliding about like a scene from ‘Dumbo’; keep your wits about you though incase one decides to aim a trunkful of mud your way!

While the elephants play, you’ll learn each of their individual stories and what brought them here. Most of these rescued young animals have either been abandoned by their herds, typically as a result of drought, or orphaned as a result of poaching. You’ll also hear from the keepers about the pioneering conservation work of the late David and Daphne Sheldrick, the wider work of the Trust and opportunities to foster one of the animals.

 

 

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The Animal Orphanage

 

The Animal Orphanage houses a wide range of species including a number of big cats, hyenas, monkeys and a variety of birds. These animals have also been rescued with the aim of rehabilitating them and reintroducing them to the wild. The guides and keepers are incredibly knowledgeable and their positive relationships with the animals they care for is clear. You can learn about each animal while observing them at close range.

 

Of course, we would much rather see all these animals living in the wild, but their time both at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Animal Orphanage is typically only temporary and is with the best interests of the animal in mind.

 

 

4

The Giraffe Centre

 

Established to protect the endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe, this is a conservation success story. Habitat loss in western Kenya saw this subspecies of giraffe pushed to the brink of extinction. Today, numbers are up (although there is still a long way to go!) and the centre has successfully released breeding populations into a number of Kenya’s national parks.

At the centre, you can observe, hand-feed and interact with these curious and gentle giants; a wonderful experience for all ages!

 

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A city tour

 

Nairobi is a bustling, cosmopolitan city that is in stark contrast to the natural beauty found in Kenya’s national parks, but it has much to offer beyond the sound of blaring car horns, the street sellers that tap at your car window to get your attention, the political propaganda that fills every available nook and cranny, and the churned up red dust that envelops the city.

It’s a city that’s so full of life, both during daylight hours and at night, and I find the contrast between the buzz of the city and the laid back nature of Nairobians utterly captivating. Unlike other economic hubs across the world (think London, Paris, New York, Beijing), people here aren’t always in a rush.

Depending on how long you have, the city can be explored by car or by foot, and you may wish to make stops at the following locations:

Kenyatta International Conference Centre: Take in a 360 degree view of Nairobi and its surrounding countryside from the 28th floor. On a clear day you can even spot Mount Kenya!

Kenyatta market: Probably not where you want to come to buy souvenirs and artwork, but a fun way to pass your stopover in Nairobi! A mélange of hair braiders, who try to entice you into their salon; tailors, who sit at sewing machines surrounded by vibrant patterned fabrics; cobblers, with displays of brightly coloured shoes that rival those sold in Marrakech’s souks; and food stalls that fill the air with the smokey scent of ‘nyama choma’ (barbecued meat). Meander your way through the market, passing by the second-hand sellers and soaking up joyful hubbub, and be sure to haggle respectfully.

Uhuru Park: Escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Nairobi in this oasis of calm right next to the city centre. Take a pedalo out on the lake, walk around the various monuments, picnic in the shade, and watch skateboarders compete in competitions.

Karura Forest: An urban indigenous forest with plenty of family-friendly walking, running and biking trails, perfect for some light exercise and a breath of fresh air in between flights. Spend your stopover in Nairobi visiting waterfalls, bird watching, butterfly spotting or exploring caves.

Nairobi National Museum, Botanical Gardens and Snake Park: All in one location, this is a great way to spend a few hours. The museum brings to life Kenya’s rich heritage, and permanent collections showcase both cultural and natural history.

The botanical gardens will ensure some welcome fresh air before you board your flight; follow the nature trail through the gardens, showcasing the diversity of Kenya’s fauna, and past a number of art installations.

The Snake Park is particularly fun for younger travellers, who will be given the opportunity to hold one if they wish. Snakes and other reptiles are housed both in open air enclosures and behind glass. The Park is primarily a research facility but gives visitors an opportunity to view Kenya’s reptiles that are more elusive in the wild.

Nairobi Gallery: Built in 1913, this is a national monument located right in the city centre. Nicknamed the ‘Hatches, Matches and Dispatches’ building due to its historical use as a registry office, it now houses temporary art exhibitions.

Karen Blixen’s House and Museum: Visit the farmhouse and gardens where author, Karen Blixen, lived from 1914-1931, and made famous with the release of ‘Out of Africa, an Oscar-winning film based on Blixen’s autobiography of the same title.

Nairobi is energetic, colourful, unpretentious and will give you a wonderful glimpse at African urban life; it would be a shame to spend your stopover in Nairobi confined to the airport and miss out on all that the city has to offer!

 

6

Carnivore restaurant

 

Carnivore is a meat-eaters paradise (but there are loads of scrummy vegetarian options as well). Try Kenya’s most famous selection of ‘nyama choma’ in a fun, family-friendly, open-air restaurant.
Skewered on traditional Masai swords, food is grilled on a visually mesmerising charcoal pit, which dominates the entrance.

Start with the soup of the day and then enjoy the all you can eat main course until you surrender your flag! Waiters carve and serve everything from beef, chicken, lamb and pork, to ostrich, crocodile and camel, at your table. This is accompanied by a selection of salads, vegetable dishes and sauces (your waiter will tell you which sauce is intended for which meat, or you can opt for a lucky dip!).

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. Children aged 5-12 eat for half price and there is also a playground in the adjoining Simba Saloon.

You won’t find much to eat at the airport so if you have a stopover in Nairobi, I suggest you eat here!


How do I organise my trip?

I highly recommend booking with Robert from Sojourn Safaris (you can find him on facebook @sojourn.safaris).

We have met Robert on four different occasions and every time has been a pleasure. He will discuss your options with you via email or WhatsApp and work out your ideal bespoke itinerary for your budget and the time that you have. He has always planned a hugely memorable stopover in Nairobi for us, both when we’ve only had a few hours to spare and when we’ve had a full day. He’s punctual, knowledgeable, and we’ve always felt like no request is too great.

His tours come with:
Pick up and drop off at the airport
Comfortable transport
Bottled water
Park guide and open safari car for trips into the National Park
Guides for all other attractions

Please note that the fees do not include tips. Tips should be given for good service, as you feel appropriate, but as a guideline, 1000-2000 Shillings (equivalent of roughly $10-20 USD) is considered typical and is what we have previously given to all guides, safari drivers, and Robert himself.


What else do I need to know?

Check your VISA requirements. If you need a VISA, you can get a transit VISA on arrival for $20 USD, which is valid for 72 hours. You can also get it online, but it is easy to do at the airport so it isn’t necessary to do it in advance.

Please be aware that Kenya is at risk of Yellow Fever so a vaccination is recommended if you plan to exit the airport (please speak with your doctor to confirm your requirements). Border control will let you into Kenya without having had the vaccination but, when you land in your next destination, they will require all passengers who have exited the airport in Kenya to show their Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate. If you don’t have it, you risk being refused entry or quarantined and vaccinated in the airport.

Ditch the plastic! In 2017, Kenya banned the use, sale and production of plastic bags, and ignoring these rules will leave you liable for hefty fines and even a prison sentence, so don’t keep any in your hand luggage! Well done Kenya on implementing the ‘world’s toughest plastic bag ban‘!

 

Have a wonderful stopover in Nairobi! It’s an inspiring city and I have no doubt that your brief time there will convince you to return!

Bamboo rafts sail on the Yulong River in Yangsuo, Guilin, China

11 Cultural Quirks Witnessed in China

I love that we’re all different and we all have cultural oddities that, while considered totally normal in one country, may cause visitors to raise their eyebrows. China was full of these little surprises! Some were amusing, some were heart-warming, and some were a little unsanitary to my out-of-town eyes, but all contributed to my enjoyment of my trip and make me look back on it with great fondness.

 

I will certainly be returning to China with Alex and Theo; it’s a fascinating and beautiful country and I was lucky to meet some wonderful people who were able to teach me about their history and culture. So, in celebration of our idiosyncrasies, here is a list of 11 cultural quirks I witnessed in China.

 

1

Spitting isn’t considered rude. Much like sneezing and coughing, it’s just another normal bodily function in which fluids are expelled, and one’s throat and nose are cleared.

The sound of people hacking up phlegm much like a cat brings up a furball takes some getting used to, especially when in the close confines of public transport and restaurants, or when the noise is coming from the stranger walking right on your heels down a busy street. Taxi drivers are particularly renowned for this delight, but who can blame them when the spend all day breathing in heavy car fumes?!

 

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Similarly, spitting food out isn’t something that’s done discreetly with darting eyes to check no one’s watching and behind a hand or napkin to preserve your dignity in case you are spotted!

My most memorable experience of this was during an incredible meal shared with new Chinese friends. Ghost Street (Guijie) in Beijing stretches for over a mile and is home to over 200 casual, family-run restaurants serving up mouth-watering dishes at tiny prices at any time of day or night (transport tip: alight at Dongzhimen subway station).

Red lanterns hanging above the street flicker on shortly before sundown and contribute to the festival atmosphere. The celebration is food; traditional recipes from each of China’s regions along with international fare.

We entered a Sichuan restaurant and after a brief exchange in Mandarin between the waiter and Hoover, a born and bred 30-something year-old teacher from Beijing, we were shown to our table and promptly served complimentary appetisers while we waited for the bull frogs, lobster, prawns and hot pot that Hoover had ordered. Provided you don’t have special dietary requirements, always allow a local to choose your meal! The zing of ginger, the aroma of garlic, and the fire of chilli filled my mouth – the food was amazing (although, personally, I found both duck and frog intestine to be a little chewy for my taste)!

I learnt something new during this meal: humans can remove the shell, legs and head of a prawn using nothing but their tongue (not this human, but others evidentially can!). As my dining companions dissected their food inside their mouths and then proceeded to indiscreetly discard the inedible and unwanted bits by spitting them on the table and floor, I looked around and saw everyone else doing the same thing.

I am all for cultural immersion and doing as the locals do, but the stereotypical overmannered Brit in me could only manage removing my frog bones and prawn shell behind a covering hand, placing them neatly on the table and ashamedly concealing them under the lip of my plate.

 

3

It is common for babies not to wear nappies before they are toilet trained. Onesies have gaping holes at the crotch and if they need to go while out and about, parents simply hold their infants either over a tree or over a public rubbish bin.

I still haven’t worked out how parents predict this and prevent themselves from being accidentally covered; speaking from experience, babies don’t give much warning for their toileting needs and once they start, there’s no stopping them while you get them to the nearest tree! Are parents in China carrying around multiple changes of clothes for themselves instead of for their baby, as I did?!

I support anyone not wanting to use disposable nappies, but I think I’ll stick to our lovely cloth nappies rather than dangling defecating children in public places!

 

4

On one occasion, a baby wearing one of these gaping onesies was thrust at me, which brings me to my next point. Be prepared for a lot of attention and endless photograph requests! The mother of this child wanted me to hold her baby so she could take a photograph of me holding him. I posed for photographs taken by strangers like this every day of the 7 week trip, and although I always obliged with a smile, it got very exhausting and I longed to once again blend into the crowd.

 

5

Weirdly though, I sometimes felt invisible. I wasn’t; a white, blonde female by herself with a backpack – I stuck out like a sore thumb!

Brits are known for loving an orderly queue so I had to bite my tongue through the seemingly mandatory pushing and shoving that is more common in China. Queue jumpers lurk next to every ticket booth, information desk, and till, and the use of elbows is recommended for surviving the metro crush.

In London, if someone tries to get on a tube without first stepping to the side to let people off, they receive a tirade of dirty looks, huffs and maybe the odd sarcastic comment. I did the same in Beijing but was promptly bulldozed directly into the people trying to alight by a wall of angry, shouting commuters behind me (as an aside, in Beijing, every hour is rush hour – don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

 

6

Speaking of shouting, unless you speak Mandarin, everyone sounds like they’re shouting and angry. Of course, they’re not; Mandarin is a tonal language and requires a wider vocal range than English, and I think the Chinese are also possibly more expressive in their speech than Brits.

 

7

Although my culture tells me that the tendency to push and shove in China is rude, I found people to be exactly the opposite. Complete strangers really wanted to go out of their way to be helpful.

After stopping people to ask for directions, I was shown around Chongqing by an 18 year old who wanted to practice her English and was then taken to lunch by her and her mother, and a guy in Hangzhou took me on a tour of several temples, translating every information point we came to and also giving me additional history and politics lessons, that were fascinating and included details I would never have otherwise known.

I have numerous stories like this of kind people jumping at the chance to help me out, but my favourite occurred on a night train.

My zig-zag travel across China was all done by train and I booked my onward journey when I had got to each place and figured out how long I wanted to be there. This meant that several of the sleeper trains I booked didn’t have beds available, nor seats, so I slept in the aisle on my backpack for journeys as long as 19 hours.

Anyone who has travelled on China’s trains in the budget carriages will know that they are no Virgin Trains (or even Southern Rail – a timely joke referring to Britain’s currently most hated rail network), which feel like luxury in comparison. They’re filthy, smelly, incredibly cramped, and the toilets are enough to give you nightmares, but they got me from A to B relatively reliably and I met some interesting characters that made the long distances feel shorter.

On this particular over-crowded journey, there was a rush to buy tickets for the beds that had just become available as passengers disembarked at each stop, and huge crowds formed around the conductor selling them. I jumped up and focused my attention on at least grabbing a newly empty seat.

At the next stop, the conductor approached me through the swarm of people trying to wrestle for the much coveted tickets and passed me a note. I opened it. Scrawled in handwriting that suggested the author rarely formed these foreign shapes, I read the words ‘Follow me’. My brain did a quick ‘this could go one of two ways’ calculation. Screw it, I’m following him!

He led me through the heaving carriages, stepping over other unlucky passengers in the aisles, and into a sleeper carriage. Now, I’m not in the habit of following strange men into bedrooms but as he showed me to an empty bunk, I was very grateful for his kindness in reaching out to me (and also now pleased that I didn’t blend into the crowd – it’s swings and roundabouts!).

 

8

There’s no such thing as personal space. I found people in China to be very touchy-feely. It’s really very endearing, but a bit of a surprise when your culture is just the opposite!

Londoners complain about having to get up close and personal with other commuters on the tube; a trip to Beijing or Shanghai would certainly put it in perspective!

It’s not just the forced closeness though. I was constantly touched by strangers, all intended in a friendly way but nonetheless, a little unsettling at first. Unexpected hugs, taking my hand, patting me on the arm, even a few cheek pinches, which I don’t think anyone has done to me since I was a toddler!

 

9

I was in China during the height of summer. It was sweltering! When I stopped in restaurants and cafes, I really wanted cold water, but was always brought freshly boiled water (obviously knowing your water has been boiled is very reassuring but filtering it or treating it are also alternatives to buying bottled water). I don’t drink tea or coffee, and don’t understand how hot drinks can possibly be considered refreshing when it’s a million degrees and humid, but I was always looked at like I’d just walked off Mars whenever I explained that I was after cold water.

 

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I’m no stranger to squat toilets and was expecting to only find seated toilets in accommodation, but thought I’d mention it here for anyone who isn’t yet clued up about this. All public toilets in China are squat toilets, you won’t find toilet paper in any of them, nor will there be any soap. My advice is to always carry loo roll and hand sanitiser, use the toilet before heading out for the day and again whenever you stop in restaurants. Having soap with you is a nice option but there’s no guarantee that toilets will even have running water with which to wash your hands (or flush the loo!). A word of warning: public toilets can be disgusting everywhere in the world, but China’s are the worst I have ever seen. Let’s just say, they’re not well maintained and some people clearly haven’t mastered the squat and catastrophically miss the hole when they do their business. Eek!

 

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Don’t miss out on visiting the public parks; they’re lovely hubs of everyday life and I learnt so much about Chinese culture by sitting and people-watching. Unlike in the U.K., where the most interesting things you’ll see on your average day in your average park are dog walkers, runners, cyclists and kids with scooters, parks in China are central to the community and used by everyone for a whole range of wonderful activities. With speakers blaring, large groups of people gather to partake in group dancing (mostly ballroom and line dancing), tai chi (with and without swords!), kung fu, and a sport that blends tai chi and tennis. People of all ages line the paths, engrossed in games of Chinese Chess and Mahjong, and intricate calligraphy is painted on the walkways. Paper and bamboo kites float on the breeze, and large spinning tops are flung into rotation by the crack of a whip. These are pastimes for adults as much as children and can even be taken to competition. Feel free to join in as well!

What quirky cultural differences have you noticed when travelling? Perhaps you spotted something in China that I haven’t included here. Share it in the comments!

Lewis river between yellow and green grasses in the foreground and mountains in the background

Is New Zealand as eco-friendly as it seems?

What do you think of when you imagine New Zealand?

If you’ve never been, what’s the impression that photographs, films, and stories have left you with?

Lush countryside filled with grazing sheep? Dramatic landscapes of mountains and sparkling waters under a blue, cloudless sky? Extreme sports and outdoor adventure? Vineyards? The All Blacks performing the Haka?

I’ll bet that you might imagine that New Zealanders consider the environment a priority.

But is that the reality?


We’ve been in New Zealand for five months now and we’re loving it. We’re definitely feeling settled and although Christchurch might not be our home forever, we are very happy here for now and I suspect New Zealand will be our base from which we continue to explore for the foreseeable future.

The countryside is beautiful, the people are welcoming, and the lifestyle for families is fantastic. There are a few things that have surprised us though, particularly the lack of environmental awareness and practice.

The media does a wonderful job of marketing New Zealand as this super eco-friendly country that is leading the way in environmental policy. We had thought everyone would be very conscientious of the environment and protecting, not just New Zealand’s wildlife and landscapes, but the well-being of the whole planet.

Unfortunately, we have found that eco living isn’t high on people’s priority list. Of course there are individuals for whom this is important, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be part of the ingrained culture as we were expecting.

Here are 5 ways that we have been surprised by the lack of environmental awareness in New Zealand. Do these things surprise you too?


 

1

I was expecting to be able to buy fresh local produce at markets, butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers in every suburb of the big cities and in smaller towns. Don’t get me wrong, Christchurch has all of these, but only a handful and they are dispersed right across the city (for great quality fresh produce head to Riccarton House and Bush for the farmers’ market on Saturdays, Tram Road Fruit Farm for delicious ‘pick your own’ fruits, Vegeland on Marshland Road, Cashmere Cuisine butcher on Colombo Street, and Theo’s Fisheries on Riccarton Road. You can read more about visiting Christchurch here).

Most people shop at the supermarket since fresh produce is not easily accessible for all, particularly without a car. Sadly there isn’t anything near us so we have to either rent a car or get the bus into town, lugging heavy bags and a toddler (we don’t have a car – see point 4!). In smaller towns buying fresh produce is near impossible without a considerable drive.

 

2

At supermarkets, checkout staff usually pack bags (unless, like me you bring your own bags, but I am yet to witness anyone else do this). They have obviously been trained to under-pack the bags to avoid any potential complaints, and to double-bag each meat item separately. A shop that really should fit in one bag all of a sudden requires five! Reducing plastic bag use was just one of my suggestions for new year’s resolutions; check out other tips here.

 

3

Irrigation is a huge problem in the drier regions of New Zealand. We see this a lot in Canterbury, where the average annual rainfall is 600-700mm compared to the West Coast’s 2000-3000mm on the other side of the Southern Alps.

During the hot, dry summer, everyone’s gardens remain sparkling green and cows graze on the lush dairy farms that fill the Canterbury Plains. There’s more land here so despite cattle being more suited to the temperate rainforest climate of the West Coast, farmers continue to irrigate the Plains.

We have been informed that sadly, due to this irrigation and the increase in dairy farming, swimming holes and rivers are becoming unsafe for humans, let alone other wildlife, and the Avon river that winds through Christchurch, though it may look clear and inviting, is actually incredibly polluted.

 

4

Cars are horrible, smelly, polluting old things! The car market is nuts! They’re stupidly expensive as everything has to be shipped here, so old cars hold their value really well, unlike in the U.K. They also last longer since roads aren’t gritted during the Winter, so people end up driving cars that you won’t have seen on the road for at least a decade in the U.K.

 

5

Supermarket meat is fairly shocking. Chicken breasts are twice the size they should be, it is surprisingly difficult to get uncooked ham (even in the run up to Christmas, despite ham being the meat dish of choice), deli meat is horribly watery and no longer tastes like meat, and there is no variety. Your options are chicken, pork, lamb, beef and a limited range of fish. Essentially, although there are regulations around the use of hormones, meat is pumped full of water, and getting your hands on unprocessed meat is tough.

We’d reduced our meat consumption in order to lessen our footprint prior to arriving in New Zealand, but as meat-eaters this was still a disappointing shock to us. Currently, about 80% of our meals are vegan but if ever there was a time to go totally vegan, it’s now!

 


Despite these surprises, there are of course a number of things that New Zealand gets absolutely spot on!

The Resource Management Act ensures that Iwi are consulted about natural resource matters. This consultation with Maori tribes provides an extra layer of environmental protection, as well as ensuring that areas of cultural significance are preserved. More people working to protect land can surely only be a good thing.

We love that people eat seasonally and there is significantly less reliance on imports compared to in the U.K.. Before we moved, we were a little concerned that we’d miss having year-round access to seasonal fruit and vegetables, as well as produce not locally grown at all. In fact, we are enjoying knowing that all the produce we buy in store has been sourced locally, and I now also grow most of our vegetables myself (along with raspberries and blackberries, as these are expensive to buy).

The healthy populations of birds, bees and butterflies are noticeable, even in the big cities. When we’ve been camping, it has been a pleasure to wake to the loudest dawn chorus I have ever witnessed – so loud that in Hanmer Forest, it took me a while to work out whether the white-noise hum that had roused me was the sound of a storm echoing in the branches above, or the simultaneous song of hundreds of birds!

Environmental awareness may not be part of the ingrained culture, but an outdoor lifestyle is certainly typical for New Zealanders. Even in the cities, there are fantastic opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and people certainly make the most of it. We live a few minutes from forest mountain biking, 10 minutes walk from the beach and great surfing spots, 30 minutes drive to beautiful hiking and I can’t wait for winter as we’re only an hour from the ski fields!


So what do you think? Are you surprised? Is this different to the picture you had of New Zealand?

A vintage red tram takes tourists through the streets of Christchurch.

Discover post-quake Christchurch

“I get butterflies just thinking about it” a friend shares with me. Her eyes blink back the tears that threaten to escape, her face loses colour and she takes a deep breath to compose herself.

On the 4th September 2010, an earthquake with magnitude 7.1 struck New Zealand and was felt throughout the South Island and in the lower third of the North Island.

The epicentre was in Darfield, just 47km (29mi) from Christchurch, and caused widespread damage across the city. A state of emergency was declared and this, for the next few months at least, was referred to by locals as ‘the big one’.

Powerful aftershocks occurred repeatedly over the following years (the city continues to experience aftershocks now and has had 20,000 to date!), the most devastating of which hit on 22nd February 2011.

With its epicentre near Lyttelton, a suburb just 10km (6.2mi) to the southeast of the city centre, the 6.3 magnitude earthquake violently shook the ground beneath Christchurch. 185 people died, thousands more were injured, and a cloud of dust rose above the collapsed buildings of the Central Business District (CBD).

With the city centre reduced to a pile of rubble, Christchurch sadly found itself bumped from bucket lists – even locals admit they wanted to stay away – but 2018 is the time to visit!

The rebuild process is lengthy and is still very much underway. At first glance, Christchurch is still full of roadworks, shipping containers continue to be a prominent feature, and buildings in various states of demolition, repair or rebuild are numerous, but take a closer look and you will find somewhere very worthy of bucket list status.

 

The garden city

Nicknamed ‘the garden city’, Christchurch boasts over 740 parks and gardens, and is centred around Hagley Park. The park is a haven for runners, bikers and dog walkers, and is also home to Hagley Golf Club and used by sports clubs at the weekend.

On the east side of the park, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is the perfect venue for a quiet stroll, a picnic and even a run around in the sprinklers if the kids need to let off steam (there’s also a playground and paddling pool). It’s free to enter and is popular at lunch hour during the week among those escaping the office for some fresh air.  

The outdoors lifestyle in Christchurch isn’t limited to Hagley Park. Riccarton Bush is an opportunity to block out the city’s buzz and feel totally immersed in native bush including kahikatea trees of up to 600 years old. The smell of the forest and the sound of birdsong instantly transports you out of the city.

The Port Hills are worth exploring by foot or bike and offer impressive views over Pegasus Bay to the north and Lyttelton Harbour to the south. Mount Pleasant is the highest peak in the Port Hills at 499m (1,637ft).

 

On the other side of Lyttelton Harbour is Banks Peninsula, the most striking and prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. Mount Herbert is its highest point at 919m (3,015ft), but you don’t have to get to this altitude to experience the breathtaking landscape and views over Pegasus Bay and the Canterbury Bight.

The coast consists of coves, harbours and beaches, and the water is calm and waveless on the north side of the peninsular, making this a popular spot for kayaking, paddle boarding, kite surfing, sailing and jet skiing.

Hiking in this area reminds us of the Lake District in the U.K.; trodden paths meander through native bush, over pastures and along streams, with views over mountains, valleys and glistening blue water. The elevation is also similar; the highest point in the Lakes is Scarfell Pike at 978m (3,209ft).

Orton Bradley Park in Diamond Harbour is a great starting point for a number of beautiful hikes and bike trails. It’s a privately owned working farm so there is a small entrance fee and dogs aren’t allowed on the tracks (but they provide kennels). A small museum showcasing farm machinery through the ages, a playground and a lovely cafe make this a perfect family day out (I was really impressed that the cafe uses stainless steel straws so I didn’t need to request no straw!).

We recently did the hike up to Gully Falls, where we cooled off in the second of the two picturesque waterfalls. We went up on the Valley Track and joined the Waterfall Gully Track, and then looped round to descend on the Faulkner Memorial Track and the Magnificent Gully Track. This was a good half-day walk, which Theo managed easily.

Although not quite as impressive as the Southern Alps, the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula are excellent options if you have limited time to escape the city but still want to do some hiking or biking with photo-worthy views.

We are lucky to live beside Bottle Lake Forest Park, with its winding biking trails and walking paths that lead you through the pine trees, and Waimairi Beach, with its decent surf and views out towards New Brighton Pier and the Port Hills.

If you fancy surfing, Taylor’s Mistake has the best surf in Christchurch, along with Magnet Bay and Te Oka Bay on the south side of Banks Peninsula. New Brighton and Sumner beaches are also popular for both swimming and surfing (there’s a highly regarded surf school at Sumner, perfect for beginners of all ages), and there are countless coves and small beaches all along the coast.

 

The old city

The iconic Heritage Tram is one of Christchurch’s most famous attractions and a symbol of the city. The Tramway first opened in 1880 but was closed in 1954 following the expansion of the bus network (which, by the way, is extensive and reliable!). The city circuit was reopened to offer tourists guided tours in 1995 and has since grown to also offer restaurant trams. Following the earthquake, the tram was closed for repair but has long since been reopened and expanded into a longer network.

 

Riccarton House and Bush is a 12 hectare heritage site containing two historic buildings, parkland, attractive gardens and native bush. Deans Cottage, built in 1843 for pioneering Scottish brothers, William and John Deans, is the oldest building on the Canterbury Plains. Jane Deans, wife of then deceased John Deans, and her son moved into Riccarton House in 1856 following the first stage of completion. Additions were made in 1874 and 1900. The beautiful Victorian/Edwardian building has been fully restored and furnished in appropriate period decor. The gardens, Cottage and Bush are free to explore at your leisure but Riccarton House can only be viewed either by enjoying a meal in the restaurant or on a guided tour of the whole property.

 

The Canterbury Museum, situated next to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, is the best preserved example of Christchurch’s pre-earthquake architecture, and is certainly worth visiting. Thankfully, the neo-gothic 1880s building sustained only minor damage in the earthquake and an estimated 95% of its collections were unharmed.

With 16 rooms dedicated to permanent exhibitions featuring everything from early settlers and their hunting of the now extinct giant Moa birds to dinosaurs, birds, decorative arts and costume, the Antarctic, and Victorian era furniture, there really is something for everyone.

Temporary exhibitions are located in three rooms. I recently went to see the ‘50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic’ exhibition, which is on display until 25th February 2018. An inspirational collection of work (particularly for an aspiring NatGeo photographer like myself!) and a fascinating opportunity to learn about each photograph from the words of the photojournalist who captured it. Included are both iconic and never-seen-before works by celebrated photographers such as Steve McCurry, Nick Nichols, Paul Nicklen and Gerd Ludwig.

Also on display until 1st April 2018 is the Bristlecone Project exhibition: a collection of black and white portraits and stories of 24 male survivors of sexual abuse. As a Clinical Psychologist, particularly since I work predominantly with trauma, this was of obvious interest to me.

The stories may ignite feelings of shock, sadness, and rage in visitors, but they are so important. The personal anecdotes are bravely shared honestly and openly so that others suffering similar trauma may know that they are not alone, that their voice can be heard and that they deserve to escape the hold of their suffering. They offer a message of hope and celebrate the resilience of these men and many others who have suffered similarly.

There is also a large children’s room suitable for all ages. Learn through play, discovery and sensory exploration in this fun-filled educational room.

All exhibits are free to enter, with a suggested total donation of $5. There is a $2 charge for the children’s discovery room.

The Christchurch Cathedral, built between 1864 and 1904, survived the 2010 earthquake but was not so fortunate in 2011. Prior to the earthquake, the impressive building was the heart of the CBD and the focal point of Cathedral Square. After much deliberation over whether to rebuild, demolish entirely or preserve the remains as they are, it has recently been decided that the cathedral will be rebuilt.

The fate of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, also known as the Christchurch Basilica, is as yet undecided. The two bell towers collapsed during the 2011 earthquake, also bringing down much of the front façade, and the dome was badly dislodged and cracked. Sadly, the entire rear of the building had to be demolished. Great efforts were made during the clean-up to recover all significant artefacts and put them into storage. Both the dome and bells were safely removed and stored prior to demolition.

Along with the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Arts Centre is a beautiful example of neo-gothic architecture. The listed buildings were badly damaged in the earthquake but you wouldn’t guess it to look at them now. Repaired and reopened in 2016, the Arts Centre is once again home to a weekend market, shops, businesses and many of the city’s festivals and special occasions.

 

The modern city

The Arts Centre should not be confused with the Christchurch Art Gallery. This modern building, opened in 2003, has a large sculpture in the forecourt and houses both a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, showcasing a wide range of both international and Kiwi artists. The sculpture, ‘Reason for Voyaging’, is the result of a collaboration between sculptor, Graham Bennett, and architect, David Cole. It’s an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon and the bookshop is also worth exploring, particularly for their children’s section.

 

Quake City is Christchurch’s newest museum. Dedicated to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, the exhibits bring them to life for anyone who wasn’t here at the time.

I must admit, the CCTV footage filmed in the CBD as the 2011 earthquake struck, along with video interviews with some local residents each telling their story of that day made me quite teary. I gave Theo several big hugs as we walked around!

The exhibition is an informative and interactive experience showcasing recovered artefacts, including the cathedral’s spire and the basilica’s bell, and information is displayed in photographs, videos, and touch-screen learning points as well as witten details that appeal to both adults and children.

Learn about how and why earthquakes happen, the impact on Christchurch both under- and over-ground, and the individuals involved in the rescue and rebuild operations. The exhibition even features a lego station so that children (and adults!) can have a go at rebuilding the city.

The CBD, to the east of Hagley Park, has changed and flourished even in the short time we have been here.

New offices, bars, cafes, and shops are popping up all over the city, and gradually the gaps where buildings collapsed or have been demolished are being filled.

 

The Re:START Container Mall, set up following the earthquake to house shops and restaurants, and to restore life to the city centre, has just closed last week as businesses have moved to permanent residences.

The new lanes around Cashel Street are now full of designer chains and independent shops, whereas high street brands and department stores are mostly found on the main roads. The shops here are, as you would expect in a city centre, generally quite expensive. Papanui Road is also good for independent retailers but equally pricey!

Large malls can be found everywhere! Why a small city with a relatively tiny population needs so many malls is beyond me, but since Amazon doesn’t exist here and online shopping isn’t as popular as it is in the U.K. and the U.S., people do still shop in store and the malls continue to be hubs for each district. They house not just a full range of retailers, but also supermarkets, large food courts, indoor playgrounds, cinemas and salons.

Christchurch has a number of markets, both farmers’ markets and artisan markets. The largest is Riccarton Market, held at the Riccarton Park Racecource every Sunday. This has a car boot/garage sale feel to it but there are some stalls selling high quality, locally made goods, and if you’re willing to search through the tat, there are certainly bargains to be had. Get everything from fresh produce, to clothes, jewellery, homeware, books and more. I recently bought some locally made and totally eco-friendly shampoo bars that I’m really pleased with. Live music entertainment and a bouncy castle make this a fun family morning.

The Christchurch Farmers’ Market is held every Saturday at Riccarton House and Bush. Buy fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and baked goods, and locally made jams, chutneys and juices. The selection and quality is far superior to that found in supermarkets, not to mention cheaper, and it’s a pleasure to support local farmers!

 

Christchurch has a great food scene and new restaurants, bars and cafes are continually opening, and those that have been making do using containers or other temporary residences are moving into new buildings. For a country so isolated from the rest of the world, we have been really pleased to discover that the range of cuisine on offer is diverse and authentic.

The city feels full of life and there is an air of excitement among the locals as their city is gradually restored to its former glory.

 

What’s on for kids?

There are 289 City Council owned playgrounds in Christchurch, and this of course doesn’t include those in shopping centres, schools (unlike in the U.K., school playgrounds are accessible for anyone out of school hours), cafes and other private land accessible to the public, so one is never far away! The most impressive of these is the Margaret Mahy Family Playground in the CBD (corner of Manchester and Armagh Streets), which opened in 2015 and is the largest playground in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although I’m not a fan of zoos, I gave the staff at Orana Wildlife Park a pretty good grilling on where their animals have come from. They assured me that they they do not accept animals from the wild (although the chain if you keep following it back isn’t always traceable), and that animals here have typically been born in captivity, either here or at other zoos, and therefore cannot be released. They do a lot of work on conservation and I was pleased to see that the animals all live in large enclosures (this obviously doesn’t compare to the wild but, if an animal has to live in captivity to ensure its survival, it seems like Orana Wildlife Park would be a nice place to live).

Theo was able to feed the giraffes himself, which he loved, and watch the lions and rhinos being fed.

 

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is more like a petting zoo, and you can purchase both animal and bird feed at reception. Farm animals and wallabies are eager to be fed and extremely tolerant of being petted, and visitors can see a number of native birds, including Kiwis, in the large bird section.

Fruit picking is a fun day out for the whole family. We enjoy Tram Road Fruit Farm, a family run orchard where you can pick (depending on the season) raspberries, blueberries, strawberries,  cherries, plums, greengages and nectarines. The fruit is absolutely delicious (the best cherries I’ve ever had!) and much cheaper than the supermarket.

Enjoy a relaxing tour of the city and Botanic Gardens along the Avon. Punters dressed in Edwardian attire skillfully glide tourists past leafy banks in handcrafted boats. This is a family sightseeing trip that the kids won’t want to end!

I also recommend keeping an eye out for events that are on during the time of your visit. We’ve discovered amateur theatre productions, pantomimes, parades and music festivals all geared at children. It seems that there’s always something fun going on!

 

Exploring Canterbury

As you drive out of the city, the Canterbury Plains eventually give way to the imposing and rugged Southern Alps. Canterbury is stunning and offers unrivalled opportunities for hiking, biking, skiing and climbing, all within an easy drive from the city. Christchurch is one of the world’s only locations where it is possible to ski and surf in the same day!

To explore north west Canterbury, Hanmer Springs is a good base. There are lots of options for accommodation and food, and loads to do whether it’s rain or shine. We really enjoyed camping at Hanmer Springs Forest Camp (there are rooms and RV sites as well as tent sites). They have a large playground, loads of space for kids to ride bikes, and several walking and biking trails that go directly from the campsite and are of good lengths for families.

 

If you’re game for something a bit lengthier, hiking up to the impressive 41m Dog Stream Waterfall is local and well signed, but gets you off the busier trails. Take Waterfall Track up through the twisted beech forest, where no tree grows in a straight line. Lichen gives the forest an erie silvery appearance, like a dusty attic.

 

With an ascent of roughly 300m, there are a few steep sections, but Theo bounded up the track and delighted in scrambling over rocks on the approach to the waterfall. Descend via Spur Track for views over the valley and a slightly longer walk. The final descent can be taken through a commercial forestry ground and is steep in places, so watch your footing!

 

From Hanmer Springs, you can also explore Lewis Pass. Although others disagree, I think Lewis Pass rivals Arthur’s Pass in terms of a scenic drive!

The Lewis Tops is a great 8-10km (5-6.2mi) walk, depending on how many of the tops you want to do! The track initially follows the curve of the road but after about 15 minutes the hum of passing cars is replaced by intermittent bird song and the welcome silence of wilderness. Theo enjoyed hopping over streams and running up the steep sections. At 400m above the road, the path suddenly emerges from the bush and the rolling ridge of the tops becomes visible. Follow the path marked with poles to see the valley from all angles. It’s a further 280m climb to the summit and if you’re feeling adventurous and have come prepared, you can camp on the tarns but this will at least double the length of your walk from the car park to bushline.

 

Central Canterbury is all about Arthur’s Pass. The mountains here are more rugged than Lewis Pass and the bush doesn’t start at the roadside, but, with the exception of winter when white fills the landscape, the colours are incredible. It’s all four seasons painted on to one canvas. Pick any one of the walks along the route and you’ll be in for a treat.

 

The Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall track is one of the most popular walks along Arthur’s Pass, with good reason. The Otira Valley track is particularly beautiful in Spring and Summer when alpine flowers are in bloom but the surrounding peaks remain dusted in snow. Both these tracks are easily accessible from Christchurch and ideal for families.

En route to Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch, you will pass Castle Hill, a collection of limestone formations, reminiscent of Henry Moore’s semi-abstract sculptures. The area is rich in Maori history and is popular with climbers. If free climbing isn’t your thing, fear not, there’s a path that will take you round the impressive rocks.

 

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is the highlight of south east Canterbury for many, along with the clear blue waters of Lake Tekapo. With 19 peaks over 3000m in the National Park alone, including the continent’s highest mountain, hikers and skiers are spoiled for choice. Glaciers, including New Zealand’s largest glacier, Tasman Glacier, cover 40% of the park and ensure a thrilling skiing experience.

Also in this region is Mount Sunday, perhaps better known as Edoras to any Lord of the Rings fans. This a wonderful short hike through tussock grassland with views over the expansive countryside from the summit. It can get windy (but if you’ve been in Christchurch, you’ll likely be used to this by now!)

 

The still blue water of Lake Tekapo, reflecting the mountains that frame it as clearly as a mirror, is a photographer’s paradise, but for the road less travelled (and photographed), head to Lake Alexandrina or Lake Pukaki.

With little to no light pollution, the skies over this area, known as the Mackenzie region, are recognised as one of the world’s best stargazing spots and has been named the International Dark Sky Reserve.

 

An afterthought

Before our arrival here, we were told a number of times that Christchurch was ‘the most British’ of New Zealand’s cities. For any Brits reading, clearly these people had never been to the U.K.! It’s not at all British! The culture is probably most comparable to Canadian (in our opinion – I’m sure Canadians would probably disagree!). Whether this is something that’s changed post-earthquake, I’m not sure.

 

What next?

The lives of Christchurch’s residents may have changed; loved ones have been lost, kitchen cupboards are now permanently stocked with emergency supplies just in case, valuable possessions are secured to their surface, and it’s not advised to sleep naked in case you find yourself unexpectedly out in the open, but the city has come together to ensure it remains the vibrant hub of the South Island and the door to all that Canterbury has to offer.

So, put Christchurch on your bucket list for 2018 (and come say hi!) before everyone else catches on!

Longyearbyen-from-Lars-glacier-hike-svalbard

Longyearbyen, Svalbard: The World’s northernmost city

‘Don’t fall in!’ my brain screamed at me as I paddled through crunching sheets of ice. I’m a competent kayaker; just a couple of weeks prior, we had kayaked 100 miles around the Isle of Man, but capsizing in the frigid waters of a Svalbard fjord was a somewhat more daunting prospect than the grey silt of the Irish Sea.

I laughed off the voice in my head and upped my tempo, enjoying the opportunity to release a burst of energy and splash Alex in the process. My biceps strained against the weight of the water.

I felt free, as I always do on the water, and inhaled a deep, satisfying breath that filled my lungs with clean, crisp air.

Mountains sprung from the edge of the water: white, rugged and dappled with tundra growth, the last evidence of a summer season past. Hiorthfjellet, our 928 meter-high quest for the day, sat directly ahead, watching our approach.

 

Our hike started uneventfully and, brimming with enthusiasm, our group made a speedy start. We were led by Viktor, a gung-ho Russian with long hair, a cheerful disposition and a lackadaisical approach to group safety.

As our elevation increased, so did the snow, and our pace began to slow. Viktor raced on ahead, his rifle casually slung over one shoulder in case we should meet any polar bears.

A few group members slipped in the snow trying to keep pace with Viktor, and the beginnings of mutterings about the sensibilities of our guide began to echo up and down the line of hikers.

 

We stopped at an abandoned mine shaft; a portal, frozen in time, into the harsh conditions in which miners lived and worked. The snow was falling thick and heavy, and the wind pounded at our eardrums. One woman decided she did not want to go on so a discussion was opened to the group.

I was aware that in Alex’s backpack was an engagement ring that I suspected would come out at the summit – in my backpack was a watch – so I was keen to continue our hike. Viktor proposed cutting across the mountain to an abandoned mining hut, where we could shelter and have some food. I reluctantly conceded that I would not be proposed to today, not on this summit.

Although once uttered in jest, the whispers about our safety under the supervision of Viktor grew more anxious as we began our route to the hut, and swiftly turned to exclamations of “this can’t be safe!” as we tiptoed as carefully as one can in hiking boots along a snow-covered ledge no wider than the footprint impressioned on it. Falling over now meant a tumble all the way down a mountain edge that would certainly result in death.

 

I was enjoying the adventure and, unless we’re talking about public speaking, I generally have no fear, so this was an adrenalin-filled excursion that had me beaming. Alex not so much. He doesn’t care for heights, or ledges, or anything he can fall off. I could sense him getting angrier and angrier.

We were at the front of the group, behind our guide, so were largely unaware of the events behind us. Periodic yelps and calls to wait told us that some were struggling. The woman who had expressed her desire to descend seemed baffled as to why we were still walking in a blizzard, and her husband’s patience was wearing thin.

We both lost our footing a couple of times, reaching out to desperately grab at rocks as we slid. On one fall Alex sprained his ankle. This was the final straw. From this point on he lay face down flat against the mountain, with his arms and legs spread in a starfish shape, and shimmied along the rest of the ledge. I tried to contain both my laughter and the urge to preserve this moment in a photo, but succeeded only in one; we have no photo.

Even if a journey is not as you expect, or you are unable to achieve its ultimate goal, the rewards can nonetheless be plentiful.

 

Viktor was unfazed, still smiling and joking. Although we all thankfully survived the treacherous amble to the hut, a few members of the group lost their sense of humour along the way. Hot soup restored previous spirits, the snow had ceased and we all joyously bounded down the mountain to the awaiting kayaks.

Although we didn’t make it to the summit and I had to wait to see my engagement ring, the views over the fjord and back toward Longyearbyen from the hut were worth the near-death hike. The icy water glistened and spread like veins into the snow-covered land. The white mountain tops oscillated across the horizon. The setting sun sent a warm glow across the frozen landscape.

Even if a journey is not as you expect, or you are unable to achieve its ultimate goal, the rewards can nonetheless be plentiful.

 

This was not the only example of a hiccup turned unexpected adventure during our time in Longyearbyen. We took a boat trip, for which we were kitted out in full-face goggles and a onesie that had me feeling like a sumo wrestler. It seemed like overkill but we were grateful once we were bouncing over the waves at high speed, icy water lashing up at us.

 

More unharnessed rollercoaster than sightseeing boat ride, this wasn’t for the faint-hearted (or those prone to sea-sickness!). Each passenger was positioned between standing-height padded rails, to which we clung for dear life while being flung in every direction. It was a heart-racing, fun-filled way to witness the beauty of Svalbard.

Flawless glaciers shimmered under the saturated blue sky. A white veil shrouded the mountains, exposing traces of the tundra below. We scanned the horizon for whales, daring only to let go of our hand rails for a split second to point them out. We were taken past Barentsburg, the only remaining Russian settlement in Svalbard, and docked at Isfjord Radio.

Mountains sprung from the edge of the water: white, rugged and dappled with tundra growth, the last evidence of a summer season past.

 

We showed ourselves around, jumping over rocks and trusting that we would have been alerted to the presence of polar bears in the area. While taking our photos and exploring the peninsula, the waves picked up even more and we were told that our bouncy outbound journey had not been typical, as we had thought. No, the journey is usually calmer and drier.

Sadly, the conditions had become dangerous and until the weather improved, we were stranded. The station was very comfortable and we all warmed up with a hot drink while we waited to learn our fate.

 

The waves crashed relentlessly against the rocks and threatened to capsize our relatively small boat, should we venture back. A call was put out and we were rescued by the Coast Guard.

This was an exciting and unexpected opportunity, and one that really opened my eyes to the range of work the Coast Guard do and the vessels on which they might be stationed.

Once again, we arrived safely back in Longyearbyen, grateful for the adventure that had been handed to us, even if it was a variation on our expectations.

 

For those that are curious, Alex and I did indeed exchange our engagement gifts in Svalbard, at the summit of Trollsteinen (Troll Rock). The hike across Lars Glacier to Trollsteinen was spectacular and from this vantage point, the colours of Longyearbyen’s houses popped against the white canvas on which they are scattered. The snow was thick and deep surrounding the glacier; the perfect location for a snowball fight!

 

Dog mushing, which can be done in any season and is sure to be enjoyed by children of any age, was a great way to see out an exhausting day of hiking. We sped across the tundra, the cold air seeping in through the onesie we were given prior to setting off. The dogs eagerly pulled our cart (we were a bit early for a sledge), keen to exercise both their leg and heart muscles. We took it in turns to steer them, following our guide’s cart up ahead, while the other sat back and enjoyed the ride through the arctic.

 

In writing about our time in Svalbard, I am reminded of a quote by author Greg Anderson: ‘Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.’ It didn’t matter that we were unable to summit Hiorthfjellet or get the boat back from Isfjord Radio; both experiences nonetheless contributed to making our trip to the world’s northernmost city unforgettable.

A starry night at Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique

8 Destinations for the eco-conscious traveller

A

re you looking for the ideal ecotourism destination? Somewhere committed to both environmental and social sustainability? Look no further! I’ve asked some of the top travel bloggers out there for their input on their favourite eco locations.


1

Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm, Malaysia

 

Kahang-Organic-Rice-Eco-Farm-Malaysia Kahang-Organic-Rice-Eco-Farm-Malaysia

My family and I stayed at a rice farm in Malaysia recently, which was a beautiful place to relax in and an excellent eco-friendly accommodator to support. KOREF (Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm) is a “leisure farm”, so it is not a place to work hard on farm chores, but rather learn a bit about farm life while having some fun. There are many activities visitors can choose from, including rice planting or harvesting, bamboo rafting, kayaking, a water obstacle course and jungle trekking. KOREF also has a sustainable fish farm, which guests can learn more about and even try to catch and release some fish.

Another activity was wonderful for cultural understanding. Visitors can choose to visit an Orang Asli village in the nearby rainforest, with an excellent guide who works closely with KOREF staff. We did meet the beautiful people there, and were very grateful for the experience.

KOREF is and organic farm at heart, and they use their own food as well as locally-sourced produce for the delicious meals provided to guests. KOREF also provides free filtered water from a fountain to everyone, and separates their rubbish for recycling. Unfortunately, this is uncommon from what we have seen in Malaysia.

We loved staying there and getting a taste of farm life in such a beautiful setting. It is a great destination for kids with all of the activities on offer, and the fun and stress-free ways they help people learn about farming. School groups from cities in Malaysia and Singapore arrive often to get a very different view of life!

Submitted by Emma Walmsley from Small Footprints, Big Adventures


2

 Las Terrazas, Cuba

 

Looking at Las Terrazas, Cuba, through the trees Looking at Las Terrazas, Cuba, through the trees

Initiated in the late 1960s as an ecotourism project, Las Terrazas is a UNESCO biosphere reserve about an hour west of Havana, in the Cuban countryside. It is a lush complex with dense foliage, tropical swimming holes, waterfalls and 18th century abandoned coffee plantations. Although you can see Las Terrazas in a day, this is a place that merits more time to truly experience it.

The town has something for everyone. Bird lovers will appreciate that Las Terrazas is home to almost half of Cuba’s endemic birds. The nearby Sosoa Botanical Gardens maintain a collection of rare orchids. There is a selection of trails led by students at the biosphere that take you through the local flora.  For the more adventurous, there is also a thrilling canopy tour which whizzes you over six lines extending over lakes, a forest and much more.

The artists in the colony live in town and their workshops are in their homes.  People are welcome to enter their homes and watch them work, browse their creations and possibly purchase some very nice and authentic pieces of art.  There is a little coffee shop in the area, Café de Maria, that bills itself as having the world’s best coffee. With advertising like that and at about .40 cents a cup, you have to try it.

The local Hotel Moka sits on a hill-top with a beautiful view overlooking the forest and the small village. In keeping with the eco-friendly theme of the location, the hotel has a tree growing in the middle of the lobby and serves only locally grown produce. The two must-try restaurants in town are vegetarian and delicious!

Submitted by Talek Nantes from Travels with Talek


3

 Tasmania

 

Tasmania hills and forest green Tasmania hills and forest green

Tasmania is a nature lover’s paradise. This small island, about the size of Ireland or West Virginia, is home to vast wilderness and completely unique ecosystems compared to the rest of Australia, complete with endemic animal species and subspecies not found on the mainland. So precious are Tasmania’s varied landscapes — from verdant rainforests to mountains to white-sand beaches — that around 20% of its landmass is World Heritage listed. And that’s without mentioning its quaint country towns, impressive local food scene, and wealth of convict-era sites and ruins testifying to a rich, if often dark, colonial history.

Unsurprisingly, Tasmanians are increasingly embracing sustainable tourism. But few places boast the eco-friendly credentials of a certain private nature reserve in Tasmania’s northwest by the name of Mountain Valley. Situated on some 61 hectares, this reserve is run by a husband-and-wife team with a passion for wildlife and conservation. To protect the vulnerable habitats and fauna on site, they’ve signed schemes agreeing that their property can never be logged or degraded. It’s also a release area for rehabilitated wildlife — and a one-of-a-kind, no-frills accommodation option, complete with 1970s-style log cabins.

With old growth forests, caves and even a glowworm grotto, Mountain Valley is a haven for wildlife. Wild echidnas, wombats, platypi, possums, Tasmanian native hens, pademelons, spotted tail quolls and the sadly endangered Tasmanian devils all call this place home. Lucky guests may even just find a few local critters on their very doorstep.

Submitted by Sarah Trevor from World Unlost


4

 Iceland

 

Rocky cliffs and ocean waves on the coast of Iceland Rocky cliffs and ocean waves on the coast of Iceland

Iceland is a wonderful eco-friendly destination and one of the world leaders in sustainability.  The nature of Iceland is so pristine and clean that it is almost impossible to wrap your head around how pure things are there.  While tourism is on a major rise there, the country is doing everything it can to cater to this tourism boom in a sustainable and ethical manner.  Nearly 100% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable energy, which is remarkable and a model that every country should aspire to follow and achieve.  Another thing I loved about Iceland, Reykjavik in particular, is how easy it was to find vegetarian and vegan options.  You don’t necessarily associate Iceland as being meat-free, but the options are there in masses.  You can rent a bike with ease in Reykjavik, too.  I think Iceland is a country that really sets the benchmark for clean energy and spectacular nature.

Submitted by Megan Starr from meganstarr.com


5

Eco Hostel Gili Meno, Indonesia

 

Gili_Meno_Eco_Hostel Gili_Meno_Eco_Hostel

In Indonesia, just a boat ride away from Bali, in the paradise island that is Gili Meno, you can find the Eco Hostel Gili Meno.

Gili Meno is a small island that can be walked in 1 hour and the Eco Hostel is conveniently located by the seaside in front of Turtle Point, where you can snorkel with turtles.

The Eco Hostel is an incredible place that is all built around the logic of sustainability and eco-tourism.

You can sleep in bungalows by the beach on just a simple mattress or in the fantastic Treehouse, while the concept of dorm-room is taken to another level by letting you sleep in hammocks that can be zipped from the inside to avoid mosquitos nuisance in the night.

The toilets are composite toilets and the showers are half salt water and half spring water. Everything is built out of wood.

There is a bonfire area by the beach and in the morning people wake up before sunrise to enjoy the majestic natural show in the communal area.

It is a place that you will never want to leave, once you get used to the slow pace of life and to the chess challenges with the young Indonesian boys working in the hostel.

Submitted by Sara and Ale from Foodmadics


6

 Wisconsin, USA

 

Kayaking at the Apostle_Islands_Sea_Caves Kayaking at the Apostle_Islands_Sea_Caves

Wisconsin offers unique travel destinations and was home to environmental legends, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, and Aldo Leopold. Travel Green Wisconsin certification recognizes businesses that have made a commitment to reduce their environmental impact.  Here are just a few.

  1. Wilderness On the Lake is an upscale resort in the Wisconsin Dells, “The Waterpark Capital of the World”.  The dells offer indoor and outdoor waterparks, live entertainment, thrilling attractions, and awe inspiring natural beauty!
  2. Door County Bike Tours is an eco-friendly way to experience Door County, “the Cape Code of the Midwest” – a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan – where you can watch both a sunrise and a sunset over the water!  It offers cherry orchards, art galleries, wineries/breweries, five state parks, 19 charming communities, fish boils, and 11 historic lighthouses!
  3. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore consists of 12 islands and coastline on Lake Superior, hosting a unique blend of culture and nature including sea caves, nine historic lighthouses and shipwrecks.  Discover each island’s story via tours, kayaking, and hiking.  They host endangered plant species, important nesting habitat, and one of the greatest concentrations of black bears!
  4. The Harley-Davidson Museum, in Milwaukee, isn’t your typical museum.  The interactive displays provide a unique experience, exhibiting more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts on a trip through time.  It was the first museum to gain the GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certification and has an ongoing process for environmental improvements.
  5. The Stonefield Historic Site, located along the Great River Road in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, includes a re-created 1900s rural village, the State Agricultural Museum, and the homesite of Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey who has a nearby state park.

These are just a select few of Wisconsin’s eco-friendly destinations!  Explore the ‘Travel Green Wisconsin’ website and come take a look for yourself!

Submitted by Kristi Schultz, aka The Trippy Tripster, from Road Trippers R Us


7

 Germany

 

Rieselfelder Bird Sanctuary, Münster Rieselfelder Bird Sanctuary, Münster

Germany is the ideal destination for the eco-conscious traveler. A country full of history, culture, fabulous cuisine, and beautiful landscapes, it has so much to offer, but it is impossible to be an economic leader and be ecologically oriented, right?  Wrong!

The German government is making dramatic strides in environmental issues. Nuclear power is being phased out, and replaced by renewable energy forms. The Cogeneration Act requires manufacturing firms to utilize the “waste heat” created in their production processes. Rather than being demolished, old factories are often converted into cultural centers and tourist attractions, old wastewater facilities into bird sanctuaries, and military bases into wildlife habitats. Old buildings are also upgraded to meet new standards of efficiency, and re-forestation efforts have saved the Black Forest and cemented its status as one of the country’s greatest treasures.

But what is refreshing is that the German people embrace the environmental policies. Extensive recycling is legally required, but also widely practiced.  Each home and public venue has a number of separation categories for trash, so that little more than biological waste ends up in the landfills.  These separations were diligently applied in homes.  Nosier neighbors even make a point to check on the recycling practices of others on the block!

But more surprising is that the separations are made in public as well.  On the train, in the park, walking down the street, people visibly separate their disposable items into the correct categories, and take the time to put each in the proper bin.  Watching this gave me hope!

Submitted by Roxanna Keyes from Gypsy With A Day Job


8

 Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique

 

A starry night at Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique A starry night at Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique

Time for my contribution! There are so many wonderful places to choose from but this one deserves a special mention; Alex and I chose it as our wedding venue for good reason!

Guludo Beach Lodge in the Quirimbas National Park is an award winning ecotourism destination, with an ethos firmly rooted in social and environmental sustainability. The lodge was designed so that no trace would be left, and has been constructed using only local, natural materials. There is no running water or electricity, and yet it feels luxurious. Built and staffed by the local community, every decision was, and still is, made following consultation with the village residents. Located right on the beach, the setting is beautiful, the seafood is fresh and delicious, and there are numerous activities on offer to delight both adults and children. A percentage of your fee will go to the onsite charity, Nema Foundation, which has funded multiple wells, school meals and resources, ambulance vehicles, and construction projects. The staff are Guludo’s best asset and they will go out of their way to make your stay memorable. Certainly, we will never forget them or their bright smiles! Find out more about the highlights of this beautiful country here in my recommended two week itinerary, which will give you a taste for all that Mozambique has to offer. Thanks to Alex Miller for the photo, taken at our wedding.

 

A selection of three images from Iceland, Mozamabique and Tasmania, advertising a post on 8 destination for the eco-conscious traveller A selection of three images from Iceland, Mozamabique and Tasmania, advertising a post on 8 destination for the eco-conscious traveller
Elephant-Gorongosa-Mozambique

Highlights of Mozambique in two weeks

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ften overshadowed by its neighbours to the north and south, Tanzania and South Africa, Mozambique is a hidden gem still relatively untouched by large-scale tourism.

It was partly for this reason that Alex and I chose to get married on Mozambique’s white-sand coastline in the north; it’s picturesque, private and an ocean-lover’s paradise. Over several trips, we took the opportunity to explore the length and breadth of the country’s diverse and beautiful landscape.

 

I have compiled a list of our favourite spots to see Mozambique’s wildlife, explore cities and bush, meet locals, relax and have some wonderful family (or child-free!) adventures. I recommend you drive as much as possible; we were able to see so much more, appreciate and understand the culture that much better, and come away with surprise experiences and stories that we otherwise wouldn’t have had.

This itinerary is very possible to do in two weeks so as to accommodate school holidays or work commitments and will give you a wonderful taste of all that Mozambique has to offer, leaving you desperate to return for more!


Maputo

Mozambique’s capital is a bustling city full of people, traffic and noise, but it is also one of Africa’s most attractive capitals. Set on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean-style buildings house restaurants, cafes, bars and guesthouses on wide, tree-lined streets.  

The warnings you may hear of Maputo being unsafe are seemingly unfounded; everyone we met was friendly and we felt safe walking around at night. Of course, feelings of safety are anecdotal and depend entirely on personal experience, but I have no reservations about family travel here.

I highly recommend the craft market if you enjoy browsing beautiful artwork, sculpture and furniture. Be prepared to haggle but remember it’s a good rule of thumb to aim to pay what you think an item is worth, not the lowest possible.


Limpopo National Park

Parque Nacional Do Limpopo sits adjacent to Kruger National Park on the southern border with South Africa, and is a ‘big-five’ area.

I recommend staying at Machampane Wilderness Camp, located a five to six hour drive from Maputo. Set in the heart of the African bush, it’s an opportunity to enjoy being surrounded by nature.

The tented en suite rooms have basic facilities (running water but no electricity, and don’t be surprised if you share the room with ants and spiders) and rustic handmade furniture, including a comfortable bed for a good night’s rest. They’re certainly far more luxurious than any other tent I’ve slept in! The rooms overlook the Machampane river, which is home to hippos and a regular drinking source for other big game.

 

Our ranger was incredibly knowledgeable about both flora and fauna. During our dawn and dusk hikes through the bush, we were taught to identify clues while tracking game, which plants to avoid, and which plants would offer a lifeline if stuck out here unexpectedly.

After dinner, you can sit around a campfire with staff and other guests. The warming crackle of the fire, the blanket of stars overhead and the trickle of the running river, only briefly interrupted by the sound of elephants in the distance, all make for a relaxed evening affair after the excitement of the day’s adventures in the bush.


Gorongosa National Park

Located three hours from Beira airport, I urge you to make the journey to Gorongosa National Park for an incredible safari experience.

 

We had close encounters with lions and several huge herds of elephants, as well as many species of antelope. The resident warthogs, baboons and vervet monkeys are very curious and come right up to the secluded and tastefully furnished bedrooms.

The elephants of Gorongosa are survivors of the Mozambique civil war, a period that saw the numbers drop from over 2000 to approximately 500 elephants. The emotional scars remain, as is common with elephants recovering from severe poaching.

They are known to be anxious around humans and can charge if they feel threatened. Exposure to safe encounters with humans is reducing this anxiety but the guides are very knowledgeable about elephant behaviour so will keep you a safe distance and ensure you retreat if necessary.

The park itself is beautiful and offers a wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems. Where Limpopo is quite flat, Gorongosa has mountains, forests and vast open plains.

Take a trip to the Vinho community, which includes a boat ride and walk through the village. You will meet the locals and have an opportunity to learn more about their daily life, customs and traditions.

When we visited, we struck up a conversation (translated by our guide) with a gentleman and his ten children. He was busy rebuilding one of his two mud houses for one of his wives. His other wife lived directly opposite in the second mud house, just a few steps away, and he split his time between the two houses and his two families. A very alien concept to us, a British family, but not uncommon here.

One of the sons showed us round his mother’s house. Stooping to enter and with little space to move inside, the first word that came to mind was ‘claustrophobic’, particularly for a family of 8. He pointed out the living quarters and, at the side, the sleeping area. The floor was bare and there was nothing obvious to distinguish these zones.

A humbling experience and a pleasure to meet these children, who happily play with their siblings and are overjoyed to simply be able to attend school.


Vilankulos and the Bazaruto Archipelago

Vilankulos is the gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago. Although many people pass through, Vilankulos is worth a visit in its own right and we found it to be less touristy than some of the other popular beach towns.

 

I can recommend the Baobab Beach Backpackers hostel, which is located a ten minute drive from the airport and provides cheerful accommodation right on the beach in a relaxed, fun setting and at a very reasonable price. The town centre with its shops, cafes and colourful markets is an easy walk or tuk-tuk ride away.

 

If you’re after idyllic but fairly extravagant luxury, Bazaruto and Benguerra Islands are the place to be. Relax and eat your meals sitting on the white sand beaches; explore the waters by kayak or on a sunset dhow cruise; ride horses across the island and take a walk up the towering sand dunes, meeting resident flamingos on the way.

The helicopter ride between Vilankulos airport and the archipelago offers fantastic views and is highly recommended, but be warned that it doubles the cost of a one night stay!


Nacala

Located 4 hours drive or a charter flight from Nampula airport, Nuarro Lodge in Nacala is wonderfully isolated and combines ecotourism with the everyday luxuries of running water, electricity and WiFi. Built with sustainable, locally-sourced materials by the local community, they have an ethos of both environmentally and socially responsible tourism.

Located on Nanatha bay, right on a coral reef, this is a beautiful location for watersports and relaxation. The lodge offers a ranging of diving packages but the snorkelling is also formidable. Bring waterproof shoes for children so they can walk on the rocks. We really enjoyed the company of the management team and staff from the local village.


Mozambique Island

Ilha de Moçambique has several colonial buildings and attractions of interest. The call to prayer can be heard across the island from the mosque; just one of a number of examples where the coming together of two distinct cultures can be observed in the island’s architecture. Take a walk around the island and stop at local markets and shops.


Pemba and the Quirimbas Archipelago

The Quirimbas National Park offers every ocean adventure you could wish for: scuba diving, snorkelling, whale watching, fishing, sailing on a traditional handmade dhow, and boat trips to neighbouring islands.

 

I highly recommend Guludo Beach Lodge, a sustainable establishment that has been built with the environment and local community in mind. There’s no electricity or running water, and yet they still achieve luxury. This is where Alex and I had our wedding.

Discover the ocean, play archery and volleyball on the beach, learn the crafts of pottery and palm leaf weaving, and search for wildlife from the lookout. A visit to Guludo village is an opportunity to experience rural life and shop for fabric (Guludo’s tailor is incredibly talented and is happy to make clothes, bags and many other items from your chosen fabric). You could even contribute to a community project run by Nema, Guludo’s partner charity.


Africa is my favourite continent (of the five I have been to) and I feel drawn to keep going back, particularly to sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is certainly where my heart is!

Of course, every country is different, with its own customs, culture and societal norms, but three things come to mind when I think of the African continent: the bold, bright colours of the landscape that are mirrored in clothes and artwork, and enable the collective African personality to shine; the music, led by the beat of a drum, that compels even the most rhythmically challenged to get up and dance; and the broad smiles of the people you’ll meet, so welcoming and proud that they are able to show you the country they love. Certainly, we experienced all this and more in Mozambique.

2-weeks-in-Mozambique 2-weeks-in-Mozambique
Northern Lights Aurora Borealis visible against a starry sky in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Grass, a path and small building visible in the foreground.

Churchill: Home of bears, belugas and borealis

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icknamed the ‘polar bear capital of the world’, Churchill, Manitoba, is a bucket list destination that delivered on all its promises. When we decided we were going to Canada, this was the first location that was put on the ‘we must go here’ list and I meticulously worked out when would give us the best chance of seeing polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. I decided on the last week of August and left the rest of our Canadian adventure to fall into place around it. My forethought paid off and we were treated to incredible experiences with all three! Most tourists descend on the small town to witness the polar bears migrating back out onto the ice in October and November, a time when the number of bears passing through Churchill outnumber the human population, but they sadly miss out on seeing and interacting with the playful and curious beluga whales, so I recommend planning your trip for the summer months.

The whales started coming, bumping up against our kayaks and paddles, diving beneath us, and resurfacing on the other side.

We booked guided excursions with Lazy Bear Expeditions and stayed for five nights at Lazy Bear Lodge. Staffed primarily by young seasonal workers, I can’t recommend them highly enough. Everyone we met was personable, knowledgeable, helpful and made a huge fuss of Theo! My only complaint is that management wouldn’t let us wash Theo’s nappies. This is the first and only time this has been an issue; most places have offered money off laundry as a ‘thank you for using cloth’! The staff were great though and helped us find an alternative solution. We very rarely book packaged trips or organised excursions like this, but to get the most out of your trip to Churchill, it’s somewhat necessary. Polar trips are often this way as the threats of extreme weather, difficult terrain, few conveniences aimed at tourists and deadly predators put people off doing it alone; we found Svalbard to be the same, for example.

Churchill itself is a small town but is well equipped for its 800 residents. We were surprised that the Town Centre Complex houses a cinema, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, as well as various sports facilities, health services and a school. On the main stretch, there are only a few places to eat, including Lazy Bear Lodge Restaurant, which serves good food in a cosy environment, and Gypsy’s, a bakery and cafe with a friendly atmosphere. Stop into the post office to get Churchill’s polar bear stamp added to your passport, and I recommend a trip to the Eskimo museum to browse their collection of Inuit carvings, artefacts and artwork, learn about Inuit history and culture, and pick up locally-made gifts and artwork. Outings to the Prince of Wales Fort and Cape Merry also make for interesting historical afternoons, and offer picturesque views over the Churchill River and Hudson Bay.
The Inuksuk is an Inuit navigation tool

Following flooding this spring that caused extensive damage to the Hudson Bay railway line, Churchill was left even more cut off from the rest of the world, many people lost their jobs and the community now faces steep price increases in food, fuel and vital supplies. The disaster prompted artists from around the globe to travel to Churchill for the Sea Walls Festival, a conservation event that raises awareness about the importance of protecting our oceans. You’ll notice 18 vibrant, eye-catching murals painted in and around the town. Through this artwork, the artists highlight the impact of global warming and the fragility of our relationship with our environment. One of my favourite murals was that painted by artist Pat Perry on the side of Miss Piggy, a Commando cargo aircraft that crashed in November 1979 400m/440 yards short of the runway with no fatalities. We climbed up into the aircraft to admire both the eerie remains of the plane and Perry’s artistic vision, which portrays solidarity and the coming together of people when disasters that threaten communities strike, just like the extreme weather that has hit the Churchill community so hard.

On our first day, we were taken out on a zodiac boat with only one other couple, down the Churchill River and out into Hudson Bay. The boat ride itself was fun, bouncing over the waves with the fresh northern air awakening our senses. This trip was unlike any other whale watching cruise I’d done; I was used to running from port to starboard to catch the best glimpse of humpbacks and orcas on larger boats that take you out for a full 4-5 hours. I didn’t imagine that this would be such an intimate experience. White in colour when fully grown, with a dorsal ridge instead of a dorsal fin, and a bulbous head containing the organ used for echolocation, Belugas are among the most distinctive of whales. They are known to be very sociable and usually travel in pods of approximately 10 whales, although they can also congregate in much large groups. First, one pod came, followed by a second, and within minutes we were surrounded by a super-pod of 40+ whales. Curious, playful and within touching distance, the belugas appeared to smile as they rolled in circles next to us, inviting us to interact with them.

You can also book kayaking and snorkelling as additional Beluga watching excursions. Despite our best efforts, Theo wasn’t allowed on the kayaks (due to age-related insurance restrictions) so he stayed on the zodiac support boat with a lovely member of staff while Alex and I had a paddle. He was always within waving distance and continued to point out whales to me from his slightly higher vantage point, so this was a good solution for us all to be able to enjoy the excursion. Initially, the whales were shyer than they had been during our zodiac tour, and we were feeling a little disappointed. We were advised by our guides that the whales are attracted to noise so we could try imitating the clicks and whistles that earned them the nickname ‘sea canaries’. One lady in our group took this information a little too much on board. For the full extent of our time on the water she squealed, shrieked, caw-cawed and sung out of tune. We paddled away from the group, trying to put a bit of distance between us and the incessant racket, and to instead enjoy the tranquillity of being on the water. Lo and behold, the whales started coming, bumping up against our kayaks and paddles, diving beneath us, and resurfacing on the other side. We were greeted by mums and their calves, still a youthful grey, as well as larger males. It seemed that, on this occasion, they were also put off by the piercing shrieks of our tour buddy!

The increasing temperature of our planet is melting the sea ice earlier and thus forcing polar bears onto land for longer periods each season.

We always seek to explore destinations by heading off the beaten track and, despite the necessity of booking some organised tours, Churchill was no exception. We hired a car for the day, packed a picnic and drove off on our own in search of polar bears. There are only a few roads in Churchill and every one of them is a dead end; it is impossible to get lost or stray too far! Information on bear sightings is shared throughout the town so before heading out, I recommend asking for tips on where to go. A female bear and her two cubs had been spotted making their way along the beach, and a lone male had been seen further down the coast. Over the course of the day, we found several bears, all looking sleepy and completely nonchalant about our presence. During the summer, when the ice melts and polar bears make their way to land, they conserve energy and spend their time resting during a period of what has been termed ‘walking hibernation’. The increasing temperature of our planet is melting the sea ice earlier and thus forcing polar bears onto land for longer periods each season. The formation of sea ice is vital to the survival of polar bears as it provides a platform for mating during the Spring and hunting bearded and ringed seals. Over time, polar bears are getting lighter as they spend more time away from their hunting ground, and lighter female bears means fewer cubs. Underweight polar bears struggle to have successful pregnancies; a protective mechanism that ensures only bears fit enough to withstand pregnancy, labour, nursing and 6 months in their maternity den through Winter without food will carry cubs. Those that do manage to see their pregnancy through will birth smaller and more vulnerable cubs. Unlike the huge tundra buggies that provide a viewing platform for groups of tourists, we were able observe the bears’ natural behaviour from close range without disturbing them from their vital rest.

 

Our second solo outing was less successful but makes for a good anecdote:

Off we go in a hired beaten up old 4×4. We head out towards the research centre (which is worth a quick visit for a coffee and to learn about current projects) in the hope of finding cubs. There are a few glaring faults with the car, but we persevere (apparently we just have to “hit the dash” if it fails to start! In hindsight, this should probably have raised a few more red flags!) We take one of the smaller unpaved tracks towards the beach, constantly turning our heads like owls, searching for any sign of white against the greens and browns of the tundra. We veer slightly to avoid a large flooded pothole at a breakneck speed of 20mph, but no big deal, that’s what the 4 wheel drive is for. Uh, the 4 wheel drive doesn’t work and we’re now well and truly stuck in a muddy bog. Alex gets out to push and I slip into the driver’s seat. “1, 2, 3…vroooom!” Nada. A lot of revving, we’ve not budged an inch and now Alex is covered in mud, spat at him by spinning tyres. We swap. Great, now I’m muddy too and Theo is beginning to think that this looks like a great game! We all start searching for sticks to assist in digging out the tyres, now icebergs in a sea of mud. With no trees or large plants, it’s not really surprising that there are no sticks. We resort to using our hands. Now looking like we’ve had some sort of spa treatment gone wrong, we decide that digging our way out is not going to work. Obviously there’s no service on our phones as we’re in the middle of nowhere, so calling for help isn’t possible. The only option, bar huddling together in the back of the car for the night with no food, no warm clothing and very little remaining water, is to walk back to the main road and wait for rescue. Churchill has one rule: do not walk on the rocks. Bears can be hidden from view and appear only when you quite literally stumble across them. The road is surrounded by rocks and we can either climb over these rocks to the main road, or take the long way by following the track. We sensibly choose the latter and cautiously begin our trek back down what we later learn locals refer to as ‘Polar Bear Alley’. Clutching Theo and a can of bear spray with equal vigour, and with darting eyes and escalated heart rates, we quicken our pace. If it weren’t for the constant rendition of nursery rhymes sung at an eardrum-bursting volume both to deter any bears and distract Theo from the cold, we would be obvious prey. We thankfully don’t meet any bears and make it back to the road alive, where we sit and hope that someone will be along shortly. A car rounds the bend so we start waving. They slow, wind down the window and ask with puzzled looks “where on Earth is your vehicle?!” It’s not common for people to wander this far out of town due to the risk of becoming dinner, much less with a toddler and clearly not dressed or equipped for a hike, so this was a fair question. Recounting our tale, we bundle into the car and return to the town with the researcher and his visiting girlfriend. We’re greeted with exclaims of “you walked down Polar Bear Alley?!” and met with laughter when we proudly point out that we had bear spray; “You’re in polar bear country! I don’t go anywhere without my gun!” The car was rescued too and all was well. We had a fun adventure but next time, if the car has faults, we won’t be going out looking for polar bears…or we’ll just travel prepared for a breakdown!

I was fascinated by the ‘polar bear jail’ and would love to see research supporting its safe and successful use for both bears and humans. A former aircraft storage hangar, the inside of which only official ‘prison guards’ and ‘detainees’ can enter, is a designated holding facility for polar bears that venture too close to the town of Churchill. They are captured in large, can-like traps using seal meat as bait and transported to jail, where they remain for 30 days in solitary confinement, total darkness, and without food, before being taken back to the wild and left at a safe distance from the town. My feeling was that this sounded utterly horrendous but, on being grilled thoroughly, our guide reassured me that the procedure is as humane as possible, and that the bears are kept in optimised temperatures and given water. The aim is to ensure the safety of both bears and humans and to prevent bears associating humans with food; obviously if they cross paths, injury to both species increases. As Churchill sits on the migration route, the Autumn season sees hundreds of hungry polar bears passing right through the town, making Halloween a particularly scary time of year for the people who live here. Not feeding the bears is controversial; some argue that, if the bears are on land, it is not their typical hunting season so they do not miss access to food, and that humans have a responsibility to keep interspecies engagement to a minimum by not feeding wild animals, whereas others believe that confining hungry animals without food amounts to starving them. My view is that punishing the bears for following a migration route that has existed long before Churchill became a town, cannot be the best way to keep both species safe. While the model of a ‘polar bear jail’ is supported by research on operant conditioning, psychologists understand that this approach is relatively ineffective in teaching children, so I find it hard to believe that it would be effective in encouraging other mammals to change behavioural patterns that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Certainly, I find the use of tranquilisers for this purpose unacceptable. As someone with expertise in human behaviour but little knowledge about animal behaviour, I also had a lot of questions about the impact of being in ‘jail’ on the bears’ circadian rhythms (of course, during the summer the sun shines for long hours, but they are still kept in darkness), mating patterns, and the survival rates of cubs following release. These are unfortunately questions I am still searching for the answers to.

 

Lazy Bear Lodge operates a helpful ‘Aurora Alert’ system, whereby you can request to receive a phone call to your room at any time if the Aurora Borealis is visible in Churchill. We had studied the weather predictions and arranged to take a car down to the beach with another couple on the night that we thought would offer the best chance of seeing the infamous Northern Lights. Alex and I had sat by the window for a couple of nights, allowing Theo to carry on sleeping but feeling teased by glimpses of green against the black of night, and itching to get outside and away from the artificial light of the town. Ultimately we were grateful we waited until the best day to actually drag him out of bed; it was definitely a show worth seeing, and I’m sure he’ll understand when he’s older, although he was a little perplexed at the time! We wrapped him up in warm clothes and he curiously gazed at the bouncing colours filling the sky before tiredness won over and he happily nursed back to sleep. Patterns effortlessly shimmied from one end of the sky to the other, like leaves caught in a breeze, constantly changing form, colour and shape. A shimmering, twirling circle beamed down from above, marking our spot on the planet. We were in the centre of a dancing petticoat, our attention captured by the graceful ballerina performing pique turns above us. The colours float, then dart suddenly into a new formation. Utterly bewitching, the sight of the Northern Lights is a magic like no other.

Utterly bewitching, the sight of the Northern Lights is a magic like no other.

 

 

As a final excursion, we booked a dog mushing trip with Blue Sky Expeditions. Alex and I had previously enjoyed dog sledding in Svalbard, and thought that Theo would love it. During our outings by car, we had seen large groups of dogs tied up and abandoned outside in the middle of nowhere, and were concerned that they would become easy prey for bears. Unlike some of the other companies that sadly own these abandoned dogs, we were pleased to discover that Gerald Azure and his wife, owners of Blue Sky Expeditions, care deeply about their dogs and treat them properly. We were given a lot of information about the dogs and the history of dog mushing (as well as some delicious freshly baked treats!) and had a fun short outing with the dogs. Theo was beside himself with excitement! Feeding whiskey jacks (also known as Grey Jays or Canada Jays) was another highlight of this outing for him, and a great opportunity to see and interact with Canada’s national bird!

Yellowstone National Park

Escaping the tourists in Yellowstone

I

n 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Last year, over 4.25 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, with roughly 25% of these visiting in July. The route we were taking across North America meant that we were going to be at the park for the last week of July, so I was understandably concerned that the hordes of other tourists would ruin this bucket list experience, not to mention how this level of visitation would impact the wildlife. While a lot of the ‘must see’ spots within the park were busy, we were advised by a backcountry ranger that most people don’t go off the beaten path, and many don’t even bother to get out of their vehicles, so it is still possible to come during the busy season and experience nature to the fullest. So, off we went, armed with bear spray, into Yellowstone’s backcountry hoping to escape the tourists.

Looking out into the canyon with the same view as the eagles is simply breathtaking.

Trout Lake in the Lamar Valley is a flat, family-friendly walk that takes you through a crunchy, dry forest (although I expect this is limited to the summer season!), perfect for stick-collecting and minibeast hunting, and down to the Lake, where we saw only one other family enjoying an afternoon of fishing. Wild flowers surround the water (at this time of year!), and you may see pronghorn, deer and bison passing through. The Lamar Valley is particularly famous for its two wolf packs, and of course bears may also be about, so keep your eyes peeled!

 

The trail from Pelican Creek to Yellowstone Lake is also easy terrain, picturesque, and relatively undiscovered. Look out for pelicans, eagles and osprey, as well as grizzly bears, and enjoy paddling, skimming stones and playing in the sand at the water’s edge.

 

The Clear and Ribbon Lake trail, passing through Artist Point and Point Sublime, was my favourite walk. This path takes you along the 366 meter-high grand canyon of Yellowstone, where you can appreciate the red, orange and pink stripes of the rock, contrasting with the bright blue and bubbling white of the Yellowstone River rapids below. Looking out into the canyon with the same view as the eagles is simply breathtaking and worth the extra hike beyond the point where most tourists stop, satisfied that they’ve taken a couple of decent photos. Of course, also in this area are the thunderous upper and lower falls, at 33 meters and 94 meters respectively.

Devouring a deer carcass, we were reminded that his might is not to be underestimated.

We were lucky to see grizzlies and black bears while in Yellowstone (I discovered that, confusingly and making it rather harder for an amateur bear spotter to correctly identify the species, black bears can be a variety of shades; we saw both black-coated and cinnamon brown-coated black bears). You can usually tell when someone has spotted a bear as all traffic grinds to a halt, people line the side of the road and cameras come out. We felt a little more adventurous, so on one occasion we took to the plains in order to see these amazing animals a little closer and without the noise from the road to spook them. There was certainly something exhilarating about running towards a cluster of trees that we knew had, a few minutes prior, devoured a large male bear, hiding him from view of other onlookers. We chose a rock to stand on, and watched from a safe distance as the formidable predator appeared from the shrubs. Devouring a deer carcass, we were reminded that his might is not to be underestimated; his cuddly exterior, reminiscent of many a child’s bedtime friend, merely an illusion. He rose and slowly started plodding towards us…time to retreat to another rock (you can see the rock we retreated from in one of the adjacent photos). It is of course tempting to get as close as possible to the wildlife (that, and the landscape, is probably what you have come to Yellowstone to witness), but please let me remind you that these are wild animals whose contact with humans should be limited, so do not feed the animals and stay a distance of 100 yards (91m) from bears and wolves, and 25 yards (23m) from everything else. Of course there are times when this isn’t possible: bison walk down the road alongside vehicles, for example. Be respectful, give them space, and don’t do anything stupid like get out of the car to say ‘hello’! You’re rolling your eyes, thinking ‘surely no one would do that!’ aren’t you? We saw people do just this, and others get within about 5 meters of a herd of bison just to take a selfie. Don’t be that person! If the animals don’t get you, the park rangers certainly will!

It would be neglectful to write a piece on Yellowstone without mentioning the well-known sights. They are, of course, famous because they are truly spectacular, but they are far from the only things going on in Yellowstone’s 3500 square miles. Yellowstone is one of only 6 active supervolcanoes across the planet and has one of the highest concentrations of geothermal activity. As a Brit who has spent her life living in a country relatively safe from natural disaster, seeing the geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone was one of only a handful of personal experiences where I could really see, hear and smell the unbelievable force of our planet. When you stand below a 60 meter eruption, you feel very powerless and you become aware of fragility of the human race at the hands of the Earth. We stood in the middle of three geysers in the Upper Basin (Old Faithful: a cone geyser and the most frequently erupting geyser in the park, Grand: a fountain geyser and the tallest predictable geyser, and Castle: the largest of the cone geysers and the oldest geyser in the basin) as they simultaneously shot into the air; frenzied jets of water, clouds of steam and the resultant rainbows creating a 360˚ light and water show. The geothermal areas at Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and the Norris Geyser Basin, where you’ll find the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat, are all boardwalked, easy to navigate and showcase a wide variety of hot springs, pools and geysers. We also enjoyed the slightly less frequented 0.85 mile loop boardwalk that starts at the vast Sulphur Caldron (it smells just as its name suggests!) and passes Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring.

There are several options for accommodation in the park, as well as countless alternatives just outside each of the park’s five entrances. We were travelling in an RV, and spent half our time at Bridge Bay campsite and half at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Fishing Bridge has the luxuries of full hookups, showers and laundry facilities, but both were equally clean and had enough space for each tent/RV, including a firepit and picnic table. Before Theo arrived, I had only ever camped in remote backcountry, but the ease of having toilets and laundry facilities a short walk away was ideal with a toddler, particularly as we use cloth nappies/diapers! That said, we passed many backcountry spots that I silently earmarked as perfect family campgrounds so I hope we’ll return in the future for a more remote experience!