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Ieper (or Ypres)

Ieper (or Ypres)

The first day of our holiday, and a convenient location en-route to our intended proper first destination of Le Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

An early-ish start and a long drive from the far end of England saw us arrive at the UK tunnel terminal with more than an hour before our crossing, but the tunnel was a bit chaotic so there was no chance of an earlier crossing. This in turn meant that we got to our apartment in Ypres barely in time to head out again.

(Side note: four of us, in an apartment that could comfortably sleep nine. We weren’t short of space, but it seemed odd that it had just one toilet and one bathroom, which became the bottlenecks.)

We intended to watch the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate; we hadn’t realised that 30th June is when the Irish (or maybe just Ulster?) regiments traditionally congregate there, and there also seemed to be a lot of Canadians, probably related to it being the eve of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. You could barely turn around for bumping in to somebody with a pipe or a drum.

As you can probably imagine, a very moving ceremony, although the laying of wreaths went on for a long time.

Once the ceremony was complete, we went to the centre of town to find some food, almost being chased by a full marching band, and there were groups of pipers and drummers around every corner. We didn’t see much of the town itself, but it certainly looks like it’s worth a longer visit.

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Posted by on Tuesday 5 July 2016 in Travel

 

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The Long and Winding (Bumpy) Road

I realise I’m doing this back to front, writing about my last few days before I even managed to post about the start of the trip, but I seem to have some time on my hands due to an unexpected turn of events on our return home (more of that to come). Our journey since leaving Ndhiwa has turned into an adventure all of its own…..

It all started Tuesday morning at 7am when we (Kat, Dani and I) were collected from the peaceful surroundings of Karibuni Eco Cottages for our journey to the Masai Mara. We had treated ourselves to a two night safari before leaving Kenya; well, it would be rude not to wouldn’t it? As we headed off, our driver, Charles, informed us that it would take about 7hrs ‘the long way round’ or we could take ‘the short cut’ and travel in convoy with two other groups. He informed us he wouldn’t normally go that way during the rains unless there were other vehicles in the group as the roads can be bad. At this point we should have read the warning signs. Instead we looked at each other, grinned, and cheerfully informed Charles that we were always up for an adventure and ‘the short cut’ sounded just fine.

Ten minutes later I was wishing I’d worn the sports bra I’d been recommended to bring for safari; we had already hit the roads which would be our driving surface for the next 3 days and to say it was a little bit bumpy would be something of an understatement.

We travelled for a couple of hours and had a short stop, during which we were advised by Charles to stock up on snacks in the supermarket (we were to be glad of this as the day wore on). By this time the rest of the convoy had joined us, so off we set again. About 30 minutes after that we hit Challenge #1. Due to heavy rains, the river ahead was a torrent of water which had flooded over the bridge we needed to cross. The water coming off the down-river edge of the bridge was essentially a very full waterfall. The three drivers got our for a closer look to assess the situation, deciding eventually it was a no-go and that we would have to turn back to cross in another place, which would result in us being 30 mins from our starting point over 5 hours after leaving! (We were tempted to suggest building a raft to ferry the vans across á la Clarkson & Co, but it was really too hot to be bothered.) Some friendly locals suggested an alternate route which Charles and his colleagues had never used before. It was decided that this would save such a massive detour so off we went into the unknown.

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Challenge #1

Challenge #2 turned out to be similar to the first, though slightly less extreme. Charles bravely decided it was crossable, we held or breath, braced ourselves and off we went. We made it! Surely nothing could stop us now, could it?

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Challenge #2

Our route took us through miles of sugar cane plantation and our route was shared with many tractors towing the harvested canes to a sugar refinery. No doubt they were responsible for much of the damage to the dirt roads, but without them we would not have got out of Challenge #3. The road ahead became blocked, tractors stuck as the mud was too deep even for their huge wheels. Motorbikes and other tractors were starting to bypass the road, going through the field on the other side of the hedge, but our vehicles would not be able to get through alone. Whilst the drivers sussed their options, Kat, Dani and I took the opportunity to people watch. We were especially impressed with the family of four, plus suitcase, which rode calmly passed us into the mire. Given the state of the roads thus far, we were amazed that there was barely a muddy mark on any of them (we, on the other hand, have had filthy feet feet for a week, unable to get rid of the ingrained mud from the paths we have been walking!). We were not so impressed however by the fallen over electricity pylon, resulting in live power lines barely a couple of metres from the road side!

After much discussion, it was decided that we would be towed by a tractor. More bracing and holding off breath and we were through, though there was a good deal of cursing going on in the back when it seemed certain we would topple over! The remaining two vehicles got through and off we went again. For less than a minute.

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The cause of Challenge #3

Challenge #4 came approximately 15 metres later, courtesy of the tracks in the road being too deep so we just became grounded. I think Charles was a little embarrassed by his faux pas but once again a tractor came to our rescue and dragged us out. The other two vans got straight through.

It was to be some time before the next challenge came along. In the meantime Charles very capably navigated us through, over and round some awful potholes (though the term barely fits justice to the size of them), damaged bridges, rivers and ravines in the road. There was a short stop in a village whilst one of the vans had the front grill re-welded into place. We were happy when we weren’t the lead car; at least then we could see what was ahead and prepare ourselves.

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Roadside repairs

Along the way we obviously needed ‘comfort breaks’. Charles always found us the best spot to ‘go for bush’ with good privacy. We realised the three of us had really got to know each other well when we decided we couldn’t be bothered to wait and go in turn, but decided to line up behind a bush together to do what was necessary! (Was that too much information? If so I’m sorry – my gauge of what is appropriate has slipped somewhat over the past two weeks!)

Eventually we came to a junction in the road which Charles announced was where we would have come out had we been able to cross the original river. That stretch would normally take half an hour.  It had taken us four and a half hours to get to that point from where we had turned round, a four hour detour.

By this time we were starting to get weary and desperate to get to our destination. We were picturing a refreshing dip in the pool (a chance to soak the feet!) and cocktails. However we had not yet reached the gate into the Masai and knew there was a three hour journey still from that point, so we resigned ourselves to the fact that it would be dark when arrived and the pool would have to wait.

As we got closer to the park we entered some woodland. Charles announced that from this point on we wound start to see wild animals. Spirits were lifted when, true to his word, not two minutes later we saw a small herd of zebra in a clearing. From then on we saw lots of them and started getting more excited about what was ahead.

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Horses with stripes!

The road was climbing higher and higher and we started to see Masai people, clearly visible in their red checked cloaks, tending to their sheep. We passed through a small settlement at which point Kat, the geography teacher who teaches about the Masai people, got very excited! As we came out of the village Charles pointed right and all of a sudden it was there: below us, as far into the distance as we could see lay the plains of the Masai Mara. The journey back down hill was painfully slow. The road was little more than a rocky path, most suited to donkeys. We had much admiration for suspension of our 4×4 van, which had been and truly tested.

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The downhill track with the plains in the distance

And then we were there, at the East Gate to the Masai Mara Conservancy. After a quick comfort break (actual toilets!) We got back into the van which now had a raised roof  – we were officially on safari! We were all feeling a little emotional and the odd tear was shed behind the security of our sunglasses. We knew just how privileged we were to be there. Myself in particular. I consider myself to be a very lucky lady to have fulfilled two lifetime ambitions in this past year: seeing the Terracotta Army in China and now a game drive in the Masai Mara. I had shared the first with my husband and there was more than a twinge of regret that he wasn’t there with me to see this. Oh well, all the more excuse to come back.

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I’m on safari!!

It was amazing to stand up and stretch our legs after the journey we had endured, but even better to look out over the staggering scenery. It was late afternoon by now and the light from the setting sun was stunning. It wasn’t long before we spotted a couple of giraffe nibbling at a tree. We were desperate to take photos but Charles assured us that we would see them much closer. Our next spot was a small group of elephant,  close to a small track if the main route, so we got in really close to watch them.

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Elephant!

As our journey progressed we saw a hyena cruising in front of us, then another asleep on the side of the track; we saw more elephant – in much larger herds – giraffe, guinea fowl, some amazing birds, more zebra and loads of Impala. But no big cats. Still, a pretty good haul so far. Charles had mentioned that rhino spottings would be highly unlikely and even hippo, due to the river levels being so high. However at the first watering hole we passed what should we spot other than the hippo we thought would be so elusive. OK, so only the top of the head was visible but it was a hippo nonetheless! By now light was stating to fade and in the distance we could see the rains starting, so we pulled the roof down and got settled for the last hour or so in the dark.

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Hippo (just…)

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More elephants in the evening sun

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Buffalo!

The rain however came very hard and son the track became very hard going. We were sliding around a lot and even slight inclines were starting to pose a problem. Eventually we and van in front stopped: the third vehicle had become stuck a while behind and are waiting for the ranger to pull them out. We were tied and more than a little tetchy b it it was clear that Charles wasn’t going anywhere till all three vans were together. By now it was 8.30pm and we had been on the road for over 11 hours. Charles called the hotel to arrange that e could east a late dinner when we arrived, estimated at 9.30pm.

Soon we were all on the way again. And then we weren’t. We were lead vehicle when Challenge #5 struck. The van just wasn’t getting up the next hill, but neither could we get back down for another run; we were well and truly stuck. Out came the trusty tow rope once again, this time to pull us down the hill as the other vehicles were behind and couldn’t get past. As Charles and friends were attaching the rope, along came a ranger’s Jeep. Out came a ranger who watched over proceedings, rifle in hand. The perils of getting stuck in a game reserve I guess.The rain however came very heavily and soon the track became very hard going. We were sliding around a lot and even slight inclines were starting to pose a problem. Eventually we and van in front stopped: the third vehicle had become stuck a while behind and were waiting for the ranger to pull them out. We were tired and more than a little tetchy, and just wanted to get going, but it it was clear that Charles wasn’t going anywhere till all three vans were together. By now it was 8.30pm and we had been on the road for over 11 hours. Charles called the hotel to arrange that we could eat a late dinner when we arrived, estimated at 9.30pm.

There was to be no Challenge #6 that night (though we wouldn’t have to wait long the next morning!) and we eventually arrived at the hotel shortly after 10pm.

Our ‘short cut’ had taken over 14 hours, twice what the ‘long way round’ was expected to take. The next time someone offers you the chance for an extra adventure, especially during rainy season in Africa, think carefully before you accept.

(Incidentally our fellow guests from Karibuni were due to make the same journey the following day. Charles had given their driver the heads up so they went the ‘long way round’. It took them less than 7 hours. Oh well.)

 
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Posted by on Saturday 13 April 2013 in Kenya

 

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Lane indiscipline

[Some time after the previous post…]

Getting away from Newcastle took a little longer than I expected: Air France “lost” a plane somewhere (or that’s what seemed to have happened), and we ended up leaving Newcastle about an hour and 40 minutes later than scheduled. All credit to the Air France pilot though: he didn’t skimp on the Jet A, and got us in to Paris Charles de Gaulle just 30 minutes later than scheduled. I think he must have taken a shortcut somewhere.

This left just about the right amount of time in Paris for a leisurely beer (0.5l of Affligem for €7.10; it was worth it at the time) and a triangular ciabatta-type thing before boarding was announced. As I got to the front of the queue, I discovered that for the first time ever I’d got an upgrade; woo-hoo! Only to “Voyageur” class, but that’s a lot better than sitting in cattle class in the back.

The seat-back entertainment system didn’t work properly, but with it being a night flight (notionally, at least), I wasn’t that bothered. Between my Kindle, a couple of meals, and trying to get some sleep, there wasn’t that much spare time to occupy.

We arrived at Beijing airport almost precisely on schedule, and I quickly found my way to passport control. I expected this to be quite scary, like getting in to the USA just with shorter security guards, but it was all very smooth and pleasant and over quite quickly. Of course, having got through security quickly, my bag seemed to be the last one off, but that’s just typical.

I’d been warned to expect crowds of people when exiting the Arrivals area, and thought it might be hard to spot the driver who’d been sent for me, but it wasn’t busy at all, and I spotted him quite easily… and quickly discovered that we had a mutual lack of comprehension of each other’s native language. There wasn’t going to be much conversation on the 3 hour drive, especially as my head hadn’t quite caught up with my body.

The first fifteen minutes lulled me into a false sense of security. Everybody seemed to be driving quite sensibly, sticking to their lanes; perhaps not indicating as often as they should, but definitely and clearly avoiding each other. Then we found a traffic jam, apparently caused by a truck and a car having stopped in the middle of the road after hitting each other…

Any notion of a “3 lane carriageway” disappeared completely. If there was a gap wide enough to fit half a car in, somebody would squeeze their car into it, and everybody would shuffle over to make room. And although the cars were about eight-abreast, they weren’t all moving in the same direction; most were moving diagonally, towards what they thought was the quickest way through, but it all seemed to work quite efficiently. Certainly better than the very British idea of getting into a single file queue as soon as possible!

There wasn’t really much scenery to see on the journey, which was broken only by a quick stop to use the “facilities” at a service area. Most of the road had trees along the side, with big advertising boards (mostly for rice wine) on posts rising above them. There was a little bit more to see as we passed Tang Shan, some industrial areas and hilly terrain, but it was starting to get dark and misty by then.

As we turned off the main road and into Qinhuangdao, we went through some kind of junction that seemed more like the road had been started from each end and hadn’t quite met properly in the middle, with sand bags and temporary barriers to guide you the right way. Apparently it’s been like that for over a year.

I got to the hotel just as the bus was leaving to take all the teachers (apart from Clare) to KTV for the evening, where we joined them after I’d had a quick shower and we’d grabbed a quick-but-expensive (£11!) meal in the hotel restaurant. By the time we got there, some of them seemed to be ever-so-slightly tipsy… can’t have been the beer, which was only about 3%, but judging by the waving and shouting as they were getting on the bus, I think a few had been getting a bit of a head-start on the drinking before leaving the hotel…

 
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Posted by on Friday 3 August 2012 in China

 

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