Earth Expeditions by Amanda King

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Welcome to Earth Expeditions I will start off with a little background on what led me to an ever-growing passion for photography, wildlife and adventure travel to some rather remote parts of the World.

Here is a quick video extract in under a minute:


I have always had an interest in wildlife photography and insects in particular fascinate me greatly. Many a time I have camped up all night to photograph Ladybirds going through their first three stages of egg, larva and pupae to finally emerge, pump up their wings and develop spots (as when they first emerge they are quite literally ‘spotless’.)

I then started to go out daily searching for insects to photograph as well as general ‘wildlife walkouts’, it matters not about the weather, there is always something interesting to see.

Back in 2008 I joined a voluntary conservation program in Costa Rica, however things did not go according to plan out there and I found myself with no money, no food and no water and the task of getting myself across country without these vital necessities.

As with any adventure there was danger, I escaped a gang of machete men by outrunning them through the forest and many other things happened which have all be diarised and I hope to be a book.

In the end I stayed in a hut at the edge of a forest and having struggled to find food, had to rely on a group of monkeys who would hurl mangos at me when I got too close to photograph them, natural rain water would be collected from the many upturned plants which were like natural goblets.

I was rather skeletal at the end and reading back through my diaries had some dark days where I had to fight off the constant hunger and misery of insect bites, I had never experienced such intense hunger, it never left me while I was out there giving a constant, nagging pull in my stomach.

However, in my time spent there I got to see such diversity in the rain forests and cloud forest of insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds, it was a naturalists dream albeit a hungry one!!!

Below is a little more detail on my time with the monkeys:

Monkey magic

How did it get to this? I went from being part of a conservation group working as a team to roaming the forests of Costa Rica alone with no money and down to just one small tin of tuna per day. I soon found myself to be consistently hungry and it became a daily challenge not to keep thinking about food. In fact it became like a game to force myself not to think about it and just ‘get through the day’.

The frustration was that there were mango trees in the area, but the fruit I sought was too high up and I could not get to it, I tried throwing sticks; but to no avail. I tried to think of other ways to get these mangos; but came up with nothing.

However, the unexpected twist in fate that had led me to this situation gave me something really special; time to experience the rainforest and its wild inhabitants closely.

The sounds of the rainforest were enchanting to me; from eerie bird calls to the singing of tree frogs accompanied by the percussion like clicking sounds of the insects; waking up to the loud growls of Howler Monkeys at dawn fast became my natural alarm call.

I soon learnt that the sound of rain meant not only water for my bottles outside the hut, but it was also a signal to run out there and let the rain sooth my mosquito bites of which I had many, this was natures way of cleansing me for the day.

I watched the behaviour of the animals in the area and realised that they too had their daily routines; a group of White Faced Capuchin Monkeys would habitually pass by my hut, moving from tree to tree at around 4pm followed closely by a group of Howler Monkeys.

I quietly followed these two diurnal groups of monkeys with my camera and took pleasure in photographing them at play; a few of the females had babies on their backs and would leap, launching themselves from branch to branch and landing with perfect precision.

The Howlers stayed further back, however the two groups seemed surprisingly tolerant of each other, not quite so of me though.

I noticed early on that two of the Capuchins were acting as ‘sentry guards’ creeping nearer to me and watching my every move, they screamed and bared their teeth each time I took a photograph. As my camera made a loud clicking sound, it was clearly the camera that they were threatened by, not me.

I made my way back to the hut and was sitting writing the diary for the day, when suddenly two mangos hit me one after the other on the leg, aimed perfectly and was a clear warning from the monkeys; to stay away.

This was an absolute blessing in disguise though, as now I had mangos!!!

I decided then and there that I must follow the monkeys daily to get my mangos.

The next day I was ready and trailed them again, the Capuchins were a joy to watch with the adults grooming each other and the young play fighting. However, I needed those mangos badly, so I stepped out from behind my tree and did a little dance to annoy them and sure enough, right on cue the monkeys threw some mangos at me.

It became a game where I would run away then creep back for the floored mangos, before the ants descended, and return to my hut to enjoy them hacking at them with my knife and greedily drinking in the juices.

After a few days of successfully getting pelted with mangos, I decided to leave the camera behind and simply watch the monkeys, it is good to do this to really ‘see’ the wildlife instead of being intent on capturing it all on camera, observing them was quite magical.

I watched the families resting at a spot where the Howler monkeys lay on their backs along branches or would hang upside down by their prehensile tails scooping up leaves and fruit to eat. They seemed to love play fighting also.

Of the Capuchin group the adults looked on while their young played, I looked into the eyes of an adult sitting nearby on a branch; the face was so expressive and human looking and the eyes seemed to be full of an ancient wisdom.

The image below is that monkey:

The monkeys were less threatened that day, as I did not have my camera with me, even the two sentry guards seemed more at ease. I moved slowly from behind my tree sitting in full view and they at last seemed to accept me, it was a special day and I felt extremely privileged to be this close to them.

No mangos were thrown and this time I got back to the hut without being followed by them… or so I thought. However, just as I was in sight of the hut I was suddenly covered in a sweet, hot sticky liquid; one of the monkeys had peed on me!

So much for acceptance!!!
After 5 weeks out there I returned to do a photographic exhibition at the Vale and Downland Museum and did talks about my encounters at public events and on BBC Radio Oxford.
From there I gained some interest from people (including BBC Radio Oxford) who have encouraged me to write a book on these events, it is already written as I kept a diary of my time out there.
I hope to get a publisher interested in this.

Following on from Costa Rica, I found that I could not settle long before wanting to get out and explore more places in my quest for wildlife and adventure!!!

Back in the UK I was once again looking for this next adventure and was fortunate to meet some of the relations of Ernest Shackleton and his crew including Henry Worsall as I had contacted them about their Expedition to complete Shackleton’s quest to get to the South pole.
I got an invite to their presentation on the Expedition of that journey which was fascinating and the question they posed at the end of the talk was:

“This is our Antarctica, whats yours?”

I knew then I had to get out there too!

Following this they sent me an invitation out (see below):

I was of course very excited to receive this invitation which arrived on my birthday.
Off to London I went and headed to the BAFTA in Piccadilly and met more of the relatives from Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition team (1914-1917). What an absolute privilege.
Princess Ann was there, but far more exciting to me was to be able to read extracts of the original diaries of Shackleton and see his maps and equipment, it was all rather surreal and served as further inspiration to get out there.

I got home from that very special day and knew that I would be going to Antarctica and so started looking at various options.

In 2010 I flew out to Ushuaia the Southern most city in the World and met up with two complete strangers, Rudy from Belgium and Peter from Australia and we trekked and camped around Patagonia crossing into Chile and back into Argentina. We trekked up mountains and ice trekked across ice shelves and into ice caves; it was fantastic!!!

We then travelled back to Ushuaia and boarded the M/S Expedition to head out of the famous Beagle Channel across the dreaded Drakes Passage out to Antarctica!!!! The object was to explore as much of the wildlife as was possible and to cross the Antarctic Circle which we did at 66°33′ S.

Here is an extract of my diary to illustrate the roughness of the seas over the notorious Drakes passage:

Tuesday 2nd March 2010 – Approaching Drakes Passage
“A terrible night followed as we hit Drakes passage at around 01:20am and the ship was hurled about the waves like a cork, it was very difficult staying on the bunk and I got thrown off mine 4 times throughout the night. In the end I tried to sleep with one hand gripped firmly on the edge of the bunk, however as soon as sleep did take over and my grip relaxed off I fell”

Wednesday 3rd March 2010 – Crossing Drakes Passage
“Dreadful, just dreadful, we are still rocking against huge waves and I can hear plates smashing downstairs.

I can only describe this as an inescapable living hell!!!! The hours are so long and I just want this to pass, I cannot move off my bunk as I am so sick, but just lay flat here as I write this.

We are being blown off course and are now heading WEST instead of SOUTH!”

I wrote that bit of diary whilst laying flat on my bunk, the biro would stop working periodically as I wrote holding it upside down, however the seasickness that I felt would not allow me to write in any other position than that, the rough sea crossing lasted for 3 days due to being blown off course.

Once through the passage the seas calmed down and I got up off my bunk and went out of the cabin, down the long hallway and out onto deck in my pyjamas with my waterproof downy jacket thrown over and wearing wellington boots. As I stepped outside for the first time it was just getting light on that early misty morning and I slipped slightly as there were pieces of ice on the wet deck floor. Looking up I saw that it was snowing, the sky was grey and a huge block of ice which looked like a giant glacier mint sailed by the M/S expedition or should I say we sailed past it. This first sighting of ice was quite magical and I was alone up there with not a soul around, just how I tend to like it.

The Russian Ice Navigator would now have to do us proud as we were approaching more ice!

Th wildlife encountered in the Antarctic includes: Gentoo penguins, Adelie penguins, Chin Strap Penguins, Weddell seals, crab eater deals, Leopard seals, Fur seals, Albatross birds, Cape Petrels, Skua birds, Cormorants, Killer Whales, Right Wing Whales and Humpback Whales.

Young Adelie Penguin shedding its downy feathers, Antarctica 2010, by A.K.

Following on from that I have been on many adventures most of which are written about on here, inclduing Madgascar, the Rainforests of Guyana, Cambodia and Vietnam where I set up my own caving expedition, here is a short extract of it here:

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Egypt – Cairo, Luxor and Aswan

Egypt

Egypt

Egypt

28 years ago (1988) as I ate some scrambled eggs on toast at my parents’ house, my Mother suggested going away for a trip to ‘see some wonderful things’ and would I like to go with her?

Yes I would.

She originally wanted to go to Israel, however when I ran down to the Travel Agents, they told me it was too hostile at that time and to choose somewhere else. I went for Egypt as I had always been drawn to the mystique and charm of this wonderful country with its rich, diverse history with beautiful strange constructions, artefacts and hieroglyphic carvings.

This trip is really where all of my travels began and where I got ‘the bug’ for globetrotting.

So Egypt it was, following a short flight of just under 5 hours we arrived in Cairo and for the very first time I stepped out into hot, heavy night air, something that to this day never fails to surprise me when it hits and something that I always enjoy.
There was a small group of us; the others were John and Ema, Jo, Barbara, Peter, Terry (Mummery) quite an apt surname considering we were in Egypt I thought and lastly an American writer called Monica.

CAIRO – The capital city of Egypt and the largest, this place was a bustling metropolis of people, animals, cars and mopeds, crossing roads here was not easy as motorists seemed to have no sense of the pedestrian. The company (Hayes and Jarvis) had over booked us all so our small group was upgraded to the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo, overlooking the Nile.

Our guide for the whole trip was called Farid, he was a huge plump man who really knew his stuff on Egytology and encouraged us to see as much as possible, our driver was a funny little man who was also very likeable, he taught me some Egyptian swear words including “Imshi” which I would shout out daily to all who passed us by not realising that I was in fact telling them to ***k off!!!
Step pyramid

Step Pyramid

Step Pyramid

Giza has three Pyramids, the largest is known as ‘The Great Pyramid’ was constructed around 2560 BCE and is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, then there is ‘The Pyramid of Cheops’ built as a Tomb for the Pharaoh Cheops.
This Pyramid has three chambers inside starting with the lowest chamber which was cut into bedrock and was unfinished, then there is the Queens Chamber on the mid layer and the Kings Chamber is at the top of the pyramid structure. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only pyramid in Egypt known to contain both ascending and descending passages.

You can go inside and up to the King’s Chamber to see his Tomb which is a granite rectangle coffin called a sarcophagus. To get to see it you have to climb up wooden rungs via the Robbers Tunnel for about 89 feet, it was very hot and stuffy in there but I did not care as I just wanted to get to the chamber, it felt highly exciting to be experiencing this.

The sarcophagus is larger than the entrance of the passage which leads up to it suggesting that it must have been put into the Chamber before the roof was built, it is clearly rough and unfinished with saw marks still visible in several places. Generally these are finely finished and decorated as found in other pyramids of the same period, however, it has been said by guides that the original coffin was lost in the Nile so a replacement was quickly made and used instead.

Monica (the incredibly annoying woman from America) actually complained that there should be ‘an elevator’ up to the chamber…..I remember looking round at her in utter disbelief at such stupidity!!!

The Sphinx are fascinating to see, these ancient stone statues based on mythical creatures have the body of a Lion and in Egypt the head of a human and were used as a guard to the sacred temples, these statues are huge and very impressive, though over time they are now eroding quite badly.
They have an air about them, a presence that cannot be explained other than perhaps my being in awe of these huge statues and what they stand for, I certainly felt that they would make effective protectors for the temples.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx

The annoying American woman was getting on my nerves; the joy of travelling in a group, never again thought I and hastily moved off to avoid her and headed to an Egyptian who was hiring out camels to ride across the desert.

The camel I chose was a really bad tempered male who spat at me when I attempted to stroke his nose, he also did not make it easy for me to get on him and he tried many times to shake me off. It was fair enough, if I was a camel I would not want anyone on my back either.

The ride started off well until he took off at full speed across the desert so I had to cling on hard and wait for him to stop running, still I managed to stay upright and once further out into the desert it felt suddenly really peaceful to be in such a vast, stark area and my camel calmed down.

The deep blue, cloudless sky was a real contrast to the colour of the sand of the Sahara desert and out there with my bad tempered camel I felt a real sense of escapism from the rest of the World. It is not a place, however that I would want to be lost in, going a relatively short distance from the Pyramids was enough for me to experience seeing just desert and nothing else and easy to imagine what it must be like travelling for days with just that starkness and nothing else.

The group members were really nice, apart from Monica, who I was not keen on, as she compared everything she saw to Arizona, it bugged us all that she could not just appreciate the beauty and history of where she actually was, in one of the most fascinating places in the World.
Farid took four of us on a walk across the desert, I cannot remember how far we went, I do rememeber that it was for about 8 hours walking with some lunch in a tent in the desert, no vegetarian food, all very odd looking meat, just meat, nothing else so I went without that day, it did not matter to me as I was more thirsty than hungry.

On the walk if you needed a wee you could go and bury it in the sand, there was one ramshackle old wooden cubicle in the desert, I thought it was hilarious that there was a toilet pan in there going just into the sand, I had to go in just to experience it, I wish I hadnt, would have been better going in the sand, once I had the door shut I saw a huge spider Egyptian giant Solpugids, or better known nowadays as the Camel spider, these things can jump and have a nasty bite, but unlike the internet warnings you see of them they cannot kill humans.

Even so, I did not fancy being bitten by this thing so got out as quick as I could but without alarming it and making it jump, in order to get out I had to get very close to it and squeeze by, I was very pleased to be away from the thing, nowadays I am fine aith any spiders, I love photographing huge tarantulas, but back then this was my first encounter with one and camel spiders are pretty large.

The Museum of Antiquities
You cannot go to Egypt and not see this museum, built in 1835 it houses the largest collection of Egyptian Antiquities in the World, including the show piece mask of Tutankhamen made from 11kg of gold. The museum has everything from papyrus, to ancient coins to mummies, the mummies were incredibly eerie to look at, it felt like an imposition to be viewing them so publicly somehow.
Tutankhamen’s death mask was incredible to see, housed in a glass case it felt surreal to be gazing upon this blue and golden wonder and is something that stayed with me for some time.

We also went to the Papyrus museum which was interesting, the papyrus plant grew along the wetlands of Sudan and the pith of the plant was pressed into a paper like material that could be painted on. I bought a couple of small paintings on the papyrus, it is a very effective way of portraying romantic ancient scenes.

We wandered through the local markets too, these were colourful, bustling and great fun, to buy something you must barter, they do not like it if you try to pay the price marked on the item, rather they enjoy the game of the customer haggling to get the price down, they will barter and once a price has been agreed only then can you buy the item. It is a tradition that they like to keep going.
Power cuts were an ongoing part of day to day life, usually every few minutes and something that you quickly got used to, not so great if you were visiting the Dentist though.

I remember Jo biting into a lychee at a fruit stall and breaking her tooth, she walked about until she found a backstreet dentist to get it filled. Unfortunately the electricity kept going so not only did the light in the windowless room keep going out, plunging them into complete darkness but also during the drilling of tooth, it caused the drill to stop every few seconds.

We also had a power cut at hotel in the early hours when we were due to set off for the day, so we made our way through the corridors and down stairs with our torches, it just added to the experience, if anything I much preferred it

LUXOR – This part of Egypt is lusher, greener and hotter, it felt instantly more humid on arrival, we stayed at the Hilton resort and spa, a lovely retreat. I got the ‘jippy tummy’ that everyone seems to get in Egypt at some time or other, it was bad timing for me though as I missed one of the highlights if the trip, the Valley of the Kings. Tombs cut into stone where the pharaohs Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses IIwere buried. I would love to have seen this and must go back to have another chance at exploring this exciting area, pets were buried nearby too as well as material goods and treasure, much of which has been robbed over the years and surviving artefacts are in the museums.

Karnak Temple – Karnak temple was one of my favourite places, this impressive temple took over 1,500 years to construct and has had over 30 Pharaoh’s walking amongst its uniquely inscribed walls. In the evening there was a ‘Son et lumiere’ – sound and light show of ancient tales told to the viewer by music, illuminations and projected images, I sat in the sand (see photo below) and was instantly mesmerised by the wonderful and evocative depiction of Egyptian times past.

Kom Ombo Temple – This was a beautiful small Temple overlooking the Nile and the hottest day when we visited, so much so it felt hard to breath as the air was so stifling and seemed to sick in our throats, however it held my attention and was fascinating to see mummified crocodiles in glass cases. These crocodiles were there as it was once a place to worship the Crocodile God Sobek, so these crocodiles were preserved in this way and looked upon with awe, they looked creepy to me but I was fascinated by them, the Egyptians also worshipped the Falcon God Horus here.

Amada Temple – This was the oldest of the Lake Nasser Temples with carvings from Militery events

Denderah Temple – This Temple is in excellent condition with much of the walls still intact it was dedicated to the Goddess of love Hather, part of this complex is now closed to the public as a tourist got too close to the edge and died falling to the rocks below, but back then we could wander freely around the whole site.

Kalabasha Temple – Dedicated to the Gods Horus and Mandulis, this construction has a fascinating history in itself as it was once under threat from the rising waters of the high Dam at Aswan, so this 323BC building was taken down in over 15,000 pieces and moved to the banks of Lake Nasser where it now safely remains.

ASWAN – This area is even hotter and greener, the banks of the river Nile are lined with lush green palm trees and white sailed feluccas glide on the water allowing the tourist to get the breeze in their hair and cool down from the heat.

We were very fortunate in that we got double booked at the hotel where we were to originally stay so we were taken by feluccas across to the 5 star Old Cataract Hotel, which was a stunning Victorian Palace right on the banks of the Nile. The interior of the Palace was by Sybille de Margerie and blends Moorish arches, with marble floors, red chandeliers and rich Persian carpets.

My favourite day was sailing in a Felucca on Nile to Elephantine Island and Kitchener Island, the first one being the larger of the two and having botanical gardens on it, sweetly scented tropical flowers that I had never seen the like of before. It was intoxicating and wonderful to see these brightly coloured flowers covered in butterflies and dragonflies, all very magical.

The smaller island was Kitchener Island 2,460 feet long and given as a gift to lord Kitchener for his loyalty and serving in the Sudan campaign in 1896 for 2 years.

It was simply beautiful.

In the evening of our last night there we went to a buffet outside and I got to experience dancing with Nubians, the Native Africans of Egypt, they were a lovely friendly bunch and great fun to spend that last evening with, the music was enchanting.

Rameses II

Rameses II

I loved Egypt so much that I went back a second time, sadly though in just a few years it had lost much its magic due to so many hotels being built, many of them very close to the Pyramids, the locals also latched on to tourism and would bombard you with goods to buy whilst saying over and over again ‘lovely jubbly’ quoting from Only Fools and Horses.

It is a real shame as I still remember my first sighting of the Pyramids all those years ago and how the silence allowed the awe to set in, with the chaotic sense of tourism that now surrounds the area it is very difficult to appreciate the beauty of them as you are constantly being distracted by salesmen.

If anyone is planning to go, I definitely recommend hiring a camel and going off to a quieter spot where you can enjoy the view of the Pyramids without the hustle and bustle that now surrounds them.

I will most definitely be visiting Egypt again as I want to revisit it all again and this time must see The Valley of the Kings.

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Venice

Venice is an intrigueing and awe inspiring city, set in a large lagoon it is made up of canals bridged by some impressive and elegant architecture, Venice has been given a few names including City of Canals, City of Bridges, City of Masks and the Flaoting City amongst other names, all of which fit perfectly, my favourite name for it though is Queen of the Adriatic, a suitably romantic name for this beautiful place.

A most beautiful city

A most beautiful city

Beautiful it may be, filled with reflections and Expressionistic shadows everywhere you look, nicely scented it is not. The canals can be quite pungent at certain times of the year, the high summer can be particularly bad at times and is best avoided in my opinion, as well as it being crazily busy with tourists then too.

I went to Venice for a short break as I was drawn to the photogenic canals and bridges as well as the famous Masked Carnival, which claims to be the Worlds largest and most famous masked party, it arose in the middle ages but flourished in the 18th century and nowadays people fly from all over the World to take part in this grand spectacle.

I arrived in the city at night and was instantly taken with how the reflections in the water, lit up by the golden light of the street lights made some of the buildings distorted and exaggerated, whilst others in still water looked identicical to the real thing and if you got the angle right, you could take a mirror image photograph, where you can hold the picture either way up and find it difficult to tell which is the real building and which is the reflection, these are always fun to take.

The next day I could not wait to get out and explore the area and was not disappointed at all, the whole place was a visual feast and a photographers dream, I took hundreds of pictures at every turn it seemed and eventually came to the conclusion that I must slow down and enjoy the views with the naked eye rather than looking through the lens of the camera all the time, yet within minutes once again I could not help myself and continued snapping the shutter at everything in sight, the beauty of the narrow streets of water just has to be captured.

I then decided to go and look for a suitable mask and costume to wear to the Carnival, meal and Masked Ball for the evening, it was so exciting wandering into each shop and trying on different masks, there are very obvious differences between the male and female masks, the female mask is alot softer and usually can be quite flattering, the male masks were very characterised, some with long pointed noses to show off their masculinity, the classic black mask with long nose is actually quite intimidating, these were very popular and are seen everywhere, very iconic of the male Venetian mask.

The shops are filled with these masks, some basic black and white, others brightly coloured, some that look like humans, others in the style of animals or just ornate shapes that fit to the face with feathers springing from the sides or top, some have sparkels.

I went for a red velvet mask with some feathers and a silk red hooded cape to throw over a black dress, it seemed to work well and I was pleased that I had something comfortable but fun to wear for that evening, I also bought a softer green and lilac sparkly mask to wear about Paizza San Marcosquare where hundreds of people flock to either wear masks or just enjoy the spectacle and soak in the atmosphere.

Piazza San Marco is the place to be in Venice, famously described by Napoleon as ‘The Drawing Room of Europe’ it really is a colourful scene and the place to both see and be seen if you are wearing your costume, I found it thrilling seeing so many people dressed up in decadent costumes, it is totally surreal and the atmosphere takes you by the hand and insists on showing you around.

In the evening the whole atmosphere of the place changes and at Carnival time you cannot fail but get swept up in all the excitement, this night I was due to attend a concert followed by a masked ball party.

Even queueing up for the concert was exciting as people had gone to so much effort to dress up beautifully just to attend as the audience, it is usually customery to dress up for a concert in the UK of course, but this was on another level, some of the finery that people wore was just breathtaking to look at.

The concert was impressive in the grand hall and as I marvelled at the clothes of other people and the splendid decor of the hall as I listened to pieces by Schubert resinate around the building, it felt wonderful to attend and be part of that concert and got me in the mood for the second half of the evening.

I went back to the hotel afterwards and changed into the cotume for the masked ball, for this I wore a red silk dress and matching cape with hood and of course the red mask that I had bought in the shop earlier with the feathers, just putting this costume on made me feel like a totally different person. Dressing up like this was allows people to become someone else, you can become a character or just feel as though you are anonymous in the crowd, it is quite liberating and of course it is also thrilling to see what other people are wearing too.

The streets quickly filled with people dressed in their costumes and masks making their way to the various balls that were going on that night and excitement could be felt wherever you went.

A regular sight at night

A regular sight at night

I enjoyed walking down some of the darker allyways and seeing people in their capes and masks, there was something very ‘Phantom of the Opera’ about it. Although I wandered down a very narrow, dark allyway which was clearly a dead end, I noticed before turning back though that there was a streetlight lighting up the wall at the end, on the wall was blood, a considerable amount, I quickly turned and left the area.

I took a fast boat down the canal to where this particular party that I had signed up to was taking place and enjoyed watching people in the Gondolas being punted down the canals in their finery, there was something very decadent about it.

Finally I reached my destination, a secret ball, the entrance was through what looked like an old trap door into an old cellar, getting off the boat you had to be carfeul and jump over onto the concrete quay.

As I stooped to go through the old wooden trap door, I walked into a darkened area which at first looked a little alarming, however once in it soon became an Alice in Wonderland feast for the eyes, down a narrow corridor lit with candles to a grand staircase and up into one of the most decadent halls I have ever seen.

Large mirrors were everywhere with chandaliers and long tables were set out for a banquet, gold and silver plates adorned the tables, wine flowed and although I felt rather awkward, I should have gone with a group of friends perhaps, once seated the conversations flowed as easily as the wine.

Fine Dining

Fine Dining

Food was brought out constantly it seemed, course after course of chilled soups, hot meats, fishes, roasts and then the most tempting sweet dishes, there was a chocolate fountain and also platters of fruit, there was something very regal about the meal.

After the meal it was down into the large hall for the dance, this was a totally different atmosphere, the hall was vast with stone pillars and polished floor, the music began and people danced, I watched from the sidelines and enjoyed seeing that some were excellent at dancing and had clearly had some tuition.

The Dance

The Dance

Some of the Costumes

Some of the Costumes

The colourful costumes all seemed to merge into one as I watched people swish about the room, I stayed until 11pm but then ordered a boat back as the dance turns into a Disco and this did not hold my interest, so back down the long corridor I went, gathered my cape and gloves off the masked man at the door and stepped out onto the waiting boat.

Speeding down the canals the cool air woke me up and I enjoyed the full moon and the crazy reflections on the water, I was pleased to have come and experienced this but in honesty never had I felt so utterly lonely, most people there had been in couples and although I a used to being alone, it highlighted to me that I really was alone,, it would have been grand to have had a man by my side to dance with instead of being a wallflower spectator at the side of the room, perhaps I will go back another time.

Pigeons in Venice are a controversal subject, often looked upon as a mascot of Venice, thousands of these birds congegate in St Marks Square, when I was there you could feed them and just a scattering of crumbs would draw them to you in seconds and you would be engulfed in these birds.

Famously in the 1950′s an Insurace company used the pigeons as a promotional gag, by scattering corn about the square so that the birds would flock to it, if you looked downwards onto the feeding birds you would see the initials of the comapny AG which stood for Assicurazioni Generali.

In the end the local authorities decided that the birds were a nuisance and banned the feeding of them, this is a shame as they were a tourist attraction and I am pleased that I got to experience them when I was there.

There are a few men who used to sell the birdseed cheaply to tourists, they have been particularly upset by the banning as they are out of work but also some of them were clearly passionate about the birds according to certain articles, however city officials are said to be offering them alternative work or giving them a cash payoff to apease them.

However to be fair, the pigeons have been causing damage to some of the buildings and to encourage them with feeding is only going to cause further damage and expense, they crave calcium for their eggs and peck away at marble statues to try and extract the stuff, there are pack marks and scratch marks over the historical landmarks which is making people angry and resentful to the birds.

Deterrents have been put on some of the buildings such as spikes which often mame the birds, I think this is particularly cruel and I hate to see it, so perhaps the prohibition of feeding them is in fact a better solution.

The magic of Pigeons

The magic of Pigeons

To sum up, Venice is a gem of a place to visit, I would definitely go again, the only thing I would change is that I would like to go with a partner, being one of the most romantic cities in the World it seems rather a waste not to be able to experience it with someone you love.

Perhaps I shall visit it again one day.

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The Gambia

The Gambia is the smallest Country in mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal where there have been troubled times, this beautiful Country is home to exotic birds and African crocodiles which are fascinating to see.

I went to The Gambia by mistake, well almost, I was hoping to get to The Dominican Rebublic but instead did a last minutre detour to Gambia taking my best friend Hazel with me, we had never travelled together before, having been friends for years I knew it would be alright wherever we went, so when Hazel asked me that age old travel question: “Is it safe?” without any hesition whatsoever I replied “Of Course”.

So we headed off to The Gambia and landed in a field to the welcome of the locals singing and dancing, it was an impressive greeting and we both felt honoured to walk through the procession as we collected our bags and then took a local yellow taxi to the hotel.

A Gambian welcome

A Gambian welcome

On arrival we threw our bags into each of our rooms then mutually decided to head straight to the beach to have a walk out, to get to the beach we were surprised to see barbed wire all the way along between the hotel and the beach itself, it looked inviting though so we climbed over and through the barbed wire and started to walk down the long stretch of sand.

Within about 2 minutes of walking a gang of very tall ‘hoodies’ appeared and began harrassing us, there were five of them and they surrounded us and began asking for money, I said that clearly we had no money on us as we were wearing only bikini tops and shorts, however the situation suddenly turned rather sinister when the leader stated that he knew where we were staying and the room numbers, I argued that he could not possibly know that, but then he named the hotel and also, rather disturbingly as he had boasted, our room numbers.

This was very worrying, the only way they could know which rooms we were staying in was if the hotel people had given him that information, we did a sharp turn and started to walk back to the barbed wire into the hotel grounds, they followed us bating us but we walked on staunchly.

On the way we also saw a policeman, he had a gun on him and was clearly supposed to be ‘guarding’ the beach, however as we walked by him we witnessed a man offering him money, which was obviously a bribe, the policeman took the cash and then disappeared, this was not very reassuring and sadly from day one of our arrival we decided that the beach was not a safe place to be.

The barbed wire beach

The barbed wire beach

It was a real shame.

We did venture out onto the beach one more time, I really wanted my hair to be braided and so decided to brave it once more to the beach where the local women who had advertised in the hotel were said to be at 10am each day, sure enough they were there so we headed to them and I asked for them to braid my hair.

Hazel did not want hers done, so I sat down while the local women began to platt my hair into tiny strands,it was neither relaxing or comfortable though, instead it was painful as they had to platt the braids very tightly right to the scalp and as they platted we were once again joined by the gang of men who had harassed us on the beach the day before.

This time one of them came and sat beside me, he spoke in perfect English about how rich we were in comparision to the local people there and that we should gladly give our money to them, I attempted to have a conversation about how it was all relative, but it fell on death ears and he began to get angry with me, he took out a cigerette lighter from his pocket, held it to my hair and threatened to light it if I did not buy a necklace off the local women.

Needless to say I bought the necklace.

So far, I have painted a bleak picture of the Gambia, this is not the case, I can recall looking around me and seeing the most beautifully coloured exotic birds, I am not a birder, nor can I pretend to be, however I can fully appreciate the sheer number of species in the Gambia, according to local guide Dawda Barry basede at Kotu Creek Bridge there are around 500 species of birds and if you put the time in, can see up to 300 new species in a week, this seems incredible yet so exciting.

Following the experience of the beach gang and then the threatened hair burning, my friend and I had spent much of our time in the confines of the hotel gardens, not very adventurous, however these gardens were an absolute paradise full of beautiful birds, reptiles and amphibians, the plants were green and lush, the flowers exotic bright reds and pinks, just stunning, it was no hardship to stay there.

That very day another incident happened when a couple, who were on Honeymoon, came back to the hotel to say that they had been mugged, they were very shaken and would not leave the grounds after that.

However, I was determined not to be a prisoner of fear, so booked a ‘safe’ trip out to Janjanbureh Camp near Georgetown in the centrel river region of the Niamina East District, its Colonial name was Sir Charles MacCarthy and we set out very early in the morning 04:30am when it was still dark when we arrived at the river to sail down it and watch the wildlife. It was wonderful, we were in a small rowing boat with a man called ‘Moonlight’ he was a gentle soul with a lilting Caribbean accent and his knowledge on the wildlife, and indeed spotting it, was second to none.

As it got light the sky changed from inky black to indigo, to brown, to red to orange, it was quite remarkable to see and a dawn that I will never forget, the trip out was so relaxing and felt wonderful to sit in the rowing boat where all you hear are the sounds of the birds and Moonlight as he rowed as the water gently lapped over the oars.

It had been a day of bliss, however on the way back it was not quite so blissful as we taxied through a village where people were throwing fire bombs across the road, I was pretty anxious about this given that the car was full of potentially explosive petrol, however the driver seemed to think it was the ‘norm’ and continued on, saying calmly, duck here, duck here, which we duly did, all was well and we got back in one piece and celebrated back at the hotel where there was a buffet evening of the finest delicacies accompanied by Rum.

Oddly at night some strange things did happen which were slightly disconcerting, the phone in my room would ring and on answering it you could hear someone breathing but there was no answer to my questioning ‘hellos’ my friend Hazel had the same thing happen and we both found it a little sinister as though someone was calling to see if the rooms were occupied, potential robbers perhaps or just someone having a game with the tourists, either way I found it unsettling.

The next day we ventured out again, this time taking a taxi to Kachikally Crocodile Pool, in Gambia Crocodiles are seen as sacred as the people of Gambia believe that they hold the power to fertility in women, in this pit area there are 78 adult Nile Crocodiles which live in the larger water pool and bask in the hot sun on the bank, you can climb down to stroke one of the older, tamer ones if you dare, I was desperate to climb down and have a go, so down I went.

It is just a crumbly, muddy embankment which I climbed down and then walked towards a large crocodile who was sunbathing, he was very majestic and I started to stroke him, his scales were hard and spikey feeling, it felt such a priviledge to be this close to one, I was the only person down there, but I was quite happy.

That is, until a large crocodile suddenly came out of the water and took an active interest in me, in fact it headed straight towards me, there was an Australian guy up on the bank who started shouting at me to move and come back up, but I was transfixed by this thing and seemed unable to move, luckily this man came down and literally grabbed me and led me back up out of the pit, I was very glad he had done that, as I honestly do not think I would have moved, crocodiles have always provided me with a strange, almost hypnotic, fascination.

I still have two legs.

The next day we stayed around the hotel and went to the Observatory to see the planets, well Hazel went, unfortunately I was suffering from a sickness bug and had been projectile vomiting for most of the evening, I eventually recovered but missed the stars and planets which was most disappointing. However the evening was not lost as we met a group of guys from NASA, they were interesting to talk to and had many stories to tell us and the evening was passed around a camp fire with rum and good stories.

We only saw them that evening for the next morning we were due to fly home, we packed and took a taxi back to the airfield where there were two wooden tables and guards checking luggage, we were called to a table each and told to empty out all the contents of our back packs.

The man who was checking mine was very grim faced, he spoke perfect English and made it very obvious that he thought we had drugs on us, we did not.

He went through everything, even squeezing out my toothpaste from its tube, I started to protest and say that we would miss the plane but he did not care, he seemed intent on ‘finding something one me’ it seemed, or certainly felt that way.

Then something really great happened, the guys from NASA showed up, they had come to see us off, I thought that was a great gesture since we had only shared some stories around the fire the night before, yet they had made the effort to come and see us off, when I walked over to Tom to thank him, he expressed that they knew we would face these problems upon leaving as we did not have men with us,so that had come to make sure we were ok.

I was extremly grateful to them for that and relieved also as the man who was strategically and padantically checking through my things suddenly stopped and stuffed everything back into my back pack gesturing for me to go, upon seeing the guys he had totally changed tack and we were free to leave and board the waiting plane.

I would like to say that I enjoyed the Gambia, but I did not enjoy the feeling of threat that seemed to be with us all the way through the trip, if it had not been for the guys from NASA I believe that we would have missed our flight out and that those men were going to detain us just to be awkward, it is one of those things but nonetheless it stays in the memory.

However, Moonlight was a wonderful, gentle local man who I will remember fondly, the beauty of the area and the abundance of wildlife was very impressive, perhaps I will go back one day, I hope that the tourist areas become safer and that relations between the beach gangs and tourists softens and I believe that over time, they will.

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Up and coming trips:

Up and coming trips:

2016 – BURMA: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MY FATHER – I am currently researching the Royal Berkshire Regiment as my father was stationed with them as a soldier back in the 1940’s, he told me many interesting stories which I would like to incorporate into the write up as well as tracking where they went and trekking those areas.

ALSO a possible follow up trip to MADAGASCAR with the team who I met out there formerly, this time instead of the North we will explore the South!

2017 – INDONESIA: THE LIFE OF KOMODO DRAGONS – I have been sketching out ideas for a possible trip to Indonesia to film and observe the behaviour of the Prehistoric looking Komodo Dragons, in 2017 there will also be an Eclipse, I initially thought that this would be a good time to go, however it may attract a large number of tourist, which would defeat the object for me as I prefer quiet times with wildlife and off the beaten track, so will be looking into this further.

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