Tigers, Lions and Jungle cats

Puna leaping!

Although this was not a trip abroad, it was a valuable experience getting up close to large and some very rare cats from around the world and I feel it is worth telling their stories alongside some of the photos I took of these beautiful cats.

Home to over 50 rare cats of the most diverse range in the UK, the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent was founded in 2000 and is home to some of the most endangered cat species in the World, both small and large cats, including the Amur Leopard with only approximately 45 left in the wild globally and Sumatran Tigers of which there are less than 300 left in the wild.

The BCS aims to breed endangered cats and where possible introduce them back into the wild, it differs from other organisations in that it is not open to the general public, however you can book a photographic experience (which is how I got in). Alternatively you can sign up to become a voluntary ranger for the day or have a safari experience staying in a lodge overnight in the grounds and meeting the cats with a keeper in the day, not to mention hearing the lions roar at night.

If you have any unwanted Christmas trees or bamboo please donate it to the sanctuary, as the Tigers like to walk through the bamboo as it is part of their natural habitat and all of the cats love the smell of Christmas trees.

Each cat has a story from the sanctuary, please read on to get to know these amazing characters and where they have come from.

TAMAIR – THE TIGER

Tamir the Tiger – relaxing

Tamair was born at an Irish circus along with his brothers Genghis and Rocky, and at 5 weeks old came under the care of Peter Sampson who started this cat sanctuary, I have already met Rocky as he is now at the Paradise Wildlife Park, I had a real connection with Rocky, he is a very affectionate Tiger, beautiful.

Tamair is the largest cat at The Big Cat Sanctuary and although he is now old with arthritis and dental problems, he has been very good natured to litters of other cubs born on site, he sleeps in front of a heat lamp for comfort but when he feels energised still plays with his boomer ball.

According to the BCS there are now only six sub species of Tiger left in the wild today, this is so very sad, which is why these sanctuarys where big cats are bred and released back into the wild are so important, in fact I would argue that they are now essential to saving these species.

KUSHKA – A HYBRID TIGER

Kushka – A Hybrid Tiger

Kushka – A Hybrid Tiger

Kushka is an older Tiger who spent most of her life in a Circus, she was taken out to breed in 2012 but did not cope well being with another Tiger, preferring to be alone, she was an unsettled Tiger.

Thankfully she is now at the BCS and is much calmer and happier, although she suffers from arthritis and loss of hearing she is loved and looked after with plenty of space in her enclosure for some well-deserved peace and quiet.

Hybrids are becoming more and more popular, often bred in circuses or for the exotic pet trade however we should be aware that these interbred hybrids usually have some weaknesses, a price that the animal pays by being born to cater to the exotic pet business.

In Tigers there has been a great deal of inter breeding for their size back in the early days of circuses and a typical problem is the older animal in later life becoming riddled with arthritis due to the unnatural pressure on its joints.

This sanctuary is not open to the general public, with only very small groups of 8 people or so being allowed in at any time, it ensures that none of the cats get stressed and that it remains a calm place for them to live.

PUNA – THE SUMATRAN TIGER

Puna – The Sumatran Tiger walking through her bamboo

Puna playing a game

Puna playing a game

Puna leaping!

Puna was my favourite Tiger, she is a Sumatran Tiger, native to the Indonesian Island of Sumatra and the most beautiful I have ever seen, she was born into a litter of two cubs in Tiergarten enclosure, Heidleberg but after just 5 days her mother lost interest in her and rejected her.
Puna wandered into an area where some keeping staff found her and looked after her by bottle feeding her and she was kept in an enclosure next to her father before being moved to the Kent Big Cat Sanctuary.

Shockingly, there were three species of Tiger in Sumatra but due to hunting the other two the Javan and Bali have now been classed as extinct, the main threats are from the Chinese superstitions about medicine so Tigers are killed for their body parts.

This makes me extremely angry, why are certain parts of the plant taking so long to wake up from these foolish beliefs? It is so backward and so detrimental to our wildlife and planet, really these ridiculous markets for medicine should have long been addressed and banned.

The other threat, apart from man killing Tigers for their skins, is the palm oil industry, which is taking out huge chunks of forest, Tigers need a lot of area to walkabout and mate, as they are solitary creatures and their habitats are fast disappearing, the loggers are also responsible for their decline.

As stated before, there are less than 45 of these in the wild that is shocking beyond belief.

TINY AND KAFARA – THE WHITE LIONS

Tiny – The White Lion sleeping

Tiny and Kafara play fighting

Tiny and Kafara are two brothers, there is a third called Manzi, who were born at Woburn Safari Park, but their mother sadly stopped caring for them when she stopped producing milk early.

All three ended up at the Big Cat Sanctuary, however one of the brothers, Manzi, had to be separated from the other two as he is a little too aggressive to them, so Tiny and Kafara stay together in one enclosure, but as you can see from these pictures, the two get on well together and although seen baring their teeth, it is just play fighting, there is true affection seen there.

These Lions enjoy experiencing new scents and toys to play with, so the keepers regularly introduce scented herbs to give them new stimulation, watching them play was just like watching household cats at home, it is so interesting to see their behaviours.

NARNIA – THE WHITE BENGAL TIGER

Narnia -The White Bengal Tiger

Narnia -The White Bengal Tiger in a playful mood

Narnia was born in a French circus, this attractive blue-eyed tiger was taken in by the sister site Paradise Wildlife Park but was not compatible with their other White Tiger so she was transferred to the Big Cat Sanctuary.

Narnia is naughty, she enjoys nothing more than to pace close to the next enclosure and roar at Nias to annoy him, she also loves to chew the wire and poo in the pond and she is playful and enjoys her boom ball and anything she can find to amuse herself.

These white tigers are rarely seen for various reasons, in nature the mother has been known to kill a white cub as it is too ‘visible’ drawing attention to the pride and destroys any chances of the mother sneaking up on other animals to make a kill. They are also sought after by man and hunted for their skins, these beautiful tigers are sadly at a disadvantage from birth.

LAILA – THE SNOWLEOPARD

IUCN Red List Category Endangered (EN)

Laila – the Snow leopard

Laila – the Snow leopard

Often referred as ‘ghosts in the mountains’, these beautifully dappled Snow Leopards live in the Himalayas and the surrounding foothills, they have huge paws for stalking in the snow and long fluffy tails that they wrap around themselves when it is bitterly cold and they have the ability to retain extra body heat.

Tragically Snow Leopards are hunted for their beautiful furs, to make just one coat for a wealthy human being, it takes 50 Snow Leopards to line up the pattern of just one coat, this is beyond appalling!

However, Snow Leopards do kill livestock of local farmers and are persecuted due to this, it is a very difficult problem to solve, but lets hope that awareness of how endangered these creatures are will make for some essential changes.

Snow Leopards are a protected species under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) making the killing of Snow Leopards illegal, yet despite this the greed of humanity continues at an alarming rate.

Laila was born in Antwerp zoo and her mother died when she was two months old so as a result was hand reared by keepers and is very affectionate and tame with human beings, she was moved to the Big Cat Sanctuary at one year’s old and I a firm favourite with anyone who encounters her.

I completely fell under the spell of this stunning snow leopard, I have a love of snow leopards as a few years ago was privileged to encounter a litter of three snow leopards at a world heritage cat sanctuary who played happily at my feet as I sat on a grass bank,.

The plan was to rear and release the snow leopards into the wild when they were ready, it is a story that I intend to follow up to see if it is possible to track their progress.

JACK – THE JUNGLE CAT

Jack – The Jungle Cat posing

Jack – The Jungle Cat

Jack – The Jungle Cat stalking

I have always been intrigued by Jungle cats and have never been able to see one in the wild, despite several attempts to look in the areas that they might be, so this was a great opportunity to at last see what a Jungle cat looked like in reality.

Little Jack was born in Olmense zoo in Belgium and came to the Big Cat Sanctuary at 10 months old, he arrived in winter and as it was so chilly the keepers named him Jack after Jack Frost.

He is strikingly beautiful to look at, with his sculptured face and pointed ears, there is a fox like look about him and his colouring is of a rich sand, have a look at the below images that I took of him in the afternoon sunlight.

According to the BCS, Jack is the only Jungle cat in the UK, he enjoys roaming around in his pen but does not like rainy days and will take up residence in his sleeping quarters, he seems to be very good natured and not at all phased by cameras.

The BCS hope to bring in a female Jungle cat in the hope that they might be able to breed them, if there are any cubs I will be back over there as soon as I can get in and will take some photographs of the baby Jungle cats.

GRIFFIN – THE CARACAL

Griffin – The Caracal cat

Griffin the Caracal cat up close and personal

Griffin was originally born at Exmoore zoo, this handsome medium sized African cat has a lovely red colouring and extraordinary long ears with tufts of hair springing from them and these are thought to perhaps keep flies out of the Caracal’s face as well as acting as a form of accuracy when it is stalking its prey.

They are sometimes called the African Lynx or the Desert Lynx due to these long ears which are a characteristic of the Lynx, however the Caracal is a smaller and lighter cat.

These cats are solitary creatures, only coming together with other cats when they want to mate, the father has nothing to do with the cubs and goes back to his solitary life while the mother brings up the cubs for the duration of approximately one year.

These cats often get shot and killed by farmers in South Africa as the cats hunt and stalk the livestock on the farms, which must be a great temptation for a hungry cat, away from the lure of farm livestock though they are also competent survivors.

PETRA – THE EURASIAN LYNX

Petra – The Eurasian Lynx

Petra – The Eurasian Lynx

Petra is an impressive looking crepuscula cat in that she has an unusual white ring around her eye which is designed to work with its retina and improve its eye sight at dusk and lower light levels.

Petra was born at Norfolk Wildlife Park and was moved around quite a bit following the park’s closure, she has now been moved to BCS and thankfully is very happy and settled there, this is what most impressed me about the park, it is about the cats wellfare and happiness, they are not there for public entertainment.

These cats are there for rest and a peaceful retirement or to breed if they are young enough in order to try and conserve these beautiful animals, where possible the offspring are released into the wild.

VIKTORIA – THE PUMA

Viktoria – The Puma

Viktoria – The Puma what a beauty

Viktoria is a stunning looking Puma and these cats originate from South America, I can recall a story of a female tourist disappearing in Patagonia in an area where a Puma had been frequently seen, it made me think twice about wandering off alone in that area.
Pumas are often also referred to by other common names such as the Mountain Lion, Panther, Cougar, Catamount, etc.

Viktoria is an impressive looking cat, pure muscle tone and although a small cat she is capable of taking down much larger prey including a horse or an unarmed human.

To look at her though you would not think her capable of doing any harm as she looks so serene as she stalks about in her roomy enclosure, rather than roaring this cat makes little chirrup, mewing and yowling sounds with the odd hiss thrown in for good measure.

They do make louder screaming sounds, which are apparently mating calls to attract other cats, but the sound is quite eerie and disconcerting when you hear it, I will certainly be on guard if I ever hear that sound out in the wild.

JAGA AND AQUARIUS – THE FISHING CATS

Jaga and Aquarius – The Fishing cats playing

Jaga and Aquarius – The Fishing cats

At last my treasured Fishing cat!

For many years I have wanted to see Fishing cats in the wild, they are shy creatures though and not easy to find, having only ever seen pictures of them on the internet and in books, I was very excited to get the chance to come to BCS and see a pair there.

Fishing cats live in Vietnam (where I had hoped to see one), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Shri Lanka, India and Nepal, sadly though despite them being fairly widespread they are under threat as often killed on sight by locals, it is another example of a terrible persecution of a wonderful animal and saddens me beyond belief.

Fishing cats, as their name suggests can swim in water and under water for their food, they dive into streams from the bank to catch fish, they are also reported to eat snakes, birds and insects, they make a friendly chuckling sound and are fun to watch as they play along the waterside.

Sadly they are in decline due to their habitats being taken away and also by being hunted for their skins, we have no right to be doing this, I hope that stronger bans come into place to stop this illegal market.

It was fantastic to watch these two cats Jaga and Aquarius playing together in the reeds and jumping in and out of the water, it was a wonderful sight, Fishing Cats are top of my list for my favourite cats!

SAMIA – THE SERVAL

Samia – The Serval in the sunshine

Samia was born in captivity at Parc des felins zoo and has bred giving birth to two cubs, one of which called Jua is also at the BCS with Samia.

Her closest relatives are the Caracals and Golden African cats, her markings are very striking with distinctive spots and they are sadly killed for their skins and passed off in the illegal trade as cheetahs.

These cats eats rodents, deer and antelope and will go for flamingos, they can jump an impressive 9 feet high to catch birds and are superb stalkers due to their long ears which gives them a worthy advantage.

Servals differ to other cats as they do not hunt livestock so are no threat to the farmers, however due to their beautiful markings they are targeted for the illegal trade of exotic pets and are being bred with domestic cats to produce hybrid domestic cats, referred to as the Savannah.

BAJRAMI, MARTIN AND KEENE – THE CHEETAHS

Bajrami – The Cheetah

Keene – The Cheetah

Bajami, Martin and Keene were born at Boras Zoo in Sweden and these three cats are part of the studbook for The Southern Cheetah so hopefully they will be breeding in the future at BCS.

Cheetahs are the worlds fastest land mammals capable of running speeds of 68 miles per hour, although for short bursts only, they belong to their own genus Acinonyx due to their elongated body shape, which is very narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs, its fur is covered in single small attractive spotted markings.
Due to their distinctive black tear-drop facial markings the cheetah are one of the most easily identifiable cats to identify.

The cheetah is a very prolific breeder in the wild and can have litters of up 10 young cubs, this is to compensate for the very high mortality rate of cubs from predation and because the adult Cheetah is not a great fighter like Lions and other cats, and often will choose to run from conflict.

These Cheetahs were an absolute gem to photograph as they were very obliging and strode about in front of my camera with confidence. Their facial features are so strikingly beautiful and I felt a calm presence about them, these are really lovely cats.

ATARA – THE NORTH CHINESE LEOPARD

Atara – The North Chinese Leopard

Atara – The North Chinese Leopard with her long fluffy tail

Atara was born at a zoo park in Berlin and is a strikingly beautiful leopard with a long fluffy tail and stocky body and her species is from Beijing and the Gobi Desert, capable of running 36 mile an hour, due to the cooler temperatures these leopards have longer fur.

Atara was very obliging for photographs and seemed to enjoy interacting with us, she had a playful air about her as she roamed about unlike her neighbour, Chinese Leopard Ta-iri who was stalking us the minute we were in view of his enclosure.

As we got nearer he rushed out at us and roared aggressively before running back into the bushes from where he had been hiding, in those few seconds of this encounter you could feel his power.

These leopards are solitary creatures preferring to roam alone and hunt at night, they call out when they are searching for a mate and again sadly they are hunted by the illegal fur traders and are in decline.

HOGAR – THE AMUR LEOPARD

Hogar – The Amur Leopard

I was instantly struck by what an impressive cat this is, Hogar was born in a zoo in the Czech Republic and was moved to BCS in order to breed and with his partner Xizi, they were successful and produced two cubs who have now been transferred to continue the breeding program.

Shockingly it is estimated that there are only 60 Amur Leopards left in the wild, they are fast approaching extinction due to being hunted by the fur traders and also forest fires which are destroying their habitats, many of which are started deliberately.

There are now groups in place who are trying to save this Leopard, the main one being called ALTA (The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance), anything that can help stop the killings of these animals is worth trying, please spread the word and keep the awareness going about the help needed for them.

JETHRO AND TULA– THE PALLAS CATS

Jethro – The Palace Cat feeling shy

The WHF BCS has two Pallas cats, hopefully they will become a breeding pair, and they are amazing looking small cats, with huge eyes peering out of a bundle of unruly fur.

Pallas cats live in the mountains of Russia and parts of Asia and have the longest and thickest fur of any cat to protect them from the cold temperatures of Russia.

Pallas cats differ from the long eared Jungle cats, Pumas, etc. instead these fluffy small cats have small ears, similar to that of the snow leopard, the ears are short and positioned lower down on the cat’s head so that they do not stick up when the cat is hunting amongst rocks and shrubs.

Pallas cats are now a protected species as they were also hunted to small numbers, they are viewed by some farmers as an important asset as the cats feed off agricultural pests so the farmers do not bother them, good news for the Pallas cats, they are, however, still in very low numbers so breeding programs are necessary in helping to increase their numbers.

I only got to see Jethro properly as Tula was feeling a little shy, perhaps next time I will get to see them both, below is my one photo of Jethro, looking very sweet enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine.

This was an amazing experience, I felt incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to have a day at the sanctuary and meet the cats and there are a few ways in which you can do this.

I signed up to a photography day with John Wright, a recognised wildlife photographer who takes small groups out to these special places to learn about the wildlife and capture some memorable images of the subjects, if you love cats and photography, I can highly recommend it, a day taking photographs up close with these beautiful cats is very special.

You can adopt a cat, please see the Big Cat Sanctuary website for details on this, it really is a worthwhile thing to do and you can go and meet the cats with one of the keepers as a thank you.

I will certainly be going back to the Big Cat Sanctuary to see how the cats are all progressing, the staff are amazing with them and it is a truly wonderful place to support.

All images taken by Amanda King 2017

An Arctic Adventure 2017

The Arctic Circle, Ice Hotel 27 and Husky Dogs

The Original Ice Hotel Year 27

If you want to see the Northern lights Sweden is an excellent area to go to see this interesting phenomenon and the Ice hotel in Jukkarjarta makes for a doubly wonderful experience.

The Northern lights or ‘Aurora borealis’ is a natural phenomenon which occurs when there are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres, these are called the ‘Aurora borealis’ in the north and the ‘Aurora Australis’ in the South.

Aurora displays appear in many colours with green and pink being the most common however shades of red, yellow, blue and violet have also been reported and are seen in various formations from patches of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays across the night sky.

According to researchers, the lights of the Aurora generally extend from 50 miles to as high as 400 miles above the earth’s surface, an astounding distance.

For many years I have been intrigued and drawn to The Original Ice Hotel in Sweden just off the Arctic Circle and this year (2017), is its 27th Anniversary, so it is referred to as Ice Hotel 27.

The original Ice Hotel is totally unique as it is reformed every year, designed by a team of artists, architects and snow builders Worldwide, it comes from the Torne River and is built with approximately 1,000 tonnes of Ice and 30,000 m3 of ‘snice’ a mixture of ice and snow.

The structure is put up then each ice room is hand crafted uniquely, there are great long hallways with chandeliers, made of ice of course, an ice chapel where you can legally get married and an ice bar with ice glasses for drinks.

In the springtime, it is left to naturally melt away back into the Torne river from where it came.

An Ice Room

Creative Ice Room

My dream has long been to experience staying in an ice room at the ice hotel so I put a tailored trip together and decided that it would also be interesting to visit another part of Arctic Sweden and experience the Tree Hotel where they have some extraordinary treehouses, the most interesting three being the UFO, the Birds Nest and The Mirrorcube.

Set up on a hill in the forests of Lulea are these fabulous little retreats, the UFO was the one that appealed to me so I put together a customised 5 day trip via Arctic Direct to visit both places and travel across country by train from Lulea to Jukkasjarvi.

I flew from London Heathrow Airport to Lulea via Stockholm, there were no direct flights, however this journey was effortless to make and the airports were easy to navigate around.

In January the days last approximately 4 and a half hours in Lulea and in Jukkasjarvi the daylight lasts around 3 and a half hours.

As the plane started to land in Lulea I looked out and saw nothing but miles and miles of snow covered forests, the natural beauty was staggering along with the vast space in comparison to the UK where everything feels tightly packed in.

The Tree Houses

Arriving at the Tree Hotel in Lulea was exciting, there is the main house at the foot of a snowy hill which is a homestead, you can have a glass of wine there or a lingonberry juice and this is where you will eat.
There is no set menu, it is whatever they are serving on the day, but there is an option for vegetarians as long as you let them know in plenty of time prior to the meal.

The Homestead is a family run place and is decorated with memorabilia of the 1950’ it is warm and welcoming in there and you can sit and enjoy a drink by the open fire.

The light was fading fast when I arrived, about 2:30pm in the afternoon so I left my bags in the homestead hall and went off to find the tree houses.

To get to them you will be walking about 500 metres up a steep hill through the forest, it can be slippery where people have trodden in an icy path so there is a rope tied to the trees to help you pull yourself up or hold onto when going up the hill.

I entered the next lot of trees and got my first view of the tree houses, I could see the more conventional ones first of all, beautiful wooden structures and there was the smaller colour changing one which goes from red to blue depending on the outside temperature.

The Colour Changer

Next I saw the stunning Mirror cube, this one was superb as it had the reflections of the sun setting in the trees making them a dark golden orange in its sides it was really well camouflagued and if you blinked it disappeared blending into the forest.

The Mirror cube

I wanted to find the UFO which is where I was to stay and so continued on just a little further up the hill until it came into view, this one is spectacular, if you were a believer in UFOs and did not know about the tree houses, you might well think that the little green men had stopped by.

The UFO

Entrance in

The UFO is huge, five people can sleep inside, there is a step ladder up into it, to get in you must climb up the icy metal rungs then push the heavy wooden trap like doors upwards, it is not very easy to do so not the most accessible thing to get into. You will struggle to take anything up there apart from essentials, it is best to leave most of your things back at the homestead down the hill.

Inside the UFO is definitely not as exciting as the outside, it has very basic Ikea décor inside and I think that it could be made to look a lot more interesting although the round windows are a nice touch, however you are not there to spend too much time inside, the best views are definitely from the outsides of these unique tree houses.

Climbing back down I went to find the Birds Nest tree house, this one was so cleverly disguised that I walked past it twice before I spotted it as it is literally designed to look like a giant birds nest with huge twigs sticking out everywhere.

I made my way back down to the homestead, it was now dark and I had a glass of wine by the fire and sat and made some notes and chatted to a local Swedish man who told me he has started his own business as a travel guide for tailor made trips.

At dinner he came and joined me and we talked about the Ice Hotel and adventures in general, he was great company for that meal and I wished him luck with his new travel business.

The food was fantastic, gourmet style oysters, potato and vegetables, beautifully presented and absolutely delicious.

The next morning I had a breakfast of herrings, cheese and bread with olives and then set out to explore for the last hour there before my pickup. The dawn started at around 9:00am and the sky started to light dramatically with streaks of orange, red and gold through the darkness.

I raced around in the snow looking for the best places to take pictures and capture the sunrise and managed to get a few just before my taxi turned up.

I then left one beautiful place for another and made my way in the taxi to Boden Train Station and got a train from there on to Jukkarjarta where I was met by another taxi to head to The Ice Hotel.

The Ice Hotel

Stepping out of the taxi I looked around in wonder and excitement at the huge archway that marked the entrance to the Ice hotel areas, it was an extraordinarily beautiful sight.
There is the warm hotel area where you check in, you can leave your luggage in a locker, you get two huge lockers and the keys to keep with you.

There are wooden Nordic chalets, these are warm areas which you can hire and I had one for two nights, but my first night before that was to stay in an Ice room in the cold hotel and I could not wait.

The Original Ice Hotel has a real air of mystique about it, the outside looks like a giant igloo with two huge doors at the front and two huge doors at the back, of which are covered in reindeer skins with huge antlers for door handles.

The entrance

Inside is a long corridor dotted with chandeliers made of ice, careful not to slip, walk slowly, along the corridor are doors into different worlds, each one as amazing as the last, I walked into vast rooms full of ice carved sea creatures, a Casablanca film setting, there was a Victorian suite with books of ice, mythical beings, mountainous landscapes, each door led into a space that felt like a well-kept secret.

I found the ice chapel with rows of ice pews covered in fur throws and an ice alter, it was really impressive.

This year there is also the new 360 degrees Ice hotel which, unlike the original ice hotel, does not melt back into the river but instead stays open all year round and is kept cold by freezing generators inside.

This was rather grand looking with huge impressive doors which looked like stained glass windows, inside was the Ice bar, a superbly done area, where you can order a cocktail or a glass of wine in an ice glass.

You can also walk around and see the deluxe ice art suites in the 360 ice hotel, it was so interesting and fun to see all the different rooms, one was a Victorian Suite with Ice books and ice lanterns, another was called the Casablanca with some intricate ice carvings inside, truly stunning pieces of work.

The Casablanca Suite

There was a room with Jellyfish carved out everywhere and another called Pick your Moustache with different sized moustaches carved into slabs of ice, each room was so uniquely different to the next.

The Sugar Suite was really pretty with its ice bed lit up pink and other areas of ice lit in different colours for a pop look, my favourite was a suite called Living with Angels and had a blue light to it, this one felt so calm and peaceful, whereas some of the others felt a little crazy.

The Sugar Suite

Living with Angels

Living With Angels

There was one with huge spikes of ice from the ceiling and the floor, I am not sure I would have got much sleep in there with huge spikes of ice set above me, but it was beautiful to look at.

Spiky room

The Meal

I had a meal at the ice hotel restaurant which is over the road, again the food was exquisite here, it is very pricey with a glass of wine costing from £16-£20 for one small glass.

The food was gourmet and in a league of its own for fine dining, one of the best dishes I have ever tasted, my dish was called Arctic Char (as recommended to me by a local) and consisted of Arctic Char fish, fine vegetables and cod roe with a truffle sauce.

For afters I had a lemon mousse dessert with local cloudberries, it was a delicious melt in the mouth dish, the meal cost me £88 for the two courses but it was a divine one off, the next day I found a Swedish co-op and bought a loaf of bread and a tub of Philadelphia spread for £8.50.

Here is the 5 course classic set menu from there served on a plate of ice if you want to push the boat out:

Frøya salmon, wakame salad, wasabi mayonnaise, soy jelly, rice vinegar gel, served on ice.
Arctic char, parsnip purée, browned butter hollandaise, dill powder.
Slow cooked- & cured fillet of elk, blueberry jelly, spruce shoot mayonnaise.
Fillet of reindeer, juniper sauce, almond potato purée, carrots, shiitake purée.
Chocolate & arctic brambles, served on ice.

My Ice Room
I was filled with excitement about sleeping in an ice room at the ice hotel, having spent the afternoon admiring and photographing the deluxe art suits there, I had expected my room to be like an igloo with nothing fancy to it, just plain.

Getting ready for bed was fun, you had to get changed into your nightwear, some people hired extra thermal clothes, but I decided to wear my Marks and Spencers pyjamas, a bobble hat, gloves and warm socks.

You wash your face in the evening (Nordic style) but not in the mornings as the cold weather dries out your skin, so skipping a wash keeps it supple.

The Ice hotel will give you an Arctic sleeping bag to take in and there were three reindeer furs on the bed of ice, my room number was 201 and I made my way out the back door of the warm part of the hotel, into the snowy outdoors across walkway then through two covered doors into the ice hotel.

Along a corridor of ice, again careful not to slip, huge ice chandeliers hang above every couple of metres, when I saw where my room number was and walked in I was so excited.

It was stunning!

My room was far from the basic ice tomb I had imagined, instead there were huge ice columns that had been carved out around the ice bed and at the end of the room, these I found out represent mountains. I was in a room full of Ice Mountains, lit up blue, it was so beautiful.

I took my boots off and tucked them into each other, so that they would not freeze too much, then set my sleeping bag ready and got into it, then after zipping myself in, pulled over two of the reindeer skins, using the third one as the base to lay on.
I certainly needed both reindeer skins, but it felt peaceful and restful in the room, I did not hear any sounds at all in the night, it was totally silent.

My ice room

My Ice room of Mountains

It took me a while to get off to sleep as I was so excited and enjoyed laying there just taking in the beauty of the room, it really does feel very special to sleep in an ice room and it is difficult to portray by the written word.

I woke up three times throughout the night from the cold, usually my face feeling cold, but each time would curl up into a snug ball and use my body heat to warm up, it seemed to work well enough.

The next morning I awoke about 7am, I went outside and across to the warm building as I needed the loo and saw a few people in their sleeping bags fast asleep on the floor of the shower areas, these people did not make a full night in their ice rooms the receptionist told me, so they had to sleep on any floor space they could find.

I went back to my ice room one last time and took some more photographs of it, I would have happily stayed there another night, but they generally recommend one night only in the ice rooms, it was a fantastic experience

The Warm rooms – Nordic Chalets

After handing back the arctic sleeping bag and sorting out my locker, I had a shower and a lingonberry juice before going to check in to the warm building for an allocated Nordic chalet.

These are great little places to stay with bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen/lounge area, my bedroom had a huge window and I could lay in bed looking at the stars, it was superb, although I got little sleep as I set my alarm for on the hour every hour to get up and look out for the Northern lights.

Outside in the grounds there are little kick sledges that you can use to get about on and I would take one and sledge over to where the Northern lights are said to appear with my cameras.

The Northern Lights

The Northern lights did appear, I was lucky enough to get a sighting three nights running, the first night when I had set the alarm on the hour every hour was the best sighting as they seemed to be strongest at about 1am -3am with green swirling streaks cutting into the black starlit sky.

Husky Dog Sledding

I was very excited about Husky Dog sledding, it is something that I have wanted to do for years and today was the day to do it.

As you approach all the dogs start to howl with the excitement of a run and to greet you, they sound exactly like a pack of wolves and I recorded this sound.

Two of the dogs from the team

I was with two teams of dogs, they all have very different personalities and characteristics, there are two dogs who really have a love for each other and even when they have been separated these two dogs have escaped to be together again, now the dog handlers always ensure they are kept together.

Both of those dogs were in my team and I noticed that they do look out for each other the whole time and as soon as we stopped they lay in the snow to cool off and nuzzled up to each other, it was very sweet to see.

The dog sledding is a wonderful experience, the dogs respond to simple commands and off you go, all you can hear is the whoosh of snow as the sleigh cuts through it.

The dogs are trained not to stop until commanded, if they need to wee or poo they have to go as they run, I though this a bit cruel, but the instructor says that they soon get used to it and otherwise you would be stopping every few seconds as they do it such a lot.

We went across The River Torne and under a semi-circular bridge out over the snowy wilderness, it was so peaceful, you will need a balaclava and some snow goggles though as the cold breeze is biting.

Eventually we stopped at a Tepee and once the dogs were secured we went inside to warm over a camp fire and toasted cinnamon buns on sticks over the fire with hot tea, it was great to warm up.

Camp

I went outside to stroke the dogs and one of them jumped up and bit my hand, I was told to be careful, some like to be stroked but others do not, I need to read the dogs more carefully.

I think that because I had a camera hanging from my snow suit it was seen as a threat, I should have remembered this as wolves are also the same about cameras.

On the way back I rode at the very front of the sled and that was really nice, it was a great experience and one that I will never forget.

The dog sledding journey

Horse ride through mountain forest

Following my Husky Dog Sledding day, I wanted to sign up to something for the following day and opted for horse riding through a mountain forest to look for wildlife.

I am not by any means a horse rider, I have ridden twice only in my life and was terrified on both occasions, however this was a chance to get further out and explore the forests so I took it.

A car picked me up with three other people and off we headed to the stables, it was a 2 hour drive there, on the way we saw a pure white Arctic Fox run across the road, it was too quick to get a photo, but great to see.

By the time we reached the stables daylight had come and the light was very beautiful, it had a beautiful glow to it.

We were greeted by the owners and a friendly black husky dog and were taken to a field where the horses were and each given a horse to suit our heights and weigh, my horse was a male, dark brown almost black, he was quite a grumpy horse but we worked well together.

I was given a stable for him and shown how to groom him so I brushed off all the snow that he had been covered in, then I was shown how to fit the saddle and bridle, in the bridle room a huge fat cat sat high up on one of the saddles, a great place to watch everything or sleep from.

We took the horses back out into the snow to mount them, once on I took the reins and we were off, accompanied by the black husky dog who led us out through the forest, it was wonderfully peaceful, weaving our way through the snow covered trees, there were just 4 of us so it was quiet and good for looking out for any wildlife.

Occasionally we would go up or down a steep hill and the horses often slipped on the ice, that was a little scary for a novice like me, but most of the time the horse just followed the leader with no problems at all.

It started snowing heavily and at one point it was hard to see the person in front as the snow was so thick coming down, much of that time I tucked my camera under my coat to protect it from the elements.

Riding through a snowstorm

After a couple of hours we were lucky enough to see some wild mousses, a mother and a baby, they were through the trees further up but I managed to get some zoom pictures of them and a single adult who I got a clearer photo of, I had to be careful though as my camera would only work intermittently in the cold and damp snow fall.

Wild Mousses

We saw a couple more Mousses, one was laying down in the snow, almost out of sight then we saw another mother and baby huddling together, despite their thick fur they also looked cold.

The ride got colder and colder as the snow continued to come down, I kept brushing it off my horse as he was getting covered in it and he must have been cold too, it was a beautiful ride though through that quiet forest with just the sound of the horses breathing and walking, however it was now so cold that I felt pleased to be heading back to base, we had been out several hours looking for the Mousses.

The black husky dog stayed at the back this time, then just as we got nearer to his home he raced to the front and led us all back proudly, it was nice to have the dog leading us.

Once back at base, we cleaned down our horses in the stables and took off their saddles and reigns, then led them back out into the snowy field where there was fresh water and hay for them, the other horses neighed loudly and ran to the fence to greet them.

Afterwards we went into the farmhouse and had a homemade tasty meal and hot drinks to warm us up.


The Snow Mobile Ride to look for the Northern lights

This was a trip to look for the Northern lights away from the grounds of the ice hotel across the river Thorne further up near the mountains, to get there it meant travelling on a snow mobile to cross the great iced river and speed off beyond, it would be a 6 hour round trip getting back to base at around 01:00 hours.

I took the advice of the locals and wore the snow suit provided by the ice hotel for that extra bit of warmth, as well as my own balaclava and gloves, two pairs of socks and ski goggles, all of which was needed as it was bitter out at night, especially when you had the breeze biting at you as you whizzed along, the motorised snow scooters go at quite a speed.

We were warned that the great river which we would be crossing twice had many weak spots in it due to the weather not being as cold this year and to follow the leaders tracks exactly, as he knew where these weak spots were and not to venture off from his tracks, if your snow mobile goes down under that ice you are not coming back .

Most people were paired up and I was put on the back with a Swedish man to share the snow mobile, there were quite a few people on this trip, it was very noisy with all of the engines going, we looked like a line of Ice Hells Angels travelling along with our head lights all switched on.

It was once again bitterly cold, as expected, but this ride felt very, very long, an Irish couple I had met had already done this trip and warned me of it, now I knew how they had felt, after about 4 hours I was bitterly cold and had had enough.

The fun bits were whizzing through the forest tracks over the ice, it was really pretty to see the snowy trees come out of the darkness as they lit up by the head lamps one by one, the noise became wearing after a while though, like being at a Grand Prix, the Northern Lights could be seen at the point of destination, but in honesty I saw them clearer the two nights prior to this back at the Ice hotel grounds.

Finally we all stopped and had a meal of reindeer meat and berries, I had the vegetarian equivalent of spicy beans and berries with hot lingonberry juice to warm up, then we set off again for the journey back, I had not been able to warm up sufficiently in that time though and still felt shivery getting back on the snow mobile.

Even in two pairs of gloves my hands were bitterly cold, as was my face and although the snowsuit proved to be a good shield, I found my whole body shivering more and more as the cold set in.

We started the long snow mobile drive back to the ice hotel, myself and the Swedish chap were at the back of the group but speeding along nicely through the forests and over the snowy plains, after what seemed an age we finally hit the big Torne river, where the ice is a metre thick in places.

Suddenly there was a loud crack and a popping sound, I knew exactly what it was but the driver stopped and asked me if I had dropped my camera in the ice, I was panic stricken and shouted back to him that ‘no the sound was from the ice cracking’, he looked terrified, quickly re-started the engine, and still to the sounds of cracking ice, we sped off, the cracking underneath seemed to follow us for a bit then stopped.

I had been petrified for those for seconds, with grim thoughts of going through the ice down into that river and disappearing into the icy depths.

When we finally got back to the ice hotel outer grounds I felt very relieved and jumped off the snow mobile, clutching my camera and trying desperately to warm up by jumping up and down, the driver also was very happy to be off that ice river, in fact everyone looked relieved to be back, I think it had just been a particularly bitter night, around -30 with the added wind chill on top.

I walked back through the grounds alone and as I looked out across the skies, there were the Northern lights dancing about right in front of me it seemed, greener and brighter than I had seen them before now, I felt as though they were almost taunting me after those long hours out in the cold, but they were also a very welcome sight.

Back in my Nordic chalet I brewed up a hot chocolate, it took a while to get warm and stop shivering, it felt great to be back and to have experienced the snow mobiles but I was soon to be back outside, camera in hand trying to capture images of those Northern lights.

I found the Northern Lights difficult to photograph, more practice needed for me, but if you fancy trying it, below is the recommended process to capture the Northern lights on your camera:

1. You must have a tripod
2. Set your ISO to between 400 and 1000
3. Adjust the aperture to as wide as your lens will allows, i.e. you want the smallest number, ideally f2.8 or f1.4
4. Switch to manual so that your lens doesn’t keep moving back and forth trying to latch onto something (no autofocus)
5. Focus on a distant line of silhouetted trees, the moon, a brightly lit log cabin etc. to test it out
6. Start with a shutter speed of about 30 seconds, but be sure to review each and every exposure and make adjustments accordingly
7. Keep spare batteries snug in your coat pocket! – freezing temperatures and long exposures drain camera batteries rapidly
8. If you take your camera from a warm building out into the freezing Arctic night and try to take pictures straight away you will end up with a distinctly ‘soft focus’ effect due to condensation forming on the lens. Avoid this fogging by keeping your camera at as near an outdoor temperature as possible.

I stayed up until about 3am popping out every 30 minutes to see the if the lights were there, but they got fainter and fainter as the night went on so I finally gave up and went to bed, at least I had seen them strong, even if it was for those brief few minutes coming back in.

The next morning I was to head back home, so I made the most of the morning by roaming the grounds and taking some final photos of the area, the light looked amazing and I felt sad to be leaving, I took my backpack to the ice hotel check out point via a kick sledge, but still had a couple of hours to enjoy and take a few last photos, it was so incredibly beautiful there.

Its amazing what you can pack into 5 days and with years of travel behind me this short trip proved to be one of the happiest and most exciting that I have ever been on, I hope to go again one day, perhaps next time to experience the midnight sun but I shall no doubt be back to have another go at photographing those Northern lights.

Tailored trip – two flights over and two flights back with a train journey across country once there

Monday 16 January 2017
Flight Info: London Heathrow / Stockholm, Arlanda
Check-in: 04:40 London Heathrow Terminal 2 for Flight SK1530 – Scandinavian Air
Depart: 06:40 London Heathrow Terminal 2
Arrive: 10:05 Stockholm, Arlanda Terminal 5 – Monday 16 Jan 2017

Flight Info: Stockholm, Arlanda / Lulea
Check-in: 09:25 Stockholm, Arlanda Terminal 4 for Flight SK008 – Scandinavian Air
Depart: 11:25 Stockholm, Arlanda Terminal 4
Arrive: 12:45 Lulea – Monday 16 Jan 2017

Transfer Information: Tree hotel
Transfer will be from Lulea at 12:45 arriving Tree hotel at 13:45
Accommodation: Treehotel
Room Type: Treehouse The UFO

Transfer Information: Boden Central
Supplier: Tree hotel
Transfer will be from Tree hotel at 10:00 arriving Boden Central at 11:00
Train Info: Boden Central / Kiruna Central Train Take train across country
Check-in: 11:37 Boden Central for Flight 95 –
Depart: 11:37 Boden Central
Arrive: 15:09 Kiruna Central Train –
.
Transfer Information: Ice Hotel
Supplier: Ice Hotel
Transfer will be from Kiruna Central Train at 15:09 arriving Ice Hotel at 15:39
Accommodation: Ice Hotel
Room Type: 1 x Ice room

Husky Safari
Please arrive at 09:30 – 18/01/2017
Experience the dogs tremendous desire to run and pull as you travel through the beautiful
landscape of northern Lapland, the silence is broken only by the runners whooshing through the snow end up in wilderness by an open fire.

Accommodation: Ice Hotel
Room Type: 1 x Ice hotel Nordic chalet

Northern Lights Tour on Snowmobile
Please arrive at 19:45 – 19/01/2017
a night excursion in search of the magical northern lights. For the best
chance to see this phenomenon you will head out into the untouched wilderness on
snowmobiles.

Transfer Information: Kiruna Airport
Supplier: Ice Hotel
Your Transfer will be from Ice Hotel at 12:30 arriving Kiruna Airport at 13:00
Flight Info: Kiruna Airport / Stockholm, Arlanda
Check-in: 12:15 Kiruna Airport for Flight SK1045 – Scandinavian Air
Depart: 14:15 Kiruna Airport
Arrive: 15:50 Stockholm, Arlanda Terminal 4 – Friday 20 Jan 2017

Flight Info: Stockholm, Arlanda / London Heathrow
Check-in: 16:15 Stockholm, Arlanda Terminal 5 for Flight SK533 – Scandinavian Air
Depart: 18:15 Stockholm, Arlanda Terminal 5
Arrive: 19:55 London Heathrow Terminal 2 – Friday 20 Jan 2017

For the complete gallery of Ice Images, please go to www.amanda-king-akimages.com

Banwell Bone Caves

Banwell Bone Caves

Imagine entering a tiny opening on a hillside into a slippery, rocky cavern to explore pitch black chambers by candlelight, the lowest one revealing a turquoise blue lake and much later a further discovery of a cave filled with thousands of animal bones, the like you have never seen before.

In 1842, a human skeleton was found on the grounds of the estate close to the caves and remains an unsolved mystery to this day.

Banwell Bone Cave

Banwell Bone Cave

In the 19th century the reopening of this lost cave, followed by the second cave stacked with bones of animals no longer living in Britain found on Banwell Hill, caused a great deal of interest.

At the time, the land was owned by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, named George Henry Law who believed that the bones had been washed in by Noah’s flood.

He invited people to come and see the caves to witness the aftermath of Gods punishment of a wicked world as a warning of their own fate if they did not live their lives within the ideals of the church.

Nowadays, we know that the bones are from animals who lived in the ice age and the little known site in Banwell village has been classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and important to the scientific study of Ice Age Britain.

According to John Chapman, who made a short film about the caves, any bones found of the ‘same period of the Ice Age as these bones are known as ‘Banwell Type Fauna’ and the caves are one of the best areas in Britain for the protected species of Greater Horseshoe Bats.

The bones are now known to be from the Pleistocene period, 50,000 – 80,000 years old, it would have been arctic landscape in that time and the animals had been living above the caves on the land and their bones would have washed into the cave by melting ice and high rivers.

The Natural History Museum has identified the bones as:
Bison (Bison priscus)
Otter (Lutra sp.)
Wolf (Canis lupus)
Wolverine (Gulo gulo)
Arctic Hare (Lepus timidus)
Reindeer (Rangifer taradus)
Northern Vole (Microtus oeconomous)
Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus)

Whalebone cave entrance

Whalebone cave entrance

At the time of the discovery the public were fascinated by the site fueled by the Bishops wild religious beliefs and people flocked to see the caves, the Bishop planted woods on the hill and built follies, summer houses and a tower.

Then in 1834 he built a small Druids temple to show visitors how ‘the wicked Pagans were punished for their way of life.’

According to local men John Chapman and John Haynes the caves were popular for about 40 years but then people lost interest and the caves were forgotten for a long time.

These two men, who I shall refer to as the two Johns have taken people to see the caves, but nowadays it is by invitation only as they are both retired and struggling to keep it going, on the website it stated ‘No tours in 2016’.

However I wrote to them and asked if I could see the caves and they willingly accepted and on meeting them it was apparent that their enthusiasm and passion for the caves is still very much alive.

So, here is the story of the caves illustrated with some of my photographs.

Many years ago Banwell Hill was just a meadow which was being mined for lead, ochre, calamine and barites, in 1757 some minors chipped their way through into a large cavern full of stalactites.

There are records of it being as big as the inside of Banwell church and according to writings from a local Solicitor George Bennett, the village choir went in and tested out the acoustics of the cave.

The interest in the cavern passed and the cave eventually collapsed preventing anyone from entering it, but in 1824 the local Vicar got curious about the cave and organised a new search which led to the re-opening of the cave.

He hired two miners and paid them 50p each to excavate the old mine shaft which took them a week to complete, the cave now had an entrance but it meant that visitors had to climb down two ladders to reach it, which was considered to be unsafe.

The Vicar wanted to charge the public to come and see the cave and put the profits towards the church and the local school, to make the cave more accessible to prospective visitors the minors went for an alternative route in through a small opening in the quarry.

This opening led into a completely different cave which instead of stalactites held thousands of animal bones from species that no longer lived in the UK, it was an incredible find and made this cave far more interesting than the original one that they were trying to get to.

More bones

More bones

The Vicar was totally awe struck and convinced that such a large collection of animal bones in that cave must have been the aftermath of Noah’s Flood from the bible, he truly believed this and thought that to have such an important find would put Banwell and its caves on the map.

In 1924 George Henry Law became Bishop of Bath and Wells and the owner of the estate where the caves were and he took over the opening of the caves to the public. He sold the idea that if people saw the bones of all the animals drowned in Noah’s flood as a punishment for a wicked world that the people would think about their own life styles.

As an added attraction he had a mock Druids temple built on the land, even though the Druids in fact had nothing to do with the area, he also added the Trilathon, which was a mound with three stones on and a stone circle around it, this was to make visitors believe that the Pagans were also punished in the flood.

The Druids Temple is very simple with a stone table representing an altar inside, at the entrance of the doorway are written these words:

Here, where once Druids trod in times of yore
And stain’d their alters with victims gore
Here, now, the Christian, ransomed from above
Adores a God of mercy and love.
This was clearly written to make people contemplate the Druids in comparison with that of Christians and the Bishop played out a very strong message of this in the grounds.

Stone Table in Druids Temple

Stone Table in Druids Temple

Of the summerhouses built by the Bishop, by far the most interesting was the Pebble House which was a small building with three arches and pillars inside and decorated with hundreds of pebbles.

The ceiling looks incredible with a spiral of pebbles, even the pillars are covered in the smooth oval pebbles of all different shades, on the roof stand two animal statues to guard the building; one of the statues was a lion and the other a camel.

The lion was stolen but has since been replaced, however the camel, which lay on the ground for years before being restored to the roof, is still the original statue.

Behind the summer house are stone steps that lead to all the stones and rocks that were taken out when making the tunnel to the bone cave, all neatly stacked against a wall.

This was a really interesting place to look around and when you stand inside and look out, you can see out across the Bristol channel and surrounding areas.

Pebble House

Pebble House

571

Pebble Roof

Pebble Roof

Banwell Tower was built at the hill top as well as hundreds of trees which had been planted to make a wooded walk way up through to the tower, the woods nowadays look stunning.

The Tower

The Tower

The Banwell tower that Bishop Law built still stands today and is 50 feet high, constructed of lias stone from the nearby hamlet of Knightcott, the tower cuts a handsome spectacle for all to see.

If you are willing to walk up the steep, narrow stairwell to the top of the tower on a clear day you will be rewarded with views as far as the Brecon Beacons to the North and Exmoor to the South as well as the woods of the estate.

The Trilathon was demolished in the second world war because the RAF, who had set up a camp in the grounds, could not turn their vehicles around as this mound was in the way.

The woods with ruins

The woods with ruins

The Bishop had put a great deal of effort into the caves, he later appointed a farmer called William Beard who taught himself about bones and it was he who kept the public interest up in the caves after the Bishops death in 1845, so enthusiastic was he, that he continued taking people in to see the caves until he was 93 years old.

In 1868 William Beard died and the caves seemed to die with him as interest in them all but disappeared and they were virtually forgotten about by the locals.

A human skeleton was found close to the caves which was more modern than the animal bones, William Beard took the skeleton to the other end of the estate up through the woods past the tower and buried it beneath a stone there.

On the stone is written the words:

A human skeleton found near the Bishops cottage 1842
Beard with his kindness brought me to this spot
As one unknown and long forgot
He made my grave and buried me here
When there was no kind friend to shed a tear
My bones are here but my spirit is fled
And for years unknown numbered with the dead
Reader as I am so shall you be
Prepare for death and follow me

Quite a creepy statement I thought.

William Beard (1772 – 1868) played an essential part in keeping the bone cave open and created public awareness about it through drawing people in with the mystery of the bones, a young female visitor wrote a poem about him in the visitor book and he kept it by his side in his notebook.

Stranger, to Banwell Heights, where gently blow
The soft sea breezes! Thither thou must go.
Bend thy unwilling steps in cavern drear
Behold earths ancient relics hidden there
Bones of the Buffalo, the Wolf, the Bear
And pass a moments time, in thought severe
But not alone, let those your thoughts engage,
There lives, who in your memory claim a page,
One, of whose patient searching you have heard
Famed for his kindness, as his learning, sound
Without whose skill, those bones had near been found
Stranger! I need not say his name is Beard!

A worthy tribute and thank you to the man who was so passionate about the bone cave, if it was not for him, the cave would have disappeared without any further interest.

Nowadays the caves are conserved by the Banwell Caves Heritage Group, a small group of local people who, along with the land owners are trying to ensure that the unique caves remain protected.

If you wanted to visit the caves you can request to see them through www.banwellcaves.org and John Chapman and John Hayes will take you round after showing you a short film about the history of the caves.

These two men are retired and are struggling to keep it all going, they were so interesting to talk to and I felt extremely privileged to have had the chance to go and see the bone cave and meet the two Johns.

I really do hope that the Banwell Bone Cave keeps going, it would be so sad if the candle lit light of interest finally went out on this cave after all of the efforts to keep it going.

A.K.

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.

One of the most prominent memories I have of Egypt is the very loud singing over a microphone by a Holy man reciting prayers at about 5am in the morning and then again at about 7pm in the evening, it sticks in my mind to this day.

Our guide for the whole trip was called Farid, he was a huge plump man who really knew his stuff on Egyptology 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 until it was too late 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 remember 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 had not, 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 with 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 Tutankhamen, 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 Military 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.