Serengetin NP, Tanzania – Part 2

Our camp in the Serengeti was open. There were no fences create a boundary between us and the animals. If they wished to walk through our campsite, they were at liberty to. As we ate our dinner by the campfire, we heard a number of hyenas close to the camp. And the following morning, our tour guide told us that a water buffalo had walked through our camp during the night.

After an early breakfast, we headed out for a sunrise game drive, as the early morning provides good opportunities to see animals before the midday heat urges many of them to take refuge in the shade. It is also the time that the big cats (lions, cheetahs and leopards) are most active.

We did indeed see a few female lions that morning, although they were quite a distance from our truck.  Other animals we saw were zebras, gazelles, topi, warthogs, impalas, dik-diks (small little deer-like animals), to name a few. We were also lucky enough to witness the wildebeest migration. It is incredible how these animals migrate from one part of the Serengeti to another, almost in a perfectly straight line. There was also a leopard sleeping in a distant tree, but due to the insufficient lens on my camera, I couldn’t get a shot of it. Similarly, we saw  a young cheetah eating its breakfast that morning, but it was too far away for me to get a photo of it.

After lunch and a few hours of relaxing by our campsite, we headed out again for another game drive. This time were luckier and saw a number of animals quite close to us.  There was a female lion basking in the shade of a tree, a giraffe almost sticking his head into our truck and a heard of elephants walking across the road right in front of us.

Aside from the animals, the Serengeti landscape is beautiful. I visited in January, which follows the short wet season in November/December, but it did not rain this season. So instead of lush green landscapes, the grasses were dry. But these landscapes were filled with a beautiful spectrum of yellows and oranges, with small flecks of green. The landscape is dotted with small rock formations, Acacia trees, umbrella trees, among others, to create that stereotypical ‘African’ landscape. The opening of Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ was running through my head all day. AHHH ZIBENYA AMA ZEE BABA…

Next stop, Ngorongoro Crater (my favourite place in Tanzania).

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Serengeti NP, Tanzania – Part 1

After a night in Musoma, we packed up our campsite and headed towards Serengeti National Park. To me, the name Serengeti always congers up images of the ultimate safari – vast plains filled with hoards of wild animals. And in most ways, it didn’t disappoint. Due to the size of the national park, over 14,000 square kilometres, the animals are rather dispersed, so there did not seem to be ‘hoards’ of them. Many animals were at quite a distance from our vehicle, and because it did not cross my mind to get a new lens for my camera, I had to put up with my 24-105mm and was rather jealous of my fellow travellers who were taking great shots, even with a simple point-and-shoot camera that had a good zoom. Their giraffe took up three-quarters of the frame, whereas mine was a speck in the distance. So naturally, I was rather excited when the animals were close to our truck. One piece of advice if you’re travelling to Tanzania and into photographer, don’t make my mistake and invest in a decent lens.

We had lunch at the entrance of the park and slowly headed towards our campsite, spending time to look out for animals on the way. To our surprise, the first animal we saw was a young male lion lying in the shade of a tree within ten metres of the road. Our guide told us that it was very unlikely to see a male lion, let alone one so close. So we were extremely lucky. Like most of the animals we saw during our stay in the Serengeti, he was not afraid of us and simply continued to enjoy his afternoon nap, as if we were not there.

Further down the road, we took a slight detour and drove by a small dam filled with hippos, perhaps about fifteen of them. Because their skin is so sensitive to the sun and the heat, the hippos spend their days in the water and only come ashore at night. So it’s quite unlikely that you will see a hippo walking around. We didn’t stay too long, as there is always a terrible smell coming from the water wherever there are hippos and we had to get keep moving towards our camp in order to reach it before the sun set.

As we were nearing our camp, we saw a herd of elephants walking through some broken trees. Again, they were quite close to our truck, about twenty metres away, so we were all very excited about this photo opportunity. Whenever we saw elephants, both in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, they were always in a herd, keeping very close to each other, like a tight-knit family.

We reached our camping spot just before sunset and everyone was very excited about our eventful afternoon. I think we were all impressed by all the animals we saw and it was perhaps our best game drive during our two night stay in the park.

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Central Spain: Madrid, Segovia & Toledo

I have to admit, going to Central Spain was never part of the plan. I had a few days between Portugal and my tour of Morocco, found an extremely cheap flight from Porto to Madrid (only 20 euros, plus 20 euros for luggage), so I thought why not. I had three days to spare, so I decided to spend one in Madrid, one in Segovia and one in Toledo (I thought I’d better take the opportunity to see as much as I could).

I was very impressed with the Spanish capital, I liked it much better than Barcelona. The Palacio Real (the royal palace, so magnificently restored after the Spanish civil war), The Prado Museum (great for all those art lovers), Plaza Mayor (the main piazza in Madrid attracts hundreds of tourists, and just as many pickpocketers), Parque del Buen Retiro (a beautiful park in the centre of the city), shopping on Le Gran Via (the main shopping street in Madrid), Estacion de Atocha (an amazing place which is half train station, half rainforest), San Miguel Markets (the best place to shop for fresh produce and food in Madrid), not to mention the array of fantastic restaurants and bars. I could have spent more than a day or so in Madrid…

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Whilst in Madrid, I also visited the towns of Segovia and Toledo. Whenever I visit Europe, I enjoy taking some time out of the big cities and visiting towns in the countryside. Being only about one hour’s bus ride out of Madrid, Segovia and Toledo were the perfect little out-of-city get aways.

The main attraction in Segovia is of course its famous castle, which could have inspired fairytale writers many centuries ago. It is the quintessential fairytale castle in every respect – the moat, the peaked towers, the drawbridge, etc.  Aside from this attraction, the old town of Segovia, as well as that of Toledo, are the perfect places to spend a day meandering through the narrow streets, enjoying a beautiful ‘alfresco’ lunch and wandering through the many little interesting stores.
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Getting there:
Madrid is well connected with many European cities via air, and most Spanish centres via bus and train (but these days, flying may be the cheaper option). Ryanair flies from Porto to Madrid, for as little as 20 euros. Buses to Segovia leave regularly from Chamartin Station and return tickets are approximately 15 euros. To get to Toledo, take a bus from Puerta de Atoche Station, which also leave regularly and cost about the same price.

Stay:
I stayed at The Way Hostel, c/Relatores 17. Centrally located and right next to a metro station, this hostel had clean and tidy rooms, and was in a side street, so noise wasn’t an issue. The had a fantastic communal room, organise sangria nights and dinners, to create a great atmosphere and made it extremely easy to get to know fellow travellers.

Eat/Drink:
There are so many fantastic places to eat and drink, I don’t know where to start. For lunch or snacks, definitely visit San Miguel Markets. I ended up one night in some fantastic bar, not far from the hostel. I’m not sure what is was called, but I do remember some great tunes being played and peanut shells all over the floor.

Blue Mountains, Australia

We spent two days of the recent Queen’s Birthday long weekend taking a road trip through the Blue Mountains. You wouldn’t believe it, but this was my very first visit to the area, and I’ve lived in Sydney for most of my 27 years. I was so impressed by the place, its natural beauty was beyond description (and the photos believe do not quite do it the justice it deserves). There are literarily hundreds of bushwalks to be done through the Blue Mountains National Park, so I would recommend visiting on more than one occasion to explore different routes. But on your first visit, there are a few things not to be missed:

  • Number one is of course the Three Sisters. Other overly touristic, which perhaps thousands of people visiting on the weekend, the rock formation is amazing, especially when set against such a dramatic and spectacular backdrop.
  • Wentworth Falls. If you’re game, and fit enough, it is worth walking down to the base of the falls. Just remember, it’s a long and steep way back up. Do a few bushwalks around the falls – the scenery is amazing. Not to mention some sections of the path – crossing cascades, walking along stepping stones, walking beneath enormous boulders..
  • The wind eroded cave. To get there, take Hat Hill Road from Blackheath and follow the signs to Anvil Rock.

There are also many interesting shops, great cafes and restaurants in the towns of Leura, Katoomba and Blackheath. It is a great place to go wining and dining, as well as doing a bit of antique shopping.

If you drive back to Sydney via Bells Line of Road, don’t forget to stop in Bulpin to purchase some locally grown apples, as well as home made apple pies and jams.

All in all, it is definitely a worth while weekend road trip from Sydney. It is easily done over two days, but if you want to explore the area in greater depth, an extra day or two would not go astray, especially if you wanted to delve further into the region, or perhaps visit the Jenolan Caves.
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Getting There:
From Sydney there are two main options. You can either take the northern Bells Line of Road from Richmond, or go via The Great Western Highway through Penrith.

Stay:
We stayed in budget accommodation in Katoomba, but there is a plethora of accommodation options, from budget to high end. From hostels, to hotels, guesthouses and bed & breakfasts, you’ll be sure to find somewhere to stay. Just note that many places have a minimum two night stay.

Eat:
We discovered the most amazing cafe in Katoomba, The Common Ground Cafe. Run by a religious community, they serve healthy drinks, snacks and meals. Try the ‘not chocolate’ (a mixture of carob and dandelion) or the apple & macadamia crumble. Their pancakes look incredible, and for those health nuts, try their ‘green drink’.

Porto, Portugal

If you loved Lisbon, you’ll be mad about Porto. Porto, or Oporto in Portuguese, is everything you love about Lisbon, but better. More culture, more history, more scenic views, more funky cafes and restaurants, and more beautiful historical architecture. Unlike Lisbon which was decimated in the 1755 earthquake (thus there are hardly any buildings in the city which date prior to this time), Porto did not have such misfortune and many of its streets and buildings have remained intact for centuries. You get this authentic, history and culture rich feeling about Porto, which is somewhat lacking in Lisbon. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Lisbon, but Porto has something more, something special.

Porto is also the place where port wine originated. The vineyards of the Douro Valley are world renown for their exquisite wines, and are connected to Porto via the Douro River. In the past, and even today, the Douro River was an extremely important trading route, taking the wines from the valley to Porto and beyond. Today there are many cellar doors on the southern side of the river, where you can taste and purchase authentic port wine.

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Getting There:
There is a frequent train and bus services connecting Lisbon and Coimbra to Porto. Ryanair offers cheap flights to and from London, making Porto a desired travel destination for Londoners in recent years. After Porto, I travelled to Madrid and initially considered taking the bus. However, I found a cheap flight with Ryanair, for 20 euros, to Madrid, so always check the flight connections, before enduring a long and tiresome bus trip.

Stay:
I stayed at an amazing hostel, The Gallery Hostel, located on Rua de Miguel Bombarda, in the arts district of Porto. The hostel was newly and tastefully decorated, spotlessly clean and they even organised an amazing tapas and wine tasting dinner for 15 euros while I was there. The hostel also doubles as an art gallery, exhibiting the works of local artists.

Eat:
Cafe Majestic: A beautiful, old world cafe located in the centre of Porto. Very ‘belle epoque’, you’ll feel like you are dining at The Ritz. A great place to grab a coffee and a croissant or a pasteis de nata (you are in Portugal of course) and watch the world go by.
Favorita: A cute little restaurant on Rua de Miguel Bombarda, serving a set lunch menu at a great price.
Casa de Pasto Palmeira: Located beside the river, this little restaurant serves traditional Portuguese tapas. Definitely worth a visit.

Shop:
A Vida Portuguesa: By far my favourite store. Selling traditional Portuguese handcrafts and products, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The building in which the store is situated in on Galeria de Paris, in the beautiful Clerigos neighbourhood, is exquisite, with timber floors, vaulted ceilings and an elegant staircase to the store (The Fernandes Mattos store is located on the ground floor of the building).
Aguas Furtadas Design: A fell in love with this store. Located in a small shopping arcade on Rua Miguel Bombarda, it is one of a handful of art/design stores in the complex. Selling handcrafted items made by local designers and artists, this store supports local crafts in the hope that they do not disappear. I had a great chat to the saleswomen about Portuguese arts and crafts. I purchased a number of items, including a beautiful Portuguese porcelain cabbage plate. If you don’t get the chance to get to Porto, they sell online and ship internationally. Visit their Facebook page for details.
Livraria Lello: I’m mad about books, so my visit to Porto wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this ‘institution’. Open since 1906, there is little wonder why it continues to attract customers. The Art Nouveau facade, the stained glass ceiling and the impressive grand staircase. Not to mention is amazing collection of books! Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed in the store, so I don’t have any images.

Cascais + Sintra, Portugal

Just  a quick little post about Cascais and Sintra. During my stay in Lisbon, I took some time out of the city to visit the towns of Cascais and Sintra. Although both a within close distance to Lisbon – about a half hour train trip, they are vastly different in appearance. Cascais, a former fishing village, has become a summer vacation spot for the rich and famous. Located on an L-shaped coastline, it has beautiful beaches on both sides, creating a very summer resort kind of atmosphere. Sintra, on the other hand, is located in the green mountainous hinterland. The town is surrounded by lush green forests and is home to many amazing stately homes and castles. Two which are well worth seeing and are open to the public are Pena National Castle and Quinta da Regaleira (my favourite).

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Essentials:

Getting There:
Cascais – from Lisbon take the train from Cais do Sodre train station. Trains leave every half an hour or so for Estoril/Cascais. Cascais is the final stop, so you shouldn’t get lost. The train take 30 minutes to Cascais and the train station is located in the centre of town.
Sintra – from Lisbon take the train from Rossio train station. Again, the trains to Sintra are very frequent and the trip takes about half an hour. Sintra is the last station on the line.

Eat:
In Cascais, don’t forget to have ice-cream from Santini. This ice-cream parlour has been in business since 1949 and is an institution in Cascais. They have perhaps the best ice-cream I have tried with some of the most amazing flavours.

Tasmania, Australia

Last weekend my boyfriend and I headed down to Tasmania for four days to explore this southern most state of Australia. I have never been to Tasmania, or Tassie as we Australians affectionately call it, but had heard many great things about it, so was eager to visit and discover what everyone was raving about.

We flew into Hobart on  Thursday morning, hired a car and set out on our four-day whirlwind trip around the state. We preplanned our route, focusing mainly on the eastern coastline of Tasmania, including visits to Port Arthur, Freycinet National Park, Tha Bay of Fires and Cradle Mountain.
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Port Arthur: In the 1830s, this small town on the Tasman Peninsula became a penal colony for British and Irish convicts, most of which were hard criminals with a series of offences. Port Arthur was a highly undesirable place to be sent to, due to the hard labour which the prisoners endured and the punishment systems, which ranged from corporal punishment to the ‘silent system’. Being on a peninsular, it was extremely difficult to escape, as there is only a very narrow way at Eaglehawk Neck (which is worth a quick visit to see the Tessellated Pavement – above). Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of the original settlement. It is believed that only about 30% remains, due to the site being plundered and ravished by bushfires. However, the site is very beautiful, located right on the Tasman Sea and surrounded by lush forest, it seems like some sort of strange paradise. I was although a little disappointed with the site – I was expecting more ruins and more of an insight into how the convicts lived here. But I guess it is worth the visit, if only to learn a bit more about Australia’s convict past.

Freycinet National Park: Located on the east coast of Tasmania, this is one national park which may have the best views in Australia. Freycinet National Park contains bays with sapphire blue waters and white sandy beaches, surrounded by knuckled of granite mountains. The most spectacular view is perhaps the one you are welcomed with when driving into Freycinet – the dramatic peaks of The Hazards. We arrived in the late afternoon, so the golden hue of the setting sun amplified the colours of the eroded granite. We had just enough time before the sun set to walk to the lighthouse and the Wineglass Bay lookout, which just blew us away.

Bay of Fires: Although the unfortunately little visited northern east coast of Tasmania is the Bay of Fires. It’s clear azure waters, sandy white beaches and rocky outcrops covered in red algae create one of the most stunning landscapes. We visited Binalong Bay and spent the morning walking along the beach and exploring the collections of boulders. I original thought that the Bay of Fires was named as such, because of the fire red algae growing on the boulders which frame the beaches along the bay. But rather, it has a historical foundation, dating from 1773 when Captain Tobias Furneaux noticed fires along the bay, signalling that the coast was inhabited by the native Aborigines.

Cradle Mountain National Park: Perhaps one of the most famous parts of Tasmania is Cradle Mountain, which can be found in the very heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness. There are many walks to do around the national park, ranging in length and difficulty. We decided to do the Dove Lake walk, which is a 6km walk around Dove Lake, located at the base of Cradle Mountain. The walk takes approximately 2 hours, and due to the microclimate around Cradle Mountain, it is usually completed in the rain. We were lucky enough that the sun shone for about a third of our walk, but we were still very wet once we returned to the car. Despite the rain, the walk was spectacular – the rain added an eerie, yet beautiful, atmosphere to the landscape, as you can see by some of the photographs.

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Essentials:

Getting There:
Virgin and Jet Star fly to both Hobart and Launceston from most capital cities in Australia. If you book far enough in advance, the flights are reasonably cheap. We purchased flights Sydney to Hobart, Hobart to Launceston for about AU$200. The Spirit of Tasmania ferry services still operate between Melbourne and Davenport. The trip takes about 9 hours and fares vary depending on your travel itinerary. Check their website for details. Tasmania is best explored by car, so if you don’t bring your own on the ferry, it is best to hire one from either Hobart or Launceston airport. There are a number of different hire car companies, such as Europcar and Budget.

Stay:
Pay a little extra and upgrade from budget accommodation. Unlike hostels in Europe and South America, the standard of hostels in Tassie was shockingly low. We unfortunately didn’t have the best experiences in hostels, so I’m not going to recommend any of them. But like anywhere, prices and standards vary. Looking back, we probably should have stayed in small towns, such as Evendale near Launceston (which we stumbled across accidentally when we missed the turn off to the airport – it was such a pretty town), rather than in the cities.

Eat:
Hobart – Jackman and McRoss Cafe: Located in Battery Point, this quaint little cafe/bakery/patisserie has an old world English charm about it. The cakes, breads and pastries are absolutely stunning. So well presented and they taste even better. And not to mention their granola, which is to die for. Highly recommended for breakfast, lunch, snacks. Unfortunately they don’t do dinner.
St Helens – The Blue Shed: We spent the night in St Helens and had dinner at this restaurant which came highly recommended. Everything was lovely and the service was fantastic. From the pumpkin sourdough starters to the Blue Eyed Cod or Pork Belly and finally the Creme Brulee  finished off with Bay of Fires Pinot Gris, a delightful dinner.