From Kurdistan to Socotra – an island in the Arabian sea, off the horn of Africa and one of those places which elicits the response’ ‘where?’ when you tell people where you’re going. It is part of Yemen, currently governed by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist participant in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. (So is politically Asian and geographically African).
When folk have worked out where Socotra is the next comment is, ‘Aren’t you brave?’ So then I start to worry that I should be worried. Socotra is deemed safer than mainland Yemen (much of which is totally off limits for reasons of safety and politics), though still coloured in red on all the government advisories. It’s on the main shipping routes, accessible to Somalia (and therefore Somalian pirates) and the risk of kidnap is said to be high. Though I’m not sure what the odds are, they don’t give those sort of statistics.
There are actually four islands in the archipelago, but the island of Socotra represents around 95% of the landmass of all of them. The main island is just 78 miles long and 28 miles north to south. It‘s mainly a limestone plateau with karst topography, surrounded by narrow coastal plains, with gorgeous white sand beaches, rising to the Hajhir Mountains.( 1,500 metres).
We catch a charter flight out. You have to come to Socotra for a week (or multiple weeks), as the planes only go from Abu Dhabi, every Tuesday. I've arrived there for Erbil in Kurdistan. It's very strange to see groups of tourists with leaders. Summer dresses. Straw hats. I’m hoping the island is big enough to absorb its once a week cargo. I’m with guide Ana for the third time this month. Fortunately for me, she’s lovely. Perhaps it's less fortunate for her. We are a group of eight this time, with local guide Ali and three drivers in charge of their beloved Land Cruisers. 4WD is entirely necessary on this rough and arid terrain. The drivers are also very good natured cooks, guides, camp attendants, furniture arrangers and general factotums.
Socotra is astonishingly wild and beautiful. The climate of Socotra today is classified as a hot desert climate bordering on a semi-desert climate. The mean temperature is 25 °C,but it feels much hotter. It’s very humid. It’s the northeast monsoon now (from October to December). No mosquitoes, hallelujah, and though it’s the wet season, it very cleverly tends to rain at night (over the clothes I have invariably laid out to dry on the railing outside my room). The online weather forecasts are spectacularly inaccurate. I suspect they are just guessing. The southwest monsoon season (from June to September) brings strong winds and high seas. The shipping routes then are referred to as the “Sikotro Sinh”.
The women in Socotra are dressed in black abayas with full niqab. Shy, and very camera averse. The menfolk are the opposite. Most (but not all) of the tourists are dressed fairly modestly ( as they say piously) though the women for the most part have their hair uncovered. Guide Ana asks us three women to wear headscarves when in town. She says it’s respectful. So we do, though the other tour groups do not. And the men in our group have an interesting take on appropriate costume. One guy is wearing mid thigh length shorts and knee supports. I’m not sure if he thinks that these lengthen the shorts (there’s a gap in-between) or whether he has joint problems. Maybe that accounts for the mixed reception from the locals. It varies from cheery welcomes ( schoolchildren from behind barred windows),, to surly looks and no response to our shouted salaam alaikums.
The buildings are mainly stone, the older village houses small and lumpy, like the sort of houses children make with pebbles. More modern buildings are rendered - the UAE and Saudi Arabia vie in their support – Saudi schools in their typical ochre Arab style and UAE buildings in more traditional, but flat faced stone, plastered with UAE flags.
There are goats everywhere. Millions of them, foraging in the rubbish. They threaten the precious Socotran fauna and hoover up any left over food. They also enjoy paper apparently, stealing tissues when they can. It’s kidding season and mothers with attendant babies skip across every 100 metres of road with impunity.
The north coast capital of Socotra, Hadibo, has a population of about 8,000. And is accessed by some of the few paved roads. There are heaps of rubbish. Rubble. Unfinished buildings. Colourful patterned wrought iron gates. Market stalls with scarlet canopies. And shops where the goods inside are beautifully and colourfully arranged on painted shelves. Sometimes, the signage depicts the goods that are on sale with simple drawings. It’s very reminiscent of Somaliland. Unsurprisingly.
The Summerland Hotel is the best hotel on the island - many would say it’s the only hotel on the island. It's directly opposite the mosque, so there are calls and preaching through the tannoy early in the morning and throughout the day. The rooms are basic, with wooden furniture and clean, if you don’t look too hard. We’re told to leave our key, if the room is to be serviced whilst we are out, but the bins aren’t emptied, the towels aren’t replaced and the toilet paper isn’t replenished. Neither is the leaking pipe in the bathroom fixed.
There’s hot water, if you’re quick and Wi-Fi if you’re the only one using it. The manager is very sweet and tries to find me a better connection via his mobile. He also tracks down a missing shoe that has gone over the edge of the balcony.
In the same way that there is only one hotel on Socotra, there’s only one restaurant, which we patronize most evenings. Fish, fried potatoes, fried chicken and goat, with lots of rice and beans. It’s tough for vegetarians. Ellen, who’s remarkably fit and has climbed The Seven - the highest peak on very continent, douses everything with hot sauce in an attempt to give it some flavour. But there are some yummy fruit juices. Our table is outside and we’re joined by cats, who hide under the table and miaow for titbits, and goats who have no table manners. They climb up onto the chairs, front hooves clomped on the table and snaffle our bread. Huge rounds of it.
The drivers/cum chefs offer an almost identical menu during the day. They set up fires to cook, fill their water carriers from the creeks (I’m trying not to think about the goats here) and wash the dishes in the same streams. Driver Fouad strips off and sits in there with the pans, singing. Our dining rooms are the most luxurious part of the trip. Either stone built shelters with thatched roofs on the beach or a tent/gazebo. The drivers even bring trestle tables and fold-up chairs and offer platters of fruit and dates. I can’t really complain.
Most importantly, Socotra is a naturalists' haven. A split off from Gondwanaland island, that is the Arabian Sea’s answer to the Galapagos. Well almost. A third of the flora species here are endemic. Almost 700 of them. The coast road gives us a taste of this with bottle trees emerging from rocks. Socotra has been described as "the most alien-looking place on Earth’.
But, according to Jonathan Kingdon, 'the animals and plants that remain represent a degraded fraction of what once existed.' The first century A.D. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea reported crocodiles and large lizards. Until a few centuries ago, there were rivers and wetlands on the island. Now, the long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a ‘unique and spectacular endemic flora’, with most of the island UNESCO recognised.
The endemic fauna, includes six species of birds, such as the Socotra starling and sunbird. There’s only one endemic mammal (a bat), but 31 endemic reptiles (skinks, legless lizards, and one species of chameleon. And I haven’t even started on the invertebrates (especially the freshwater crabs and spiders). The plants are endangered by the non-native goats and the birds by non-native feral cats.
In ancient times, Yemen was the home of the Sabaeans, a trading state that included parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Islam spread quickly in the seventh century, but only on the mainland. In 1507 the Portuguese fleet commanded by Tristão da Cunha, with Afonso de Albuquerque, landed on Socotra, captured some land and attempted to set up a base on the strategic route to India. But they abandoned the attempt four years later for lack of a decent harbour and infertile land.
The Mahra sultans took control of Socotra in 1511, and the inhabitants were (mostly) converted to Islam during their rule. In 1834, the East India Company stationed a garrison on Socotra, and flirted with idea of buying the island. But the sultan, to their astonishment refused and they encountered, in any case, the same problems that had been faced by the Portuguese. They centred their efforts on Aden instead.
Yemen was divided between the Ottoman and British empires in the 1800s and in 1876, in exchange for a payment of 3,000 thalers and a yearly subsidy, the Sultan of Socotra was persuaded to pledge 'himself, his heirs and successors, never to cede, to sell, to mortgage, or otherwise give for occupation, save to the British Government, the Island of Socotra or any of its dependencies."
The Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen was established after World War I, leading to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. However, South Yemen, including Socotra, remained under British control, as the Aden Protectorate until 1967. It then became, first, an independent state with the Mahra sultanate abolished. Next, as a Marxist-Leninist state, the South Yemeni government allowed the Soviet Navy to use the Socotra archipelago as a supply and supporting base for its operations in the Indian Ocean from 1971 to the late 1980s. (Lines of Russian tanks rust along the shores as testament to these times). Eventually, the two Yemeni states united to form the modern Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Since 2011, Yemen has been in a state of civil war and violence, first instigated by street protests against poverty and unemployment and now a focus for Middle Eastern geo politics. Iran backs the Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabians have intervened, aiming to restoring President Hadi's government. Consequently, Yemen is currently thought to be the country with the most people in need of humanitarian aid, about 24 million people, or 85% of its population. As a result of the civil war, the island of Socotra became economically isolated. Fuel prices especially, spiked, causing residents to turn to wood for heat, exacerbating deforestation even further.
We set off in our Land Cruisers to explore the beaches and coastal plains. Wrecked ships give testament to the violence of the cyclones around here. In 2015, Cyclone Megh wreaked devastation, but such events are fortunately,, not very frequent. Salvage costs are too high to have the boats removed.
Delisha Beach, half an hour from Hadibo is tranquil and blue, with one massive sand dune slope rising above the limestone formations that decorate the sand here. A natural fortress. A kid munches the khat scattered around the vehicles when we are parked up. A driver has been handing it out liberally (and chewing himself of course).
The sands are wide, silver and gorgeous. But they have to be treated with caution. The beaches around the island are littered with the corpses of dead puffer fish, tiny in their deflation, with staring eyes. Their skeletons are covered in small thorns, painful to tread on and sharp enough to penetrate beach shoes, I discover. No-one has an explanation for their demise.
But a swim, as the sun goes down, definitely is delicious. The sea is balmy and the waves are just high enough to allow for some relaxing bobbing. We don’t realise that there’s also a current wafting along, until we finally emerge from our warm bath onto the beach, to discover that we can’t find our clothes in the dark.
Up into the mountains. Great views of azure water. Pretty beaches. Prehistoric etchings and petroglyphs on the ground at Eriosh. No one quite sure what they are or where they came from.
Then the highlight of the trip, for me. The Diksam Plateau -bottle trees- frankincense (boswellia), cucumber trees (the endemic Dendrosicyos socotranus) and the fabulous dragonblood trees. These are spreading umbrellas, supported by intricately patterned branches. The crimson resin from the trees (the dragon’s blood of the ancients), like frankincense, is extracted to use for cosmetics and to burn like incense. The locals are generally camera shy, but one young entrepreneurial resin vendor is happy to pose and is rewarded by several sales. There is a nursery too, nurturing the endemic aloes, used medicinally, desert roses and cucumber trees. It really is an awesomely alien world.
Derhur Canyon is the most spectacular limestone landscape feature on the island. The gorge drops vertically to the valley floor. Bedouin houses cling to the edges. A precipitous ride along the canyon rim and down to the stream at the bottom. Onto the lush canyon floor, home to Bruce’s green pigeons and laughing doves. And a couple of pools deep enough to wade in
Bottle trees fill all the niches on the wall. A Socotra gallery. The drivers skin and chop a goat to stew, whilst Egyptian vultures circle. There’s even a gazebo to provide shade. The meat is tough. There hasn’t really been time to cook it enough and at home the wives do all the cooking. But the flock of eagerly waiting vultures are happy to mop up all the leftovers.
On the far side of the canyon, a clamber up for a view over Fermhin Forest, the last remaining dragonblood woodland. A canopy of inside out parasols. It’s a photographer’s paradise, and others in the group clearly think so too. There’s an Indian guy with two grown up sons and a Frenchman with his Polish lady friend. Both sets spend inordinate amounts of time photographing each other in every possible premutation, at every possible opportunity. It’s horribly time consuming. And irritating when they wander obliviously into all my shots too. It’s Where’s Wally times five.
Camping is on offer at night, but the toilet block is 100 metres from the minuscule tents and I decline the invite. I’m even more glad about my decision when it rains heavily all night. But American Australian Diana and I are punished with a six o’clock start, in order to meet the others on the beach near Qalansyi, the westerly second town of Socotra.
Then, a boat trip along the coast to Shuaab. Some spectacular coastal scenery, cliffs and caves, cormorant covered crags. Spinner dolphins put in a welcome appearance, leaping out of the ocean in trios. No quarter is given in the camera department. I’m going to have to a lot of cropping out of people’s hats and cameras from my pictures. When we arrive, there’s another gorgeously long sandy beach and a mangrove area.
Back to Detwah Lagoon, more dunes and swathes of sublime sand dappled with small azure pools. Hermit crabs scurry in their hundreds. The water is heavenly. Terns wheel overhead, anxious that we avoid their nests. Ana and Ellen collect litter, flotsam and jetsam. A thankless task with no end in sight.
South, through the mountains, bumping alongside and through a long winding wadi, visiting small tumbledown villages along the way. The colossal silvery sand dunes of Hayf and Zahek have been squished up against the mountainside by seasonal winds. There’s a great view across the small sand sea and a little excitement, dune bashing in the Land Cruisers to get there.
Another beautiful, endless stretch of sand and more clear waters to wave jump in. The itinerary tells me that this is the Indian Ocean. Google says it's still the Arabian Sea.
Above the dunes, Dagub Cave with its many stalactites, stalagmites and pools of water that have seeped through the rock over time. And a colony of bats, lone rangers wheeling overhead..
East again, to Qaria, the largest lagoon on the island. It’s a pretty view and guide Ali says he’s going to build a house in the village here. It’s apparently home to flamingos, herons and greenshank, but none are putting in an appearance today.
The itinerary also doesn’t mention the steep hairpin bends and sheer drops involved in the ride up to Homhil. Though it’s not as long or as high as the one to Fairy Meadows in Pakistan. Our walk here is described as mainly flat, which isn’t entirely accurate and there’s some inelegant slipping over limestone grikes. Downhill, (so a return up the slope) to yet another magnificent viewpoint, where there is a natural (but totally dry) ‘infinity’ pool overlooking a village and out to dots of islands and the turquoise sea. Frankincense trees and a welcome sprinkle of dragonbloods decorate the wadi, as we scramble down.
On, to Arher, where more sand dunes have been piled up against the sheer rock face. Another glorious beach and more swimming. At the eastern tip of the island, the Arabian Sea nd the Indian Ocean meet, ostensibly.
To the east, again, Dihamri Marine Reserve is an excellent snorkelling area. The local equipment rental guy provides a welcome escort, as I scoot through the waves to the headland and back. There’s a good variety of exotic fish, all the usual suspects: parrotfish, tans, grouper, trumpet fish layered like a Jenga tower, tuna, angel fish, sergeant majors, shoals of zebra fish just below the surface. A turtle, graceful as always, a leopard eel with magnificent markings, peeking out of a hole, two octopuses lurking beneath rocky craters and plenty of live coral of assorted hues. It’s a brilliant little aquarium.
And now. sadly, it's time to go home.
I've flown from Basra in the south of Iraq, to Erbil the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. And beam me up Scottie.
Modern buildings English signage, neon lights, western style restaurants. The scenery in the north of Iraq is almost green. Khaki to sage maybe. And there are mountains, gorges and amazing views from on high. Clothing is more relaxed than in the south, with many woman flaunting their hair. Folded foothills with herds of sheep, arable land, potatoes, tomatoes and millet. Geese and turkeys meander across the road with the goats.
Some things don’t change. The buildings may look new. Most of them are, as the area was ravaged by Sadaam Hussein. But much is faulty or simply not finished. The hotel in Erbil, stinks of kerosene. Fire alarms chirp relentlessly in hallways.
There’s still plenty of litter, especially plastic. Water bottles are ubiquitous throughout Iraq. They're delivered to the table with gay abandon, alongside any meal. The menu is almost identical to those in southern Iraq. Mezze and kebabs, kebabs or kebabs. I’ve picked up a horrible bug and vomited all day.
And, here, in Kurdistan the striped Iraqi flag is emblazoned with a yellow sun. And everyone is still very friendly. ‘Welcome to Iraq’.
Now the group are six. All but two of the old crew from my Iraq tour have have left and the new folk know each other already, so life is much quieter for me on the bus. I still have guide Ana. Our Kurdish guide, Omar, and driver Mohammed, are two cool dudes. Like all Kurdish men, they are incredibly dark and hirsute and pay great attention to their hairstyles and clothing. But they have no idea where the monasteries we are due to visit around Erbil today are, as they are Christian sites and therefore unimportant. They have to ask for directions at the checkpoints. There are still a lot of those.
The roads are either smoothly busy highways or hair-raising single carriageway routes, badly in need of repair. There’s a continuous game of chicken on the latter, as cars zoom across to our side of the road, not caring that there is a minibus careering towards them. And on the better routes we still have to U turn across countless dual carriageway barriers, as there are no overhead slip roads and very few crossroads. Traffic lights and roundabouts are almost non-existent.
So car buying in Iraqi Kurdistan go car shopping is a problem. A hardy vehicle, maybe with 4WD for rough roads or a sleek saloon for in town and the major highways? The latter might be an Obama. The Kurds can't pronounce western marques very easily, so they've given most of the major makes nicknames. An Obama is a Chrysler. A Toyota Land Cruiser is a Wanawsha. She's a sophisticated Kurdish actress and singer. (It used to be called a Monica, after Monica Lewinsky.)
All the petrol stations here are individually owned, with different names. And for the first time, an encounter with the traffic police. They don’t have them down south and we can tell they mean business by the sour look on their faces. It seems that, heat notwithstanding, buses are not allowed to have curtains. Ours are all removed and a fine is duly issued.
The roadside stopping areas feature gaudy to kitsch stalls with lurid coloured drinks. The lemon and lime glows so much it could be radioactive. And the bus also smells of the gas it runs on. My nose streams the whole time.
The Kurds have had a rough time of it. Geographically, Kurdistan (with its language and distinctive culture and dress) roughly encompasses the north-western Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges. It includes regions in four countries: south-eastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), north-western Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).
The Kurds have been consistently denied the opportunity to form a united independent country, although this was referred to in the Treat of Sevres, when France and Britain divided up the spoils, as the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, after World War I. The British took over Iraq including Kurdistan, The main excuse given for not following through was instability. There has been ongoing rivalry and conflict between various Kurdish tribes and political factions. But the discovery of oil was also, almost certainly, a factor.
British rule saw the beginning of a series of wars and insurrections by the Kurds, which lasted until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. First, in 1919 Mahmud Barzanji attempted to establish an independent Kingdom of Kurdistan, with himself as monarch. Then, there were several rebellions led by various members of the Barzani family. (no relation to Barzanji). culminating in two Iraqi- Kurdish wars (1961-1970) and 1974. In fighting - between the two Kurdish factions the KDP and the PUK did not help. (these erupted again in the 1990s).
After the Kurds supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam's Ba'athist authorities reinforced large-scale displacement and colonization projects in North Iraq, aiming to shift demographics and thus destabilize Kurdish power bases. This was followed by a genocidal campaign, ( Al-Anfal), with an estimated 50,000–200,000 casualties. A chemical attach on Halabja resulted in the creation by NATO of a no fly zone and resulting autonomous state.
There has been continuing turmoil, civil war, disputed land areas (with Iraq) and ISIS to deal with but Kurdistan has maintained its autonomy. Many Iraqi Kurds today take the view that they are safer within the protective confines of Iraq, where they are able to exist as an autonomous state.
Erbil, (Kurdish name Hawler) is the largest town in Iraqi Kurdistan and its capital. Some sources claim that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to the fifth century BC, which is ancient. but apparently there was no urban life until 2300 BC. (The title is hotly disputed but generally thought to belong to Byblos.) Its story is told in one of the museums in the citadel, perched above the modern city. This in its turn, is home to surprisingly western style restaurants, cafes and bars. We're also able to photo bomb some pre wedding photographs.
Lalish Temple is the holiest pilgrimage site for the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority of northern Iraq. thought to be Zoroastrian descendants. (Some consider them to be the original Kurds.) The Yazidis were persecuted over long periods for their religion. (The last time was the 2014 genocide by ISIS.) Consequently, many Yazidis now live as refugees in Germany and other European countries. The shrine is built around the tomb of Sheikh Ali (12th century AD) but Yazidis claim that the original building is several thousand years old.
At least once in their lifetimes, Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage to Lalish to visit the tomb and other sacred places. Many of the visitors are garbed in their best clothes, Bejewelled, with hooped earrings. Sadly, I send most of my time there vomiting in the latrine block, but I do get to see some impressive turret like towers and doze in the guest room. Children in frilly party frocks queue up to converse, even though I have my eyes shut. And I get to meet the Yazidi leader, who is visiting with his family. ‘UK good.’ he says.
St. Matthew’s Monastery (Mar Mattai) dates back as far as 363 AD. The monks lived in caves then though. It’s a veritable fortress. high on the hills above a vast plain and it’s prettier up close than it looks from a distance. It belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church (an Oriental Orthodox church that branched from the Church of Antioch) and the Liturgy is sung in Syriac (a Neo-Aramaic language; it has its own alphabet).
Another monastery is to be attempted briefly, before we reach Dohuk, but the checkpoints have again flexed their muscle. We’re not allowed that way. It’s closed. It’s certainly beyond dusk now, but the monastery is not supposed to shut for another 30 minutes.
Like Erbil, Dohuk, the third city of Iraqi Kurdistan is bathed in gaudy lights . A line of them run up a long slope, marking the gondola track. It’s been inhabited for thousands of years: Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis and Arabs. The governorate currently hosts over 300 000 internal displaced persons in refugee camps, mostly Yazidis and Assyrian Christians (since the ISIS advance).
Our hotel vies for bottom of the gradings in accommodation on this trip. The cistern is faulty and tries to fill all night, the extractor fan rattles and the fridge whines. When I turn the valve to replenish the cistern the bathroom floor floods with water. Mysteriously, the toilet paper is mounted by the sink on the opposite side of the bathroom to the toilet. But it’s better than a tent.
A brief stop at Dohuk Dam, for a walk across the 60 metre high wall. It's an earth-fill embankment on the Duhok River just north of Duhok. Here, the soldiers demand the selfies, but we’re not allowed to include their equipment. And there's a view of the lake from above.
Back to the Assyrian Christian village of Al Qosh we were going to visit yesterday. Today, after some debate they let us in. There’s the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, founded in 635, the tomb of Jewish prophet Nehum, a Chaldean Catholic Church and a delightful little open-air museum.
Up the windiest of hairpin bends, above Al Qosh, this monastery has another spectacular setting. though it's so well camouflaged, built out of stone from the mountain that I can't make out the actual building, until we've almost arrived. There's a warren of caves for the monks, up scrambly precarious paths and a church that’s locked up.
The monastery is named after Rabban Hormizd (rabban is the Syriac for monk) of the Church of the East, who founded it in the seventh century. He was venerated as a saint by the Chaldean Catholics - another Syriac branch of the Church of the East, the result of several schisms of the Catholic Church. It has its own patriarchy and the site, served as the patriarchal residence and burial site from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The building was revived as a monastery and seminary in the nineteenth century.
Al Quosh is, unsurprisingly, a very Christian village. There's even a house completely covered in nativity frescoes. The museum comprises rickety old buildings, a delightful little domed church, sundry wheels and more great views across the valley.
Charsteen Cave is attained via another up hill scramble. It’s the site of a Zoroastrian fire temple, for the deity Anahita, dating from the first millennium BC. It has four carved stone pillars surrounding a fire altar. Fire, water, soil, and air, were the four sacred elements in Zoroastrianism. Perhaps more interesting is the visiting class of excitable. teenage schoolgirls. Selfie, Selfie.
On, to the ancient Assyrian city atop a high plateau. It features the Great Mosque of Amedi (built in 1177), the Bahdinian (Mosul) Gate, the cemetery of Bahdinian princes (they ruled the area from 1376 until 1843) and the Bahdinian madrassa.
Our hotel, on a windy road in a mountain resort, has great views across to Amedi, but old sheets on the bed. The replacement sheets are also dirty. Apparently, Iraqi tourists don’t expect to sleep on clean linen. The manager says he’s been busy working all day . No soap no toilet paper. And a hole in the floor toilet, shared with Aussie/American Diana. It’s an ideal place to have another upset stomach.
The Shanidar Cave is fascinating for its antiquity. It was home to nine Neanderthal skeletons, astonishingly ancient (between 65000 and 35000 years suggesting very long continuity of use), found here in the 50s and 60s; parts of two of them are in the Iraq museum in Baghdad. One of them had healed bones, another was buried with flowers.
Barzan is the home of the Barzani family, Kurdish leaders mentioned above. This is where the fabulous mountain scenery and gorges of Kurdistan begin. Dore Canyon, with its famous bends, snakes along to the small town of Soran. Barzan is also home to two imposing monuments of the Barzani victims of genocide, in the Anfal campaign during the 1980s. They're on hillsides with magnificent views.
The Rawanduz area features more incredible peaks and a canyon with precipitous drops and numerous view points. Some spots are marked with memorials and statues. Hopeful stall holders brandish scoops of honey. Though I'm going to have to crop the litter lining the edges out of my pictures.
Down below, running through mountains that were once considered impregnable, is the Hamilton Road: built by Archibald. Hamilton, a New Zealand born engineer. in 1928-1932. It ran from Erbil to the Iranian border. and has since been replaced with a modern road - Kurdistan’s Scenic Highway. Todays it's quiet and overgrown, except for the a group of Iraq picnickers, complete with fan assisted barbecue.
Korek Mountain Resort, in the Rawanduz area, was built in in 2011. A hotel, villas and a couple of restaurants. We take the gondola up, to explore. It’s supposedly popular with Iraqis from the whole country (Arabs like to come to experience snow in winter), but today it's fairly deserted. At the top, far reaching views of the mountains, rugged and barren and a postage stamp of ski slope.
Waterfalls in the Middle East tend to be resorts rather than tranquil places for relaxing. Cafes, illuminations and food stalls feature and Rawanduz's offering, Bekhal, is no exception.
Shaqlawa is another popular, if gaudy hill station resort, famous for fresh air, honey and nuts. It sits at the bottom of Safeen Mountain. The winding main street is lined with food and souvenir stalls: lokum, dates, figs and brightly coloured sweets.
Lake Dukan is an artificial water reservoir, also used for irrigation and hydropower. It's prettily blue, surrounded by some spectacular arid mountains. Assorted motor boats are lined up along the rocky beach, their owners idling under a canopy. Negotiations for a short ride come to a swift halt when it becomes clear that they won't interrupt their slumbers for under a hundred USD.
The Red Prison (Amna Suraka) once served as the headquarters of the Ba’ath (Saddam's) regime. It was used as a prison and place of torture for the Kurdish population. Today, it is left preserved as a museum and memorial to the thousands of Kurds imprisoned and killed there. The centrepiece is the astonishing Hall of Mirrors, which contains over a hundred thousand shards of glass. One for every victim of Saddam’s reign of terror against Kurdistan.
Like all these places, it’s almost unbearable. Yet another reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Row upon row of photographs of those who have died either from the Kurdish genocide perpetuated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath movement or later by ISIS.
The torture chambers are particularly gruesome, with no holds barred descriptions of the types of torture, the scenes bizarrely depicted with plaster cast mannequins.
The schoolgirls visiting here wear belted trousers and tucked in white blouses so the shape of their bottoms is exposed. Some also daringly flaunt their ankles with cropped legs. Their chatter and smiles not entirely appropriate for the occasion mitigate the horror somewhat.
The Road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah is poor. Ostensibly, because the two cities hate each other and want to prevent interaction. Sulaymaniyah is the cultural capital of Kurdistan, but the smaller city of the two. It's the home of poets, writers, historians, politicians, scholars and singers, such as Nalî, Mahwi, and Piramerd.
Sulaymaniyah is also full of bustle and character. And the bazaar is another fascinating wander. The men, out for their pre-weekend relaxation, wear the traditional Kurdish costume, baggy boiler suits cinched in at the waist with patterned cummerbunds and embordered round caps or turbans. They don’t flinch at all at the approach of the camera and wave benignly over their tea. 'Hello. Where are you from?'
In the evening, the whole of the city turns out to wander around, eat from the many fancy food stalls lining the main thoroughfares, sip coffee and people watch.
At Halabja, there’s another memorial for the 5000 victims of the chemical bomb attack perpetrated on the town by Ali Hassan al-Majid under the direction of Saddam Hussein, on March 16th 1988. He earned himself the nickname “Chemical Ali”.
It's a fitting and sobering end to our trip in Kurdistan. Next up, Socotra.
The Cradle of Civilisation, in modern day Iraq, has been on my Bucket List for a long time. This is the land where writing and the wheel were invented. During ancient times, (as we were taught at school), the lands that now constitute Iraq were known as Mesopotamia -'Land Between the Rivers'. Wealthy, because it comprised much of what is called the Fertile Crescent. Here, Sumer gave way to Akkad, then Babylon, and then Assyria. Next, subsumed into the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires, before becoming a central part of the Islamic world in the seventh century. I’m going to be working my way backwards in time on my tour, it seems. And I'm hugely excited. The Tigris and Euphrates were a big feature of RE lessons at school - it will be amazing to actually see them.
Recent history of Iraq has been even more turbulent than it was in ancient times. The modern nation-state of Iraq was created, following World War I, from the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, ruled by the British. Iraq technically gained independence as a kingdom in 1932, the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, and 10 years later the Baʿath Party came to power, in a bloodless coup. Oil brought immense wealth (proven oil reserves second in the world only to those of Saudi Arabia), ambitious projects were financed and a huge well equipped army developed.
The new leader, Saddam Hussein, needs little introduction. He ruled with an overly firm hand, oppressed the Shia majority (he was as Sunni) and the Kurd minority and engaged in various disastrous military adventures, most notably war with Iran, and then the invasion of Kuwait. Hussein had been provoked by the Kuwaitis undercutting of oil prices, but his actions led to worldwide condemnation and the Gulf War. His regime was overthrown during the ensuing Iraq War ,which lasted from 2003-2011. Since then, Isis (Daesh) have been and (hopefully) gone.
The whole country is coloured red on the FCO map and there are scary government advisories warning of violence and kidnapping. Those who work here confirm the need to be careful. 'Don’t go to the wrong areas', they advise. So I’ve opted for a tour and even the thought of that is giving me butterflies. I do hope the organisers know which the wrong areas are.
Arrival at Baghdad airport is fairly straightforward, except that no UK airlines fly direct. You can get a visa on arrival. No-one is remotely interested in what you write on the visa form. You hand it in to the little office by immigration, wait till they come back out with your passport and you give them the 77 USD, which is the point of the whole exercise. 'Welcome to Iraq', smiles the immigration man in his glass booth.
I’m travelling with what turns out to be a great group of ten people. Guide Ana, who’s Slovenian, and local fixer Raad, who looks just like Saddam Hussein. He has a great bushy moustache. but then so do all the Iraqis. Raad says that the women demand it. Most of the men also have their plentiful dark hair cut into fades or attention grabbing (to say the least) pompadour styles. Raad worked with the US military for six years during the Gulf War and his English is more than peppered with expletives. Every other word begins with f or s. But he has a big ego and a strong personality and gets the job done well.
It’s a challenge navigating the many checkpoints swiftly (they sometimes scan each passport, email it off to HQ and wait for approval before we can move on). As is getting us into sites that are deemed to be shut or off limits. He’s good at adjusting the itinerary if necessary, though we don’t always get told it's happened until we notice we're in the wrong place.
We’re touring in a Big Yellow Bus, so Beatles songs with suitably rearranged lyrics soon fill the air. The roads aren’t great - but not as bad as I’ve seen elsewhere and there are some three lane highways to compensate for the ridges and bumps. On the worst sections the bus sways from side to side.
Most of our hotels are comfortable, maybe even edging towards luxurious. But I’m reminded where I am by the constant (maybe 30 second duration) power cuts.
Changing money is problematic. I’ve been advised that GBP are okay to bring, but the local money changers don’t agree. And the ATMs are quick to decline my card too. So in the end Raad changes my cash for me, looking up the rate on the internet.
Women are advised to wear ‘modest attire’, fully clothed to the wrists and ankles. Bums covered. The men of course, just have to be careful not to show their knees. The locals don’t seem exceptionally bothered by what the tourists do – tolerant rather than offended, except at the shrines. Though too much exposure definitely draws stares.
Toilets aren't generally an edifying experience. Mostly hole in the floor types, some with plumbed water, some without, some clean some decidedly not. Some with piles of rubbish and cracked porcelain littering the floor.
Most of us have constant sniffles – colds, allergies or just the dust and dry air? Who knows? And nearly everyone has a dodgy stomach by the end of the trip.
Food is cheap. Meals cost about £5 . The choice is always the same. Kofta kebab, lamb kebab or chicken, with rice, flat bread and a fish shaped pitta bread that is sliced open to fill with salad or falafels. Platters of humous, a sort of raita yogurt with cucumber and other odd sweet salads with apple and syrupy mayonnaise, a sort of sweet brown sludge that hasn't been named, tomatoes, cucumbers and flat leaved parsley. If we are lucky mashed aubergine and tabbouleh also feature. Plastic spoons are provided, but the locals eat with their fingers. Aryan salty yogurt drinks and lashings (as Enid Blyton would say) of tea. We generally eat on the male section of the restaurants, but occasionally on the other side, with the families.
Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, a very ancient city, became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century. At that time, it was the largest city in the world and the centre of Islamic culture. Later, it was sacked by the Mongols and only regained importance with independence Today, it's the second largest city in the Arab world, after Cairo.
We’re staying in an unexpectedly nice hotel, the Baghdad, no less, with a swimming pool, balconies with views over the infamous Green Zone, where local protests against living conditions have been held. (it’s out of bounds but we can at least see it) and a lavish breakfast buffet. It’s also a popular wedding venue. There are up to 60 celebrations a day with attendant photographers, bows on doors and balloons spilling out into the corridor.
We’ve been given strict instructions about dress and respect for the locals so, in the mroning, I turn up in the dining room in my black abaya. The waitresses however, ,are all togged up in short, tight mini skirts. 'Am I visiting a religious site?', they inquire, looking astonished.
Baghdad is vibrant but in need of some TLC, rough round the edges, tumble down buildings. Baghdad (and the whole country) is still dealing with severe infrastructural damage due to the Iraq War, a substantial loss of cultural heritage and historical artifacts. There's still considerable poverty and attendant unrest.
Battered cars and the odd horse drawn cart. Along the sandbanks and palms of the Tigris River, past a multiplicity of flea markets, goods strewn on tarpaulins. Some photo stops. The mosque on Firdos Square, where Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled by the Americans in 2003. Roundabouts with assorted sculptures from Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The Freedom Monument at Tahrir (Freedom) Square. Another setting for recent protests, especially in 2019. There is related graffiti all along the main underpass highlighting unemployment and living conditions. Raad says the situation is even worse now.
American Monty is a pun meister, so we’re in competition. Where’s your Bag Dad? As in many cities, services and equipment are grouped together by area. We bump along a road lined with garages and decorated with vehicle parts, sometimes whole cars on the roof. We dub it Park Avenue.
Across the Tigris River, to explore Old Baghdad. Alongside the water is a madrassa, Al Mustansirya restored in the 80s, and the imposing Quishleh Ottoman Palace, with its colonnaded façade and lush gardens boasting statuary, and a clocktower.
We whip through the souk to bustling Ar Rashid Street. A cinema converted to a shop, all manner of bric brac on trestles and the Shahbandar Coffee House. This is a renowned meeting place for local men who sip tea and smoke their hookahs. It soon becomes selfie central as we are accosted, politely, from all directions, whilst we sip our delicious hot lemon tea.
Another stop in a small bar for ginger cake and raisin juice. Thousands of calories and thousands more selfies. We’re creating a sensation as we wander past all the stalls. Olives, kebabs, books spread on carpets .'Hello, welcome. Where are you from? Selfie selfie.
Back through the book market on Al Moutanabbi Street. Volumes spilling over plastic covered low tables. It would take all day to peruse every one.
There are plenty of mosques in Baghdad of course. Amongst the most interesting, the Sufi mosque of Sheik Abdul Khader Algilani (twelfth century), with a subterranean tomb - the oldest tomb in Baghdad. And the Abbasid Sitt Zumurrud Khatoun tomb (end of twelfth century ) has a spiky minaret which leans slightly to the left. Inside the minaret, the spiky forms become gorgeous muqarnas.
The coffee houses are atmospheric, some highly decorated and gorgeous with a warren of rooms, balconies, divans and ornate coffee pots.
One lunch at a small cafe - Al Serai. It’s kubbeh - ground meat wrapped in Bulgar wheat, to form dough balls with very tomatoey soup to pour over them and very sour green pickles of unidentifiable origin. It’s extremely heavy on the stomach and the taste is with us all afternoon, sadly. In complete contrast, another lunch at the Bloom Hotel with plate-glass rooftop views and eager waiters. The menu is the ubiquitous, chicken or lamb kebab preceded by houmous heavy mezze.
A dinner at Al Baghdadi restaurant on the Tigris. Mazgouf - grilled carp prepared on an enormous flaming barbecue, the fish arranged on foil plates around the edge of the circular fire. This one is delicious.
The Iraq Museum is not to be missed, but we are body searched twice before we are allowed in, and again on the way out. Presumably to make sure you haven’t pinched anything, though it wouldn’t be very easy to break into those heavy glass cases. It's perhaps not surprising, It was looted during and after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Despite international efforts, only some of the stolen artifacts have been returned. After that it was closed for many years for refurbishment. Neither will they accept USD, so Raad has to go in search of local currency before we can purchase tickets. He’s obviously done too much exchanging currency.
There are 24 chambers and a convoluted system of arrows pointing the way through huge galleries and up and down stairs. They trace the history of Iraq from Paleolithic times (Stone axe/tool heads from 100000 BC and Neanderthal skulls from the 45th century BC). There’s a huge amount of extraordinarily ancient pottery. (5000 years BC so 7000 years old ) and displays covering the various empires up to the Islamic era. But the best hall, by a mile is the one dedicated to the Assyrian Empire, with its amazing friezes and gate statuary from Mosul and Hatra. Needless to say, I lose the rest of the group in the labyrinth. And I still can’t escape the demands for selfies.
On the edge of the city, are the striking turquoise half domes of the Martyrs' Monument (Nasb Al-Shahid). It was built in 1983, dedicated to the victims of Iraq-Iran war and now also symbolises the Shia and Kurdish victims of Saddam's regime. Beneath are cases full of artefacts and moving rows of portraits of the dead.
Equal time here is devoted to Ana’s heroic rescue of a pigeon stuck in the foaming waters of the underground fountain, which falls to the ground with some ferocity. Both emerge soaked, but otherwise unscathed.
Most of our day trip to Samarra is taken up with sitting in traffic jams. Several roads out of Baghdad are blocked ,as protestors are expected and the army is out in force. We follow the Tigris River north on the route to Mosul. The road is lined with black Shia flags and posters of the missing Mahdi. And litter But it’s a good opportunity to get to know my fellow travellers. I’ve discovered that Monty has a journal. He has written a biography of each person and guessed their age. His estimates are not always hugely flattering.
Samarra has only recently been made accessible. It’s an important Shia site and security in the area is heavy. It was actually in the hands of ISIS for a short while, but survived unharmed. There are multiple checkpoints and we have to leave our passports at the last one and pick them up on the way back.
Samarra is a UNESCO world heritage site and former capital of the Abassid Caliphate. Though it wasn’t the capital for very long. They built the iconic spiral minaret and adjacent mosque, lived there for about 50 years and then moved the capital back again to Baghdad.
There are six stages on the 52 metre spiral, if you count the cap shaped top and it’s a dizzying and windy ascent. There is very little in the way of handrail on the outside, just a sheer drop to the ground for the most part. Again ,we’re welcomed with smiles, waves and demands for selfies. The mosque is sadly out of bounds, though peeping through the surrounding heavily buttressed walls seems to indicate that there isn’t now, a great deal to see. It was the biggest mosque in the world when it was constructed.
There are souvenir stalls laden with miniature golden minarets. Spanish Xavi is delighted to buy one.
Then onto the Caliphal Palace, the primary residence of the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim and several of his successors for a period of nearly fifty years during the middle of the ninth century/third century AD. This is one of the largest and most extensively excavated Abbasid palaces, although only a tiny fraction of the site has been uncovered. It’s actually a whole complex of palaces, part of the city that included barracks for his soldiers, administrative bureaux, horseracing courses and grand boulevards.
The Dar al-Khalifa is relatively remote from the city and has sweeping views over the Tigris and its floodplain (they’re now enjoyed by an army post). Perhaps scenery trumped over practicality for a short while. Extensive reconstructions were begun under Saddam Hussein (as the many plaques tell us). There are gardens, huge arched gates and a large circular pool, situated by the harem, for the use of the Caliph’s ladies.
The itinerary says that we are also to visit a ziggurat on the way back. These are unique to Mesopotamia, from approximately 2200 until 500 BC. Pyramidal brick stepped temple towers with a core of mud. But it’s closed. The programme is definitely a moveable feast (very reminiscent of Saudi Arabia), depending on the will of the authorities.
Babylon is iconic and not just because of the Bony M song. It features heavily in the Bible through its two most important periods:
The main sights of Babylon are:
As to the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? No one has any idea where they actually were. Sadly, there's even a suggestion that they were just mythical and might not even have existed.
Above the Euphrates and Babylon, with a grand view of both, sits one of Saddam’s huge palaces (he built more than 100 of them all over Iraq). It’s derelict and graffiti covered. We’re told there are plans to make it into a museum - one day.
Iraq is home to Shia Islam’s most important shrines. Raad says that they are hugely more significant than Mecca and Medina, although other sources disagree with this. Whatever, the centres at Karbala and Najaf attract 30 million visitors a year, many of them Iranian . They generate an annual revenue from pilgrims of about 2 billion USD. 14 million come for the Karbala weekend festival, as opposed to 2.5 million for hajj (I’m told). People also want to be buried in these places.. corpse traffic is big business.
Karbala (or God’s Temple) is the site of the Incident of Tuff ( the most important event in Shia history) between Hussain (ibn Ali) and his family and Yazid's army (representing the Umayyad dynasty) in 680. 72 of their family members were massacred, including Hussain and his half brother and standard bearer, Abbasi. (72 is now a magic number in Islam). They have since been regarded as martyrs. The tombs of Hussain and Abbasi are the foci of the two shrines, here at Karbala. The commemoration of the massacre is known as the Day of Ashura. Self-flagellation is often involved, though it was banned for 30 years under Saddam, (it restarted in 2004). Arba'een, 40 days after Ashura is one of the biggest gatherings in the world. 15 -25 million Shia pilgrims walk from Basra or Baghdad to Karbala and Najaf.
Karbala is Blackpool in the desert. A holiday atmosphere, ritzy hotels, illuminations, souvenir shops and restaurants carrying out a roaring business. The shrine of Abbasi is a glitzy palace, with huge overhead chandeliers and glittering muqarnas. This branch of Islam isn't known as Shiny Shia for nothing.
And there’s also an assault course built in. Us females are not allowed in the men's section of course. Black clad women shove, push, wail and brandish feather dusters in their efforts to get through the various halls to the tomb. It’s a veritable tidal wave of bodies that threatens to turn into a football match like riot. I’m black and blue. We’ve been made to purchase hideous flower patterned cotton abayas with tiny T-Rex like sleeves that cover us entirely. The most unflattering garment ever. Even so a few tendrils of hair escape. A woman admonishes me. She has one whole breast exposed, as she is feeding her baby.
The tomb of Hussain is similar, but deemed to be more important. He was the son of Ali, the first Shia Imam and Mohammed's daughter Fatima. A fervent Lebanese lady shouts out her adoration for Hussain, with Hitler like arm salutes and tears in her eyes. The ongoing pilgrimage to Karbala is live streamed on TV and, we discover, prime viewing at many of the roadside restaurants in Iraq.
We’re supposed to be visiting Ukhaider Castle, but it’s off. Instead we are clambering up a rocky outpost on the shores of Lake Razazah to some of the At-tar Caves. There are several hundred caves containing burial places from the second millennium BC, (but mostly from 300 BC-300 AD).
Well, I thought we were climbing to the caves, but you can only them from the ground and we are instead admiring the view of some sandstone hoodoos. There are overhangs and it is literally a headbanging experience.
Next up, Al Kifl, where abayas are required again to visit the shrine/tomb of Ezekiel/Dhul-Kifl, (now named An-Nukhailah Mosque). Ezekiel is important in both Jewish and Muslim religions, as a Jewish Old Testament prophet when the Jews were in exile in Babylon. It was a big Jewish site of pilgrimage from his death and especially in the fourteenth century. The Ottomans rebuilt the shrine in 14th century. And it has both a leaning minaret and a spiky minaret, above the shrine. We can see the courtyard and the mosque, but not the shrine. It’s closed.
And a short amble, following Raad through the authentic old souk, barrow boys selling tea.
At Najaf we’re ensconced in the (great name) - Zam Zam Hotel. My toilet doesn’t flush, as the cistern isn’t filling (there’s a leak and they’ve disconnected the pipes) and the fridge whistles. And we’re off (clad yet again in the unflattering abaya garment) to the second most important Shia shrine. Ali, the cousin and brother in law of Mohammed is recognised as the first Shia Imam, stabbed by his servant in Kufa in 661. He is buried here, as that is where the camel bearing his body finally stopped, exhausted. .
The cemetery here is the biggest in the world. There are between six and seven million graves, with photographs on hoardings, marble and domes. Shrine trade became difficult when the water ran out, but supplies were restored via a canal in the 1800s. The Ali shrine is just as glittery, but more relaxed than the two in Karbala. There are even women with a little hair showing – though there are even more feather dusters.
South eventually, past oil fields and herds of camels. It’s very, very flat semi arid desert. But we never entirely lose the green. Low hills and small wadis. Grey cuboid houses, black flags fluttering.
Further back in time, to the late fifth millennium BC (until the seventh century BC, when it was deserted for lack of water and because of Arab destruction) to Sumerian Uruk. This is where writing began (excitingly, there’s a sign, though I doubt it marks the exact spot) and the wheel was invented. Cuneiform script (it means wedge shaped) on clay tablets was used to document sacrifice and gift to the gods. The wheel was (big surprise) first utilised for pottery making.
A whole series of subsequent civilisations followed: Ur, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires. In the fourth millennium BC, this was the largest city in the world (the title later went to Baghdad). Uruk was the political and religious centre of Mesopotamia, home to 50-80 000 people.
There were 10 kilometres of city walls built by King Gilgamesh – famous for the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world. Sources are vague about where the tablets are now. As far as I can ascertain One - the Dream Tablet - was imported into the USA and eventually returned to Iraq. There were copies too, stored at Nineveh. The eleventh of these tablets is in the British Museum.
The most obvious sights are the ziggurats of the deities Anu (male sky god) and Inana (female). These temples were once covered in Afghan lapis lazuli. Today, they are serviced by an old railway line. Stacks of cone mosaics decorate the paths, their purpose unknown. A welcome wind mitigates the fierce heat. Only 5% of site has been excavated, by German archaeologists (1912-1970s). There have been no excavations since then - but the site is protected with 14 kilometres of fence.
The desert disappears far way at the horizon, like the sun.
Nasiriyah is a city of some 500 000 inhabitants, founded in 19th century by the Ottomans. And this is definitely the worst hotel of the trip. Is it finished? Equipment hangs off the wall and wires dangle. A bird tone sounds incessantly from the hallway. And diarrhoea has caught up with me.
We’ve come forward slightly along our timeline now. Ur replaced Uruk as the great capital of Sumer in the 27th century BC. It was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s & 1930s (Both Ur and Uruk, are, of course, UNESCO sites). Here, there’s another ziggurat, built by king Ur-Namu in the 22nd century BC (known as the Renaissance period) and rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century BC, a Royal Palace and Royal Tombs. we're allowed to clamber up the ziggurat and take turns capturing pictures of each other, with the view behind.
Ur was also known as the city of Abraham, but his supposed home is, guess what, closed. For renovations. The city was captured by the Persians in 539 BC, and deserted in 4th century BC. As is so often the case, lack of water could have been a .factor. Uruk was built on the banks of the Euphrates, which, over the passing years has moved 10 miles away.
So far, we’ve been the only tourists around, except for a group of Portuguese, who we encounter astonishingly dressed for any destination ,in flimsy knee length shorts and weird transparent tops. We’ve spotted their bus approaching, as we leave the checkpoint close to the arkeological site at Ur. It’s annoying to think that our solitary wanderings might be disturbed. But they don’t have a Raad on board. They’re still held up at by the passport checking officials as we depart.
The marshes of southern Iraq cover an area of about 10000 square kilometres along the floodplains of the Tigris River, stretching to the Euphrates. This is the edge of their confluence – where the two rivers become the Shat al Arab. It was once the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia. home to the Marsh Arabs, descended from the Ur, Sumer and Babylon civilisations. They have developed a unique culture tightly coupled to the landscape – harvesting reeds and rice, fishing and herding water buffalo.
But draining of portions of the marshes began in the 1950s for land reclamation and oil exploration. The work was expedited by Saddam Hussein in an attempt to to flush out his opponents and army deserters hiding there, By 2003, the marshes were drained to 10% of their original size. Since 2004 they have been partially restored, but are still threatened by the lack of water in the rivers. This is a problem throughout the country, as the Turks, Syrians and Iranians have all been damming the upper reaches of both rivers.
There’s not a great deal to see on our boat ride through the dry reed mace. Water buffalo grazing and one local with a cattle shed. Replica reed houses. A shiny silver domed monument forms the background. Very little bird life. A couple of pied kingfishers and oxpeckers on the back of the buffalo. But it’s tranquil and there’s a welcome breeze, wafting hydrogen sulphide past us.
A little further south, to Al Qurna, and another boat ride to see the actual confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. There are steps, a smaller version of the ones at the Deutches Eck (German Corner), on the Rhine in Koblenz. From here, the Shatt al Arab flows 200 kilometres to the Persian Gulf. The area used to hold the largest date palm forest in the world. 17–18 million date palms: an estimated one-fifth of the world's 90 million palm trees in the mid-1970s. By 2002, more than 14 million of the palms had been wiped out by the combined factors of war, salt and pests.
We also find out that today Iraq got a new president. They haven’t had one for 13 months. The president has to be a Kurd. Now he has to try to form a government. There was a small rocket attack over the Green Zone in Baghdad this morning, to celebrate.
Basra is Iraq's main port, famously right in the south of the country, on the Shatt al Arab, close to both Iran and Kuwait. It's consistently one of the hottest cities on the planet. 45 degrees is not unusual. It dates back to the ninth century. We wander around old Ottoman Basra (the Ottomans were here from the late 17th century until the outbreak of World War I). We’re told it was then known as 'The Venice of the Middle East', but it’s hard to imagine. The canals are filthy, full of rubbish and reek. The sewers are being rebuilt. Most of the house are in a sad state, though a couple have been renovated. Other potentially grand timber dwellings are swathed in scaffolding. And there’s a museum/café with assorted items, mainly from the last century.
The souk, on the other hand, is huge and very friendly. It’s a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours. Xavi has to be forcibly extracted from a souvenir shop that sells 'nicer’ Samarra minarets. The Shia influence extends to the trinkets which tend to gold and shiny and are sometimes even gloriously encased in snow domes.
A third boat ride brings the tour to a fitting close. The sun goes down behind the port and yet another of Saddam’s huge palaces (now mainly government offices), as we chug up and down the Shatt al-Arab.
Next stop, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Capital city Madrid is an elegant place: manicured parks, boulevards, the Baroque Royal Palace and Armory, museums and galleries including the renowned Prado Museum (El Bosco, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters) and churches (of course). The old centre, with the Plaza Major at its heart is known as El Madrid de los Austrias, It was built during the reign of the Habsburg Dynasty (1516–1700), the House of Austria. Madrid is situated on an elevated plain, about 190 miles from the closest seaside location and therefore has hot summers and cool winters. Apparently, it's not true that 'the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain'. The wetter areas are on some of the coasts (not all of them - the Almeria area is very dry) and in the north.
One more fact: Madrid has the oldest restaurant in the world. the Casa Botin, opened in 1725,
Last time I was there I whipped round on a bus tour, in the dusk.
Spain is a tourist paradise - one of the most popular destinations in all of Europe and apparently the second most visited nation on the planet. Beaches, (681 Blue Flag beaches, the most of any country in the Northern Hemisphere), islands (lots of them), historic cities, iconic buildings tranquil mountains, art (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Gaudi and so on ), great food (tapas means cover - they were originally intended to cover your drink on small plates between sips) and vibrant nightlife. ( Wine of course, and more bars than any other EU Country). And the festivals - the Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona or La Tomatina, the world’s biggest food fight (throwing tomatoes) .
I've travelled a lot of Spain (there's still a great deal left to see). You can read posts on:
The majority of Bulgaria was incorporated into ancient Thrace, but the area fell first to the Persians and then to the Romans followed by the Byzantines. The Byzantine dominion was invaded by first by peaceful hardworking Slavs and then belligerent proto Bulgarians who beat the Byzantines in battle (as the emperor went off to bathe in the springs to treat his gout and the soldiers thought unsurprisingly that he had run away). In 681, the first official Bulgarian state was created. This period is sometimes called the Golden Age of Bulgaria because it was a time of wealth, education, art, culture, and literature. The Proto Bulgarians under King Asperuh had signed a peace treaty. However, they studiously ignored it and were eventually reconquered by the Byzantines.
Three Bulgarian brothers led another successful revolution in 1185 and moved their capital to Veliko Tarnovo. There were multifarious plots against them, but the youngest Kaloyen, survived and punished all the traitors. The Ottomans were the next to invade and stayed in control until the Russian supported Liberation. The Treaty of San Stefano, signed at the end of the Balkan War, gave Bulgaria its independence from the Ottomans, as a separate monarchy.
The Bulgarians supported Germany during World War I, resulting in some loss of territory. After World War II, Bulgaria came under Communist rule and was a satellite of the Soviet Union (what is now Russia) until 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communists allowed the country to elect leaders of their own choosing. Bulgaria today. is governed by a president, prime minister, Parliament, and a Council of Ministers.
Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO.
Bulgaria has become much more stable in the years since communist rule. Its wealth is above average in terms of world rankings but it’s still one of Europe’s poorest countries and the poorest in the EU.
Read what I did here.
I’m revisiting Bulgaria as I came here once skiing a very long time ago and my photos haven't survived. I was going to travel on my own, but I saw this very cheap trip advertised - Landscapes and Traditions of Bulgaria. So here I am, with nine others. on a circular tour of western Bulgaria.
My hotel in Sofia is in the shopping precinct - very handy. The room is about as spartan as it gets - bare cotton sheets and a window you have to stand on a stool to look out of. And just to compound my grievances - others have a kettle. Still, I’m only here for one night. Things can only get better?
Out to explore Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. It’s a whistle-stop tour, umbrellas at the ready and s there's a torrential downpour. Guide Ani marches ahead at pace, pauses for explanations and then is off again. Photos are taken on the fly.
Most of the sights of Sophia are historical remains, reflecting the city’s history. Sophia has Thracian heritage (associated with the poet Orpheus), but the area was named after the Celtic Serdi tribe, and became Serdica when it was a Roman city. It is replete with Roman remains, some only excavated a year ago. Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, but the city retains its sixth century Byzantine form. Two key Byzantine buildings remain - St Sophia’s Church on the highest point of city dates from the sixth century. The round Church of St. George is one of oldest churches in the world, dating from when Constantine and his mother Helen adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It was originally part of another imposing public building, perhaps baths or an imperial reception hall. It has five layers of frescoes.
There are few relics of the Ottoman empire and only one remaining mosque, the Banya Bashi. Most of them were destroyed by the Soviets. The Mosque of the Baths was designed by warriors conscripted from the villages by the Turks and designed to rival the mosques of Sinan. In the Central Square, close to the Banya Bashi Mosque are the thermal springs that give it its name. There’s a yellow and red Ottoman style building that housed the baths and was utilised during Soviet times. It since been restored as a museum.
Much is made in Bulgaria of the Russian Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878 and monuments abound. The most famous are the Russian Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is extremely grand. The domes are covered in real gold and have recently been redone. There are copious amounts of marble and onyx and the walls are adorned with hosts of icons painted by the foremost artists, mainly on canvas. One especially popular with visitors is deemed to be miraculous. There are three naves, the patriarch's throne and the king’s throne, which is naturally much grander. The frescoes are murky due to candle smoke but there are no funds for restorations of these at the moment.
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian Saint from the 11th century a warrior, chosen to commemorate the travails of King Alexander in removing the Ottomans. A lady in her late 80s climbs 220 steps daily to ring the bells of the cathedral. She's has been performing this ritual for 30 years and is on You-tube.
Although Serdica was an important Roman city Sophia did not become capital of Bulgaria until this period. Opposite the historic covered Central Market Hall (closed) is the synagogue, a 1905 copy of the one that was destroyed in Vienna.
There are plenty of relics of the Soviet occupation. The main draw is the oddly Baroque and newly renovated Central Soviet Square with its Parliament, Presidency, ministries, Sheraton Hotel (only for Soviet dignitaries), underpasses and Louvre like glass domes. The buildings to one side shelter the St George Rotunda.
What else do I remember from my Route March? The National Theatre and a very noisy rock festival in the park behind the central Square - the police have even closed the road.
Last time I was in the second oldest city in Europe it was Christmas Eve. It was charming. It was snowing and there are small decorated stalls set up around the main square and gilt onion domes of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The locals were buying cards, baubles and Christmas trees, hoisting the latter onto their shoulders to carry home. Pleasingly atmospheric and delightfully uncommercial.
Today we’re off on our clockwise tour of Bulgaria. Our driver is called Angel. East and slightly north, through the oak and beech covered Balkans Mountains. Hayricks, cheese shops and stalls stacked with wooden implements. The vendors sit sour faced on their stools. It’s not encouraging.
First stop is the Troyan monastery, with its chalet style monks cells. It’s home to a miraculous three handed Madonna icon, a copy of an eighth century icon left here by a monk in the 14th century. His horse kept tripping as a signal that he should leave it behind. So the story goes. The additional hand commemorates St John of Damascus who wrote in defence of icons during the Islamic influence, when such representation was discouraged. Emperor Leo was not impressed. He forged documents implicating John in insurrection and the Caliph of Damascus decreed that his hand should be cut off. The deed was done, but John prayed, the hand was healed and in remembrance an additional silver hand was stuck to icons. This eventually became a third 'proper' hand on all copies.
The monastery only dates from the sixteenth century so I’m totally confused as to how the dates for the icon work and I can't find any information that clarifies things. But the building is delightful with its profusion of trailing red flowers over the timber balconies and the minuscule church. This is heavy with incense, replete with suspended candelabras glistening gold and every inch of wall covered in paintings. Visitors line up to touch the icon and at the altar the priest is conducting a baptism.
Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during its first empire when Asperuh became the first ruler of Bulgaria in 681. There’s a sprawling Tsaravets fortress topped by a Russian church. It’s all been heavily restored by the Soviets. They used mortar in the walls and decorated the inside of the church with dramatically disturbing monochrome murals depicting the history of Bulgaria. There’s a castle with great views across the modern city. The excavations stretch across to the adjacent hill. It was some capital. One of the towers in the lengthy walls was used as a prison for Baldwin of Flanders, who got permission to cross Bulgaria on his way to the crusades but then formed his own empire in North Greece and ungratefully attacked Bulgaria. He was captured and restrained for the rest of his life.
Arbanasi, just up the road was the chosen home for aristocracy of Greek heritage who built houses here in the seventeenth century under Ottoman rule. It was a lawless time and the uncultured Turks were not inclined to protect Christians from bands of robbers. The restored house museum of Konstantsalieva is heavily defended with thick walls, stout wooden doors and steep staircases. There’s even a panic style store room for food. Apparently brigands still got in and murdered the householder when she had been left on her own by her husband.
The rooms contain exhibits demonstrating what life was like in those times-apart from weird and terrifying. The kitchen has three ovens - one for making yogurt.
The hotel is over the road from the restored house museum. It’s got wooden chalet style rooms and a swimming pool. But all that glitters is not gold. The bedside lights don’t have any sockets to plug into.
Food in Bulgaria has a strong Greek and Turkish influence. It consists of a great deal of fresh bread rolls, flatbreads, salads like shopska (tomato and cucumber with cheese grated on top), bean soups, marinated meat, chips and fried cheese. Most of the meat is chicken. Pork features occasionally. Lamb is unusual - maybe in the spring - and beef doesn’t generally feature. Cattle is only reared for dairy products. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yogurt and that turns up with the salad, or as dessert at most meals. Other desserts are very sweet, pancakes with syrup and nuts or baklava like pastries.
Last time I was here, my hotel stuck to a bland (on good days) ‘international’ menu. On Christmas Day we were served something unappetisingly dry and very dark brown. I inquired what it was. ‘Turkey, of course,’ replied the waiter smiling.
The local firewater is rakia, often made from plums. There’s vodka also of course, due to the Soviet heritage. Whatever my first day’s eating doesn’t agree with me and I spend most of the night in the bathroom. I’m tempted to spend the day by the swimming pool, but I’m also terrified of missing out, so I sneak a pillow out to the bus and commandeer the back seat.
Today, another fortress Cherven, contemporary with the Tsaravets fort of yesterday. But this one is not restored. It's a puff of a hike climbing two hundred or so steps for an up close view of the ruins (mainly just one tower some walls and several ruined churches) along the magnificent gorge in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.
Then two rock monasteries. Up more steep paths in the park, with more gorgeous views. The frescoes depicting Jesus’ life in the UNESCO protected rock churches of Ivanovo date from the fourteenth century and are semi restored. The monasteries were occupied by a hermit monk order who focussed on silence and the spirituality of light - Hesychasm. Another monastery, Basarbovo, closer to the city of Ruse, was founded by a shepherd, Dimitar Basarbovo and he was buried there. But when they tried to transfer his relics to Russia via Romania many people were cured of the plague en route and so they kept his bones in Bucharest instead.
Bulgaria’s third city of Ruse for lunch, in a rooftop restaurant with views over the Danube. Then a very quick wander round the main Svoboda (Liberty) Square and adjacent buildings of note. There’s the Baroque Profitability Building - as the name suggests it was intended to make some money. Then the Palace of Justice, Opera House and in the centre the Monument of Liberty, celebrating the Liberation from the Ottomans. Up the road the impressive gold domed Pantheon of National Heroes, an ossuary, with the bones of 453 war heroes from the uprising against the Ottomans.
The jury is out as to whether I would have had a better day by the swimming pool.
South west through the Central Balkans National Park and beech forests climbing sluggishly over a long pass. We stop for a view across to a monument to the Russian liberation, thus arousing the ire of (maybe) 500 dogs barking in unison. The other side of the pass we stop to admire the Russian Church at Shipka, also a monument to the battle that took place here. It has a very ornate carved spire and the usual gold onion domes. The Bulgarian crosses have Islamic crescents underneath the Russian double crossed I.
Through the Thracian Valley of the Kings (or roses), liberally scattered with tombs. The Thracians enjoyed wine and fighting each other. The tombs contained objects that are deemed to be useful in the afterlife. Wine, armour, even horses. According to Herodotus they also buried the favourite wife with the warrior. The ancient kingdom of Thrace spread across southern Bulgaria into Greece and the European finger of Turkey which is today known as Thrace.
In the centre of Kazenluk is a UNESCO recognised Thracian tomb accidentally discovered in 1944. But no one is allowed in that as exposure has damaged the frescoes. So there’s an exact copy just up the Funerary Hill with a dome and painted murals of chariots and music that you can pay to visit instead.
At Kazanluk there's also there's the Museum of Roses. Here we learn that they in the main grow the damascene pink roses here, which are best for oil. The petals must be picked before dawn, when there is the largest proportion of oil in the petals before they open.. Distillation vats on display. 3000 kg petals produce one kg of rose oil. Rose was first water brought to Europe during the Crusades, but rose oil devloped here as major export in in the nineteenth century.
There’s even a stop off at a Bulgarian country house at Tyzha with a dramatic mountain setting - Mount Bothev. We get a tour of the garden: vines, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, other fruit and a very friendly dog. We are fed filo cheese pastries rakia aryan ( salt yogurt) figs and pears.
Then to Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria and an ancient Roman town, with narrow cobbled streets and medieval and eighteenth/nineteenth century houses. There’s a tower dating back to the third century AD, in the walls of ancient Philippopolis, as it was called (after Phillip of Macedon who founded the city). Under the Romans it became the capital of Thrace named Trimontium, as it was built on three hills. Marcus Aurelius built the wall round the city.
The old walled town is a gathering of pastel coloured jettied buildings stooping precariously to leave the prescribed street width – enough room for two donkeys to pass. The city has expanded like Rome to cover seven syenite hills. One disappeared, as they quarried all the stone, but the other six all propose great view points.
As you drop down from the old town into the new, passing the very well preserved ( with some help) first century roman theatre and there’s a beautifully multi domed mosque. The modern city intertwines with the old nicely. A Roman stadium semi revealed and accessed by plate glass staircases beneath the main shopping street. At the other end of this elegant promenade are the two sections of the plate glass enclosed Roman forum. The avenues are lined with pavement cafes and fountains.
I clamber up Danov Hill on the edge of the main shopping street in the new town, for views in all directions. There are so many different routes to the top I’m giddy trying them all out. The Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains and the ski resorts to the south; two more hills, one of which has Soviet martyr monuments. The old city on its three crags and the modern sprawl below. There’s a clock tower on top that chimes and an ugly satellite tower.
My room in Plovdiv is noisy next to a seat on a park, so Angel is a real angel and swaps with me. He also takes me and Ani out to dinner. Though conversation doesn’t exactly flow. He doesn’t speak English.
South to the Rhodope Mountains through the city of Asenovgrad famous for its wedding dresses then stopping at a Byzantine Fortress restored by king Asen in the early fourteenth century and ultimately destroyed by the Turks. There’s not much of the Fortress left but there are gorgeous views of the mountains and down to the church built there after a very slippery climb up marble steps.
Beautifully framed by the mountains, another UNESCO monastery, Bachkovo, the second most important in the country. Originally founded in 1083, most of the current buildings date from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Three churches and again in a an almost Buddhist style, wooden balconied terraces on the first floor for the monks cells. Incongruously, there are also satellite dishes.
One small St Nicholas Church has grotesque Doomsday frescoes of torture and richly clad (recognisable nobles it seems), being punished in hell, as they had refused to give the artist Zahari Zograf the money he had requested for a school for artists. There is the usual miraculous icon, the Virgin Mary Eleusa from the fourteenth century. It was hidden in a cave, but rediscovered as it emitted light in the forest. People thought it was a fire. They rescued the painting, but on three nights consecutively it returned itself to the cave. The monks eventually negotiated with the icon, who agreed to live in the monastery with them provided she was returned to the cave once a year. This is done in an annual procession.
The icon is hung prominently close to the doorway (according to her wishes) in one of the other two main churches, the Virgin Mary cathedral dedicated to the ‘Falling Asleep Mother Mary’. She is depicted on what I assume is her death bed. The decoration in here is extraordinary. It’s a cornucopia of icons, candelabra, frescoes and gilt. It’s so complex it ought to look completely overdone, but somehow it results in an incredibly spiritual experience. At least it does until someone begins a loud conversation, or a mobile phone trills out.
The mountain road up to the monastery is lined with stalls – refreshments, pottery, wooden utensils plenty of chopping boards and statues, amongst which garden gnomes are prominent.
The road now leads through larch and pine clad slopes and along snaking passes, to the ski resort of Pamporovo. Tall aparthotels and triangular prisms that are modern chalets. Last time I was in Bulgaria I was skiing at Borovets. It was cheap and I wanted to visit Bulgaria. A double whammy. As I’ve discovered before, cheap can be problematic. The slopes were hard packed snow and icy, not the most well-tended I’ve ever attempted to plummet down. And we were also a little dubious about the lift system. The story going round reported that ski lifts were built new in Switzerland. Then they were sold second hand to France and Italy. When they reached the end of their useful life there they were sent to Bulgaria. Ani says that the opposite is now true. Her friends go abroad, as it's cheaper to ski in the Alps than in Bulgaria.
The scenery is stunning, as the way winds on through stone built hamlets. We have lunch in a Rhodopian speciality restaurant in the village of Sharoko Loko, a virtual open air museum of timber and stone houses, churches and cute bridges. We are fed potato pancakes - patatniks - made with cheese and coriander.
Almost to the Greek border, through immense gorges, and uphill to the Devils Throat Cavern. There’s a great deal of climbing on wet steps with rusting rails that would absolutely not be allowed in England. Below us a gorge, with supposedly the largets underground waterfall in Europe. though I'm struggling to glimpse it. There's a small waterfall once we emerge.
The best surprise of the day is our hotel outside the village of Trigrad, still further up the mountain from the cave. Here the slopes are swathed in spruce, there are a whole herd of horses in the pasture and I have somehow ended up with a suite and balcony that overlooks the whole wonderful panorama. I’m celebrating with an extremely large gin and tonic. It helps to mitigate the bag pipe playing at dinner. The bag pipes are huge, made out of goatskin.
First thing in the morning it’s pretty chilly. Another cave, Yagodinska, up yet another pretty curving and nausea inducing climb. This cave has a three levels, with one concrete path of just over a kilometre open to tourists. There are a few flights of rusty stairs up and down bringing it back to almost the same height. It has railings most of the way and isn’t too skiddy. And here there are mineral infused speleothems (my new word for the day): stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates (columns where both meet) and cave pearls (layers of calcium carbonate round grains of other materials in strange nest like clusters).
Thankfully, there is little in the way of gaudy lighting, though the custom has not been entirely eradicated.. The highlight is the New Year Cave where local speleologists gather to spend the festivities. There’s even a Christmas tree that stays carefully preserved with all its decorations. Alongside, is a platform for celebrating weddings. But no photos are allowed that’s why there aren’t any here !
The scenery just gets better and better as we navigate the pine clad slopes to Dospat for a stunning view of the artificial lake and Turkish style pot stew lunches with potato, cheese and a little beef, (no pork for the local Muslim population of course).
Now west, almost to the Serbian border and there’s a dramatic change of scenery. It’s still spectacular, but in the Pirin Mountains now, there are high sheer stone peaks, the valleys are flatter and the trees are deciduous again. And there are vines. Melnik is a wine making village (officially the smallest town in Bulgaria). It's impossibly picturesque. And extraordinary in that it is surrounded by 150 metre sandstone pillars or pyramids.
The hotel rooms in Bulgaria have been 'interesting'. Most very basic, foam mattresses, cotton sheets. Wi-Fi of various levels of acceptability. Sockets parting company with the wall. The room in Melnik is pretty with pine furniture and am iron bedframe. But this one still follows the pattern of light bulbs that don’t work. Half of the dozen bulbs here are dead. And that includes the main light in the bathroom. Perhaps it’s a Bulgarian tradition
We started our trip in the rain in Sophia and we've finished in the rain. At least that means there are no other visitors here at Rila, Bulgaria's' most famous monastery. St John , the most prominent Bulgarian saint, established a monastery here further up the mountain but it was repeatedly destroyed and the site was moved in fourteenth century. The only part of that monastery which survives is a defence tower. The rest was destroyed by fire. The remaining UNESCO monastery is the best example of revivalist (post Ottoman) architecture in the country (I'm told).
There are more frescoes by Zohari Zograf depicting scenes from the Bible. The interior is even richer than those we have already inspected. It’s bigger and wooden, much darker and there are a plethora of gold stands, candelabra and vivid paintings surrounded in gold filigree. But for me, although beautifu,l it does not have the same allure as the Bachkovo Monastery. The monks cells here are on terraces, with pretty painted stone arches and balustrades.
This is probably the earliest and freshest I ’ve ever eaten lunch real time. Trout from the fish farms that lie alongside the mountain streams beneath us in a Rila restaurant. We have to be at the airport at 12.20 for the return journey home. The plane is delayed, of course.
Read more about Bulgaria here.
Burundi is one of only eight countries I haven’t visited. I’ve been through the airport at Bujumbura when I visited Rwanda but in those days the country was torn by internal conflict and deemed to be too dangerous to visit. I have to go back if I’m to reach my target of Every Country in the World. But I’ve got mixed feelings. Burundi is ranked as the poorest country in the world by GDP. Wikipedia cites 'poverty, corruption, instability, authoritarianism, illiteracy, and more’. One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is densely populated and employment chances are grim, so young people emigrate in search of opportunities elsewhere. This has also been rated the unhappiest country in the world. Let’s see.....
I’ve travelled from Uganda. Both countries are in the central, Great Lakes of Africa region, The Heart of Africa. Burundi lies along the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. And I’m going to be exploring Burundi with smiley guide Justin and handsome young driver Sammy. They talk to each other in Kirundi, the sole national language.
Bujumbura is strategically important, as the largest port on Lake Tanganyika. It’s also the biggest city and economic capital of Burundi. So, there are government buildings in differing states of repair, lots of small shops and a few monuments. The monuments are surrounded by iron railings, painted in the national colours. You have to pay an arm and a leg to enter and this includes an obligatory guide, who recites speeches you can read from the sign boards. I peer through the enclosure at the Park of Presidents and talk to some ladies filming a video at the Unity Monument.
The Unity Monument was erected in 1991, by Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya, as part of the effort to defuse ongoing tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. So, this seems like a good moment to introduce a little history. Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples have lived in Burundi for at least 500 years. As with Rwanda, the relative ethnic proportions are roughly 85% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa (the indigenous pygmy forest dwellers).
Burundi was an independent kingdom, until 1899, when Germany invaded and it became part of German East Africa. Following the First World War, the League of Nations "mandated" the territory to Belgium. After the Second World War, Burundi was amalgamated with Rwanda and designated a United Nations Trust Territory, named Ruanda-Urundi . It was jointly ruled by the Germans and Belgians.
Burundi gained independence in 1962, initially as a monarchy, but the regime quickly became unstable. A republic and a one-party state was established in 1966, but internal conflict continued. Horrifyingly, civil wars and genocides resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The situation is slowly stabilizing, but the country is still described as being in political and economic chaos.
There are great views across the city from the monument. It's reached after a hill climb through some extremely affluent villas mansions and embassies, which stand in stark contrast to the low rise tin roofs down the valley.
Just outside Bujumbura, at Mugere, is another, not-to-be missed, monument. This marks the spot where Henry Morton Stanley is supposed to have caught up with David Livingstone in 1871 - I presume. They've added statues to the original etched stone erected by the Belgian colonists. Very sadly, this is another claim that turns out to be untrue. The famous meeting actually took place in Ujiji in Tanzania on 10 November 1871, as Stanley' himself, writes in his book, "How I Found Livingstone". The pair did visit Mugere, a few days later, by canoe from Ujiji, exploring rivers which might flow out of Lake Tanganyika.
Along the lakeside, beyond the port, are myriad beach hotels and restaurants. The Atrium does lovely food and you can watch the waves rolling from your table. But, with main courses at ten GBP it’s extortionately expensive for Burundi. Justin takes me in there, but refuses to order food for himself.
For lodging, I've been sampling one of the best five star establishments, The Club du Lac Tanganyika. I've a lake view from my room, which is comfortable and pleasant enough, with ethnic fabrics. It would be nice if the TV worked, the entrance hall light would stop flickering and the shower didn't instantly flood the bathroom. (And yes the staff do rectify it all after a reminder). There's a large blue 'semi Olympic ' swimming pool with peeling paint on the bottom, a gym, conference facilities and a restaurant with beach outlook, friendly staff and slow service.
There's a national park to the west of the city ( and almost at the Rwandan border), where the Rusizi River wanders into the lake. Red churning waters contrast nicely with the vast sparkling blue expanse of Tanganyika. It’s a good spot for another tranquil boat trip, with bloats (apparently that’s the correct collective noun) of hippo keeping their usual wary eye on us, bobbing up and down, and a sole crocodile. I'm not sure if this is Gustave, a Nile crocodile, rumored to have killed 300 people here. He's big enough. And there are numerous pelicans and other water fowl. The boatman has a guide book and insists on showing me each species we come across.
The Burundi countryside is beautiful. Justin says this is 'The Country of 1001 Hills'. One more than Rwanda. The roadside towns have small crumbling brick built shops and stores. The markets are utilitarian and crammed with shoppers spilling onto the tarmac. The Burundians are fervent Catholics. Their homes might be small and in need of repair, but each village has an enormous brick built church, many of them modern. And I’m told the priest often has to conduct several services a day, to cater to demand. On the way, a stop at a huge church at Ijenda, built in 1941. A crowd gathers to gape as we try to take pictures of storks nesting in a tall tree.
Bujumbura is home to a million people. The remainder of the eleven million population live off the land. At first glance this doesn't feel like the poorest country in the world, or the unhappiest. For the most part it's tidy and clean. There is little litter. The men are clothed in neat western dress and the ladies are beautifully turned out in bright printed fabrics and headscarves. The baskets they carry on their heads are often beautifully woven and decorated.
The people sometimes wave and smile - calling ‘mzungu’. There aren’t many of us Europeans around especially in the deep south. At others, the Burundians are quiet but not hostile. They don't want their photos taken unless money changes hands. The myth still persists that I will sell their picture to National Geographic for a lot of cash. A few small notes do change hands at times. I don't know if it’s good to encourage this attitude, but the recipients are very grateful rather than hassling.
The poverty is evident, however, in the streams of villagers trudging the roadside wielding hoes or carrying water. Subsistence farming and the development of plantations has led to deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. The main crop is coffee, followed by tea. But only the government is allowed to grow for export. There are also maize, cassava, bananas and pineapple. Its thought that Burundi has some substantial mineral wealth: nickel, copper. But there aren't the resources to find out.
There are few vehicles other than bicycles loaded to the gunnels with provisions (for sale or just bought or exchanged). It takes three or four people straining, to push them up the many slopes. On closer examination much of the clothing especially on children is ragged and in need of a wash. Queues for petrol stretch three cars wide round the block in Bujumbura. Sammy has filled up in the middle of the night.
South, to what the Burundians claim is the Source of the Nile. We’re climbing immediately, with ongoing gorgeous panoramas beneath. The Source is deemed to be important. It’s signposted almost from Bujumbura, although it’s 115 kilometres. It feels like twice that distance. Chinese influence hasn't stretched to these roads yet and potholes proliferate, where there is tarmac. Most of the 14 hour return journey involves African massage on unmade roads, which are agonisingly slow. Not Madagascan level, just uneven enough to be awkward.
I'm not sure if guide Justin had factored in a 7.30 a.m. to 10 pm day. Driver Sammy looks exhausted . He has never ventured this way before. But he's enjoyed the sights and taken plenty of selfies.
The Source of the Nile here has a government guide, of course. And an odd little blue tiled channel, with a tap. It's not clear exactly how the tap is fed, but a scramble uphill is a pyramid. It celebrates this discovery by a German, Dr Buckhart Waldecker in 1932 and patronisingly pays tribute to Speke, Stanley and others who showed an early interest, like Eratosthenes and Ptolemais. I'm not sure what to make of this and I perhaps foolishly point out that other countries have opposing claims (see post on Jinja), to be the Source of the nil. But the Burundians are as adamant as the Ugandans that the Nile originates on their land. And there’s a superb 360° view of the surrounding hills.
We have to leave in a hurry as the Vice President is due for a visit and crowds of smartly dressed guests are beginning to arrive.
Next stop, responsible for a large portion of the massage experience, is so called German Fault. This is an impressive break in the escarpment, with plummeting cliff walls, marking the separation of the central plateaus and the Kumoso Valley. There’s a great panorama of the valley from the Nyakazu plateau, at an altitude of just under 2000 metres. The Germans invaded here via Tanzania and were initially pushed back by the King of Burundi, because of the forbidding terrain.
Sammy, Justin and I take turns having our photos taken on a strategically placed rock, against the dramatic backdrop, (that's Tanzania behind us) in a variety of combinations. Two boys fetching water peer over a rock to watch us with astonishment. It seems that the Vice President is on his way out here too. It's customary to decorate the roadside with banana branches when a VIP is visiting. And I thought they were for me!
Last stop, on this journey, is the five stage waterfall on the Kagera River. It nestles at the end of a forest passage of very tall African tulip trees. There's just enough water still flowing to make it impressive and there's a terrifying suspension bridge to view from thrown in. In addition, there are viewing platforms for all five stages, if you don’t mind steep, slippy paths.
The next outing is to the political capital of Gitega. This route is partly National Highway 1, built by the Chinese. But there are still plenty of craters to manoeuvre around. More fabulous views including the Kibera National Forest, where there's a stop at a Twa (pygmy) village.
The villagers dance and the children sing. It's well organised and moving. They have so little. There are few pygmies in evidence. They have intermarried and most of the inhabitants look to be of the same size as the remainder of their compatriots. The grave-faced chief is an exception. He's new to the post, chosen Justin says, as he is a true pygmy and can properly represent his people.
At Gitega, there are more fenced monuments and the German governor’s house. now used, perhaps fittingly, as a prison. The main draw at Gitega, and Burundi's only well known tourist attraction, if you discount Lake Tanganyika, is the drumming sanctuary at Gishora. These drummers are UNESCO recognised and famous for having appeared in film and pop songs. perhaps most notably in Joni Mitchell's 'The Hissing of summer lawns'.
The story goes that the Gishora Drummers originated when the last king of Burundi, Mwezi Gisabo, gave some men two cattle as a reward for his victory, over the rebellious chief Ntibirangwa in the second half of the nineteenth century. They used the hide to cover their drums. The body of the drums is traditionally made from Cordia Africana, a flowering tree sometimes known as Sudan teak. More interestingly, in Kirundi, the tree is known as the “umuvugangoma,” which means “the tree that makes the drum speak.”
Drumming is important in Burundi, as it is throughout Africa. It has always been a key part of the king's enthronement, funerals communication and battle. There are many drum groups, some of which included women. But this group is run by local boys and men, known as Abatimbo who descend from the ancient lineage of Abanyigisaka, run the sanctuary. They are the descendants of religious leaders who held senior positions within the royal court. The government has introduced contentious new rules that ban the participation of women in drumming. In addition, the Gishora Drumming Drumming is now mostly limited to official ceremonies. Private events require authorization, which is subject to a fee, of course.
The tour includes the king’s hut and other dwelling areas, very similar to the one at Butare in Rwanda. The performance is aleg scale and involves about 30 men. They make a dramatic entrance balancing the heavy instruments on their heads and led by a spear toting warrior. There is ritual dancing, poetry and great deal of leaping. All joyful and thoroughly uplifting. Even if it is just done for the tourists nowadays, it's worth a visit. If you can excuse the lack of inclusion.
Sadly, as I've already suggested, Burundi seems keen on overcharging tourists. and making visiting as difficult as possible. Most countries have now abandoned Covid testing and just demand the vaccination certificate. Burundi requires a test within 72 hours pre-entry and another on arrival at the airport. You have to book it online and prove this to be allowed in. And it costs 100 USD cash. The visa on arrival is 90 USD. That's a whopping bill, just to cross the border.
I also require a test to leave. Justin says we will do it Saturday morning, before we leave for Gitega. He sends me the requisition link, just before he's due to arrive, with a message to say that he's gone to the bank to pay as required. We manage to rendezvous an hour later, when he tells me that he's discovered that the banks don't open till 11 on a Saturday and there's a lengthy queue at the test centre.
Plan B is mooted. It’s unorthodox and I'm not going to describe it. But it only costs the same as the legally required route. And results are apparently guaranteed. The latter is predictably not quite true. My certificate citing a negative result arrives about an hour before I'm due to depart for the airport. It's just a tad stressful.
I've also just received an e-mail from our esteemed government. It advises against travel to all the places I've just been to.
And when I've finally got over the stress of obtaining my PCR test, departure from Bujumbura provides another contender for worst airport on the world. Melchior Ndadaye Airport (BJM,) is Burundi's only international airport. In fact, it's the only one with a paved runway. It's named after the first democratically elected president of Burundi, who was murdered in a coup d'état in October 1993, three months after being elected.
There's a huge queue to get the PCR test checked. VIPs, such as the national volleyball team, are ushered past to hold us up even further. Then, there's a queue to get your visa checked. Why? I'm leaving! Then, a queue to screen the bags. No-one is looking at the monitor. Then, an excruciatingly long queue to check in and go through immigration and get my visa checked again.
It's roasting hot. There isn't so much as a fan. And the whole check in process is being done manually, with the clerks taking photos of each handwritten baggage tag and boarding pass. I've carefully reserved my near the front window seat many months ago. But my boarding pass says it's free seating. Aaargh ! I just have time to buy a bottle of water in the departure lounge, before we board. And then it’s another hour before we take off. They've overbooked.
I’m touring Uganda anticlockwise, starting from Entebbe. It's a return visit, as last time I only dipped into the eastern corner, to Jinja and the reputed source of the Nile, from Kenya. This trip has begun with a bang. Literally. Twice. I woke up to find that a coke bottle had exploded in my fridge. There was a mess of sticky brown ice to clear up. Then my taxi turned up to take me to the bus station and the driver brought the tail gate down on my head. I now have a dent in my throbbing left temple. If I'm lucky I will get a black eye to match the one I picked up on my last trip when to Tunisia.
Finally, on the bus, the bus driver denies boarding to a young guy who looks as if he had a rough night. But more importantly he doesn't have a ticket. The would be traveller doesn't take it very well. He empties his daypack and trolley bag and throws the entire contents at the bus. It's not the best of starts.
Add to that the queues at Heathrow. Terminal 5 is heaving. It takes an hour in the check in queue, 20 minutes to get to the entrance to security and 20 minutes in security before I get airside.
I've already had a run in with my favourite airline (not) BA, who have given my paid for exit row seat to someone else. They rarely answer the phone, but I managed to get through to customer services which I discovered is now in Cape Town. Though they haven't been able to train the staff yet. It's an hour there before I finally get to speak to a supervisor who sorts the problem. I'm now in the exit row by the toilets, treated as a gangway by all the passengers. The plane is old and the screens tiny with wavery pictures and touch screens that send you back to the beginning of the film all the time.
Thank God for Qatar Airways on the second leg. Polite, modern, spanking clean, entertainment that works and heaps of food. Though masks are demanded on both legs.
Immigration in Entebbe is the usual African chaos, with no adherence to any form of queuing rules. But I'm eventually in and out again and Hannington and James are waiting to greet me. Two guides just for me! Happy-go-lucky James is a trainee along for the ride and ready to polish his skills.
The official languages in Uganda are English and Swahili. But Hannington and James speak to each other in Luganda, as do most of the Ugandans. It's the language of Buganda, the largest of the Ugandan kingdoms, centred on Kampala. And Uganda derives its name from Luganda (Yuganda). Uganda has four main kingdoms and many more chiefdoms. These are credited with maintaining a strong culture of good behaviour amongst the friendly and affable people. The kingdoms are the Toro, Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga.
The road round Kampala, east and north, is generally good, especially on the new toll section, but the traffic is slow through the urban areas, the road lined with small bustling markets. The buildings in the small towns are constructed wild west frontier style, with high brick stepped facias and shady pillared verandas. Stacks of red bricks stand drying in the fields. Most of the embellishment relates to advertising for telephone companies. Open air pool tables with thatched awnings. And solitary petrol pumps guarded by hopeful assistants.
All manner of dress: traditional with headscarves western long and short and nearly all immensely colourful. Chickens in cages, huge green hands of bananas strapped precariously onto bicycles, families of up to 5 crammed on motorbikes. Motorcycles and scooters are called “bodabodas.” They’re cheap transport.
Further on, long horned cattle and flattish agricultural country, red termite hills erupting at various intervals. Plenty of maize and rippling sugar cane. The cane is being harvested and loaded onto top heavy trucks which lumber past. Cassava, mangoes, bananas. The cassava is drying by the road in pieces or pounded. Rows of bean and coffee processing plants. Tall fan like papyrus, used for roofing and decoration It's placed outside buildings to signal a party. Watch out for it!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2005 to reintroduce rhino into Uganda. Uganda was home to both the black rhino and the northern white rhino, but both indigenous species were wiped out by civil war, poachers and plain habitat mismanagement ,by 1982. Six southern white rhino were initially donated by Kenya and Florida(!) and the population is now 33. It's the only place in the country where you can find rhinos and it's a convenient stopping place on the way north, 100 miles from Kampala.
We creep out in single file to see seven of the pachyderms (have to get that word in somehow), in two groups, slumbering peacefully. Mostly young males, farting and snoring. There's a female Luna, who is pregnant. When she has her baby, the males will have to form their own group as she won't be looking after them any more.
There are also warthogs (Pumbaa of course) skipping around, and the odd bush buck sliding out of the bushes.
Further north, gorgeous rolling velvety hills. The road is a big dipper as we venture on to Murchison Falls. Here, astonishingly, is a two lane highway but they’re still constructing it, the rust-red soil churned up, the edges lined with JCBs. More hard work in the heat. The Chinese engineers always immediately distinguishable in their straw brimmed hats.
Murchison Falls is the biggest national park in Uganda. The Nile runs east-west through the centre, with the game congregated in the northern areas, which are mostly exceptionally pretty emerald savannah, dotted liberally with fan palms. Who wouldn't want to live here ?
The lodge in the park is packed. They must be grateful for the custom. Things are only just reopening after Covid. This is Hannington’s fourth safari this year and his sixth since 2019. There are lovely sweeping views from here, down to the river. This is the Albert Nile which links Lake Albert with Lake Victoria. Although landlocked, Uganda consists mainly of the Nile Basin and is at the heart of the African Great Lakes. Lake Kyoga is the largest entirely Ugandan lake, and also notable is Lake George. Uganda shares Lakes Albert and Edward with the DRC and the huge (and largest lake in Africa) Victoria, with Kenya and Tanzania.
The eponymous park falls are billed as the most powerful in the world. They’re not very high, but still spectacular, as the Nile is forced through a six metre wide channel, thundering into a churning cauldron. You can view from up top or down the bottom. The latter involves a surprisingly long three hour boat trip. Two hours upstream and one back. There are crocodiles, elephants, antelopes and heaps of hippos to entertain us.
The elephants, protective of their babies, are much more unhappy about boats than they are cars and bundle the little ones away rapidly, forming a protective barricade of elephant backsides. They swivel back as soon as we pull away. One baby hippo unintentionally uses its mother as a waterslide. The boats keep a wary distance from the hippos and from the falls themselves, when we finally reach them. The impact causes plenty of foam and current and the zoom lens is required for any meaningful shots.
A road takes us to the top of the falls, where you can peer over the edge (almost) and get a real sense of the power of the boiling waters cascading over the edge. There’s a fantastic view back along the Albert Nile. You also get soaking wet and have to avoid the clouds of buzzing tsetse flies. Unluckily I've worn blue ( in addition to not donning my cagoule) and acquire four stings.
Safaris in the park are delightful and the game prolific. Giraffe, elephant and buffalo arrange themselves round every corner. Antelope abound. The square jawed Jackson’s hartebeest is the largest. Water bucks and bush bucks pose obediently. Kobs are the Ugandan equivalent of impala, redder brown without the distinctive black vee on the rump. They are abundant, flinging themselves across the tracks with gay abandon. The diminutive oribi, with their two tiny horns, follow suit. They make good prey for leopard, who can drag them up trees easily.
A large leopard has draped one a across a branch and lazes 20 metres up, every so often switching position to gnaw at another chunk. It's entertaining for the punters, as the relieved guides vie to get their clients to a reliable sighting. Every time we meet another van we have to stop and check what they have seen. There are a lot of vans. And there're already a gratifying number of ticks on my animal and bird checklists.
Our journey south again involves a stretch of unmade road lined with traditional villages. Square and circular huts with grass thatched roofs. (They're selling rolls of the stuff by the roadside ) Tilling the soil with metal hoes looks like very had work.
Toddlers wave excitedly. Children and lines of women trudge along the roadside balancing yellow waterfilled Jerry cans on their heads. Too many villages still don't have pumps or wells. There are also a few large gated mansions. Hannington says they belong to government officials.
The road signs are British style. So are the many sleeping policemen (in every town and village ) and the speed cameras. The lollipop ladies here use red flags instead of circular signs to escort children across busy roads.
Hoima is the centre of the oil industry. This where all the companies and construction folk have based themselves. It's the nearest city to the game park. The Chinese have built all the roads round here to give them access to the newly found oil. Sadly, they found it in the middle of the park. The issue was debated in parliament, but money won of course. The animals are being moved to other areas. Let's hope they like their new homes.
Hannington has no watch and little idea about distances. He underestimates wildly. So our ETA is usually way off the mark and lunch eaten long after my stomach has started rumbling. He’s not always easy to understand. When Ugandans speak English, they often replace “l” with “r,” so play becomes pray. A toilet stop is usually a short call. Though there’s also the long call.
Further south, the scenery increasingly gorgeous. Hills and mountains. Emerald tea plantations. Climbing up to Fort Portal, a tourist city with green cloaked views in every direction. We’ve just crossed from the Bunyoro kingdom to Toro. The king’s palace at Fort Portal has the best view in town.
The other side of Fort Portal the scenery is better still, as we skirt the Ruwenzori Mountains. The country sits at an average of 900 metres above sea level. Both the eastern and western borders of Uganda have mountains. The Ruwenzori mountain range contains the highest peak in Uganda ( Alexandra - 5,094 metres). Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda as ‘The Pearl of Africa'. He was right.
There’s a bad day on most trips, or at least one that isn’t as good, and my first day in Queen Elizabeth Park is it. The Bush Lodge just outside the park, at Kazunguru, insists that my reservation is for a tent, not the Banda hut with en-suite by the water, described in my itinerary. The small, sweltering tent on offer has an outside shared ablutions block five metres away. No thanks. They argue that no Bandas are available, until I show them my itinerary hard copy and then there suddenly is one. Hannington says that the office of his company agree that a Banda was booked.
There are tranquil views from the veranda, of crocodiles and hippos in the Kazinga Channel, which separates Lake George from Lake Edward. It’s forbidden to walk alone to the huts at night. Escorts are required, as a pair of warring hippos wander the grounds constantly after dusk.
Chimp trekking in the Kyambura Gorge is the first activity here. It’s not as frenetic as the tracking in Rwanda and only involves sliding down a rainforest covered gorge and crossing two bridges over hippo frequented rivers. The first bridge is rickety, with slats missing and the second a fallen tree. Thankfully, the uniformed ranger, with his AK 47, is happy to assist. But the chimps are similarly uncooperative and stay firmly in the tops of their trees, peeing down from above. They are not really habituated. A second group, the other side of the river, are even more elusive. There’s a very cute tiny baby, but sadly my photos show him peering round his mother's backside. It's not pretty viewing.
Later, we go on a game drive, but there is nothing to be seen. Just a couple of water buck and small herd of kob. The dry yellow savannah stretches to the mountains and Hannington spends two hours driving us literally round in circles, searching for a lion and cubs he’s been told were there this morning. The only good bit is the sunset over the Ruwenzori Mountains. Very disappointing and I’m not happy. Hannington responds by sulking all through dinner. His parting shot - the office have told him that they think there was a mistake with my booking and they agreed to two nights out of the four in a tent. I told him I’m not leaving my Banda.
Next morning, Hannington tells me that I definitely have to move. I’m still not convinced, but the hotel manager says Hannington’s known all along that I should be in a tent. That’s what was booked and I was only in a Banda as a favour. I’ve read that Ugandans don’t like confrontation. Never shout at a Ugandan. But I do and there are tears (on my part).
To cut a long story short, I’m now in another lodge. It lacks the rustic charm of Bush Lodge and sadly there are no views at all from my room. But it’s a little palace with two enormous beds and a long thin bathroom. The toilet isolated at one end like a throne. The electricity can go out at any time for 4 to 24 hours. It’s known as load shedding. Most of the lodges have their own generators but of course those are known to play up too. My shower and hair wash is cut short mid lather tonight.
The game drive next morning is a little more productive. There are a herd of buffalo, a lioness (from a distance) and some hippos playfighting. There’s queue of vans along the track, a sure sign that there’s been a big cat sighting. But Hannington says I’m not allowed to look. These vans have paid for ‘The Lion Experience’ and the rangers have tracked their prey down for them. No money, no lookee.
In the afternoon, a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel. This is where all the wildlife have escaped to. The banks are lined with elephants, consuming their requisite 100 litres of water a day and in the interim squirting the liquid, or dust, over each other. The many babies have a great time rolling in the mud and linking trunks. The groups of buffalo lounge in the water, a wary distance from the elephants. The hippos can’t decide whether to duck or take centre stage, alternating between the two.
There are scores of different birds, crowned cranes (the national bird of Uganda featured on the flag), yellow billed storks, great and lesser pelicans, three types of kingfisher, fish eagles (one makes an audacious dive and scoops up a fish in his talons right under our noses. He’s much to fast to photograph). Cormorants, goliath herons, great herons and the boringly brown hamerkop (but notable because they have the biggest nest in the world according to our guide and their name refers to their hammer shaped head) and marabou storks, (on the ugly 5 list along with the amusing pumbaas of course). The warthogs are everywhere running along with their tails erect like car aerials. The name pumbaa means stupid in Swahili. That’s even more unkind than putting them on the Ugly 5 list. We meander along the channel, waterside scenes the whole way, to a fishing village and back again.
My last day in Queen Elizabeth Park also calls for patience. Today, we’re in search of the tree climbing lions of Ishasha. They are reputed to wake up early, go hunting and then climb into trees to sleep for the rest of the day. It’s a two hour drive up a very bumpy track to this part of the park. And the lions have been up and come down again when we arrive, according to the rangers. It might have something to do with the fact that they’ve been burning off the long grass and nearly the whole area is a scorched and still smoking. If I was a lion I wouldn’t be that keen on padding across it.
We spend the whole morning driving round in more circles, but the lions are even more reluctant to appear then the rest of the wildlife in these parts. I’ve been told (too late and possibly unreliably) that only one pride remains. A dozen or so cats were poisoned by locals, as they were thought to be taking their cattle. James and Hannington spend a lot of time on the roof of the van vainly looking. The only sighting is a veritable parliament of eagle owls, all surprisingly alert, and a blue monkey. There are a lot of monkeys in Uganda.
James is a little vague over the names (and even more so about the spellings) of the wildlife, so I’ve challenged him to write a list of everything we’ve spotted in both parks. This is my agreed sightings list, in James’ order:
Side striped jackal, crowned crane, egrets, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, ground hornbill, snake eagle, yellow throated longclaw, African jacana, marabou stork, open billed stork, hippo, Rothschild’s giraffe, African buffalo, African bush elephant, nightjars, vervet monkey, patas monkey, olive baboon, black and white colobus monkey, common hare, black headed heron, grey heron, goliath heron, white backed vulture, permanent vulture, lion, leopard, Uganda kob, water buck, African pied wagtail, Egyptian goose, yellow billed black back, slender mongoose, marsh mongoose, white tailed mongoose, common warthogs, long tailed starling, Bunyoro Rabbit (at night, quite rare), blue monkey, red tailed monkey, topi (from a distance), hamerkop, long crested eagle, fish eagle, eagle owls, scarlet ibis, common bulbul, weavers, tawny eagle, bush buck, oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, side striped jackal, cattle egrets, oxpeckers, red turaco, bee eaters, flycatchers, kingfishers, bustard (careful with the spelling here), guinea fowls (known here as wild chicken), northern common bee-eater, Cooper’s sunbird, black and white cuckoo, barbets, yellow billed stork, pelican greater and lesser, cormorants.
Food in most of the lodges relies on quantity rather than quality. It’s international buffets, pasta and some sort of chicken is the norm. Potatoes here are known simply as Irish to distinguish them from the indigenous sweet potatoes. Dessert is usually a tropical fruit plate: passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, small sweet banana and mango if I’m lucky. When we stop for lunch its usually heaps of fries and fish (tilapia from the lakes) or chicken. Hannington and James eat what they term local food. Stews: beef or goat with lots of starch; cassava, big (bland) bananas, pumpkin and rice. Some of the lodges are a little more up market in their offerings, tiny pink lamb chops with mustard sauce is my favourite. Pork isn’t served at all in some restaurants. In villages there’s usually a ‘pork joint’- for roast meat. A “rolex” is an omelette wrapped in a chapatti.
It’s a very busy road through from the DRC to Kampala. The scenery is still gorgeous. There are numerous crater lakes in the Queen Elizabeth Park, evidence of past volcanic activity. Indeed, some argue that sulphurous odours indicate that they are still bubbling. Or road takes us through a scattering of these, the mountains beautifully reflected in the still water. Lake Nkugute is said to take the shape of Africa, a newish dam, creates the horn. An old man with a wooden rowing boat is fishing for crayfish, who nip his hand whilst he brandishes them aloft.
More neatly tiered tea plantations. And police road blocks. President Museveni lives in this area and it's apparently also a high risk accident zone. There are almost as many checks as in the DRC. Hannington has his licence confiscated and is made to pay an overdue speeding fine. I have to loan him 150,000 shillings so we can get back on the road. Finally, we make progress. We reach the Equator – I’m having my photo taken at the designated markers, (on some of the several main roads it crosses you have to make do with a small brown sign) when a small Ugandan boy sidles up. His parents are giggling from their car. ‘He wanted his picture taken with a mzungu, (foreigner).’ they call.
Mabamba Lodge is up a 20 kilometre bumpy track in the rainforest above Mabamba Bay on Lake Victoria. There are amazing swamp and lake views. I have a small bungalow with views across the rainforest. The jungle noises are loud at night and the monkeys throw fruit onto my roof.
Farida, from Kampala, who I met on the Caucasus train in 2017 is coming to join me for a trip into the swamp in search of the rare shoebill (only 3-5,000 left in the wild). They're sometimes wrongly referred to as shoebill storks, as they've now been classified as a family all on their own. Their closest relatives are actually the pelicans.
We have a motorised canoe, but our crew are young and inexperienced and make hard work of poling through the narrow channels as jacana hop on lily pads and kingfishers and heron swoop by. There are ominous thunder clouds rolling over head. Nevertheless, the boys know the way to a, so very rare, it's almost unheard of, shoebill's nest.
The male is standing guard, motionless and silent, except for a swivelling dinosaur like head and huge beak 30 centimetres long, (shaped like a clog). It's either a monster dreamed up for Dr Who or an offbeat cuddly toy. A very tall one. The bill is sharply hooked to help grab prey. The shoebill feeds on fish, snakes and even small crocodiles and baby monitor lizards, lunging suddenly in surprise attack. This is a solitary and possibly fearsome creature and unsurprisingly receives a mixed reception amongst the locals, who often view them with suspicion.
The baby is on the grass nest, camouflaged by the undergrowth. We can glimpse him when he fidgets and preens. It's difficult to get a clear shot of either, because of all the waving papyrus stalks between us. Sadly, we are not the only people who know about the nest. It's become world famous. We're soon surrounded by other boats, with more experienced navigators edging their craft around us. The twitchers wander all over everyone else's canoes, hefting their huge lenses and raising them in unison every time the baby moves.
One guy has flown specially from France for the event and spent the whole week by the nest. He has four cameras. He tells me that the mother is out hunting for food while dad acts as security, fending off snakes and birds of prey. When mum comes back she feeds the baby and tends to him giving him a shower from her beak and shading him with her wings. Dad goes hunting in the afternoon. He gives his catch it to the female who swallows it and regurgitates it an hour later partially digested, to feed the baby.
Two eggs are laid, on a nest maybe two metres wide, at the end of the rainy season. The parents constantly add grasses to it. However, only one bird is allowed to live, to maximise the chances of survival. If the stronger baby doesn't murder their sibling the mother starves the weakest to death. That's nature.
We're fascinated and would dearly like to see the mother return, but naturally no one has any idea when that will be. The clouds are getting darker and more boats are arriving. Time to depart.
Farida whisks me off into the capital Kampala. 8.5 million of Uganda’s 42 million, population live here. Ironically, the name derives from the impala that are now only found in a couple of small parks in Uganda. The ultimate contrast to the last few days. Traffic laden. Full of fumes. It's one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Bustling with streets of several storied blocks, mini scrapers in the centre. Small malls, open fronted shops of all kinds, a couple of theatres. Farida’s family own some of these buildings. Her father has accumulated considerable property over the years and she points out some of them as we inch past. Further out, villas scattered across he undulating suburbs
There are no stand out sights, but we take in the independence monuments (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962 -they were keen to preserve Nile trade routes), the national cultural centre, a mall (excellent cheesecake), some craft shops and the long established Sheraton Hotel. The beautiful-in-its-simplicity Bahai Temple competes for the best view of town, with the top of the Ghaddafi Mosque minaret . You have to pay to enter there. They won't even let you take a photo from outside unless you stump up. And they've recently started to insist that women wear headscarves and cover trousers too.
There are also, of course, government buildings and the parliament. Uganda has had a troubled history since independence, with tensions arising between the kingdoms, and especially resentment towards the larger Buganda kingdom. Milton Obote, from the north was able to gather enough support over time to seize power. But he was eventually deposed by Idi Amin, who ruled as a dictator, for eight years. It’s estimated that Amin was responsible for the deaths of up to half a million Ugandans. His regime came to an end when Tanzania invaded, in cooperation with Ugandan exiles. Uganda's current president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, took power in January 1986 after a protracted six-year guerrilla war. Following constitutional amendments that removed term limits for the president, he was able to stand and was elected president of Uganda in the 2011, 2016 and in the 2021 general elections
We also indulge in an exceptionally good meal, no banquet, at Izumi, a Japanese-Thai restaurant in a shady street full of upmarket eateries. Farida orders far too much and it's all delicious. Really good to meet up again and she showers me with presents from Uganda. An excellent day !
Entebbe is located on a Lake Victoria peninsula, 22 miles southwest of Kampala. It was once the seat of government for the Protectorate of Uganda, prior to independence, in 1962. The city is the location for Entebbe International Airport, Uganda's largest commercial and military airport. Entebbe is also home to the State House, the official office and residence of the President of Uganda.
I’m staying at 2 Friends Beach Hotel. Beach is a little bit of a stretch. The lake is so vast, it's certainly like being by the ocean. Don’t swim in the lake (or any of them for that matter), you risk bilharzia. And there is sand. Held in place by netted stone walls that defend against the battering of the waves. A couple of tiny smelly strips allotted to fishing boats. The rest is manicured (well sort of ) covered in trees and requisitioned by the various hotels arraigned along the lakeside road. Its all beach bars and restaurants and I even see stacks of sunbeds. But what with the trees and thatched awnings there's no way for the sun to peep through. There are sunbeds by the goldfish pond like swimming pool directly in front of the hotel though.
An hour in the evening discussing the woes of the world with the owner, Icelandic Hinrik and an English guy from Derbyshire who has made Uganda his home. Both are very content and wouldn’t consider returning to Europe.
But I can't hear the word Entebbe without thinking of the famous raid on the airport in 1977, when the Israelis rescued 100 hostages kidnapped by the militant group of the PFLP-EO and Revolutionary Cells.
It’s still a problematic place. I’m trying to get to Burundi next. The president is flying out today and security is intense. The car is searched thoroughly before we can enter. Vehicles are not allowed close to the departures area. I have to drag my bag uphill on a bumpy track. And it’s not till after check in that I discover that my flight time has been changed for the third time. I’m doomed to spend five hours airside. And that gets extended. They’ve given us free food vouchers and no firm departure time, which is ominous. And my biro has leaked ink all over me and my tee shirt. It’s another one of those days.
Tunisia was the first country I visited in Africa and a first encounter with Arab culture. There were a lot of jokes about how many camels I might be worth. I had also hoped it might be a chance for some spring sunshine. But the weather was disappointing - it wasn’t really warm enough to sunbathe.
This is a much anticipated revisit to Tunisia, after a very long gap. My guide is Noureddine, from Nabeul, near Hammamet, which, coincidentally, is the beach resort I stayed in on my last visit.
Tunisia lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and so, is a melting pot of cultures. The country is named after its capital city and is home to Africa’s northernmost point, Cape Angela. It is the smallest nation in North Africa, having a population of 11 plus million. It's a surprisingly green wedge, dipping into the Sahara. And, according to Wikipedia, it’s the only truly democratic Arab nation.
Tunisia was inhabited by the Berber peoples from very early times. The Phoenicians began to arrive in the 12th century BC, establishing several settlements. By the 7th century BC Carthage had emerged as the most powerful. It became a major mercantile empire and a military rival of the Roman Empire, but they grew too strong. The Romans defeated them over successive Punic Wars and flattened much of the country to ensure no resurgence. They (or Byzantines) occupied Tunisia for most of the next 800 years.
The Arab Empire, most notably the Aghlabids, took over gradually after this and Christianity gave way to Islam. The Ottoman Empire established control in 1574 and held sway for over 300 years. The French conquered Tunisia in 1881. Tunisia gained independence under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, who declared the Tunisian Republic in 1957.
I’m beginning in Tunis – that’s where my plane landed. It’s home to almost three million people if you count all the suburbs. It sprawls along the hills edging the Mediterranean (the Gulf of Tunis), behind the Lake of Tunis and alongside its port (La Goulette).
And naturally, I have to start at the core, the ancient medina, a World Heritage Site. Tunis is a good introduction to African cities. It has minarets in abundance, crumbling palaces, culture and a suitably chaotic souk easy to get lost in. It’s delightfully authentic, with covered arcades and baby blue balconies, the brightest of bougainvillea spilling over them. The guest houses here are dars, the equivalent of Moroccan riads, built round courtyards. Refined and relatively undistinguished from outside they brim with style and interesting design once though the studded doors. There are plenty of blue doors to match the balconies, though it seems that bright yellow is also in fashion.
The laid back stallholders are happy to chat. I’m shown how to make the traditional Tunisian red hats – they have a whole souk to them selves. They’re flatter than the Moroccan or Turkish varieties and are known as chechia. It’s a complicated process. They are crocheted from wool, (huge at that point), then wetted, battered, combed, dyed, moulded and baked till they are small and felted. The traditional burgundy colour comes from cochineal ants, but there are plenty of other colours and designs for men and women. Though I’m not tempted.
There are window displays of ceremonial clothes - Tunisian men wear a costume called a 'jebba', a long sleeveless tunic worn over a shirt; a vest known as a 'farmla' and trousers named 'sarouel. The most important ceremonies are weddings and circumcision, which seems to feature heavily. Noureddine tells me about his own circumcision, which was roughly 50 years ago. It takes place when the boys are about 6 years old and he was circumcised with his younger twin brothers. There was no anaesthetic used in those days and it was just a family affair – so no doctors either. His father demanded that he not cry as Noureddine was to go before his siblings. He said it wasn’t easy to obey. He was then taken to bathe in the sea, on the grounds that the salt would be helpful in healing the wounds. No holding back the tears at that point.
The other highlight is the old Al Zaytuna mosque, dating back to 698 and utilising 160 columns from the ruins of Carthage.
East of the medina, through the Sea Gate (also known as the Bab el Bhar and the Porte de France) lies the modern city, or Ville Nouvelle. It’s traversed by the Tunisian Champs-Élysées, the Grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after the ‘Father of Independence.’ The colonial-era buildings abut various government buildings, which I’m not allowed to take pictures of, and the Independence Monument, on Independence Square. In-between, the imposing (French built), St Vincent de Paul Cathedral, still used for Christian worship.
Three lane highways weave past the airport and alongside the salt lake, mountains shrouded in mist beyond. This is up and coming Tunis, the suburbs of Carthage, La Marsa, and Sidi Bou Said. The embassies are moving further and further out this way and the shores of the lake are lined with fancy restaurants and chain hotels.
This once centre of the Punic empire nestles in the suburbs of Tunis. Carthage is famous for controlling much of the Western trade in the luxurious purple dye from the murex shell. Legend has it that Carthage was founded by the Phoenician Queen Dido (Elissa of Tyre). In 814 B, after requesting a place to settle from the resident Numidian prince, Dido was told that she could take the equivalent of the hide of a bull. She cut the hide into strips and so, was able to claim a considerable quantity of land. She chose to base her city on a hill top and called it Qart Hadasht, meaning new town.
The hill is now known as Byrsa. The Phoenician settlement was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt again by Julius Caesar and then Augustus, who named it Cartago. He flattened the summit to build the forum, temples and library, which were destroyed in their turn by the Vandals. As if that wasn’t enough layers of history, the French built a cathedral on top of that. The towering Acropolium Cathedral is dedicated to St Louis (IX) 1890. Nowadays this cathedral is a concert hall and art gallery.
The famed ruins of Carthage are, surprisingly, spread over several sites, sprinkled around suburbia. They are, frankly, a little underwhelming. Most of the sites are Roman or later. There are the usual temples, theatres, an amphitheatre modelled on the Roman Colosseum, numerous baths and temples, and a circus. Byrsa Hill is overrun by tourists, the buses decanting streams of sightseers have come from the gigantic cruise liner we can see down in La Goulette. It’s a great view, across the port and lake, when I can find a gap in the crowds.