From Delphi to Milos via Athens. I’ve heard rumours that the ferry crossings can be rough and unpredictable. The coastguard decides if sailing conditions are safe enough and they make rulings every six hours, so services are often disrupted at short notice. I’m on a hydrofoil and I'm told that these are faster, but more vulnerable to wind and waves, so more likely to be cancelled. They're virtually all enclosed too, so its not quite the tranquil sun-drenched journey I had fondly imagined. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to it at all now.
Another grumble is the time of departure – seven in the morning. And I have to get up and drive to the port to arrive just under an hour before the ship actually departs. There’s another ship at eight and I have lobbied to change to that one, but have been ‘strongly advised’ not to. It’s a smaller vessel, more vulnerable to bad weather and cancellation in this time of Covid, when there are far fewer tourists I’m told.
There’s a hardly a lurch, however, as we make our way down the Saronic Gulf - Piraeus (the largest passenger port in Europe and the second largest in the world) still shadowy and lamp lit, the island of Aegina a short while later, a dark hump on the horizon. Later, Serifos and Sifnos, white dice houses spilling up hills, with a domed church atop in each port. Serifos is on the government quarantine list at the moment, but no-one here is sure why. And I’m not sure if a ten minute stop counts as a transit. I'm not going to ask.
Milos is another postcard perfect island. Adamas, the main port and largest town sits below Plaka, the capital, which is the go-to-place for sunset. Every building on the island is a whitewashed cuboid, mostly with cerulean blue shutters and doors. A few rebels have painted their window frames grey or a paler blue. I’m staying in Pollonia, which was a fishing village, and is now a new tourist town, the apartments lining the bay still all in the same boxy style. It’s the only settlement with direct access to a beach.
Pollonia is pretty though, with its tranquil harbour, fishing boats bobbing, turquoise roofed churches and line of seafood tavernas. Hot pink bougainvillea spills over the roofs and cats are prolific, wandering the streets, hiding under the café tables and squatting hopefully in the garbage areas. The beach is scenic from a distance, as it is planted with small silvery pine trees. However, the sand isn’t the prettiest colour - it’s a muddy beige - and I’ve watched all the felines prowling here at night. I have a suspicion it’s a giant litter tray. I think I’ll stick to the swimming pool.
I’m in the En Milo apartments, very nicely situated two minutes out of the main town, just behind the edge of the beach. I have great views of the bay and port from my little terrace and everything I need in my studio. There’s a kitchenette which I won't be using, as there are no grocery shops in town at all and I haven’t brought any supplies with me. I can’t decide if the absence of a mini market is due to lack of demand or a cynical ploy to ensure that the tavernas are well patronised. So it's crisps and coke for lunch and an early dinner on the quay every evening. The hosts are super friendly and helpful. They're a local family with two sons. The latter also run the local travel agency and half the yacht I’m sailing on for a round the island tour.
The hotel cat makes free use of the sunbeds, stretching luxuriously, then snoozing. She also assumes that the towels folded on my neighbours terrace have been put there to provide her with a comfy place to spend the night
There are ten of us on the boat, and the tour is conducted in English, though I’m the only native speaker. Everyone else’s first language is French or German. Antonis, the eldest son, our charismatic guide for the day, describes Milos very accurately as an open air geological museum. It’s one of Greece’s four volcanic islands and offers a variety of spectacular scenery. The volcano last erupted 90000 years ago, but it is considered to still be a dormant volcano and there are sulphurous thermal springs in the sea and caves around the island. The submerged caldera created a horseshoe shaped island – two sides joined by a narrow isthmus.
The volcanic rocks contain an abundance of minerals, which are doubly useful. They paint the cliffs and pillars in an amazing variety of shapes and colours. naturally legends have been woven around the pillars - especially the one that looks just like a bear.
And they have made the island wealthy. There have been mines here since ancient times. If Pliny is to be believed Milos was then the richest source of sulphur in the known world. In addition to sulphur manganese, bentonite and perlite are also lucratively extracted. Some of the mines are now in ruins, some still operational and nicely hidden from the main tourist routes.
Just in case mineral wealth wasn't enough Milos also has what is said to be the safest and best harbour in the Mediterranean. It was utilised by the British in World War I and Germany in World War II; there’s still a submarine net across the entrance. So Milos has made its name through seafaring exploits and especially, historically, the provision of pilots to aid navigation. These were consequently very wealthy men, who lived in opulent villas close to the entrance of the harbour. Here, they could observe the comings and goings on the water.
This entrance area has the most ancient remains and is where the Venus de Milo (now in the Louvre) was discovered, the most famous of the artefacts retrieved round here. Created sometime between 130 and 100 BC, the statue is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. However, there's some debate around this. Some scholars claim it is actually the sea-goddess Amphitrite, who is venerated on Milos. There is also an ancient Roman theatre on the hillside here, as well as a labyrinth of catacombs.
Wealth from mines and seafaring meant that the people of Milos were all in gainful employment and, as a result, the island came late to tourism; despite its attractions it’s possibly not as well known as other parts of Greece.
Most of my boat’s sightseeing, unsurprisingly. revolves around the scenic wonders of Milos. Kleftiko is the most renowned area, with its stacks and caves and ultra clear water. I’ve heard of the Greek dish, lamb kleftiko, but Antonis tells us that the word kleftiko actually means thief. The caves here are where the pirates or thieves stashed their haul – or treasure - if you like fairy stories. Barbarossa lived here for 25 years. The dish is called kleftiko, as you bake it with a lid on it, so that it can’t be smelled and give away your location.
There are numerous beautiful beaches (mostly inaccessible) with cinnamon streaked cliffs, striped stacks and hexagonal lava formations spouting vertically out of the water. There’s little habitation round most of the coast, though there is the fortified Iron John monastery, perched on one cliff top (too far way to photograph properly). It has huge wooden doors, but these were said to become as strong as iron (because of God’s intervention) when the pirates attacked, so they couldn’t be battered down. Undeterred, the pirates clambered on the roof. One lopped off the top of the dome and insinuated his hand through the hole, to fire his pistol inside. His hand was instantly chopped off (God again) and the gun is on display in the monastery.
It’s a good day, with plenty of food and drink on offer - though a long one. We sail back into Adamas at seven thirty, as the sun sets.
I’ve hired a car and the rental agreement has a tiny map at the bottom with a ring on i,t to show all the places I’m not allowed to drive the car, as the roads are too bad – they’re mostly dirt. From east to west, Milos measures about 14 miles, from north to south eight miles. The greater portion is rugged and hilly, so the ring covers most of the island - nearly all the west and some of the east.
They might have extended the no-go zone still further if they’d seen me edging cautiously, on the unfamiliar right side of the road down the steep slopes and narrow lanes that are the approaches to the beaches and tiny fishing ports. Plaka, on the hilltop, with its bustling shops and churches, is especially challenging. The cars are parked with gay abandon and the locals charge their vehicles straight through the remaining space. There's just enough to squeeze by.
More geological wonders. Sarakiniko Beach is snowy white stone with caves and a creek and an assortment of stacks and pinnacles. I’ve been warned to go early, to avoid the hordes and it is busy, despite the current ‘quiet times’. There’s a model posing amongst the most extraordinary rocks, screens, reflectors and cameras on tripods. I’m trying to work round her.
There are caves all along the coast – Papafragas Beach has still more, lashed by the waves. Firapotamos Bay (great name) has the bluest possible sea. Firiplaka Beach has more stacks and beautifully coffee and soot splodged cliffs. Tsigrado next door, is tiny, the sand has been eroded away and what there is, is reached (if you’re feeling adventurous), via a wooden ladder.
The fishing villages, especially Klima and Mandrakia, are almost impossibly cute. The houses here are called syrmatas – huts built into the rocks with boathouses below. It seems that colour is permitted alongside the harbours and the boat house doors are a rainbow of shades. The boats arranged perfectly in arcs out front. Tavernas on cliff tops with amazing views across the bays and little churches set on the points below. What more could you want?
Dropping down into Klima is far too thrilling. It’s a string of narrow hair pin bends down a steep hill edged with thorny vegetation. And more vehicles. I’m following another rental car and the occupants spill out into the parking bays at the bottom, sighing with relief, alongside me. Jay and Beth are from Calgary in Canada. We pile into the waterside bar and Jay lights up a huge cheroot to accompany his beer. It’s a good way to deal with stress – he was the passenger.
The al fresco taverna food isn't cheap, but it's good. in Pollonia. Jay and Beth are staying in Plaka, but pop over to Pollonia to eat with me on my last night. Antonis has recommended Enalion, another taverna on the waterfront – it’s a good choice. I drink luminescent pink cocktails made of Greek mastiche - it’s called N.O.S. (No ordinary spirit.) The mussels and squid are cooked exquisitely. We chat non stop. The cats look on plaintively from the beach behind.
Next stop Samos.
The highway from Djibouti port to Ethiopia is an exercise in patience, with nose to tail tankers and container lorries wending their way up the many hills. The scenery doesn’t really compensate initially, as the desert is dirty basalt strewn rocks and thorns. Next, there’s a stretch of flat yellow sand ( the biggest desert in Djibouti says Akram) and more rocky escarpment, but now with my favourite flat-topped acacia trees and wildlife spotting. First, a troop of baboons - with bright scarlet hindquarters. Akram and driver Hassan experiment to see if they like chocolate biscuits - they certainly do - and the whole group are soon swarming all over the vehicle.
Next, a small flock of ostrich. Dainty Thompson’s gazelles are solitary under bushes and there are increasing numbers of loose (or hobbled) camels chewing at the scrub. Akram and Hassan struggle to understand my interest in camels. They say there will be plenty of those. Hassan is garbed for the desert, a big checked neck scarf wound round his neck. Akram however, is dressed in a red and black top, to match the land cruiser interior. He even has red and black sunglasses and headphones. He knows these are Sunderland colours (I didn’t), but doesn’t even mention Manchester United. Akram supports Arsenal.
The country’s population is half Issa and half Afar nomad stock and these groups usually live separately, each tolerating the existence of the other. The president is Issa and the prime minister Afar. The palm tree dotted oasis town of Dikhil is called La Ville de Unité, as it’s the only place where these peoples cohabit. It’s the main junction on the Ethiopian highway and also the only suitable place for us to buy lunch. Besides, we have a puncture. While I’m feasting on chicken and chips and simultaneously warding off the local cat population, Hassan and Akram try to get the tyre repaired. But everyone is away from their workshops sleeping, praying or eating. It’s a long break.
Now, seventy-five kilometres over more desert. There’s no road and Hassan for the most part drives where he pleases, though there are narrow rutty (very bumpy) parts. I’m impressed by how well he finds his way, but then he stops, and his family emerge from the scrub, to collect bags of flour. He lives here. Akram, in his turn, is distributing largesse, dropping off baguettes and water for any nomad children we meet. They grimace and reluctantly pose for photos in return. The villages comprise sacking tents, a few round huts and those little cubed clay houses we made models of at school, when we were studying the Holy Land.
We cross a small ridge and Lac Abbé comes into view. It’s amazing. Thousands of geothermal limestone chimneys, up to fifty metres high, belching sulphur into the sky. If you’re looking for a lunar landscape on earth, then eat your heart out Chile and Bolivia. They filmed Planet of the Apes here, but the set area has been commandeered by a herd of donkeys. ‘Planete des Anes, ‘grins Hassan.
Grazing warthogs are added to the list of fauna spotted, as we weave through the pillars, stopping for perfect sunset pictures; a golden disc drops behind the crags.
The camp is described as simple in the itinerary and I haven’t been looking forward to it. Even simple turns out to be a euphemism. It’s an igloo shaped tent, covered in grass matting, containing two camp beds and an elderly foam mattress. Bare earth beneath. There’s a clay toilet block in front, obscuring the view across the lake. At the moment the panorama (the earlier one anyway) is worth the discomfort. Let’s see how I feel in the morning. On my instruction Akram has sneaked me an extra mattress and two more cotton blankets. It’s sweltering hot till the sun goes down and then the temperature plummets.
It definitely is a great view across the eerie landscape, once you peer round the toilet block.
In the morning Hassan and Akram enjoy demonstrating how to make the fumaroles spit and belch before we set off again.
Back across the desert. I really wish I’d packed a sports bra. Hassan’s music collection varies between Ethiopian laments and African hip hop. I can’t say I’m keen on either, but I’m not being consulted. We drive off the highway for a picnic lunch perched on rocks looking out over a golden stretch of desert. it's a very peaceful break, until Akram announces that he's realised that this is actually a firing range and we should leave. We do.
North to Lake Assal (literally 'Honey Lake'); it’s the third saltiest lake in the world, the lowest point in Africa and the third lowest point on Earth, after the Lake of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It’s also very scenic, shades of turquoise and jade, has salt pans stretching around it and is surrounded by deep canyons and lava flow. The last big eruption was in 1978 and the volcanic cones poke out of the water, as well as towering above. The dark lava and the blue water contrast beautifully.
We teeter round the edge of the Gulf of Tadjoura and back to the town it’s named after. It boasts seven mosques, with seven cemeteries for the seven different local tribes and was once the capital of Djibouti, though the population is only 15,000. It’s now being rejuvenated, with a newly constructed port, ready to serve north Ethiopia.
I’m more interested in the beach to the north (more very rough tracks and relentless African dirge music), where there’s a surprisingly beautifully tended beach erroneously named White Sand. It’s actually beige, but gorgeous and peaceful, with an excellent reef (an assortment of huge vividly coloured fish and exceptionally clear water) that you can wade out to. It even has beach beds, circular thatched bungalows for rent and waiters to bring lunch on a tray. It’s a little paradise. But paradise in my experience always has a sting in the tail. This is a literal sting in the form of jellyfish. But only a small one.
I’m very reluctant to leave, but Akram is insistent. He wants to get home. As we bounce our way back to Djibouti, I persuade Hassan to play some Bob Marley.
I've flown in from South Sudan. Djibouti City is, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Moroni in the Comoros. It's either a charming mélange of fading Arabic architecture, with French language facias and colourful African peoples, or a hotchpotch of crumbling ramshackle buildings, depending on your mood. Half of the population of Djibouti live here.
It’s an interesting morning’s wander, the odd goat ambling alongside. Guide, Akram assures me it’s very safe. Brightly attired, fully covered women sit on plastic armchairs in the streets, clutching big shopping bags full of cash. They’re the local moneychangers.
Djibouti is a melange of different architectural styles that represent various periods in its history. A few of the building fronts have been renovated and date back to the nineteenth century. The Place of 27 June in the city centre is also distinguished by its Moorish-inspired arches. The old section is filled with bazaars and souks nestled along narrow streets. There are also wide streets, restaurants, large plazas and plenty of cafes. Many of the boulevards are lined with trees. This is both a centre for commerce and entertainment, and a residential area.
There’s a small bustling vegetable market, a bigger clothes market, (Akram says the middle class shop here), a banking district and a compound that is part building site, where the rich live in super-sized mansions, mingling in with key embassies - Saudi, Qatar, the USA and France. The contrast with the surrounding poverty, sprawls of one-room tin huts, woven wood shelters and dust is profound. Nearby, a modern, almost upmarket mall, where we stop and drink milkshakes. Akram is a big fan.
To accommodate the growing middle class, many new apartments and housing developments are being constructed in and especially on the outskirts of the the city.
Known as the Pearl of the Gulf of Tadjoura due to its location, Djibouti is strategically positioned near the world's busiest shipping lanes and acts as a refuelling and transhipment centre So, the port is huge and expanding, with free trade zones. Out in the gulf, boats representing the big navies of the world patrol the strategic mouth to the Red Sea. So we’re also, I’m assured, safe from pirates too.
The final stop, the National Restaurant (fake Persian Islamic architecture), which serves the best meal I’ve eaten this trip. Huge portions of beautifully spiced and grilled fish (Yemeni style) with ground banana and date and the freshest charcoal baked flatbread.
Next, we are heading out into the desert.
I've flown in from Juba. Immigration at Djibouti Airport is fairly straightforward; there’s little queueing, though the official I’ve selected has to move booths three times before he can get his new-fangled technology to work. I’ve eschewed an e-visa as they were demanding 130 dollars online and I was told it was only 90 dollars on arrival. So, I’m delighted to be charged just 15 dollars for a transit visa, as it's a short stay
I’m in a five-star hotel, which charges five-star prices. The room is freezing cold and won’t warm up, (it’s still forty degrees outside), there’s no hot water, the fridge won’t work, and the bathroom looks as if it hasn’t been refurbished since the 1950’s.
In antiquity this was the Land of Punt. The Djibouti area, along with other localities in the Horn region, was later the seat of the medieval Adal and Ifat Sultanates. It then became French Somaliland, established as a French colony in the late nineteenth century. Independence was achieved in 1977. Today, Wikipedia describes Djibouti as a ’unitary dominant presidential republic under an authoritarian dictatorship’. There’s one TV channel - state run.
About 40 percent of the population live in poverty and over half of these people in extreme poverty. The arid land makes Djibouti a poor place for farming. In fact, just 0.04 percent of land in Djibouti is arable. There is therefore very little in the way of exports - the country makes a living through commerce, utilising its strategic position at the mouth of the Red Sea. Ships and planes from western powers vie to use the port and establish military bases. It also supplies vital port access to Ethiopia.
Lonely Planet says this is a safe country because of the considerable western military presence. The FCO talk about landmines on the border with Eritrea, bandits on the road and piracy, as well as petty crime. I didn't have any problems
The original plan was to drive overland to Somaliland, but the Djibouti authorities have announced, for some reason known only to them, that the border will not be opened until 4 pm each day. Which doesn’t allow long for my drive to Borama and overnight accommodation. So now I’m flying direct to Hargeisa. Djibouti Airport reminds me of my hotel bathroom. The departure lounge is accessed up two flights of spiral stairs.
Back in Santiago, the capital of Chile, from Bolivia, I’m picked up this time by a fussy little man called Maurizio, who talks non-stop for 20 minutes in unintelligible English and delivers me to a very smart boutique hotel. I’ve time for a wander round down town. It hasn’t changed my opinion from my last visit. Santiago is a pleasant enough place, more than pleasant if you want to shop (plenty of those) or eat out, especially around the bohemian Lastarrio barrio with its many small bars and cafes. But there isn’t really anything exciting to look at.
A small, dirty river runs through the middle, lined with some park areas and statues. It's a hotchpotch of building styles, some old, mixed in with the new, if you look hard and upwards. There’s a presidential palace, an imposing cathedral on the main square and several other spires or older colonial style buildings (such as the old fire station) interspersed with the many shopping outlets and street stalls. There’s also a domed central market building. The highlight is an ice cream at a street café which serves the most enormous sundaes I have ever seen - for sharing obviously. I order a smaller tub version with two flavours. Or I think I have. Two huge tubs turn up – fortunately, they take pity on me and refund one of them.
Maurizio has sent a message to say that the ground staff from LATAM (the airline amalgamation of Chilean LAN and Brazilian TAM) are on strike today and I have to leave early for the airport, at noon. Last time I was in South America the Argentinians were on general strike and this time it’s been both Bolivia and Chile. It’s hardly the way to encourage tourism. The message is delivered while I’m in the bar on my second pisco sour. I’m still tired, so I go to bed at nine. I’m woken up at 10.30 by the phone. Maurizio wants to make sure I’ve got the message.
It’s not been a great night again. My stomach has been playing up and I feel fluey. Perhaps the pisco sours weren’t a great move. Maurizio phones at 11.30 to say that he is downstairs waiting for me. It takes twenty minutes to get to the airport, check in is quick and it seems that all the planes are on time. So, I’ve three hours to wait listening to those Christmas carols again. Déjà vu. Maurizio has wanted to wait with me, but I’ve declined his offer. he even tells me how much to tip him. Apparently, I tried to give the driver too much.
Not quite all the planes are on time. The Puerto Montt flight, scheduled an hour before mine, has been indefinitely delayed. They’ve announced over the PA that the pilot hasn’t turned up for work. What’s more, they add, no-one can track him down and he won’t answer his phone. The plane is still sitting at the gate as mine taxis out.
Puerto Montt is the gateway to the Lake District of Chile. It’s set on a large sea inlet that looks like a lake, but isn’t. Charles Darwin proved that when he landed there with the Beagle. It’s very English countryside, green rolling hills and pasture, where the llamas, for the most part, have given way to Jersey and Guernsey cattle. The first settlers here were German though, so the villages are wooden chalets and pastel timber churches and the roads are lined with signs advertising Kuchen and Zimmern. The waterside resorts, with red canopied cafes and restaurants, are more Little Switzerland; it’s like being on Lake Neuchâtel.
However, it’s not really Switzerland, Germany or England, as there are also volcanoes. I’ve come here because last time I was in Chile I flew over the area and the view of the cones from the air, all venting, was entrancing. I decided I would come and see them from the ground. My hotel is in the resort town of Puerto Varas, on the edge of a very large lake, Lianaquihue. I've chosen German founded Puerto Varas as everyone says it's prettier and more welcoming than its uglier big brother Puerto Montt, to the south.
Lianaquihue is the most well known lake in Chile, and is 22 miles long and 25 miles wide. I’m told that there are three very large volcanoes just across the water from my room. Osorno, Calbuco (still active - it threw out ash last recently) and Tronador. But I will have to take everyone’s word for it. The climate is the same as that of the English Lake District and there are dark clouds; it’s threatening to rain.
Today, I still can’t see the volcanoes of Chile, as it’s still cloudy and now drizzling, but I believe I’m going to visit one, Osorno. My tour sets off, anti-clockwise, round the lake, passing the turn off to the volcano. Much to my surprise and consternation the minibus instead stops further on, first to admire a few llamas and alpacas, in a pen, on a farm and then at the entrance to Petrohue Waterfalls.
We stop there for an hour or so, and then at another, smaller lake, (Lake for All Saints), where all the other occupants depart on a boat trip for another hour; they’ve had to pay directly for both of these. I’ve forgotten my purse, but the guide informs me that in any case there’s no point in me paying and participating, as both these options are included free on my tour tomorrow. So I go for a wander past some pretty yellow gorse and yet another cloud topped volcano.
According to the brochure photos Osorno has a classic snow capped cone. ( I had a much better view from the plane last time I was here). It is one of the most active volcanoes of southern Chile. It hasn't erupted since 1869, but there has been recent activity measured and locals say it’s not long until it would erupt again The upper slopes of the volcano are almost entirely covered in glaciers despite its comparatively modest altitude and latitude.
My actual trip to the Osorno volcano lasts just an hour. The drizzle has become driving rain and a howling wind, and the chairlift is closed. But there are good views from the top and the lava fields are interesting.
I complain to the tour company. Apparently, no-one else was booked on the volcano only trip, so they put me on another one. Just nobody told me. Perhaps they thought I wouldn’t notice. The company rep points out that I got the extras free…...
So, today I bounce off the bus when we stop and set off for the Petrohue Falls again, ticket in my pocket. But the entrance gate is padlocked, and a gloomy little man explains that they’ve been closed by the police. Some robbers are hanging out down there.
Next, a return visit to the small lake, where I embark on a boat for an (almost two-hour) voyage to a very small village called Peuilla. It’s probably a very scenic ride, with beautiful volcano views - it’s in a narrow valley - but it’s raining steadily today, and I can see very little. I spend most of the time talking about travel, with an English lady called Tricia. There’s four hours to spend at our destination. Canopy walks, more boats, 4 WD trips and llama farms are on offer, but it’s still bucketing down. And besides I’ve had enough of boat rides with elusive views. There are some comfy sofas in the local hotel. And I still have my Kindle.
Back across the lake, still chattering to Tricia. The Petrohue Falls are now open. It’s third time lucky, so I brave both the lashing rain, slippery paths and a party of students, (but no robbers) to get my pictures. The excursion blurb says they're world renowned. I'd be surprised. But they're pretty.
Today, another group excursion (never again) to a village, Frutillar, on a clockwise circuit of Lake Lianaquihue. The rain is interspersed with sun and the meadowland is pretty. The guide ekes out the short journey by telling us all about the few factories we pass. However, the main industry here, unsurprisingly, is dairy, producing almost enough to supply the whole of Chile. The lake is a prettily turquoise and there are plenty more wooden buildings, old and new. Frutillar has a modern timber theatre, built over the water (it’s not quite Sydney Opera House) and a little museum, with reconstructed colonial buildings. One affluent hamlet has a clutch of houses that cost over a million dollars each. The guide says they boast a view of six volcanoes in all. Naturally, we can’t see them.
A plane south to Punta Arenas. LATAM sold my booked seat to someone else, as they do, so I’m in my least favourite middle of the row seat. At least they didn’t bump me altogether. The upside is that I’m entertained by Californian Mike, who got the windowseat. He is leading a team of ten to film pumas in Torres del Paine.
My hotel is a tall town house at the top of a hill with glassed in restaurant. Here’s a first - my bag is winched up onto the balcony, which has a great view over the most southerly city (on the mainland) in the world. Punta Arenas is much as I remember. It’s an orderly little town, blue, green and red roofs, sweeping down to the sea. There are some stately civic buildings around the central Plaza des Armas.
The air is fresh but not too windy. I’m having a catch-up day. Hairdresser, nails, eyebrows, massage with Cecilia, who performs each operation in a different room of her house. It’s a pleasant way to relax. An uber back to the hotel, the driver gets lost, but instead of charging me extra for the additional time, he deducts money from the charge and refuses to take any more. Amazing.
In the evening an information meeting, flights and arrangements for my trip to Antarctica tomorrow.
(Read more about Chile here).
I wake to an incredible view of the Andes of Chile, snow spattered. The plane is descending, before commencing a sharp, and slightly alarming, ninety degree turn into Santiago, just the other side of the mountain range; there isn’t much space between me and some of the frosted peaks I’m eyeballing. We pop, not entirely smoothly, over some glistening salt pans, before coming into land.
Santiago airport is both surreal and uncomfortable. Surreal, because the loudspeakers are blaring out Christmas carols, mainly in English. Uncomfortable, because packing for climatic extremes: desert, Caribbean and Antarctica on this trip, has been fiendishly challenging. I’ve finally decided that being too hot is preferable to being too cold and travelled in my parka, Ugg boots and fleece, after stuffing my case to the maximum limit. So, I’m sweltering in the thirty-degree heat. What’s more, my cabin bag has developed a mind of its own and keeps keeling over. So far, it’s taken out a display of bottled water and an unsuspecting toddler.
Unsurprisingly, I’m on the receiving end of raised eyebrows from the Chilenas. It doesn’t help that the check in clerks and immigration officials are struggling to understand my native tongue. My rusty Spanish is going to have to improve speedily if I want to have any conversation in Chile. Unless I content myself with listening to the music, of course.
Immigration is quiet and the queue very short. One of the operatives has closed her window and is using her phone to photograph girls in bikinis from a catalogue. I’m not convinced this is a work-related activity. I’m also wondering what the Australians have done to upset the Chileans. Whilst everyone else gets in free they have to pay a $116 before they’re allowed to enter.
My next plane heads to Calama, reversing the route I’ve just taken into the capital, and skimming the mountains again. If anything, the outlook is even more stunning, zebra striped ridges running to the horizon, teeny turquoise lakes perched aloft. Travelling north, the landscape flattens, cinnamon tinged with sage, dotted with huge crinkly salt pans.
My first port of call proper is San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis in the Andes foothills. The little town is presided over by the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Licancabur and the desert from which it takes its name is the driest in the world.
San Pedro is awash with white minibuses, mostly plying the same tourist routes. I’m in a group of five, with a guide called Melina and an excitable trilby wearing driver, Christian. My companion travellers are two couples, Chilean and Spanish, both on honeymoon. The guide’s comments about the Spanish invasion, while she’s explaining the history of the region aren’t going down too well with the Spaniards. It makes a change from being under fire for British colonialism.
San Pedro is at an altitude of 2500 metres and we are climbing up to 3500 metres in the Domeyko Mountains for our first outing. It’s an extraordinary lunar landscape, the distant Andes an ongoing beautifully contrasting backdrop. Much of the Atacama Desert here is starkly arid, but nearer town, the road is lined with yellow grass clumps. giving the hills a golden hue. Groups of sleeping sheep turn out to be huge cacti pincushions, known here as mother-in-law’s plants, far more vicious than our mother-in-law’s tongue.
First stop, petroglyphs at Yerbas Buenos. These are mainly drawings of llamas and shaman, rays emanating from their heads. I’ve yet to learn to appreciate petroglyphs, even though I know they’re ancient. Or relatively so in the case of these –depending on who you believe they are either 10,000 years old, or 1500 years old or 600 years old. Whatever, the contrasting starkness of the rocks against the sapphire of the sky, chasms, bridges, caves and peep holes is more interesting.
Rainbow Valley, though not exactly rainbow - mainly tones of green and brown - is alone worth the trip to North Chile. The towering rock formations are stunning - pistachio ice cream dribbling chocolate sauce.
I’ve just read an article that says I should leave Rainbow Valley to the end of my stay here, because of the high altitude. Onwards and upwards. Time to sit by the pool before my next excursion. Nothing is arranged during early afternoon, as it becomes very hot. And besides it’s obligatory to visit most of these sites at dawn or dusk, in order to get the best light.
I’ve said that the desert here in Chile looks like the moon (or how I imagine the moon to look), but my next stop is actually called Lunar Valley. It’s a huge bowl containing a steep walled amphitheatre and a multitude of incredible spindly rock formations. Part of this is known as ll de la Valle de la Muerte ( Death Valley), which might be appropriate, though it's thought this is actually a corruption of Mars Valley, in reference to the reddish formations. So, unsurprisingly, celestial metaphors abound.
We are surrounded by giant sand dunes and Toblerone ridges, snaking out in all directions. We ascend a path running alongside the Duna Major. It’s an assault course type work out - it’s sandy as well as being at altitude. The toilets at the bottom are closed and there’s no cover at all. But the unique panorama at the top is definitely worth it. We’ve just beaten the crowds. The file of folk struggling up the hill is growing steadily.
I’m told it’s low season in San Pedro. When it’s really busy there are a thousand people standing on the top of the dune alone. There are several more lofty miradors with views across the whole landscape, each of them charging for entry. Nothing is free here. But at least they’re more accessible, though It’s cooling down as rapidly as it heated up and there’s a wind whipping up too. The tiny particles it’s carrying are painful. No wonder there is so much erosion.
The sunrise rule has been applied with a vengeance today. And summer timetable has just come into force, so I’m picked up at 4.30 a.m. to see the Tatio geysers. Not only do they look good at sunrise, the blurb says, but they only erupt properly at this time of day. Thank goodness my body clock is still on English time.
El Tatio is the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. (Take that New Zealand.) The geysers are all named after the nationalities of people who have fallen in and died: Geyser Belgium, Geyser Italia. And even more morbidly, Geyser Killer. The owners have at least walled in the deadliest of the eighty or so spouts, curls of steam rising high into the sky wafting sulphur. There are some reflections in the pools, but it’s prettier when the sun rises, and the columns are framed by an azure sky. However, the pre-departure information is accurate. They’re indeed all dying down as the sun climbs over the mountains. It’s 4.300 metres high here and the rapid ascent is taking its toll today.
I’m feeling nauseous and giddy. If I’m not careful they’ll be naming a geyser Britannia next. The climate is schizophrenic. The fumaroles are bubbling scalding water from salt encrusted funnels and there’s ice on the ground. It’s hard to know which is which. It’s minus eight degrees at the moment and I’m so glad I brought all my togs. Swimming is on offer, in a thermal pool, but dizziness and cold air don’t promise an enjoyable experince and the pool is already rammed with tourists.
It was pitch black on the way up, and anyway I was attempting to doze then, so the scenery on the descent is another welcome surprise. There are more golden tinged peaks, narrow winding passes and a wildlife bonanza: foxes (Zorro of course) vicuña, rheas, a multitude of waterfowl in a patchwork river valley and flamingos on the salt pans.
A final unexpected stop turns out to be a highlight of this excursion. Cactus Valley is an absolute gem of a walk, through giant six-hundred-year-old cacti to a bubbling waterfall. All that and it’s not even noon.
The San Pedro finale is a visit to the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Here there are lagoons lying over the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile. The wind is balmy and the atmosphere tranquil. The flamingos put on a good performance with their synchronized mating rituals, wading in pairs, their heads dipping as they sieve the water, or abruptly take off, candy floss and liquorice wings fluttering. A lone male does his utmost to attract attention, waggling his wings and stiffening his neck, but to no avail. Eventually he folds his coral pink head under his wing and sulks.
The Atacama Desert of Chile truly has everything.
Round the back of Mount Licancabur to the border post with Bolivia. The immigration service of Chile has been taking tips from the Chinese. I’m made to get back into my van because I haven't been given permission to get out. The toilets aren’t working either. On to Bolivia.
(Read more about Chile here).
It’s an all-day affair to fly the 150 miles from Mayotte to Moroni, the capital of the Comoros, as I have to go via Réunion. I’m still trying to work out why. (Unless its name demands it?) It’s even more frustrating when the plane flies directly overhead of Mayotte on the second leg. Mine is not to reason why.
The immigration officer is surprisingly friendly and addresses me in English. She then offers to find me a driver. Well that’s a first, an immigration officer trying to sell me services. Reassuringly, after my refusal of her offer, my guide is waiting for me in the baggage hall. It’s not Mohammed, as intimated on my travel paperwork but Omar, who fills me in on the latest island happenings.
The young man who has arrived on the plane with me is scrambling into funeral gear, as his father was murdered by his brother yesterday. The brother had been sending money home from France and was not very happy to see how it had been spent when he came home for vacation last week. After killing his brother he then hanged himself, so it’s a double funeral. His widow was on the plane with me too. It’s just like the Nollywood movies I watched in West Africa.
Omar drives incredibly carefully, as everyone else’s driving is a problem it seems, but his English is good. And suddenly most people are happy to speak a little English. Perhaps it’s because they are very Francophobe at the moment - there are ongoing tensions over France’s retention of Mayotte. Omar tells me that Mohammed will be with us tomorrow.
And I’ve come full circle hotel wise. This one is reminiscent of Kinshasa; it’s not a good idea to look too hard at anything, especially the corners and the shower. My safe doesn’t work, the Wi-Fi crawls (there’s no 3G or 4G data at all) and the dinner buffet is cheap, but nasty. Re-heated chips, rice and chicken. A cocktail would have eased my suffering, but this is a Moslem country and the hotel is dry.
Crime levels are low, but it is advised to take the usual precautions against pick-pocketing and mugging and not to walk alone at night on beaches or in town centres. I didn't have any problems.
According to The World Bank, the living standard of almost half the population falls below the poverty line .
I took a guide with a car round Moroni, the capital and north and south, exploring. There is some stunning scenery, volcanoes, glorious beaches and a lot of litter.
Much to my surprise the tiny airport features a business lounge. An online reviewer has given it 1/10. I’m surprised anyone actually makes it that far. The queues inch along. And that’s if you can work out which ones to join. The check in procedures are excruciatingly slow and the clerks seem bewildered. There is no sign for departures at all. The immigration officials’ booths are labelled 'Information'. And there is one scanner operating for the security check, with one man feeding it, extremely slowly. It’s no surprise at all that the plane is delayed by two hours, while they load the luggage. I spend most of the time talking flying with an Ethiopian Airways captain. He’s brought out a Hajj charter and is returning as a passenger.
Finally, we take off. It’s the end of another epic trip.
I've been told my guide to visit Comoros is called Mohammed. I meet one Mohammed fleetingly and accidentally, but it seems he’s leading an English speaking group today. This is an absolute deluge of tourists for the Comoros. Omar, who met me at the airport, as I fly in from Mayotte, informs me that he (Omar) is to drive me (although he also tells me he’s actually the chief guide), as a tall young man in check shirt, baseball cap and jeans bowls up. Omar says that this is my Mohammed and he will be my guide. His English isn’t great, but he has enough for a very basic conversation.
The traffic is terrible and Omar is exceedingly cautious with his driving . At one point we actually reach 30 kph. To be fair, discretion is definitely the better part of valour here. There are wrecked vehicles round every bend. However, he also gets lost once and there are several near misses on left hand turn manoeuvres.
The main island of Grand Comore is similar (unsurprisingly) to Mayotte. It’s more obviously volcanic, considerably poorer, and absolutely filthy. The beaches and river beds are almost obscured by litter. Moroni is a cluster of corrugated metal dwellings, generally unpainted, several sections of land fenced off and signed to say they are to be developed, a large number of unfinished concrete buildings (including several mosques), a few Arab style edifices around the medina and central square and some modern official constructions, such as the presidents' palaces and the parliament houses (mainly provided by the Chinese).
We visit the museum, where I tell My Mohammed what the signs say and the highlight is a stuffed coelacanth. I’ve never seen one before. The lower floor is mainly devoted to the Grand Mariage. This multi-ceremony event lasts more than a week. Families save for it for years and can spend their life savings on providing meals and other celebrations for the entire village. Omar says it is expected of every member of society at least once in their life. He also tell me that he isn’t ready for it yet. He has six children. My Mohammed chirps that he has no intention of getting married anyway. He’s a twenty-one year old DJ, part time, and very happy with his way of life.
We then saunter through the old market and medina. The clothes here are also similar in design to those in Mayotte –again it’s an almost entirely Moslem population- but here the women are less stylish and the men more likely to wear Arab garb, with embroidered skull caps. Most people are very friendly. They all have a greeting and a smile, unless you take out your camera.
The women are even more hostile to photography. I’m not even allowed to point the camera at their produce. My Mohammed explains (via Omar and much giggling) that they shouted at him to say if he wants me to have a souvenir photograph from the Comoros he should take down his jeans. Some of the men are more amenable and a few volunteer to pose, especially in the huge central market, which is hustle and bustle and amazingly colourful. The medina is quietly charming, in a dilapidated crumbling fashion. The ancient Friday mosque is a distinctive and unique landmark, curving in front of the port. Now, the sights of Moroni are exhausted.
We proceed extremely slowly south to the cliff where 350 women committed suicide, rather than submit to pirates and slavery. Beyond is a (very) ruined sultan’s palace, basalt beaches, ylang-ylang plantations (another still) and the Marabou Lake, where you can make sacrifices to get rid of your evil spirits. Finally, up to the top of the ridge for the view of the lava flow from Mount Karthali, the largest active volcano in the world, at Singani.
My camera isn’t getting much exercise in Comoros, what with the women refusing portraits, the litter spoiling the scenery and the FCO advising visitors not to photograph official buildings anyway, because of anti-French sentiment. It seems that the president has just recently imprisoned the whole of the opposition party, who were objecting to his recent referendum which purported to confirm that he should remain in power beyond his current term. Riots and dissent are highly possible. Omar says not to worry, he’s sure he can influence anyone who objects to my photography. Nevertheless, I’m not keen on risking being carted off to jail.
Back at the hotel I’m asked out for a drink by the other Mohammed's tourist group of six, who have crossed our path during the day. Yes, a proper drink, in a bar up the road, where they kindly send out for tonic. There are four ladies (all imbibing), two Americans, one Australian, one Kuwaiti. Two of them are called Julie, so I have a 50% chance of getting the name right. They complain that their Mohammed has talked only about himself (showing them 25 pictures of his wife) and politics (how much he hates the French). It seems that Omar was the better option – I may have to resist attempts to poach him.
Today, we’re almost in convoy with the other Mohammed group, exploring the island. Omar is absent and has brought in another driver for me, as his wife’s father has died. I’m not sure how the arrangements were made, but My Mohammed seems to be summoning him from the midst of the hotel hedges. Hassan doesn’t speak a word of English, or French either it seems. Mohammed and I muddle through in Franglais. My French is as good as his English, which isn’t saying much. But I’m now convinced I have much the better deal guide wise. Mohammed tries exceptionally hard to make sure I see everything I’m supposed to in the Comoros. He has learned the programme off by heart. It’s a little disconcerting when he tries to stroke my face a couple of times, but I assume he’s only helpfully moving the hair out of my eyes.
The scenery today is sublime. We’re on the other side of Karthali, with views down to the coast, more lava flows and an ever extending vista of palm trees. There’s the High Plateau of Diboini, with seven volcanic cones and a whole string of stunning beaches. Surprisingly, they are white coral sand, admirably framed by the dark basalt. And thankfully, on the whole, the beaches of Comoros are clean, though the same can’t be said for the backdrops. One delightful cove, Chomoni, is signposted – Une Plage Propre. There’s more ylang-ylang, and a few mongoose lemurs.
Possibly the highlight is the Dragon Rocks, which really do look like the backbone of a dragon, head rearing. They are perched on the crest of a cliff, looking out to the volcanoes, across the lagoon and over to minuscule Turtle Island. There are fishermen working with nets and buckets. My Mohammed helps me scramble to the top and shows me the best view points. The other Mohammed has stayed in his minibus on the road and seems disinclined to do anything. His group eventually mutiny, having seen me up top and ascend too. Their Mohammed follows lethargically. Australian Julie’s voice wafts across on the breeze. ‘He’s not a guide. He’s an idiot.’
Their group does have very nattily dressed driver, Francois, braces, cropped trousers, little kipper tie, fancy boots and a small goatee. He’s also enraged, because no-one has provided lunch for him. Mohammed II has mopped up his group’s leftovers. (I’m sitting eating with my two men). It’s all quite exciting.
The last stops are a thousand year old hollow baobab tree (very similar to the one in Boma, I definitely have come full circle) and a beautiful. supposedly bottomless aquamarine salt lake in what looks like another caldera. Mohammed tells me it was created by the marabou, who submerged a village in there, as no-one would give him a drink. As Kuwaiti Ayesha observes, ‘That’s quite a harsh punishment’.
Up early to wave my new friends off. They’re heading for the other islands. I’m very sad to see them go. They have been welcome and fun company for the end of my journey. There haven’t been many other tourists on the way and hardly any that speak English. Omar is taking me to my beach hotel today. My phone is showing three calls from Mohammed. He says he misses me a lot. ‘Oh dear!
My last two days are to be spent in what is described as the best hotel on the island, on one of the prettiest beaches, just south of Moroni. Except that the fates have conspired against me. After all the weeks of dry weather it’s now bucketing down. (Incidentally, the overly optimistic weather forecast summary says ‘Mainly sunny’.) The streets of Moroni have become a river. The hotel is called the Golden Tulip Hotel and Spa. So I decide to have a massage to compensate for lack of beach time. The receptionist looks bemused. There’s no spa. And my stomach is twitching. An upset is probably overdue; I have been in Africa nearly six weeks.
Reasonable weather – some cloud, a little rain. Good enough to spend most of the day on the beach. The hotel makes a decent but incredibly strong caipirinha. The effects sneak up on you slowly. So the room is spinning when I make it back – I only had two with my farewell leaving dinner lobster. There’s ice in my drink, so I ask them what water it’s made from. ‘The machine’ the girl says. No wonder my stomach is dodgy.
Naturally, the sun is shining more consistently on my last day, but I manage a morning on the lovely little beach. It’s lively today, the fishermen are dragging in their outrigger canoes. Then I’m heading for the tiny airport and home,
Réunion is a huge culture shock after travelling in mainland Africa. Arriving from eSwatini I’ve been catapulted right back into Europe. Four lane highways, modern suburbia and very, very French, from the moment that I step onto the Reunion based French airline, Air Austral, in Jo’burg (very good food for an airline.)
Despite its European aspect, Réunion 's dominant sugarcane industry results in poorly-distributed prosperity amongst its 840,000 inhabitants. As in many countries some have wealth, too many live below the poverty line.
Head inland to the volcano parks and waterfalls and down south for the incredible coastal scenery, again shaped by the volcanoes. There are beaches - but disappointing ones - and check there's a shark net.
A small dose of Europe was just what I needed after my month in the bush; it’s been a welcome and enjoyable few days. Downsides? It’s horribly expensive here. Set dinner with no choice - 29 euros. And it’s also one of those areas of France where inability to speak French is treated churlishly. The service at the hotel has varied, even when delivered by the same person. I find some of their accents hard to follow and my hesitation has often not been well tolerated.
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