Where The River Goes

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Exploring one of the three Ksamil Islands

I’m afraid the internet has been pretty horrendous along the Albanian coast so I’m only getting a moment to update now. We managed to drive 40 minutes from our place in Dhermi to find a working ATM. The next issue was then finding a place that served food! Most were only selling drinks as it seems eating out isn’t popular with the locals and there aren’t any tourists around! Being the only tourists around definitely did have its perks, though.

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It’s been quite surreal at times, partly because half the buildings appear to have been abandonned mid construction and are now ‘shitet’ (a sign which kept popping up repeatedly all over the place and we now think means ‘for sale’). Another surreal feature of the landscape is the bunkers scattered about in the most bizarre places, ranging from the middle of town to cliffs on the coast and fields in the countryside. Apparently they’re remnants from a ‘bunkerisation’ initiative led by Enver Hoxha’s communist government in the latter half of the 20th century. He wanted the entire country prepped and ready for attack from all sides and a wide range of potential enemies, installing around 750,000  of the things all over the country!  No wonder we saw so many. Kids were trained from the age of 12, apparently, to man the bunkers in an attempt to militarize civilians and be constantly vigilant against intruders. Talk about paranoia! All, of course, abandonned with the fall of communism in the 90s. If you’re interested, check out some of David Galjaard’s bunker photography collection: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2014/01/24/david_galjaard_photographs_albanian_bunkers_in_his_photo_book_concresco.html

I think the best way to summarise our exploring will be through providing some highlights, in case anyone’s looking for any tips or recommendations for Albania trips.

1. Ksamil – just south of Sarandë. This little village has some incredibly beautiful little beaches facing out to three little islands (within swimming distance!) Corfu gets very close at this point of the coast so it looks like mountains in the sea.

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2. Blue Eye – East of Sarandë. This was a rather unexpected gem. You pay (equivalent of around £1) to enter the area and follow a river to it’s magical source: a deep and incredibly clear spring aptly named the ‘Blue eye’ of the river. The surrounding hiking trails are beautiful this time of year. Well worth heading out to if you’re anywhere near Sarandë.

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3. Gjupi beach and Livadhi beach. A couple of examples of the options available along the lengthy coast! The colour of the clear water is just jaw dropping. Bear in mind that these photos are straight from my phone therefore not edited, believe it or not!

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Gjupe

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4. Butrint – another hidden treasure, the ruins if the ancient city of Butrint span across an incredible time period, dating back to the Hellenstic era (Greek influence). Legends say that the city was founded by Helenus and Andromache fleeing the destruction of Troy, but it appears it was inhabited long before -right back to prehistoric times. It was later taken over by the Romans in 228 BC before being swept up in the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians put their stamp on it when they purchased the land in 1386 before it was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1799! It’s been through a lot! Relics and remnants from all these eras remain at the site. Really interesting – and we were the only people there bar one or two fellow tourists.

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5. The coastal drive between Vlores and Sarandë. The roads themselves were stunning, carving through the mountains which drop down to the sea. There were so many great little spots to stop at along the way.

Dhermi beach

Dhermi beach

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Fun little restaurant built over a waterfall – Ujivara

Porto Palermo castle

Porto Palermo Castle 

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And finally, here’s a delicious trileche pud in Sarandë that I must try to make once we’re back!

Ocean Dream / Red Dirt Road

Humpback calf Vava'u

Gathering ammo for articles in Vava’u was spectacularly fruitful. Unlike in Tongatapu, the main island, people were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to promote the region. As a result I was hosted on a fantastic array of different activities. On day 3 I found myself in a go-cart whizzing around the mainland and on day 4 I was out on the waves of the open sea in a boat all day.

The carting was very novel – the very rough terrain in places really epitomised ‘off-roading’. There was also a surprising amount of variety in terms of the terrain/flora/fauna. Up on the north coast, the rich brown/red mud and luscious greens transformed to sweeping yellow fields dotted with pandan trees. I’ll do a ‘photo story’ to try and recreate the impression of the trip:

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First stop: beach at the north east of the main island

First stop: beach at the north east of the main island

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Flying fox den with a view

Flying fox den with a view

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Picked up a straggler in the cart

Picked up a straggler in the cart

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The following day, the excursion couldn’t have been a bigger contrast from that adrenaline filled mud-fest. A reasonably small motor boat, with me, the crew and three underwater photographers on, headed out of the bay, out through the islands to the open sea. We spent from 8am-4pm getting sea sick on the waves, spotting the odd breech or the odd fin but getting frustrated as all of the whales where moving. Tonga is renowned for providing perfect conditions for whales to hang around in. As a result you get many mothers with their calves sitting around in the warm water. If the whales are moving, however, there’s not much you can do about it as they’re far faster than you could ever be!

On our way back in we eventually saw an out spurt of water belonging to a resting mother and we jumped in the water with our snorkels on. The mother was very relaxed and sleepy and dozed away whilst her calf came to play with us near the surface – it was within a couple of metres of us! Every now and then the sleepy mother would rise up to breath and perhaps move along a little, still with her eyes shut! My favourite moment was swimming along side both of them, almost at arms length whilst they slowly moved along. We were in there for over an hour but it certainly eclipsed all of the morning’s sickness and frustration!

My pathetic little underwater camera did not fare well, particularly with the excitement of the situation, but I’ve fiddled around with a couple of the photos a little to try and reclaim a semblance of a whale from them! With any luck, the underwater photographer who got a shot of me with the whales with come through with his promise to send me the picture! I’ll include a low-quality version of his shot of the calf as well – Daniel Norwood photography, is where to go if anyone wants to look further into him.

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As usual, i've failed to get a full whale in but here you can get an idea of what it was like to swim along-side!

As usual, i’ve failed to get a full whale in but here you can get an idea of what it was like to swim along-side!

The mum with her eyes shut!

The mum with her eyes shut!

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Fantastic wooden whale at the crafts shop in town

Fantastic wooden whale at the crafts shop in town

Sunny Side Up

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As soon as I sorted out somewhere to stay – things immediately began to get easier. Having a place to come back to with a bed is seriously underrated. Showers are still cold but it’s a definite improvement!

Day 1 in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga, and straight to work! I’ve been gathering together a network of contacts here to provide info/details/photos for articles. Lots of people are keen to promote Vava’u, particularly on the ‘off season’ so I’ve been hosted on many different tours and excursions. The first was a sailing trip with a lovely couple called Denis and Donna (or Donis and Denna, as I kept accidentally saying). They took me out of the harbour into the beautiful array of little islands that make up the ‘Vava’u’ region.

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The Islands all have hilarious names. Donna and Denis have just leased one called Malafakalava. Nuku Island was my favourite spot. Just look at the colour of the water! I couldn’t resist bothering the clown fish again when I headed out with the snorkel…

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Find Nemo!

Find Nemo!

Playing about with the colours a little

Playing about with the colours a little

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There are also the most incredibly caves dotted about the place. Swallows cave is famous for the clarity of the water for diving. It’s also got a huge series of swallows nests dotted like bats all over the roof, hence the name.

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The perfect introduction to Vava’u – enough to lift anyone’s moods!

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Warrior’s Dance

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Crack out a cold drink and some malaria tablets – I’ve arrived in Vanuatu. At first I was shocked by how primitive the capital, Port Vila, seemed to be: more so, even, than the capital of Papua New Guinea. The rest of the landscape and the people there do strongly remind me of PNG though. They seem to have recovered remarkably well from Cyclone Pam which hit with devastating consequences earlier this year. My taxi driver from the airport described how the whole community worked together to get it back up and running as soon as possible. With tourism being the country’s main economy – it was important that they got back onto their feet quickly. More on Port Vila later…

I was a little taken aback by how difficult it appears to be for an independent (female) traveller to get around the place. Everyone else here seems to be in groups or couples. No backpackers in sight. Trips around the island arranged by any of the ‘tour’ groups seem to require a minimum of around 4 people. The other options are taxi (which would be extortionate), hitchhiking with a local (and paying them appropriately) or hiring a car. I don’t want to take the risk of hitchhiking, however friendly the people are, and unfortunately I left my driving license in the UK so I was despairing that I was out of options. Luckily I found a nice elderly ‘vanuatian’ lady in town who advertised trips to take people around the island and a couple of people had already signed up to one so I jumped on the bandwagon.

There’s a palpable barrier between the locals and the tourists here. Interaction seems geared towards the fact that we are their main source of income. Nevertheless, the trip was jaw-dropping in terms of the natural beauty and cultural displays. I feel the best way to describe the day will be through a series of photos:

The driver pulled over to show us these large and apparently harmless spiders on the side of the road. He gave it for me to hold but then put it on my neck where it started to crawl into my hair. Was not best pleased.

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Blue Lagoon near Eton beach proved to be just what it said on the tin and more. The water was so clear in parts. I left the others sticking by the large rope which swings into the water and snorkelled out down the lagoon/river towards the sea. To be honest I was amazed that out of the collection of tourists gathered at the pool, nobody else felt the urge to explore the incredible place. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever swam in.

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The driver then took us to a little village, which we had to walk to for a while off the side of the road. They’d prepared a special show for us (for ‘donations’, of course): they dressed up in traditional tribal gear and, after jumping out of the bushes and scaring the life out of us when we first arrived, performed a series of dances. I then spent a while taking in the sight of that incredible banyan tree! Inside, the tree has died leaving just the parasite weaving out a hollow shape mapping where the trunk once was.

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A little further along the ring road around the island we stopped off at a local primary school where the children sing a couple of songs to tourists in the hope they’ll, again, donate. Singing had nothing to do with it – they pelted out lyrics at such an incredibly high volume that I could even see a vein bulging in one of the little boy’s heads.

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This boy clearly had had enough of the din as well. Very amusing though.

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Loved seeing the pidgin again! (even though this, apparently, is different)

Loved seeing the pidgin again! (even though this, apparently, is different)

Two burst eardrums later we carried on down the road. Chatting to the driver was fascinating. He was one of 9 children – his father had had 4 wives – back before the missionaries came. The number of wives was determined by the number of pigs a man owned, he told me.  10 pigs constituted one wife, and so on. Like many ‘tour guides’ in this sort of scenario, he felt the need to point out many things which we tourists were not particularly interested in, but which he announced with such gusto that we had to mimic great surprise and excitement. Such things include each village’s particular denomination and church, the progress in the state of electricity and the newly repaired state of the roads, fixed by the kiwis. This last one was referred to frequently throughout the trip – he said ‘it’s like being on aeroplane’ to describe the smoothness. As a tourist visiting this kind of developing country, of course it’s not the similarities we’re looking for but the unique cultural differences! This is an entirely selfish standpoint, however, and it is great, of course, to see how enthusiastic they are about the country’s progression.

Another little beach on the way home. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Off again to visit another village tomorrow morning so will keep you posted. Have just waited up for two hours outside to get signal in order to upload this and am now rather grumpy, haha.

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Beach Side

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I’m clearly staying in the wrong place here. I did a trip around the whole island today (with a new taxi driver) and got a glimpse at the amazing beaches on the south east coast. They still haven’t fully recovered from the tsunami in 2009 which destroyed all of their beach-side homes – most of the locals have moved back up onto the mountain – but they’ve built a series of fales for tourists to stay in on the beaches themselves. Lalomanu, on the south west peak of the island, was the widest stretch of beach with four separate families setting up a series of beach fales there. That would definitely be an amazing place to stay if anyone is looking to take a trip to Samoa!

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Alternatively, further west along the southern coast you come to the Tosua Ocean Trench. This is a stunning natural hole in the ground where the sea seeps through the volcanic rock to create a pool. The locals who own the land made the most of this by setting up a place to stay around the top of the pool – it’s now become a ‘must-see’ on any tourist’s itinerary. In front of the hole are a number of little blow holes in the lava rock where the waves crash through. If I came back for longer I’d love to spend a day or two exploring the area of little islands and blow holes you see blow.

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Continuing along the ocean road we came to Sopoaga waterfall, where one entrepreneurial family converted their garden into a view point. There are a few of these dramatic, high waterfalls dotted around the island. Another is Papapapai-uta which is right in the middle of the island on the central road which cuts down the middle. Both are worth a visit if you’re passing by. The only downside is that you have to view from a distance as there’s no path down the steep cliff sides. For a swim in a fresh pool try Togitogiga. This area is a ‘natural reserve’ where people cannot built. You take a 10 minute walk into the thick green foliage and eventually turn out at a beautiful little set of falls which you can swim beneath. Perfect to rinse off the salty water of the ocean trench and Lalomanu beach!

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A couple of the resorts are very flashy and come with a suitable price tag, but the vast majority are simply family owned and consist of a series of open air fales like the one in which I’m staying currently. Maninoa was the best example of these two extremes side by side. There’s a small set of fales surrounded by two of the most expensive resorts on the island!

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Teuila - Samoa's National Flower

Teuila – Samoa’s National Flower

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Finally we looped around the tip and came to a large ocean pool adjacent to the sea. The taxi driver picked a couple of papayas and began chopping them into pieces and throwing them into the water. Within no time around 8 large sea turtles appeared! He explained to me that small turtles caught in fishing nets would be brought here to grow a little bigger before being released as they get eaten by the tiger sharks. The principle seems good but there were some very large turtles in the pool so I’m wondering whether they just decided to keep them like a sort of pet! Very cute and remarkably tame. You could feed them by hand and stroke their smooth heads!

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Love the flailing limbs in this one

Love the flailing limbs in this one

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Look at that series of expressions!

Look at that series of expressions!

This little one crawled right up to the shallows to try grab a piece of papaya that everyone else had missed.

This little one crawled right up to the shallows to try grab a piece of papaya that everyone else had missed.

The Little Clownfish From The Reef

clown fish fiji

Yesterday, I decided to spend my only full day here in Nadi by heading out to one of the little islands off the coast. I booked a trip through the hostel then eventually headed on an incredibly bumpy little motor boat, arriving absolutely drenched 45 minutes later. Nearly all of the little islands have each been claimed by a ‘resort’ or hotel. This one was ‘Beachcomber’ Island.

Beachcomber Island fiji

white heron fiji

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The people were hilariously friendly. In fact the welcoming through guitar playing and singing seems to happen everywhere: walking into the airport to a small group made me giggle but watching them serenade the boat as we approached the island was even more entertaining. The three of us that were visiting for the day got a further 5 minute session of ‘goodbye song’ before we left, through which we were told to sit about a metre away from them and were not really sure where to look! A few other cultural things were put on such as a kava ceremony.  This is something which I’m sure I’ll become more familiar with when I return so I’ll leave a description until then…As you can see, despite the wind and clouds, the islands are very Maldives-esque. In fact, it’s probably a good thing that it was overcast so I didn’t get fried whilst spending so much time in the water!

The island lived up to it’s name: within the first few yards I’d already found four sea beans and a couple of cowries. I counted 17 of these lovely little things after the day was done! The tide sank pretty low after lunch so I headed out for a couple more laps of the island – I was delighted to find a little black and blue nudibranch swimming about in one of the little pools! So beautiful.

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This was a funny little flightless bird wandering about the place

This was a funny little flightless bird wandering about the place

The island provided the opportunity for me to test out the relatively cheap underwater case I bought for my small camera. It worked perfectly well so fingers crossed that continues! Although the visibility was poor due to the wind, and recent bad weather, it was lovely to be out with a few old favourites: parrot, trigger, angel fish etc. There’s a reason why a chose a song from the ‘Finding Nemo’ soundtrack for the title of this post: All of the clown fish seem to current have eggs or young. They all, consequently, posed beautifully for me above their anemone nests. My underwater accuracy wasn’t adequate enough to get the adorably tiny little nemo specks in the pictures but here’s a compilation of some protective parents!

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Back on land, they had a turtle nursery on the island where they help the little ones to survive the initial stages of life so that they can then be released back into the ocean. So cute!

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I also enjoyed stalking this beautiful little heron about the place as it looked for goodies in the low tide line.

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Overall, a day well spent, I think!

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For You Blue

Blue Lagoon Malta

‘There is no blue without yellow and without orange’ – Vincent Van Gogh

Malta, for me, was all about the colours. The sandy buildings in the ancient cities contrasted perfectly with the vivid blues of the sea. Spring was the perfect time to visit as the temperature was ideal and the landscape hadn’t yet been stripped of its flora. The transport system was absolutely fantastic. We paid under 2 euros for a whole day’s pass on the local bus network which took us around the island. Definitely not worth shelling out for taxis! Given Malta’s size, there is a surprisingly large amount to see and do! I’ll run through our highlights briefly:

1. Blue Lagoon, Comino – accessed via a ferry from the north of the Island. Pretty busy in the heat of the day though so time your visit carefully to avoid the crowds! Definitely must be done though. Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves but, in case they don’t, it boasted the clearest, bluest water that I have seen in a very long time – perhaps not since the Maldives!

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2. Mdina – a spectacular, ancient fortified city which served as the country’s capital until 1530. We arrived as the light was fading so could experience the city being lit up by lanterns. A fantastically authentic experience.

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The lavish Maltese coffee speciality

The lavish Maltese coffee speciality

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3. The hiking path for the west coast beaches down from Golden Bay.

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Slightly further north up the west coast you bump into ‘Popeye village’ in Anchor bay, the film set for the film which has been perfectly preserved and turned into a tourist attraction. We didn’t go into the village itself as we arrived quite late in the evening, but was great fun just to get a peek!

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4. The ‘three cities’ and the capital, Valetta. Think ‘Game of Thrones’. Very eye-catching and dramatic scenes!

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Thought I'd finish on this rather enthusiastic not-so-medieval carriage driver!

Thought I’d finish on this rather enthusiastic not-so-medieval carriage driver!

Song To A Seagull

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“The human tongue is like wasabi: it’s very powerful, and should be used sparingly.”

― John Green, Paper Towns

It is absolutely freezing here in Matsushima: Really arctic winds making you constantly wish that someone would invent some sort of nose warmer. We headed out to wander about the area, noticing the complete lack of tourists and, therefore, English. Menus yet again became some sort of guessing game. Last night I had the weirdest array of different types of seafood including some sort of fringed grey thing and a yellow mollusc, I presume, which looked (and tasted) disturbingly like an ear.

We took a trip around the bay in a boat, the highlight of which was the hilarious translation on the hand out we were given:

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It says “It becomes troubled of other customers, and never never put out the customer of a pet taking from the cage, please while embarking.” … Right. That’s clear then. No taking the pet from the cage.

Another amusing moment was over lunch where we eventually managed to order some tuna rolls (following much pointing and miming) then literally were brought to tears by the amount of wasabi jammed into the little pieces. Hot doesn’t seem quite the right word. It feels more like some sort of acid explosion right the way up through your head to your nose and eyes. I have actually acclimatised a little to the Japanese way of sushi: I couldn’t stand wasabi or ginger before, now I’m partial to a little wasabi and there’s never enough ginger. This was far too much however. I left feeling as if my sinuses had just had some sort of toxic probing.

Here's the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that little atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

Here’s the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

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We later took the bright red bridges out onto a couple of the islands were elaborate caves and Buddhist shrines have been carved into the sandstone. We also popped into the Masamune museum, Masamune is widely recognised as Japan’s greatest swordsmith, reaching legendary status. I’d never actually heard of him before.

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Finally, the seagulls are worth a mention. There are the most ridiculously large number of them packed into such a small area. And they’re all incredibly vocal.

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Ocean Breathes Salty

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This morning we embarked on yet another extensive train journey in the fantastic, clear weather, giving great final views of Fuji-San. The train network here, in combination with the absolutely incredible tool that is Google maps, is fairly easy to understand so the journey was faultless, again. Such a clear and organised country!

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Six hours later we arrived in Matsushima, 2 hours north of Tokyo on the Shikansen bullet train. It’s famous for being one of the ‘Three Views’ of Japan, and it’s clear why. To me, it’s like a Japanese version of Halong Bay. The area is scattered with 260 tiny islands (shima, in Japanese) covered in pine trees (matsu). It’s incredibly beautiful, particularly in the cool, crisp sunset. I may have to get up for the sunrise though as that would be over the ocean rather than the set which was behind the hills.

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Hummingbird Heartbeat

After five hours in the ‘truck’, we eventually reached Parati – a beautiful little colonial village on a coast line dotted with little tropical islands. Setting up tents was not quite as straight forward as I’d hoped as the tents were practically medieval and most were faulty in one way or another. It’s the wet season here so fingers crossed ours holds out! After exploring the town (stopping for and Acai ice cream en route) we went for a dip in the sea. It is without question the warmest sea water I have ever been in. It’s even warmer than the ‘bath like’ Maldives. It’s almost too warm! The surface is cool but due to the mud floor the area really retains the heat from the sun. 

 The locals seem to be far more tourist orientated here, with lots of little street markets selling hand crafted decorations and baskets etc. 

My highlight of the day was spotting a tiny little hummingbird on the walk back to the camp site! No idea what type as have no way of identifying it really, but very pleased that I’ve seen one for the first time!

No photos as of yet, but we’re here for the next four days. In the mean time, here’s one of the Christ the Redeemer statue to mark the end of my time in Rio.

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