Day 5: Building relationships as well as houses

The first group of us arrived on site at the usual time to continue working while the rest enjoyed a brief Sunday morning lie in! As we were only working until lunchtime, we set ourselves a target of finishing the roof and ceiling. Nick, AJ and I were back on the plasterboard again and finally got it finished, 18 pieces and 350 screws after we started! The rest of the team got the roof finished with the exception of one corner which will need to be completed once the old house has been demolished.

We headed back to the hotel for lunch, which we ate in the hallway on the first floor because a wedding reception was in full swing in the main restaurant! We then decided to visit the families living in the houses that have been built by Grassroots over the last two years. The first was constructed using an almost identical method to this year’s so it was really good to see what we’re aiming for. Since the team left, the family have made it into a really nice home and seem very happy there. The house that was built two years ago is owned by Olivio (who came to help with the plastering yesterday). When it was built they were about to foster two children so the church decided to build them a larger house with two floors. As it was a larger job, the English team completed most of the structure before handing it over to a local team to finish. Since then Olivio has spent a lot of time decorating it himself.

We drove straight from Olivio’s house to the church in Monari (the village where we are building the house). Although the visible purpose of our trip is the house, Grassroots also places a big emphasis on building relationships with the local people, and attending one of their church services is one way to do that. The church is Pentecostal with a small congregation of around twenty-five people. Morning services last for three hours but we chose to go to the 6pm service which is just two hours long! When we arrived there were only three people there, but as the service got underway more people drifted in as they finished tending to their animals and other daily chores, including the mother and grandmother of the family we are building for. We were very lucky to have Ady with us as he translated everything that was said, though singing hymns in Romanian was quite challenging! We stayed for half an hour after the service to talk to the villagers, who couldn’t stop saying how grateful they are for the work we are doing in the village. They certainly made us feel very welcome.

Back at the hotel we had another late dinner, much of which was the leftovers from the wedding. The food has generally been good at the hotel, and served on big platters for everyone to share. Romania is a big meat eating country but they have been very accommodating to me with a special  vegetarian option each night. The speciality seems to be deep fried cheese which I have had a number of evenings already!

Day 4: A pitched roof, polystyrene and plasterboard

My first task this morning was to finish boarding the top of the house with AJ and Sam so that we had a platform to start working on the pitched roof. The emphasis of the project is very much on keeping costs down where possible and reusing old material, so this particular job turned into more of a jigsaw puzzle as we tried to match the sizes of various timber to create a solid floor with minimum waste. I then spent some time securing the wooden frame for the roof to the walls and preparing the front of the house for plastering by attaching angle beads to the corners. Throughout the morning the team carried in buckets of the stones that were delivered yesterday to form the base of the floor.

Today we had two local people joining us to help with the build – Augustine and Olivio, whose house was built by Grassroots two years ago. Both are experienced plasterers and spent most of the day working on the interior walls. Meanwhile half of our team worked on the roof while the rest of us started on the internal ceiling. This involved first attaching a layer of insulating polystyrene underneath the joists followed by sheets of plasterboard to provide a paintable surface. Adding the plasterboard turned into a very time consuming job as we had to carefully measure and secure each piece to ensure a tidy fit. Nick, Ady, AJ and I all have very sore arms from holding up and screwing in boards for about 4 hours straight! We worked well into the evening after sunset and by the time we left over half of both the roof and ceiling had been completed.

Overall the building work is progressing well, though we are all very tired and there is still a lot to do! Tomorrow is Sunday when, traditionally, no work should be done. However, we have consulted with the people of the village and decided to work until lunchtime. Half of the team are also opting for an extra hour in bed, but the rest of us will be up at 6:45 again!

Day 3: Starting the roof

We were back on site by 8:30am today with a first priority of finishing the walls. My day started in exactly the same way as yesterday – sieving sand with AJ and Martin to make the cement.

The house is actually being built on a slope, so one end is higher than the other. AJ and I spent the next hour or so building a wooden platform along this edge of the house so that we had a more stable base for the ladders. For the rest of the morning we were all concentrating on finishing the exterior bricklaying and pointing.

After another lunch at the village hall we started laying the foundations for the roof, consisting of a thick wooden frame lying on top of the walls with nine joists running across it. Any large gaps between the wooden frame and brickwork were packed with broken roof tiles to provide extra support before being filled with cement. One of the more complicated problems we encountered is that the foundations of the new house were laid in a position that slightly overlaps with the roof of the old house. Consequently we have had to carefully remove parts of the old roof so that we can put the new one in place.

Work has been fairly constant since we arrived with breaks few and far between – the general feeling amongst the team is that we would like to get as much done as possible before we leave Romania. There was however a general pause this afternoon while we watched the daily ritual of the cows walking home. Most of the small farms in the village do not have a suitable area for their cows to graze so they are taken up the hill to a dedicated field each morning. As the sun starts to go down the cows walk home en masse, apparently of their own accord, each finding and returning to their own house.

My last job of the day was to start laying boards on the top of the house to form the floor of the loft area which will be used for storage. By the time we left the building was really starting to look like a house for the first time.

Day 2: Building the walls

Everyone was up before dawn for a 6:45am breakfast. After a quick stop off at the builders’ merchant we were back on site by 9am. The main aim for today was to get the walls built but the forecast was very wet so we were all hoping that this wouldn’t slow us down too much.

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A large pile of sand had been delivered but it had a lot of stones viagra 100mg pills mixed in, so my first job was to sieve it all so that it could be made into cement. AJ, Nick and I also constructed a ramp to allow easy access into the foundations and then followed the bricklayers around pointing (filling the gaps in between the bricks with cement). During our short lunch break we walked to the village hall where an outside caterer had prepared chicken and vegetables. Fortunately our hotel provided me with a vegetarian packed lunch in advance!

The afternoon was filled with more of the same – mixing cement, laying bricks and pointing. We worked until dark, by which time we had laid almost all of the exterior walls (including 5 windows) and the beginnings of the interior walls. We stayed for an extra hour to wait for and unload a large delivery of wood which will be used to construct the roof before heading back to the hotel for dinner.

Everyone is already very tired but pleased with progress so far – fortunately the rain wasn’t quite as bad as we’d expected!

Day 1: Our first visit to the site

It was a very early start this morning for everyone on the team. We all met at 6am in the check in area at Luton airport ready for an 8:30 flight to Cluj Napoca. The team consists of 10 volunteer builders including 11 year old Archie who, in addition to raising the sponsorship required to fund his own trip, raised enough money to buy all of the materials required. Two other members of the team will be assisting the local church by visiting children in some of the poorest families in the area.

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After lowest price generic viagra the three hour flight we were met by Jacob who is the local church minister. He selects a family who are in desperate need of a new house and organises the build from the Romanian end. We drove in the heavy rain for two hours to a village called Bistrița where we are staying. The Hotel Don is basic but much more comfortable than I was expecting! We stayed long enough to have a quick omelette as a very late lunch before heading out to the village.

After another half an hour driving we turned down a very muddy track, and there was no doubt about which house we would be rebuilding. It is a miracle that the old house is still standing, with many of the walls badly cracked and warped under the weight of the roof which it turn has started to sink in places. Despite the lack of sufficient shelter or warmth, there is a very real chance that it will collapse during the winter. The site of the new house, which will have two bedrooms and a small kitchen, is just behind the old one. Other than the concrete foundations that have been laid in advance by local builders, we had been left a large pile of bricks and a lot of work to do! Even though it was 6pm and raining we got started straightaway by cutting down a tree that was overhanging the new site and moving the new materials away from the foundations.

Back at the hotel we discussed the build in more detail over dinner and then got an early night ready for another early start tomorrow.

I’m off to Romania

I’m off on my travels again, but this time it is for a very different kind of trip. I’m spending the next week in Romania with a charity called the Grassroots Trust, who are sending a team out to build a new house for a family of six. Their current home is on the verge of collapse and they do not have the resources to build a new one. Even though there is a good chance that we won’t finish the work in the short time that we have, it sounds like it is going to be a very busy and hard working experience! Grassroots also have a blog that will be updated with our progress – you can find it at

Day 21: Wine… lots of wine!

Matt and Lita planned a wine tasting tour for us all today around Stellenbosch and the surrounding area. Our driver picked us up at 7:30am and took us to the first winery – Warwick Estate – home to the first women to make wine in South Africa. Matt and Lita had some Warwick wine at their wedding so this was an ideal place to start the day. We had a guided tour through the vineyards during which they explained why they have paired each of the grape varieties with one of the “big five” with similar characteristics. For example, Cabernet Franc is like an elephant – the grapes have a thick skin and have a high resilience to pests. The actual tastings took place at the highest point of the vineyard which has great views of the surrounding area including Table Mountain and Paarl’s Rock – the second largest in the world after Uluru in Australia. Our guide also told us the legend of the Warwick wedding cup. A king set the silversmith who wanted to marry his daughter the challenge of creating a cup that the couple could both drink from simultaneously without spilling a drop. Matt and Lita successfully drank from the cup and we all contributed to buy one for them to keep.

Our next stop was Fairview where we had a combined cheese and wine tasting. This was undoubtedly the best value of the day – the equivalent of just £2 for six cheese and wine pairings!

We then moved from wine to MCC which is the South African equivalent of champagne, and is made using the same process. The tasting session at Haute Cabrier included a talk in the private cellar and a demonstration of sabrage – the process of opening a bottle with a sword. Perhaps this is something not to try at home! Matt’s birthday is on Sunday so he was presented with the cork as a memento.

We ate lunch sitting on the veranda at Le Petite Ferme – a winery and restaurant in Franschhoek. Although this wasn’t one of the official tasting venues on our schedule, there was obviously more wine with lunch!

Our final tasting was at the Asara wine estate where we tried three wine and chocolate pairings. The grounds of the estate are stunning and there was a nice shady area of grass where at least half of our group took some time for a recovery nap from all the wine drinking.

We finished our day in the outdoor bar at the Asara wine estate, which was particularly appropriate as they also provided some of the wine for Matt and Lita’s wedding. I think everyone will be getting an early night tonight!

Day 20: Table Mountain

We had an early start this morning so that we could get to Table Mountain before the queues got too long – most South Africans are now on their Christmas holidays so this is a very busy generic levitra canadian healthcare time of year! The steep cable car ride to the top of the mountain has a rotating floor so that everyone has an opportunity to look at the surrounding landscape.

Table Mountain takes its name from the very flat table-like summit, with the layer of cloud that often flows over it appearing like a table cloth. It has recently been chosen as one of the seven wonders of nature. When we first reached the top it was quite windy and there was a lot of cloud cover and so the visibility would rapidly change from just a few metres to many kilometres as the cloud passed over. We ended up spending about two hours walking around the summit, by which time much of the cloud had cleared so that we could see the excellent views in every direction – the coastline, Lion’s Head and Cape Town itself. The fynbos vegetation on top of the mountain is unique to this area and specially adapted to cope with the unusual conditions. There is also plenty of wildlife to be found here – dassies, agama and clip springer to name a few.

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After taking the cable car back down we drove to the V&A Waterfront for a late lunch at Quai Four. The waterfront is a very lively and popular area of Cape Town with restaurants, market stalls and a large shopping mall. We had a leisurely afternoon walking around the absorbing the atmosphere.

For dinner we all met at the Five Flies – an excellent restaurant in central Cape Town. Other than the very tasty food, one of the highlights was the huge pepper grinder!

Day 19: Flying to Cape Town

The wedding seems to have come and gone very quickly and today everyone started going their separate ways. Some of Matt’s family returned home to Benoni and his work friends flew to Port Elizabeth to start traveling along the Garden Route (in the opposite direction to us). The rest of us (eighteen including Matt and Lita) caught a flight from Lanseria (the closest to Askari) to Cape Town where we will be spending the last few days of our holiday.

Arriving in Cape Town and hiring yet another car felt a bit like déjà vu, as this is where we started our South African journey just under three weeks ago. For the next five nights Noz, Shammy, Hannah, Kat and I are staying in a hostel called the Ashanti Lodge in central Cape Town, while the rest of the group will be in nearby Stellenbosch. We checked in and then walked to the closest restaurant we buy cialis online could find – Nelson’s Eye. I’m assured that they do excellent steaks – the vegetarian platter was also very nice!

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Just before going to bed we popped into the hostel bar for a glass of Amarula (a cream liqueur with fruit from the marula tree). We were soon persuaded to join the killer pool tournament and ended up having a few more drinks than expected, especially Shammy (see photo)!

Day 18: Askari game reserve

The main aim for today was for everyone to recover from the wedding! I can i order viagra from the chemist had a very relaxing morning and spent some time repacking my bags ready for our flight to Cape Town tomorrow. After our experience at Port Elizabeth airport last week we’re all trying hard to keep within the weight limits and for this flight it’s only 20kg.

After lunch there were organised games drives and mountain hikes. As we have already been on quite a few game drives, Kat, Noz and I decided to go on the hike. We walked for about two hours up to one of the nearby peaks which has great views across the reserve and the mountain range beyond. A good part of the walk involved climbing up rocks so it was fairly challenging, especially on such a hot day. Fortunately we had time for a swim in the pool when we got back!

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In the evening all of the wedding party met for a final dinner before everyone starts to go their separate ways tomorrow. The staff at Askari prepared a special braai with lots of nice salads and there was plenty of wine and champagne to finish off from last night!

Day 17: Matt and Lita's wedding

Lita and her bridesmaids left early this morning for the Askari Game Lodge and Spa which is in Maanhaarrand, 30km south west of Skeerpoort. This four star accommodation is situated on a private game reserve which is home to a number of animals, including the “big five”, and provides the perfect venue for Matt and Lita’s wedding! All of the wedding guests will be staying here for the next two nights. Everyone started arriving around lunchtime and had a few hours to get ready before the wedding ceremony. We’ve seen quite a bit of rain over the past couple of days so we were all expecting to go with the wet weather plan. However the rain stayed away today and we had nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

At 3pm we were all driven into an area of forest within the game reserve and took our seats ready for the ceremony. Matt looked very nervous while we were all waiting for Lita to arrive! Her dress has been a very closely guarded secret but she looked amazing, as did the bridesmaids who all wore custom-made olive coloured dresses. After the introduction and vows had been said, two small bottles of sand – one from Australia and one from South Africa – were mixed to signify the two families coming together. Sarah (Matt’s sister) and Rowena (Lita’s sister) also said a few words.

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After the ceremony Matt and Lita went for their wedding photos. These include some taken with the elephants during while they both ended up getting sprayed with sand! Meanwhile the rest of us were taken on a short but very bumpy game drive around Askari. This was a very different experience to Kruger as some of the animals are more closely tracked and can therefore be easily located. We saw some vervet monkeys, lions (male and female), kudu, hippos and wildebeest. Towards the end of the drive, one of the three vehicles got a puncture right next to the hippo pool so we had to turn around and go back to rescue the other guests.

The wedding breakfast took place on a large balcony in the Askari centre overlooking the reserve. All of the food was excellent and there was a special menu for the vegetarians which included a tropical vegetable steak for the main course. It goes without saying that there was plenty of champagne and South African wine flowing. Mark (one of Matt’s groomsmen) approved viagra was our MC for the evening and we had very good speeches in between courses from Bill (Lita’s dad), Matt, Lita, Sarah (Matt’s sister), Evan (the best man) and Noz.

After dinner the new Mr and Mrs Kirkland took to the dance floor for their first dance. As is tradition, Matt retrieved and threw Lita’s garter to predict the next groom – it was caught by Francis who wore it as an armband for the rest of the evening. Noz caught Lita’s bouquet – perhaps an excuse for us all to visit Australia sometime soon? The DJ did a good job of keeping everyone dancing until 1am and the photographers provided various hats and accessories for the photo booth. The evening ended appropriately with everyone on the dance floor singing Africa by Toto!

All in all it was a really good day – mainly down to the meticulous planning that Matt and Lita have done over the last year or so. Congratulations Mr and Mrs Kirkland!

Day 16: Hartbeespoort cableway

We had some much needed relaxation time at our lodge this morning. The reception staff also very kindly let me use their computer to update this blog which is a lot harder without my laptop!

In the afternoon we drove across the Hartbeespoort Dam to the opposite side of the valley and took the Harties cableway which is the longest mono-cableway in Africa. From the top there are excellent views of the dam and valley between the Magaliesberg mountains to the north and Witwatersberg mountains to the south. The dam itself was built to improve irrigation for the surrounding area and features a Roman style triumphal arch – the only one of its kind in South Africa.

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This evening we had another braai at the lodge with around two thirds of the wedding guests. Mark (one of Matt’s groomsmen) was in charge of the cooking, which was again halted cheap discount viagra abruptly by a big storm. We’re hoping the rain stays away for the wedding tomorrow…

Day 15: Brixton police station and Nozza's birthday

After just a couple of hours sleep mexico viagra no prescription at the Intercontinental hotel, we drove back across town to Brixton police station, the closest to our guest house in Melville. Although we don’t hold out any hope of the police doing anything or finding the things that were stolen, we still needed to make a statement for insurance purposes. Luckily we didn’t have to wait to see someone but the actual process of giving the statement was very slow (close to two hours), and even then they weren’t able to give us a reference number. Hopefully we’ll be able to get one over the next couple of days.

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For the next two nights we’re staying at Stone House Mountain Lodge which is near Skeerpoort, 40km west of Pretoria. This area is part of the Magaliesberg Mountain range which has some of the oldest geological formations in the world at around 2.3 billion years old. Matt and Lita have booked out the whole lodge and some of the nearby cottages for the wedding guests so there are around twenty people staying here. Matt cooked dinner for everyone on the braai – until a big storm came in anyway! Dessert was Noelle’s birthday cake – Happy Birthday Nozza!!

Day 14: The good and bad sides of Johannesburg

Today was our only full day in Johannesburg. Most travel guides suggest that there isn’t much to see in the city with the exception of the Apartheid museum so we decided to pay it a visit. On purchasing a ticket, each person is randomly classified as “white” or “non-white” and there are separate entrances accordingly. The first section of the museum remains separated and this sets the tone right from the start. The museum is vast and split into two parts – an exhibition focussing on Nelson Mandela and one about the apartheid itself. Both are fascinating and packed full of information and exhibits, but also made very hard reading at times. In the end we spent over four hours looking around and even then didn’t manage to see everything.

After lunch at the museum we took a short drive to Arts on Main in the centre of Johannesburg. Driving around the middle of town is challenging to say the least and makes London seem easy – at least we have painted lines and rules that are actually followed! After a scenic route through lots of mini one way systems we finally found Arts On Main which is a collection of art galleries, stalls and cafes recommended to us by the American couple we met in Kruger. The best day of the week to visit is Sunday, so only a small percentage of the galleries were open while we were there. We spent some time walking around and talking to one of the photographers for “shotinjburg” – a scheme which gives young people from more deprived backgrounds the skills and opportunities to photograph unusual views of Johannesburg and sell their work.

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This evening we met Claire (Kat’s boyfriend’s sister) and her boyfriend (Shaun) for dinner at Moya, a traditional African restaurant. The food was excellent and we even participated some face painting done.

Unfortunately that is where our relatively positive experience of Johannesburg came to an abrupt end. On returning to the hotel we found that someone had been in both our rooms at the guest house and stolen my laptop, Hannah’s mobile and Shammy’s iPod. The guest house is very well secured and there had been no sign of a break-in so we are fairly sure that either the staff or one of the guests was responsible. Although we notified the police they couldn’t give us any idea of when somebody would be able to come. The owner of the hotel arrived followed by their private security company, and claimed that two guests had left the hotel unexpectedly without checking out earlier this evening. Nevertheless, we decided that we didn’t feel safe in the hotel and moved to the Intercontinental in Sandton for the night. As if the evening hadn’t been eventful enough already, a parked police patrol car tried to wave us down on the way to Sandton. Fake and corrupt police are known to operate here and being stopped by police on a motorway at 2am seemed a little unusual so we took the decision to ignore them and carry on. They didn’t try to follow us so hopefully it was the right thing to do!

Our only full day Johannesburg has certainly been an experience. We purchase viagra leave tomorrow to join the growing group of wedding guests ready for the big day on Sunday!

Day 13: An even bigger reunion in Johannesburg

After finishing our packing and an early breakfast we were back on the road for our last game drive in Kruger. It was relatively quiet again today which made us appreciate our luck yesterday even more! We did however see some impala, hippo, vervet monkeys, waterbuck, elephant (uprooting another tree!) and buffalo. We also learnt quite a lot about the African foam-nest tree frog which lays its eggs in a nest made of foam and leaves it hanging beneath the branch of a tree. When the eggs hatch the tadpoles drop into water below.

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We returned to camp around mid-morning to collect our bags and start the five hour journey to Johannesburg, stopping at Nelspruit to swap back to the minibus. For the next two nights we’re staying at a hotel called Life on 3rd in Melville (where we stayed on Saturday night). Noelle arrived in Johannesburg this morning from Sydney, and so we buy viagra all met up for dinner at the Catz Pyjamas – a bistro in Melville. It was great to have everyone together – the first time it has ever happened! With just a few days to go until Matt and Lita’s wedding the excitement is definitely building…

Day 12: The big cats and Kruger by night

The rain that began yesterday afternoon continued through the night and there were still patches of rain as we left camp at 6:30am. The rain seemed to have the effect of encouraging some of the animals out of the long, wet grass though and soon the radio was busy with various sightings – the first of which was a leopard in a tree. On our way to the area we briefly stopped to see buffalo, impala, kudu, elephant, zebra and giraffe. By the time we reached the leopard she was just starting to get down from the tree she’d been sitting in. Although it was only a brief sighting we still counted it as our fourth of the “big five”. Just a few minutes down the road we came to Kruger’s version of a traffic jam, caused by a male cheetah walking casually down the road. The guides give each sighting a score out a five, based on the visibility and proximity of the animal – this was definitely a five!

It wasn’t long before viagra femele we were heading towards a different part of the park where another leopard had been spotted. This time it was a male sitting in a tree where he stayed for quite a while before jumping down and walking off. Our next destination was a lion sighting and on the way we briefly saw a white rhino and even more zebra and giraffe! This time the lions (three females) were completely visible – snoozing on one of the shorter and more open areas of grass. Lions are by far the laziest of all the wild animals in Kruger and spend most of their time sleeping, unlike others such as elephants who barely sleep at all. This sighting completed our “big five” – in fact we saw all of them in just a couple of hours. Our luck continued for the rest of the day – the highlights being vultures, hyena, baboons, vervet monkeys, hippo and crocodile.

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We returned to camp earlier than usual (at about 3:30pm) so that we had time to freshen up before our nighttime game drive. Curtis, who is originally from Cambridge, was our guide for the evening. We drove through the park for an hour or so towards Shebeni Kopies hill – one of the higher points in the area. On the way we passed many of the animals we had seen earlier in the day – impala, kudu, giraffe and hippo (which become more active and venture out of the water at night). When we reached the hill we all got out of the vehicles and walked up a short path to an excellent viewpoint across the park. Curtis provided drinks and nibbles while we watched the sunset (albeit a slightly cloudy one).

By the time we started our drive back towards camp it was almost completely dark, so Curtis used a powerful spotlight to try and pick out animals. Our best sightings were a buffalo grazing next to the road and a scrub hare. We had another lovely meal back at camp before packing our bags ready for the long journey back to Johannesburg tomorrow. We still have one more game drive before we leave, so it will be yet another early start!

Day 11: Giraffes and charging elephants

Our alarms went off at 5:30 this morning ready for a buffet breakfast and early game drive. Many of the animals can be seen more easily early in the morning before they rest during the hottest part of the day.

Our first big sighting was a large group of zebra walking along the road, including a couple of foals. We also found a warthog and one of the older elephants who is estimated to be around 50 years old. However we then drove for a long time without seeing any animals other than the occasional impala, kudu and guinea fowl. One of the advantages of being on an organised game drive is that all of the guides carry radios and can therefore share information about any findings. A message came through that some female lions had been spotted near one of the roads 20-30km away, so we rushed over to find them. Although they were still there when we arrived, we could only just see the tops of their ears through the grass.

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By the time we stopped for lunch at Skukuza camp we had still hardly seen any animals. The grass at this time of year is quite tall and thick making it more difficult to see anything unless it is very close to the road. There was however a watering hole near the camp where a hippo and her calf were standing just below the surface of the water, and a tree agama climbing the trees.

We had a slightly more successful afternoon, starting with some buffalo on the far side cheap viagra without rx of a watering hole – our third animal of the “big five”. The highlight though was the two giraffes that we found grazing very close to the side of the road. Giraffes have such a strong kick that they can sometimes kill a lion that is attacking them. An American couple who had recently arrived from Johannesburg joined us for the last part of the day, and their first sighting was one of the most dramatic! One of the elephants grazing on the trees decided to take a much greater interest in us than the others had and started charging towards our vehicle. Dean didn’t accelerate away until it was about one metre from us! We were assured that it was more of a playful charge than anything else, but there was definitely a moment of panic. He continued to follow us down the road for a while but we kept a safe distance – less than a month ago an elephant overturned a car in Kruger!

Towards the end of our game drive  we spotted a black mamba (one of the most dangerous snakes in the world) crossing the road in front of us, and a group of baboons in the distance. Other smaller sightings today included a kudu, waterbuck, blue wildebeest, guinea fowl, paradise whydah, red crested korhaan and a hammerhead bird.

As we started heading back towards camp a big storm came in and we all got drenched – perhaps the open-sided vehicle wasn’t such a good idea after all! By the end of the day we were all very tired so after some drinks and dinner it was off to bed ready for another early start.

Day 10: Our first day in Kruger

Our Nhongo Safaris guide for the next four days (Dean) picked us up from our hotel in Melville at 7:30am for the long drive to Nelspruit – a town at the southern end of Kruger. We then swapped from the minibus to a specially converted pickup truck with open sides for the last part of our journey into the park itself. Kruger is the oldest national park in the world, having been originally founded in 1898. It began as a smaller park before being joined with another nearby and eventually expanded to cover 4 million acres.

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We stopped for lunch at one of the camps and then headed into the park for our first game drive. It wasn’t long before we came across some impala, a form of antelope. Their breeding season has just finished so there are currently around 400,000 in Kruger – we expect to see a lot of them over the next few days! Next we saw an elephant which are also very common, with around 13,000. They are apparently going through a population boom which is gradually causing problems within Kruger due to the rate at which they destroy trees and eat the vegetation.

During the rest of the afternoon we saw a chameleon, tortoise, waterbuck, kudu, zebra, vervet monkeys and a variety of birds. Our highlight though was finding a white rhino. Rhino is one of the “big five”, so called because they are the five most dangerous animals to hunt. The others are elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard. Unfortunately there is a big rhino poaching problem across South Africa, including Kruger. Over 500 rhinos have been killed for their horns this year alone.

For the next three nights we’re staying in the Nkambeni camp, just inside the perimeter of the park. It is fully run and staffed by the local community. Our rooms are ‘luxury tents’ – built with a mixture of wood and canvas. They are air conditioned and each have two outdoor showers as well as an indoor one. Before dinner we had time for a swim in the camp pool – the largest and warmest on our trip so far! A short distance away is another more natural pool which had three hippos standing just underneath the surface, occasionally popping their heads up for air. Surprisingly hippos are responsible for 95% of animal inflicted injuries to humans, so we’re quite glad that there is an electric fence surrounding our camp!

After trying the outdoor shower (which is very good!) we went for some drinks at the bar and an excellent buffet style dinner, again cooked by a viagra pfizer canada local chef. Then it was off to bed for an even earlier start tomorrow – breakfast is at 6am!

Day 9: Reunion in Johannesburg airport

Now that we are just over a week away from the wedding, more people are starting to arrive in South Africa. Matt, Lita and Kat all left London on Friday night – though Kat’s flight went via Frankfurt so it took her a little longer!

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After having breakfast and checking out of the Brighton Lodge, we drove the short distance to Port Elizabeth airport and returned our hire car, which has taken us over 1200km in the last week. All of our bags seem to have gained 3kg since leaving London even though none of us have really added anything to them, which is a bit of a mystery. Anyway, there was quite a lot of repacking required before viagra buy india we checked in!

The flight to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport took just over an hour and on arrival we met Matt, Lita and Kat who had landed a few hours earlier. Kat is joining us for our Kruger safari which starts tomorrow, while Matt and Lita are busy putting up Christmas decorations and making the final preparations for their wedding.

Tonight we’re staying in Melville, a relatively safe area of Johannesburg. It is still not advisable to be out late at night, so we had an early dinner at the Ocean Basket before getting an early night. Tomorrow we’re being picked up at 7:30am ready for the long drive to Kruger and a four day safari. We’re unlikely to have any internet access while we’re away, so my next blog post won’t be until Wednesday!

Day 8: Elephants… Lots of elephants

Although Port Elizabeth is a large town, it is primarily industrial. From a tourism point of view it is known for being at the end of the Garden generic viagra in the us Route, the beaches, and its proximity to the Addo Elephant Park. In a couple of days we’ll be on safari in Kruger which is unquestionably the best reserve in South Africa, but Addo offers a slightly different experience and focuses on elephants which we particularly wanted to see.

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Addo provide organised game drives which normally give you more chance of finding the animals. However, as we’re doing game drives in Kruger, we decided to drive ourselves around the park. Just before leaving we walked through the base camp and came across a view point overlooking a watering hole with a huge herd of elephants – there must have been more than fifty there! We sat and watched them for a long time – drinking, washing and having the occasional territorial stand off. Having only paid 160 rand (£11) entry, we were fairly confident that we’d had our money’s worth without even leaving the camp, but we set off in the hope of seeing some of the other animals.

Addo is very small compared to Kruger, spanning 30km from top to bottom. We took more than four hours to drive across it, stopping frequently for potential animal sightings. One of the first we saw close up was a zebra, soon followed by a monitor lizard, warthog, red hartebeest, tortoise, ostrich, blue crane, black-backed jackal, bushbuck and some monkeys. There had been a few lion sightings earlier in the day but we assumed that they would be sleeping out of sight during the afternoon. However, as we drove around one of the bends we saw a lot of cars stopped and facing towards one of the bushes, under which was a male lion dozing in the shade. After a short while, he wandered across to a nearby watering hole – apparently oblivious to the array of people and cameras watching him – before finding another bush to shelter from the sun. Being so close to a lion in his natural habitat was a very unique experience!

In the end it was a lack of lunch (and petrol) that persuaded us to leave, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re all looking forward to Kruger even more than we were before!

Back in Port Elizabeth we decided to give the beaches a second chance and this time drove towards the town centre to some of the more popular seaside areas. Although the sun was starting to go down, it was much calmer than yesterday and I even managed a swim in the sea.

Our last dinner on the Garden Route was at the Mediterranean Seafood restaurant which had a huge choice of fish dishes. The vegetarian platter was very nice too! We then headed back to Brighton Lodge to finish the half bottles of wine we’d accumulated over the last week and pack. Tomorrow we fly to Johannesburg!

Day 7: The final stretch of the Garden Route

We decided to make the most of The Fernery (our accommodation in Storms River) and have a relaxing day today. The lodge is situated next to a waterfall on 109 hectares of land, much of which is used to grow ferns for the European market. It has two swimming pools, two jacuzzis, a sauna and two cats! It is eco friendly and won the South African tourism and conservation award in 2011.

We spent most of the morning in the swimming pool and outdoor jacuzzi before having lunch overlooking the waterfall and Indian Ocean. It is normally a good location to spot whales and dolphins but the whales have migrated to Antarctica for the summer and despite staring at the sea for a long time we didn’t spot any dolphins! Finally we walked around the grounds for a little while and took lots of photos before getting back on the road.

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Our next stop, 180km down the coast, is Port Elizabeth – the official end to the Garden Route. This was the location for the first English settlement in 1820 and consequently many of the roads are named after English towns. For the next two nights we’re staying at Brighton Lodge, just around the corner from Margate Street and Skegness Road. Port Elizabeth is renowned for its beaches, so soon after checking in we took a short walk to the closest beach. We seem to have arrived on an unusually windy day though and we didn’t last long in the mini sandstorm. For dinner we viagra uit india went to the Bluewater Cafe on the seafront and had a relatively early night ready for an 8am start tomorrow!

Day 6: Zip-lining, jacuzzis and cocktails

It already feels like we’re running out of time on the Garden Route part of our trip – we could probably have spent at least two or three weeks working our way along the coast! We had quite a few things that we wanted to do around Storms River (our next stopping point) so we had an early breakfast and got back on the road.

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On our way out of Plettenberg Bay we stopped off at the Robberg Nature Reserve, which had been highly recommended by the owner at the Piesang Valley Lodge. It is a narrow piece land stretching out into the Indian Ocean that has a mixture of sandy and rocky terrain with plenty of vegetation and wildlife. There were a number of walking trails available – some of which went past a seal colony and right out to the tip of the outcrop – but time only allowed us to do the shorter walk.

By late morning we reached Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours where we’d booked some zip-lining in the forest. Our two hour tour included ten zip lines of varying lengths and speeds between the trees. The guides were very friendly and knowledgeable – we learnt a lot about the various trees whilst standing on platforms 30m above the ground! They also included a complimentary lunch after the tour.

Tsitsikamma means “place of many waters” and the feature of the national park viagra for sale online there is the mouth of Storms River which runs from the surrounding mountains into the Indian Ocean. After a short drive, we started the walk through the forest towards the mouth of the river. The river and valley are very impressive in their own right, but there is also a suspension bridge crossing the river and a steep 1km path up to an excellent view point overlooking the whole area.

Our accommodation for tonight is a luxury chalet at The Fernery Lodge, just outside the Tsitsikamma National Park and at the end of a 6km dirt track. This is our most expensive night along the Garden Route, but is still only about £35 each. After a swim, cocktails in the indoor jacuzzi and some time in the sauna we made our way to the Cellar Restaurant for a very tasty four course dinner.

To finish off a busy but enjoyable day we had a glass of wine under the southern hemisphere stars on the deck of our chalet.

Day 5: Knysna

Hannah woke up feeling ill this morning and seems to have a 24 hour stomach bug. Fortunately we had planned to have a fairly relaxed day around the area anyway, so she picked a good time for it! While Hannah stayed in bed, Shammy and I decided to retrace our route slightly and go back to Knysna which is 30km west of Plettenberg Bay.

Firstly we drove to the Knysna Heads, between which the estuary of the Knysna River opens out into the ocean. It is well known for having the most striking geological features along the whole South African coastline, but also some of the most treacherous waters. We spent quite a bit of time walking around the rocks on the eastern head and taking a lot of photos from various view points! Next we found a local craft fair which we’d only planned to visit very briefly. However we ended up there for over an hour looking around the various stalls and negotiating over prices. The sellers were very persuasive so it was extremely difficult to walk away from the stalls without buying anything.

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After stopping for a pub lunch at the Knysna Arms, we walked around the town centre for a while. Like many of the towns we have visited so far, there is a stark and quite shocking contrast between the wealthy and poorer areas of town, with just a few hundred metres between the two.

Fortunately Hannah was starting to feel better by the evening but we decided to stay viagra england in for some Chinese takeaway and a few glasses of wine on the outdoor deck at our lodge.

Day 4: Walking in Wilderness

After breakfast at the Wallow Guest House we took a short drive to Wilderness National Park. Wilderness is the only area of Africa where rain falls throughout the year and it is therefore known for its subtropical climate and abundance of vegetation.

The best way to explore the park is on foot, so we picked one of the five hiking trails (Half Collared Kingfisher) and womens viagra pill set off along the Touws River. The trail actually had a couple of different routes and the first decision we had to make was whether to cross the river by stepping stones or pontoon. We chose the latter and soon came across a raft made of plastic drums and wooden boards, complete with a rope to pull ourselves across!

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After nearly 4km we reached a waterfall which marked the end of the trail and spent a bit of time recovering before starting the walk back down the valley. This time we took the stepping stones option which turned out to be more a case of walking through a shallow part of the river, over a narrow log, through some bushes, and finally down a rairly rugged path. As we passed the junction leading back to the pontoon we noticed a “trail closed for maintenance” sign that had fallen over next to the stepping stones route, which probably explains why it wasn’t exactly straightforward! All the same, it was a very beautiful walk.

As we continued driving east along the N2 we stopped at a small town called Sedgefield for a very nice lunch at a beach bar, featuring an outdoor pizza oven that produced very nice pizzas! While we were there we went for a walk along yet another lovely and virtually deserted beach.

Finally we continued to Plettenberg Bay where we will be for the next two nights. We’re staying at Piesang Valley Lodge which is in the hills overlooking the bay. After a quick swim in the pool we headed into the town for dinner at The Table restaurant. The town seems very nice but is currently full of students celebrating the end of their matrics (the equivalent of our A-levels). After dinner we decided to leave them to it and went back to the lodge for a few glasses of wine before bed.

Day 3: Stroking cheetahs and diving with crocodiles

Our third day began with an early morning swim and breakfast at the Gumtree guest house.

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We then decided to go to the Cango Wildlife Ranch just a few kilometres away. The ranch was originally built in 1977 when it was used to farm crocodiles for sale. In 1986 it was taken over and the new owners decided to focus on animal conservation, particularly of cheetahs. There are now around 50 species of animal there from bats to lions. There is a private semi-wild area to the park where animals are kept in as close to wild conditions how can i buy viagra in canada as possible. The public area has animals which were tamed as they grew up, allowing the staff to look after them fully and use them to educate visitors on their imminent risk of extinction. Many of the species there have a worldwide population of just a few hundred.

When we first arrived, we had a very interesting tour through the main parts of the ranch. This included meerkats, lemurs, bats, vultures, emus, antelope, hippos, otters, crocodiles, cheetahs, leopards, white Bengal tigers, tiger cubs, lions, various native birds and quite a few more! There was then a unique opportunity to take part in ‘natural encounters’, each allowing us to spend 15-20 minutes in an enclosure with the animals. First of all we met the very playful and athletic lemurs who would happily jump from the trees onto our shoulders. It is estimated that they will be completely extinct from the wild within 30 years. Next we spent some time with one of the cheetahs who had a typical cat-like purr – just a little louder! Finally I decided to do some crocodile cage diving which is a very rare but facinating experience.

The ranch was so enjoyable that we ended up staying for lunch and spending most of the afternoon there – mainly watching the tiger cubs playing and being fed! After that it was back on the mountain roads to Wilderness, a coastal town on the official Garden Route. We checked in to our appartment at a guest house in the hills just outside the town centre before finding the beach in time for a quick paddle before sunset. Finally we headed to Cocomo for dinner – a vibrant restaurant with live music on a Sunday night.

Day 2: A lot of driving

After an early start and breakfast at Baleens we were back on the road again. The main aim for today was to reach Mossel Bay which is the official start of the Garden Route – a 200km stretch of coastline often referred real viagra without prescription to as South Africa’s paradise.

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After the first couple of hours we stopped for a short break in Swellendam. This is South Africa’s third-oldest white settlement. We walked through town for a little while and had some drinks in a cafe which included Rooibus Cappicino and Milk Tart – both local specialities. We also found a small craft fair and had an interesting chat with an Englishman who had lived in the area on and off since the 1960s and experienced first hand the affects of the apartheid.

After another few hours of driving we arrived in Mossel Bay. According to our guide book there isn’t a huge amount to see there at the best of times, let alone on a Saturday afternoon! It is primarily an industrial town with a working harbour and, other than a couple of beaches and hotels, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount to see. We did however find a nice cafe near the harbour – The Sea Gipsy Cafe – where we were joined for most of our lunch by a very friendly one-legged seagull.

Although Mossel Bay marks the beginning of the Garden Route which runs along the coast, we’d decided to spend our second night in Oudtshoorn which is around a 90km drive inland through picturesque mountain roads. Oudtshoorn itself is a lovely little town famous for Ostriches (both on the farms and in the restaurants). We stayed at the Gumtree guest house which is run by a very friendly couple and was excellent in pretty much every way. We all agreed that we would have happily have stayed there for the next three weeks! After a couple of glasses of a local dessert wine (Muscadel) we walked down to the Colony restaurant for dinner. I tried the ravioli with an interesting combination of butternut squash and masala sauce. So far the vegetarian food has been very good!

Finally it was back to the Gumtree for a bottle of a local red Boplaas wine (just so we could compare it to the white equivalent that we had during dinner!) and a very comfortable night’s sleep.

Day 1: Cape Town and Hermanus

Although we had originally booked a direct flight from London to Cape Town, we’d since been rerouted via Johannesburg where we landed at about 10am after a long 11 hour flight. We’ll be seeing a lot of this airport over the next the best pharmacy store few weeks, and we found a nice cafe (Mugg and Bean) that we’re hoping to frequent again at some point! There was just enough time for a quick lunch before catching the second leg of our flight. Apparently Cape Town is one of the windiest cities in the world and this made for a very bumpy descent, during which there was some screaming amongst the passengers! We’ll be landing there again in just over 2 weeks’ time when we’ll be staying in the area, but today we simply collected our hire car – a VW Polo Sedan with just 400km on the clock – and headed east on the N2 motorway.

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For the first 5km or so, the road is lined either side with shanty towns. This came as quite a stark contrast to the comparatively wealthy feel of the airport and surrounding area and was our first insight into the divide between rich and poor. The traffic was fairly slow moving, giving market sellers plenty of opportunity to walk between cars selling everything from car chargers to hats and sunglasses. The windy conditions that we encountered on the flight also made driving quite interesting as we left the outskirts of the city and started winding through the mountain roads.

After a few hours we arrived at Hermanus (a small coastal town) and the Baleens Guest House where we’d planned to spend our first night in South Africa. We headed back into town as the sun was setting and enjoyed some cocktails on the seafront before dinner. The very friendly staff at Baleens recommended Lemon Butta – a lovely seafood restaurant which also has excellent vegetarian sushi! The food is very inexpensive in South Africa – a two course meal for three of us in a fairly upmarket restaurant with wine and Irish coffees came to 660 Rand, which is about £45.

After dinner we walked back to the car park and tipped our car guard – people who look after your car for you while it’s parked – and headed back to Baleens for a much needed night’s sleep.

I'm off to South Africa!

It’s been just under two years since my Australian adventures, and now I’m off viagra canda on another long trip – this time to South Africa! The main event will be Lita and Matt’s wedding on December 16th, but first I’ll be driving along the Garden Route with Hannah and Shammy before Kat joins us in Johannesburg ready for our Kruger safari. Noz will also be flying over from Australia in time for the wedding before we all spend a week in Cape Town. I’ll be trying to keep a daily log of our travels, so watch this space!

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Day 25: The Great Ocean Road

I decided to spend my last day in Australia on the Great Ocean Road which runs 150 miles along the south-eastern coast. It was built between 1919 and 1932 by soldiers returning from war and is therefore considered to be the world’s largest war memorial. It would be easy to spend a week travelling along the coastline as there is plenty to see – my one day tour allowed me to see just a few of the highlights.

The tour company picked me up from my hostel and we headed towards the coast, where the Australian version of Torquay was our first stop for a quick coffee break. As we continued down the coastline we passed Winkipop and Bells beaches which are among the best surfing locations in the world. Bells is the only official surfing reserve in Australia and hosted the first modern professional surfing competition in 1973.

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My time in Australia wouldn’t be complete without one more koala sighting, which I had when we stopped at the Kennett River. This was the first time I’d seen them in the wild and, as usual, they were fast asleep at the top of some very tall trees. The nearby parrots were more friendly and one of them sat on my hand while having a late breakfast courtesy of our tour guide. We then continued slightly inland to Maits Rest and took a walk through the temperate rain-forest there, which is part of the Great Otway National Park.

After stopping for lunch at The Roadhouse in Lavers Hill we drove back towards the coastline and one of the highlights of the Great Ocean Road – The Twelve Apostles. This is a collection of rock stacks a short distance from the cliffs. Each stack would have originally been attached to the cliff before the sea eroded purchase cheap viagra an archway which in turn collapased to leave the stack. It is debatable whether there are actually 12 stacks – they are gradually collapsing (most recently in 2005) and new stacks will eventually be formed. Nevertheless, they create a stunning view – one of the most iconic in Australia.

Slightly further down the coastline is Loch Ard Gorge, named after the ship which was wrecked there in 1878. The Loch Ard had left England 3 months earlier headed for Melbourne but heavy fog hid the nearby lighthouse from view and it ran aground on the reef leaving only 2 survivors. There are many more rock formations here too – Muttonbird Island, The Island Archway, and The Razorback. After a quick photo stop at Two Mile Bay (where you can see along much of the coastline back to The Twelve Apostles) we came to the London Arch. This is another famous rock formation which recently went through dramatic change. In a similar way to The Twelve Apostles, the sea eroded two archways through the rock, leaving a natural double-span bridge that was known as London Bridge. In 1990 the arch closer to the cliff collapsed leaving the formation that can be seen today.

Finally, we began the long drive back to Melbourne, which was also the start of my even longer journey home. I collected my bags from the hostel and caught the SkyBus to Melbourne airport ready for my 13 hour flight back to Doha and the further 6 hours to London. The Great Ocean Road was definitely a great way to finish my time in Australia!

Day 24: Alice Springs airport

I left my hostel at 7am for the airport and my flight back to Melbourne with Tiger Airways – virtually the only internal airline I hadn’t tried yet. While I was standing in the queue to check in they announced that the plane was stuck in Melbourne and the flight would be delayed until 10:20 – an hour later than scheduled. Clearly the luck I’d had with all my flights so far had finally run out! This soon became 15:20 and I spent a long day in the departure lounge. Alice Springs is not the best airport to be stuck in – it handles only a handful of flights each day, has two small shops and a cafe, and the only available Internet access costs $2 for 6 minutes.

The reason for the delay wasn’t particularly clear – either a fault with the plane or because the pilot called in sick (maybe because of Australia Day celebrations the night before?). Either way, a large number of passengers missed connections and had to make alternative arrangements. For me, the 6 hour delay just meant I didn’t arrive in Melbourne until late evening. I checked into my hostel, grabbed a sandwich, and went to bed.

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Tomorrow is my last day in Australia and I’m going buying viagra from canada for an organised tour along the Great Ocean Road.

Day 23: Kings Canyon

We were up at 4:30 again this morning. Within an hour we’d had breakfast, packed up camp and were back on the road.

This morning we did a 6km hike around Kings Canyon. Like most of Central Australia the area used to be under the sea – fossilised water ripple marks can still be seen today. The rock was built up by layers of sediment (which can also be clearly seen) before the sea dried up. Around 350 million years ago a crack formed and erosion gradually cut out the canyon. It is still a relatively wet area and so a wide variety of plant and animal life can be seen. The aborigines only used the canyon as a last resort in times of drought, so that they did not waste its resources unnecessarily. At the bottom of the canyon is a lake surrounded by trees known as the Garden of Eden. We stopped here for a short break (and appropriately ate apples) before having a swim in the water (which is appropriately home to some water snakes). This was the coolest water I’ve been in over the last month, but was still a pleasant temperature. There were many amazing views as we walked around the rim of the canyon – the photos could never do it justice, but I did my best anyway!

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We went back to the campsite for a traditional barbecue lunch – camel burgers for the non-vegetarians. There was also just enough time for one last swim before getting on the new canadian meds road back to Alice Springs. The four wheel drive really paid off when we drove 100km on a dirt track. Not only did this take 160km off the journey that most tour coaches have to take, but it was also another unique (and very bumpy) outback experience. We only saw 3 other vehicles in nearly 2 hours.

Alice Springs seemed remote when I arrived a few days ago, but returning from the outback it feels like a bustling town! I had a few hours back in my hostel to relax and have a shower before meeting up with the rest of my tour group in town for dinner and drinks. Today is Australia Day so most of the local people were out celebrating – Happy Australia Day everyone!!

I’m catching the 7am bus back to the airport tomorrow morning for my flight to Melbourne.

Day 22: Sunrise in the desert and Kata Tjuta

Belinda woke us up at 4:30am while the stars were still out and the moon was shining brightly. We had a quick breakfast and packed up camp before walking up to the nearby lookout to watch the 6am sunrise. It must be winter in the rest of the world because the sun only left Australia for about 9 hours!

In the morning we took a 3 hour walk through the Valley of the Winds. The 7.5km walk meanders through another nearby set of rock formations known as Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’, each head being a large dome shaped rock. These are of just as much importance to the Anangu people as Uluru, and the walk is carefully planned to avoid areas where the aborigines would prefer visitors not to go. They say the strong winds that pass through the valley are their ancestors speaking to us. The temperature did not go below 28°c overnight and it was already well above 30°c. The walk is closed for safety reasons at 11am when the temperature exceeds 36°c. Despite the temperature though it was well worth doing and the rounded rock formations are fascinating. Halfway around we stopped for refreshments while Belinda explained some of the geology behind the rock formations. Next stop was the picnic area in the Ayers Rock resort for some lunch and a much needed swim in the nearby pool.

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In the afternoon we had a long 3 hour drive to the Kings Creek Cattle Station where we would be camping for the night. On the way we stopped to collect firewood and to look across the desert at Atilla – a rock similar to Uluru but even larger (despite being two metres shorter). It has just as much significance as Uluru, but the latter was chosen for the tourism drive and Atilla is still within private land. Although there is a large campsite at the cattle station, Wayoutback have a special arrangement with the landowners which allowed us to camp a few kilometres down a dirt track – literally in the middle of nowhere. We had a small shelter with running water and near-traditional bush toilet and shower – two small huts down a footpath. The shower has lovely hot water (as the pipes run through the ground) but was covered with ants so most of us went without. The toilet has a family of frogs living inside it – for some reason they seem to like that environment!

We did the initial preparations for dinner and started the campfire – my job was to make the bread from scratch! While dinner cooked on the fire we walked to a slightly higher point so that we could have a good view of the sunset. As the sun went down Belinda provided champagne and canapés, and we also came across some wild camels! We had dinner around the campfire while Belinda told a few stories and then had another night under the stars in a swag.

Yet another early start tomorrow so we can do all our walking before the sun is viagra cheap canada too hot.

Day 21: Uluru and the Anangu people

I was picked up from my hostel just before 6am by Wayoutback tours, who use 12 seater four wheel drive vehicles for the journey into the outback. I definitely chose a good day to go as only four others started the tour in Alice Springs with another two joining in Uluru, so it would be a particularly personalised tour.

Uluru is a 450km drive from Alice Springs. Along the way we stopped briefly at a camel farm. Camels are not native animals but were introduced in the 19th century for expeditions across central Australia. There are now around a million of them which is endangering other native species because of the amount of water they drink. We also stopped off at the Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse where a large collection of aboriginal art was on display.

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When we arrived at Uluru we went to the campsite where we would be staying tonight. Although there is a resort nearby, our area consisted of a small hut for cooking, eating and washing up, and a patch of red sand where we could sleep. After making some sandwiches for lunch we had time for a quick swim in the resort pool – by now the temperature was above 40°c! We then drove for another 30 minutes to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. This is the site of Uluru itself (also known as Ayers Rock) – a large expanse of rock standing around 350 metres tall in the middle of the desert. It is unique because, other than its size, it is more or less flat on top with very steep sides. It is also of particular significance to the Anangu people – the aborigines who live here.

We visited the cultural centre which explains something about the way aborigines used to live. The tensions caused by western invasion of their land are clear, although many compromises have been made and the site is joint managed between the aboriginal elders and the state government. After driving further inside the park we reached the base of the rock. Visitors are given the choice of climbing up to the top or doing a base walk around it – nearly 11km total. While the aborigines seem to welcome visitors wishing to learn about their culture, they strongly discourage people from climbing their spiritual site. However there is no law against it and unfortunately many do. We did a shortened base walk – the temperature was 44°c and far too hot to attempt the whole distance. Our guide (Belinda) explained the significance of some of the areas we walked through. I then went on a small optional tour led by an aboriginal guide speaking through a translator. He showed us drawings inside caves where children would be taught, explained how they would hunt and find water, and told a couple of the ‘dreamtime’ stories. These stories explain how the land (with which they have an inseparable relationship) was formed and include their moral code. They believe that the rock was created by the spirits of their ancestors, and can explain many of its features in this way. The stories are usually passed between grandparents and grandchildren to maximise the information transfer. The translator also demonstrated how they make food and medicine from the surrounding plants. Only small westernised aboriginal settlements still exist and the true culture (which is at least 40,000 years old) has essentially been lost over the last few centuries.

Just before sunset we drove back to the campsite and walked to a nearby lookout. Uluru is said to have many different ‘moods’ as it changes colour with the weather and time of day. At sunset it is supposed to turn red but in reality this only happens a handful of purchase viagra in australia times each year, and we weren’t the lucky ones! The sunset itself was very picturesque though. Meanwhile Belinda prepared dinner back at camp which we ate by candlelight. She then showed us how to make up a swag – the authentic Australian way of sleeping in the bush. It’s a bit like a strong outer sleeping bag and does not cover your head so we literally fell asleep under the thousands of stars which was an amazing experience. Even at night-time it is still very hot though – I drank over 5 litres of water today!

Tomorrow is an even earlier start so we can be at the lookout by sunrise!

Day 20: Alice Springs

Almost exactly 24 hours after surfacing from my last dive (the recommended safety time before flying) I was back on a plane again. This time it was a Qantas flight to Alice Springs, 1500km from Cairns. Alice Springs is one of the few major towns in the Northern Territory and is in the heart of the outback. This area is known as the Red Centre – the vast expanse of red soil clearly visible from the plane on our way in. Landing at around lunchtime it was a moderate 41°c! I also changed time zone again – the Northern Territory and South Australia are 30 minutes behind Queensland.

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Unfortunately time doesn’t allow me to see much of Alice Springs itself, which used to be inhabited by the Arrernte Aboriginal people. A telegraph station was later built here to link Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, and this opened up the interior of Australia for permanent European settlement. In addition to the telegraph station, one of the main attractions is the Royal Flying Doctor Service base. The town is primarily used by tourists as a base to explore the outback, particularly Ayers Rock.

I spent the afternoon settling into the hostel, repacking my bags (again!), and cooling off in the swimming pool. Tomorrow I’m going on a 3 day safari into viagra jelly uk the outback, which includes camping in the bush and cooking over a fire! Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t include wireless internet access so although I’ll be writing my blog as I go, I won’t be able to publish it until I’m back on Wednesday night.

Day 19: Sea turtles and a stormy ride home

Everybody was up at 6am today for another busy morning. The boat was due to leave the reef at midday and we had three dives to complete by then, plus the necessary breaks to ensure we didn’t exceed our nitrogen limits. It was very overcast and raining heavily, so underwater was probably the best place to be! The first dive involved navigating to and swimming the whole way around a bommie (which is a large area of coral, almost like a huge rock on the bottom of the sea). The surface of the water was quite rough but once we were 2-3 metres down below the waves there was just a mild current, and the visibility was excellent again. On our way out to the bommie Steve and I saw our first Green Sea Turtle of the trip.

While we had breakfast the boat was moved again to an area called ‘Tennis Courts’ on the Flynn Reef for our last two dives. On the first we saw a Titan Triggerfish, so called because when protecting the nest and feeling under threat it raises its dorsal fin in a trigger-like action. Although not particularly dangerous, these fish will chase and bite divers if they get too close. We also saw another Green Sea Turtle and a Pipefish. The highlights of our final dive included seeing a couple of Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse. These fish stay in areas called ‘cleaning stations’ and, as other fish swim through, they will use their mouths to clean them of unwanted parasites. Sometimes the wrasse will even swim inside the mouths of larger fish to clean the inside! By hovering in the water quite close to the cleaning station we were able to have our fins cleaned for a few minutes. This also prompted Steve and I to do a spontaneous underwater rendition of the Car Wash from ‘Shark Tale’ (Oscar, played viagra propranodol by Will Smith in the film, is a Cleaner Wrasse). This progressed into the ‘Sprinker’ and the ‘Macarena’ – maybe we’d had too much nitrogen after all! On the subject of films, during one of our previous dives we found Nemo – a Clownfish, which is a particular breed of anemonefish. While navigating back to the boat we were distracted by a Hawkbill Turtle and the current took us slightly off course (we weren’t the only ones!) so had a speedboat tow back to Scuba Pro II.

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Once everyone was safely back onboard, the boat quickly left the reef for the three hour journey back to Cairns. This took us straight through a storm and so it was a particularly rough ride. The wind was in excess of 40 knots, and there was a swell of up to 3 metres. Almost everything (and everyone) on the boat was thrown around – saucepans fell out of cupboards, drink cans exploded, part of the ceiling in the dining area fell down, and we exhausted our supply of sick bags. Fortunately I escaped with a couple of minor bruises, and proved that I definitely don’t suffer from seasickness. Overall it was a really good trip from start to finish, and in total I spent about 10 hours underwater on the reef.

In the evening most of the divers and divemasters met in town for dinner and drinks followed by the Woolshed nightclub. While a few managed to keep going until 3am, I headed back to my hostel at about 1am ready for another early start. Tomorrow I fly from Cairns to Alice Springs, right in the centre of Australia.

Day 18: Grey sharks at night, diver's delight

Last night was fairly choppy in the Coral Sea. The captain moved the boat slightly in the middle of the night to try and give everyone a steadier night’s sleep! We were woken up just before 7am while the boat was being moved to Flynn Reef ready for today’s dives. Our first dive was at 7:30am and was the deepest of the trip, at about 19 metres. The diving is getting noticeably more comfortable as I’m getting used to being underwater so much. The visibility was also excellent and we saw a wide variety of different fish. After breakfast we were back in the water again at the same site but for a shallower dive – the highlights being a Great Barracuda and Yellow Trumpetfish.

While we had a break for lunch, the boat was moved to a slightly different place on the Flynn Reef for our afternoon and evening dives. Although other divers saw a few sharks yesterday, Steve and I saw one for the first time this afternoon – a Whitetip Reef Shark. We also spotted a Kuhl’s Stringray and followed it for a while. In the break between afternoon and evening dives there was a Green Sea Turtle and Giant Manta Stingray swimming just off one side of the boat.

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We stayed at the same site again for our night dive, but this time went in buddy pairs instead of groups. As we prepared our equipment a number of fish could be seen off the back of the boat including some sharks. Some of the smaller fish were even jumping out of the water onto the entry platform, presumably to get away from the sharks – meanwhile we were jumping in! We quickly moved away from the boat and towards the coral wall. There were many more fish than there had been on the previous night dive, perhaps because there were fewer divers in the same place. The highlight of the dive though was when we returned towards the boat, as it attracts a large number of fish. Amongst the Giant Trevallies and Red Bass we could see pairs of large green eyes in the darkness – four generic viagra from canada or five Grey Reef Sharks circling. There was definitely a buzz among all the divers as we got back onto the boat – this was probably the best dive of the trip so far!

For the rest of the evening we played cards and talked about the day’s diving. Everyone quickly drifted off to bed though, ready for our even earlier wakeup call tomorrow morning.

Day 17: Diving on the Great Barrier Reef

I was picked up from my hostel at 6:15 this morning by Pro Dive, one of the many SCUBA diving companies in Cairns. After a quick stop off at their shop to complete paperwork and store excess luggage, everyone was taken down to the marina to board Scuba Pro II which is a liveaboard boat. Along with a group of around 30 other divers, I’ll be spending the next three days diving on the outer reef, around 30 nautical miles from the coast. The boat has three decks made up mainly of bedrooms, a kitchen/dining area, and outside areas for preparing equipment. As soon as everyone was onboard the boat left the marina for the three hour journey to the reef. Meanwhile breakfast was served and the divemasters went through the various safety procedures. The divers are a mixture of those doing their open water qualification, those taking their advanced course, and certified divers.

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Despite the fairly rough trip out to the reef (seasickness tablets were strongly recommended!) everyone was looking forward to getting into the water to see one of the best dive sites in the world. There were four dives planned today, the first two at Milln Reef. As soon as we arrived, our Irish divemaster (Chris) went through the plan for the dive, including a rough route and maximum depth/time limits. As a certified diver my dives are mainly unguided, so I can explore the reef with my buddy (Steve). We put on all our equipment, ran through the safety checks, and then jumped off the back of the boat! The water temperature is 29°c at the moment and feels more like a warm bath than the sea. Much of the coral reef is in shallow water so we stayed at around 8 metres throughout. This also means we can get about an hour buy cialis viagra underwater each dive! The reef is fascinating and teeming with life. As well as plenty of fish (we saw lots of Butterflyfish, Parrotfish and a Lionfish among others) there is every variety of coral imaginable, and a good number of sea cucumbers. Other than a couple of pool refreshers this was my first dive since Tenerife 8 years ago, and it was great to get back in the water again.

The rest of the day was non-stop. Lunch was served as soon as we surfaced from the first dive, and within an hour we were back in the water again for the second. This time we swam along a coral wall which stands in about 8 metres of water and reaches to just below the surface. We were out of the water just long enough for some tea and cake while the boat moved to the next site, another wall a little further along Milln Reef in 12 metres of water. This time we saw a number of Anenomefish which have a symbiotic relationship with the anemone (a type of plant) they live in. The plant provides protection for the fish (it can sting potential predators) while the fish keeps predators away from the plant. We also met a very small (and unidentified!) yellow fish which followed us for 20 minutes all the way back to the boat.

After dinner we prepared for our first night dive, which was at the same site so we would know our way around. We had an extended briefing, and were reassured that any sharks that might come out of the darkness are normally not aggressive. The storm that had developed while we were having dinner also added to the slightly nervous atmosphere! This time we were divided into small colour-coded groups (with glow sticks to match) and each group went on a guided dive with one of the divemasters. Although many fish are hiding from predators at night, there is plenty of other marine life on show, and it is a completely different experience to diving during the day. Shining torches into the darkness picked up many pairs of shrimp eyes. We also saw a large (30-40cm) crayfish swimming along the bottom, and some worms spiralling through the water. Finally it was back to the boat for some cake before everyone had an early night (except me – I was busy writing this blog!).

Tomorrow is another full day of diving starting at 7:30am.