Walking the coast to coast

We’ve finally finished the coast to coast walk from St Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay. The journey is based on the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright, who originally devised the route in 1973 and it crosses three National Parks: the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. A thoroughly enjoyable journey that we did in three parts. Here’s some brief notes on the route and photos. More notes on the final five days as I’m writing this fresh after finishing and didn’t keep notes on the first two legs of our journey.

Wainwright’s route plan

PART 1 (October 2016)

St Bees Head to the Fox and Hound pub in Ennerdale Bridge (14 miles)
We arrived late at night to our starting point and camped in a field close to St Bees lighthouse. The route on the first day was fairly unremarkable (from memory) and took us to the edge of the Lake District. We camped in a small field next to the Fox and Hound pub.

Ennerdale Bridge to Rosthwaite (14m):

Rosthwaite to Patterdale YHA (17m)

Patterdale YHA to Penrith train station (14m)
This was an extra section required for our logistics, which took us along the length of Ullswater, the second largest lake in the Lake District.

PART 2 (April 2017) – 3 days

Day 1: Patterdale to Shap (16m): this section includes the “high street” to Kidsty Pike, the highest point on the coast to coast journey. Then later on, along Haweswater Reservoir. A strenuous, but rewarding day. From what I remember, also quite wet.

Day 2: Shap to Kirkby Stephen (20m)

Day 3: Kirkby Stephen to Keld (13m): this section of the route includes the nine standing stones.

PART III (August 2019) – 5 days

Day 1: Keld to Richmond (24m):
The last section of the Yorkshire Dales and a long day. The distance was a shock to the feet and shoulders which were aching by the end. Short showers meant that raincoats were on-and-off all day. A few tricky river crossings too as we followed the River Swale. It was the day after heavy rainfall had caused flash floods that had devastated several villages. We were shocked as we walked through the village of Reeth. Cars scattered, walls collapsed, sheds overturned, gardens covered in silty-mud. Camera-crews dotted around. It’s on the national news. We camped just outside Richmond in Brompton-on-Swale caravan park.

Day 3: Richmond to Ingleby Amcliffe (23m)
The most challenging day for me, mainly because it was a hot, very flat and laborious section of the walk, involving pounding our achy feet along country lanes and across monotonous fields of wheat, barley and rape. Other folks we meet that day agreed. Wainwright himself described it as a tedious section of the route. We stayed in the village of Ingleby Amcliffe, in a camping field next to the Blue Bell Inn pub.

Day 4: Ingleby Amcliffe to The Lion Inn (22m)
This section of the route takes us into the North York Moors where the heather was just coming out in beautiful shades of purple. A much more interesting day of walking with expansive views looking off the moor. Traversing along the escarpment, the path rises and falls steadily and is easy to navigate. I’m struck by the vast expanse of the grouse shooting industry across these landscapes. It seems to be that or sheep farming.

We were all starting to feel pretty exhausted towards the end of the day as we followed an old railway track, leading us towards our destination, the Lion Inn pub, Blakey. A very remote but popular pub that dates back to the 16th century. We camped in the field opposite after enjoying a huge meal and some delicious ale.

Lion Inn to Grosmont (14m)
A relief to have a shorter day of walking. We started after treating ourselves to breakfast at the Lion Inn, then walked across the moor to Glaisdale. After Glaisdale, there was some variety, with some woodland along the River Esk.

Grosmont a very attractive village with a steam train running through the heart of it making it popular for tourists. I was also happy to notice it houses Britain’s oldest independent co-operative shop. We stayed just outside the village in a campsite by the river, where we had a dip in the evening before dinner – a delicious pizza in an art gallery!

Grosmont to Robin Hoods Bay (16m)
An enjoyable last leg of the journey. Starting with a forest trail that leads up to the Falling Foss waterfall. Coming out of the woodland, we went across some final sections of moorland and farmer fields before finally hitting the coastal path from the Northcliffe caravan site. In good spirits, we rounded Ness point and entered the town. Before long, we were descending down the picturesque, narrow lanes of Robin Hoods Bay to the water’s edge. We took off our boots and sat on a bench, feeling so happy to have finished our journey.

Beautiful shades of pinks and purples in the heather of the North York Moors
The end of the route.

Traversing the Cuillin Ridge

The Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye is one of Britain’s greatest mountaineering challenges. It involves 4,000 meters of ascent and descent along 12km of continuous Alpine terrain, where weather conditions can turn quickly, scuppering the chances of a successful traverse. With this in mind, I approached this expedition with some trepidation, especially with my limited mountaineering experience. This was going to be a serious challenge!

…and it was. We undertook our traverse over two demanding days in a group of four, with two experienced guides, Mike and Malcolm, from Skye Guides. Having a guide is essential if you are unfamiliar with the ridge. Mike Lates has 26 years of experience on the Cuillins and has written one of the definitive guides, so I took much comfort in his ability to show us the way.


Mike Lates, Skye Guides

The day before our traverse we climbed onto the ridge from Glenbrittle Youth Hostel to stash sleeping gear, food and water into a cave for the second day. Not only did this lighten our packs, but it was also incredibly helpful since there are few points on the ridge for collecting water.

We started our traverse from the South side, taking a ferry from Elgol common to the foot of the ridge. The alternative option is a three-hour hike in. While there was some rainfall in the morning, the weather mostly shifted through phases of light sun and wind, with light hail and a little snow thrown in. While these conditions slowed us a little, we were thankful that the rain held off. Rain slows down the speed of scrambling considerably. Traversing the Cuillins demands constant concentration. It’s not the difficulty of the climbing that causes many people to fail, it’s the physical and mental toll posed by the ridge. It is the sustained scrambling, across grades 1-3, with some 3+ territory. We regularly used short-roping for safety. Only during short breaks did I really take in the spectacular, rugged views over mountains and sea.Much of the rock is gabbro – a coarse, grippy igneous rock – and this is interspersed with strips of basalt that is very slippery when wet. Sections such as the Inaccessible Pinnacle (or Inn Pinn) and Sgurr nan Gillean (the final summit, from the South side) involved some pretty exposed manoeuvres which tested my nerves! Especially in the spots with ice and wet rock. However, for the most part, I felt in my comfort zone.

Here’s a GPS track of Day 1 (unfortunately my watch battery didn’t last to track Day 2):

At the end of our first day, I wriggled into the bivvy bag, nestled between the tough gabbro rock. Wearing so many layers of clothing, breathing felt a little constricted but I was happy – especially after the rehydrated veggie curry and snifter of whiskey. During the night there was a little more hail/snow and a thick cloud that eventually cleared in the morning, giving way to a spectacular view from my bivvy spot:Morning View from Sleeping Bag

The second day was similar to the first in terms of terrain. A little windier perhaps, but kept in good spirits throughout and kept a rhythm.

There are 22 peaks across the ridge. Our aim was to get to the end and we didn’t summit every Munro. In total, we completed nine (out of eleven) Munros, which included:

  • Sgurr nan eag
  • Sgurr Alasdair
  • Sgurr mic coinnich
  • Sgurr dearg (the inn pinn)
  • Sgurr na banadich
  • Sgurr a greataidh
  • Sgurr a mhadaidh
  • Bruach na frithe
  • Sgurr nan Gillian

The two Munros we missed included Sgurr dubh mor (an outlier between eag and Alasdair that takes 1hr 15mins to include). We also missed Am Basteir (the tooth), an impressive, vertical slab of rock near the end of our traverse, which was not advisable to climb in our weather conditions. As Charlotte pointed out, it’s not going anywhere! And so I’m sure we’ll be back again. The Cuillin Traverse was an incredible experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Undoubtedly tough going and by the end, I felt beaten and exhausted. But it was totally worth it.

Ethiopia Travel Notes Part II: The Simeon Mountains

The town of Debark rests at the foot of the Simien Mountain range, a Unesco World Heritage Site in northern Ethiopia that’s marked by steep cliffs and breathtaking canyon-style gorges. We’re going trekking for four days and this is where we meet our guide and our rather elaborate support team.

Hiring a guide feels luxurious enough but we also have two chefs, an armed scout, a mule and mule man. It seems extravagant to say the least. However this is the normal provisions with the trekking companies here. As part of our 15 day trip in Ethiopia, this is the part we’ve been the most excited about. Here’s our rough route:

Taking it easy at the start, we walked along the escarpment from Simien Lodge to Sankaber Lodge. The walking is gentle although at an altitude above 3,600m, you can feel the difference.

Peering off the ridge of the escarpment, thin strips of trees line the base, and valleys lead down to remote villages that occupy every plateau into the distance. Marking the landscape is dramatic, brown jagged pinnacles of rock, soaring like high-rise buildings. The views are beautiful and expansive, blurring into a film of haze on the horizon; a haze that lingers after each rainy season.ViewsOur guide Ashoo is leading us. He’s gentle and courteous and has answers to almost all of our questions about the wildlife and fauna. Working as a guide is a good job in Ethiopia and takes several years of training. It’s a job Ashoo seems to enjoy, being able to share his passion for these mountains. He points into the distance, giving a nod towards his home village. This range is his home and he cares passionately about protecting it.

Usually trailing at the back is our scout, Misha. Misha carries a rifle, speaks very little English and has the warmest smile. I had some binoculars with me for the trek and he was absolutely delighted to borrow them. Trekking TeamIn the pastures, we often see children herding goats or shepherding flocks of sheep. Older people gather hay. Wild mountain thyme is in abundance, its piney fragrance is uplifting. It’s very peaceful and I try to imagine what it might be like to live in these mountains – so very remote and cut-off. The lifestyle appears simple but I suspect there is a complexity and richness that we, as tourists, do not see in these communities. And without a doubt, much hardship and poverty.

As we pass children and families along the way, I do wonder how welcome our tourism is. Designating this mountain range as a National Park in the late 1970s will have had its consequences. I hope many positive impacts such as income, jobs and greater environmental protection. However, the influx of tourists and development of the park will have meant a forced displacement for some communities, that wouldn’t have been so welcome.

There are many moments when I worry about soil erosion. In some parts of the park, I have never seen it so clear. Exposed, bare soil baking under the sun, slowly turning to dust and washing away with the rains. It’s said that annually, Ethiopia losses over 1.5 billion tons of topsoil from the highlands to erosion; a huge threat to food security.soil erosion ethiopiaMy worries don’t just stop here. The rare wildlife is one of the big attractions of the Simeon Mountains. While I have limited botanical and natural history knowledge, I was struck by the limited diversity of wildlife and fauna on our hike. Over the four days, we persistently saw a recurring handful of species. The ever-present eucalyptus (two different varieties), red hot pokers (Kniphofia), giant lobelias and erica trees. The erica trees have a bit of a haunted look as if they are covered in cobwebs. I only saw one lone acacia tree. Maybe I’m being overly harsh here. I feel the same about our national parks here in the UK. They are beautiful landscapes but barren ecologically, against the biodiversity that can be found in a mixed woodland or forest.DSC01639DSC01535Camping in the Simeon Mountains is only allowed in designated campsites. Given the high tourist footfall, at least in the section we trekked, this is certainly for the best. Each evening we arrived at a campsite with our tents already up and a thermos of coffee and bowl of popcorn laid out for us. What luxury! The campsites have drop toilets and basic community lodges for the guides to stay in. The chefs join forces to cook delicious meals for us walkers. It really is quite an impressive operation.DSC01574 DSC01580Just before sunset, on our second night, we were fortunate to see an Ethiopian Wolf. Striding slowly, majestically, across the hillside into the distance. That same evening we headed to the nearest peak and watched the gelada baboons scramble over the precipice edges of the cliffs, down to ledges where they huddle together for the night. The younger ones play fighting, the older ones tenderly grooming each other.

I could happily spend the day watching geladas. They are sometimes known as the bleeding-heart monkeys, as they possess a bright red patch on their chest – a bit of a grotesque feature. They spend their days foraging, grazing the grasses, plants and digging for roots and other plants.Geladas in the eveningDSC01688As soon as the sunset, the cold swept in while we ate our evening meals outside. I was not prepared for how cold the nights would be. I was silly enough not to bring a proper coat, so I layered up my all my shirts and one jumper. Afterwards, we spent a short-time by the fire and we must have chosen the right tour company, as they provided us with hot water bottles for the night. I hugged mine tight and then spent the time worrying about the poor scouts, who sleep outside of the tents, keeping guard for the night. They must have been freezing cold. I think some of them must have snuggled together to keep warm. The sunrise was always a welcome relief, bringing its warm glow.

In terms of other wildlife, we saw Klipspringer bushbacks and the endemic Walia Ibex on our final day. We regularly had lammergeier swooping over our heads – an impressive bird with a two-meter wingspan that hunts mole rats and other small mammals. Swallows were always to be seen around the cliffs, darting and diving with speed, presumably feasting on insects. Thick-bill ravens were a common sight too, often in pairs, dancing in the sky and diving down the escarpment.DSC01555The highest peak on our trek was Kmet Gogo, 5km northeast of Geech camp, standing at 3,962m. We finished our trek at Chenek. At sunset, we strolled by the edge of the escarpment, watching the ibex and baboons settle down for the night. Our wonderful chefs prepared a delicious meal of chicken, rice, fried aubergine and vegetables – washed down with some red wine. It was the perfect end to a spectacular hike.DSC01680

Ethiopia Travel Notes Part I: Addis to Bahir Dar

We touched down into Addis Ababa late in the night. On the flight, we were fortunate to meet a couple, David and Joan, who had been coming to Ethiopia for the last 14 years. Recently, they had been sponsoring a student through university and subsequently helping him to start an internet cafe. Such businesses were rather short-lived in the UK but still have a place in East Africa, where few people own computers.

David was particularly excited to hear it was our first time. Taking the vacant seat next to us, he wanted to know every detail about our itinerary and share his top travel tips. Helpful though this was, after 10 minutes we were rather overwhelmed by his enthusiasm. Our itinerary was rough and deliberately vague to leave space for flexibility and spontaneity. After all, the best adventures often contain an element of surprise.

After exchanging money and receiving our $50 visas, we shared a taxi with our new friends. Our hotels happened to be close to each other. C and I were rather taken aback when David and Joan told us they were staying in a brothel. “It’s very cheap!” David boasted. I’m sure it is, but I was quietly glad we were heading to the delightfully named hotel, Mr Martin’s Cosy Place.

Mr Martin’s Cosy Place is a standard, no-frills hotel in the Bole District, which we are told is a slightly hipper end of Addis. We spent one day in Addis initially. It’s hardly a relaxing city. Our first job involved buying a bus ticket out. Many tourists in Ethiopia jet around the country by plane, from one tourist destination to the next. Providing you have the money, this makes sense. It’s a vast country over four times larger than the UK. However, we were keen to stay grounded and travel by bus. This way we can properly absorb the landscapes, breath in the air, smell the aromas, enjoy the music and feel the bumps in the roads. It’s also vastly cheaper.

As is often the case at bus stations, there was a fair amount of chaos. Hustlers keen to assist – new “friends” curious to learn where we were from, to practice their English and hear of our destinations with the kind offer of guide services. It’s been awhile since I’ve had to deal with all this and we had to exercise many polite but firm “no thank yous”.

With bus tickets in hand, we jumped into a taxi and headed for a recommended lunch spot around the Piazza area: Taitu Hotel. Unfortunately, the taxi broke down en route, chugging and sputtering to a stop in the middle of a busy junction causing mayhem and fury from other road users. Some passers-by rescued us, pushing us to the edge of the road. The clutch sounded knackered. We thanked our driver for trying his best and walked the rest of the way using the map in the Lonely Planet guide. These maps really are terrible and I would never recommend trying to rely on them. But it was all we had and miraculously we muddled our way there.

Taitu Hotel is a welcome break from the hot, sweaty, dusty energy of the streets. An old rustic hideaway, where the air is heavy with frankincense and the aromas of coffee roasting. An old lady played the piano, running her fingers gently up and down the keys, playing those distinctive Ethiopian scales. Their vegan buffet, while expensive by local standards, was delicious and over the coffee afterwards, we made our afternoon plans.

We decided to visit the museum that houses the famous Lucy, locally known as Dinkinesh in Amharic, meaning “you are marvellous”. Lucy is a notable skeleton, some 3.2 million years old, whose discovery in 1974 changed our understanding of human evolution. I marvelled at these old bones, trying to imagine life in those feral, primitive times. Living in the rainforests, climbing trees and hunting wild animals. A month later, I was to learn that the real Lucy is hidden out the back under tight security. We were just looking at the replica.

Lucy skeleton

The rest of the museum painted a picture of the past, through its display of traditional clothes, paintings, ornamentals, instruments and furniture.

Later that evening, we went to a restaurant named Habesha 2000. It was a touristy-choice and on the more expensive side too, however, we picked it for the show, which was a lot of fun, involving some excellent dancing and a house-band, playing a range of Ethiopian hits. For the first time, I saw the famous shoulder dancing. Several embarrassed tourists were led to the stage to join in with the dancing too, fortunately not us.

Habesha 2000 restaurant in Addis

Bahir Dar

Early next morning, before the sun had risen, we boarded a bus to Bahir Dar. We were glad to be moving on from Addis and excited to see the countryside along the way. It was an epic ten-hour journey. This in itself wasn’t too bad, except for the fear of needing a wee on a bus with no toilet, we drank very little so by the time we arrived in Bahir Dar, we were feeling dehydrated and also quite hungry.

Bus

IMG_0050

That afternoon, we sorted out tickets for a boat ride the following day on Lake Tana, followed by a delicious fish dinner at Dasai Lodge. However, the earlier dehydration must have taken its toll, because that night I had a nasty migraine.

Bahar Dar
View from our hotel, showing the eucalyptus scaffolding

Lake Tana’s monastic churches

I was a little shaken from the night. Migraines are horrible. It’s such a relief when they finally subside. I felt fresh and rejuvenated in the warmth of a new day with a clear head. After breakfast, we went down to the lakeside where we joined a boat with other tourist folk, heading out to visit the monasteries.

Along the edges of the lake grew papyrus grass, reminding me of my time living in Kisumu around Lake Victoria. Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and our skipper took us past this point where we were delighted to see the hippos bobbing about.

Hippo on Lake Tana
Hippo in Lake Tana

Lake Tana has 20 monasteries dating back to the 14th Century on its islands and peninsulas. We visited a small handful, each one beautifully decorated and sited within peaceful sanctuaries rich in nature, preserved thanks to the conservationist characteristics found in Orthodox Christianity. Speaking with my botanist Uncle later, he explained that it’s almost only around orthodox churches in Ethiopia where small pockets of conservation can be found. At large, much of the land has been stripped of its forests and the biodiversity has consequently shrivelled. The diversity of trees that once existed are only replaced by small patches of fast-growing eucalyptus trees, that may provide firewood to communities, but soak up their water reserves and erode the soil.

I digress. The monasteries were beautiful buildings with artwork rich in colour, depicting the biblical stories prominent in their oriental orthodox churches, which is considered one of the oldest strains of the Christian church. In the artwork, one story often found is of St. George, Ethiopia’s patron saint, slaying the dragon.

The outer building of the church is round with an arched structure supporting a thatched roof. On the inside of this lies the church building itself which is square. Heavy rugs line the floors with little by way of furniture. It’s common to see an ancient chest and African drums lying around. Inside each church, there is also an inner sanctuary that tourists cannot enter. Inside of these, there will be an ancient bible and legend has it that one of these monasteries housed the Ark of the Covenant for 800 years.

Back on dry land, we headed to a lakeside restaurant for the afternoon with a couple of chaps we met on the boat who were over from Uganda. The evening was a quiet one, sitting in a cafe playing cards.Monasteries of Lake Tana

Lake Tana’s monastic churchesMonasteries of Lake Tana

Meall a’ Bhuachaille

It was our last day in the Cairngorms. The mountain weather report looked bleak: frequent showers and the chances of a cloud free Munro below 20%. We woke in our wild camping spot by Loch Morlich, had breakfast then went for a swim, following the 1.5km route suggested by some swimmers we met the evening before. We entered from the beach by the cafe. At over 300m, this is the highest beach in the UK. The water was refreshing but cooler than the previous evening.Loch MorlichIn the afternoon we walked locally, following a suggested trail that took us from the loch up  Meall a’ Bhuachaille where we were promised one of the best views of the Cairngorms. But in keeping with the day’s weather, we were instead greeted with a deep mist, wind and rain. Somewhere near the summit, we passed a family of four, crouched on the wet, stony path having their picnic in the rain. Steadfast and red-cheeked children, possibly disappointed and confused by their parents choice of a family holiday.

On the descent towards Ryvoan Bothy, we practised pacing distances, partly for fun but also as part of Charlotte’s mountain leader training. Emerging out of the mist we found Ryvoan Bothy, a cosy, well-kept bothy with a fireplace and a troop of Sea Cadets having their lunch. We marched on, taking the Ryvoan Pass that led us past the tropical beaches of An Lochan Uaine. On a warmer day with time to spare, we would have hopped down to its shores. We would have hesitated to swim though, as Charlotte had read somewhere that the loch is full of leeches.An Lochan Uaine

We followed the Allt na Feithe Duibhe further through the woodland with its rain-soaked pines, taking a narrow path that led us on a high pass down the ravine to Glenmore Lodge. This was our last walk in the Cairngorms for now. I took some deep breaths, absorbed all the rich greens and shades of purple heather and thought how I’d love to come back here one day.

Along the narrow path to Glenmore Lodge Pines Map of route

Hiking Sgurr nan Gillean

I’m hoping for a light breeze to clear away the midges. That’s all it takes yet the air remains still and they hover in their millions outside our camper van at the Glen Brittle Campsite. There’s a sadistic type of pleasure in satisfying the itches but I try not to indulge. I feel sorry for the campers in their tents. Many people are wearing novelty head-nets. They look silly but I’m secretly envious of their midge-free faces. We’re keeping the van door closed as much as possible to shut them out. Before bed, we spend 15 minutes bashing the spotlights with dish towels. It seems to do the job.

After a breakfast of muesli and croissants, with a hot chocolate on the side, we are set for our hike up Sgurr nan Gillean. I run back just after we set off to grab some ibuprofen. I pulled something at the back of my neck a few days ago, possibly when attempting a handstand. It hurts when I move my head in certain directions. I must be getting old.

The hike has a steady start along a well-defined path. Two hours pass easily and we are now rising slowly. It’s fairly quiet on this mountain and over the six or so hours of this hike, we only come across three other couples and two solo walkers. All but one couple seem to be serious hikers. We pass a few small waterfalls along the path with crystal clear pools lined with large, smooth round pebbles tinted blue. They are very inviting.Sgurr nan GilleanThe mountain looms overhead and it’s tricky to pick out the route but it starts to become clearer. It appears there are several lines up. As the way becomes steeper we pass from grassy slopes to crag and rock. The guidebook recommends following the cairns but they are hard to spot from a distance. Charlotte spotted a dip in the South East ridge and we aimed for that. The weather is in our favour today. The tip of the mountain is clear and the way is sheltered from heavy winds. We’ve been told how quickly the weather can change along the Cuillin Ridge. One of Charlotte’s friends from the mountaineering club says he’s attempted the pass four times and failed due to bad weather conditions.Sgurr nan Gillean

The views from the South East ridge are spectacular. The landscape is barren with the Cullen Ridge casting a jagged dark line against the sky. Walking along the rocky ridge engages our hands as well our feet. I like this kind of hike. Reaching the summit requires small scrambles. The tough gabbro rock is grippy and is easy to ascend. We are treated to a clear view from the summit and we’re incredibly lucky to have good weather. Sensing that rain was not far away, we didn’t spend long on the top and started scrambling down. As predicted the rain did come, picking up for the last hour of the walk but our spirits were high, especially as we could see the finest whisky bar in Scotland in the distance.Sgurr nan GilleanIndeed, the pub offered an outstanding selection of whiskies however after such a walk, a beer was the more refreshing proposition. The Olympics were on in the background and at the bar, we noticed a poster advertising a storyteller for 9pm. So after a refreshing shower, we went back to the pub for fish & chips and gathered around George MacPherson, a softly spoken elder man with a decent beard, walking stick and kilt. He told us a selection of folklore from the Isle, that had been passed down orally through his family for many generations. Many stories featured fairies, or “little people” as he called them, as well as giants and terrifying-sounding water horses that emerged from the pools and kidnapped children. It was the perfect end to the day.

Glencoe Open Water Swim

Beautiful hillsides and mountains towered over the lightly misted loch as we pulled on our neoprene wetsuits. We were here for the five kilometre Glencoe swim. Due to patchy weather conditions on the days leading up to the event, the swim route had been simplified. Rather than looping around an island on Loch Leven, we did three legs of a circuit marked out by buoys, all just about visible from the shore. It was a little disappointing to have to swim circuits but we were so glad to be in such stunning surroundings.Glencoe Open Water SwimI was nervous as we jumped into the water. It was bracing, surprisingly salty and even a little choppy in one section. Swimmers were setting off at different times depending on their distance. We were the second of two groups that day swimming 5km and there was about 40 of us in the group; few enough to spread out so there were many quiet times in the waters. The sections were also long enough to feel a bit disorientated as I scanned the horizon for the next buoy to swim towards. Before long I fell into my rhythm and kept a constant pace up, breathing every three or four strokes. It took 1 hour 26 minutes to complete – a pleasant surprise as this was probably the furthest I had swam in one go. My training only took me to around 3km.Glencoe Open Water SwimOnce we had our flapjack and after-swim soup, we sat down in the hotel and looked up at the mountains. One was particularly distinct, marked by a big hump and called the Pap of Glencoe. Charlotte, always ready for the next challenge said “we should climb it”, settling our plans for the next day.

That evening we stopped into a recommended pub called the Craige for a beer and portion of chips, before heading back to our cosy AirBnB in Kinlochleven with its wood burning stove.

Wine Rides: a cycle tour of English vineyards

An account of my Wine Rides holiday. Most photos courtesy of Tom Chance, to whom I’m grateful.

Wine Rides Day I

I start the morning with a cycle from Sutton to Orpington which involves pedalling along A-roads and navigating around Croydon. This isn’t a relaxing start to a holiday but I am glad to be out and feel anticipation running through my calves as I embark on a weekend of cycling through beautiful countryside. From Orpington I take the train out to Wadhurst, a small market town in East Sussex where I meet the rest of my weekend troupe.

Wine Rides is a cycle touring holiday around English vineyards. It’s a novel idea, started by friends Hayley and her husband Alex. As someone who can easily get bored on beach holidays and city breaks, the idea of a cycle holiday with a purpose is perfect. My friends Tom and Rachel are here too and I’m happy to be able to enjoy some quality time with them.

There’s 11 of us on the tour. Three couples, four ladies and then me. At Wadhurst Station we offloaded our bags into a van that would go ahead to our first campsite. It’s great not to be weighed down with heavy loads. On Wine Rides, tents and food are all provided.

After a brief introduction to the trip, we were on the road, heading towards Carr Taylor vineyard, just north of Hastings. It’s a 23 mile ride and although it was fairly hilly, I loved the freedom of being out in the country, and felt surprise at how fit and energetic I felt. I could feel the endorphins whizzing around my body while the sun soaked into my arms and the back on my neck. We stopped at a pub for a picnic lunch, and later on, we passed by the town of Battle for an ice cream, before making it to our destination vineyard at 5pm.

Carr Taylor Vineyard

The Carr Taylor vineyard is 37 acres in size, and like many English vineyards, they grow a German grape variety which is suitable for our cool climate. They are one of the first commercial vineyards in England and their vines are 40 years old. We had a tour of the vines and equipment before heading in for a wine tasting.

It seems so simple but I didn’t make the connection that Cava, Champagne, Prosecco and Sparkling wine are really all the same thing; we’re just talking about place. Champagne has a protected georgraphical status under EU law. So Cava refers to “champagne” made in Spain (mostly Catalonia), prosecco is that made in Italy. For “champagne” made in England, we simply call it sparkling wine.

Carr Taylor does both sparkling and still wines. In recent years, they have been planting grape varieties suited to sparkling: Bacchus, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It seems to be the current trend for English vineyards.

David, tour guide, Carr Taylor Vineyard

David, our tour guide proudly explained to us that champagne was actually invented by an Englishman named Christopher Merret. However it was the work of French Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon who made the important contributions to the development of champagne as we know it. As David explained all this, I recalled a quote attributed to Pérignon, in which he said —”Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”— when tasting the first sparkling champagne. Wikipedia sadly spoils this story for me, as it informs me that this quote first appeared in a print advertisement in the late 19th century, so we don’t really know if Pérignon said these words in that magical moment.

2012 was a very tough year for farmers in the UK and our vineyards suffered too. Our tour guide David explained that the harvest was around a tenth of what they expected and as a result, the wine available now is very limited. Yet we still had various tastings, including white and rose sparklings, still white, and some of their meads, including ginger, cherry and prune.

The rules of wine tasting (according to David)

David taught us how to taste wine with three S’s: see, smell and slurp. He dismissed all the language associated with describing aromas as a load of codswallop. Why bother musing over the wine as having hints of burnt match, yoghurt or oak? In David’s opinion: “It’s either nice or nasty and you should stick with what you like. It’s as simple as that”. I get his point, but while I’m on a wine tasting tour, I quite fancied exploring the subtleties of taste and adding animation to my vocabulary of flavours. Even if I am talking complete codswallop.

Fine dining, fine views

Hayley and Alex had pitched our tents at the tops of the rows of vines. It was a beautiful position and in the evening we were treated to a delicious three course dinner, including local lamb and veg, and crumble. As the sunset, we gathered around the fire and finished our sparkling wines. I’ve never camped with such sophistication. A great day.

great-day

Day II – 25 miles to Sedlescombe Vineyard

Next morning, after porridge and bacon rolls we were back on the bikes, heading towards the cobbled streets of Rye. The route took us along the sea, where my pal Tom harvested from the abundant kale that grows out the rocks:

kale

sea-ride

Rye is a quaint old town with plenty of antique shops, galleries and cafes. I would love to come back here again and spend some more time strolling around. The site of the old grammar school is now a fantastic record shop, which I spent far too little time in, given my love of records.

grammar-school

Sedlescombe Vineyard

After a good lunch in Rye, we continued onwards to our final destination, Sedlescombe, a biodynamic vineyard. With it’s woodland trail and a quiet walk into the nearby fields before dinner, I felt more tranquil here. The biodynamic aspect is worth mentioning. When I describe biodynamic agriculture to people, I usually say it’s like organic growing, with a few extra bits thrown in. Some of the quirkier practices include filling cow horns with manure, burying them for a year, and then spreading them onto the field with such sparsity that it’s “like homeopathic medicine”. This is a bit too wacky for me but I am down with the composting and emphasis biodynamic practice places on encouraging microbiological activity in the soil to improve fertility. As an advocate of organic agriculture, understanding that the wine I am drinking is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides makes me much more comfortable, allowing me to enjoy the taste and experience even more.

Roy & Irma Cook started out in 1979 and have expanded the vineyard to 23 acres. We spent an enjoyable time with Irma tasting the wines. It was exciting to try their red wine (most English vineyards concentrate on making white) however I did prefer the white and sparkling. Another thing I liked about Seddlecombe was the tasting room.

tom-taste

The last leg

That evening we were treated to another superb homemade meal that included beetroot soup, fish pie and asparagus, followed by chocolate brownies. As the full moon peaked out from the clouds, the vineyard illuminated, and a bag of marshmallows were passed around. We’re in a good place now.

moon-vinyard

The following morning was a light 17 mile cycle, with few hills back to Wadhurst. We took rest along the way in a pub where we said goodbyes to our fellow cyclists. I’ve had a absolutely wonderful weekend, with lots of space to think and good conversations. Now, I’m ready to return home and get some Sunday night rest before embracing the week to come.

Only love wins: overcoming discrimination in Israel

The Arab Association for Human Rights (AAHR) is an NGO founded in 1988 by lawyers and community activists, working to promote and protect the rights of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, which constitutes around 20% of the population of the state. The meeting with AAHR was the last on my trip and they painted a very coherent and informative overview of the discrimination and injustice embedded in Israeli law.

The central theme of the meeting was exploring the meaning of citizenship. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence asserts equal citizenship for all its citizens without discrimination on the basis of nationality, religion or gender, Israel explicitly identifies itself as a Jewish state. This is where the difficulties for equality start to unfold for the 20% of the population that are non-Jewish and face discrimination and regular violations of their human rights as defined under International Law.

AAHR collect vast amounts of evidence to log this discrimination, and highlight unjust laws through reports, fact sheets and in-depth testimonies. AAHR summarise the discrimination that exists into four categories:

  1. Legal – Direct – Discrimination: for example, “The Citizenship and Entry into Israel” law: for Jewish citizens, marrying a foreign person means that the spouse gets a temporary residence permit and full citizenship automatically – but this is prohibited to the Arab citizen. For exploring the legal discrimination further, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel keeps a detailed database of discriminatory laws.
  2. Indirect – Covert – Discrimination: for example: whilst military service is technically compulsory for all citizens, by discretion the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs (90%) are not required to serve; whereas the majority of people who identify as Jewish do. As a consequence, Palestinian Arabs do not receive the wide range of benefits that service provides, including larger mortgages, partial exemptions from course fees, and preferences for public employment and housing.
  3. Institutional – Policy – Discrimination: this is expressed through disproportionate Budgets & Resource Allocation and Uneven Implementation of the Law. For example, although land confiscation laws apply to both Jewish and Arab people, they are predominately implemented on Arab families as shown by the vast number of housing demolitions. With the Budget Law, which governs state funds, it does not specify what proportion should be earmarked for minorities. Due to their lack of representation in government offices, Palestinian Arabs receive substantially less funding for services, such as local government budgets (usually 50% less), and have less resources allocated for welfare budgets, school facilities or other education programmes.
  4. Discrimination in the Public Sphere: this refers to the discrimination on the ground, such as name calling, sneering and spitting. It’s acknowledged that this type of detestable discrimination exists for all groups, regardless of whether they are a minority or majority.

The legal and institutionalised evidence of discrimination calls into question Israel’s commonly cited status as a democracy. Definitions of democracy typically refer to a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally — either directly or indirectly through elected representatives — in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. The key word here is “equally”. There are many “eligible citizens” in Israel, but many that are unable to participate equally, because of having a non-Jewish status. The legal and institutional discrimination can be fixed with amendments to law. But what about indirect discrimination and that in the public sphere?

I’ve spent the last 10 days listening to endless stories of this discrimination. It’s been upsetting and frustrating. Where does one begin in exploring what can be done about it? Understanding public opinion is an interesting place to start. In September 2012 the Dialog polling centre took a poll of 503 Jewish Israelis in Tel Aviv. Some of the findings found:

  • 33% of Israeli Jews favor legally blocking Israeli Arab citizens from voting for the Knesset (59% against)
  • 59% are for official preference to be given to Jews for government positions (34% against)
  • 42% do not want an Arab family as neighbors in their building (53% do not care)
  • 58% of Jewish Israelis accepts the application of the term ‘apartheid’ to the current state of affairs in Israel (11% don’t know).

I’m told this survey generated some level of introspection for people in Israel. It demonstrates that we aren’t dealing with a political elite that lacks compassion. Discrimination has become deeply embedded into parts of society and is somehow being rationalised.

Without many Israeli reference points on my journey, I kept thinking back to the meeting I had with settler, Ardie Geldman. Geldman didn’t deny the existence of discrimination, but he downplayed it and tried to cast doubt in my mind of its existence, particularly through his “points of light” (positive stories of relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians). You also witness this sort of discourse in far-right journalists such as Earl Cox, who characterise Israel as the compassionate, conscientious givers, and Palestinians as the ungrateful, violent oppressors; an aside observation in his writing is that Palestinians and Hamas seem to be equal, interchangeable words. I don’t think that’s fair.

Let’s go back to Ardie Geldman. From our meeting, it felt that he views discrimination as an unfortunate but necessary consequence to the formation of Israel and he will therefore not only tolerate it, but support it. Islamic extremism coupled with retaliation through direct protests only serve to solidify Israel’s position, fuelling more arms, tighter security and justification of big separation walls.

I write only about what I observe and I understand how sensitive people are over this topic. A common trolling reaction involves the justification of discrimination or unjust actions by pointing a finger to the other side and saying: “but they do it too, and worse!” A mature viewpoint must move on from this point scoring and blame game. Retribution by conflict and punishment fuels the fire. We need a new language of compassion and a genuine desire for peace. I believe this is bubbling under the surface, ready to burst forth into the hearts and minds of people. Change can happen. Another way is possible.

As I write, particularly about Israel, I feel it’s worth being clear that my criticism is always against the policies and actions of the state or particular individuals, and not ethnic or religious groups, whether they be Jewish or non-Jewish. In searching for understanding and positive ways to respond to discrimination, I have been inspired by so many groups such as AAHR, Tent of Nations and the Holy Land Trust. Through them, I have learnt that on each side of the walls there are innocent people – elderly folks, mothers, fathers, teachers, nurses, engineers, farmers and children, who do not deserve to grow up with this conflict. They crave peace, yet conflict is all they know. Sometimes I feel like peace could be so close, so easy to implement, if only we could grasp the threads that connect us together as humans; threads of community, kinship, belonging and solidarity. Yet this has often felt so distant.

The history of Israel has so far been defined by a spiral of discrimination, violence, that only fuels more discrimination, more violence. This can end in two ways. One ending is ugly where nobody wins. The other ending is a celebration of how love overcame conflict and fear. It’s only love that can break the cycle, giving freedom and allowing everybody to win. We can only start this journey to peace when we have the audacity to come to the table, ready to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be honest and ready for a peaceful revolution.

Sketches of Israel/Palestine: Bethlehem to Nablus via The Dead Sea

Travelling towards the Dead Sea from Bethlehem, we are dropping in altitude. We stop at Sea Level point along the Judean River. The landscape has slowly shifted from green to an arid, dry desert landscape with very few trees. Some shrubs exist and you can see how grass grows in the areas that receive more shade. It reminds me of Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert work in Jordan and I think about what it would take to bring trees to some of these hills, return moisture to the earth and bring resilience and new opportunities to the region. But this is fantasy. There are many other priorities on this land, other than creating gardens in the desert.

sea-level-point

We descend further to 427m below sea level to the Dead Sea. A salty, lifeless lake that’s fed by the Jordan River. Reduced rainfall and inflow is causing the Dead Sea to shrink significantly. The water is also being used to make salts which may be adding to environmental degradation. Our guide tells us that there’s a proposed project to pull water into the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, 350km to the south.

deadsea_1972-2011
The Dead Sea (1972, 1989, and 2011), NASA Earth Observatory 2012 (web source)

I remember my Mum telling me about the Dead Sea when I was growing up and I was so excited to finally have a chance to float in it. The water felt oily and warmer with depth, rather than colder. We had fun floating around and covered ourselves in the dark brown, smooth clay. It felt very therapeutic.

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After showering off, we were back on the road. The desert brown fading away to become green again as we entered Jericho, supposedly one of the oldest cities in the world with evidence of habitation 10,000 years ago, at a time when the methods of food production were shifting to support urbanisation. We spent a moment by a grand old sycamore tree, “considered” (or rather chosen to symbolise) to be the one Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed to get a better view of Jesus.

Zacchaeus's sycamore tree

Later on, not far from Nablus, we went to a beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery that is built over the site of Jacob’s Well. This is where, in the Book of John, a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman took place.

Jacob's Well

Jacob’s Well - ceiling

Later we met Rev’d Ibrahim from the Church of St Philip. Christians are very much a minority in Nablus and Father Ibrahim shared some inspiring stories of his positive relationships with Muslim leaders in the community, whom he has regular dialogue with. He striked me as a resilient, brave character, full of compassion with a strong desire for peace.

Sketches of Israel/Palestine: Checkpoint 300

It’s 4.30am and I’m in a car park next to checkpoint 300. The wall that overshadows us was erected in 2004 and is considered illegal under international law. It sits 2km within Palestinian territories, as marked by the green line. This checkpoint is the gateway that Palestinians living in Bethlehem must pass through each morning to get to their jobs in Jerusalem. You can only pass through if you have a permit.

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Work permits are applied for by the employer. Some Palestinians have already travelled for an hour to reach the checkpoint. As they get out of buses and taxis, commuters walk briskly, some running, towards the queue, hoping to get a good place. The first queue is called the cage, a dark fenced passageway alongside the wall that leads to turnstiles.

Some Palestinians eager to get to work on time will pass alongside the cage to a point where they can climb over the fence, bypassing some of the queue. No one seems to complain, the atmosphere is civil. This has been a daily routine for many locals and a mini economy has built up around the queue, people selling coffee and breakfast snacks. This first queue takes around 40 minutes.

checkpoint300-wall-queue

As International’s, we can bypass most of the queue, avoiding the crush that’s developing in the cage. We are accompanied by EAPPI volunteers who are there daily  to provide a protective presence and monitor travel-through times and numbers. Between 4,000-6,000 Palestinians are passing through this particular checkpoint each morning. The Humanitarian Line we join is meant to open at 5am. This line is for over 50s, women, children, students and those with medical conditions. EAPPI tell me that it’s rarely open and we ring the helpline to find out what’s happening.

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The EAPPI volunteer is having difficulties communicating with the person on the other end of the phone, but eventually around 5.30am the line opens. We pass across a car park to enter another queue that leads us into a big warehouse. We pass through more security, metal detectors and scanners. I set off an alarm so I must remove my coat and belt.

The Israeli guards are young, they look barely 18. They seem grumpy and I’m told they can be quite unpredictable. Palestinians are easily turned away if there’s any confusion over their work permits. We see a few heated discussions and one person getting turned away, but it’s not clear on the circumstances.

The process of passing through this checkpoint could easily be designed to be quicker. Inside the checkpoint, there are just two booths in use to check-through Palestinians. EAPPI say sometimes it’s just one, but can be up to four. Yet there are 12 booths that could potentially be used. Surely with several thousand eager commuters wanting to get to work, and given that check-through times take at least 2 hours, it would make sense to open some more booths? Could the delay be deliberate? I think back to my life in London and the incredible effort that goes into designing a smooth, reliable transport system to keep millions of commuters moving through the city. Why? Because inefficient transport systems are not only frustrating and disruptive to our own lives, but they cost businesses and prevent our economy from reaching its full potential.

So what’s happening at this checkpoint? Are they being terribly inefficient, deliberately mean, or is it an exercise in power and control? It’s upsetting to see it so poorly run. It’s big, ugly, inefficient and degrading. Why should thousands of innocent commuters have to get up in the early hours to stand in the dark, everyday, squashed in a cage like sardines? Such a life will test your patience. Such a life requires discipline. How these walls must provoke outbursts of anger, stoking the flames for more violence and fear. The wall is a lazy safety mechanism. Punishing the crowd for the acts of a few.

As I finally walk away from the checkpoint, I feel so grateful for the freedoms I have, and so helpless over the things I cannot change. I find it difficult to imagine a life where my freedom of movement is so restricted, overshadowed by a force that watches with distrust my every move. So many people live a life like this, bound under the occupation of someone else. This short film literally brings it home, giving a sense of challenges of life in the occupied territories of Palestine:

Sketches of Israel/Palestine Part I: Settlers

One of the first meetings on my trip to Israel/Palestine was with Ardie Geldman, an Israeli settler that lives on the Efrat settlement, south of Jerusalem. Ardie is originally from Chicago, Illinois and made aliyah to Jerusalem with his wife in 1982. He has six children and works as a fundraiser. Searching for his name online brings up various blog posts from people that have visited him, in hope of hearing “a settler’s viewpoint”. Ardie welcomes many overseas groups into his home and over time he has ended up engaging almost exclusively with groups that sympathise with Palestinians. He has written extensively about these experiences and his story was an important narrative for us to hear on our journey.

Ardie warmly welcomed us into his home. After a brief introduction, I asked Ardie what motivated his move to Israel. In short, he explained that in his early 20s, following the death of his father he started going to his local synagogue and found himself drawn to his Jewish faith and heritage. This developed during his college years and eventually, he felt it was clear that moving to Israel would be one of the ultimate fulfilments of his faith. The Jewish passage towards Jerusalem, aliyah, is based on a biblical narrative that this is the fulfilment of God’s promise to the descendants of the Hebrew patriarchs. The importance of living in Israel is also written in the writings of the Talmud.

Now, one thing that was clear from the start of our meeting: Ardie insisted that nothing we would say would change his views. He says he has heard all ‘the questions’ before and can respond to them all. With that said, the terms of our meeting were clear and that it was naive to believe that his heart or mind would be changed!

So we talked and before long, the inevitable questions about the treatment of Palestinians were discussed. The atmosphere became tenser and more emotionally charged. I felt there were three threads of dialogue that Ardie raised in response to questions from our group:

1) A dispute about the levels of oppression: Ardie suggested that Palestinians are not oppressed. One argument for this, he said, was that many live good lives and drive expensive cars, so how can we call that oppression? To further endorse this narrative, he referred us to his “Points of Light”, which are a collection of case studies on his website of positive Jewish and Palestinian collaboration and support. His argument that followed was that the activities that appear to us as oppression, are rather justified responses to evil acts and continued threats to the safety and security of Jewish Israelis.

2) His right to the land: which is based on both a biblical and historical argument.

3) That Palestinians have had plenty of opportunities to strike peace deals with Israel, but have not been willing to negotiate.

It’s with such claims that we enter the endless dialogue of debate and arguments, accusations, denials and justifications that have troubled this land for so many years. I’m walking into the middle of an emotional, long-standing dispute and I’m starting to wonder if my presence is welcome. Yet I’m here. To learn, to listen, to observe.

Ardie said he was frustrated that Israel attracted so much international attention. He suggested it was disproportionate and he asked why groups like ours were not visiting countries such as Syria and China, where there are much more serious abuses of human rights. He said he wants to see protest groups spread out a bit, as Israel attracts a disproportionate amount of attention. I was surprised that he felt this and I pointed out that myself and other members of our group do care passionately about other injustices happening in the world.

I thought about how Ardie’s entire adult life has been centred around the creation and advancement of Israel, something he considers an astonishing miracle in itself. As one of the early settlers in his community, he has helped Erfrata to mature into a neighbourhood. As we drove through the clean, beautifully maintained suburban streets, lined with colourful shrubs and olive trees, I could believe there was the strong sense of community that Ardie described. A community where neighbours support each other and find connection through their different journeys and shared beliefs. A more connected community is usually a healthier community. Perhaps one that’s motivated by a shared purpose suffers less from the social problems endemic in other communities such as alcohol abuse and petty crime? I thought about Ardie’s family and home: a Beatles Songbook balanced on the piano, a neighbourhood he has invested his entire life into cultivating. He would never want to give this up. Whether the arguments are rational or irrational, straight or skewed, Ardie would always justify his rights to live on the Efrat settlement. A justification that has come at great cost to Palestinians.

Yet what life is this? These settlements are encircled by heavy-duty security. Fencing, guards and imposing walls. On the inside, people must feel a great sense of safety and comfort. Yet I wonder what other feelings brew. How do children feel growing up with the wall? What do they feel about those on “the other side”? What are they told? The wall is both a comfort and a huge barrier to finding peace and connection with the wider community.

As I write this, I google Ardie again and find his Facebook page, where he recently shared this blog piece by an ex-Israeli soldier who was stationed in the West Bank. The blogger describes how he sat in disbelief during a lecture by the NGO Breaking the Silence, which was full of lies and misinformation, aimed at instilling hostility towards Israel. That blogger was once a soldier and felt that “Israel’s concern for the welfare of the Palestinians was impressive, and he was proud to be part of it”. This is an example of the narrative Ardie wants to tell. That the Palestinians’ human rights movement misinforms its audiences and instils a hostility towards Israel. He is trying to present a different Israel, one that has moral fibre and fully rational, justified responses.

As I read that blog piece, I then thought of a story which I heard on the podcast, This American Life (Episode 493: Picture Show). It’s a story about Israeli soldiers that were ordered to go through the streets, routinely waking up Palestinian families in the middle of the night to take photos and ask questions. A routine exercise they called mapping. The soldier in this story explains that the exercise wasn’t really about mapping (he was ordered to throw the data away straight afterwards), rather it was about maintaining power, intimidation and control over the Palestinian population of that town.

These are just a couple of stories to highlight how easy it is to find dialogues that present two utterly different perspectives on this land. In meeting Ardie, I understood that our purpose was not about changing each other’s beliefs, it was only to learn and understand more about this complex land. However I did have hopes that I would witness some signs of a genuine compassion towards Palestinians. Perhaps an admission that human rights abuses are really happening to thousands of innocent people every day and that this is unacceptable. I hoped to witness a genuine desire for a peaceful future. I was drawn to Ardie. He was warm, friendly and welcoming. Yet I found the experience uncomfortable, because I couldn’t find that hope I was looking for.

Kitengela glass

For my last day in Kenya I headed to Kitengela glass, a quirky art site in the middle of some dusty open plains south of Nairobi. Dotted along the driveway are statues popping over the stone walls, a few camels and some gloriously fat pigs. We walked into the main glass blowing house, a sort of gothic cathedral shaped like the head of a bullet. Gigantic furnaces blazed away as we watched glass-blowers skilfully shape glowing molten glass into wine glasses and flutes.

Kitengela-glass-4

Walking further around we found an assortment of workshops buried amongst a web of pathways and giant cacti. Workspaces for jewellery makers, stained glass windows, painters, lamps and furniture makers. Everything is recycled. You find old car tyres embedded into the walkways, tusker cans opened out acting as clothing to statues made from scrap metal and old car parts. There’s so much to look at, it’s almost overwhelming. It helps to stay in one place for five minutes, and slowing gaze around in a circle, sweeping high and low as you will keep finding more artistic creations.

I ended up buying a healthy supply of wine glasses, each one having it’s own slightly wonky personality. Now I need to find a nice kitchen to put them in.

Kitengela-glass-2

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L’Esparance, Rwanda

Soon Rwanda may be a country with no orphans. A claim the government will make once it has completed a programme that will close all the orphanages and relocate the children into the homes of relatives.

In theory, having children living with families rather than in institutions seems a good move but in practice, is this transition feasible for the children in Rwanda’s orphanages? A friend told me that closures of some orphanages were attempted a few years ago by the government. Children were placed in the homes of relatives however many ended up abused and put to hard work. Some of these children escaped from their families and ended up on the street. It’s clear that managing a transition effectively needs careful planning and a strong network of social workers, something Rwanda does not have.

Children at L'Esparance

I recently spend 10 days at L’Esparance, an inspiring orphanage that has 127 children and has operated since the end of the civil war and genocide in 1994. L’Esparance is set in the beautiful hilltops overlooking Lake Kivu and has attracted visitors from all over the world. Victor, the director of the orphanage is warm, welcoming and hospitable. During the last year, he has had just 6 nights alone in his house. There is a constant stream of visitors coming to help, including engineers, teachers and social workers. People come because it’s an inspiring place in a beautiful setting. The children go to the local schools and take part in a number of daily activities. The orphanage has two choirs, performing original songs with two albums under their belt.

choir

There’s another reason people visit L’Esparance. It has ambitions to be the first financially independent orphanage in the world. But of course, with the government’s recent proposals, it will no longer be an orphanage. So what happens next? Already one of the largest fruit production facilities in the country, the plan is to transition into a social business. There are plans for an eco-lodge for tourists as well as many other smaller spin-off businesses. One innovation is organic dried fruit production for the export market. And what about the kids. Well, with no children being allowed to stay in institutions, the plan is that all the profits will continue to support the children, funding their education to university level.

pinapples

I left L’Esparance with hope weighed with an uncomfortable uncertainty for those children. This reflected with my feelings for Rwanda in general, where the horrors of 18 years ago ripple into the next generation. Since 1994, progress has been astonishing. Hard work, clear vision and business innovation have helped transform many aspects of the country. Despite what fragile hearts have achieved, fragile hearts still remain, and always will. Progress will be messy and some parts of it will be wrong. It will not be easy, but there’s hope.

Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha

Notes from a weekend trip to Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha, November 2011. 

On Saturday we awoke at sunrise and cycled from Fisherman’s Camp to the park, through rolling hills past the enormous, intensive, under-cover, flower farms. It was roughly 12km to the park and we entered through the Ol Karia gate where there lies an expansive network of geothermal wells and pipework, supposedly providing 25% of Kenya’s power. Geysers send rockets of steam into the sky; so dramatic against the misty, chilled air. It’s a spectacular landscape, with acrid smells of sulphur and reservoirs of blue-tinted water.382970_832307509157_929081285_nHell's GateShortly after, while we cycled, we had a treated to an incredible moment. A giraffe leapt out from the side of the track, right in front of us. It then ran ahead before crossing to the other side of the road.

We eventually came to the Lower Gorge, hopped off our bikes and hired a guide who took us down into the beautiful gorge for two hours. This is the main attraction of the park and you walk between magnificent cliffs, scrambling over rocks, where hot and cold water springs seep through the rocks. Up in the cliffs are small caves where baboons retreat to sleep at night. Our guide excitedly told us that this was the spot Tomb Raider II was filmed.Walking through Hell's Gate379035_832312129897_1623744932_nWe finished the hike with a short climb to a viewpoint where we could see the Central Tower rising out of the valley.391919_832312613927_1796180444_nAs we cycled out of the park, we passed zebras, bucks and gazelles, and Fischer’s Tower, a 75ft volcanic plug that sticks out like a sore thumb in the landscape. In local Maasai circles, the story goes that the tower formed when a girl disobeyed her family before her wedding – she was turned to stone. A warning that’s surely frightened many young girls.

There was an option to climb it, but feeling tired and hungry, we peddled on, leaving the park through Elsa Gate to cycle back to the camp.

In the afternoon we headed to Crater Lake via a smaller nearby lake where there were thousands of flamingos. We had a pleasant walk through the park, getting a little lost before finding the lake. We saw  Colobus monkeys in the trees and various grazing animals. No Rhinos, however being on foot, this was certainly for the best.Flamingos on Lake NaivashaIn the evening we made a campfire and celebrated the remaining hours of Trever’s birthday.

Roses, DIY turbines and bumpy roads

A few shots from a road trip from Nairobi to my new home in Kisumu, West Kenya. We bumped through the beautiful Rift Valley visiting various places along the way. First stop was a gentleman named Robert who had invited us for lunch. He kindly served me my first Kenyan meal consisting of kuku (chicken), rice, ugali and sukuma wiki (kale), a meal that has now become very familiar.

Robert works in the flower industry, a big industry out here that supplies European markets. The manager proudly gave us a tour of the whole operation, from nursery to storage. Water is pumped from a nearby river and with a special recipe of fertilisers, they are able to produce 45,000 roses per day. We saw lots of potential for environmental and energy efficiency improvements, however as my friend put it, it’s a bit like “pissing in the ocean”. The wider supply chain of this operation involves flying in growing medium from India, heavy use of carbon intensive and ecologically destructive fertislisers, and the downstream emissions from flying the flowers over to Europe for further distribution in lorries. It’s nuts. The only good thing about this operation is the jobs it provides, however the pay is low and workers do 8 hour days, 6 days per week for a minimal pay. I’m not feeling very romantic over these roses.

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Not long after being pulled over for a third time at a police checkpoint, we met with Mze Daivd, an inspiring inventor and electrician. Harrison, my colleague had met him some weeks earlier after spotting some wind turbines from the side of the road.

turbine

Without access to any guides or the internet, he was experimenting with different designs. With limited resources and people to help him, he was doing magnificently. He enthusiastically showed us his work, climbing up and down the turbine shafts and talking at length about his design challenges in building cheap turbines out of local materials. My trusty colleague, Doctor Sam provided some suggestions and we agreed to talk again in the future.
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