Wednesday, 3 January 2007


When I was young I had a map of the world fixed to my bedroom wall. Little old England was just a small smudge up there off the north coast of Europe. My holidays then were just a 90km hop down to the Isle of Wight for two weeks of buckets, spades and sandcastles at a caravan park. Hell my parents didn't even have a car until I was 13 years old. David Attenborough, and the like, would appear on the telly in some far away, exotic, and lush middle of nowhere place, and I would scour the map to find Borneo, New Guinea or Ankor Wat on my modest map. The bug had hit.

I remember the excitement of my first trip abroad back in 1976, on a school trip to Paris, France. Another country, a different language, weird food (what did you need to do to an artichoke to eat it?). I knew I had to travel as much as I could.

I am now 42, about to give up a lucrative job and travel for a year to South America. No ticket purchased yet, house not yet let out, but the job part is now closing. My dream of an extended period of travel, adventure and discovery will now happen. If this is my mid life crisis I love it!

It is as if I have been practising for a long while to arrive at this moment. My previous trips have just been for just two or three weeks at a time. During these trips I would meet others who had no time constraints and very often did not even know where they were going next. I was totally envious.

So where have I been so far? How have I rehearsed this next big step?

1986 Europe Interailing (yep that what students of my day did, the gap year was not yet invented). The highlight was crossing the Iron Curtain from Austria to Communist Eastern bloc Hungary, and spending a few days sleeping in an old lady's cabbage smelling flat in downtown Budapest (sure her pet budgie was called Brezhnev).

1988 Yugoslavia (the bits now known as Croatia and Slovenia). Wonderful untouched landscapes and seascapes.

1989 Again Europe Interailing, but with the add on of East Berlin and Prague (this was just six months prior to the Berlin Wall tumbling). Maybe these two trips to the "forbidden" Eastern Europe, almost devoid of other tourists, planted the desire to go to places most others would not dare to set foot in.

1990 Egypt - Massive interest now developed for ancient civilisations and their relics, together with great fondness for the people and culture of the Middle East.

1991 Israel and the West Bank. Jerusalem mmm you can feel a spirituality there., and in Hebron the political tension that unfortunately still is a feature of that holy land.

1992 The old of US of A. Totally mind numbing landscapes of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the red rocks of the Colorado plateau, together with San Francisco and LA.

1993 Syria and Jordon. Wonderful Damascus, the ancient cities of Petra, Palmyra and Jerash. Forget the political sensitivities, Syria is a fantastic destination for those interested in history and Islamic culture.

1994 Sam Culley born in Brussels, Belgium. From 1991 to 1996 I lived and worked in Belgium. My job required frequent trips to all parts of Europe, so have spent time in most European countries (sorry Poland and Albania I promise to tick you off the list sometime soon).

1995 Tunisia. A totally awful package holiday at a non-descript beach resort. Made the mistake of taking with me the Lonely Planet guide to the 3 Maghreb countries, and quickly realised I wanted to be in Morocco.

1998 Morocco and Iceland. See how for me one place leads to another! This was my first solo trip. I remember sitting at the back of that plane at Manchester airport listening to the engines roar into life thinking heck this is it, there's no chickenning out now. Morocco is definitely one of my favourite places on the globe. The landscape combinations of the snow capped Atlas mountains, with rolling seas of sand down in the oasis dotted Sahara was magical. In the souqs of Fes and Marrakech time had stood still, a living children's illustrated bible.

Iceland is another wow landscape destination and still a definite favourite on that hit parade. The power of nature at her rawest is to be witnessed here. Fire and ice is the descriptive cliche, but totally accurate.

1999 Romania and India. The trip in August '99 to Romania was my first abroad with Sam, then just five years of age. The reason for the trip was to stand for four minutes in the shadow of the moon, during Europe's total eclipse of the sun. It was surreal gazing at a darkened sky with a 360 degree sunset glow all around, with the sun's ghostly white corona dancing around the jet black disk of the moon.

India was totally different from anywhere I had visited previously. The heat, the pungent smells, and the crowded chaos of the place are the lingering memories. The top place (Taj Mahal aside) was the holy Hindu city of Varanassi, observing the dignified yet disorganised ceremonies to burn the bodies of the recently departed on the ghats of the Ganges.

2001 Istanbul. East meets wests in this wonderful bustling city which reminded me much of Rome with it's combination of deep antiquity and modernity. The Aya Sofia is surely one of the world's most atmospheric buildings.

2002 Peru and Turkey. Peru saw my first footsteps in the southern hemisphere, and my first in South America. With just two weeks I based myself in Cusco, the former Incan capital, and down at Lake Titicaca. Cusco and the the nearby Sacred Inca Valley were quite beautiful. The Inca Trail trek a stunning four day hike with "luxury" camping each night, is surely the best way to discover for yourself the lost city of Machu Pichu. I am really looking forward to going back to Peru to experience the many other wonderful sights and experiences on offer there.

Following a work conference in Istanbul I took a weeks trip to Cappadocia (with the heads at Nemrut Dagi added in). The landscapes around Goreme were unbelievable. Those phallic rock formations need to be seen to be believed.

2003 Vietnam and Cambodia I had no yet been to the backpackers paradise of South East Asia, but where to go? Not many go to Vietnam, so I checked it out, and it sounded precisely what I was looking for and it could be combined with a visit to the Ankor temples in Cambodia. Northern Vietnam was a delight. Hanoi, still relatively undeveloped and teeming with people, bikes and scooters, was just as I imagined SE Asia to be. This combined with the limestone islets of Halong Bay and the indigenous tribes of the north made Vietnam and real find. Ankor, what can I say, it is, still, for me the most spectacular man made sight on this planet. A lost city and civilisation, set in lush jungle; a boys own dream of what such a place should look like.

2004 Morocco and Indonesia (Sulawesi) It was now time for me to start to go a little further with my now ten year old son, Sam. Previously we had taken trips Lyme Regis, Dorset (to find fossils), Rome and Naples (gladiators and volcanoes), Paris and Brussels (Disneyland and to revisit the city of his birth). It was now time to spread his wings a little further, for I think his own wanderlust had been ignited. So I chose to do something I do not frequently do, revisit a place I have already been. So back to Morocco. We loved it. Snake charmers in Marrakech, sleeping in Berber tents in the Chicaga dunes in the Sahara, and exploring crumbling kasbahs in the Atlas mountains.

An interest I didn't know I had was sparked when I had visited the Sapa area of northern Vietnam. It was tribal or indigenous people who had maintained their traditions and culture. I was planning to visit Tibet but the ongoing disaster that is Iraq caused all flights to Kathmandu to be suspended, so Tibet was not yet meant to be. I had always wanted to go to Indonesia, so had bought a copy of the Lonely Planet. Reading through it, I was captured by the Tana Toraja area of Sulawesi, and in particular the houses architecture and the peoples elaborate funeral ceremonies. So when Tibet was off it was to Sulawesi I headed. I am so glad I did. Traditional people combining christianity with old customs and beliefs, in wonderful lush green monutains of central Sulawesi. I spent just over a week treking from village to village, sleeping in their marvellous homes, and having the privilege of attending a number of funeral ceremonies. I spent another week on the island of Bunaken, off Sulawesi's northern arm. There I opted to learn to dive and found another world to explore. Seeing sharks, turtles, giant clams and the multitude of colourful corals was pure bliss. This together with my close encounter with the rare Black Macaque monkeys was a wildlife documentry come real.

2005 Sri Lanka and Indonesia (Papua) In 2oo4 Sam had to study had for his secondary school entrance exam and the reward for all his hard work (he passed!) was our trip to sub tropical paradise Sri Lanka. What a perfect island in the sun, populated by the most friendly people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Our trip was just 4 months after the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, so tourist numbers had plummeted and the tourist economy was in desperate need of visitors. Irrespective of this we were greeted with smiling faces in all the areas we visited. Starting in Kandy, where heavy drumming accompanied the daily ceremonies at the Bhudha's Temple of the Tooth, we moved north to Siguriya and Pollonawara, staying in small family run hotels. Then it was on to the highland tea growing area around Haputale, and then down to Yala national park, with the hope of spotting a Leopard (no such luck!). The highlight for us both though was the elephants. What mighty gentle creatures they are.

My interest in traditional cultures as yet only minimally touched and effected by our modern world, led me back to Indonesia, this time the western half of the island of New Guinea; Papua. The journey here was long. Even from Bali it was a six hour overnight flight to the capital Jayapura. There I picked up my permit to visit the highland areas (yes this another part of the world suffering external occupation and the Indonesian police control tightly personal movement, some areas being off limits due to freedom fighters being active). Very few visitors come to this very remote corner of our world. I shared my plane with Christian missionaries and workers from the world's largest gold mine, the Freeport mine (the reason why Indonesia will not let go of Papua). With the help of local Papuans I secured my permit and got my ticket for the hour long prop flight into the jungle clad interior. My destination was the highland Baliem valley, only discovered by westerners fifty years ago. Until this "first contact" the Dani, Lani and other tribes of this enchanted valley used only stone as the material for their tools. I had timed my visit to coincide with the two day Baliem festival, during which the tribes come together to dance and mock fight together. I had timed it just right, having landed in Wamena and booked into the small hotel, locals took me to get on a mini bus heading for the festival site. At the site undeneath towering limestone cliffs I was greeted by hundreds of men in full war paint, feather headresses, wearing just their traditional penis gourds and carrying massive spears. Were there cannibals here? Perhaps.!

I had three weeks in all in Papua, and after the festival I joined others to trek out to villages, sleeping in family huts along the way. Boy it was muddy, my boots were caked. Perhaps I should have followed the villagers example of going everywhere barefooted. In my third week I flew over to the island of Biak, spending my time exploring the jungle, diving and snorkelling the neighbouring reefs, and viewing the remains of one of the biggest battles of the Pacific in World War Two. A very different destination. Bring on more of the same I says.

2006 Guatemala and Tibet During my trek in Sulawesi I met a Spanish girl who had been to Guatemala, unfortunately she had not enjoyed her time there. I had already done a little net research on Central America, and was most interested in Costa Rica because of it's biodiversity and volcanoes. However I quickly went off the idea of Costa Rica when I learned of over crowding in the national parks, while simultaneously reading that Guatemala was the best place in that region, yet was still "off the beaten track" for most folks. I also knew that the best time to visit Guatemala was at Easter, coinciding with the Semana Santa (Holy week) processions in Antigua. So I booked the airline ticket for me and Sam to head over. I am so glad I did. Thank you Guatemala for two fantastic weeks. The first week was spent in and around Antigua. The processions we were able to witness and even to a degree take part in were glorious. Antigua, with it's old colonial charm, cobbled streets and earthquake ruined churches, nestled under three volcanoes, was a lovely place to base ourselves, and boy did this quaint town come alive for Easter. Everyone mucks in for Semana Santa. It was so nice to see Guatemalan families enjoying their big week of celebrations, and the residents preparing the flower carpets outside their homes. Also during this first week we headed north for a couple of days to the shores of what surely must be the most stunning lake on our globe, with it's three volcanoes jammed up against it's deep blue shores.
Want to climb and view an active volcano? Arenal in Costa Rica is famous, but Pacaya, just a day trip from Antigua, was a dream. Red hot lava was flowing and grinding down the cone. Sometimes it felt like a geography field trip but it was more; it was a fantastic and exciting day out to witness the Earth at it's most powerful. The second week was spent over in the east, in the lowland jungle clad Peten. Ancient Mayan cities and monuments lie mostly uncovered in the jungles grip. Tikal, set in the steamy jungle with monkeys swinging from the trees, is another of those world class sites that sets the imagination flowing. Sitting on the top of these ancient stepped pyramids, looking out over the jungle canopy whilst remembering that here many a heart was ripped out to pacify and worship the ancient Mayan gods - Wow. Sam just loved the jungle setting. Trying to root out tarrantulas from their nest was his favourite activity. All this in Guatemala and so quiet in relative tourist number terms.

Then on to the roof of the world; Tibet. Having failed to get there in 2004 via Nepal, I decided to travel there from China proper. This required getting permits etc, but this was surprisingly easy, as the permits are really just an entrance tax and a means by which the Chinese authorities know who is there and when. Tibet was, as I had hoped, an experience of a lifetime. Arriving in Lhasa you quickly become giddy, not just from the high altitude, but also being amongst the most devout religious people I have encountered. Tibet is religion. Joining the pilgrims circumnavigating the Lokhang Temple in the Barkhor quarter I shared the joy of just being there, just being part of it, with these delightful, calm, wise, happy, tolerant people. Gazing over to the sheer majesty that is the Potala palace, I thought I had been there many times before, but just in dreams, but now it was real. Yes I had always needed to travel to Tibet, the most remote and mysterious of lands. I had expected to feel saddenned by the heavy hand of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, however I quickly learned that the Tibetans are made of strong stuff and that their determination to maintain there culture and religion will mean that although bruised, their way of life and beliefs will endure. I took great hope from this.

In Lhasa we got together with other European nomads to organise a four wheel drive tour out to Everest and back, visiting the principle monasteries, and a second shorter trip to the area north of Lhasa, and really getting off the classic route visitors usually follow.

Once out of Lhasa the Chinese influence diminished. As with most destinations it is in the small towns and rural areas that you learn most about where you are. The landscape was quite stunning. A forest of mountains cut by mightly powerful rivers, patched with green fertile fields of barley. Sand and silt from these rivers had blown up the side of mountains, thus making the landscape a riot of intense colour in the chrystal clear plateau air. Then there were the monasteries. Dark, yet colourful, atmospheric places, lit by flickering butter lamps. Spending time just sitting quietly listening to the monks chanting their mantras made the spine tingle. Visiting the smaller monasteries off the standard tourist circuit was the most interesting, for here we would greeted by great interest and curiousity from the cheerful young monks and shown round. Their love for their religion and culture was so evident despite the communication difficulties. The undoubted two highlights of the trip were seeing Everest emerge from the billowing Himalyan clouds, and to attend the Shoton festival at the Drepung monastery, west of Lhasa, during which pilgrims from all over Tibet flock to witness the unveiling of a giant thanka of the Bhudha on the ajacent hillside.